John W. Campbell Memorial Award

This is getting ridiculous. Recent winners of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award include Richard Morgan’s Market Forces (which beat among other things Geoff Ryman’s Air) and Robert J. Sawyer’s Mindscan (which beat among other things Charle Stross’ Accelerando, Ian R. MacLeod’s The Summer Isles, and David Marusek’s Counting Heads). This year, the shortlist included Nova Swing by M. John Harrison, Living Next-Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson, Glasshouse by Charles Stross, Farthing by Jo Walton, and Blindsight by Peter Watts. So what wins?

Titan by Ben Bova

The Campbell’s claim to be “one of the three major annual awards for science fiction” is looking increasingly tenuous, to put it mildly.

In fact, the list of results (the runners-up are announced along with the winner), according to Jo Walton, is:

1. Titan by Ben Bova
2. The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow
3= Farthing by Jo Walton
3= Blindsight by Peter Watts

I admit, I have not read Titan. Nor, so far as I can tell, has it been widely reviewed; in fact, the only substantive review I can find is this one, which isn’t exactly encouraging. I disagree with many of the reviewer’s assumptions, but I’m still dispirited by the descriptions — “in essence, a re-working of Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey … The characterization and social dimensions are facile … there are authors turning out better space stories”. According to Amazon, Publisher’s Weekly said “The novel resolves the many personal conflicts in a flurry of silly political maneuvers as old as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata—bring ’em to heel by denying ’em sex—but the result is not half as entertaining or so thought provoking.” I will leave you the dubious pleasure of wading through the “search inside the book” excerpt yourself, but it seems representative of my previous encounters with Ben Bova’s work, and that’s not a good thing. I would be fascinated to see Tiptree Award-style statements from the judges explaining what value they saw in the book.

EDIT: Paul Di Filippo quite liked it — “Bova is intent on carrying forward the core mandate of SF: showing us a likely future we can actually attain” — though he still doesn’t make it sound like it’s in the same league as most of the rest of the nominees.

Coincidentally, Paul Kincaid has the first installment of a new column, Science Fiction Skeptic, at Bookslut today, and he writes:

All awards attract controversy; it’s what they do. If an award is worth its salt, it generates debate, and the usual controversy is just the more frenetic end of that debate.

He’s not talking about the Campbell Award, he’s talking about the Clarke Award. And to an extent, he’s right. And juried awards — of which the Campbell is one; the people responsible for this decision are Gregory Benford, Paul A. Carter, James Gunn, Elizabeth Anne Hull, Christopher McKitterick, Farah Mendlesohn, Pamela Sargent, and T.A. Shippey — probably invite it more than voted awards. But this result doesn’t look like a controversy; it looks like a joke.

Posted in Awards, SF. 33 Comments »

33 Responses to “John W. Campbell Memorial Award”

  1. Jason M. Robertson Says:

    This is probably a terrible thing for me to do, but let’s see how it turns out.

    Gregory Benford, born 1941
    Paul A. Carter, born 1926 (per WorldCat entry for his book)
    James Gunn, born 1923
    Elizabeth Anne Hull, born 1937 (per WorldCat entry for thesis)
    Christopher McKitterick, born 1967
    Farah Mendlesohn, dob uncertain, though probably of the younger set
    Pamela Sargent, born 1948
    Tom Shippey, born 1943

    So assuming Mendlesohn is youngish that makes two people under fifty? Removing Mendlesohn that’s an average age of 66. I’m assuming Mendlesohn would knock off a few years, so the jury is on average only almost normatively retired, not actually there.

    I’m sure individually everyone there’s swell, but a jury process that gets you that age distribution may produce results informed strongly by their formative times.

  2. Drakkenfyre Says:

    Why don’t you wait until you actually read Titan before you say it’s not worthy of winning the Campbell?

    But then, we do have different tastes in books, you and I. I thought Accelerando was pretentious, impenetrable verbiage, and simply a kludge of loosely connected stories; while I found Mindscan to be far more accessible and thematically relevant, and that it had much more to say about the nature of the human condition.

    There have been Campbell winners I’ve scratched my head over, but I do think the stature of the jurors overrides my lesser opinion.

  3. Graham Says:

    I haven’t yet read Titan, and don’t want to comment on this year’s award till I’ve done so; and I take Paul’s point that, within reason, awards that generate debate and even controversy are good. But the pattern of decisions that the Campbell has made over the last few years is several steps beyond that. Titan will have to be exceptionally good to convince me this is not an award devalued beyond the point where we should pay attention to it.

