Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nebula Conference

The nebular hypothesis

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The envelope for the Nebula Award for Best Novelette

A few weeks ago, I had just boarded my flight to Disney World and was about to switch off my phone when I saw that I had received a new email, the body of which read in its entirety: “We were wondering if you would be willing to present the Nebula Award for Best Novelette in Chicago.” That was literally all it said, and it isn’t out of any false modesty when I say that I wondered at first if it might have been a mistake. My apprehensions only grew when I quickly sent back a reply before the airplane took off, but received no acknowledgment or confirmation until I showed up at the conference on Thursday. (In retrospect, I shouldn’t have worried: as the date of an event like this approaches, everyone involved in planning it is unbelievably busy.) Upon my arrival, I found that they were serious, which is how I ended up listening nervously from the wings of the stage as John Hodgman introduced me to the audience on Saturday night. I managed to read off the nominees without, I hope, mispronouncing their names, and I opened the envelope to reveal that the award had gone to Sarah Pinsker—whom I’d met for the first time earlier that week—for her excellent story “Our Lady of the Open Road.” After all my anticipation, it went by in a flash, to the point where I didn’t even register until now that I had the chance to briefly hold the Nebula Award itself, of which I can only remember that it is, indeed, very heavy.

It was a wonderful ceremony, and I’m only slightly kidding when I state that my presence was a big part of the evening’s success, not because of who I was or what I did, but because of why I was there. I only joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in March, but the fact that I’m a recent member explains why they reached out to me: they were making a deliberate attempt to bring new faces into the ceremony, and I certainly qualified on that front. It was a small gesture, but also a revealing one. The fact that all of the major awards that evening went to women—including Naomi Novik, who was seated at my table with her husband Charles, who played a surprisingly pivotal role in my entry into science fiction over a decade ago—is notable as well. Whether consciously or otherwise, in the aftermath of a rough period for the Hugos, the Nebulas have positioned themselves as an alternative expression of the values that speculative fiction represents. The picture it paints is more encouraging, and also more accurate, at least if the authors, editors, and fans I met over the weekend were any indication. It was a diverse, vibrant group, and I kept coming back to the same realization, which I tried to bring up at one of the panels I attended. Encouraging diversity of all kinds, in fiction as in so much else, is a matter of enlightened self-interest: it’s what allows the genre as a whole to grow and develop. It elevates everyone’s game.

Sarah Pinsker and Alec Nevala-Lee

And this also applies to the ideas that we explore. At a panel I moderated on the legacy of John W. Campbell, Stanley Schmidt, who edited Analog for longer than even Campbell himself, raised an issue that seems worth repeating: there’s a place in science fiction for both extrapolation and innovation, and the outer fringes are a legitimate part of the genre. We were discussing this in the context of Campbell’s interest in such oddball subjects as psychic powers, dowsing, antigravity devices, and the Hieronymus Machine, but I think there’s an even larger point to be made. Campbell was unusually receptive to the unknown and the unorthodox, but only when directed along strictly limited lines: there were huge regions of the possible that he had no interest in featuring in the pages of Astounding. Real innovation can only take place when a multiplicity of perspectives is represented, which necessarily requires a healthy range of markets and forms of distribution, along with writers of diverse backgrounds. Campbell’s vision of science fiction, even at its weirdest, was ultimately built around an assumption that all problems could be approached as subsets of engineering. This is an attitude that has had a tangible impact on real societal debates—as in, for instance, the attractive idea that climate change can be addressed through purely technological means, as if the social and political factors involved were too complicated to confront.

This is an incomplete way of viewing the world, and it emerges in part from the influence of Campbellian science fiction, as much as I love many of the stories that it produced. And the more of it I read, the more convinced I become that the genre’s greatest strength isn’t in anticipating technological advances, but in serving as a laboratory for social thought experiments: extrapolating trends or tendencies that already exist, sometimes to the point of absurdity, in order to force us to think more clearly about the reality in which we live. The only way to do this effectively is to multiply the voices that can make themselves heard, and to value authors who can approach the enduring themes of science fiction in ways that never would have occurred to Campbell or his writers. And small things can make a big difference. My biggest revelation of the weekend came from Joe Haldeman, who revealed that he had submitted the first part of The Forever War shortly before Campbell died, and that a four-page rejection letter, never mailed, was posthumously found in the editor’s files. A short time later, Campbell’s successor, Ben Bova, accepted the story, which made Haldeman famous. If he had begun writing a few years earlier, or if Campbell had lived a little longer, the entire arc of his career would have been different. It reminded me that so much of what shapes us is out of our control: I’ve felt this in my own life, and the history of science fiction is filled with similar stories that have gone untold. Every last gesture counts, and even a nebula can evolve into something more.

Nebulas and other news

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The Nebula Awards

I’ll be spending most of today and tomorrow at the Nebula Conference here in Chicago, which I’m delighted to be attending for the first time. After postponing it for years for no particular reason, I recently became a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and I’m looking forward to taking a more active role in the community, starting right now. In particular, I’m moderating a discussion this afternoon on the legacy of John W. Campbell with a fantastic slate of panelists: Stanley Schmidt of Analog, Sheila Williams of Asimov’s, and Joe Haldeman, the legendary author of The Forever War. I’m also participating in a panel tomorrow titled “Western Narratives,” along with Jennifer Cross, Mikki Kendall, and Michi Trota. And I couldn’t be more excited to attend the Nebula Banquet and Award Ceremony—hosted by toastmaster John Hodgman—later that night. I hope to see a few readers of this blog there, and I’ll be posting about my experiences at the conference on Monday.

