Campbell, John W(ood), Jr. Sam Moskowitz

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Sam Moskowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Campbell was a true giant in popularity among those authors who had grown out of the science-fiction magazines. The Mightiest Machine … epitomized the type of story that had created his followng. Mighty spaceships move at speeds faster than light from star system to star system, warping themselves through another dimension at the whim of Aarn Munro, a mental and physical superman, descendant of earthmen raised on the surface of the planet Jupiter. He custom-contrives universe-shaking energy weapons to combat alien fleets in universe-wide battles. Like Edward E. Smith, Campbell was undeniably a literary Houdini in the mind-staggering art, convincingly manipulating stupendous forces on a cosmic scale.

Time was running out on macrocosmic spectaculars like The Mightiest Machine; changes were occurring in plotting and writing science fiction that were to make the story a period piece before it was completed; yet its impact was so profound on a youthful Englishman, Arthur C. Clarke, that nearly twenty years later he would use a race similar to [Campbell's villains] … in his greatest critical success, Childhood's End….

Notwithstanding, Campbell's major contribution in both storytelling and influence was yet to come. More than is true of most writers, his early life and background shaped the direction he would take in specific plot ideas as well as in method. (p. 28)

[As a student of physics and chemistry at MIT, Campbell's reading tastes instinctively gravitated toward science fiction.] When science-fiction authors' imaginations showed signs of breaking out of the confines of the solar system, Campbell was enthralled. Smith's The Skylark of Space established a lifelong admiration for that author and an immediate desire to emulate.

Stemming from his awareness that science-fiction authors frequently made obvious scientific errors, his first writing attempt, a short story called Invaders from the Infinite, was aimed at correcting one of the more widespread misconceptions: that there would be a problem in heating an interplanetary ship in space. The story, sent to AMAZING STORIES, was accepted. Elated, Campbell pounded out a longer story, When the Atoms Failed, and that, too, was accepted. His enthusiasm waned, however, as the months passed and neither story appeared…. Campbell decided to visit T. O'Conor Sloane, the editor who had been in correspondence with him, and straighten out the matter. (pp. 31-2)

[Sloane] made the embryonic author at home and then owned up to the fact that the manuscript of Invaders from the Infinite had been lost….

Well, his career would have to be launched with When the Atoms Failed…. (p. 32)

Sloane more than made up for the disappointment by carrying an illustration for When the Atoms Failed on the cover of the issue in which it appeared and beginning the blurb of the story: "Our new author, who is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shows marvelous ability at combining science with romance, evolving a piece of fiction of real scientific and literary value."

The story did contain original ideas. First, though the idea of thinking brains in robots had been used frequently before, the concept of a stationary supercalculator, like today's Univac, hd not appeared in the magazines. Scientists in science fiction, never sissies, previously disdained to use even an adding machine in whipping together mathematical concepts destined to change the very shape of the cosmos. Not so Steven Waterson, Campbell's hero, who, improving on the Integraph, an electrical machine capable of calculus in use at MIT in 1930, built himself a pre-space-age electronic "brain" to aid in his problems.

Secondly, it delved into the greater power to be derived from material energy—the actual destruction of matter—as opposed to atomic energy. This knowledge enables Steven Waterson to defeat a group of invading Martians, force the nations of the earth to scrap all their weapons, and set himself up as "president" of the planet. (pp....

(The entire section is 3,528 words.)