Who are Charles Coleman Finlay, David D. Levine, Karin Lowachee, Wen Spencer, and Ken Wharton, and why should you care?
Many competitive cultural activities have some way of honoring accomplished newcomers and acknowledging the promise they hold for the activity's future. Baseball, basketball, and football all have a rookie of the year award. There's a Stoker award for the best first horror novel of the year, and an Edgar for the best first mystery novel of the year. In science fiction, we have the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award.
Though technically not an official Hugo, the Campbell is voted on as part of the Hugo ballot. To have nominated a new writer for this year's Campbell, you'd have to have been an attending or supporting member of the 2002 WorldCon (in San Jose), or be one for the 2003 WorldCon in Toronto. To vote for the award, you have to be a supporting or attending member of the 2003 WorldCon.
But even if you can't nominate a writer (the deadline is long past), or vote, you might still watch the results with considerable interest, because the Campbell combines several aspects of science fiction in an important and entertaining fashion. First, of course, it's a measure of community. You're a lot more likely to travel to WorldCon if you're a serious reader of SF than if you're someone who picks up a book now and then.
The Campbell is also a way of acknowledging science fiction's roots, and of carrying on its traditions. In many ways, John Campbell created modern science fiction. As a writer, Campbell was a force in science fiction from the 1930s on, first writing stories such as "Twilight" (still one of my favorites) and "Who Goes There?" (later made into the movie The Thing). But it was as an editor that Campbell really shaped the field. He became editor of Astounding Stories in 1937 (the title was shortened to Astounding in 1938, and changed to Analog in 1960). Judging by the number of stories still circulating about him, Campbell was quite a character. That occasionally shaped his interaction with writers, but more often, he influenced his field by tirelessly championing it, by raising the standard of writing, and by developing a stable of writers. As part of this project, Campbell was renowned for discovering new writers, and for mentoring young writers. Campbell published the first stories by writers such as Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, and scattered countless ideas that emerged in other people's fiction. (Asimov, for example, credits Campbell with originating the Three Laws of Robotics, and with the seeds of his famous story "Nightfall.")
This award is at once a way of acknowledging Campbell's influence, and a formalized way of mentoring rising stars. And that leads to another reason the award is fascinating. It's intended to judge the quality of a writer's published writing since the first qualifying sale. The issue of the qualifying sale is a little dicey in the Internet age; one's "Campbell clock" starts with one's first publication in a print publication with a circulation over 10,000 (which includes a few established magazines, and some anthologies and novels). Therefore, while later publication in an online venue such as SCI FICTION, or say, Strange Horizons, would count as part of one's Campbell credits, it wouldn't qualify a writer for the Campbell.
But that aside, being nominated for the award is an honor in itself and winning it a major coup. Winning would also put one in a very select group of past winners, tagging one as worthy of special attention. Some past winners have "merely" had successful careers. Other past winners such as first winner Jerry Pournelle, later winners Orson Scott Card, Ted Chiang, or, more recently, Nalo Hopkinson, have quickly established themselves as stars in the field, winning awards aplenty and, in some cases, watching their books cross over to appeal to mainstream audiences as well.
According to the info related to the Campbell on the Torcon website, nominations were received for 93 authors this year. (The achievements of most nominees -- almost 60 authors -- are reviewed on the list of eligible authors maintained by James van Pelt.) Ideally, that means that the five nominees are the best of the new crop of writers. And that leads to the most interesting critical aspect of this award: examining the nominees and what they offer to the field of science fiction. Obviously, one of the intriguing things about examining new writers is trying to figure out their futures. Will they burn out? Will they keep producing at this level? Or will they keep improving, and join the greats in the field?
As you might have guessed, the 2003 Campbell Award finalists are Charles Coleman Finlay, David D. Levine, Karin Lowachee, Wen Spencer, and Ken Wharton. (New writers are eligible for the Campbell for two years; Finlay, Spencer, and Wharton are in their second years of eligibility.)
My first response upon looking at their qualifications (and once again, thank you to James Van Pelt for maintaining this site) is, "Man! This is an impressive list of accomplishments!" Each of these writers has already won awards, and/or had his or her accomplishments acknowledged in other ways, such as inclusion in a year's best anthology.
To review these accomplishments by author (alphabetically, to avoid prejudice). . .
Charles Coleman Finlay's "The Political Officer" was selected for the Dozois Year's Best, and is a 2003 finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards. His story "We Come to Praise Washington" is a finalist for the 2002 Sidewise Award for best alternative history science fiction.
David D. Levine's "Rewind" won second place in the Writers of the Future contest of the second quarter of 2001. His story "Nucleon" won the James White Award for 2001, and was reprinted in the Hartwell/Cramer Year's Best Fantasy. "The Tale of the Golden Eagle" has received Nebula recommendations for this year, and "Ukaliq and the Great Hunt" was a winner in the 2002 Phobos Fiction Contest.
