Campbell, John W(ood), Jr. Essay - Critical Essays

Campbell, John W(ood), Jr.


John W(ood) Campbell, Jr. 1910–1971

(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Don A. Stuart, Karl Van Campen, and Arthur McCann) American science fiction novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor.

Campbell has been called perhaps the single greatest influence on modern science fiction, both as a writer and as editor of Astounding Science Fiction, one of the most honored magazines in the genre. Campbell's "space operas" were considered to equal, and ultimately to surpass, the achievements of E. E. Smith, the most popular science fiction pulp writer of the 1930s. Many of these early stories touted the beneficence of machines as facilitators for human achievement. This preoccupation with "hardware" was faulted for stressing an impersonal, technocratic elitism over concern for humankind as a whole. Campbell eventually moved away from his highly popular but largely one-dimensional super-weapon tales to stories which concentrated upon and promoted the benefits of scientific ideas and technological inventiveness.

Campbell's reputation was built upon such action-invention stories as the "Arcot, Morey and Wade" series, including The Black Star Passes (1953), Islands of Space (1957), and Invaders from the Infinite (1961), and the "Penton and Blake" tales in The Planeteers (1966). Although The Mightiest Machine (1947) and The Moon Is Hell (1951) were noted for their technical advances in realism, Campbell also wrote mood pieces published under the name Don A. Stuart. Among these are some of his most respected works: "Twilight" (1934), "Night" (1935), and "Who Goes There?" (1938). This last is considered a classic of science fiction and it has been filmed twice, as The Thing from Another World and The Thing. A departure from previous work in its attention to plotting and characterization, "Who Goes There?" is among the last pieces of fiction Campbell wrote. Works published later, including the stories in The Incredible Planet (1949), a collection of his "Aarn Munro" series, and the posthumous The Space Beyond (1976), are thought to have been written in the early 1930s.

In 1937 Campbell became editor of Astounding Stories, later titled Astounding Science Fiction and then Analog. He retained this position for 34 years. Astounding was the leading science fiction magazine until the 1950s and, despite diminished significance in light of the challenges from new magazines, it remained respected and influential. The magazine won eight Hugo Awards under Campbell's leadership. Its prominence was due to Campbell's insistence on continual improvements in the content and physical quality of the publication. Campbell assembled a group of writers and shaped their work with many of his own story ideas and suggestions for stylistic refinement. Although, as E. F. Bleiler remarked, Campbell was sometimes considered "arrogant, dictatorial, and condescending," he was also respected for the help he offered his writers and the careful attention he gave to all submissions. Under his tutelage, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, and many others were given a showcase.

Campbell's principal writings after he became editor of Astounding were his frequently controversial editorials. He wrote of nearly every sociological subject from a scientific viewpoint. His own background in science often prompted hypotheses which engendered long-running dialogues between Campbell and his readers, some of whom were scientists. Many of these writings are included in Collected Editorials from Analog (1966). As his interest in various kinds of pseudoscience increased, most notably his strident defense of L. Ron Hubbard's "dianetics", his credibility with readers became strained.

Although Campbell's place in science fiction as a writer has been variously assessed in recent years, he is credited with the initial advancement of science fiction into a position of increased acceptance and respect as a literary genre.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed. [obituary]; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)

Sam Moskowitz

There is a school of thought that holds that the dramatic Orson Welles War of the Worlds scare, on the evening of October 30, 1938, provided the real basis of the science fiction magazine boom of that period. That the program may have helped give impetus to the spate of new publications is quite possible, but that it inspired them is impossible, since four new magazines … had been publicly announced as forthcoming before the date of the program.

Until wartime paper shortages curtailed publishers' optimism … [fifteen additional science-fiction magazines] would be added to the list. By contrast, before the boom there had been but four magazines in publication, and one of them was predominantly supernatural…. (p. 336)

The demands of this widening market naturally attracted to the field many authors who had never written science fiction, as well as lured back others who had been absent for a long period. Most important, it encouraged the development of new talent, writers destined to remake the form of science fiction.

The key figure in this process is John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science-Fiction. Campbell … had become the editor of Astounding Stories in 1937. Though only twenty-eight, he was regarded then as one of the half-dozen greatest living writers of science fiction. He had established his first reputation by composing great super-science epics which...

