John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction (2009)


This piece ran in Death Ray #18, back in 2009, in the “Time Trap” slot. Campbellwas one of the most influential men on SF as a whole, a fascinating character.

1937, and John W Campbell is hired to edit Astounding Stories. 1938, and he is given sole charge. Science fiction will never be the same again.

If any one man could be credited with establishing modern science fiction, then that man was John Wood Campbell Junior. His run on Astounding Science Fiction, previously Astounding Stories, now, several name changes later, Analog Magazine, ushered in a new kind of scientific and narrative stringency to the genre, banishing the stock characters and shonky science of earlier years to the rejection pile. Within months of his assumption of the editorship of Astounding in 1937, Campbell had published stories from fresh young writers, authors who were to go on to become the titans of 20th Century science fiction literature: A. E. Van Vogt, Lester Del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Heinlein. Arthur C. Clarke and many others were to follow. The wartime period of Astounding has come to be known as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” a time when the genre was dominated by Campbell and his cadre of writers. After the war, other pulp magazines following Astounding’s lead were launched, offering other avenues of advancement to new writers. This broke Astounding’s hold over the market, but perhaps that which diminished Campbell’s influence most radically was his own editorial style. A physically intimidating, garrulous man who dominated conversation, trademark cigarette holder clamped in his teeth, he was not a good listener. As time went on his views became increasingly outspoken, his manner bombastic, and he alienated many of his earlier discoveries. Campbell was to remain in the editor’s chair at Astounding, until his sudden and unexpected death from heart failure in 1971. Ironically, for heart disease can be caused by smoking, and Campbell had written in typical forthright style dismissing the health risks of tobacco only a few years before.

Campbell was born June 8, 1910 in New Jersey. His father was cold, his mother was more amenable, but she was one of identical twins and his aunt did not like the young Campbell much. As he was unable to tell his aunt and mother apart, he was often unpleasantly surprised when he ran to his aunt in error. This strange element of his upbringing was, according to SF historian Sam Moskowitz, to provide the basis of “Who Goes There?” (first published in 1938 in Astounding). This story about a shape-changing alien attacking an Antarctic base, predicated on the idea that friend and foe are indistinguishable, forms the basis of the films The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982) [and also now, The Thing (2011)].

As “Who Goes There?” amply demonstrates, Campbell was an accomplished writer in his own right. He sold his first story, “When Atoms Failed” to Amazing Stories when he was only 19, and went on to develop two ongoing series in the space opera style prevalent at the time. From 1934, he began to also publish stories under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart (the name came from his wife, Dona Stuart) in a more considered style, closer to that which he would later expect from his authors at Astounding, yet “Who Goes There?”, published not long after he took up his post at Astounding, was his last major piece of solo work. Isaac Asimov once asked him why he stopped writing his own fiction. He replied, “When I write, I write only my own stories, as editor, I write the stories that a hundred people write.”

And this was one of the reasons Campbell was so successful when he was given sole authority over Astounding in 1938. He was a fountainhead of idea, throwing off possible stories “like a sparkler”, or so Virginia Heinlein, Robert’s wife, once wrote in a letter. He would give writers ideas for plots, help them discover that killer ending, or aidthem in refining entire universes. He even once responded to a reader’s joke letter which reviewed a future issue of the magazine by commissioning the stories the reader described for the date of the issue the reader named.

Campbell unflinchingly applied his editorial ethos to Astounding. He refused the work of many established writers who could not follow his demands for more realistic science and better characters. “Campbell did not compromise because of that: those who could not meet his requirements could not sell to him, and the carnage was as great as it had been in Hollywood a decade before, while silent movies had given way to the talkies,” wrote Asimov after Campbell’s death. Among his preferences were his thoughts on aliens, “Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man” he said to his writers. That Asimov’s Foundation series is entirely humanocentric can be put down, in part, to Campbell.

During the 1950s, however, Campbell began to espouse some pretty strange ideas. He’d write bizarre editorials, perhaps to encourage debate, and would often play devil’s advocate in conversation, so one was never entirely sure whether he truly agreed with the often outrageous views he defended. He increasingly came to support pseudo-science. He was, for a few years, a staunch believer in L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics (introduced to the world via the May 1950 edition of Astounding), claiming its memory training system allowed one to eventually recall the moment of birth. He supported such devices as the Dean Drive, which supposedly violated Newton’s Third Law (it was later shown to not work), while increasingly the stories in Astounding came to be concerned with psychic powers or “psi”, which even at the time was regarded as a pseudo-science. Indeed the boom in popularity of psychic power elements in SF tales during the 50s, 60s and 70s can probably be ascribed to Astounding and Campbell’s interest in the subject.

He terrified Alfred Bester over lunch in 1963, and alienated Heinlein, once a good friend, who eventually refused to submit stories to Astounding, saying that Campbell had bounced both his recent Hugo winners, and was prone to send 10-page criticisms of his work “full of arrogant insults”. Even Asimov, who remained close to Campbell, could not read one his editorials “without losing my temper.”

Yet when he died, these writers put out The John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology (though Heinlein was notable by his absence), its introduction by Asimov entitled “The Father of Science Fiction”.

As Campbell dismissed the fiction that came before him, the writers of the New Wave in the 1960s and 1970s would dismiss Campbell’s preferred tropes as stories fit only for engineers, not artists, but they sought to introduce literary flourish into a genre into which Campbell had already injected factual and imaginative rigour − Campbell’s Golden Age was a pivotal stage in the evolution of the genre, without him, as overbearing as he was, it is unlikely we would SF as we know it today.

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