  4. Niall Says:

    Drakkenfyre:

    Why don’t you wait until you actually read Titan before you say it’s not worthy of winning the Campbell?

    Because this post was a gut reaction, and the previous few years of results give me no faith that my gut is wrong. I did go and read the extract on Amazon and, as I said, found it Not Good.

    Jason:

    You probably have a point there. And there’s a place for an award that advocates that sort of core sf; the problem is, I don’t think the Campbell is doing a very good job even on those terms.

  5. james Says:

    In general I am all for debate about awards, and who won, we all have differing opinions and I think debate and discussion is a natural result of any group deciding a particular work is better than another.

    I thought awards were to recognise good work and the choice should be a genuine reflection of a decision that the work is the best, now if some people are unhappy about that decision and it creates controversy that’s good.

    Its interesting though that an award is not worth its salt if many people sagely nod agreement that the best book won, and people feel that due recognition is accorded.

    If a caveat of an award is to create debate and controversy, where does the importance of the work being the best get relegated or pushed to?
    Is it still the most important factor, or is it just part of it.

    is this choice best novel or most thought inducing choice as best novel.

    generally I hope all judges genuinely felt this was the best novel, than one can disagree with their choice, but makes it a bit of a sham if its just to stir up discussion.

    J

  6. Jason M. Robertson Says:

    I wasn’t trying to indicate that Titan comprises ‘core sf’ myself, I think that target moves and generally we should move with it, or go ahead and move it ourselves as our dispositions and thoughts inform us to. I guess I think Titan might be more comfortable and recognizable. Besides, if the jury was looking for ‘core sf’ I think Sun of Suns would have knocked their socks off. I am another person saying this out of some manner of ignorance, not having read Titan, but there doesn’t seem to be a single advocate for considering the book award material either.

  7. Martin McGrath Says:

    So I was going to say “Jesus, isn’t life too short to be reading books by Ben Bova?” and then I thought no, even though I remember hating Winds of Altair and The Multiple Man when I was a kid, everyone deserves a fair crack of the whip. So I’ve ordered Titan and will say nothing more until I’ve read it – though life seems briefer already.

  8. Rich Horton Says:

    You know, I enjoy Ben Bova’s recent books — those I’ve read. (Which, I need to admit, doesn’t include Titan.) But I don’t love them — they’re fast reads, mind candy, fun but not in any sense brilliant.

    Definitely not worthy of “Best Novel of the Year” award. Titan might theoretically be different, but I sure doubt it.

    (And Mindscan is DEFINITELY crap! I think people are fooled by Sawyer’s books because he appears to attack interesting ideas — the problem is, he attacks these ideas so damn shallowly! (Not to mention the plot and characterization absurdities of Mindscan.) (Rollback, I will say, is better — but not award quality.)

    In a year in which Blindsight, Farthing, and Nova Swing were on the shortlist — not to mention not quite successful but still interesting novels like Rainbows End and Glasshouse — and also not to mention a purely fun and still very interesting SF adventure novel like Sun of Suns — the award to Titan sure looks like a bad joke — pending, I concede, my actual reading of the book.

  9. Drakkenfyre Says:

    Niall:

    I look forward to hearing what you have to say after you’ve read it, to see if your gut feeling about it matches what you read in the text.

    And Rich:

    Just because you don’t get it, doesn’t make it crap. ;) And I predict that Rollback will be nominated for at least the Hugo this year.

  10. Martin Says:

    Just because you don’t get it, doesn’t make it crap. ;)

    Where does Rich say he doesn’t get it?

  11. Jonathan M Says:

    If the award’s all about “core SF” then what are Farthing and Last Witchfinder doing not just on the short-list but in the final 4?

  12. Niall Says:

    “Core SF” was probably the wrong term to introduce into the discussion, because Jason’s right, “Core” is a moving target (or even a dissolving target). “Traditional SF” would probably be better.

    Jonathan: And that keeps happening. Last year’s runners-up, Spin and The Summer Isles; the year before, Air and The Time-Traveler’s Wife. It looks like a majority of the jury (which I believe is the same year-to-year, or largely the same) have strong tastes in one direction, and thus keep picking the winner, and a minority of the jury have strong tastes in another direction, and thus keep getting represented in the runners-up. I could easily be wrong — god knows most people’s attempts to decode this year’s Clarke list were wrong — but given the consistent pattern, that would be my guess.

  13. Graham Says:

    I’m now a significant chunk of the way through Titan, and my current feeling is that both PdF’s review and the Amazon one were excessively generous. I know that at least one of the Campbell jurors reads this blog, so I wonder if any of them would like to provide some rationale behind their decision?

