Storm Over Campbell Award

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer has been presented at the Worldcon since 1973, two years after Campbell’s death. The 47th winner was Jeannette Ng. Will there be a 48th? Many are responding to her acceptance remarks with a call to change the name of the award.

Although voting is administered by the Worldcon, the award belongs to Dell Magazines, publisher of Analog. It was named for him because Campbell edited Astounding/Analog for 34 years and in his early years at the helm he introduced Heinlein, Asimov, and many other important sf writers, reigning over what was called by the time of his death the Golden Age of SF. That cemented his legend as a discoverer of talent (regardless that in later years he passed on submissions from any number of talented newcomers incuding Samuel R. Delany and Larry Niven).

A revised version of Jeanette Ng’s acceptance remarks is posted at Medium, “John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist”, with the profanity removed and other corrections made.

A video of the actual speech is here —

Jeannette Ng’s tweets about the reaction include —

Annalee Newitz commented:

Rivers Solomon, another Campbell nominee, posted screenshots of the acceptance speech they would have given. Thread starts here.

N.K. Jemisin explains why the term “fascist” in Ng’s speech is apposite. Thread starts here.

Alec Nevala-Lee, author of Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, says:

Past Campbell Award winner (2000) Cory Doctorow supported Ng in an article at Boing Boing: “Read: Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award acceptance speech, in which she correctly identifies Campbell as a fascist and expresses solidarity with Hong Kong protesters”.

Jeannette Ng’s speech was exactly the speech our field needs to hear. And the fact that she devoted the bulk of it to solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters is especially significant, because of the growing importance of Chinese audiences and fandom in sf, which exposes writers to potential career retaliation from an important translation market. There is a group of (excellent, devoted) Chinese fans who have been making noises about a Chinese Worldcon for years, and speeches like Ng’s have to make you wonder: if that ever comes to pass, will she be able to get a visa to attend?

Back when the misogynist/white supremacist wing of SF started to publicly organize to purge the field of the wrong kind of fan and the wrong kind of writer, they were talking about people like Ng. I think that this is ample evidence that she is in exactly the right place, at the right time, saying the right thing.

… When Ng took the mic and told the truth about his legacy, she wasn’t downplaying his importance: she was acknowledging it. Campbell’s odious ideas matter because he was important, a giant in the field who left an enduring mark on it. No one disagrees about that. What we want to talk about today is what that mark is, and what it means.

Another Campbell winner, John Scalzi, tried to see all sides in “Jeannette Ng, John W. Campbell, and What Should Be Said By Whom and When” at Whatever.

… You can claim the John W. Campbell Award without revering John W. Campbell, or paying him lip service, and you can criticize him, based on what you see of his track record and your interpretation of it. The award is about the writing, not about John W. Campbell, and that is a solid fact. If a recipient of the Campbell Award can’t do these things, or we want to argue that they shouldn’t, then probably we should have a conversation about whether we should change the name of the award. It wouldn’t be the first time an award in the genre has been materially changed in the fallout of someone calling out the problems with the award’s imagery. The World Fantasy Award was changed in part because Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar were public (Samatar in her acceptance speech!) about the issue of having a grotesque of blatant racist HP Lovecraft as the trophy for the award. There was a lot of grousing and complaining and whining about political correctness then, too. And yet, the award survives, and the new trophy, for what it’s worth, is gorgeous. So, yes, if this means we have to consider whether it’s time to divorce Campbell from the award, let’s have that discussion.

Now, here’s a real thing: Part of the reaction to Ng’s speech is people being genuinely hurt. There are still people in our community who knew Campbell personally, and many many others one step removed, who idolize and respect the writers Campbell took under his wing. And there are people — and once again I raise my hand — who are in the field because the way Campbell shaped it as a place where they could thrive. Many if not most of these folks know about his flaws, but even so it’s hard to see someone with no allegiance to him, either personally or professionally, point them out both forcefully and unapologetically. They see Campbell and his legacy abstractly, and also as an obstacle to be overcome. That’s deeply uncomfortable.

It’s also a reality. Nearly five decades separate us today from Campbell. It’s impossible for new writers today to have the same relationship to him as their predecessors in the field did, even if the influence he had on the field works to their advantage….

Bounding Into Comics’ Spencer Baculi unexpectedly followed Doctorow’s and Scalzi’s lead, even though the site often covers the work of Jon Del Arroz and Vox Day’s Alt-Comics: “2019 John W. Campbell Award Winner Jeanette Ng Labels Influential Sci-Fi Author as a “Fascist” During Acceptance Speech”.

