Campbell, John W(ood), Jr.

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Sam Moskowitz

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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...

(This entire section contains 3528 words.)

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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. 32-3)

[The Metal Horde, a sequel to When the Atoms Failed,] attempted to show what would happen if calculators were refined to the point where they could reason. Scientist Steven Waterson, in the course of the story, defeats and destroys a thinking machine … that has traveled through space for 1600 years accompanied by a brood of obedient mechanicals intent upon setting up a world of machines on Earth.

Elements of J. Schossel's The Second Swarm … are apparent in this story and in The Voice of the Void…. This novelette tells of a ten-billion-year-old civilization on Earth, confronted by the final cooling of the sun, which utilizes "phase velocity" as a means of going faster than light and escaping to another system. (pp. 33-4)

Utilizing this principle, earth ships, in an attempt to colonize planets around the star Betelguese, fight a series of battles with sentient force-creatures in that system. Though mindless, the force creatures adapt to a series of ever-more-potent weapons and give the earth men quite a tussle before they are exterminated. (p. 34)

The names (Arcot, Wade, and Morey) of a group of characters in Piracy Preferred … provided the label for a major series that was to catapult Campbell to the top rank among science-fiction writers. In the world of 2126, a super criminal, Wade, with the technology to make his high-speed rocket ship invisible, uses a gas that will penetrate metal and temporarily paralyze all who come in contact with it, for his antisocial activities. He puckishly leaves shock certificates for Piracy, Inc., in the amount of the money he steals.

A team of young geniuses—Richard Arcot, a physicist; William Morey, mathematician and son of the president of Transcontinental Airways—in company with John Fuller, a design engineer, chase the pirate into an orbital trap around the earth. The culprit is permitted to join the group instead of being punished. (pp. 34-5)

The group, in a ship powered by a new discovery which causes all molecules to move in the same direction and uses the power derived from the heat so created, takes off for the planet Venus in Solarite…. There they find two warring races and side with one against the other, employing Wade's invisibility device and paralyzing gas in the process. When the enemy fathoms the secret of invisibility and uses it against them, pellets of radium paint are employed to locate them, whereupon they are finished off with a molecular-motion weapon….

[In 1930 The Black Star Passes] focused attention on Campbell and launched him on his first high wave of popularity, which was to challenge that of E. E. Smith. (p. 35)

In The Black Star Passes, an ancient race of hydrogen-breathing creatures living on a planet circling a vagrant dead star sweeps close to our solar system and decides to transfer to a fresh planet, Earth. In thousands of words of thrilling action (and many thousand dull words of scientific gobbldy-gook) they are defeated by the team of Arcot, Wade, Morey, and Fuller and retire to their retreating star. However, the battle has instilled them with new spirit and they are determined that the next star they pass they will conquer.

The Islands of Space … [1931] was Campbell's first full-length novel and he let out all the stops. Exceeding the speed of light by bending the curvature of space, Arcot, Wade, and Morey in their good ship Ancient Mariner tour a succession of worlds, finding new wonders and challenges on each. Finally, lost in an infinity of light, they seek to find a race that can guide them, and in the process they help decide a war on a world ten-million light years away from earth.

The novel that followed, Invaders from the Infinite … [1932], represented the apex of approval for Campbell's super-science stories. This time, a tremendous ship manned by canines that have risen high on the evolutionary ladder lands on Earth to seek help against a universal menace. In the ne plus ultra of intergalactic ships, Thought, Arcot, Wade, and Morey search the far-flung star clusters for an answer to the danger, finally discovering it after as pyrotechnic a series of space battles as has ever appeared in science fiction. Especially gripping is one episode illustrating the power of suggestion on the course of a battle, when emotions are magnified and projected by a special device. (pp. 35-6)

[Eventually, Campbell decided to try markets other than AMAZING STORIES.] He sold The Derelicts of Ganymede to WONDER STORIES [in 1932]…. The story is a satiric slap at the questionable ability of a business tycoon to come out on top if he lets a young man start on even keel.

This was followed by The Electronic Siege … featuring Captain Don Barclay, a physically powerful and mentally extraordinary Jovian prototype of Aarn Munro, who breaks up an illicit medical experimental station on a planetoid. He brought Don Barclay back again in Space Rays … to aid in the capture of a space pirate. Hugo Gernsback, the publisher, was moved to write a special editorial instead of the customary blurb for this story. Titled "Reasonableness in Science Fiction," it offered the opinion that Campbell was obviously writing a science-fiction burlesque:

If he has left out any colored rays, or any magical rays that could not immediately perform certain miraculous wonders, we are not aware of this shortcoming in this story…. We were tempted to rename the story 'Ray! Ray!' but thought better of it.

