John W. Campbell

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John Wood Campbell, Jr. ( June 8, 1910 – July 11, 1971) was an influential science-fiction writer and editor. As a writer he was first influential under his own name as a writer of super-science space opera and then under the name Don A. Stuart, a pseudonym he used for moodier, less pulpish stories. However, Campbell's primary influence on the science-fiction field was as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, a post that he held from late 1937 until his death. In that role he is generally credited with helping to create the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction, which is often held to have started with the July 1939 issue of Astounding. Isaac Asimov, in his autobiography, calls Campbell "the most powerful force in science fiction ever, and for the first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely." At the time of his sudden and unexpected death after 34 years at the helm of Astounding, however, his quirky personality and occasionally eccentric editorial demands had alienated a number of his most illustrious writers such as Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein to the point where they no longer submitted works to him.

Biographical information

Campbell was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1910. His father was a cold, impersonal, and unaffectionate electrical engineer. His mother, Dorothy (née Strahern) was warm but changeable of character and had an identical twin who visited them often and who disliked young John. John was unable to tell them apart and was frequently coldly rebuffed by the person he took to be his mother. Campbell attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he befriended Norbert Wiener, one of the godfathers of computers. He began writing science fiction at age 18 and quickly sold his first stories. By the time he was 21 he was a well-known pulp writer of super-science space opera but had been dismissed by MIT: he had failed German. He then spent one year at Duke University, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in physics in 1932., Asimov notes Campbell's presence at Duke and speculates that Duke was "best known in my youth for the work of Joseph B. Rhine on extrasensory perception, and that may have influenced Campbell's later views on the subject." Damon Knight writes that Campbell was a "portly, bristled-haired blond man with a challenging stare" who told him once that "he wasn't sure how much longer he would edit Astounding. He might quit and go into science. 'I'm a nuclear physicist, you know,' he said, looking me right in the eye." . He was married to Dona Stewart in 1931, divorced in 1949, then remarried in 1950 to Margaret (Peg) Winter. He spent most of his life in New Jersey and died at home, "quietly, quickly, painlessly, as he sat before his television."

Writing career

Campbell's first published story, "When the Atoms Failed", appeared in the January 1930 issue of Amazing Stories, when he was 18; he had had a previous story, "Invaders from the Infinite", accepted by Amazing's editor, T. O'Conor Sloane, but Sloane had lost the manuscript. Campbell's early fiction included a space opera series based around three characters, Arcot, Morey and Wade; and another series with lead characters Penton and Blake. All were eventually published in book form in the 1950s and 1960s. This early work established Campbell's reputation as a leading writer of space adventure; and when he began in 1934 to publish stories with a different tone, he used a pseudonym, Don A. Stuart, perhaps because of the difference in style. The pseudonym was derived from the maiden name of Campbell's wife, Dona Stuart.

Soon Stuart also had a strong reputation as a leading writer, and from 1930 until the later part of the decade Campbell was prolific and successful under both his own name and the Stuart pseudonym. Two significant stories published under the pseudonym are "Twilight" (Astounding, November 1934), the first Stuart story, which immediately established the reputation of the apparently new author; and " Who Goes There?" (Astounding, August 1938), about a group of Antarctic researchers who discover a crashed alien vessel, complete with a malevolent shape-changing occupant. This was filmed as The Thing from Another World ( 1951) and again as The Thing ( 1982). "Who Goes There?", published when Campbell was only 28, was his last significant piece of fiction. As Sam Moskowitz has written about Campbell in his early critical study of science-fiction writers, "From the memories of his childhood he 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?"

Editorship of Astounding and Unknown; the Golden Age

In late 1937, F. Orlin Tremaine hired Campbell as the editor of Astounding., Campbell was not given full authority for Astounding until May of 1938, but in fact had been responsible for buying stories somewhat earlier, perhaps as early as the October 1937 issue, although the statement of ownership in the November 1937 issue listed Tremaine as the editor as of October 1, 1937. An editorial notice in the April 1938 issue made it clear he was responsible for stories appearing as early as February.,

Campbell began to make changes almost immediately. He instigated a mutant label for unusual stories, and in March 1938 changed the title of the magazine from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science-Fiction. He had intended to eventually change the name to simply Science Fiction, but Blue Ribbon Magazines brought out a magazine with that title in March 1939, and Campbell decided to retain the existing name.

Lester del Rey's first story, in March 1938, was a notable find for Campbell, but in 1939 such an extraordinary group of new writers were published for the first time in the pages of Astounding that the period is generally regarded as the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction, and the July 1939 issue in particular. The July issue contained A. E. van Vogt's first story, "Black Destroyer"; and Isaac Asimov's early story "Trends"; August brought Robert A. Heinlein's first story, "Lifeline", and the next month Theodore Sturgeon's first story appeared. Virginia Heinlein writes in her collection of Heinlein's letters that Campbell was "a large, tall man who threw off ideas like a sparkler.... Robert did not admire his writing style and objected strenuously to the various changes JWC made in Robert's stories."

