Campbell, John W(ood), Jr.

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Richard Lupoff

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631

An illuminating moment in the schism between the science fiction establishment and its foes came about in 1967 and 1968, when the science fiction community, like the rest of American society, engaged in loud debate over the Vietnam war. Starting at the Milford Conference in August 1967 (an annual science fiction writers' workshop) the proposal was made that science fiction writers express themselves on the issue of the war. (p. 26)

The final result was not one but two statements, which appeared as paid advertisements in 1968 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction. An examination of the signers of the two statements is illuminating as to the state of science fiction, a state which has continued to evolve since 1967–68 but which has not been essentially altered since then.

The "war" ad carried 72 signatures including those of Poul Anderson, Leigh Brackett, John W. Campbell, Hal Clement, L. Sprague de Camp, Edmond Hamilton, Robert A. Heinlein, Joe L. Hensley, R. A. Lafferty, Sam Moskowitz, Larry Niven and Jack Williamson. The "peace" ad carried 82 signatures including those of Isaac Asimov, Peter S. Beagle, James Blish, Anthony Boucher, Ray Bradbury, Terry Carr, Samuel R. Delany, Lester del Rey, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Harlan Ellison, Philip José Farmer, Harry Harrison, Damon Knight, Ursula K. LeGuin, Judith Merril, Joanna Russ, Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm and Donald A. Wollheim. (pp. 26-7)

What is more significant is the fact that every author or editor who signed the "war" ad was a traditionalist. Whatever else divides these traditionalists, they are united by their engineering mentality and its preference for violent, repressive solutions to the political problems posed in its novels. These people seem convinced that the application of the right materials and the right forces will solve any problem. It is obvious in their fiction.

The late John W. Campbell was a clear example of this mentality. A former engineering student at MIT, Campbell rose to prominence as a science fiction writer in the 1930s. He wrote a number of impressive mood pieces and some intriguing intellectual puzzle stories. (One of the latter, "Who Goes There?" was adapted for the screen as The Thing: it is one of the classic 1950s science-fiction-as-paranoia films …).

But Campbell hit his stride in a series of superscientific technologically oriented novels like The Black Star Passes (1930) and The Mightiest Machine (1934). In these stories human values are absent, technology is glorified, force and destruction are implicit in the solution of all problems. While Campbell was the editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine (from 1937 until his death in July 1971, although the magazine was renamed Analog), he "discovered" and guided the development of many of the leading authors of the late 1940s and '50s, contributed much to the development of science fiction, and boosted the circulation of his magazine to close to 100,000 copies, triple that of its nearest competitors.

Unfortunately, with the passing of time, Campbell fell increasingly prey to assorted crackpot and rightist notions. In 1947 he introduced to his readers L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, "the new science of the mind." The literature and procedures of Dianetics reveals it to be little other than a simplified version of orthodox Freudian theory—but restated in engineering-like terms, and offered with absolute guarantees of success. Later Campbell promoted the Hieronymous Machine—a device for concentrating psychic energy—and the Dean Drive, a sort of perpetual motion machine for powering spaceships. Still later Campbell's editorials "proved" that slavery was a desirable institution, that nonwhites are inherently inferior to whites, that the whole ecology/environmentalist movement was hysterical silliness, and that the four students killed at Kent State brought it on themselves and deserved what they got. (p. 27)

Richard Lupoff, "Science Fiction Hawks and Doves: Whose Future Will You Buy?" in Ramparts, Vol. 10, No. 8, February, 1972, pp. 25-30.∗

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