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Sam Moskowitz

Campbell was a true giant in popularity among those authors who had grown out of the science-fiction magazines. The Mightiest Machine … epitomized the type of story that had created his followng. Mighty spaceships move at speeds faster than light from star system to star system, warping themselves through another dimension at the whim of Aarn Munro, a mental and physical superman, descendant of earthmen raised on the surface of the planet Jupiter. He custom-contrives universe-shaking energy weapons to combat alien fleets in universe-wide battles. Like Edward E. Smith, Campbell was undeniably a literary Houdini in the mind-staggering art, convincingly manipulating stupendous forces on a cosmic scale.

Time was running out on macrocosmic spectaculars like The Mightiest Machine; changes were occurring in plotting and writing science fiction that were to make the story a period piece before it was completed; yet its impact was so profound on a youthful Englishman, Arthur C. Clarke, that nearly twenty years later he would use a race similar to [Campbell's villains] … in his greatest critical success, Childhood's End….

Notwithstanding, Campbell's major contribution in both storytelling and influence was yet to come. More than is true of most writers, his early life and background shaped the direction he would take in specific plot ideas as well as in method. (p. 28)

[As a student of physics and chemistry at MIT, Campbell's reading tastes instinctively gravitated toward science fiction.] When science-fiction authors' imaginations showed signs of breaking out of the confines of the solar system, Campbell was enthralled. Smith's The Skylark of Space established a lifelong admiration for that author and an immediate desire to emulate.

Stemming from his awareness that science-fiction authors frequently made obvious scientific errors, his first writing attempt, a short story called Invaders from the Infinite, was aimed at correcting one of the more widespread misconceptions: that there would be a problem in heating an interplanetary ship in space. The story, sent to AMAZING STORIES, was accepted. Elated, Campbell pounded out a longer story, When the Atoms Failed, and that, too, was accepted. His enthusiasm waned, however, as the months passed and neither story appeared…. Campbell decided to visit T. O'Conor Sloane, the editor who had been in correspondence with him, and straighten out the matter. (pp. 31-2)

[Sloane] made the embryonic author at home and then owned up to the fact that the manuscript of Invaders from the Infinite had been lost….

Well, his career would have to be launched with When the Atoms Failed…. (p. 32)

Sloane more than made up for the disappointment by carrying an illustration for When the Atoms Failed on the cover of the issue in which it appeared and beginning the blurb of the story: "Our new author, who is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shows marvelous ability at combining science with romance, evolving a piece of fiction of real scientific and literary value."

The story did contain original ideas. First, though the idea of thinking brains in robots had been used frequently before, the concept of a stationary supercalculator, like today's Univac, hd not appeared in the magazines. Scientists in science fiction, never sissies, previously disdained to use even an adding machine in whipping together mathematical concepts destined to change the very shape of the cosmos. Not so Steven Waterson, Campbell's hero, who, improving on the Integraph, an electrical machine capable of calculus in use at MIT in 1930, built himself a pre-space-age electronic "brain" to aid in his problems.

Secondly, it delved into the greater power to be derived from material energy—the actual destruction of matter—as opposed to atomic energy. This knowledge enables Steven Waterson to defeat a group of invading Martians, force the nations of the earth to scrap all their weapons, and set himself up as "president" of the planet. (pp. 32-3)

[The Metal Horde, a sequel to When the Atoms Failed,] attempted to show what would happen if calculators were refined to the point where they could reason. Scientist Steven Waterson, in the course of the story, defeats and destroys a thinking machine … that has traveled through space for 1600 years accompanied by a brood of obedient mechanicals intent upon setting up a world of machines on Earth.

Elements of J. Schossel's The Second Swarm … are apparent in this story and in The Voice of the Void…. This novelette tells of a ten-billion-year-old civilization on Earth, confronted by the final cooling of the sun, which utilizes "phase velocity" as a means of going faster than light and escaping to another system. (pp. 33-4)

Utilizing this principle, earth ships, in an attempt to colonize planets around the star Betelguese, fight a series of battles with sentient force-creatures in that system. Though mindless, the force creatures adapt to a series of ever-more-potent weapons and give the earth men quite a tussle before they are exterminated. (p. 34)

The names (Arcot, Wade, and Morey) of a group of characters in Piracy Preferred … provided the label for a major series that was to catapult Campbell to the top rank among science-fiction writers. In the world of 2126, a super criminal, Wade, with the technology to make his high-speed rocket ship invisible, uses a gas that will penetrate metal and temporarily paralyze all who come in contact with it, for his antisocial activities. He puckishly leaves shock certificates for Piracy, Inc., in the amount of the money he steals.