Karin Lowachee's novel Warchild won the Warner-Aspect first novel competition, and was a finalist for the 2002 Philip K. Dick Award.
Wen Spencer's novel Alien Taste won the Compton Crook/Stephen Tall Memorial Award in 2002, and placed second in the 2001 Sapphire Award.
Ken Wharton's novel Divine Intervention received a special citation for the 2001 Philip K. Dick Award, and his story "Flight Corrections" was selected for inclusion in the Hartwell/Cramer Year's Best SF.
Again, wow -- and that's only complete through the end of June. At the rate these writers are racking up nominations, selections, and awards, this tally will probably be out of date by the time you read this. So, one of the first things these writers have in common is that they are already making an impact on the SF community.
Another thing they have in common is that they are all part of the science fiction community. To review just what I know of them, Charles Finlay is part of several writers' groups, and his topic on the Speculations Rumor Mill is extremely active. David Levine has been active in fandom for decades. He and his wife Kate Yule have been publishing the fanzine Bento for almost fifteen years. David was one of my classmates at Clarion West 2000, and continues to take part in professional writing workshops. I'm least familiar with Karin Lowachee, but she has an active web presence, and is part of the writing group The Sock Monkey Parade (with Charles Finlay, by the way). Wen Spencer has also been active in fandom for decades, attending numerous conventions, and has a well developed and friendly web presence. Ken Wharton has a website, has attended conventions, and takes part in writing groups.
Why does all this matter? Well, a cynic might say that it shows the value of name recognition in earning awards, but I prefer to take a more positive view. From time to time mainstream authors pen works of speculative fiction (Atwood is a recent example), but then return to other pastures. All of these writers are committed to speculative fiction for the long run. They value it as a literary and interpersonal community, and are actively working to improve their craft. Barring ill fortune, they'll be actively shaping science fiction on an ongoing basis for decades; that's why it matters.
And that brings me to the difficult questions: what do each of these authors offer science fiction? What is unique about each one of them, and, finally, who should win the award and what will happen in the future?
I must first admit that I have not read all published works by all of these authors, but on the other hand, I have sought out works by each of them, and already been responsible for judging some of their works. (I've reviewed Finlay's fiction, was at Clarion with Levine, and was a PKD judge the year that Wharton's Divine Intervention and Spencer's Alien Taste were on the ballot, and so on.) So, without further ado. . . .
Charles Coleman Finlay
If you visit the website for the Campbell Award, take some time to review the list of authors who debuted in the past two years, and their qualifications. While some list a novel, or even multiple novels published, by far the most common qualification is one story, maybe two, published either in a major magazine (Analog, F&SF), or an anthology with a large print run (most often one of the Writers of the Future collections). Those writers whose list of publications is more extensive immediately stand out.
Now find Finlay's list of publications, and you'll see that he's had one, two, three, . . . is that eleven stories accepted by Fantasy and Science Fiction to date? My response upon seeing that might be translated as, "Jesus Christ, give the rest of us a chance!" or maybe "That's GOT to be a misprint!" Given its reputation, its longevity, its breadth of focus (from hard SF to surrealist/slipstream pieces), and Gordon Van Gelder's prompt replies, F&SF is for many writers the ideal market. And 11 stories in F&SF, plus a few others. . .
I immediately grew suspicious. Surely this wasn't quality -- surely this was a case of a writer fitting with an editor's prejudices -- and then I reviewed one of Finlay's stories for Tangent Online. "Wild Thing," published in the July 2003 issue of F&SF, was for my money the best story in that issue (which included stories by Adam-Troy Castro and Carol Emshwiller). "Wild Thing" turned to the story of the Holy Grail to tell a touching story of Arthurian knighthood and faerie magic. Finlay's touch was extremely delicate, evoking subtle moods with well-wrought prose, and employing lines with a cadence that suggested oral story telling.
"Lucy, In Her Splendor" is just as poetic a piece of writing. (You can read it at Marsdust.) How poetic? It manages to make the Lake Erie shoreline seem magical, even erotic. There's a mystery that stays unspoken throughout the story, but let me simply say that Finlay chooses a series of images to tell a story that is at once a love story, a mystery, and a horror story, and these all fit together smoothly.
Stylistically and conceptually, these stories were light years away from "The Political Officer." "The Political Officer" is a well-told yarn, but I'm lost as to why it has garnered so much attention. It seems to be good, solid space opera; in tone, plot, and worldview, it seems to combine Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series with moral and medical/science issues from Heinlein's story "Requiem." The whole story takes place aboard a space ship. What Finlay does well is capture the claustrophobic feeling of the ship and people under pressure, and suggest the political context (in which multiple factions contest for the crew's loyalties). I was willing to believe in the political reality of this world. Unfortunately, I didn't care much about it. I was not emotionally involved with any of the characters, nor with the issues involved, and without that involvement, intrigue becomes pointless. I watched the final crisis unfold without caring about the results, and that's hardly what one wants. But others, clearly, have disagreed with me regarding the story's quality, and even this story demonstrates one of Finlay's major qualities, which is versatility.