…Ng’s assessment of Campbell is undoubtedly informed by Campbell’s personal politics and beliefs and those who have written about him. Campbell argued that African-Americans were “barbarians” deserving of police brutality during the 1965 Watts Riots, as “the “brutal” actions of police consist of punishing criminal behavior.” His unpublished story All featured such racist elements that author Robert Heinlein, who built upon Campbell’s original story for his own work titled Sixth Column, had to “reslant” the story before publishing it. In the aftermath of the Kent State massacre, when speaking of the demonstrators murdered by the Ohio National Guard, Campbell stated that “I’m not interested in victims. I’m interested in heroes.” While difficult to presume where Campbell’s beliefs would place him in modern politics, it is apparent that Campbell would disagree with many of the beliefs held by modern America.

Ng’s speech unsurprisingly caused backlash and outrage among some members of the literary community, with some claiming that Ng should have withheld from insulting the man whose award she was receiving.

Chris M. Barkley praised Ng’s comments in his File 770 post “So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask — Special Irish Worldcon Edition, Day Four”.

…I was one of the people madly cheering this speech. I posted a meme on Facebook as she was still speaking: “Jeannette Ng is AWESOME!!!!!” Moments later, swept up in the moment, I posted another meme, “I’m just gonna say it: The Name of the John W. Campbell Award SHOULD BE F***KING CHANGED!”

To clamor atop a soapbox for a moment; NO, I am not advocating that the life and work of John W. Campbell, Jr. be scrubbed from history. But neither should we turn a blind, uncritical eye to his transgressions. When the winners of such a prestigious award start getting angry because the person behind it is viewed to be so vile and reprehensible, that ought to be acknowledged as well….

Mark Blake honored a request to comment about Campbell on Facebook.

For a brief period a few years ago, my byline was prominently associated with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. This was not because I’d ever won such an award, or even appeared on the ballot (I was never a nominee), but rather because I assembled anthologies for the purpose of showcasing new writers during their two-year window of eligibility, as an exercise in public awareness of writing that, despite potential merit, might not have received sufficient reviews to garner an audience among the Worldcon membership at large.

In that context, someone asked me to defend Campbell because of the acceptance speech given by this year’s recipient.

This was an uncomfortable request. The more I’ve learned about Campbell over the years, the more certain I’ve become that I wouldn’t have even wanted to share an elevator with him, much less try to sell him a story… and I say that despite having learned any number of his storytelling and editing techniques by way of hand-me-down tutelage….

Amazing Stories’ Steve Davidson was mainly concerned that Ng’s remarks were bad for the brand – i.e., Ng mistakenly identified Campbell as an editor of his magazine instead of Astounding/Analog. “Emergency Editorial”.

…A couple of days ago we watched and updated our post covering the 2019 Hugo Awards;  we were a bit surprised at Jeannette Ng’s acceptance where she made some connections between fascism in the SF field, fascism in the US and the events taking place in Hong Kong right now.  Hong Kong is Ms. Ng’s home base and we are absolutely and completely in sympathy with her and the protesters who are braving arrest, and possibly worse, as they try to maintain their freedoms.

We entirely missed the misattributions of Ms. Ng’s speech;  what she wanted to do was identify John W. Campbell Jr., the editor of Astounding Stories, as a fascist.  She ended up naming Jospeph Campbell as the editor of Amazing Stories….

I am sure she is tired, chuffed, overwhelmed and, perhaps even a bit embarrassed over having misnamed Campbell and the magazine he was associated with in front of an audience and a community that knows this history without even thinking about it.

But the internet being what it is, disrespect for facts being what they are these days, I can not allow the idea that John W. Campbell – racist, anti-semite, fascist, misogynist, whatever – was associated with Amazing Stories to go unchallenged….

Ng has issued a correction:

Swedish Fan Ahrvid Engholm today sent two fannish listservs copies of a complaint he has filed with the Dublin 2019 committee that Ng’s speech violated the convention’s Code of Conduct.

…One may wonder what a Code of Conduct is worth, if it isn’t respected by those who have all eyes upon them on the big stage, during the highlight of a convention, such as the awards ceremonies witnessed by thousands.

I therefore want to report, as a breach of the Code of Conduct during Dublin 2019, the intimidation and personal attacks in Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award speech, of which the very lows are wordings like:

“John W. Campbell…was a fascist” and he was “setting a tone” she claims “haunts” us as “Sterile. Male. White.” glorifying “imperialists” etc.

