Previously appeared at: (https://www.asimovs.com/current-issue/on-books/) until 3:18pm, 10/31/2019
by Norman Spinrad
Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 edited by Jane Yolen,
Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee,
Dey Street Books, $28.99
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson,
Two recent books, Astounding, by Alec Nevala-Lee, and Nebula Awards Showcase 2018, edited by Jane Yolen, serve, with a bit of history in between by yours truly, who was there to bridge it, to encapsulate the beginning of “science fiction” chez Nevala-Lee in the 1930s and where it is now, according to the winners and nominees of the latest Nebula Awards awarded by the votes of the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
As Nevala-Lee sees it, it was John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding, who was central to the transformation of Hugo Gernsback’s Scientifiction and the pulp adventure magazines of the 1920s and early 1930s into science fiction as serious literature, and the key writers whom Campbell used to do it were Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and, uh, L. Ron Hubbard.
Nevala-Lee tells this true story as the interweaving personal biographies of Asimov, Heinlein, Hubbard, and Campbell from birth to death in neo-Freudian psychological depth. His research would seem to be as complete as humanly possible, and I doubt that anyone can ever write biographies of Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein more definitive than Astounding.
I knew Isaac well toward the end, and had a few interesting conversations with Heinlein, and Campbell published the first three stories of mine ever to see print. So reading about who and what they were and what they were doing before I was even born was a strange and revelatory experience.
I once was commissioned to present the Hugo for best editor, and what I said was that the literary history of science fiction could be told by reciting the names of a handful of important editors in timewise order. I proceeded to do so, and this particular audience got what I was saying. Hugo Gernsback, John Campbell, Frederik Pohl, Anthony Boucher, Terry Carr, Betty Ballantine, Michael Moorcock, and so forth.
John W. Campbell was not the first timewise, but he was arguably the most important, because, as Nevala-Lee rightly contends, he began the literary evolution of science fiction from pulp adventure hackwork into a literature with cultural and scientific raison d’etre.
Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were Campbell’s key writers before World War II—and to some extent beyond—and indeed even to this day represent “sci-fi” to people who have never heard of any other science fiction writers, and who haven’t even read anything they wrote.
L. Ron Hubbard is something else again. As far as the literary significance of his science fiction, he was never in the same league as Heinlein and Asimov. And as Nevala-Lee does make clear, he was really never more than a hack who didn’t take the genre seriously himself. He is taken seriously in this historical literary biography because Campbell took him and Dianetics seriously. All too seriously.
Nevala-Lee’s Astounding reads somewhat strangely to someone like me, who was involved with the main characters toward the ends of their literary stories and the beginning of mine, and probably would to anyone involved with the fannish history of science fiction, let alone readers of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. Which is to say, to an insider one way or another. Nevala-Lee, at least to judge by what he has written, is not.
This has its strengths and its weaknesses. His research is admirably academically exhaustive, except when it comes to Hubbard—a notorious bullshit artist and outright liar—and on such a level is about as definitive as a full complex history of science fiction history up until the 1960s can get.
The strength of this is that Nevala-Lee writes all this from a certain emotional and neutral distance, as one might write a similar history of the nineteenth-century American union movement or the early twentieth-century history of the Hollywood film industry if these events occurred before you were born. The book would be entirely from the record. Nevala-Lee therefore has no personal axes to grind and sticks to the facts.
Like an academic, however, he does have a thesis, and like many academic theses, it results in a certain simplification, for anyone who knows or has lived through bits and pieces of the story from the inside out.
The thesis is that his four main characters, and particularly John W. Campbell, created modern science fiction.
And while in a certain sense this is true, or at least not false, it is an over-simplification. What Nevala-Lee contends is that before the editorship of Campbell, science fiction was merely a subgenre of commercial genre pulp magazine adventure fiction. A hero or heroine, a villain, a standard plot, period—and the writers thereof were hacks with no real literary, intellectual, or serious thematic passions or interests.
This might be true for pre-Campbell pulp-magazine science fiction, but not for science fiction itself. Before such magazines even existed, both Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, to cite the most prominent examples, were writing literary science fiction by any reasonable definition, including both scientific and technological speculation and thematic passion. And even Hugo Gernsback’s pre-Astounding “scientifiction,” while literarily null, did have a raison d’etre, namely to use pulp fiction as a means to promulgate scientific interest in the masses.
But what Campbell did have—or perhaps developed—was a set of scientific, thematic, philosophic, speculative, and to some extent even literary, visionary goals: a fiction not just imagining possible futures, but to some extent attempting to create them or to prevent the dystopian from happening.
