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MIND MELD: Who Should Be The Next Grand Master?

[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:

Q: Who should be the next recipient of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award? Why?

Read on to see their replies…

Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts was born two-thirds of the way through the last century; he presently lives a little way west of London, England, with a beautiful wife and two small children. He is a writer with a day-job (professor at Royal Holloway, University of London). The first of these two employments has resulted in eight published sf novels, the most recent being Splinter (Solaris 2007) and Land of the Headless (Victor Gollancz 2007). The second of these has occasioned such critical studies as The Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2006).

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.

John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), By Blood We Live, Federations, and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Barnes & named him “the reigning king of the anthology world,” and his books have been named to numerous best of the year lists. He is also the fiction editor of the forthcoming science fiction magazine Lightspeed, and is the co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. John lives in New Jersey and is represented by Joe Monti of Barry Goldblatt Literary.

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.

Farah Mendlesohn
Farah Mendlesohn used to edit Foundation, the International Review of Science Fiction, is the President of the International Association of the Fantastic of the Arts, and is about to send McFarland a Manuscript about Children’s and Teen science fiction. She has read around 400 of these books so you don’t have to.

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.

John Klima
John Klima edits the Hugo Award winning speculative fiction zine Electric Velocipede. He is also the editor of the Bantam anthology, Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories, and the forthcoming Night Shade Books fairy tale reprint anthology Happily Ever After. He spends his days among the stacks as a librarian, but has previously worked at such places as Asimov’s Science Fiction and Tor Books.

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.

Lawrence Person
Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Jim Baen’s Universe, and Postscripts, as well as several anthologies. He reviews movies for Locus Online, frequently in collaboration with Howard Waldrop. He’s the once and future editor of Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books. It’s a good life, if you don’t weaken.

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…)

Nicola Griffith
Nicola Griffith writes, reads, and drinks just the right amount of beer.

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.

Jess Nevins
Jess Nevins is the author of The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes. He’s best known for annotations and research Tweets, but he’d much rather be famous for his interpretive dance.

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?

Toni Weisskopf
Toni Weisskopf, publisher of Baen Books, has also edited the vampire anthologies Tomorrow Sucks (1994) and Tomorrow Bites (1995), both with Greg Cox, and two Cosmic Tales anthologies, Adventures in Sol System (2005) and Adventures in Far Futures (2005).

[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.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

12 Comments on MIND MELD: Who Should Be The Next Grand Master?

  1. Kyle Gilchrist // January 27, 2010 at 3:00 am //

    An interesting question and as noted above, all the harder to answer given that the recipient be living. The Gene Wolfe answer’s reasons are fairly well stated and difficult to refute, so I can see him as the top contender for 2010, and well deserved it would be.

    Certainly when I looked down the list his ommission jumped out at me. But I must admit that I would have also put forward Bujold and Cherryh. And although a big Drake fan I have never really thought of him in tems of awards or Grand Master, although I am not sure of his age, I think there are a few more years left for to get this award. (Not that I am saying the other 3 are old, just that they seem older in my memory…).

    Certainly I would vote for, Wolfe 2010, Buold 2011 and Cherryh 2012.

    I certainly think that David Weber is a much underated writer and would put him up for any and every award, but as with Drake, I think (hope) he has many many years and many many works ahead of him. To my mind he is the SF Grand Master of this century, as Heinlein was in his.

    When you look at the authors who have missed out in the past, I do think/hope there is time for the great writers mentioned – Harrison, Martin, Varley, Niven and even Card (much as you hate to admit it, he is talented!)

    I think the problem with this award is that there are so many good candidates and so few years, as the deceased list shows us.

    I am just glad to be living in this time with this talent here to brighten our lives. So to all who have won, been nominated or even just mentioned in passing, thank you for your work. You have obviously touched people deeply, and that is a gift in and of itself.

  2. I second Adam Roberts’s brief for Joanna Russ. Her impact on the genre is truly significant and should be recognized in this way.

    After Russ, writers such as Gene Wolfe and Connie Willis definitely deserve consideration.

    I would also offer Kim Stanley Robinson as a worthy recipient in the near future.


  3. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one picking Gene Wolfe.