The truth was that Campbell wasn't burlesquing anybody. This was the way he always wrote. (pp. 36-7)

Subtly, though, a change was taking place in Campbell's thinking and writing. It was first evidenced in the introductory passages of The Black Star Passes, where an atmosphere of hopelessness and sympathy was engendered for the great people of a dying planet now thousands of years on the decline. It began to take form in The Last Evolution …, in which the courageous battle of thinking machines to save their creators from a cosmic menace, climaxing in the evolution of the mechanisms into energy consciousnesses of pure thought, raises them to an allegorical heaven. Our machines will be our friends to the last, inevitably outlive us, progress beyond us, and possibly even go to their just reward, Campbell suggests.

The Last Evolution marks the point of transition in Campbell's writing career, the change to stress on mood and writing technique from the superscientific action characteristic of past Campbell stories. (p. 38)

[He] set out to write a story in which mood and characterization would predominate and science would play a secondary role. He had in mind a story that would "sing," that would figuratively serve as a symphonic mood piece in words set to a science-fiction theme. This was the story; Twilight.

Seven million years from today, it is the twilight of man. A mighty civilization served by faithful automatic machinery continues to function: "When Earth is cold, and the Sun has died out, those machines will go on. When Earth begins to creak and break, those perfect, ceaseless machines will try to repair her—." No drive, no progress lies in the dwindling human race. Only stagnation. The man from our day, visiting this future, programs machines to work on the creation of a mechanism with built-in curiosity. The story suggests, as did The Last Evolution, that even if man goes, the machines can build their own civilization.

Despite Campbell's popularity, every magazine of early 1933 rejected the story and it went back into his files. Then, in late 1933, F. Orlin Tremaine assumed editorship of ASTOUNDING STORIES and began a drive for leadership in the field.

A high point in his dramatic bid was securing the third story in E. E. Smith's "Skylark" series, The Skylark of Valeron. The logical next step was to obtain Campbell, the leading contender for Smith's popularity. Tremaine wrote to Campbell, asking if he had a superscience story along the lines that had established his popularity. In 1933 Campbell had sold The Mightiest Machine to Sloane at AMAZING. Over a year had passed and Sloane had not published this story, nor had he yet scheduled another Campbell novel, Mother World. Campbell got Sloane to return the story and submitted it to Tremaine, who purchased it immediately.

Heartened, Campbell dusted off Twilight and sent it in. Tremaine went quietly mad about it and couldn't get it into print fast enough.

Twilight … could not be published under Campbell's own name for two reasons. First, most obviously it would destroy the build-up in progress for The Mightiest Machine. Secondly, it was so different in approach that it would disorient the readers accustomed to a certain style of story from Campbell. The problem was solved with a pen name, Don A. Stuart…. (pp. 36-8)

[Other authors had written earlier works with similar themes, yet] mood had never been the primary purpose in the presentations of the civilizations and cities of these other authors. Nor had anyone so completely attempted to canonize the machine. Over and over again, Campbell's message remained clear: The machine is not the enemy and ruination of man; it is his friend and protector.

Don A. Stuart bid fair to eclipse Campbell in popularity as a result of this single story, Twilight. Its appearance was to alter the pattern of science-fiction writing. (p. 40)

Stuart appeared again with Atomic Power …, a story in which men prevent the structure of our solar system from being blown up by atomcrackers in the macrocosmos. The lead story of the issue was the first installment of The Mightiest Machine, and a third story by Campbell in the same issue, The Irrelevant, resulted in months of debate in the readers' column, since he presented a theoretical evasion of the law of conservation of energy. This was published under the pseudonym Karl van Kampen…. (pp. 40-1)

[Blindness, published under the Stuart pseudonym,] was a poignant sketch of a scientist who loses his sight in space to bring the world the blessings of atomic energy, only to learn that inadvertently another discovery of his provides a cheaper power source. He dies embittered because the world does not want his atomic energy.

One of the most remarkable and underrated performances under the Stuart name was The Escape …, written as the result of an argument with a would-be writer as to whether or not it was possible to write a successful love story in the framework of science fiction. A girl who runs off with a boy she loves to escape marrying the selection of the Genetics Board is finally captured and brought back and psychologically reconditioned to "love" the "right" man. This remains one of the finest love stories science fiction has yet produced.

With The Mightiest Machine receiving reader accolades, Campbell thought sequels were in order. He wrote three, continuing the adventures of Aarn Munro and his companions. The first, a 15,000-word novelette, The Incredible Planet, utilized the well-worn device of losing his characters in space thus enabling them to stumble upon a world whose inhabitants have remained in suspended animation for 400 billion years; a second sequel, The Interstellar Search, finds the earthmen aiding a planet whose sun is about to become a nova; and in the final story, The Infinite Atom, they arrive home in time to block an invasion by creatures whose previous visit to earth gave rise to the centaur legends. (p. 41)

The three sequels to The Mightiest Machine eventually were published as … The Incredible Planet, in 1949.