Voilá, the science fiction of Wells and Verne, but with one significant difference. They were two writers, but Campbell was a magazine editor and de facto publisher. While he began as a pulp magazine writer himself, once he became editor of Astounding his creativity transmogrified into giving his abundance of speculative ideas and the story possibilities emanating from them to other writers to write them for him. Most prominent and talented among them, indeed at least before World War II, being Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.
He was given a magazine as a lever, and in that sense did change the world of hack pulp adventure science fiction into the beginning of modern science fiction.
In that sense Alec Nevala-Lee’s thesis is quite right.
But it’s something of an over-simplification. While Asimov and Heinlein were his two most outstanding protégés in the pre-WWII and early post-war periods, they weren’t the only ones. Indeed Campbell kept discovering more even into the 1960s. Nevala-Lee gives short attention to A.E. Van Vogt, for example, and pays far too much to L. Ron Hubbard as a writer.
The reason he does this has little to do with science fiction or any other fiction and everything to do with Dianetics, later to become the Church of Scientology for tax purposes, and its relation to John W. Campbell and science fiction fandom.
The story has often been told, but never as well as by Nevala-Lee, of how Campbell published not only science fiction but speculative science and technology, and with at least equal passion, and how he fixated on Dianetics as real breakthrough science and was instrumental in launching and championing it for L. Ron Hubbard.
This is why Hubbard is one of Nevala-Lee’s four horsemen. Not because he was a literarily significant writer, which he wasn’t, but because Campbell’s relationship with Dianetics and Hubbard is so exemplary of how and why he did indeed begin the evolution of modern science fiction.
Campbell was the first passionate editor of what became modern science fiction. He wasn’t particularly passionate about improving the stylistic or prose quality of pulp science fiction, but he did care passionately about believable characters and cultures and their feedback relationships with science and technology. And beyond even that, he wanted to use science fiction to encourage or even create real futures to his own liking.
Without going into the details of what those likings were, which Astounding goes into in full detail, that is how John W. Campbell Jr. created modern science fiction. Verne and Wells had already been writing something like it, but they were literary isolates, not ever writing from within a literary-cum-genre-cum-subculture of science fiction.
And that is what, for better and worse, began to evolve modern science fiction as we know it today.
* * *
Quite recently, as such things go, Gregory Benford told me that I was a Campbellian writer. Having been one of the most notorious writers of the New Wave, and considering myself on the other side of the culture war of the 1960s from Campbell and Analog, it made no sense to me until Greg explained, that, like himself, like Campbell, I tried to not violate the known rules of mass and energy in my fiction, questions of politics not being relevant.
But not until I read Astounding did I get the deeper and wider point that Greg might not even agree with: all modern science fiction writers who take their work seriously are in a real sense “Campbellian” writers.
The New Wave science fiction—or “speculative”—writers and their political and cultural foes both agreed that Campbell was a defender of the status quo in the science fictional front of the political, cultural, sexual, and literary war of the 1960s.
But both sides agreed that political, cultural, sexual, and literary matters were legitimate and even central matters to science fiction. AKA speculative fiction. Or as I put it back in the day, “science fiction is the speculative literature of the feedback loop between the external reality in which the story takes place and the internal consciousness of the characters.”
Add that to Gregory Benford’s requirement that science fiction should not violate the known laws of mass and energy, or at worst tweak them with what I called Rubber Science, and what do you get?
Modern science fiction.
In that sense, rather than Campbell’s or anyone else’s political or cultural passions, any of us on any side who take such things as thematically serious are all ipso facto “Campbellian” writers.
But time exfoliates rather than marches in a straight line into the future. Before the economically successful publication of Lord of the Rings in paperback in the 1960s, there was no mass market publication of fantasy in the United States. But then Ballantine, first among other publishers, wanted to publish new fantasy fiction, to create a fantasy genre.
They quickly realized that there were science fiction writers that they were already publishing in their SF lines who were the most likely to be able to write what they needed for fantasy genres, much as writers of pulp adventure fiction of their day were the logical choice to turn out the new SF genre material.
Better still, they already had SF genre lines written by science fiction writers, so they didn’t have to launch new fantasy genre lines. All they had to do was publish their new fantasies in their SF genre lines.
Thus did science fiction come to share genre publishing with fantasy under the SF logo. And after a few years, the border between these two literary factions evaporated, and the Science Fiction Writers of America was constrained to allow fantasy fiction as membership qualification, and change its official title to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, while managing to retain its logo as “SFWA” by twisting it to be the acronym of “The SF Writers of America.”