Full text here
Several parts of the CoC (as published in the Pocket Convention Guide, and also here may apply, but let me point to:

“Everyone involved with Dublin 2019 is expected to show respect towards…the various communities associated with the convention. …Dublin 2019 is dedicated to provide a harassment-free convention experience for all Attendees regardless of…gender…race…We do not tolerate harassment of convention attendees in any form” /which includes:/
* Comments intended to belittle, offend or cause discomfort”

Most if not all would find being called a “fascist” offending, surely causing discomfort.

And it’s especially deplorable when the person belittled this way has passed away and thus can’t defend himself. It is reported that John W Campbell’s grandson John Campbell Harrmond was present at the convention that branded his grandfather a “fascist”. John W Campbell was the leading sf magazine editor of his era (of Astounding SF, not Amazing Stories as this far from well-founded speech said) and have many admirers who also have cause to feel offended. If you like Campbell, the claim he is a “fascist” surely splashes on you too – you’d be “fascist sympathiser”.

Ms Ng continues to harass whole categories of convention Attendees, those who are “male” and “white”. They are “sterile” and the negative “tone” claimed being “set” in the sf genre. It must be noted that the CoC is explicitly against slurs regarding race and gender. (And in these circumstances “white” indicates race and “male” gender.) The CoC further says it won’t be tolerated “in any form”, which surely must also include the form of a speech from a big stage.

It is too late now do do anything about this regrettable episode, but those making reports are asked to state what they would like to happen next. What I simply want is to get it confirmed that the event reported indeed IS a breach of the CoC, because that could be important for the future.

–Ahrvid Engholm
sf con-goer since 1976 (of Worldcons since 1979)

Scott Edelman supported Ng in several comments, describing his deep unhappiness with some of Campbell’s opinions at the time the were originally published 50 years ago. He also quoted this anecdote from the autobiography of William Tenn / Phil Klass:

232 thoughts on “Storm Over Campbell Award

  1. John A Arkansawyer:

    “Sorry, folks–I was wrong to argue for definitional purity. John W. Campbell was a fascist. Maybe not a Fascist, but I would say a FASCIST.”

    Thank you for making this distinction. For you who have missed this, very often “Fascist” or “Fascism” with an upper case ‘F’ refers to the fascist movement in Italy, while “fascist” with a lower case ‘f’ refers to the generic fascism which includes Fascism, Nazism, the Phalangists, the Iron Guard, the Arrow Cross party and many, many smaller movements and ideologists.

  2. Lord knows I hate admitting I was wrong, and so I always appreciate people setting me that good example. Metaphorical like-button-ticky-thing for John A Arkansawyer.

    Meanwhile, I can’t help but note the sheer amount of special pleading going on elsewhere in the thread. “But context!” only works if you can provide convincing evidence of such. Note, please, that “context” is “actually the whole article clearly shows he was arguing a different point and that sentence in isolation is misleading.” It is not “well, he liked provoking people.”

  3. Andrew:

    For another fun Campbellian reference, we have Howard W Campbell Jr in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse V. For those who might have forgotten or – heinous! – not read Slaughterhouse V, Campbell Jr in the book is an american traitor who has joined the nazi army and writes long essays about american war prisoners. He also appears in Vonnegut’s Mother Night (which I haven’t read).

    Vonnegut always pretended they had nothing to do with each other, but with his habit of putting real people in his books, with just small changes to their names, that is hardly believable.

    Funnily enough, Vonnegut was later nominated for the John W Campbell Award for Best Novel for his Galápagos.

  4. Meredith:

    “Note, please, that “context” is “actually the whole article clearly shows he was arguing a different point and that sentence in isolation is misleading.” It is not “well, he liked provoking people.””

    And to look at it from another side: On the one hand you want Worldcon to hand out an award named after a person you think is a provocateur, on the other hand you want the same Worldcon to condemn a person who you see as being too provocative in the acceptance speech of the award.

    Not very consistent.

  5. As numerous people have already pointed out, whether or not the long-dead Mr. Campbell qualified as ‘fascist’ by any of sundry definitions (including Eco’s) of ‘fascist’ is an irrelevancy, a blatant red-herring. That simply is not germane.

    This can be seen though the ‘If so, so what?’ exercise: If John W. Campbell is stipulated to have been no kind of fascist, then is Mr. Engholm’s Code of Conduct complaint reasonable? Answer: clearly, hell no, not within a million klicks. Quoth Engholm:

    Everyone involved with Dublin 2019 is expected to show respect towards…the various communities associated with the convention. …Dublin 2019 is dedicated to provide a harassment-free convention experience for all Attendees regardless of…gender…race…We do not tolerate harassment of convention attendees in any form” /which includes:/
    * Comments intended to belittle, offend or cause discomfort”

    Most if not all would find being called a “fascist” offending, surely causing discomfort.

