(Note: This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts reviewing as many of the 2015 Hugo nominees as I can before the July 31 deadline, and explaining why I will or will not vote for them.)
The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer advertises itself, famously, as "not-a-Hugo," celebrating what the Worldcon community decides is the best new science fiction/fantasy writer of the year. Unfortunately, like so much of the rest of the ballot, this category has been tainted by the shenanigans of the Impacted Canines.
(Forgive me for sounding testy. Several weeks of slogging through godawfully bad stories not worth their weight in puppy piss will do that to you. I mean, if you're going to behave lawfully-but-unethically and game the awards, can't you at least nominate something halfway decent? Apparently not, as most of the ballot proves.)
Listed from worst to best.
5) Jason Cordova
Reading one story was enough to turn me off this writer. A World War II retelling with the Germans riding giant white mutated spiders (the "dreaded German Hollenspinne division"), defending machine gun nests in a forest called Belleau Wood, and the Americans sending in two specially-bred, equally giant lions, also ridden like horses by their handlers, to kill the "hellspiders"? Two-thousand-pound lions, working for the US Navy and the Marines? (These actually sound like prehistoric cave lions, and there's no explanation given as to how or why the Americans would have such an animal.) Both of the lions, Ghost and King, along with their handlers, ended up dying, by the way. For frak's sake. The only thing that could have amused me about this story is if the lions had been named Ghost and Darkness, after the campy Michael Douglas movie.
4) Rolf Nelson
I had a heckuva time finding any work by this guy, as there was nothing from him in the Campbell Hugo packet. (I eventually realized he has a story in the included Castalia House collection Riding the Red Horse.) He does have one book on Amazon, The Stars Came Back. I tried to read a sample of this and bounced off it so hard I hit the opposite wall; it's written in script format, all cut-tos and fade-ins and fade-outs, which grated on me in very short order. (Obviously I would never make any kind of Hollywood slush reader.) No thank you.
The story in Riding the Red Horse, "Shakedown Cruise," started out as unremarkable military SF. (Lest you think I know nothing about the genre, I am right now in the midst of a really good MilSF novel, The Machine Awakes by Adam Christopher. "Shakedown Cruise" does not compare.) A few pages in, something struck me as odd. At first it was one sentence, than an entire paragraph, then several paragraphs...abruptly switching from past tense to present tense and back again. This jarring back-and-forth pattern continued for the rest of the story.
Now, I honestly do not mind present tense. I read a lot of YA, and present tense is almost a young-adult default. HOWEVER. I expect any use of present tense (that is, if you don't start your book or story that way from the beginning) to make a bit of sense and be used with a purpose; i.e., either for certain characters and/or flashbacks, and definitely with a page or chapter break. Just throwing it into your story willy-nilly, with no explanation or warning, smacks of either poor writing or poor editing, or both. In this case, since this is a Castalia House publication (the publisher of, among others, the purple prose-eater John C. Wright), I rather think it's both. At any rate, this bouncing between tenses ruined the story for me, and I hadn't been all that into it to begin with.
3) Eric S. Raymond
This writer, as far as I can tell, has one published fiction story, "Sucker Punch," found in Riding the Red Horse. (Although he has apparently written a great deal of nonfiction work; see his home page here.) This was something of a surprise, as it's a competent, professional effort (and it sticks its tenses). The focus is on the weaponry and the battle strategy, meaning the characters suffer as a result, but overall it's not bad. Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to give Mr. Raymond a Campbell Award on the basis of one story.
2) Kary English
I've read and liked Ms. English before--I'm voting for her story, "Totaled," for Best Short Story. The samples for the Campbell packet included one piece, "Flight of the Kikayon," that I actually liked better than "Totaled." She is definitely a writer to watch.
However, she's not my choice for Best New Writer. That goes to:
1) Wesley Chu.
I haven't read all of his novel, The Deaths of Tao, but I've read enough to make him my pick. The quality of his writing is immediately apparent.
So: My ballot rankings for the Campbell:
1) Wesley Chu
2) Kary English
3) No Award