Which became more and more truthful. As general “SF” became eligible as membership credentials, so did it become eligible for SFWA’s Nebula Awards. More recently, SFWA invented an award for Young Adult SF. And loosened its membership credentials to include so-called “indie” or self-published SF on the basis of sufficient sales figures.
Cut to the present and Nebula Awards Showcase 2018.
These annual anthologies have been published about as long as there has been a SFWA, and they had always included the Nebula Awards winners for short stories, novelettes, and novellas, in full, except of course the whole winning novel. But since this was not enough material to fill a book, the editors had a certain leeway in how to fill the rest of the anthologies. Sometimes with excerpts from the novel winners, sometimes with the nominated short works, sometimes with their own personal choices on strictly literary grounds, or as often as not with combinations thereof.
But one thing has never changed. The stories and novels are nominated by the full members, of SFWA, and then the Nebulas are elected by vote of the same electorate. Elected entirely by the writers who wrote SF. And therefore, the Nebula Awards and their Showcase anthologies are as good a picture as possible of what the collective creators of SF consider the best examples of the current state of their own art.
So what does Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 tell us about that?
Certainly not what outside critics would necessarily choose as the best stories and best novels of the year. Nor what the readership at large outside the membership of SFWA would necessarily choose.
But certainly, like its predecessors, Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 cannot help but tell anyone who reads it what the science fiction and fantasy writers of America collectively believe deserves these best of the year awards. And therefore what they should try to attain as authors. And therefore the realtime state of the art itself.
Let me emphasize that the editor of this annual anthology, Jane Yolen, had to work under some narrow constraints and requirements, and therefore cannot really be blamed for the contents. She had to stick to rose-colored platitudes and SFWA’s self-congratulations in her intro. She had to include the Nebula winners’ stories in their entirety, of course, and according to established custom, likewise all of the runner-up stories.
That is, she had to include the winner and nominees in the short story and novelette categories. When it came to the novel and novella Nebulas, however, there were inherent problems.
Nebula Award Showcase has to print something from the winning novel, and that can only be an excerpt. You have to do that. But there is no necessity to waste pages on yet another novel excerpt, this one for the winner in the best Young Adult category, which is not even a Nebula.
Even if you didn’t waste all those pages on novel excerpts, you still wouldn’t really have the room to include all the novella nominees. But there is no excuse for limiting the Nebula winner for best novella to an excerpt, too.
There are also many pages filled with complete listings of Nebula winners in all categories from 1965 onward, “Abouts” for the editor and cover artists, Jane Yolen’s intro, “About” for the Andre Norton Young Adult Novel award, and a self-congratulatory “About” for SFWA, as well as the Nebula Award itself.
Before I say anything about the story content in Nebula Award Showcase 2018 as a critic, let me speak as a purchaser of the book. And I can do that easily enough, because due to a complication, I had to buy the anthology myself in order to review it.
If you want an anthology of stories don’t buy this one. Complete stories are at best not all that much more than half the book.
And if what you want is science fiction, don’t bother buying it either—more than half the fiction in Nebula Award Showcase 2018 is fantasy by any reasonable criteria. This is still not yet literary consideration, but straight neutral journalism.
Fantasy now dominates the Nebula Awards originally created and awarded for decades by what was the Science Fiction Writers of America but is now no more. Fantasy now dominates the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The membership of SFWA. What that membership considers the best literature written by itself. What sells best. Or at least what SF publishers believe sells best, perhaps a double self-fulfilling prophecy—if that’s what the publishers believe, that’s what they want, and that’s what the writers have to take into account.
So much for consumer complaint and journalistic neutrality. But as a critic I’m not bound to that; criticism can’t help but be literary opinion. And speaking as such it is my opinion that what fiction there is in Nebula Award Showcase 2018 is not exactly of overwhelming literary quality. Nor are the short story winners necessarily as good as their runners up.
“The Long Fall Up” by William Ledbetter, which won the Nebula for novelette, was very well written, out-and-out science fiction that John W. Campbell would have happily published in Astounding. Knowingly or not, it is almost a homage to Tom Godwin’s classic “The Cold Equation.” It was hands down deserving of the award.
This, however, might be considered faint praise, considering the competing nominees. None of them were really science fiction. At best they were hodge-podges of fantasy and science fiction written by writers who didn’t seem to have a clear understanding of what made science fiction science fiction and fantasy fantasy, and can only fairly be called “SF,” or worse, “Sci-fi.” This is not to say that such stories cannot achieve literary quality—some of them are quite well written and even present interesting characters—but this sort of thing seems for the most part to also lack clear understanding of what the dramatic structure of a truly successful story has to build up to. Namely a psychological, plot, thematic, and moral epiphany.