Also in 1939, Campbell started the fantasy magazine Unknown (later Unknown Worlds) . Although Unknown was cancelled after only four years, a victim of wartime paper shortages, the magazine's editorial direction was significant in the evolution of modern fantasy.

Campbell was regarded by many of the Astounding stable of writers as an important and encouraging influence on their work, and there are many stories in the reminiscences of writers such as Isaac Asimov and Lester del Rey of their interactions with him. Generally, he is widely considered to be the single most important and influential editor in the history of science fiction. As the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, edited by Peter Nicholls, wrote about Campbell: "More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern sf." This influence is generally considered to be during the period between 1938 and about 1950. After that, new magazines such as Galaxy and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, building upon the foundation Astounding had laid during the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction, moved in different directions and developed talented new writers who were not directly influenced by him.

Asimov says of his unmatched influence on the field: "By his own example and by his instruction and by his undeviating and persisting insistence, he forced first Astounding and then all science fiction into his mold. He abandoned the earlier orientation of the field. He demolished the stock characters who had filled it; eradicated the penny-dreadful plots; extirpated the Sunday-supplement science. In a phrase, he blotted out the purple of pulp. Instead, he demanded that science-fiction writers understand science and understand people, a hard requirement that many of the established writers of the 1930s could not meet. Campbell did not compromise because of that: those who could not meet his requirements could not sell to him, and the carnage was as great as it had been in Hollywood a decade before, while silent movies had given way to the talkies."

The most famous example of the type of speculative but plausible science fiction that Campbell demanded from his writers is Deadfall, a short story by Cleve Cartmill that appeared during the wartime year of 1944, a year before the detonation of the first atomic bomb. As Ben Bova, Campbell's successor as editor at Analog, writes, it "described the basic facts of how to build an atomic bomb. Cartmill and... Campbell worked together on the story, drawing their scientific information from papers published in the technical journals before the war. To them, the mechanics of constructing a uranium-fission bomb seemed perfectly obvious." The FBI, however, descended on Campbell's office after the story appeared in print and demanded that the issue be removed from the newsstands. Campbell convinced them that by removing the magazine "the FBI would be advertising to everyone that such a project existed and was aimed at developing nuclear weapons" and the demand was dropped.

Campbell was also responsible for the grim, and controversial, ending of the famous short story The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin. Joe Green says that Campbell had "three times! sent "Cold Equations" back to Godwin, before he got the version he wanted.... Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl! Since the strength of this deservedly classic story lies in the fact the life of one young woman must be sacrificed to save the lives of many, it simply wouldn't have the same impact if she had lived."

Campbell revealed a sly sense of humor in the November 1949 issue. He had always encouraged literary criticism by Astounding's readership, and in the November 1948 issue he published a letter to the editor by a reader named Richard A. Hoen that contained a detailed ranking of the contents of an issue one year in the future. Campbell went along with the joke and contracted stories from most of the authors mentioned in the letter that would follow the fan's imaginary story titles. Ironically, when the issue actually appeared, Hoen had forgotten his original letter, and was supposedly "amazed at how many of my favorite authors appeared in one issue". One of the best-known stories from that issue is "Gulf", by Robert A. Heinlein. Other stories and articles were written by a number of the most famous authors of the time: Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, A. E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, and the astronomer R. S. Richardson.

In 1996, Campbell was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, in the first year of its existence.

Editorials and opinions

Campbell was well known for the opinionated editorials in each issue of the magazine, wherein he would sometimes put forth quite preposterous hypotheses, perhaps intended to generate story ideas. An anthology of these editorials was published in 1966. He also suggested story ideas to writers (including, famously, "Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man"), and sometimes asked for stories to match cover paintings he had already bought.

Isaac Asimov once asked Campbell why he had stopped writing fiction after he became the editor of Astounding. Campbell explained, "Isaac, when I write, I write only my own stories. As editor, I write the stories that a hundred people write."

Science-fiction writer Joe Green writes that Campbell "enjoyed taking the 'devil's advocate' position in almost any area, willing to defend even viewpoints with which he disagreed if that led to a livelier debate." As an example, he says that during a conversation with him Campbell "pointed out that the much-maligned 'peculiar institution' of slavery in the American South had in fact provided the blacks brought there with a higher standard of living than they had in Africa." Green goes on to say that he was "very much afraid that in fact he was sincere. I suspected, from comments by Asimov, among others — and some Analog editorials I had read — that John held some racist views, at least in regard to blacks." Finally, however, Green agreed with Campbell that "rapidly increasing mechanization after 1850 would have soon rendered slavery obsolete anyhow. It would have been better for the USA to endure it a few more years than suffer the truly horrendous costs of the Civil War."

