Sunday 24 May 2020

The Astounding Award

Most Worldcon attendees are likely to be familiar with the long list of megastars for whom the Astounding Award (formerly the John W. Campbell Award) has been amongst the first of many honours they’ve received in long careers: Jerry Pournelle, Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, Jo Walton, Cory Doctorow, and Mary Robinette Kowal to name a few.

These authors continue to benefit from the promotion of publishers who profit from their works … but there is little economic incentive for publishers to continue promoting the works of lesser-known writers who are not producing new works. In some ways, the Astounding Award helps fill this need.

Reviewing the list of Astounding Award finalists and winners makes it clear that part of the joy and value of this award is that it can help new generations of readers find works by creators whose careers never soared to Scalzian heights, or whose years of writing were few in number.

Raphael Carter was shortlisted for the Astounding Award in 1997 and 1998 on the strength of 
Raphael Carter has only
published one novel.
But one great novel matters.
(Image via Wikipedia)
zirs cyberpunk novel The Fortunate Fall. If not for seeing zir listed on the Astounding Award shortlist, I might never have read — and enjoyed — this book. Carter never wrote another novel, and as far as I can tell is credited with just one short story.

The Fortunate Fall is a rich text that was ahead of its time. It’s prescient tackling of gender politics, as well as themes of surveillance would only become more important as a point of discussion in the decade after it was published. The fact that it helped earn Carter an Astounding Award nod helps the novel find new audiences, and maintains the integrity of its enduring value.

But Carter is not the only example of why the Astounding Award, and the similar Locus Award For Best First Book, are so important to the genre.

It has been 20 years since the fourth — and most recent — novel by Michaela Roessner hit the shelves. It has been almost a decade since her most recent short story. But The Stars Dispose remains an excellent fantasy that continues to find new readers through her Astounding nomination. Paul Melko hasn’t published so much as a short story since 2012, but his three novels (Singularity’s Ring, The Walls Of The Universe, and The Broken Universe) will find new readers through his Locus award. I'd highly recommend the parallel-world-hopping fun of The Walls Of The Universe.

The fact that Melko, Roessner and Carter do not seem to be publishing new books or stories anymore does not diminish in any way the depth of their talent, or the worthiness of their existing works. But it would, unfortunately, have made it significantly less likely that they will find new readers if awards like the Astounding didn’t exist.

Whatever these authors are up to now, I sincerely hope that they are doing well, and that they are proud of the fact that their books continue to connect with readers.

But the Astounding Award also reminds us to celebrate authors whose careers were cut short.

Carrie Richerson, who died last year, was twice nominated for the Astounding in 1993 and 1994 on
Carrie Richerson at the World
Fantasy Convention in 2006.
(photo by Scott Zrubek)
the strength of her short fiction. The Astounding helps ensure that we won’t forget her debut story Apotheosis.

David Feintuch won the Astounding in 1996 for his Seafort Saga books, which are largely out of print now, but fans of Horatio Hornblower novels would do well to seek them out. The Astounding may help keep his memory alive.

Awards for best first book, or for new writers are often seen as a jumping-off point, or a way to promote the career of an emerging artist. But seen in retrospect, I’d argue that these awards provide even more value by reminding us of great works that might otherwise have been forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. I am not sure of Raphael Carter's pronouns, but I believe they identify as neither male nor female. It is a shame they seem to have stopped writing -- THE FORTUNATE FALL is wonderful, and so was the one short story Tiptree (now Otherwise) winner: "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation". I miss Paul Melko, too ...