Monday, July 16, 2018

Reading the Hugos: John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos: 2018 Edition! Today we're going to look at the writers up for the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

I know. I know. The Campbell is "Not a Hugo". It is only "administered" by the World Science Fiction Society. It is sponsored by Dell Magazines. But, beyond those technicalities, I'm not sure I really care much about the distinction. It's not a Hugo. It's totally a Hugo. It's not a Hugo.

The Campbell is an award for a writer whose "first work of science fiction or fantasy was published in a professional publication in the previous two years." See here for eligibility rules, but it mostly follows the SFWA definition of professional publication or professional rates above a nominal fee. With the vagaries of publication, short story writers can be somewhat disadvantaged if they get one story published professionally and then years pass before they are truly noticed or place additional stories. Novels often make larger splashes, even if there is only one published in the eligibility window.

Writers like Rebecca Roanhorse have more of an uphill fight since she only has the one story published last year. That one story needs to make a huge splash.

Let's see how big of splash everyone has made over the last two years. It's a weird category.

Katherine Arden 
Sarah Kuhn
Jeannette Ng 
Vina Jie-Min Prasad 
Rebecca Roanhorse 
Rivers Solomon 

Jeannette Ng: Ng is one of two writers on the Campbell ballot on the back of a single novel, which for a novelist is not necessarily unusual because there is only a two year eligibility window. Under the Pendulum Sun is Ng's debut novel. In Victorian England, a missionary who journeyed to the realm of faerie in order to proselytize and bring the fae to Christ, has disappeared. Catherine Helstone, his sister, undertakes her own search of faerie and the estate of Gethsemane to find him.

Under the Pendulum Sun is beautifully written and atmospheric as hell. The weight and weirdness of Arcadia shines through on every page. The novel feels Victorian without bogging the reader down with faux Victorian prose. The only problem, and this is quite clearly my problem and not Ng's is that there is something about the novel that I struggled to engage with and care about. There was a distance growing between me and Under the Pendulum Sun and it wasn't one I cared enough to overcome. It's a weird dichotomy, understanding the novel is a beautifully written piece of fiction and still not being able to fully appreciate it. Even so, that's where I'm at with this.

Rebecca Roanhorse: Rebecca Roanhorse has only published one eligible story over the last two years and it's "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience". It's a major, important story. I wrote about it when discussing the short story finalists. While it didn't take the top spot on my ballot for that category, I noted that it marked the arrival of a major new talent and that Roanhorse is an author to watch.

That's where the Campbell is an interesting and a difficult category. We are only evaluating the writers based on their work during the previous two years, so we can't consider Roanhorse's debut novel Trail of Lightning even though those who have read it can't help but factor it in. Where the Campbell gets tricky is that there is an aspect to the category that makes me want to think about what the work of the last two years says about the writer's potential for the future. It's a forward looking category even though it only looks at the work of the past two years.

So I only have one story to work with here, but it's a damn good one. It's a story I'd rather read several times than I would read, say, Under the Pendulum Sun a single time. Novels and short stories aren't at all the same thing and if not for this category, it would be folly to compare them or to compare writers working in different forms.

Vina Jie-Min Prasad: Prasad is on the Campbell ballot on the strength of three stories: "A Series of Steaks" and "Fandom For Robots" are finalists for the Hugo Awards for Novelette and Short Story, respectfully. "Portrait of Skull with Man" was published at Fireside Fiction and is not on the Hugo ballot, which is not all that remarkable. It's much more remarkable to have a single author with more than one story on the ballot and even yet moreso for those stories to be almost the entirety of the writer's published output (Rebecca Roanhorse is another example of this, with one published story at the time of being a Campbell finalist).

It continues to be a difficult and uncomfortable thing to compare and rack and stack writers against each other. The stories, yes, but this is an award for Best New Writer. Are Prasad's three stories better than Roanhorse's one, and how do those stories compare to the single novel of Rivers Solomon or the two novels of Sarah Kuhn?

That's the real challenge here. Both of the Hugo finalist stories are quite good and show an author I want to follow and read more from, and the story from Fireside is a trippy bit of goodness. Does that make Prasad a "better" writer than Roanhorse? Probably not. But in comparing the writer of three stories against the writer of one, it does show that Prasad's skill across multiple stories. If Roanhorse and Prasad both make the ballot next year, we may have a different comparison because Roanhorse will also have an eligible novel out by then an we'll be able to see how she works in a longer form. But for now, Prasad get the nod.

