Cue the music, folks—it's Campbell time again!
Ahem. To start more formally, the World Science Fiction Convention is fast approaching. Thousands of dedicated science fiction readers, writers, editors, and publishers will descend on Boston this year for a long Labor Day weekend of fun, panels, costumes, and oh yes, awards.
The Hugo Awards are given at Worldcon, and so is the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I wrote an article on the Campbell for Strange Horizons last year, and, rather than repeat my observations on its history and general meaning, I'll simply point you to that article.
All those registered for Worldcon get a chance to evaluate the careers of all writers who qualify and to vote on the best new writer. Writers who qualify are eligible for two years, but only the top five nominees are listed on the ballot, where they receive a much closer evaluation.
This year's five finalists are:
David D. Levine
I'll discuss each of these deserving authors individually, though in the cases of Levine and Lowachee, who were finalists last year, the discussion may be briefer, and readers may again be referred to last year's article. Before I do so, however, I'd like to touch on a number of other points, in the hopes of providing useful insights in new areas.
To begin, a bit of perspective. First, a review of the field. If you visit the Campbell Award website, which James Van Pelt graciously maintains (thanks, Jim!), you'll see that quite a crop of writers have appeared in the past two years. Sixty authors are listed as newly professional in the past two years. Not too shabby!
If you look at their qualifying publications, you'll find that they fall all across the spectrum of speculative fiction. Some writers have made their first professional sale via Writers of the Future, some in venerable professional magazines such as Analog or Fantasy and Science Fiction, and some were forced to "make do" with novels as their first professional sales. (To qualify, you must publish a work in a professional publication—one with a print run of at least 10,000. Therefore, many fine publications don't qualify, and neither do many first novels, which are often printed in runs smaller than 10,000 copies. This sometimes leads to odd situations—authors publishing many works in venues with smaller publications, but not qualifying until long after their critical reputations were well-developed, but that's a question for another day.)
Look more closely at the publication listings, however, and you'll see several more things worth noting. First and most importantly, there are some impressive authors listed. Only five finalists could be selected, but at least a dozen or more deserve special recognition, and have made strides that promise great things for the future. Some have moved quickly from first professional sale to being included in one or more of the "Year's Best" anthologies (Christopher Barzak, Theodora Goss, David Levine, Paul Melko, Tim Pratt, Karen Traviss, Jack Skillingstead). A number of these writers have won or placed in contests (Sarah Prineas, Luc Reid, David Levine, Jay Lake, Karin Lowachee, Carl Frederick, and no doubt others). Other awards are possible—Lake is up for a Hugo, as is Levine, and so on. I've never been one to shy away from stating the obvious, because sometimes it needs to be said, so let me say this: this is an impressive group of debut authors.
In some cases, these authors are even more striking because they work in a number of forms and genres. Numerous writers write not just fiction, but also poetry, and some write non-fiction as well. You won't find works in this latter category listed on the Campbell Awards website, because of the rules governing the awards, but I for one think it a good sign that many of these writers are reviewing, writing essays, and maintaining blogs. It promises a speculative fiction field in which the critics are themselves informed creators, and that's good.
No small number of these qualifying writers also edit publications, and that too is promising. I like knowing that folks like Nick Mamatas, Ty Drago, Jay Lake, Steven Nagy, Isaac Szpindel, Vered Tochterman, and Tim Pratt are editing anthologies or magazines. It promises a richness in the field.
I might add that it is nice to see such a geographically diverse field of writers as well: besides Americans, there are Canadian, Australian, South African, Israeli, Scottish, and English writers, as well as some who have traveled widely, and/or who aren't as easily classifiable. (Lowachee, for example, was born in South America, but moved to Canada at age two.)
