A photo of the Campbell tiara, designed by Amanda Downum. It is a circlet of copper wire and glass beads that the winner wears. It's passed on from one winner to the next.

The Campbell tiara, designed by Amanda Downum. It’s passed on from one winner to the next. Photo by Amanda Downum.


The Hugo award deadline is TOMORROW, so I’ve been running a series of posts about this year’s nominees in various categories. This final post is about the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Ok, so, I know that the Campbell Award is Technically Not A Hugo. But it’s a time-honoured category (and also features items that are usually easy to read at the last minute because you’re a procrastinator like me), so let’s take a look.

Sarah Gailey

Gailey’s story from Fireside Fiction in the packet was, quite literally, a haunting investigation of regret, families, and spousal abuse. Gailey’s Best Related Work was also included in the packet, so check that out if you want to get a sense of her non-fiction chops.

Her prose is generally crisp and clear, with good smooth transitions and well-developed characterization.

J. Mulrooney

I’m going to admit straight up-front that I did not read the entirety of the book that Mulrooney included in the voting packet. I didn’t have the time. The opening wasn’t bad, though I’ll probably need to investigate further. My interest is piqued by the fact that it takes place in Toronto. Hell, it even mentions Scarborough on the first page, which is nice, though it does so by referencing Scarborough’s stereotypical reputation, which is not. Guys, Scarborough is good, OK? I’ve lived here my whole life. I should know.

Malka Older

Older’s work in the voting packet included 3 short stories as well as her debut novel Infomocracy. I didn’t have enough time to read the latter so I read the former. The stories themselves are decent, but feel half-developed.

Of those three, the best of the lot is “Tear Tracks”, a story about two humans tasked with making diplomatic overtures to an extraterrestrial species that considers personal experience with sorrow to be the best prerequisite for leadership. The ending, which illustrates one of the protagonists disbelief and disillusionment with this fact, is well done, as it neatly deflates the protagonist’s ego and her sense of ambition. The other two short stories, however, felt untethered, with endings that didn’t satisfy.

Ada Palmer

As with J. Mulrooney’s submission, I did not have enough time to read Ada Palmer’s contribution to the voting packet, Too Like the Lightning. (It’s also up for the Best Novel award.) However, I did read the first few pages and I have a lot of admiration for Palmer being able to pull off such a period-specific voice. Hell, she manages to incorporate a content warning directly into the story as part of the narrative, and does so while having the narrator themselves stay in character. I like that deftness.

It also helps that I am a fan of Palmer’s blog. If you don’t have time for the novel, check out her series of posts from a few years ago about putting Machiavelli in context. They are SO interesting.

Laurie Penny

Speculative fiction is all about using strange and far-off settings to examine the realities and anxieties of the present. If that’s your metric for award-worthy writing, there is no finer practitioner in this category than Laurie Penny. Penny’s stories contain biting social commentary along with the speculative elements – like serial killing becoming recognized as a form of art and getting government subsidies, or someone developing a patented pharmaceutical fountain of youth.

At times, her prose was so good, so incisive, that I felt physically anxious. So if you want something to roil your stomach, Penny should probably be your choice for the Campbell Award.

Kelly Robson

Of the entries that Robson included in the voting packet, I most enjoyed “Waters of Versailles”, her Tor.com novella. The flow, setting, and characterization in that piece are all lovely, and the ending is understated yet well-crafted. However, the other stories didn’t work as well for me. One of them, involving a girl who gets raped and murdered by a trucker, then revived by an alien form of bacteria with ulterior motives, was brutal, and I didn’t see what the point was of having it set around 9/11. I’d like to read more of her longer work to see if Robson works better with fiction that lets her spread her wings.