The short story winner, “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” by Amal El-Mohtar, is more or less standard fantasy that doesn’t attempt to be anything else. Decently written but nowhere in the same league as more than one of the other nominees, the best of which is, “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station/Hours Since The Last Patient Death:0” by Caroline M. Yoachim, which manages to be straight science fiction, even hard SF, while also being sardonically funny at the same time.
With the exception of Sam J. Miller’s “Things With Beards,” which is a well told soft science fiction story with a satisfying epiphany, the rest of the nominees are fantasy of one kind or another, but not as successful as Miller’s losing nominee either.
When it comes to the Nebula for novella, what we have is first of all an incomprehensible outrage.
The winner is “Every Heart a Doorway,” by Seanan McGuire. This seems to be some kind of girls’ school fantasy, acceptably written, but I can’t tell you anything else about it because it’s an excerpt, apparently of the beginning. I therefore can’t judge how good, mediocre, or bad it is. But, great, good, mediocre or bad, ipso facto, it sure deserved to be published in full, not only for the writer’s sake, but also for the readers.
Okay, there was no way around excerpting All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders, the novel award winner. And at least from the excerpt, this seems to be a rather charming fantasy novel—maybe YA, at least in the beginning—about a young girl who rescues a wounded bird and earns entrance to a fantasy birdland that is not the one of Charlie Parker but that of a community of talking birds.
But the page space could surely have been freed by not printing the excerpt of the Andre Norton Award, Arabella of Mars by David A. Levine, which is not a Nebula, and which, to judge by the excerpt, is the worst piece of fiction in the book on several levels.
From what can be gathered from this excerpt, this is a take on, to be charitable, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars, which, considering what was not known about Mars at the time that he wrote it, could have been more or less science fiction, but which by now is out and out fantasy. Which is what Arabella of Mars certainly is. It seems to be some kind of deliberate homage, as witness the title, the Martian landscape, biosphere, culture, and even excerpts from Martian language.
Weirdly enough, Levine throws in a British colonialist Earthly steampunky background.
Okay, so a novel that didn’t at all deserve it in literary terms won a best novel award, certainly far from unique, no big deal. But there is something much more disturbing here. Levine seems to have no idea at all of the difference between fantasy and science fiction, or if he did just didn’t give a damn.
And this is a Young Adult novel. An excerpt of which is published in the Nebula Awards Showcase. Of the science fiction and fantasy writers of America. Whose membership presented it as the sort of fiction they would like to encourage Young Adults to be reading as “Sci-fi,” aka “SF” or even science fiction in an era when the difference between science fiction and fantasy, between reality and magic, is already all too hazy in even the consciousness of adults.
Anti-Robert Heinlein’s young adult novels to the max!
So what does Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 tell us about the state of what the membership of SFWA is writing, and what is the state of their art in the present and likely into the future?
It tells us that fantasy has long since come to dominate SF. It tells us that many or perhaps even a majority of these SF writers do not have the education or indeed the inclination to learn the difference between science fiction and fantasy and to dish the result out to a populace that has more than enough confusion about the difference between reality and magic already.
Before the fifteenth century or so, China was centuries ahead of the European culture and its science and technology, worldwide sea-faring trade armadas, literature, philosophic sophistication. The Chinese lacked only one thing, or if they had it, they lost it.
The consciousness of the concept that there was, or at the least that there should be, a possibility of positively evolving futures of everything, of the top species on this planet and beyond. Of the arts. Of the literature. Of science and technology. Of morality and consciousness.
And so China blew it.
And has perhaps only begun to recover from its lost centuries of looking backward.
There, but for fortune, go you and I?
Or maybe not.
The future you get is the future you make.
And I have long felt that I don’t like having to write things that leave readers more depressed than they were before they read them. As a journalist this can be a necessary public duty. As a writer of fiction I can simply choose not to do it. As any practitioner of the arts should be encouraged to do, if only because they can do it.
As a critic it gets a little dicey. Most of us have begun getting our rocks off tearing bad fiction apart; it’s so easy, it’s so much fun at the keyboard, but I like to think I have matured to the conclusion that to the extent that criticism is a hybrid of literature and journalism, it too is an art. And I find it better to light a hopeful candle than curse the gathering darkness.
So I am pleased and relieved to end this piece of necessary journalism for you by praising Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Moon.
