Finding a Path to the Stars at the 2013 Campbell Conference

2013 Campbell Conference PosterFriday, June 14, 2013, arrived without much fanfare. My yard gnomes were chained and securely staked in my garden, while the lazy, overweight alligators lounged at the edge of the moat with their mouths open, attempting to bait in birds for a seat. I had a full day planned, working around the tower. Before I could don my climbing gear and scale the dome of the observatory to clear out mud dauber nests, my entire inertial frame of reference shifted.

You see, for some time I had been planning an expedition to the nearby village of Lawrence to attend the 2013 Campbell Conference Awards Banquet. A series of cascading hourglasses had been meticulously placed within my workshop to track time’s progress towards the targeted date. Much to my surprise, when I checked on the progress that morning, time had shifted. The celestial event I had anticipated on July 14 was set to occur that night, one month earlier than planned.

The buzzing chorus of mud daubers seemed more mocking than usual as I dispatched a raven to announce my eventual arrival at the conference. After a quick change of clothes, my horseless carriage shuddered awake, and I was off to Lawrence. My journey led me out towards the edge of the plains, where a lonely mount rose above fields newly sprouting with soybeans and wheat. The sun slowly drifted to sleep as I approached the horizon, where the silhouette of a tall hotel stood like a proud fortress atop Mount Oread.

Despite my apprehension, the base of the ten-story hotel was guarded by mere mortals. (The oreads must have been hiding just out of sight.) Within its limestone walls, the banquet had already begun. Since the theme for this year’s conference was “To the Stars”, I had prepared myself for some extreme stargazing by tucking star charts and a small spotting-scope inside my satchel. The labyrinth that led me into the heart of the mount seemed an odd place to view the stars, but I followed the gatekeepers instructions faithfully. My trust was soon rewarded.

Sturgeon and Campbell Awards. Photo courtesy of C.J. Harries.
Sturgeon and Campbell Awards. Photo courtesy of C.J. Harries.

A fabulous ballroom stretched before me filled with laughter and fellowship, as those in attendance enjoyed the remains of their dinner. To my left, I spotted the unclaimed trophies waiting patiently on a table at the head of the ballroom. All around me, smiling faces dotted the room like stars in the night sky, twinkling with the promise of undiscovered wonders.

Whenever I gaze at the stars, I find my eyes drifting first to those objects that are most familiar. I locate Orion and Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. I look for Venus on the horizon and try to spy Spica. The faces in the crowd were no different. My eyes naturally located those faces familiar to me. I saw James E. Gunn, Kij Johnson, Chris McKitterick, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Andy Duncan, and Kevin J. Anderson. Other celestial objects were present, but I had yet to learn their names.

As I stood there gazing in awe, I paused to reflect back upon the history contained in that one room. You see, the Campbell Conference began in 1973. During those forty years, across five decades, the conference has continued its crusade to preserve the history of science fiction and reward those who push the genre forward. Beyond the panel discussions, book readings, and autograph lines found at most conventions and conferences, the Campbell Conference provides an opportunity to forge true knowledge and skill.

While most conferences provide an hour or two “writer’s workshop” and casual discussion of novels and short stories, the Campbell Conference offers much more.  For two weeks leading up to the convention, students learn the fine details of becoming a published author. They gather secrets of mechanics and panache that will carry them forward as they continue their writing careers. If that were not enough, the two weeks after the convention offer an intensive study for the teaching of science fiction. Attendees read a collection of science fiction tales and work alongside other teachers and professors to discover the core of each work.

Beyond this month-long study and celebration of science fiction that occurs every summer, Lawrence serves as the galactic hub for science fiction year round. Unlike many colleges, the University of Kansas actually offers courses in science fiction. Heinlein and Pohl find a seat alongside Shakespeare and Hemingway. Sponsored by the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, the curious can gain insight and inspiration by reviewing the notes and manuscripts of some of the brightest stars science fiction has ever known. Imagine sitting down to a table in the special collections library and thumbing through the personal notes of Theodore Sturgeon. My mind races with the possibilities.

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C ClarkeStill lost in my thoughts, I could feel the anticipation of the crowd building for the awards ceremony, filling the ballroom with potential energy. As we waited, I considered all of the Campbell and Sturgeon awards presented over the years and the names that had accepted them, including names like Arthur C. Clarke, Phillip K. Dick, Frederik Pohl, Michael Moorcock, Thomas M. Disch, Gregory Benford, Gene Wolfe,  Connie Willis, Ben Bova, George Alec Effinger, Michael Swanwick, Dan Simmons, Ursula K. Le Guin, and so many more.

I thought of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductions that had taken place atop Mount Oread. In case you are just joining us, the Science Fiction Hall of Fame was created in 1996 by the Kansas City Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy. (That’s right, THE Society. See previous posts.) The induction of honorees took place at the Campbell Conference from the Hall of Fame’s inception until 2004, when Microsoft’s Paul Allen negotiated its transfer to his epic EMP Museum in Seattle.

While in Lawrence, the Hall of Fame welcomed such giants of the industry as John W. Campbell, Jr., Hugo Gernsback, Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Andre Norton, Robert A. Heinlein, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Mary Shelley, and many others. Since the transference to Seattle, selection to the Hall of Fame took on new criteria. Guided by the steady hand of EMP Museum members, the Hall of Fame continues the tradition of inducting science fiction luminaries, including such names as 2013 class member David Bowie.