David D. Levine
When I emailed David to congratulate him on being selected as a finalist for the Campbell, he suggested that he was on the ballot primarily due to name recognition due to his years of activity in fandom. Reviewing his publications to date, I respectfully disagree. Remember what I said about number of publications most qualifying authors had listed? Well, besides being quite a substantial list in itself (10 professional story sales to date), David's list of publications carries another distinction: the gauntlet of editorial judgment that his work has passed through. David Levine's stories have won or placed in several different contests (the James White, Phobos, and Writers of the Future), and have been selected for anthologies edited by people ranging from Mike Resnick to Candace Dorsey, whose writing styles differ wildly. I found that impressive, and promising for the future.
I also find the contrast between David's current work and his work at Clarion impressive. Without telling too many tales out of school, I've read many of David's stories in rough draft stage, at times minutes after being finished. At that time, two broad areas that gave him trouble were how to handle autobiographical valence -- how to write about issues or emotions that are deeply tied to one's identity -- and how to best write in the science fiction tradition while still being original. (Obviously, those areas are challenging for many writers.) Having noted these challenges, I was very impressed by "Nucleon," which won the James White Award in 2001. It's a story about nostalgia, about private passions, and about familial and near-familial affections, and David handles it extremely well. As a story it's not easy to classify; the magical (?) junkyard that crosses time tracks resonates with the various magical shops that have appeared in fantasy, but also with the scientific workshops in SF.
"Nucleon," however fine a story, is fairly small scale; it's a few people experiencing a meaningful, but private, blip in reality. "The Tale of the Golden Eagle" is a much larger story, and an even better one. It's a story of the far future, set first in a time when the modified brains of birds were being put into starships, then later still, when that practice had stopped. It's not a long story -- just over 7000 words -- but it covers these sweeping arcs of time and space with ease, even with grace, and manages to reproduce one of the things I love best about Golden Age science fiction: the story is science fiction, but is everywhere suffused with such wonder and magic that its world seems enchanted. Part of this is due to the story's fairy tale structure, and the cadence of the prose. Man, this is a good story; I'm not surprised it's been recommended for a Nebula.
David can stumble ("Zauberschrift" completely failed to move me), but if he can write more stories like this, watch for his name.
While she has published some short fiction, Lowachee's primary work that has placed her in this highly competitive group is her novel Warchild. Warchild is a good book, and somewhat of a strange book. At times it shows the marks of being a first novel, but at other times, Lowachee writes with an ambition and mastery that is striking.
The cover blurb for Warchild claims that it is "in the tradition of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game." There's something to that; we meet protagonist Jos Musey when he's quite young, and part of the book's plot revolves around Musey being trained as an assassin/priest, to play a part in a war between humanity and an alien race. However, I found stronger thematic and structural resonances between Warchild and Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy. The works differ in tone and politics, but in both books readers follow a young protagonist through a series of cultural matrices, and the emotional engagement is due both to the excitement of exploring these new cultures, and to the reader's sympathies with the protagonist, who has been severely abused, lost his parents, and fits nowhere in the scheme of things.
Heinlein's novel was a bit of a paean to freedom and family; Lowachee's novel does two things wonderfully: it captures the feeling of the literal alien, and of alienated self. Jos Musey feels broken. It's usefully uncomfortable to see the world through his eyes. He's never just using a new world as an excuse for an adventure travelogue, as characters in so many touristy science fiction novels do. Jos can't do that. When pirates killed his parents and captured him, he felt it, and this loss, combined the subsequent captivity and sexual abuse, make him uncertain and hyper-vigilant, always threatened, and always evaluating a new situation to weigh risks and who he needs to be to survive. Those aspects of Warchild are truly impressive. I suspect they were informed by Lowachee's personal and professional experiences. Born in Guyana, she moved to Canada when she was two, and, as an adult, spent nine months in the Inuit community of Rankin Inlet teaching adult education, and, clearly, closely observing cultural difference.
Other elements of Warchild aren't so strong. It takes a long time to tell its story. I repeatedly grew impatient and wanted to edit the book (sorry). Lowachee also takes a dangerous route in choosing not one, but several situations that cry out for taut, skilled, detailed descriptions (scenes of combat, martial arts training, and cyberpunk-ish computer system infiltration, to name a few), and then dealing with them in a distanced, abstracted fashion. At times this works to keep the focus on character interaction, but other times, I just felt like she was missing opportunities.