    Problem: Mr. Campbell has not been a Worldcon attendee since 1971 on account of metabolic deficiency.

    If you like Campbell, the claim he is a “fascist” surely splashes on you too – you’d be “fascist sympathiser”.

    Oh, poor little snowflakes! However, Dublin’s CoC did not guarantee attendees protection against Teh Feelz if someone is, in your view, horribly mean to a 48-years-dead person you liked. The absurdity of thinking otherwise can be seen by imagining Ms. Ng had referred to, say, Mussolini as a ‘fascist’ and then Mr. Engstrom filed a CoC complaint against her saying ‘If you liked Mussolini, the claim he is a “fascist” surely splashes on you, too, you’d be “fascist sympathiser”.’ The notion of belittling, offending, or causing discomfort to attendees is obvious, total bushwah.

    And, Ahrvid Engholm, I’ll do you the favour of assuming chicanery on your part rather than idiocy, in advancing this bogosity and straight-facedly pretending it should be taken seriously. However, if you would prefer to be judged really, really dumb, I’ll offer that as an alternative. Just let us know.

  6. @Hampus

    There is an interesting “I admire him for being a provocative thinker”/“how dare she be provocative” dichotomy, isn’t there? Is it only okay to be provocative if you’re a white man, or in the past, or if you only aim it at comfortable (comfortable for who?) targets? I think it could be argued (I’m not sure I want to argue it, but…) that Ng was following a Campbellian tradition by challenging the status quo, which can only be appropriate when accepting an award named for him.

  7. @Hampus and @Meredith —

    Appreciative LOL to both of you. I’ve been awake all night (currently 5:04 am here) — thanks for brightening up my groggy morning!

  8. For those who want to indulge in holier-than-thou retroactive self-righteousness, it might be a good idea to get facts about magazine editor John W Campbell, how he was leading in finding new science fiction authors and why he therefore created what many consider the Golden Age of science fiction.
    I earlier gave the link to Harry Harrison’s collection of his editorials ( ) where he noted eg Campbell’s special method of inquiry:

    “a born trouble-maker. The mere fact that something exists and that millions believe in it does not convince Campbell of its validity. Quite the opposite, this seems to be the point where he begins to doubt /like/ being fed through a buzz saw or a man-sized meatgrinder. It is a painful process … a Campbell conversation consists almost entirely of loaded questions that demand answers. No one really likes to be forced to think. Campbell forces you. It is a heartening experience that should be part of the training of all budding SF writers … a Campbell conversation consists almost entirely of loaded questions that demand answers. No one really likes to be forced to think. Campbell forces you. It is a heartening experience that should be part of the training of all budding SF writers … Campbell is always happiest when far out on a limb.”

    That is easy to misinterpret. Click and paste a few words here, find a quote out of context and you create “a fascist” for yourself. But for John W Campbell it was a work method to send up test balloons, to question, to provoke, to bang his head against the limits of thought.
    Here are a few things to study:

    John W. Campbell and his views on science fiction are showcased in this intriguing audio interview (presented with illustrative pictures) from 1962. Fred Lerner, noted librarian, bibliographer and historian, was just 17 when he interviewed John W. Campbell, the man that shaped much of science fiction for decades. Campbell was both a successful author and the long time editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog). Topics discussed include Rudyard Kipling as a science fiction writer, the government’s interest in Cleve Cartmill’s fiction, and the nature and value of science fiction. If you like Golden Age science fiction, this is an opportunity to hear one of the giants of the field in his own voice.

    Legendary science fiction author Isaac Asimov talks about the history of SF magazines–especially the changes at Astounding Stories during the late 1930s under editor John W. Campbell.

    Pulpfest 2012 – John W. Campbell & The Golden Age of Science Fiction – Ed Hulse and Garyn Roberts discuss John W. Campbell and his influence on the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

    Barry Malzberg contributed this commentary for a short “extra” to “John W. Campbell’s Golden Age of Science Fiction.”

    THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION – Trailer – SCI-FI-LONDON Film Festival 2012. This documentary contains rare footage and new interviews with Isaac Asimov, Philip Jose Farmer, Harry Harrison, Bruce Sterling and many more. John W. Campbell was the most influential science fiction editor ever.


  9. @Ahrvid Engholm For my part, personally, I don’t think that my criticism of Campbell’s comments that the four dead at Kent State were a “punishment due.” is exactly holier than thou self righteousness.

    I am curious, by the way, now that l linked you to that part of the editorial, for your reaction to that part of the piece. You said you didn’t read it because you said you couldn’t see it and react to it. I linked it to you. Now, your answer?

