Science fiction is largely concerned with the future, but the genre’s past, dominated as it is by white men, is increasingly up for debate among a new generation of writers. The latest episode occurred this week, when the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact said it would drop John W. Campbell’s name from its annual prize for best new writer because of racist sentiments he had expressed.
Campbell ran the magazine under its previous name, Astounding Science Fiction, from the late 1930s until his death in 1971, and was one of the genre’s most influential editors, working with such writers as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein. He was the author of sci-fi under his own name and as Don A. Stuart.
He also wrote in support of segregation, called slavery as “a useful educational system” and claimed black writers did not or could not “write in open competition,” in addition to making derogatory comments about women and homosexuality. In a 1998 essay, “Racism and Science Fiction,” the award-winning author Samuel R. Delany recalled Campbell rejecting a submission of his, saying the editor “didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.”
The decision to remove Campbell’s name from the award came after this year’s winner, Jeannette Ng, criticized him in her acceptance speech. “He is responsible for setting a tone for science fiction that haunts this genre to this very day,” she said. “Stale, sterile, male, white, exalting in the ambitions of imperialists, colonialists, settlers and industrialists.”
On Tuesday, Analog Science Fiction and Fact said it was changing the prize’s name from the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer to the Astounding Award for Best New Writer. In a blog post explaining the decision, the magazine’s editor, Trevor Quachri, wrote: “Campbell’s provocative editorials and opinions on race, slavery, and other matters often reflected positions that went beyond just the mores of his time and are today at odds with modern values, including those held by the award’s many nominees, winners and supporters.”
Ng, who wrote the fantasy novel “Under the Pendulum Sun,” said in an interview on Wednesday that she was delighted by the decision. “It’s a good move away from honoring a completely obnoxious man who kept a lot of people out of the genre, who kept a lot of people from writing, who shaped the genre to his own image.” Thanks to the change, she added, “we’re now celebrating a little more neutrally a piece of history that’s not attached to his name.”
Alec Nevala-Lee, whose book “Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction” examines Campbell’s contributions to science fiction, also supported the change. “It was clearly the right call,” he said. “At this point, the contrast between Campbell’s racism and the diversity of the writers who have recently received the award was really just too glaring to ignore.”
Quachri credited Nevala-Lee’s book and Ng’s speech for pushing his publication, which is owned by Dell Magazines, to act. “Reading an early draft of Alec’s book is when I realized that the name change would need to happen eventually,” he said. Ng’s speech, he added, “really gave me a wonderful opportunity.”
For Nevala-Lee, it’s unavoidable that, as a creator of science fiction, Campbell would be judged by how well he anticipated societal changes. “He asked to be judged by the highest possible standard, as a man of the future,” Nevala-Lee said, “and I think he really fell short.”