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

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. 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...

(The entire section is 3528 words.)