This also seems like a good time to round up a few other brief announcements and news items, since the next few months are going to be especially eventful. My short story “Ernesto” is being reprinted in an upcoming issue of Lightspeed Magazine, and I’ve just received the excellent news that my climate change novella “The Proving Ground,” the first story I’ve ever attempted at that length, has been picked up by Analog. I’ve also written a radio play for an episode of the new science fiction podcast The Outer Reach, which will debut this summer as part of the Howl podcasting network, and I hope to have more information about this soon. Best of all, I’ll be attending MidAmeriCon II this August in Kansas City, where I’m scheduled to deliver a presentation on John W. Campbell and his work during World War II in the academic track at the Campbell Conference. It’s going to be quite a year, and we aren’t even halfway done with it yet—so please stay tuned for more.

Written by nevalalee

May 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

An astounding announcement

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Astounding Science Fiction (October 1955)

I’m very pleased to announce that Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, has agreed to publish my nonfiction book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. This project has been in the works for a long time, and if I haven’t mentioned it here before, it was mostly out of a superstitious aversion to talking about it before I knew for sure that it was going to happen—but now it looks like it is. We’re still hashing out a few details, including the timeline for delivery and publication, although I suspect that it won’t be in stores until around the first half of 2018. And everything from the title to the release date is subject to change. What isn’t in doubt, thankfully, is that I’ll finally have the chance to write the book that I’ve been mulling over for most of the last year: the definitive account, I hope, of how modern science fiction, along with so much else, emerged from the personalities and lives of four flawed but remarkable writers whose careers intersected in unbelievable ways. It’s a jaw-dropping story that I expect to discuss at length on this blog in the months and years to come. And I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to bring it to a wider readership.

This isn’t the place to talk about the book in depth, but I should probably say something about its origins. As longtime readers will know, I’ve been fortunate enough to place stories on a regular basis in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Analog, once known as Astounding, is the oldest continuously published science fiction magazine in the world—it recently celebrated its thousandth issue—and it’s impossible to write for it for long without reflecting on its history. My thoughts came to focus on Campbell, who is one of the most important, and enigmatic, figures in the popular culture of the twentieth century. Campbell wrote the classic novella “Who Goes There?,” which has been adapted three times as The Thing; he gave up writing at the age of twenty-seven to take the helm of Astounding, where he discovered or developed Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and countless other major writers, laying down most of the rules for modern science fiction along the way; he collaborated closely with L. Ron Hubbard on the therapy that became known as dianetics, and was its greatest promoter and champion before falling out with the future founder of Scientology; he edited the first version of Dune; and despite his massive influence, by the end of his life, his political, social, and scientific views had estranged him from many of his former fans. The Three Laws of Robotics and Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health both came from the same place. And the real question is why.

The first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science

Campbell, in short, is more than worthy of a book on his own, and the fact that there has never been a full-length biography devoted to his life astonished me, as it still does now. (As I shopped around the proposal, I kept thinking of what Lin-Manuel Miranda once said: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” And a Campbell biography abundantly qualifies.) When I began this project, my goal was to give Campbell the book that he deserved, and it still is, although its scope has widened considerably from what I originally conceived. Campbell remains at the center, but when you expand that circle slightly outward, the first three names that fall within its circumference are Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, whose lives he touched in profound ways. Unlike Campbell, these three writers have already been the subjects of exhaustive memoirs or biographies. But focusing on the points where their lives collided—particularly over the fifteen-year period that starts with Campbell assuming the editorship of Astounding in 1937, runs through World War II, and concludes with the publication of Dianetics—reveals fascinating patterns and parallels. Each man, for instance, was deeply changed by the atomic bomb and the Cold War, and each underwent a traumatic divorce and remarriage at a hinge point in his career. And their wives, whose roles in the history of science fiction have often been overlooked, will play a crucial part in this story.

In any event, I hope to continue covering as wide a range of topics on this blog as always, but you shouldn’t be surprised if the emphasis shifts ever so slightly toward science fiction, particularly as I prepare to discuss the subject more often in public. (I’m currently scheduled to talk about Campbell at the Nebula Conference in Chicago in May, and I hope to do the same at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City in August.) And I wouldn’t have tackled this project in the first place if I didn’t believe that it would seize the imaginations of readers who have never cracked a science fiction magazine. Campbell and his writers shaped our inner lives in ways that can be hard to appreciate today, when science fiction seems so inevitable. In fact, it was the result of many specific choices, often made by Campbell himself, and such conventions as the central role of manned space exploration are less a prediction about the future than a narrative strategy that arose from a particular place and time. And Campbell’s fingerprints are visible on everything from Star Trek to the recent controversy over the Hugo Awards. Teasing out those connections and relating them to the ongoing debates within the genre—which is a canary in the mineshaft for the larger culture—is going to be the pivot around which my life revolves for the next two years. I’ll have more updates soon. And I couldn’t be happier that I can share it with you here first, or more astounded that I get to do it at all.

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