SFWA Grand Master Wishlist

James Gunn with his Grand Master Award in 2007.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) honors one living writer each year with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award.

The recent deaths of two distinguished sf writers have drawn attention to the award. The late Ben Bova is someone Gregory Benford wished would have gotten it. James Gunn, who passed away last week, deservedly did get it. And he is also now the fifth Grand Master to die in the past four years (preceded by Brian Aldiss, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe.)

What writers are File 770 readers hoping SFWA will honor in years to come? Give your ideas in a comment.

To start the discussion rolling I asked four writers who they think deserves priority.  

Gregory Benford sent a list of five:

  • Nancy Kress
  • Bruce Sterling
  • David Brin
  • Greg Bear
  • Steve Baxter

Ursula Vernon says:

Oh lord…my choices might be rather idiosyncratic! But I’d want Terri Windling, Robin McKinley, Diane Duane, Barbara Hambly and Ellen Kushner to all be considered. Terri Windling would probably be top of my list.

Past SFWA President Cat Rambo, who led the selection process during her years in office, sent this overview:

The biggest thing stopping Bova being a candidate — and the reason a lot of my picks didn’t fly — is that there’s been a lot of past “the rule is they can’t be dead” stuff. This leads to some weirdness (IMO), including people factoring in how healthy candidates are. To me it has to be someone who shaped the genre — my picks were Peter Beagle, C.J. Cherryh, Jane Yolen, and Bill Gibson, and I think all of them have a substantial and unquestionable legacy and influence on the field.

I’d love to see the award revamped, and be something that could go to multiple people, living and dead, each year, along the lines of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. I know top of my list would be Octavia Butler, and there’s some other now-gone folks that I would also put above Bova, although he is certainly worthy. 

That last thought about expanding eligibility resonates with Nisi Shawl ’s SFWA Grand Master Wishlist:

I’m surely not the first to name Octavia E. Butler as a priority for the honor of SFWA Grand Master.  I mean.  I mean come on.  She was a MacArthur Fellowship-certified genius who demonstrably changed the field.  She was gracious, kind, and charming in person and ruthlessly gorgeous in her prose.  She was a tireless worker, a dreamer, a sincere advocate for emerging authors such as myself, and the moment for us to honor her is fast approaching.  Or maybe it’s already here.

My other two picks for most-likely-to-make-Grand Master are known primarily for their short stories, a form I feel has gotten much shorter shrift than it deserves. 

Nebula-winner Eileen Gunn is a short story writer supreme.  Wisewoman and wise-ass, Eileen is generous with that most precious of authorial treasures, her time.  She teaches, she critiques, she analyzes, she sets forth on pioneering journeys to the heart of speculation and leaves shining footsteps for us to follow. 

And Ted F. Chiang (ask Ellen Klages what the “f” stands for) is a careful, precise giant in this field.  His stories are exquisite and true to the core.  Long may he live!  Long may he reign as Grand Master—and soon!

Add your own names and ideas in the comments.

28 thoughts on “SFWA Grand Master Wishlist

  1. My five would be:

    Vernor Vinge
    Joan Vinge
    Nancy Kress
    Pat Cadigan
    Bruce Sterling

  2. I’d add in Patricia McKillip if she hasn’t already been honoured. And if we revamp it to honour those who’ve passed on, I’d add in Diana Wynne Jones and Robert Holdstock.

  3. All those listed thus far are excellent.

    I would add Howard Waldrop, though I doubt he has published enough to date for SWFFA to consider him.

    As to deceased possibilities, Joanna Russ, Avram Davidson and Roger Zelazny are names I’d add to those already mentioned.

  4. You see the main issue with the current system from this discussion, perhaps – there’s so many worthy people. Terry Pratchett would be another I’d add. But I also got a lot of pushback on Beagle because he was primarily fantasy and the same folks would object to Pratchett on the same grounds.

    Quantity versus quality is also hard to quantify. Or what about stuff that wasn’t actually that great in terms of writing — but made a lot of readers catch fire and fall in love with it? I guess the question is really figuring out what the award is intended to recognize, beyond the ineffable quality of being a Grandmaster.

    I would also prefer a less gendered term, myself.

    @Alan – two of the people you mention are already Grandmasters: Cherryh and Gibson.

  5. Alan: C. J. Cherryh and William Gibson are already Grand Masters (in 2016 and 2019 respectively)

  6. I want to clarify something about my quote about the SFWA GM pick process being weird. That adjective was aimed at the process, not any of the participants in the conversation trying to live up to its requirements.

    I apologize to people who thought I was referencing them and were offended. I was not actually part of the discussion about Hopkinson, due to a clerical omission, and have no idea what the discussion was or who said what about whose health. What I said was based on the five previous years of discussion that I experienced while on the board.

  7. While many fine writers are suggested many of them give me the same feeling as putting Madonna in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

  8. There’s definitely a place of honor in science fiction for writers with a solid body of shorter works and no novels–in addition to Nisi’s suggestions of Eileen Gunn and Ted Chiang, Howard Waldrop definitely deserves it. (For sheer brilliance but also for influence: he invented the “alternate celebrity” story, after all.)