Katherine Arden: Arden is eligible for the Campbell following the 2017 publication of her novel The Bear and the Nightingale. Comparatively, it is more similar to Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun in that the prose is more deliberate and beautiful on a sentence level than Heroine Complex or An Unkindness of Ghosts. That’s the only worthwhile comparison to the other novels because they are all so different in tone and function and story and emotion. The Bear and the Nightingale touches on Russian folklore and is a tight family story mostly set in remote regions of Russia.

I absolutely want to see more from Katherine Arden (and hey, she’s written two more books in the Winternight sequence that began with The Bear and the Nightingale). She’s an author to watch and follow and I’m as excited to read The Girl in the Tower as I am to see what she’s doing ten years from now. The Bear and the Nightingale is the announcement of a major new talent. It’s a slow burn of a novel, but it pays off and it sucks you in. Arden could so easily trade places with Sarah Kuhn on my ballot, but as of today, this is where I’m ranking her (which, as noted, is an impossible fool’s errand).

Sarah Kuhn:  Sarah Kuhn has two eligible novels, Heroine Complex and Heroine Worship (the third volume in the series, Heroine's Journey, was published this year). I'm basing my thoughts / placement on the ballot on Heroine Complex since I'm simply not going to have enough time to read Heroine Worship before voting closes.

Kuhn's been on my radar since Heroine Complex was published. The novel is set in a modern day San Francisco which, as far I can tell, is just like what San Francisco is like today except that random demon portals open and spew out minor demons that are then vanquished by super heroine Aveda Jupiter. So - just like the regular world. There are other low level super heroes around. Nobody is on the proper level of Wonder Woman, Wolverine, or Captain Marvel. The powers aren't that epic. The story, however, is. It's a wonder and a delight.

Kuhn's writing is punchy and compelling and I loved reading about Evie Tanaka impersonating Aveda Jupiter (who also happens to be her childhood friend), her adventures / misadventures, her romance. It's just so smooth and (seemingly) effortless. I was hooked early on and I immediately wanted to read Heroine Worship right away. Unfortunately, I was three hours away from my house, without an internet connection, and nowhere near a bookstore. The point being, Sarah Kuhn is fantastic and I can't wait to read more. It was exceedingly tough to decide how to slot Sarah Kuhn and Katherine Arden on my ballot. Kuhn got the edge simply because I am more excited to read the next Sarah Kuhn novel right this moment and I want to savor Arden's writing and take longer breaks between books.

Rivers Solomon: Solomon is here on the strength of An Unkindness of Ghosts, a debut that is as much a novel as it is a statement and announcement of arrival. I have long loved the concept and often the execution of a generation ship, but I have never read anything quite like An Unkindness of Ghosts. It is not uncommon to read a generation ship novel that focuses on the divide between the more affluent privileged class and the poor workers living in squalor in the underbelly on the ship. It is uncommon to read a generation ship novel that takes that conceit and drives a knife straight in the gut by running the ship like a plantation. The white overseers are in the upper decks and have significantly greater freedom and luxury. The darker skinned workers are exploited, stigmatized, and brutalized for their very existence.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a deeply uncomfortable novel to read, but every time I put the book down for the night I immediately wanted to pick it up and keep reading deep into the night. Solomon describes their novel as "a science fiction meditation on trans-generational trauma, race, and identity" and if you take that into the novel, you can see what they are doing. Slavery and trans-generation trauma is central to the storytelling of Unkindess of Ghosts, but so is that idea of identity. Through the generational trauma, so much family and personal histories have been lost. Characters barely know who their parents were, let alone grandparents or farther back. More, Solomon's writing of their protagonist, Aster, is so vital and central to the novel. Aster's voice and characterization of a neurologically atypical narrator is so incredibly well done and distinctive that it is almost impossible to imagine the novel written any other way.

An Unkindness of Ghosts is an almost impossibly accomplished and incredible novel and marks Rivers Solomon as an essential writer to watch.

My Vote
1. Rivers Solomon
2. Sarah Kuhn
3. Katherine Arden
4. Vina Jie-Min Prasad
5. Rebecca Roanhorse
6. Jeannete Ng

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POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.