  14. Drakkenfyre Says:

    Martin:

    Calling something “crap,” just because it is not to your personal taste, is not getting it. I’m not a fan of either Stross or Miéville’s work, but I know enough to not go around the internet saying their works are “crap.” They are just not to my taste, and I can recognize that.

    Back to the main conversation, awards juries certainly do have their particular tastes, too, and they reward them. However, it’s always a little disheartening to see a jury’s tastes so far out of alignment with your own, as seems to be developing in the case of Titan and the Campbells. I’ve felt frustration over this, too. I work at a publishing company that publishes titles in a wide range of genres. There are certain kinds of books that are “awards bait,” and there are certain kinds that are ignored by awards committees. But I do always try to give awards committees the benefit of the doubt, as it is certainly a thankless job.

  15. Hannah Says:

    >Calling something “crap,” just because it is not to your personal taste, is not getting it.

    What makes you think that Rich’s objection is “just” that it’s “not to [his] personal taste”? Seems to me he lists several that go beyond that:

    “…he attacks these ideas so damn shallowly! (Not to mention the plot and characterization absurdities…)”

    Now, you could of course argue that shallow and absurd are in the eye of the beholder, etc. But Rich is certainly up to more than you’re giving him credit for.

  16. Liz Says:

    I am uneasy about judging the value of awards based on whether they come up with the winner I expect when I haven’t read all the nominees. I find it unlikely that I would think that Titan is a better book than Blindsight or The Last Witchfinder, and there is a reason I haven’t read anything by Bova for years, but I don’t feel I can conclusively call the jury a bunch of wrongheads until I have actually seen the book.

    I can say that based on the choices of the past couple of years, the judges are certainly a country mile of out step with my own tastes and I’m not going to be rushing out to read anything they pick as a winner, which makes the award no use to me whatsoever.

    As to whether the jury should provide a rationale behind the decision, it would be nice to hear about why they liked Titan, but I don’t think they are under an obligation to tell me why they selected that book any more than the Clarke jury should be made to tell me why they pick what they do.

  17. Niall Says:

    In defence of my intemperance, I did deliberately say it looks like a joke, not it is a joke. It was the combination of (a) an author I don’t rate, (b) a shortlist I mostly do rate, (c) not being able to find a positive review and (d) knowing the Campbell’s track record that pushed me over the edge. (In fact, I was expecting Sun of Suns to take it — wouldn’t have been my pick, but it seemed to best demonstrate the vitues the Campbell jury is sympathetic to.)

    As for talking about award-winners, yeah. There’s no obligation. But I wonder if I can find an email address for James Gunn to ask him …

  18. Jason M. Robertson Says:

    I’m glad that we both see Sun of Suns as holding the high ground within the virtues the Campbell jury would seem to be advocating. I do think there is a great deal to recommend juries talking about and explaining what they saw in the titles that win. Certainly the fact that this little blogospheric kerfuffle has not turned up a single person willing to take the stand and attest to Titan’s character for the defense, seems awfully damning. Yet Titan’s victory seems to imply that at least a handful of individuals who should be disposed to mount such a defense do exist.

  19. Martin Says:

    Calling something “crap,” just because it is not to your personal taste, is not getting it.

    But he didn’t say that at all. He said it is crap because the ideas are shallowly examined and the plot and characterization are absurdity. This is very different to mischaracterisation of him. I am perfectly happy to go around the internet calling things crap if I think I can justify the claim and clearly so is he.

    Oh, I see Hannah has said all this already.

  20. Rich Horton Says:

    I certainly think I ought to be allowed to call a book which I have read “crap”. I might be wrong — you are certainly allowed to disagree with me, and to say why — but I ought to be able to say so. And I’ve read a lot of Sawyer — often with some enjoyment, I will say. (It is very possible for me to enjoy a book and still find it unworthy of an award, by the way.) Mindscan, I thought, was one of his weaker efforts, one reason I was so surprised it won the Campbell.

    At any rate, I have reviewed Mindscan, though it’s understandable that most people won’t have seen the review, which I posted in a couple of places online. Probably there is a much better way to represent this URL, but anyway, here is a pointer to the Google Groups version of my rec.arts.sf.written post which includes a longer review of Mindscan. (I could have gone on at greater length about what’s wrong with the book, too.) The URL: .

    Niall’s already made this point, but to me the most interesting thing about the award list is the dichotomy — in both quality (in my opinion) and style (and I don’t think this is an “opinion” but rather fairly obvious fact) between the winner and the runners-up.