Finally, a number of these writers are involved institutionally in the field in some way. A number of these institutional links are familiar ones (writers who attended Clarion or Odyssey), but others are newer and/or less formal, but still quite productive (The Ratbastards, for example, have more than one author on the list). Finally, some are both new and quite ambitious. I'm thinking here of Theodora Goss's involvement with the Interstitial Arts Foundation, which has quite lofty theoretical goals that intersect with speculative fiction. There is nothing so unified as a New Wave or cyberpunk movement, but there are a number of groups, collectives, and organizations committed to producing good speculative fiction, and to changing its nature.
The corollary to this is also visible in this long, long list of publications: speculative fiction is a fairly splintered field. Functionally, speculative fiction isn't a genre so much as it is a broad spectrum of subgenres, and often those different groups don't have much to do with one another. Writers publishing in Analog are not usually the same writers publishing in, say, Polyphony. The aesthetic assumptions are so different that they barely overlap, and each of the groups mentioned has as least as much in common with different elements of mainstream fiction as with each other.
Two more related points here. First, one reason I find the Campbell valuable is that it fights these centripetal tendencies; if one is responsible, honest, or simply curious, one ends up weighing an Analog story against, say, a Strange Horizons story, to see what they have in common.
Second, I would argue that this tendency for speculative fiction to break into stylistic camps determines the final ballot for the Campbell to a large degree. I say this because before writing this article, I went on record with the editors at Strange Horizons and predicted the final ballot. [Confirmed—Eds.] My predictions were:
- Karin Lowachee
- David Levine
- Jay Caselberg
- Jay Lake
- Theodora Goss or Tim Pratt
I reasoned that the list of finalists would follow the rough outlines of the various subgenres or critical camps within speculative fiction. Karin Lowachee's first novel has won awards, and does a wonderful job of continuing several existing strains of science fiction (young protagonist, military training), while introducing lovely new expressions of alienation. David Levine's work has deep roots in the Golden Age of SF, and its sense of wonder. Jay Caselberg for a range of reasons (multiple forms and genres, Canadian and UK support), Jay Lake for an even wider range of forms and genres, for sheer number of publications, and for his editorial work, and Goss or Pratt for their poetic and stylistic achievements.
As you'll see, I left one major SF camp out of my predictions, the hard SF camp. Chris Moriarty draws her support from that camp and from those interested in gender, as her novel Spin State explores elements of both themes in an interesting fashion.
Notice that none of these evaluations were based on pure quality; I think all of these writers do fine work. This was my estimate of what the field is calibrated to recognize, due to standing allegiances.
I'll now make some qualitative judgments below, and as I do I'll to make sure I touch on what each finalist particularly brings to the field. I'll discuss each writer in alphabetical order, and then make my prediction of who I think will win, and why.
Damn, but it's impressive that someone who has only been publishing a relatively short time has made such a big splash. It's noteworthy, and occasionally a little odd. It's Jay's first year of eligibility for the Campbell, and I've already heard more than one promising writer referred to as "the next Jay Lake." This tag has been applied to writers who manifest three qualities: they work in a range of genres, they engage style seriously, as a major component of their work, and they are prolific.
Needless to say, the template Jay Lake also manifests these qualities, to an even higher degree. Jay maintains an appropriately stylish website, so if you're interested, you can review his list of publications yourself, but let me sum up: it's daunting. I hesitate to actually count his publications, because the list would be out of date by the time this article appeared, so let me just say he's published dozens of stories thus far, and leave it at that. A baker's dozen of these stories are available in Greetings From Lake Wu, which is available from Wheatland Press. Of course, if you're unwilling to try an author sight unseen, Lake's prolific nature guarantees you'll be able to find a number of samples online, and if you don't want to take even that much of a risk, give "Into the Gardens of the Sweet Night," in Writers of the Future XIX, a read. It's a 2004 Hugo finalist for Best Novelette, and so deserves your attention anyway.
I've read a number of Jay's stories, and will say this about them in general: they are stylish, they offer much, they are ambitious, and as I read them, I see immediate connections between his own fiction and his editorial work on Polyphony.
