The John Campbell Award

I saw a discussion from earlier this month about John Campbell on John Scalzi's blog. The discussion centered around the fact that the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction has changed the name of its annual conference away from the "Campbell Conference" and will rename its "Campbell Award" as well. Comments are closed on Scalzi's blog but I thought I'd have my say here.

I think that there's room for a John Campbell award, or some sort of recognition of Campbell, somewhere in the sf/f community.

The argument against recognizing Campbell derives from the fact that Campbell was undeniably racist, very possibly a white supremacist. Not the sort of thing you want to hold up as a model for the kids to emulate.

But I read an interesting perspective on the issue of Confederate statues recently (and unfortunately I don't remember who or where) that bears on this point.

This person was looking at the issue of how many statues do we tear down. George Washington and Robert E. Lee were both slave owners. We're tearing down statues of Lee so why wouldn't we tear down statues of Washington as well?

The answer was that statues of Washington don't commerate his owning of slaves, they commemorate his role in winning the Revolution and then setting the first example of a President who peacefully stepped down to allow a newly elected President to assume power, rather than declaring himself king as some people were urging him to. Those were both critical contributions to the creation of democracy in America and those contributions continue to benefit all Americans even now.

Statues of Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, celebrate his waging war against the United States in an effort to establish a nation explicitly centered on slavery. There are no benefits being felt by all Americans today from Lee's actions. Rather the opposite, as Lee's glorification in statues was part of a white supremacist effort to halt Reconstruction and establish and defend the Jim Crow regime throughout the South. Lee was a traitor to both the United States and the cause of humanity whose statues should never have been built and need to come down asap.

This position implies that we can recognize Washinton's contributions to the nation while disavowing his racism and slave owning. I think that's the right road to take. The fact is, in human history we don't get a whole lot of absolutely pure heroes. Mother Theresa opposed abortion and dismissed a nun for being a lesbian. Winston Churchill was critical in fighting off the Nazis but he was an imperialist himself. Teddy Roosevelt gave us the national parks and hated anti-black racism to boot but he was also an imperialist who thought that Filipinos weren't capable of ruling themselves. Throughout history, the people who engineered some of our greatest progress also had a dark side. If we can't separate the contributions from the assholery then we won't be able to celebrate a lot that is good about the nation.

Which brings us to Campbell. If I thought that he was just a magazine editor who gave Heinlein and Asimov their starts, I might be willing to let him go. But having recently read the book Astounding by Nevala-Lee, I've come to understand that Campbell's contribution to sf/f was actually much deeper.

The thing is, Campbell took science fiction seriously at a time when very few people did. Campbell thought that the science fiction community, both writers and fans, constitued a sort of think tank that was exploring humanity's future. In his mind, the science fiction community had a responsibility to the rest of the world to show them what might be possible if we tried.

There is an interesting incident in Nevala-Lee's book where Campbell tried to impress the U.S. government, during World War II, with the technical prowess of the scifi community. Campbell published a story about scientists making an atomic bomb and the story was as detailed as Campbell could make it based only on the scientific expertise of the writers available to Campbell. That story earned Campbell an uncomfortable visit from the FBI, who wanted to know how in hell he knew so many things that were top secret as far as the FBI was concerned.

The FBI found out about the story because a bunch of the scientists at Almogordo, who were working on the real atom bomb project, were readers of Astounding and marveled at how good a description Campbell's story gave of how an atom bomb worked. The fact that a bunch of the scientists at Almogordo were readers of Astounding sort of makes Campbell's point that the scifi community really is a brain trust for humanity as a whole.

Campbell took it too far, of course. For awhile he thought that his position as editor of Astounding might qualify him as the chief executive of this amorphous, scifi think tank. He thought he might be able to give the scifi community assignments and targets. He was definitely smoking crack there. But come on, real scifi fans have all let our imaginations run away with us at some point. I know what my Campbell moments were and I'm sure you can think of yours.

In real life, what Campbell actually accomplished as an editor was to encourage writers like Heinlein and Asimov to demote the ray guns and space battles and instead focus on what societies in the future might look like, given the new possibilities available from science. That was a big change.

Scifi has, to a degree anyway, moved on from its focus on outer space and atomic energy. Now we have Ada Palmer showing us genderless societies with in-built diversity. And we still feel like our stories aren't just entertainment, that we are actually showing the world what might be possible if we try. And the fact that scifi looks at social change now rather than space operas (or along with space operas) is partly due to John Campbell, racist mf that he was. It's important to know about his assholery but it's also important to acknowledge what he did for scifi.

So I think there is room, somewhere, for a John Campbell award in the scifi community.


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