I admit it—I like ridiculous titles.
The Internet has been atwitter (pun intended) with a hullaballoo that seems to me will be a tempest in a teapot to all but writers, editors, and publishers. However, much of the curated content on the Internet involves writers, editors, and publishers, so the peripheral science fiction literary cognoscenti will also be subjected to it. I’m going to use the controversy to make a statement that will be way less controversial but likely of interest to some.
Norman Spinrad. I loved Bug Jack Baron as well as many of his short stories. But now he’s gone on record as saying all writers are Campbellian, implying criticism of the recent change in name of a major science fiction award. This award no longer honors Campbell, a racist, right-wing kook who was, nonetheless, the defining editor in science fiction’s Golden Age (40s/50s/early 60s).
Rather than start by repeating what’s all over the Internet to explain what Campbellian science fiction is, let me interject a few personal anecdotes. Two weeks ago, I was in attendance at a panel of a con where one of the writers had said he was more of a literary than a genre writer. As such, since the audience was tiny, I threw out a question I thought the panel would enjoy answering: is literary writing style ever acceptable in genre fiction? The semicolon-infused, multi-page sentences of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, the endless commas of parts of David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System—both were done wonderfully, in my humble opinion. Both capture the voice of a character and establish his idiosyncrasies. But in genre fiction? A simultaneous “yes” came from him and an editor on the panel from a major speculative fiction venue. She elaborated: “yes” if you are selling to Tor or Tom Doherty; “no” if you are selling to Baen. In other words, there are a diversity of editors/publishers, and literary writing is acceptable in genre fiction to some but not others.
Straightforward writing was a hallmark of Campbellian science fiction in the day. I’d argue it isn’t the defining feature of current-day Campbellian science fiction, because authors who call themselves Campbellian have gone in both directions.
Next anecdote: I sold two stories to markets on the SFWA pre-approved list recently. I turned around and sent a second submission to one of those publishers who rejected it. I had the opportunity to ask what the editor meant by it not being the “type of thing they publish.” She referred me to what she called the “Marion Zimmer Bradley formula for successful fiction: “A LIKABLE CHARACTER overcomes ALMOST INSUPERABLE ODDS and BY HIS OR HER OWN EFFORTS achieves a WORTHWHILE GOAL." My first story, after the changes required by the editor, fit that formula. My second one didn’t. The protagonist who reaches his/her goal by their own efforts was a key feature of Campbellian science fiction.
I rarely write that sort of character. Indeed, both the sale I mentioned to another venue and the rejected story had protagonists who only indirectly affected the outcome of the story. The difference reminds me of 19th-century arguments between the “great men” theory of history and the Spencerian idea that leaders arise from their times and are in no way unique. Indeed, a theme of one of those stories was splitting the difference on this idea—that an individual’s actions may be consequential but that they arise out of a social context, have meaning only in that social context, and the consequences might have arisen otherwise.
Yep, I need to send that one to a different market. A non-Campbellian market. Like the one where I made another recent sale, which had asked for literary and transgressive speculative fiction.
Still one more personal anecdote: at WorldCon in 2016, I roomed with an ex-punk rock drummer who still sported two-toned hair and a partially shaved head. When we hit the convention floor, he turned to me and remarked upon how surprised he was that so many people were “showing their freak flag.” It was at the waning of the Puppies controversy and in the early days of the “own voices” movement. Diverse perspectives were the mantra of the day. No more would science fiction be about cis, het, white males and their quests that dominated Golden Age fiction.
And yet, I’ve seen “own voices” writers calling themselves Campbellian. I don’t think this issue defines the current use of the term.
And then there’s politics. Campbelll was a hardcore libertarian, as was one of his two most notable writers, Heinlein. Asimov, the other one, wasn’t, although he was vocal in his opposition to the New Left, calling them crazy. Campbellian fiction certainly attracts its share of libertarian readers.
However, Kim Stanley Robinson, one of my favorites and also highly praised in Spinrad’s column, is a socialist, but he still sells well in those circles. John Scalzi, a noted liberal, has also recently called himself Campbellian. Perhaps it is the focus on science and engineering—hard science fiction—where the protagonist is often a scientist or engineer, that lends itself well to the protagonist playing a central role in solving a major problem. With science!!!
Those who view science fiction as asking not just any sort of “What if?” question but specifically those of technological change and the societal reaction to it lean Campbellian by Spinrad’s definition. Certainly, Robinson falls under this rubric.
So, at least in my head (and I’d be happy to entertain discussion on my Facebook page) the editors/publishers who consider themselves Campbellian are looking for something that fits the Marion Zimmer Bradley formula, period, and although stories with scientist/engineer protagonists are easy to bend in that direction, that’s not a required characteristic to be Campbellian.
Campbellian stories also tended to have an upbeat and hopeful attitude. I have no problem with hope—I tend to be a hopeful person. However, when hope grades into Pollyannaish reactionary tendencies, the cynic in me kicks in. I will never be published in any solarpunk venue. I went to the solarpunk meetup at this year’s NASFIC. I was hoping to see a way to get my realistic albeit hopeful climate fiction sold. I’d been stymied by the insistence of avowedly solarpunk venues on hope—science saving the day, as in the Golden Age. I’d expected to see some daylight, a crack into which I could wedge a story that admits the world is somewhat fucked, albeit perhaps manageably fucked if action now can forestall the worst parts of the climate catastrophe.
Nope. All true believers. All had drunk the Kool-Aid. You couldn’t possibly sell them on a story idea in which technology would not solve all problems.
My mood vacillates on these issues, as do my stories. One anthology editor to whom I’d sold expressed surprise that I’d also sold to one of his buddies, as he likes upbeat, hopeful pieces, and the buddy likes dark stuff. Well, the buddy had told me to write dark. I can do dark. The story I sold the first guy had been written off as “twee” by a critique partner who preferred my darker side.
I guess I’ll need to bury the darkness when I’m trying to sell to avowedly Campbelliian venues.
Last issue: Campbellian stories were largely linear in their narrative. Some of my favorite recent science fiction stories have been nonlinear—parallel storylines, where the author flips back and forth; frame stories; stories told from present back to past; etc. Can a story be Campbellian and nonlinear? Or is that too artsy-fartsy? I have a nonlinear story in mind that I may choose to submit to the avowedly Campbellian publisher. If I do that, even granting that n equals one, I think I’ll gain insights.
On the other hand, if the publisher currently considering it, who doesn’t appear to give a hoot whether a story is Campbellian or not, accepts it, I won’t regret deferring my experiment.