Campbell, John W(ood), Jr.

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Algis Budrys

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1593

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, "Twilight," and then in a brief but energetic succession of other short work … set an example which shocked many of his colleagues into re-evaluating their fundamental ideas of what could be written as pulp magazine science fiction. And he created a body of readers who, some years later, would include new writers who believed the essence of good SF was moodiness and the inclusion of alien characters who talked like thanatopsical eighteenth century English gentlemen.

In 1938, for his pains, he received the husk of Astounding Stories of Super Science and by 1940 could clearly be seen to be that almost nonexistent creature, an editor. Within the exact meaning, SF has never had another…. (pp. 46-7)

Within a small group of persons in our time—Harold Ross, Helen Gurley Brown, Hugh Hefner, Ben Bradlee, a very few others—Campbell stands as tall as any in that company. None of them could do the trick any better than he could. With minor exceptions, most of them insignificant, all newsstand SF between 1940 and about 1960 was either apparently Campbellian or, when not, consciously and sometimes painfully not.

Galaxy's entire early success was founded on giving relief to writers who hadn't been able to live with Campbell or live without him. (pp. 47-8)

[The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction], as our name might indicate, was launched to satisfy Anthony Boucher's longing for Campbell's lost Unknown…. [Boucher] established a certain special tone which this magazine has never lost. Nevertheless, it was Campbell who had founded Unknown, along with the idea that newsstand SF could fluently incorporate both pseudotechnological and magical fantasies from the imagination of the same basic set of contributors….

[Until the 1950s] Campbell operated alone upon the hearts and minds of his writers and of his readers, who firmly believed that any newsstand SF not in astounding SCIENCE FICTION was a sometimes interesting but always lesser sort of thing.

Campbell's monopoly of ideas, techniques and thumb-rules thus extended itself to his own analytical faculties. If he understood it, it existed. Nothing else existed. To converse with Campbell for any length of time, it was necessary to make the same assumptions. Once made, they permitted a relationship either harmonious or not, but viable. (p. 48)

The major features of his individuality were footed in a code of manners or, better, the concept that there was a code of manners somewhere, absolute and refined out to the last decimal place of objectivity, so that a gentleman's principal duty consisted of discovering and mapping it, guided by his increasingly educated basic instincts.

In that light, the emergence of moody, sometimes querulous, often eironiphilic Don A. Stuart from universe-wrecking John Campbell makes some sense. Superscience fiction demands protagonists of unwavering moral rigor; intelligences which at a snap can detect the essence of evil and bend all their energies to expunging its taint wholesale forthwith unrelentingly. The fast-action format requires it, just as it simplifies all interactions into Total-Good-versus-Total-Evil for the sake of plot celerity. This is the further consequence: Since the villains, to be convincingly dangerous, must be as technologically capable as the heroes, but the heroes win, the reader and writer must collaborate in the unspoken assumption that right and might are indistinguishable. The mightiest machine is the goodest machine….

There is a detectable specific link between the prewar economic depression and the nature of the "modern" science fiction of the 1940s. More specifically, there is a link between John W. Campbell, Jr., universe-wrecker, and John W. Campbell, Jr., editor—ie., universe-definer. That link is Don A. Stuart, child of the effect of the Depression on Campbell the writer of successful, comparatively lucrative pulp fiction of questionable aspiration and juvenile logic. (p. 49)

It's not that I think Campbell deliberately created Stuart for the purpose of worrying at the problem of understanding problems. That's not how creation works. (p. 50)

But Stuart was assigned the natural study of problems. Beginning with "Twilight" and throughout his career, Stuart dealt with or at least catalogued such questions as, for one, the effect on problem-solving Humanity of solving the problem of building problem-solving machines; for another, the situation in which the researcher is the last to realize the true practical value of his incidental discoveries; for a third the problem of not being able to recognize valid information on advanced information-gathering systems when equipped with inadequate means for evaluating information; for a fourth the problem of not being able to distinguish at any given moment between two statically identical affects, one genuine and one equally genuine but not immutable. Etc. It is also noteworthy that all Don A. Stuart stories can simply be described as allegories of failed communication. Clearly, they come from some single, though complex sector of the man's self-image, and probably represent his major intellectual preoccupation of the late 1930s.

When, in late 1938, he was given Astounding to work with, what we soon got was the result of a confluence of factors that had been in considerable tension…. [Goodbye] not only to John W. Campbell, Jr.'s superscience fiction, but to all superscience fiction except for that of E. E. Smith, Campbell's preceptor and only rival in that art,… and goodbye to "Don A. Stuart," the writer, (but Hello! Hallo! Halloo! to John W. Campbell, Jr., editor, preceptor, problem definer, who to the end of his days editorialized exactly as Stuart plotted, and who cuffed and snarled at his writers or charmed them with his great warm bulk, and drove them from tree to tree of his choosing, some of them no doubt thinking that they were simply cooperating with him, and that they were fully his equals, even if as yet slightly smaller versions of him).

Obviously, no one who knew him well enough to work for him at any length could have retained an objective view of him…. (pp. 50-1)

A long-standing fact that is only emerging into common unconsciousness since his death is the really large number of major talents who could never relate to him or could work with him only at a distance, or lost their ability to work with him. (p. 51)

And some of the people he'd been publishing right along, for one reason or another, were as mediocre or as bad as his rejects. He was not infallible; or, rather, his standards are not immediately perceptible by others.

But, obviously, no one who failed to feel his effect, or who rebelled against his effect, or lost interest in his effect, is apt to understand matters well enough to tell us exactly what he did and how he did it. (pp. 51-2)

This is no more than the difficulty history has with any major figure. But by its very nature, the dimension of the difficulty in some way measures the pervasive importance of the man. (p. 52)

So from where to begin to understand John Campbell? I would start with two novels: The Black Star Passes, and The Moon is Hell, and next I would go to The Best of John W. Campbell.

Lester del Rey knew Campbell well. But don't expect any definitive or comprehensive analyses of JWC in the introduction [see essay above]…. Instead, he gives a chronological account of Campbell's professional life, sticking to the established facts, accounting for the evolving nature of the stories collected here.

These begin with "The Last Evolution," offered as a sample of Campbell, Jr., superscience writing, and then progress through "Twilight," "The Machine," "The Invaders," "Rebellion," "Blindness," "Elimination," and "Forgetfulness" to "Out of Night" and "Cloak of Aesir," and finally "Who Goes There?" which is the finest SF suspense novella ever written. There is one editorial, to illustrate that side of John's work. (pp. 51-2)

It's striking that—as del Rey says, not in so many words—Campbell was sometimes a visibly workmanlike writer. The opening paragraphs of "Elimination" are ludicrous as literary technique. And his idea of what constitutes mood and feeling was derived not from life but from a book by someone else.

But neither of these features makes any difference to Campbell's hard-driving storytelling ability, or to any reader's potential ability to enjoy this work. Except for "The Last Evolution," and a few text references to propeller-driven aircraft and that class of minor anachronism, nothing here would be remarkable if published for the first time today, except in the sense that it would be remarkably competent. If Don A. Stuart had never existed in this field, they would be dynamite, and sometimes beautiful.

So if you read this book, you will have the essence of what Campbell was able to do to his field as a writer. What he did to other writers—as an editor and as a grey eminence—is best found out by listening to them…. (p. 53)

Algis Budrys, in a review of "The Best of John W. Campbell," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 51, No. 6, December, 1976, pp. 46-53.

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Dan Miller


Algis Budrys