Let me address that last point first. Polyphony is a series of slipstream and hard-to-classify stories that Lake edits with Deborah Layne. Volumes 1, 2, and 3 are out (and a review of them will appear in these virtual pages soon), and stories have been chosen for Volume 4. The authors included range from the very new to the wondrous elders of the field (Carol Emshwiller!), and there is a very real sensibility that, not surprisingly, fits with Lake's own. The stories in those pages, and Lake's own, are ambitious, and marked above all else by an ease with stylish line by line writing—with writing that is lovely in itself, for its own sake, but also with language that transforms epistemologies.
There is also a quirkiness that runs through Lake's writing, one that he gives rein, and one that leads him roaming among genres and outside of them. He's demonstrated his willingness to roam widely in his time at Tangent, where he reviewed a wide range of publications.
Taken together, the resulting combination is formidable, and I have only one caveat about Lake's current production: I don't think he's found his voice. Now, you wouldn't expect a brand new writer to have done so, but you might expect a writer with scores of stories under his belt to have it, and Jay is both. As a result, Lake is in an odd position: extremely accomplished, and extremely promising, with much yet to be unveiled.
David D. Levine
By contrast, although David Levine has also moved among a number of different genres, and has published fewer stories, I would say that he has found his voice, and it is the voice of wonder. I don't say this lightly, or without personal complications—as I mentioned in last year's article, David and I attended Clarion West together in the summer of 2000—nor without critical complications, but I would argue that it is true (even if not all David's stories work for me).
Read one of David's stories—say, "Nucleon" (Interzone, Dec. 2001), a quiet little piece that takes the "magical shoppe" that has appeared in so many fantasy stories, and gives it new life as a fantastic junkyard. That will seem to have little to do with a second story, for example, "Wind From a Dying Star," (in the anthology Bones of the World, edited by Bruce Holland Rogers), which is a far-future space opera-ish piece. The first depends on description, mood, and tone; the second on the underlying concepts. However, read a third story, such as "The Tale of the Golden Eagle" (Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 2003), which is nominated for a Hugo for best short story this year, and you'll start to see some deep similarities.
Since Bento, the fanzine David and his wife Kate Yule publish, has been around for some fifteen years, it won't be telling any tales out of school to suggest that David has been immersed in science fiction for a long time. It shows. While the ideas are nicely new in some cases, and the execution lovely in others (most especially "The Tale of the Golden Eagle"), the underlying moral and emotional ethos of David's work might have time traveled from the Golden Age; I can imagine John W. Campbell publishing some of these stories gladly.
I don't know what this voice will sound like at novel length—David is, I'm told, roughly three quarters of the way through writing a novel—but I do know how far David has come as a writer in the last four years, how hard he's worked to do so, and that this too bodes well for the future.
Like David, Karin Lowachee is in her second year of eligibility. However, unlike Jay or David, Karin has made her reputation with novels. Her first novel, Warchild (2002), won the Warner-Aspect first novel competition, and was a finalist for the 2002 Philip K. Dick Award. She followed Warchild with Burndive (2003), a sequel, and is following that with a third novel in the same universe, titled Cagebird (due out in early 2005).
While some portion of the decision to extend that universe may be commercial (series sell!), it's also clearly a universe in which Lowachee feels at ease. In fact, she answers the FAQs on her website in the persona of one of the characters from the series. I should immediately follow that observation with another: this sense of ease is not laziness. She spent the majority of Warchild creating a universe by slamming a single character, Jos Musey, up against it, and showing us his pain. The easy thing to do would have been to pick up Jos again, and to resolve a lot of the pain and genuine alienation Lowachee had evoked in Warchild.
Instead, in Burndive Lowachee approaches related problems (pain at first hand, alienation, the need to mature) in the same universe, but from a decidedly different perspective, that of Ryan Azarcon. There are similarities: like Jos, Ryan is living in the shadows of the past, and, also like Jos, he is a man trying to determine where he fits against a shifting understanding of past generational models. However, because Ryan is the grandson of a diplomat and son of a famous ship captain, his identity crises are different, and when assassins target him for attack, he must grapple with the nature and meaning of violence.
