Blogging the Hugos: Eric S. Raymond

Eric S. Raymond
Category: The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

I had heard of Eric S. Raymond because of his advocacy for open source software, but was unaware that he had written any fiction. In fact, he’s eligible for the Campbell due to a single short story, “Sucker Punch”, which seems like a pretty thin resume. On top of that, it’s published by Castalia House (ugh) and not included in the Hugo packet. But I felt compelled to read it in order to give this category a complete survey, and luckily it’s the leadoff story in Riding the Red Horse, which means: free Kindle sample to the rescue again!

“Sucker Punch” takes place during a 2037 invasion of Taiwan by mainland China. The invaders don’t seem to fear the nearby American carrier group; it turns out this is because they have highly effective anti-aircraft laser weapons. The story makes the reasonable conclusion that the spread of these weapons would dramatically change the nature of warfare… and then just ends without thinking much about what those changes would look like.

A few posts ago I referred to The Deaths of Tao as a “popcorn thriller”, but “Sucker Punch” was more like a single piece of popcorn. My first reaction was, “that was it?” The focus is the weapons technology (of course it is, because it’s a Castalia House story), and the characters, to the extent there are any, are tough-talking navy dudes straight out of central casting. Descriptive passages are mostly limited to jargon-heavy recounting of military maneuvers.

There’s nothing wrong in principle with writing a story focused on a weapons technology, but good science fiction thinks about the implications beyond “hey, that would really change things, huh?” When the technology posited is, literally, laser guns, it’s going to take some especially insightful speculation to stand out. It’s disappointing that Raymond didn’t even try to develop his story in that direction, and given that this single story is the only science fiction he’s written, I don’t see any case for awarding him the Campbell.