Campbell, John W(ood), Jr. Introduction - Essay


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.)