  21. James Nicoll Says:

    “Why don’t you wait until you actually read Titan before you say it’s not worthy of winning the Campbell?”

    I’ve read Titan and eight of the other nominees. I wouldn’t rate it as good as the weakest of the other eight (The McDevitt, although I wasn’t really keen on the Harrison).

    It is a example of a kind of SF that has been dying off since the 1970s, SF adventure set in the solar system. Perhaps that worked in its favour.

  22. Niall Says:

    Rich: I knew I’d read a review by you — I just couldn’t remember where. (Should have been able to, really, given I took part in that comment thread. Being intemperate again. Man, I’m becoming a curmudgeon in my internet old-age.)

  23. James Nicoll Says:

    “I’ve read Titan and eight of the other nominees. I wouldn’t rate it as good as the weakest of the other eight […]”

    Hey, why don’t I follow up to myself? That’s always classy.

    My problems with Titan are not because I dislike its subgenre, because in fact it’s a subgenre I am completely addicted to. My problems are that it isn’t a very good example of its kind.

    Let’s ignore the elements that might be called a matter of taste (For example, I despise books whose central thesis is that most humans are a waste of the water and contaminants they contain, which Titan would be an example of, but I know my views are not universal). There’s a long subplot about whether the colonists in Titan should make money selling ice from Saturn’s rings to the rest of the solar system or where this would be an unacceptable use of a well-known planetary feature. In point of fact, the ice from the rings is fairly hard to recover in terms of delta vee and there are lots of other bodies in the Saturnian system which aren’t natural wonders (except to the extent everything is a natural wonder) and are made of water. The entire conflict is a sham, because Bova didn’t do the math.

    It’s clear from his non-fiction book on space travel that he probably can’t do the math, aside from simple high-acceleration paths.

    In fact, once you get out beyond the frost line in the solar system, water becomes an increasingly common material, to the point where it makes up nearly half the mass of some large bodies. Since water is made up of the most common element in the universe and the third most common element, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

    The eventual solution that the characters in Titan hit on is also dubious, either in terms of time or delta vee (Which trade-off they pick isn’t clear).

  24. Jonathan Says:

    Well it’s hands up: I am the author of the Concatenation Titan review mentioned in the original blog post above. I have to say I was pulling my punches a little. I have a couple of other Bova novels in my collection but now have no urge to get more. Furthermore we have an unofficial rule on the Science Fact & Fiction Concatenation site that if an author gets three duff reviews on the trot from three different Concat reviewers then that’s it, we will no longer review them. Bova therefore gets one last chance as far as we and our tastes are concerned.

    I have to say having huge respect for the man as an editor (not an author), I was worried about the review I gave for Titan. I therefore checked out the review in SFX magazine (the SF mag we have in Britain) and they too were critical.

    Like some of the comments above, I checked out previous Campbell memorial Award winners and was amazed. The judges do themselves no favours. To me these days the Locus Award seems to be the one to go by. I understand that more people vote for it than the Hugo and it has sensible categories splitting SF and fantasy.

    Ho hum.

    Jonathan

  25. Niall Says:

    A Campbell judge speaks. (Sort of.)

    Jonathan: I agree about the Locus Award — at least, I think it’s a better barometer of sf’s readership’s taste than the Hugo.

  26. David Bilek Says:

    Mckitterick seems to be saying that the jurors, in general, don’t care for the direction modern SF has taken and thus instead of giving the award to the best novel they gave it to the novel that harkens back to the type of SF they want to see more of, regardless of literary merit.

    This strikes me as a dubious way to select the Campbell award.

  27. Link Country « Torque Control Says:

    […] on the Campbell Award: a juror speaks. Christopher McKitterick explains the process and his manifesto for science […]

  28. Kargadan » Titan & The Campbell Award Says:

    […] announced, the Campbell result had negative reactions in the internet sf community. Niall Harrison expressed some of that skepticism on Torque Control. James Nicoll was gobsmacked in Ontario. Further expressions of confusion and dismay can be found […]

  29. Further To … « Torque Control Says:

    […] To … (1) … the Campbell Award discussion, Jason Robertson has read Titan: Titan excels at neither literary or sfnal virtues. It has a […]

  30. Maureen Says:

    I don’t much like the direction of modern sf, either. But that doesn’t mean I vote for, or indeed buy, that crud which uses tropes I like.

    Why don’t they just vote “No Award”? Better yet, why don’t they resign from the committee and write some sf which is a better example of where they want sf to go?

  31. Kargadan » Return of the Award Says:

    […] story (see also the Torque Control take) of Titan’s Campbell Award win has made a little more headway. David Truesdale has a column […]


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