In the 1950s, Campbell developed strong interests in alternative theories that began to isolate him from some of his own mainstream writers such as Asimov. He wrote favorably, for instance, about such things as the " Dean drive," a device that supposedly produced thrust in violation of Newton's third law, and the " Hieronymus machine," which could supposedly amplify psi powers. He published many stories about telepathy and other psionic abilities. In 1949 Campbell also became interested in Dianetics. He was initially a strong supporter, writing of Hubbard's initial article in Astounding that "It is, I assure you in full and absolute sincerity, one of the most important articles ever published." He also claimed to have successfully used dianetic techniques himself: "The memory stimulation technique is so powerful that, within thirty minutes of entering therapy, most people will recall in full detail their own birth. I have observed it in action, and used the techniques myself." In addition to publishing L. Ron Hubbard's first articles on the subject, Campbell continued to write editorials in support of Dianetics for a time.

Writing about the Campbell of this period, the noted science-fiction writer and critic Damon Knight commented in his book In Search of Wonder: "In the pantheon of magazine science fiction there is no more complex and puzzling figure than that of John Campbell, and certainly none odder." Knight also wrote a four-stanza ditty about some of Campbell's new interests. The first stanza reads:

Oh, the Dean Machine, the Dean Machine,
You put it right in a submarine,
And it flies so high that it can't be seen --
The wonderful, wonderful Dean Machine!

And Isaac Asimov writes: "A number of writers wrote pseudoscientific stuff to ensure sales to Campbell, but the best writers retreated, I among them."

Asimov was not alone in his opinion. In 1957, the novelist and critic James Blish could write: "From the professional writer's point of view, the primary interest in Astounding Science Fiction continues to centre on the editor's preoccupation with extrasensory powers and perceptions ("psi") as a springboard for stories.... 113 pages of the total editorial content of the January and February 1957 issues of this magazine are devoted to psi, and 172 to non-psi material.... [By including the first part of a serial that later becomes a novel about psi] the total for these first two issues of 1957 is 145 pages of psi text, and 140 pages of non-psi."

Asimov also says that "Campbell championed far-out ideas.... He pained very many of the men he had trained (including me) in doing so, but felt it was his duty to stir up the minds of his readers and force curiosity right out to the border lines. He began a series of editorials... in which he championed a social point of view that could sometimes be described as far right. (He expressed sympathy for George Wallace in the 1968 national election, for instance.) There was bitter opposition to this from many (including me — I could hardly ever read a Campbell editorial and keep my temper).

This attempted (and often successful) steering of writers' efforts led to a filksong:

On yonder hill there stands a building,
and upon the fourteenth floor
stands a group of authors moaning
as they've never moaned before:
Oh, no, John, no, John, no, John, no!

Between December 11, 1957 and June 13, 1958, Campbell hosted a weekly science fiction radio program called Exploring Tomorrow. The scripts were written by authors such as Gordon Dickson and Robert Silverberg. Transcripts of some programs are still available.

The John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer were named in his honour.

In the eyes of others

Asimov says in his autobiography that Campbell was "talkative, opinionated, quicksilver-minded, overbearing. Talking to him meant listening to a monologue.... He was a tall, large man with light hair, a beaky nose, a wide face with thin lips, and with a cigarette in a holder forever clamped between his teeth." "Six-foot-one, with hawklike features, he presented a formidable appearance," says Moskowitz. Damon Knight's opinion of Campbell was similar to Asimov's: "No doubt I could have got myself invited to lunch long before, but Campbell's lecture-room manner was so unpleasant to me that I was unwilling to face it. Campbell talked a good deal more than he listened, and he liked to say outrageous things." . The notable British novelist and critic Kingsley Amis, in his seminal 1960 book about science fiction, New Maps of Hell, dismisses Campbell brusquely: "I might just add as a sociological note that the editor of Astounding, himself a deviant figure of marked ferocity, seems to think he has invented a psi machine."

The noted science-fiction writer Alfred Bester, an editor of Holiday Magazine and a sophisticated Manhattanite, recounts at some length his "one demented meeting" with Campbell, a man he imagined from afar to be "a combination of Bertrand Russell and Ernest Rutherford," across the river in Newark. The first thing Campbell said to him was that Freud was dead, destroyed by the new discovery of Dianetics, which, he predicted, would win L. Ron Hubbard the Nobel Peace Prize. Over a sandwich in a dingy New Jersey lunchroom Campbell ordered the bemused Bester to "think back. Clear yourself. Remember! You can remember when your mother tried to abort you with a button hook. You've never stopped hating her for it." Shaking, Bester eventually made his escape and, he says, "returned to civilization where I had three double gibsons." He adds: "It reinforced my private opinion that a majority of the science-fiction crowd, despite their brilliance, were missing their marbles."

Asimov's final word on Campbell was that "in the last twenty years of his life, he was only a diminishing shadow of what he had once been." Even Robert A. Heinlein, perhaps Campbell's most important discovery and, Virginia Heinlein tells us, by 1940 a "fast friend", eventually tired of Campbell. "When Podkayne [ Podkayne of Mars] was offered to him, he wrote Robert, asking what he knew about raising young girls in a few thousand carefully chosen words. The friendship dwindled, and was eventually completely gone." In 1963 Heinlein wrote his agent to say that a rejection from another magazine was "pleasanter than offering copy to John Campbell, having it bounced (he bounced both of my last two Hugo Award winners) — and then have to wade through ten pages of his arrogant insults, explaining to me why my story is no good."

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