Lowachee did several things well in the first novel (sense of alienation, creation of believable cultures, serious treatment of childhood pain), and flubbed a few (the structure was off, and the book needed editing for excess). Now that she has a series, however, we can see that other strengths are developing. The most obvious of these is voice. As Lowachee's control of narrative voice strengthens, it carries readers through more (and more easily across any gaps that do occur). But the most important development is triangulation. By introducing a character from such a different social stratum, Lowachee multiplies the complexity of a world that was already well-woven and believable.
I have to say, I was extremely skeptical of Chris Moriarty's novel Spin State, largely because I encountered it first through her website, which looks like "The Matrix" threw up on it. This impression isn't helped by the author photo on the site, which makes Moriarty look like she wishes she were Carrie-Ann Moss, or by the endless rows of eye-searing green type. It's clearly intentional, but frankly, it's a pain.
And just as clearly, Moriarty doesn't care. She, like Li, her heroine in Spin State, is clearly out to kick butt and take names, and doesn't shy away from the combative. In fact, she's engaged in another transformative movement. Jay Lake's sometimes been tagged (or celebrated) with the term "style monkey," used for those writers who embrace prose style as an essential part of their task. By contrast, Moriarty self-identifies as writing "chickpunk," or hard SF with a cyberpunk slant, but written by women—for more on this, see her comments on her website.
Lowachee is (thus far) the most sociologically and anthropologically ambitious of these five writers. Moriarty's work is the most ambitious in terms of hard SF. That's not all Spin State is, by far—it's a spy thriller, an architectonic social novel that recalls the big books of the nineteenth century (the mining scenes are nicely brutal, and resonate with Dickens—Moriarty's legal training serves her well here), and an exploration of gender. But the success or failure of all of these other elements depends upon the presence of some pretty meaty extrapolation of the physical sciences; after the novel, six pages of suggestions for further reading in quantum physics are included.
Moriarty doesn't stop with quantum physics. Though her extrapolations in the areas of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, consciousness transfer, and memory reconstruction are less new and less obviously grounded in cutting edge science, they are all better integrated into the emotional fabric of the novel. However, at times some elements—for example, the limits put on mining on the condensate crystals essential for timely interstellar travel—read like plot devices, however mathematically well-founded they may be. The really interesting adventures are not the external ones, in which Li tries to solve a murder and resolve a scientific/political crisis on a mining planet, but the internal ones, as she negotiates love—with an AI that shifts bodies and genders—and identity, as Li is a one of a line of biological constructs, losing memory as a side effect of her travels and adventures, and newly returned to a planet to which she'd sworn never to return. If the plot structure seems Dickensian, these last questions are closer to Philip K. Dick, as Li and readers alike are given many reasons not to know who is what.
As readers may have guessed, I liked a lot of the ideas in Spin State, and I loved the ambition. However, this is a first novel in a lot of ways. There's too much jargon, the structure is often off, the prose is occasionally clumsy, and Moriarty sometimes slips into idiot plot (the adventure or sub-plot only works if smart characters do something very specific and fairly dim). But Moriarty will improve in all of these areas, and is clearly working on them, both through writing more novels (Spin Control, a loose sequel, has been announced, as has a contemporary fantasy novel) and by reviewing books for GLBT Fantasy Fiction Resources.
Like Jay Lake, Tim Pratt wears many hats. He writes fiction, and fiction that covers quite a range. His story "Captain Fantasy and the Secret Masters" (Realms of Fantasy, Apr. 2003) is a superhero story, featuring a hero and enemies that might have been found in Golden Age comics. Pratt faithfully reproduces the language, pace, and atmosphere of that era—and, at the same time, critiques and deconstructs this sort of story. "The Fallen and the Muse of the Street" revisits older sources of the fantastic (mythic gods), but is grounded in an urban street setting, while "Melancholy Shore" is a dark contemporary confrontation between death, marriage, responsibility, and retribution. He has a collection out, Little Gods, and a novel, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, is scheduled to be published in Summer 2005.