While Spencer has an independent urban fantasy novel coming out from Baen later this year, and an SF novel due out from ROC in 2004, her primary focus to date has been the Ukiah Oregon series. This series, which began in 2001 with Alien Taste and has since continued in Tainted Trail (2002), and Bitter Waters (2003), with Dog Warriors due out next year, is the story of -- I always wince when I say it -- a private eye who was raised by wolves. And lesbians.
There. The tough part's out on the table. Spencer herself makes gentle fun of the premise in her blurb for the Campbell, and I laughed when I first picked up the book, something along the lines of, "You've got to be kidding me!" And Spencer proved me wrong, pretty quickly. While not high literature, Alien Taste followed a long tradition in SF and pop culture in general of developing a concept that the larger culture finds ludicrous. Garfield Reeves-Stevens did this wonderfully in Nighteyes, and more recently, the Men in Black movies have done so for fun.
And these books are fun. Spencer's strengths are her pacing, her tone, and her genre hybridity. Alien Taste moves at a thriller pace. We've barely had a chance to digest Ukiah's origins before we're on to a brutal killing, then a scientific oddity, then an exploration of the feral child's secret origins and powers, then aliens, then more aliens, and wait, I forgot true love and friendship. In other words, this moves like a hard-boiled detective novel, but through a speculative landscape (that is nonetheless recognizably Pittsburgh, and therefore calling on the power of region). Spencer keeps a firm grasp on the tone through all this; characters are close to being types (the tough private eye who's sensitive deep down, the cold professional woman just waiting for the right man to warm her), and that keeps the tone on entertainment. These types are drawn from a range of genres, and that adds energy; the scientific action/thriller and P.I. premises blend seamlessly with the romance plot, which is why it earned a second place in the Sapphire Awards (for science fiction romance). Having so many cards in her hand makes it easy for Spencer to keep the series entertaining, much like a good serial. I predict Spencer will be a steady presence on shelves, and solid entertainment, for years.
Ken Wharton is a physics professor at San Jose State University, and does research related to lasers. It will probably come as no surprise to learn that he writes hard science fiction, or that Divine Intervention has the strengths (and a few of the weaknesses) of that end of the field. The first of these that makes it worthy of attention is boldness. Divine Intervention is about a human colony on a distant planet, and the stresses put upon the society that grew up there by its location, but also by re-contact with Earth . . . and the emergence of a new and spontaneous intelligence (an AI, technically, but not a traditional example of one). But you can write a novel about colonies around other planets and just do hand waving, rather than postulating specific developments in physics, or, more impressively, without developing a religion around those developments, one that integrates the events the colony ship went through and the nature of the universe as seen through this set of physics postulates.
And then take the specificity of the dangers Wharton posits for those in cryogenic suspension, the way he tracks linguistic shift over time, how the specific layout of the planets in the solar system impacts the religion, how the length of day on the new planet influences social custom. . . . In each case I got both the sense that Wharton had set down to work through these things consciously, and that he had a great deal of fun doing it. When hard SF is done well, there's an exuberance to it, a kind of "Let's see what happens if we do this!" feeling, and there's some of that here. Working things out this way from premises and scientific law gives the fiction a freshness. It also, at times, leads to some very unlikely situations. At one point Wharton works very hard to engineer a very specific clash between the newly arrived Earth humans and the inhabitants of the colony planet Mandala. I could feel him laboring to get all the markers in place, so that everything would work like clockwork -- but he left out some pretty basic medical concerns (quarantine, fears of infection), and so the whole scene collapsed for me as a reader.
The other area where Wharton's novel reads like hard SF in a bad way is the characterization. He's better than many, but some characters are still stylized types, and/or markers put in place in order to serve the adventure. But that said, there are an ambition, an exuberance, and a creativity to Divine Intervention that are extremely promising.
To repeat myself, this is an impressive crop of new writers. I read all of them with pleasure, and will be seeking out works by each of them in the future. I'm not surprised they've won the awards they have, and predict they'll win many more.
I'm also pleased for science fiction that such a diverse array of writers has been selected to be honored. The fiction ranges from what Heinlein called "the gadget story" to fine literary prose. The stories by these authors draw upon new developments in science, legends, other SF, personal experience, and a range of other sources, and they tackle major issues, often with guts and style.
But to go out on a limb . . .
This year, I'd have to pick Charles Coleman Finlay for the John W. Campbell award. His fiction combines the widest range of topics with the most highly developed style and emotional nuance.
Levine and Lowachee will almost certainly be finalists again next year, and will take the immediate front runner positions for the award at that time. At present, I'd say Levine has the inside track for next year's award, due to the breadth of publication and the range of awards already earned. . . but three more names will join them on the ballot, so who knows what the future will bring?
Copyright © 2003 Greg Beatty
Greg Beatty attended Clarion West 2000. He supports his writing habit by teaching for the University of Phoenix Online. When he's not at his computer, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend Kathleen. Greg's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.