    As for Toni Weisskopf’s mention of Harry Harrison, I can guarantee that he won’t be the next Nebula Grand Master…mainly because he was already awarded the Grand Master in 2009

  4. I continue to feel that Gene Wolfe is one of the best writers of his generation (and note I didn’t say SF writers, I mean writers).  Book of the New Sun is one of the better novel written, period.  Why did the Baen guys leave him out of their rather extensive list?

  5. Great mind meld question. I love reading these types of questions as it always leads me to find out more information on authors I’m not familiar with. Also congrats to this year’s very derserving winner Mr Joe Hadelman.

    As for this award the part that bothers me is that the receipent must be living. It seems to me they also should have an other award for those authors who have passed on as well. That way it would also lead people to seek out there work as well. We should not only recognize and value the work of author’s still with us but we shouldn’t forget all those who have gone before. Any way just a thought.

    As for future years I will echo many others in the nomination of Gene Wolfe. I also think serious consideration should be give to Orson Scott Card. Putting aside any feelings you may or may not have for his politcal views his influence on readers is undeniable. I would also call attention to George RR Martin for his life long contributions to the field through both his own written works and his editing. Lastly, I would call attention to a younger author whose body of work has won numerous awards from all kinds different orgaizations already. His name is Neil Gaiman. Neil being a huge fan of Mr Wolfe would never want to receive it before Gene I’m sure but I would hope one day Mr Gaiman would receive serious consdieration for this award as well.


  6. Jeff VanderMeer // January 27, 2010 at 10:46 am //

    Russ and then Wolfe.

  7. The ‘living’ requirement certainly rules out one of the people that I personally feel should be on the list and that is Cordwainer Smith.  I’m sure his small body of work is one of the reasons also that he might be left out of the running anyway, but his unique and interesting contributions to the genre are certainly under-sung, in my opinion.

    I echo Niven and Wolfe for sure.  I have read very little of the large body of work that each author has out there but what I have read is very impressive and that, along with their longevity and the impact they have had and continue to have on the genre put them in the running.

    Some day in the far away future I would hope to see John Scalzi’s name on that list.  I hope that time finds him to be as prolific and influential an author as others on this list because I have been impressed and entertained by what he has done thus far.

  8. As much as I profoundly agree with the “Gene Wolf” sentiment above, I also wonder if an opportunity to expand the diversity and scope of the award isn’t called for.

    I doubt I’m the only SF/F writer deeply and meaningfully influenced by the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for instance, who writes numerous and much work that qualifies as fantasy under a relatively looser definition than we generally see.

    Haruki Murakami,  Margaret Atwood, Alan Moore, and Stephen King – for example – have all had massive, meaningful impacts on genre writing over long careers at the relative edges of the traditional boundaries of SF/F Literary Fandom. (Perhaps Murakami is a stretch in that company, but the point of this post is to stretch things.)

    I’m not proposing anything with this statement, specifically, because I am quite surprised Gene Wolf hasn’t recieved his much-deserved lifetime achievement award, except that I would love to see the pool of assumed candidates widen beyond the relatively narrow pond of fandom. Inclusion is a good thing.

  9. Boden.Steiner_ // January 27, 2010 at 7:03 pm //

    William Gibson.

    Turned it all on its head —  certainly should be considered at some point.

    I hope he’s got a few more decades of writing, but he’s entering that grand master territory.  He’s influenced many, many stories and writers over the years.

  10. Ooo – great thought J M – Gabriel Garcia Marquez is an amazing writer.  I doubt the SFWA will expand that much though.

    I’ve always felt that Gibson was overrated.  I’m not disagreeing with the influence of his ideas, but as a writer I haven’t been as impressed as I am with Wolfe or many of the other fine writers listed here.  I don’t mean to bash Gibson though, I just don’t hold him in the same regard as the others.

  11. Damien Broderick // January 28, 2010 at 10:39 am //

    Joanna Russ, obviously, and then Gene Wolfe.

  12. Last year SFWA inaugurated an additional sort-of-grand-master award for contributions to sf, the Solstice, which is not restricted either to authors or to the living. Algis Budrys was SFWA’s first choice from those no longer with us; other Solstice awards went to Kate Wilhelm and Martin H Greenberg.


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