2020 Neukom Awards Honor Complex Stories in Complex Times

Winners peer into imagined worlds not altogether different from the real one.

The Neukom Institute for Computational Science has announced the winners of the 2020 Neukom Institute Literary Arts Awards for speculative fiction.

Debut author Cadwell Turnbull won for The Lesson, a story about the tense relationship between residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands and aliens on a research mission in the Caribbean island group.

Veteran author Ted Chiang won in the open category for Exhalation, a collection of stories addressing time travel, alien life, and artificial intelligence.

"Speculative fiction has always challenged and enlarged our ideas of what the world can be," says Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Dan Rockmore, director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science. "This year's winners continue this important tradition and recognize two wondrous and wonderful additions to this vibrant genre."

In recognition of the relevance of speculative fiction and the quality of work submitted, runner-up honors were given to We Set the Dark on Fire, by Tehlor Kay Mejia, in the debut category, and The Archive of Alternate Endings, by Lindsey Drager, in the open category.

"When I started writing this book, I had no idea what would happen," says Turnbull, whose The Lesson provides a spec-fic twist to the complexities of colonialism. "It was this chrysalis I spent seven years working on, putting my heart into, hoping that all my desires and intentions would come out on the other side. I prayed people would like the book. But this is beyond my imagination."

Chiang, whose first collection of stories was adapted to make the movie Arrival, created devices such as a digital memory and a digital pet to explore the imaginative alleyways of the spec-fic genre in Exhalation.

"I first learned about the Neukom Award when I gave a talk at Dartmouth back in 2018, and it was wonderful to hear that a computer science organization was recognizing the importance of science fiction," says Chiang. "Now, as a computer science major who became a science fiction writer, I'm honored to be receiving this award."

The Neukom Awards were judged by Nebula Award-winner Sam J. Miller, author of the upcoming novel The Blade Between.

"I am insanely proud and deeply humbled to have been part of this process," says Miller. "Every nominee is worth reading, and will make you feel a lot better about how messed up our world is. I refuse to believe the species that produced books like these is past saving." 

The winning authors will participate in an online award event with Miller and Rockmore to discuss their works and the speculative fiction genre. The panel is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct 21.

In addition to appearing on the panel, the two top award winners will each receive a $5,000 honorarium.

The awards program serves as part of the Neukom Institute's mission to explore the possibilities of computational science, including the ways in which computational ideas impact society.

For more on the awards program or the winners, visit the Neukom Institute awards website.

David Hirsch can be reached at david.s.hirsch@dartmouth.edu