    The only objection I can see to naming Octavia Butler is that the award is specifically reserved for living writers; if that rule were relaxed, I would suggest starting with her and inaugurating a class of overlooked luminaries including Phil Dick, Ted Sturgeon, R. A. Lafferty, William Tenn, Zenna Henderson, Cordwainer Smith, C.M. Kornbluth, and Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore (as a team).

    Edited to add: Joanna Russ and Roger Zelazny are also obvious posthumous candidates and I can’t believe I didn’t think of them. Avram Davidson is not quite the slam-dunk of those two but both he and the award would benefit from his inclusion.

  9. So many fine candidates…I’ll add that it is a happy fact that we have been gifted with so many terrific writers who cater to our bailiwick, ideal dreamers all.

  10. There have been some good suggestions, but two names I have not seen mentioned are:

    Michael Bishop and
    Stephen King

  11. Lots of good names already suggested. Among those who died too soon, certainly Butler, Dick, Zelazny, Sturgeon, are great choices. I’d add Sheckley (for the short fiction), Brackett, and James Blish.

    Three recently deceased possibilities (besides Bova) — indeed three who I think definitely deserved it — Kate Wilhelm, Carol Emshwiller and Gardner Dozois.

    The one name I haven’t seen mentioned who DEFINITELY should get it — should be next, if you ask me — is John Crowley, in my opinion the single finest living writer in our field.

    Has anyone mentioned M. John Harrison yet?

    I made an out of the box suggestion to SFWA — indeed possibly to Cat (or maybe it was Mary Robinette Kowal) — that a special dispensation might be made to posthumously name C. L. Moore, on the grounds that she was apparently selected in the past, but her family declined.

  12. Science fiction and fantasy are so big now, you can have several completely compelling non-overlapping lists. And that’s just for writers that we can all agree are excellent, and that have been hugely influential within the field.

    Someone has to mention Walter Jon Williams. There has been no doubt of his mastery of the craft for many years now. Maybe if he finishes the Metropolitan books, he’ll be a slam dunk for the Grand Master. Yeah, that’s it.

    Melissa Scott wrote several trail-blazing influential novels in the ’80s and ’90s and is still creating excellent work.

    Joe R. Lansdale is an excellent writer with an impressive body of work. He is very deserving of the recognition. But he’s not young. I’m not sure if he is planning to move in to The Shady Rest Retirement Home, but it is a real place not far from his house. It might be a good idea for the committee to get on with it soon, so they don’t have to bring him the award there.

    There’s a big crowd of younger writers stepping up. N. K. Jemisin is an obvious choice, also Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, China Miéville, I could go on. It’s going to make for some tough choices.

  13. It’s interesting to see other peoples’ lists.

    Like Hugo nominations, it’s such a very individual thing. There are names put forward which I would consider authors of workmanlike, but unremarkable SFF, and others who may, but I don’t think really have yet, reach Grand Master achievement, and names for which I say, hell no, quantity and quality are two very different things – and I am sure that if I posted my names, other people would say the same about my choices.

    Ultimately, the real-world choices have reflected a SFWA consensus – which is not necessarily the same thing as a fan consensus. Do I think that the Grand Master award would benefit from recognizing 2-3 people a year, some of them no longer living? Yes, I do.

    But ultimately, my reading choices, and my own personal “Grand Master” list, are based on what I enjoy. And l take the official award designation with a grain of salt, because no label will make me enjoy what I don’t enjoy, nor will the lack of it make me enjoy less what I love.

    The reality is that this is an author award, not a fan award. And that’s fine – it’s SFWA’s award.

  14. Re: Benford’s list. Honestly, I can’t remember reading and/or finishing a single book by Steve Baxter. That must say something about me, rather than him, but I’m not sure what it is. Given how much attention Murderbot has gotten over the last 2 years, plus her long career of great work, I’m a little surprised that no-one has mentioned Martha Wells. I’ll second Melissa Scott, and I’ll also suggest Tanya Huff.

  15. Other than those already mentioned I would add the following (I know, there are more than five, but they haven’t been mentioned by anyone else):

    Deceased:
    Jules Verne
    H G Wells
    Olaf Stapledon
    J G Ballard
    John Wyndham
    Ian M Banks

    Alive:
    Neil Gaiman
    Jack McDevitt
    Alastair Reynolds
    Ken Mcleod
    Ian McDonald
    Elizabeth Bear
    Liz Williams

  16. I agree whole-heartedly with JJ’s post.

    I also don’t think that it should be awarded posthumously. A “master” is someone who is at the top of their game, not someone who previously did exemplary work. Present tense, not past.

  17. Perhaps the argument over whether a deceased author should be eligible could be sidestepped. Create a second award, let’s call the “Past Master”, that is awarded alongside the “Grand Master” each year. It would be given to a deceased author who was not made a Grand Master but who is thought worthy of having received that award.

  18. Mine are:

    Douglas Adams
    John Shirley
    Bruce Sterling
    Liu Cixin
    Christopher Priest

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