The Joy Of Small Cons: Campbell Conference 2009
by Christopher McKitterick
Each summer, a small cadre of science-fiction readers, scholars, authors, and editors from across the United States around the world descend on the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Campbell Conference and associated programs. The Campbell Conference is a intimate event where attendees have the unique opportunity to spend one-on-one time with almost everyone, including the special guests.
Enrollees in the preceding Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop (led by James Gunn and Chris McKitterick) and the SF/F Novel Writer’s Workshop (led by Kij Johnson) enjoy the opportunity to rub elbows with professionals in the field, as do students of the Intensive Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction that follows. In the fall, locals and others willing to return to Kansas also get to see guest speakers such as last year’s Michael Chabon and Bill Brown, and this year’s China Miéville as part of the Gunn Lecture Series.
This year’s Campbell Conference took place on July 10-12, when Kansas temperatures are set to steamy. The topic was “What’s Old, What’s new: The New Space Opera, the New Hard SF, the New Weird,” examining today’s SF by seeking to understand its relationship to historical SF, and then exploring where it might be headed.
Workshoppers benefited from the early arrival of authors James Alan Gardner and Ian R. MacLeod. Gardner and MacLeod offered their perspectives on what produces good fiction on Thursday and Friday afternoons. Workshoppers and other Conference attendees also got to join the special guests for breakfast of giant French toast as well as lunches and dinners at other local restaurants and pubs; a college town, Lawrence offers a great diversity of excellent eateries.
The Campbell Conference proper launched on Friday night, honoring the best in science fiction during the Awards Banquet and Ceremony. After Chris McKitterick presented a short history of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction and the Awards, AboutSF Coordinator Nathaniel Williams talked about the Center’s outreach resource for SF educators, researchers, and fans, including a Speculation Speakers database for finding people to speak on SF topics.
James Gunn presented the first honor of the evening, a special presentation to Paul Carter for 15 years of service on the Campbell Award jury. Carter retired from serving this year; replacing him are Paul Di Filippo and Sheila Finch.
Next up was the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short science-fiction of the year. Juror Kij Johnson, who first became involved with the Center in 1994 when she won the Sturgeon for “Fox Magic”, presented the Award to James Alan Gardner for “The Ray Gun: A Love Story,” a moving story about a boy, a girl, and a ray gun (no, really). Gardner later wrote, “I had a great time picking up the award at the University of Kansas, and would heartily recommend the Campbell Conference to anyone interested in science fiction.”
Finally, juror Chris McKitterick presented the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science-fiction novel of the year to two winners: Ian R. MacLeod for his novel, Song of Time; and Cory Doctorow for his novel, Little Brother.
About Little Brother, juror Elizabeth Anne Hull said, “Although it’s considered a young adult novel — the protagonist is a senior in high school — this novel speaks to a very serious adult concern: the restriction of personal liberty in the name of Homeland Security in a post-9/11 America. For a teenager, this novel poses a challenge: not to let the system go unchallenged. For adults it does that also, but also serves to remind us that we shouldn’t lose our faith in today’s youth. And to dare us to make changes for the better before others restrict our freedom and force us to make changes we do not want.”
In 2000, Doctorow also won the other award that honors SF editor John Campbell, the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award. “As near as anyone can work out, I’m the only writer to have won both,” he said.
Ian R. MacLeod’s Song of Time is a wrenching and beautiful work about a woman reaching the end of her life in near-future Scotland. The novel shows us the adventures and loves and losses that constitute who she is as she shares her life’s story with a shipwreck victim she discovered on the rocky shore near her home. Her purpose for the storytelling is that she is recording her memories for the AI “crystal” in her brain, creating a digital copy of herself that will carry on past her death. Her life, like many, is a series of tragedies and joys that coincide with major events and catastrophes across the planet. MacLeod’s language is gorgeous and moving, offering countless insights into what it means to be human.
Juror Pamela Sargent says, “This novel is a gem, the life of a gifted woman, written as if being narrated by an eloquent novelist or memoirist of the next century.”
This was only the third tie in the 27-year history of the Award.
Third place went to The Philosopher’s Apprentice, by James Morrow. (Due to the tie, there was no second place.)
After the awards, attendees trooped across the parking lot for an informal reception in the 5th floor lobby of Templin Hall, a KU residence dormitory where the Center held its workshops and where many out-of-towners stayed (as well as all of this year’s special guests). Here, attendees got to rub elbows with authors and editors and meet other scholars and fans. People continued to talk until the wee hours.
The round-table discussion about this year’s topic started early Saturday morning on the 6th floor of the Kansas Union, offering expansive views of the lovely KU campus. Here attendees and special guests debated where SF is today and where it is headed.
After a break for lunch, attending authors and editors participated in a large autograph session in the nearby Oread Bookstore: Robin Wayne Bailey, Paul Carter, M.C. Chambers, Cory Doctorow, Jude-Marie Green, James Gunn, James Alan Gardner, Kij Johnson, Ian R. MacLeod, Chris McKitterick, Eric T. Reynolds, Lane Robins, Trent Walters, and Nathaniel Williams.
Saturday afternoon was devoted to the future of SF publishing. Cory Doctorow kick-started the discussion with his talk, “With a Little Help: Plan for a self-published science fiction collection,” where he described the methods and motivations behind self-publishing… and how to do so effectively and profitably. The book will include several editions ranging from free ebooks and audio-books to unique premium books all the way to a one-of-one edition. He is also writing a monthly column about the project for Publishers Weekly. The top print versions will include bound-in original paper ephemera from writers in his circle. Should be very interesting to see how it turns out!
The other award-winners – James Alan Gardner and Ian MacLeod – formally responded to Doctorow’s talk, followed by open discussion among all attendees.
After a break for dinner, attendees gathered for another party at Templin Hall.
Early Sunday morning, attendees re-convened in the Events Room of Mrs. E’s, where the Awards Ceremony was held on Friday night. Here the special guests held an informal Q&A session. Gardner discussed how the ray-gun in “The-Ray Gun: A Love Story” stood as a metaphor for discovering science fiction and evolving as a person through SF. MacLeod mentioned how Song of Time explored how we will become or cease to become human in the near future. About his book, Little Brother, Doctorow said, “adolescence is “the beta-testing of spycraft,” and “the techno-thriller is an SF novel with presidents.”
After a couple of hours, the Q&A wrapped up and SF writer and scholar Paul Carter read from a paper entitled, “The Absurdity of Nature,” a poetic exploration of scale and the meaning of life. After a bit more chatting, attendees set off to the four winds, some ferrying the special guests back to the Kansas City International Airport.
If you have more than a passing interest in speculative fiction, consider attending the Campbell Conference. James Gunn got me hooked back in 1992, and I haven’t missed the event since. The 2010 Campbell Conference will take place on July 16–18, 2010. The topic is “Theodore Sturgeon and the Science-Fiction Short Story.” (Links to previous years’ conferences are at the bottom of the page).
Christopher McKitterick is an author, editor, technical writer, teacher, amateur astronomer, and backyard engineer. Chris’ short fiction has appeared Analog, Artemis, Captain Proton, Extrapolation, Mythic Circle, Ruins: Extraterrestrial, Synergy SF, Tomorrow SF, Visual Journeys, and elsewhere. Chris teaches writing at the University of Kansas and is Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. He recently finished a far-future novel, Empire Ship, and his first novel, Transcendence, will appear in 2010 from Hadley Rille Books. For more, check out his website: www.sff.net/people/mckitterick and blog: mckitterick.livejournal.com
Editorial © 2009 Christopher McKitterick. All other content copyright © 2009 Abyss & Apex Publishing.
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