A team of young geniuses—Richard Arcot, a physicist; William Morey, mathematician and son of the president of Transcontinental Airways—in company with John Fuller, a design engineer, chase the pirate into an orbital trap around the earth. The culprit is permitted to join the group instead of being punished. (pp. 34-5)

The group, in a ship powered by a new discovery which causes all molecules to move in the same direction and uses the power derived from the heat so created, takes off for the planet Venus in Solarite…. There they find two warring races and side with one against the other, employing Wade's invisibility device and paralyzing gas in the process. When the enemy fathoms the secret of invisibility and uses it against them, pellets of radium paint are employed to locate them, whereupon they are finished off with a molecular-motion weapon….

[In 1930 The Black Star Passes] focused attention on Campbell and launched him on his first high wave of popularity, which was to challenge that of E. E. Smith. (p. 35)

In The Black Star Passes, an ancient race of hydrogen-breathing creatures living on a planet circling a vagrant dead star sweeps close to our solar system and decides to transfer to a fresh planet, Earth. In thousands of words of thrilling action (and many thousand dull words of scientific gobbldy-gook) they are defeated by the team of Arcot, Wade, Morey, and Fuller and retire to their retreating star. However, the battle has instilled them with new spirit and they are determined that the next star they pass they will conquer.

The Islands of Space … [1931] was Campbell's first full-length novel and he let out all the stops. Exceeding the speed of light by bending the curvature of space, Arcot, Wade, and Morey in their good ship Ancient Mariner tour a succession of worlds, finding new wonders and challenges on each. Finally, lost in an infinity of light, they seek to find a race that can guide them, and in the process they help decide a war on a world ten-million light years away from earth.

The novel that followed, Invaders from the Infinite … [1932], represented the apex of approval for Campbell's super-science stories. This time, a tremendous ship manned by canines that have risen high on the evolutionary ladder lands on Earth to seek help against a universal menace. In the ne plus ultra of intergalactic ships, Thought, Arcot, Wade, and Morey search the far-flung star clusters for an answer to the danger, finally discovering it after as pyrotechnic a series of space battles as has ever appeared in science fiction. Especially gripping is one episode illustrating the power of suggestion on the course of...

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Damon Knight

In the pantheon of magazine science fiction there is no more complex and puzzling figure than that of John Campbell, and certainly none odder. Under his own name,… he wrote gadgety, fast-moving, cosmic-scaled science fiction in the E. E. Smith tradition, and became, after Smith himself, its acknowledged master; as "Don A. Stuart," he began a one-man literary revival which eventually made that tradition obsolete. As editor of Astounding, he forced the magazine through a series of metamorphoses…. More clearly than anyone, Campbell saw that the field was growing up and would only be handicapped by the symbols of its pulpwood infancy; he deliberately built up a readership among practicing scientists and...

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Theodore Sturgeon

John W. Campbell Jr., escaped from MIT and, a fine traditional sf writer himself (and for a time, as Don A. Stuart, a superb fantasist), took over the editorial chair of Astounding Science Fiction thirty years ago. In less than a couple of years he attracted to himself and the magazine (the same thing, really) a nucleus of extraordinary writers. A few had been around for a while—Simak, Leinster, Lieber; the others he discovered or invented or, it sometimes seems, manufactured. Pratt and deCamp, L. Ron Hubbard …, van Vogt, del Rey, Heinlein, Hamilton—Campbell, through these men, created what has been called a Golden Age of sf.

He was a superb and provocative teacher of science and of...

