[This week’s topic comes from Lawrence Person]
Once a year, the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) names a recipient of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award which is then presented at the annual Nebula Awards banquet. The next recipient (for 2009) is Joe Haldeman who joins an already-impressive list of authors.
We asked this week’s panelists:
Read on to see their replies…
I’m staggered that Joanna Russ has never received this particular recognition — she’s a giant of the genre, the author of some of the most important SF of the 20th-century. She hasn’t published much recently (illness has prevented her, I understand), but nevertheless. Russ for 2010, I say: and for 2011 Christopher Priest.
When you asked this question, he was one of the first people that came to mind, but then I thought: Surely Gene Wolfe has been named Grand Master already–but much to my surprise he has not yet been so honored. Although the Grand Master is a career award, Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun sequence is one of those stories that almost demands he receive such an honor at some point in his career, as Book of the New Sun is (collectively) surely one of the finest novels ever written. But Gene Wolfe needn’t be considered solely on the basis of this one work, for he has a long career of other exemplary works, both in the short and long form, and he continues to produce superb new work to this day.
The next recipient of the Damon Knight Grand Master Memorial Award should be Diana Wynne Jones. I know that I tend to be a cheerleader for Jones, but she really is oddly overlooked when it comes to prizes. Jones has written over forty books now, some of which–Fire and Hemlock, Hexwood, Archer’s Goon to name but three, –rank at the forefront of the field. She is a brilliant story teller and a fiercely critical writer as well as being very funny. Her work has never been completely out of print, and when it was hard to get hold of, and in the pre-Amazon days, Jones paperbacks were good currency in fandom. She is one of the few writers who, when I am asked by a new reader “where should I start?”, I am stumped for an answer, for there are so many outstanding places to start.
When I read this question, one author sprang to mind almost immediately: Gene Wolfe. I spent a fair amount of time in 2009 reading the work of Gene Wolfe, specifically his work that dealt with Urth, but also exploring other pieces he’s written as well as work written about him. My appreciation for the amount of effort that Wolfe puts into his writing knows no bounds. I can honestly say that this past year was some of the most difficult reading I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.
If Wolfe had written nothing other than the four books of The Book of the New Sun, I would still say he should be the next Grand Master. I’ve read The Book of the New Sun a few times, and discussed its contents with quite a few people, and I know that there are depths to the work that I still haven’t uncovered. It’s almost unfathomable that a writer could create a work so dense and accessible at the same time, and yet he did. And to think that he followed The Book of the New Sun with The Urth of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun. In the end, he wrote twelve inter-connected novels, something you’d never believe if you couldn’t hold the books in your hands. On top of that, Wolfe’s written short fiction, standalone novels, straight-forward (at least as straight-forward as Wolfe gets) fantasy novels, space opera, and more. There is no one that writes like him. After reading some Wolfe, I have to re-train my brain to read other authors. Then, when I come back to Wolfe, it always takes a bit to get back into the mind-set needed to comprehend a Wolfe story.
You can look at the story titles in his short-story collection The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories to get a sense of how Wolfe’s brain works, or at least a sense of how he likes to make his reader work. There’s the title story “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (with the collection having other stories leading to the title of the collection having the additional And Other Stories in it), and the stories “The Death of Dr. Island” and “The Doctor of Deaeth Island.” I can only keep them straight since I’m looking at the book, but trying to talk about them takes work, and that’s just the titles!
Wolfe challenges his reader, and I don’t think there’s enough of that out there in the world. The unfortunate thing is that it’s very difficult to be successful as a writer when you make a reader work as much as Wolfe does. Wolfe has been rewarded for his efforts with two Nebula Awards, three World Fantasy Awards, a lifetime achievement World Fantasy Award, and a number of Locus Awards among others.
I wondered if there was a female writer I should be thinking of, as the list is pretty devoid of female writers (although the few that are there absolutely should be there). Since the award must be presented to a living author, that means I can’t consider someone like Octavia Butler or James Tiptree, Jr. Connie Willis came to mind, but I must admit that my knowledge of her oeuvre is decidedly lacking. I didn’t feel right trying to talk her up in this forum without something to back up my claims. I think she’s a good choice based on length of career and the number of awards she’s won, and to be honest, I think she’ll receive the award sooner than later.
To me, the answer to who should be the next Grand Master is both easy and obvious: Gene Wolfe. He’s been knocking our socks off since the 1970s, and The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun are among the most brilliant SF work works of the past two decades. He’s brilliant, worthy, and overdue.
(Ditto for him finally winning a Hugo, but that’s another topic…)
Kate Wilhelm. For Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang and Juniper Time and City of Cain. For teaching so many young s/sf writers at Milford and Clarion (including me). For making us feel as well as think.
Giving a lifetime achievement award to a living writer is a notoriously ambiguous move. After all, who knows what the writer will yet accomplish? Is a lifetime achievement award really a polite way of ushering someone offstage?
But the question at hand is, who should receive the Grand Master award next, not whether the Grand Master award should be given at all. And I think there’s really only one answer to this question: Gene Wolfe.
It’s the predictable answer, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also the right one. Who else has achieved more? Never mind the World Fantasy Awards (four, one for lifetime achievement), the Nebulas (two), the Locuses (five), and even the Rhysling. Who else has Wolfe’s hand at style-that almost immediately recognizable Wolfean style, intelligent, complex, allusive, and above all meticulously phrased? Who else can write something as wonderfully baroque as the New Sun books and as splendidly Lovecraft-plus as An Evil Guest? Who else uses literary devices-the story within a story, the unreliable narrator-as well? Who else welds style to content and theme like Wolfe?
The real question isn’t whether he deserves the Grand Master, or even why he’s had to wait until now to receive it. The real question is, how can a Grand Master list be justified without Wolfe’s name on it?
[With contributions from senior editors Hank David, Jim Minz & editorial assistant Laura Haywood-Cory…]
Our consensus names are Larry Niven and David Drake. Our criteria are: quality of literature, strength of contribution to the field, length of career, and mastery of more than one subgenre. Both fit the bill neatly. There was much more variation about who the “next gen” leaders are. Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, C.J. Cherryh, Orson Scott Card, George R.R. Martin and John Varley were all mentioned in that context. Harry Harrison, though not a “next gen” guy, was also in the running, but support for him was not unanimous as for Niven & Drake. If we go to even newer writers, David Weber’s in the process of making a very good case for himself, as is Elizabeth Moon.
About Drake, Jim Minz notes: “You can point ‘em in the direction of Balefires, since it shows the range of his work. He’s known for military SF, epic fantasy and alternate history, but the stories in here show even greater range (and how many writers are successful with novels in even three subgenres, much less extremely capable in horror, etc, as Balefires shows?).
We also had an interesting diversion as we discussed what Hank Davis dubbed the “Awesome Deceased,” before we remembered that Grand Mastership is only bestowed in living writers. It’s a shame people like Gordon Dickson, Theodore Sturgeon, Roger Zelazny, Doc Smith, Cordwainer Smith, Leigh Bracket and Edmond Hamilton, C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, and even John W. Campbell were not so honored in their lifetimes.