Campbell was forced to give full emphasis to Don A. Stuart in a series which he called "The Teachers," but which never was so labeled, beginning … with The Machine. In this story, a thinking machine that has provided every comfort for men leaves the planet for their own good, forcing them to forage for themselves. (p. 42)

[The Invaders], a sequel to The Machine, describes a mankind reverted to savagery, easily enslaved by the Tharoo, a race from another world.

[Rebellion] finds the human race, through selective breeding, becomes more intelligent than the Tharoo, driving the invaders back off the planet.

The foregoing were not primarily mood stories, but they were adult fare—the predecessors of an entirely new type of science fiction.

In Night, a sequel to Twilight,… Campbell stirringly returned to the mood story. A man of today moves into the inconceivably distant future, when not only the sun but the stars themselves are literally burnt out. At his presence, machines from Neptune move to serve him, but he recognizes them for what they are: "This, I saw, was the last radiation of the heat of life from an already-dead body—the feel of life and warmth, imitation of life by a corpse," for man and all but the last dregs of universal energy are gone.

"You still wonder that we let man die out?" asked the machine. "It was best. In another brief million years he would have lost his high estate. It was best." Campbell had matured. A civilization of machines, he now understands, is but parody, movement without consciousness. It is not and can never be "the last evolution." (pp. 42-3)

Campbell's most successful story in 1936 was Frictional Losses …, under the Stuart byline, in which a method of eliminating friction proves the ultimate weapon against invaders from outer space.

WONDER STORIES had been sold by Gernsback to Standard Magazines and now appeared as THRILLING WONDER STORIES. Campbell arranged with the editor, Mort Weisinger, for a series of stories under his own name, built around the characters of Penton and Blake, two fugitives from Earth. The best of the group was the first, Brain Stealers of Mars … concerning Martians capable of converting themselves into an exact replica of any object or person. They provide a knotty problem for the visitors from Earth. This story and those that followed had the light note of humor and the wacky alien creatures which Stanley G. Weinbaum had recently made so popular.

Closest in quality to Night and Twilight proved to be Forgetfulness,… in which earthmen landing on a distant planet assume that a race is decadent because it has deserted the automatic cities and mighty power devices that man, in his current state of progress, associates with civilization.

Influential as well as entertaining was his novelette of the Sarn, Out of Night…. A matriarchial society of aliens who have conquered the earth and have ruled it for 4,000 years are challenged by Aesir, a black, amorphous mass vaguely in the shape of man, ostensibly personifying humanity's unified yearnings past and present. This device was picked up by Robert A. Heinlein in Sixth Column, where it helps to route the Asiatic conquerors.

Cloak of Aesir, a sequel, demonstrated the use of psychology in driving the "people" of the Sarn from their domination of Earth, and terminated the short series in ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION for March, 1939. (pp. 43-4)

From the memories of his childhood [Campbell] drew the most fearsome agony of the past: the doubts, the fears, the shock, and the frustration of repeatedly discovering that the woman who looked so much like his mother was not who she seemed. Who goes there? Friend or foe? He had attempted the theme once before, employing a light touch, in Brain Stealers of Mars. This time he was serious. Who Goes There?… deals with an alien thing from outer space that enters the camp of an Antarctic research party and blends alternately into the forms of the various men and dogs in the camp. The job is to find and kill the chimera before, in the guise of some human being or animal, it gets back to civilization.

An impressive display of writing talent, Who Goes There? is in one sense one of the most thrilling detective stories ever written. The suspense and tension mount with each paragraph and are sustained to the last. Reading this story inspired A. E. van Vogt to turn to science fiction with Vault of the Beast, a direct take-off on the idea. (p. 45)

A few more Stuart stories would sporadically appear. The Elder Gods …, a swiftly paced sword-and-sorcery tale, was written as a last-minute fill-in…. Together with The Moon Is Hell, a short novel of stark realism drawing a parallel between the survival problems of Antarctic and moon explorers, it made its appearance … in 1951.

Fifteen years after he had quit writing for a living, Campbell still displayed excellent technique in The Idealists, a novelette written expressly for the hard-cover anthology 9 Tales of Space and Time…. Scientists aren't always "good guys," was the point he made, and a high degree of technical development does not necessarily carry with it maturity in dealing with different cultures.

But for all practical purposes, Campbell's writing career ended at the age of 28 with Who Goes There? As one of the first of the modern science-fiction writers, he had a profound influence on the field. As editor of the leading, best-paying magazine, he taught, coerced, and cajoled his type of story. As a result, for the more than a quarter-century since he ceased writing, older readers have been haunted by half-remembered echoes in the plot structure of hundreds of stories and in the lines of scores of writers. It is not strange if sometimes readers shake the hypnotic wonder of the wheeling cosmos from their minds and demand: "Who goes there?" (pp. 45-6)

Sam Moskowitz, "John W. Campbell," in his Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Science Fiction, World Publishing Co., 1966, pp. 27-46.


Sam Moskowitz


Damon Knight