  10. Ahrvid, copy-pasting the same sentences from Harry Harrison one more time hardly makes any difference. And pasting in videos on everything but what we are discussing only serves to make you look as if you are desperately trying to avoid the subject.

  11. @Ahrvid —

    it might be a good idea to get facts about magazine editor John W Campbell,

    For the bazillionth time — there is no CoC policy against calling a dead man a fascist. Therefore it is irrelevant to your complaint if you happen to disagree with Ng’s assessment of him.

    Yet again — why do you persist in trying to distract attention from the ridiculousness of your CoC complaint?

    We are left to conclude that you KNOW your complaint is ridiculous.

    As Rick said previously, it appears that you are either dishonest or very stupid. Your choice!

  12. Fascinating article on Ng and Campbell here contains a very relevant quote from Trevor Quachri, editor of Analog

    The controversy has not gone unnoticed. Trevor Quachri, editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact (the science fiction magazine is owned by Dell Magazine, which sponsors the award), admits he is considering renaming the award and it is only a matter of finding the right time, given it is Analog’s 90th anniversary next year.

    Reading an early draft of Nevala-Lee’s book on Campbell prompted the decision, says Quachri.

    “It’s a nuanced account of [one of ] the major figures of the era, which neither papers over their flaws nor reduces them to caricatures. But it does make clear that some of the things that we may have once been able to dismiss as idiosyncrasies or being ‘of their time’ went beyond that.”

    (There’s a further para after that quote that I can’t tell if it represents Quachri’s views or is the article’s author, so I’ve left it out right now; the direct quote above is enough anyway)

    So the list of people who disagree with the “of his time” excuse now includes his latest successor.

  13. @Mark —

    given it is Analog’s 90th anniversary next year

    Fortuitous timing!

    If I can work up enough energy to actually stand up and go inside, I’m finally about to go to bed. Yippee! Somebody wake me for supper!

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  15. Mm, that was a whole lot of ignoring counter-arguments and pretending that repetition and random videos* is an argument, wasn’t it.

    Particularly displeased to see no attempt to address the Kent State correction. It won’t go away and people won’t forget it just because it’s inconvenient to you, you know.

    *Hey, general public service announcement: If you use videos as “evidence” you’d better have a really compelling reason for why anyone should watch them, and preferably transcribe the relevant passage. Frankly, just posting a video in lieu of an argument is a method associated with trolls and those incapable of thinking for themselves, which is not company that most people wish to be in.

  16. Well, if the great magazine editor and discoverer of all those new writers of the Golden Age of sf, John W Campbell, is stripped of his award, I think the proper name for it should be the Jelly Backbone Award.
    I have sent an E-mail of protest to Dell conveying that message.


  17. @Meredith I would add to your PSA a request that people dropping videos into a text discussion also say how long those videos are. How much of my time is the person asking me to invest to save them the work of summarizing or transcribing? “This is a five-minute video you should watch because X” is different from “here’s 87 minutes of videos that I think you should watch because Y.”

  18. @Ahrvid–Yes, of course, only lack of backbone can explain failing to do what you want us to, especially after you’ve expressed at length, and with so many videos how angry it makes you that your opinion is not prevailing.

  19. @Ahrvid —

    I have sent an E-mail of protest to Dell conveying that message.

    What a surprise.

  20. So far I have now seen only a tiny handful of people in all these discussions who have opinions that even partly match Ahrvid’s, and only his is loud enough to be shouting about it on multiple sites and making this much kicking fuss. It will quickly be clear to Dell that this is one man shouting at clouds and not a mass protest, and they will respond accordingly.

  21. Ahrvid Engholm:

    “I think the proper name for it should be the Jelly Backbone Award.”

    I thought you cared about the CoC, but now you want to name the award so it slanders all winners!?

  22. Well I have seen that a lot of people who awhile ago declared Worldcon, the Hugos et al dead and irrelevant and not worth anybody’s time are very upset about the name change of the Campbells — an award that they had very publically already said they weren’t paying attention to.

  23. @bill: WSFS should take over the Best New Writer award, and sell naming rights.

    This, even more than everything else you’ve said, suggests you probably have zero acquaintance with the World Science Fiction Society. Or alternatively that you once encountered a Worldcon but didn’t really get to know WSFS fandom.

    I would, however, personally appreciate your making a motion to that exact effect at an upcoming WSFS Business Meeting, because I’d then have the pleasure of rising and asking the front table whether it’s possible to immediately make a Motion to Table Indefinitely, but to temporarily rename said standard motion to a Motion to Kill It with Fire.

  24. @Rick Moen
    “Move to table until the sun becomes a red giant” is another version.

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