Pratt is also a poet, and his genre-related work has been honored in a number of venues—"Poor Bahamut", published here, was nominated for the Rhysling Award in 2003, and other poems have been selected as reader favorites in this publication, or named as honorable mentions in "Year's Best" anthologies.
Pratt is also a reviewer. He's published dozens of reviews in Locus, and scattered reviews of both fiction and poetry in half a dozen other publications. Finally (yes, nearing the end), he edits. He is co-editor of Flytrap, a stylish small press magazine, and has served as editor of Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association.
Whew! Active fellow. What does all this add up to? Well, first, of course, it adds up to yet another striking new writer, and bodes well for the future. However, if pressed to say what Pratt brings to the field, above all else I would say it is a literary sensibility. Like Lake, this means he's attuned to the niceties of style, and willing to focus there, but it also means he's often working consciously in a broad lineage of the fantastic.
Reflections, Conclusions, and Predictions
A glance at the qualifying publications shows a division along gender lines: the men have written short works, and the women have written novels. I'm not sure what to make of this, except to be careful not to make too much of it—within a year or so, all the men will have novels out as well. About the most meaning I can draw from this is that the women have each mentioned in interviews that they are natural novelists, rather than short story writers, and that the scope and feel of their fiction support these self-assessments.
I would note that the two female writers seem to integrate their extra-literary professional experiences into their writing more obviously than the three male writers. Lowachee's anthropological studies clearly inform the quality of her social portraits in her work, and Moriarty clearly draws on her work as a lawyer involved in mining law in her work. But is that a gender thing, or a novel thing? Or neither?
I would observe that all five finalists are well-integrated into the larger science fiction community, usually in multiple ways. I've mentioned the editorial work done, fanzines published, reviews and essays written, but they also appear at science fiction conventions, attend writing workshops as students, teach writing workshops, participate in critique groups, and maintain websites, mailing lists, and in some cases, blogs, as well as engage in less classifiable activities, like the Campbell Nominees Smackdown at this year's Wiscon.
As was the case with last year's nominees, this bodes well for the future; these writers are woven in to the community, and in for the duration. But I also think it speaks to their willingness to engage the publishing community as it is; there are no recluses here, but rather people comfortable with their professional positions.
Most of them are also out to change the genre in one or more way, and others who haven't announced their intentions to do so openly, are doing so. However, they aren't all pulling the genre in the same way, and so in some ways, one could imagine this vote as nudging the genre in one direction or the other (though probably not more than a nudge—let's not overestimate the power here). Lake, cross-genre work; Levine, Campbellian; Lowachee, sociological; Moriarty, chickpunk; and Pratt, towards the literary fantastic.
Now, to cut to the chase, whose work do I like most?
Of all thousand plus pages I've read by these nominees, I'd have to say my favorite single work is Levine's "The Tale of the Golden Eagle," followed by Pratt's "Captain Fantasy and the Secret Masters." Both of these stories are pitch perfect—right on target.
However, I don't think either of these authors will win.
I think Jay Lake should win. He is like a rising tide in the genre, sweeping across all categories at once. He is quite good, and promises to both get better and remain insanely productive.
If Lake is beaten, the award will go to one of the novelists—Karin Lowachee, most probably. Novelists seem to have an advantage for this award in recent years. I suspect this advantage comes from novels being more broadly available than individual short stories, and from a semi-articulated sense that the novel is a more worthy canvas, perhaps the primary venue for science fiction today, as the short story was in the Golden Age.
And that, my friends, is my perspective on the Campbell Award for this year.
What's that? What will happen next year?
Next year's five finalists?
Jay Lake (if he doesn't win this year)
K.J. Bishop (The Etched City)
and two (or three) players to be named later. Anyone?