Campbell, John W(ood), Jr. Algis Budrys

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Algis Budrys

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,593 words.)