Not that it’s perfect—what is? It could have been improved by some line-cutting of some of the descriptions, which sometimes seem like Robinson’s dipping a little too far into his slightly though admittedly deserved pride in masterfully describing almost everything that was germane to his story. We all do that once in a while—now don’t we?—but we certainly don’t all have the deeply sophisticated knowledge of as much as he does. Or maybe we could if we found it germane.
My partner Dona has forever told me, and not always appreciatively, “You think you know everything.”
And I tell her, “No, I don’t know everything, but in this internet age, I know how to find out anything I want to, and so can you, or anyone else.”
Including, of course, Kim Stanley Robinson. So whether he had to do a ton of homework or not is moot in the twenty-first century. Nor do I know whether he has spent considerable realtime in modern China. Nor does it matter, because Red Moon reads as if he has, and with deep but practical and sophisticated political street smarts.
And there is more than enough hard-core hard science fiction extrapolation to satisfy Gregory Benford, Robert Heinlein, Arthur Clarke, or even John W. Campbell. This is the real deal. Science fiction with a human face, as might have been said but wasn’t by Mao.
The timeframe is 2047. China has established the dominant colony on the Moon, though there are lesser colonies belonging to the Americans and others. Robinson, as usual, has speculated the technology in rigorous and believable detail. That there have been such advances in a mere forty years is more like hard science fiction wishful thinking, though. It’s all scientifically and technically possible and quite convincing, but that there are such advanced Lunar colonies on the Moon this quickly, while possible, is highly unlikely, alas. I think that Robinson must have known this, that squeezing the timeframe was a necessary bit of rubber science.
Because Red Moon is centrally a political novel about a future China, and this China may have advanced technically by leaps and bounds, but politically it has not changed from the current China of Xi Jinping. The Moon is not physically red, China is still the People’s Republic, the Communist Party still rules, and the plot of the story, its combination of actual Chinese history with Robinson’s speculative Chinese future, requires this compression.
The central character is Shan Qi, a so-called “Princess,” the daughter of a party official so high that she is a serious contender for party chairperson and president. Qi, however, a rebel in more than one sense, escapes to the Moon, gets pregnant, and is chased by more than one branch of the Communist Party apparatus, the politics of which is a permanent snake pit of competing powers.
Fred Fredricks is an innocent American who gets involved with her and therefore with the political machinations, intrigues, and skullduggery that surround her, or at least tries to.
Ta Shu is a wise old Feng Shui master cum poet cum video columnist who becomes involved with the two of them separately and then together.
AI6 is an artificial intelligence whose human master is trying to raise it to full consciousness.
These are the viewpoint characters, third person for Fred and Qi, third person part of the time for Ta Shu, but also his video columns, scripts, and poetry. The AI and its human teacher are in third person, or perhaps person-and-a-half.
This is a kind of spy-versus spy-thriller plotwise, but storywise it is much more. It is a personal novel whose characters and their relationships change and grow, to the point where Fred ends up having to aid Qi’s giving birth as a midwife, as psychologically sophisticated a scene as I have ever read, and possibly that’s ever been written.
Robinson goes deep in modern Chinese history, from Sun Yat Sen all the way to Xi Jinping and then seamlessly into his speculative China of 2047, which is still the People’s Republic of China—and still ruled by the Communist Party which has ruled as a bureaucratic dictatorship from 1947, the year of Mao’s final victory—on into Robinson’s fictional future.
The novel’s extrapolated future is not only masterful in terms of technology, culture, and physical description, but amazingly even-handed in Robinson’s Chinese Communist Party’s internal politics, which, in 2047, are the only Chinese politics, and both the thematic center of Red Moon and the personal stories of his characters. Nor are the querulous cabals and Communist politicians vying for power within it treated as comic book villains, nor is the revolution of one billion downtrodden Chinese outside the three hundred million middle class championed by Qi out not to overthrow the Party but to seek economic and political justice by reforming it.
Red Moon is that current rarity, a hard-core science fiction novel with historical and speculative street smarts to the max, an exciting action plot evolving from it with an emotionally sophisticated personal story.
This is a science fiction novel for sophisticated adults, a gamble by Kim Stanley Robinson that there are enough of them within the genre to keep such fiction economically viable and writers such as Robinson unashamed to admit membership in SFWA.
Compare this with what has been awarded Nebulas by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and what Nebula Awards Showcase 2018 reveals all too clearly as the current state of its membership and the state of their art. The literary inheritors of John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, what this very magazine is trying to maintain in his name, and novels like Red Moon.
Which side are you on?
Copyright © 2019 Norman Spinrad