Campbell, John W(ood), Jr.

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1288

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 science fiction was the idea of an invading race taking over Earth. Stuart took a good look at that in "The Invaders." But suppose the invaders made slaves of the people of Earth; everyone knew that slavery was the worst thing that could happen to people. Well, maybe; Stuart decided to examine that proposition and see just what was the worst that could happen to whom. This story was entitled "Rebellion."

These three stories were planned together under the general title of "The Teachers," though that was never actually used for them. But one way or another, they all have the common theme of someone teaching a lesson to someone else, though just what the results might be wasn't as certain as it might seem.

"Blindness" is a strange examination of the idea that the discovery of simple, cheap, atomic fusion power would be the greatest of boons to the human race. It is also a moving story of a man who makes a tremendous sacrifice for science—and what his reward may be. And "Elimination" looks at man's ancient wish dream to know what the future may bring.

Campbell, as Stuart, was leading science fiction away from the old, accepted dreams of science fiction. He was blazing the way toward a time when a writer must look at every postulate and examine it as if it were a new idea. But he was doing far more. He never forgot that he had begun by trying to give the feeling and humanity to his stories that had been lacking. More than his ideas, the quality of his writing excited all who read them.

Perhaps this is best shown in "Forgetfulness." On the surface, this story is a bit like "The Invaders"—an alien race comes to Earth to find mankind living a simple, pastoral, almost childlike life, surrounded by the remnants of a magnificent civilization it has forgotten. It's all handled simply, directly, and with a feeling on the part of the alien that the reader can share. (pp. 2-4)

"Out of Night" and "Cloak of Aesir" really go together to make up a short novel. Again Campbell gives us aliens and struggling humans—but there is no simple right and wrong, no obvious warfare, no previously overused cliché situation. And at the end, as one sits with the Sarn Mother, it is the emotional resolution that remains, not the simple chain of events.

"Who Goes There?" is a suspense story, something neither Campbell nor his alter ego, Stuart, had tried before…. [It] was chosen by the Science Fiction Writers of America as first among the greatest novellas of all time.

In only ten years, John Campbell had become two of the greatest writers of science fiction. And then (except for one short fantasy novel written to fill a magazine he edited) both careers came to an end, as he began a third which was to be even more influential than any amount of writing could have been—so influential, indeed, that a crater on Mars has now been named Campbell to honor him.

Toward the end of 1937, he was asked to be the editor of Astounding Stories…. As a writer under either pen name, Campbell had been one of the best; but as an editor, he quickly became the greatest. If that is a personal judgment, it is one shared by most writers and editors in the field. (p. 4)

Lester del Rey, "Introduction: The Three Careers of John W. Campbell," in The Best of John W. Campbell by John W. Campbell, edited by Lester del Rey, Nelson Doubleday, Inc., 1976, pp. 1-6.

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