Wednesday, July 31, 2019

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

Welcome back to Reading the Hugos: 2019 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.

It is not unusual to have some overlap year to year, but a cursory glance through the last several decades of finalists suggests that it is unusual for four of the finalists to be the same from the previous year. With that in mind, I am going to recycle some of my thoughts from last year, making minor changes where appropriate.

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

Katherine Arden
S.A. Chakraborty
R.F. Kuang
Jeannette Ng
Vina Jie-Min Prasad
Rivers Solomon

Jeannette Ng: Ng is one of four 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.

Vina Jie-Min Prasad: Prasad is on the Campbell ballot on the strength of four stories. Two of them, "A Series of Steaks" and "Fandom For Robots" were finalists last year for the Hugo Awards for Novelette and Short Story, respectfully. "Portrait of Skull with Man" (Fireside Fiction, 2017) and "Pistol Grip" (Uncanny, 2018) were not Hugo Award finalists.

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 four stories stronger than the single novels of Rivers Solomon, Jeannette Ng, R.F. Kuang, and S.A. Chakraborty or the two eligible novels from Katherine Arden?

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, the story from Fireside is a trippy bit of goodness, and I really have no idea what to say about "Pistol Grip". The stories are all high quality, but for this award, I'm not sure that they truly measure up to the best of the novels.

Katherine Arden: Arden is eligible for the Campbell following the publication of her novels The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl and the Tower. 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 City of Brass 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.

S.A. Chakraborty: Oh, how I regret having waited so long to read City of Brass. The novel had been on the periphery of my attention since it was published in 2017 and I'm not sure if I would have picked it up if not for Chakraborty making the Campbell ballot this year. I would have missed out. City of Brass is a spectacular debut and is damn near an instant favorite. Chakraborty blends 18th century Cairo with fantasy, the magic of the djinn are very real and there is a culture at war with itself and sometimes with the human world. I don't have the words to describe City of Brass in a way that the beauty of the novel comes across as deeply as it hit me from the start. Chakraborty's writing is smooth as silk and it draws the reader in to one hell of a story.

City of Brass would have been on my Hugo ballot had I read it upon publication, but I appreciate that I have this one more opportunity to recognize Chakraborty's novel. S.A. Chakraborty is a novelist to watch and I'll be there for this year's Kingdom of Copper (not eligible for consideration as part of Chakraborty's Campbell nomination, if you're more fortunate than me and have already read it).

R.F. Kuang: The age of a writer has no particular bearing on her ability to produce outstanding work nor does it say much about the amount of time that writer has put into learning her craft. A writer in her fifties may have only one or two years into developing as a writer while a writer in her twenties may have been writing every day for more than a decade and working to improve and tell better stories. Which is to say that I did a small amount of research to figure out who the youngest winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer was out of curiosity. R.F. Kuang was 22 when The Poppy War was published and when the Hugo / Campbell Award finalists were announced. She is now 23. As near as I can tell, the youngest winner of the Campbell was Lisa Tuttle, who was 21 when she tied Spider Robinson in the voting for the Campbell in 1974 (though I *think* E Lily Yu was fairly young when she won in 2012) . This really isn’t much more than an interesting data point because there is no one path to professional publication and the window for a Campbell nomination is so small for a writer to get noticed. It’s the sort of trivia I find interesting, if not particularly meaningful.

The Poppy War is an extraordinarily accomplished novel. It has echoes of a coming of age story set in a military academy, except that your average coming of age story doesn’t go a fraction as hard as R.F. Kuang goes with The Poppy War. Kuang is unrelenting. When I wrote about the novel in wrapping up my Top 9 Books of 2018, I wrote that “there’s a very real sense of ‘if this is what I did to get here, what do you think I’ll do to stay here?’ It’s brutal from the start.” That also means that even the part of the book that is about training and school is flipped on its head when the hinted war breaks out. At that point The Poppy War almost feels like two different novels, similar to how Full Metal Jacket plays out. It’s a difficult task to decide between R.F. Kuang and Rivers Solomon as the “Best New Writer”, though that difficulty is definitive of how good the new class of writers coming up is and I can’t wait to see what Kuang (and Solomon) have in store for us in the coming years.

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. R.F. Kuang
3. S.A. Chakraborty
4. Katherine Arden
5. Vina Jie-Min Prasad
6. Jeannette Ng

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Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 3x Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.