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Richard Lupoff

An illuminating moment in the schism between the science fiction establishment and its foes came about in 1967 and 1968, when the science fiction community, like the rest of American society, engaged in loud debate over the Vietnam war. Starting at the Milford Conference in August 1967 (an annual science fiction writers' workshop) the proposal was made that science fiction writers express themselves on the issue of the war. (p. 26)

The final result was not one but two statements, which appeared as paid advertisements in 1968 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction. An examination of the signers of the two statements is illuminating as to the...

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Richard Hodgens

[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally published in a different form in Film Quarterly, Winter 1959.]

[The Thing from Another World, a 1951 film released in the United States as The Thing,] was based on a short novel by John W. Campbell, Jr.,… [entitled] "Who Goes There?" The story is regarded as one of the most original and effective science fiction stories, subspecies "horror." Its premise is convincing, its development logical, its characterization intelligent, and its suspense considerable. Of these qualities the film retained one or two minutes of suspense. The story and the film are poles apart. Probably for timely interest, the Thing...

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Back in the very early days of science fiction, everyone knew it was impossible to make a living in the field. There were only two SF magazines being published…. Furthermore, no science fiction books were being published; so once a story appeared in a magazine, there would be no further income from it.

Writing science fiction was a hobby, not a career, and nobody questioned that obvious fact—nobody but John W. Campbell! Against all logic, he not only determined to make science fiction his life's work, but he succeeded. It took three careers to achieve his goal, during which he became almost single-handedly the creator of modern science fiction. And eventually, others with less genius or...

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Dan Miller

In the pantheon of science fiction, Campbell ranks slightly higher than a deity, yet most readers new to SF know little of the basis for his reputation. This definitive collection of short fiction [The Best of John W. Campbell] is a partial remedy…. The anthology shows Campbell's growth from a writer of competent pot boilers into a mature craftsman of a sophistication and professionalism seldom found in early science fiction. Highlights include "Twilight," everybody's idea of an SF classic; "Forgetfulness," about the evolution of knowledge; and "Who Goes There?," a suspense-horror story considered one of the best SF novellas of all time. The celebration of Campbell's other achievements—as editor of...

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Algis Budrys

It's becoming increasingly obvious that we need a long, objective look at John W. Campbell, Jr. But we're not likely to get one.

When he was alive, Campbell was mind-numbingly complex but greatly influential because he could be seen taking major actions which could be labelled simply. Between 1932 and 1938 he made himself the co-equal of E. E. Smith among fabulists of technological optimism. "Superscience fiction" realized its full potential at his hands, and created a body of readers who, some years later, would include writers who sincerely believed that SF was technological in basis.

At the very same time, he was incubating "Don A. Stuart," who, beginning with the short story,...

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Algis Budrys

[Recently,] Roger Elwood walked into a bookstore and was introduced to an old friend of John Campbell's…. [During the course of the conversation] it developed there were three hitherto unheard-of, unpublished, forty-year-old JWC, Jr. novellas. The guess was they had probably been intended for Hugo Gernsback and shelved when Campbell was hired by Astounding….

The novellas are Marooned, All, and The Space Beyond. They are now out, under a nice Sternback astronomical painting, as The Space Beyond,… and represent the most important SF event ever made available for … [the price]. (p. 27)

The writing is pure pre-Stuart Campbell, right down to the...

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Jack P. Rawlins

[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was originally presented as a lecture at the Eaton Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy at the University of California, Riverside, in 1980.]

[In trying to determine the relationship between fantasy and science fiction, fantasy] honors the emotive side of the self, what I call the nighttime perspective. The extreme alternative is literature devoted to the exercise of the daytime powers of the intellect. Here my quintessential specimen is John Campbell's "Who Goes There?" The dramatic situation is much like that of [The Invasion of the] Body Snatchers, but the art teaches us a very different response. Again, an alien thing capable of...

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Thomas J. Remington

Introspection is a bug-bear that affects most genres of popular culture once the purveyors and consumers of the genre begin to take themselves seriously. Usually this introspection takes as its points of departure attempts to define historically just exactly what the genre is; then through the establishment of rules for inclusion and exclusion it tries to demarcate those practitioners who belong (or don't belong) in the genre.

Science Fiction has been experiencing such growing pains for some time now…. (pp. 58-9)

The clearest example is Astounding Science Fiction: July, 1939, a facsimile reprint of "the first 'great' issue" of that classic SF pulp "produced under the...

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