Author Jeannette Ng labeled the late sci-fi author John W. Campbell as a “fascist” during her acceptance speech after winning the award bearing his name at the 2019 Hugo Awards ceremony.
According to the John W. Campell Award website, this award is “given to the best new science fiction or fantasy writer whose first work of science fiction or fantasy was published in a professional publication in the previous two years” and is named after influential sci-fi author John W. Campbell, whose works include Cloak of Aesir, Islands of Space, and Who Goes There? (which served as the basis for John Carpenter’s horror classic, The Thing). This year, the award was presented to author Jeannette Ng, and during her acceptance speech, she had some choice words regarding Campbell’s legacy, most notably opening her speech by claiming Campbell was a fascist:
“John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist. Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists. Yes, I am aware there are exceptions.
But these bones, we have grown wonderful, ramshackle genre, wilder and stranger than his mind could imagine or allow.
And I am so proud to be part of this. To share with you my weird little story, an amalgam of all my weird interests, so much of which has little to do with my superficial identities and labels.
But I am a spinner of ideas, of words, as Margaret Cavendish would put it.”
Ng also used the opportunity to express her solidarity with the protestors in Hong Kong currently staging anti-government protests:
“So I need say, I was born in Hong Kong. Right now, in the most cyberpunk in the city in the world, protesters struggle with the masked, anonymous stormtroopers of an autocratic Empire. They have literally just held her largest illegal gathering in their history. As we speak they are calling for a horological revolution in our time. They have held laser pointers to the skies and tried to to impossibly set alight the stars. I cannot help be proud of them, to cry for them, and to lament their pain.
I’m sorry to drag this into our fantastical words, you’ve given me a microphone and this is what I felt needed saying.”
Ng’s assessment of Campbell is undoubtedly informed by Campbell’s personal politics and beliefs and those who have written about him. Campbell argued that African-Americans were “barbarians” deserving of police brutality during the 1965 Watts Riots, as “the “brutal” actions of police consist of punishing criminal behavior.” His unpublished story All featured such racist elements that author Robert Heinlein, who built upon Campbell’s original story for his own work titled Sixth Column, had to “reslant” the story before publishing it. In the aftermath of the Kent State massacre, when speaking of the demonstrators murdered by the Ohio National Guard, Campbell stated that “I’m not interested in victims. I’m interested in heroes.” While difficult to presume where Campbell’s beliefs would place him in modern politics, it is apparent that Campbell would disagree with many of the beliefs held by modern America.
Ng’s speech unsurprisingly caused backlash and outrage among some members of the literary community, with some claiming that Ng should have withheld from insulting the man whose award she was receiving. Sci-fi author John Scalzi points out, it is sometimes possible, and important, to acknowledge the problematic beliefs of an author whilst simultaneously recognizing their influence and works. He does go on to claim that Campbell forged racism into the structure of the science fiction genre.
“And what I think is: Hey, you know what? Campbell, aside from everything else he might have been, was a racist and a sexist and as time went on pretty deeply way the hell out there, and from his lofty perch he was able to shape the genre into what he thought it should be, in a way that still influences how people write science fiction — for f***’s sake, I write science fiction in an essentially Campbellian manner, and it would be foolish for me to suggest otherwise.
Do those bigoted aspects about about Campbell make him an actual fascist? Well, I wouldn’t have characterized him as such, but then never thought to think of it in those terms, so there’s that. Now that I have been made to think of it, I know that the people and organizations I would have unhesitatingly called fascist actively incorporated the mechanisms of American racism into their worldview. It’s not exactly a secret that the actual Nazis looked to the United States’ “Jim Crow” laws for inspiration and justification for their own racism and, ultimately, genocide. American racism — the racism that Campbell both actively and passively forged into the structure of the science fiction genre — is at the very least an ur-text to fascism, and of course racism is so deeply ingrained into fascism today, and vice versa, that you couldn’t separate the one from the other without killing both, which, incidentally, is a very good idea.”