This past February, we were informed by the prestigious Chautauqua Prize, that out of 165 nominations, thirty-five titles were still in play, Eleanor Lerman’s Radiomen being among them. From this list, five would be chosen as finalists. While her novel was not among the shortlisted final five, this in itself was a remarkable achievement. But on August 18, at Mid-Americon II, part of the international science fiction convention, Worldcon held at the Kansas City Convention Center, Radiomen hit paydirt when she received the coveted 2016 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. However, she was not able to attend the ceremony since two months earlier she was stricken with a mysterious infection that placed her at death’s door, as both lungs were completely infected.
But Eleanor did manage to get through this and sent an acceptance speech taped while still at the hospital and read at the award ceremony. It’s a remarkable journey and a remarkable speech for this sixty-four-year-old writer, which is also the stuff of science fiction, except that it is real. I’m happy to report that she will be discharged on Friday. She told me today she was so detached from her life in the earlier stages that she thought of the person in the bed as “Juanita.” and I joked that Juanita might be the start of her next book. Great science fiction is like that, blurring the lines between reality and fiction and leaving the reader to ponder some of the mysteries of the universe. And Eleanor is surely one of the great ones writing in this genre,
With that, I say welcome back to the living, Eleanor. And here is her speech.
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Let me begin by apologizing for not being with you in order to accept this extraordinary, unexpected, and deeply appreciated award. As some of you must know, I am unable to attend because I am recovering (at least, I hope that’s the path I’m on) from a long illness—almost two months now. I would be more specific about this “illness” except that no one seems to know what it was. I have had dozens of doctors peering down at my bedside saying “Well, dear, we know you got hit with a massive infection and have tested you for everything we know but we can’t figure out what it is.” I suggested that they test for alien spores, and you can imagine the reaction: the doctors’ faces sort of move around, trying to settle into some appropriate expression, then they snort a fake laugh and say, “Of course, you’re a sci-fi writer, what a lovely idea!” And then they go away. But we know better, don’t we? That’s the first thing they should have looked for.
Aliens. Not only have they been on my mind during this mystery illness, but of course they were the focus of Radiomen—specifically, the idea that I hope infused the story, which was, and is, that if God exists, the aliens are probably as confused about Him, Her, or It as we are. I know that as I moved through the strange and struggling stages of this illness—which included a stay in the Intensive Care Unit that I don’t remember, though I am told I bit my brother’s finger and my wife’s, and threatened to have everyone arrested—I was sending out my own radio signals to God, in whatever universe such a force or kind, loving consciousness exists, asking for help. I believe I have been helped. I have indeed been blessed by a devoted companion, my wife, Robin, and devoted care. I hope I deserve all this attention, just as I hope to be able to go back to work someday soon and continue to prove myself worthy of the honor you have given me with the John W. Campbell Award.
I want to tell you something else about my idea of radio waves, in all their forms—spiritual, emotional, or real broadcasts from universes up and down the great unknown dimensions of time and space. One night, in the middle of a terrible fever, I had the kind of dream that people have in movies, except this wasn’t a movie, it was my 3 a.m. confrontation with life and death. In my dream, someone, some being from somewhere else, took me to the Annapurna Museum. If you Google the word Annapurna you’ll find it’s part of the Himalayan range, but in the dream, I know it had something to do with my teenage obsession with Herman Hesse and Siddhartha and the concept of eternity. In any case, the Annapurna Museum was a room full of smallish but human-sized statues covered in gold. The statues were of people who were dying: I remember a boy on fire and a woman who had deep gashes on her body. I was told by my alien guide, who was just a voice, that I could become an exhibit in the Annapurna Museum if I wanted. “They,” whoever they were, would pour gold on me and I would be out of pain, I would be no longer ill. Of course, I would be dead, but I would be free from my mystery disease. I actually thought about it for a moment—it seemed like maybe a way to escape all the terrible things that were happening to me—but I finally said no. I said I would keep trying to find my way back to some kind of life again. I would keep trying to send out my radio signals. With this award, you have helped me to understand that was the only decision to make, so if I haven’t said thank you enough, let me say thank you over and over again, now.
Let me add one more thing. In Radiomen, a special dog is an important character. A few months before I got sick, my beloved dog, who had been with me for many years, passed away. I remember looking for her in the Annapurna Museum and was glad she wasn’t there because it meant that she was somewhere else, somewhere kinder and better, and that I would see her again. I do believe that, just as I deeply believe that somewhere in the distant, savage past, some kind of proto-dog walked out of the darkness, sat down next to our ancestors by their fire, and decided to stay. They have stayed with us since. I am sure they will stay with us as the millennia roll by. I have always been touched by a story I read about how some of the oldest fossil footprints ever found were a child’s footsteps and walking right beside that child were the footprints of a dog-like animal. That is where we see the roots of love, of devotion, of our shared longing, human and animal, to be together, to help each other, to walk through the great darkness together and find whatever light there is, for there must be some. There must be. That, I guess, is really what the radio waves are aiming for: the light that will illuminate our lives. The light that is not in the Annapurna Museum but outside in the great beyond, in the stars and the spinning planets and the eternal hope we all have for peace and love and the light in our beloved companions’ eyes.
So thank you again for the Campbell Award, and thank you for understanding why I can’t be there to accept it. I hope these few brief words have conveyed my deep appreciation for your recognition, which could not have come at a more important time to help me feel that I am coming back to myself. So once more, thank you for sending your loving radio waves my way. I hear them. I appreciate them. I will never forget them. They have reached deep into my heart.
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