I don’t think I have anything much to add to the commentariat’s discussion of Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award acceptance speech. But why should that stop me?
The simplest thing to note is this — however you parse the word Fascist (and I would parse it differently than many), John W. Campbell was a racist, and a loon. (However you parse THAT word.) His ideas about how we should best be governed were, if not Fascist by a strict definition, not exactly democratic, to say the least. He cheered on the Kent State massacre, for goodness’ sake. He was sexist too, though in that case I think maybe he was just “a man of his time” — his racism, however, was definitely more virulent than the norm. And loonier! (See his editorial suggesting that black people preferred to be slaves.)
And on those grounds I have no complaint with Ng’s speech. Yes, she misidentified the magazine Campbell worked for (and has apologized for that) — but, heck, she was excited and nervous — these things happen.
The real point is — and I think Alec Nevala-Lee deserves tremendous credit for clarifying this — that “we”, as the SF field, especially those of us who’ve been around a lot longer, kind of ignored how whacko — and downright harmful — Campbell’s views could be. It’s not that they weren’t known — he trumpeted them in the pages of Astounding! — but people tended to sort of excuse them — “Oh, John was just trying to stir conversation,” that sort of thing. It’s pretty clear that he really did believe many or most of the things he wrote. And we should have, collectively and individually, been more forceful in standing against those ideas.
And what did that mean for Campbell as an editor? Well, that’s a pretty complex issue. Ng’s statement was pretty simplistic, but she only had a couple of minutes to talk (and some pretty important things to say about Hong Kong as well), so there wasn’t room for an essay. (I’d suggest looking at her British Fantasy Awards speech for a fuller expression of her views.)
I think Campbell did tremendous good for the field, in a number of ways — insisting on better prose, better story construction, promoting a fruitful formula for using scientific speculation as a way to generate story ideas, and truly supporting new writers (yes, white men mostly), and truly helping them improve. (And that’s the rationale for naming the Campbell Award after him.) But he did lots of harm, too. Many have pointed out that he endorsed a colonialist view of the human future in space, and insisted on human superiority. And this is to a great extent true (though you can find plenty of counterexamples in Astounding.) He supported a lot of really stupid pseudo-scientific ideas, aside from his pernicious racial views, and especially in the last couple of decades of his time at Astounding/Analog these hobbyhorses of his contributed to a real decline in the magazine’s quality (indeed — it did become pretty sterile eventually). These ideas went way beyond the most famous and probably worst of them (Dianetics/Scientology) — he was also at times obsessed with the Dean Drive, with dowsing, with psi, with something called the Hieronymous Machine — and he wanted his writers to write stories with those ideas at the core.
So by all means we should be criticizing what Campbell stood for, and trying to understand how it shaped the SF field. (And, really, writers have been doing that since at least 1950, and really before, but we can still do more and better.) I won’t take a position on renaming the award — if enough people think it needs to be renamed, I won’t complain, but it’s more important to understand Campbell more, to question his influence more, and not to forget what Campbell was really like.
In response to some criticism of her speech, I would dispute the characterization of SF of a certain time as “sterile white male” stuff or whatever. That’s the sort of assertion that ought to be discussed and evaluated. The truth is that there were not enough women involved before at least the 1970s, and even fewer people of color, and there’s no question that having the voices of women and people of color in our field in large numbers makes it stronger, makes it better.
That said, the attempt to suggest that all stuff by white males is bad, or at least sterile, is terribly unfair, and in fact wrong. (And attempts to justify that end up ignoring Sturgeon’s Law — because, sure, you can always cherry pick your bad examples from Sturgeon’s 90%.) So, absolutely, I reject an attempt to throw everything from the past in the dustbin. I could write an article celebrating the greatest SF of that period, and showing how much of it (including much that Campbell published) was antithetical to Campbell’s most hateful views: his racism, his insistence on human superiority, his cranky scientific notions, his weird sort of technocratic ideas about organizing society. But if I did, it would still acknowledge that much SF did accept, or at least tolerate, the worst of Campbell, and more importantly, it would ask how many more powerful and probing stories might have resulted from the imaginations of people actually directly affected by colonization, or racism, or sexism, if people like Campbell had more actively welcomed them to the field.
As to Campbell himself though, I think we should ask if his racism led to making the field less welcoming for people of color. It seems plausible! Indeed, it seems certain, when you consider him rejecting Samuel R Delany’s novel Nova because its protagonist was black. Likewise, there was an attitude (society-wide, it seems to me, not just due to Campbell) that SF was boy’s stuff, and so the field was also less welcoming to women. (And, yes, of course — Campbell published Leigh Brackett’s first stories, C. L. Moore’s best stories, Kate Wilhelm’s first story, and many other women. But there could have been more.) Finally, I think that Campbell’s Analog did indeed become “sterile” by the end of his run.
So, bottom line, I love the SF field, and I love the best work published, well, all along. But I’m also thrilled to see great new stuff from writers from communities who, for whatever reason, weren’t publishing much SF 50 years ago. And it stands to reason that the more writers we welcome, the more chances for great stories — and the more writers with different experiences we welcome, the more new ideas, the more different speculations, we’ll see. And, no, I don’t endorse every word Ng said. But in a 2 minute speech, I don’t really expect a ton of nuance.
And having said all that, one of the best places to start if you want to know the worst (and best) of Campbell more completely is with the book that should have won the Best Related Hugo award this year, Alec Nevala-Lee‘s Astounding.