Before I could reflect more on the changing of the guard, my momentary circumspection faded before my immediate surroundings. Time seemed to have jumped the track on me again, and I decided it best that I take my seat.

Friendly faces welcomed me to a table near the front of the ballroom. I took my seat and enjoyed a few greens and a roll, before picking at an elegantly-seasoned fowl. One of my dinner companions, a gentleman named Dave County, spoke of his time aboard nuclear submarines, circling in the ocean. I pictured him in his youth hunched over a nuclear reactor as the sub’s Soviet counterpart nipped at its tail within the darkest trenches of the sea.

Across from me sat the distinguished James E. Gunn, exchanging smiles and polite conversation with a few old friends. When the conversation turned to space exploration and mankind’s impending trip to Mars, he mentioned a pair of astronauts he had spoken with many years before. In a certain prescience way frequently achieved by the Grand Masters of science fiction, James asked them about their interest in a one-way trip to Mars. Without hesitation, both astronauts confessed that they would eagerly accept such a commission. My first reaction was to brand the astronauts fools, but as we discussed the sacrifices needed to reach the stars, it became clear that they would be heroes.

You see, every age of exploration requires hardened souls willing to chance any fate for the sake of discovery. Lewis and Clark had long ago passed down a river not far from where we ate dinner. They had been sent there by Thomas Jefferson as members of the Corps of Discovery. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark never hesitated when told they might never return. Instead, they embraced the challenge and went forth, prepared for whatever difficulties they might face. Perhaps hundreds of years from now some yet unknown astronauts will be hailed as the modern-day Lewis and Clark.

With images of Mars still dancing in my head, the entire ballroom turned its attention to the podium. I fidgeted atop my perch as a few introductory speeches were given. Soon the John Campbell Memorial Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award would be presented. It occurred to me that, like Lewis and Clark, Campbell and Sturgeon were explorers in their own Corps of Discovery. They had blazed a trail across the plains, out to the stars, and into our minds. Campbell helped forge the foundation of speculative fiction by discovering stars and constellations, much like Galileo and Hubble. Sturgeon mastered the craft of short fiction and always asked the next question, while exploring every possibility.

In 2013, the Campbell Conference presented the first ever Lifeboat to the Stars Award for the best work of science fiction from the previous year that contributed to an understanding of the benefits, means, or difficulties of interstellar travel. James E. Gunn stepped to the podium to present the award. If you have never heard James speak, you are in for a treat at this year’s WorldCon where he will be Guest of Honor. The SFWA Grand Master is a gentleman of surpassing cleverness and sly wit. The subtleties of his humor reward a ready ear and attentive mind.

L to R: Kij Johnson, Kevin J. Anderson, James E. Gunn, Chris McKitterick. Photo courtesy of C.J. Harries.
L to R: Kij Johnson, Kevin J. Anderson, James E. Gunn, Chris McKitterick. Photo courtesy of C.J. Harries.

After explaining to the audience the background of the award, James presented the massive trophy to Kevin J. Anderson for “Tau Ceti”. Kevin graciously accepted the award (calling it the heaviest he had ever received) and explained the pairing of his novella with a sequel novelette by Steven Savile. Kevin spoke with a polish and professionalism appropriate to his monumental industry standard. As author of more than one hundred novels, Kevin J. Anderson has transported millions of readers to some of imagination’s most famous stars. I wondered what part he played in this Corps of Discovery.

As the awards continued, I found my eyes blinking back tears as if I had stared too long into the sun. The brilliance of what I was witnessing was truly wondrous. Frederik Pohl received a special Sturgeon Award for his longtime service to the award and the center. Molly Glass won the Sturgeon Award for her short story “The Grinnell Method.”

The last presentation was for the Campbell Award. Adam Roberts accepted the award for his novel Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer. As his recorded speech sputtered and crackled on the projection screen, I imagined him sitting on the surface of Mars as he spoke. I thought about the authors that had come before him–the ones who had written about trips to the moon and even Mars. I considered stories documenting trips to Ganymede and Tau Ceti.

You see, Campbell and Sturgeon were founding members of the science fiction Corps of Discovery, but new members are joining every day. People like Adam Roberts and Kevin J. Anderson are inspiring tomorrow’s Neal Armstrong. Voices such as James E. Gunn are asking the next questions. Somewhere a young man or woman curls up beneath the ocean in a nuclear submarine, devouring the pages of his/her favorite science fiction novel. Someplace on Earth, tomorrow’s astronauts wonder what sacrifices they are willing to make on their journey to the stars.

Following the awards ceremony and some polite conversation, I peeled myself away from the festivities and remounted my horseless carriage. As I motored across the plains back towards my ivy-covered tower, I looked up at the night sky. Already a hundred points of light danced across the darkness. I wondered which of those stars and galaxies we would one day reach. In my dreams we reach them all. You see, difficulties lay ahead in our quest for the stars, but there will always be those heroes brave enough to try. Though technology will always lag behind our imagination, there will always be another dream weaver to show us the way. While I patiently wait for the next Campbell, Sturgeon, Anderson or Gunn, I will keep gazing up to the stars.

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