Damon Knight

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700

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 technicians; he made himself the apostle of genuine science in science fiction…. (pp. 34-5)

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In the hasty, ill-composed and ill-considered introduction to … Who Goes There?, Campbell says of the first Don A. Stuart story, "Twilight," that "it was entirely different from any science fiction that had appeared before." He ought to have added, "in Gernsback's Amazing Stories or any of its successors"; so qualified, the statement would have fallen at least somewhere near the truth.

"Twilight" is what Campbell says it is, a pure mood story—and as such is the lineal descendant of H. G. Wells' "The Time Machine," Rudyard Kipling's "A Matter of Fact" (both circa 1890), Stephen Vincent Benét's "By the Waters of Babylon" and many others. By the late thirties,… magazine science fiction was fast settling towards a dismal status as just another variety of pulp; Campbell's great achievement was to rescue it from its own overspecialized preoccupations and start it back toward the mainstream of literature. Although he later tried to nudge the pendulum the other way, the movement has continued; the revolution is a success.

The second Campbell-Stuart collection, Cloak of Aesir, contains seven stories that justify the author's cheerful boast: every one is a landmark in science fiction history. The germs of countless later stories are in them; indeed, it seems reasonable to doubt that the field ever could have developed as it has if they had not been written.

All these stories belong to what might be called the "Oh, yeah?" school of science fiction, though they are so cloaked in the Stuart mood-writing and in what still seems to me, in some of them, a real beauty, that probably few people realized it till Campbell himself pointed it out.

"Forgetfulness," for instance, is nothing at bottom but an irreverent iconoclast's-eye view of the proposition, "Machine civilization represents progress." So is "The Machine"; and "The Invaders" takes a similar look at "It would be awful if the Earth were conquered from outer space." "The Escape" is a "tragic" love story with a happy ending—and Campbell defies you to prove it isn't.

Campbell, a capable writer, never has been a stylist, and he didn't alter his natural prose style, with its short, blurted, agrammatical sentences, for the purpose of creating "Don A. Stuart." What makes the difference is partly the tone—a kind of high-pitched sing-song—and partly the point of view, a subtle thing that resists exact definition. The visual quality of every writer's work differs somewhat from every other's; probably it also differs, at least as widely, between one reader and the next, so that if I say that the Don A. Stuart quality, to me, is like a series of images shifting in and out of focus through a pearl-gray haze, nobody else is likely to sit up and say, "That's exactly it," least of all the author; readers who aren't visually oriented will not even know what I'm talking about. But the quality does exist and, I should think, is capable of being detected in some form by almost everybody; it's an important factor in making these stories what they are.

Clearly enough, the Don A. Stuart stories were only one experiment among many to Campbell; but modern readers may find in these two volumes [Who Goes There? and Cloak of Aesir] his most important and lasting contribution to the literature. (pp. 35-6)

Damon Knight, "Campbell and His Decade," in his In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction, revised edition, Advent: Publishers, 1967, pp. 34-46.

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