Campbell, John W(ood), Jr. LESTER del REY

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 less folly found it possible to follow the trail he blazed. (p. 1)

In those days, the science-fiction stories had almost no literary value. They were crudely written, at best, and there was little attempt at characterization. The people were merely used as props to discuss the heavy use of superscience and to make the simple plots work. The important things in science fiction were the wonders of future science and the unlimited possibility for human progress. The best-liked stories dealt with adventures far out in space, where men discovered other somewhat human races and warred mightily with evil invaders of monstrous form.

Campbell took the formula and carried it to its ultimate. His science began at the far edge of current theories and went on from there at breakneck pace. By the end of 1934 he had written six novels…. In these novels, his heroes roamed all space and beyond into other universes. New inventions seemed to be created on every page. In the end, his heroes could even create entire universes just by "thinking" into their ultimate machines.

I have included in this volume ["The Best of John W. Campbell"] only one short story from this period: "The Last Evolution."… It shows all the crudity and lack of characterization of the period. But it also shows the scope of Campbell's imagination and his originality. As far as I know, this is the first story ever to deal with robots as more than complex tools or slaves for human convenience. It would be another ten years or more before other writers could accept Campbell's concept of possible evolution.

By the end of 1934, however, Campbell had used up almost every possibility to be found in the old formula. He wrote a few "John W. Campbell, Jr." stories after that, but the enthusiasm was gone. He could have gone on repeating himself, since his stories were still as popular as ever, but he was never content to be a follower—even of himself. (pp. 1-2)

It's hard to be sure, but Campbell's early work does not indicate that he was a naturally gifted writer in the usual sense. But he could learn…. So he set about mastering the ability to write science fiction as it had never been done; and because the story turned out to be unlike anything else he had written, he chose to publish it under the pen name of Don A. Stuart. Thus his "Stuart" career began before his "Campbell" one was ending.

The result was "Twilight," a story that was chosen in 1970 by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the great classics of the literature. However, the story was hardly an instant success. Every editor in the field turned it down, until F. Orlin Tremaine became editor of Astounding Stories. It finally appeared in the November 1934 issue, when the readers gave it almost unanimous praise and demanded more from this "new" writer…. By the end of 1935, Stuart was even more popular than Campbell.

Stuart, as Campbell later put it, was an annoying kind of writer. He refused to take the standard axioms for granted. When everyone knew that something was so, Stuart began questioning it. Every science-fiction reader wished for a day when machines would make everything easy for everybody; that would be utopia, of course. So Stuart wrote "The Machine" to show how things might really be.

One of the standard horrors of...

(The entire section is 1,288 words.)