Monday, March 21, 2011
John W. Campbell
John Campbell shaking hands with H. Beam Piper
John Wood Campbell, Jr. (June 8, 1910 – July 11, 1971) was an influential figure in American science fiction. As editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact), from late 1937 until his death, he is generally credited with shaping the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction.
Isaac Asimov called Campbell "the most powerful force in science fiction ever, and for the first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely."
As a writer, Campbell published super-science space opera under his own name and moody, less pulpish stories as Don A. Stuart. However, he stopped writing fiction after he became editor of Astounding.
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 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he befriended Norbert Wiener, who coined the term Cybernetics. 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 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.
He married Dona Stewart in 1931, and they were divorced in 1949. Campbell married Margaret (Peg) Winter in 1950. He spent most of his life in New Jersey and died at home.
Campbell's first published story, "When the Atoms Failed," appeared in the January 1930 issue of Amazing Stories when he was 19; 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 on three characters, Arcot, Morey and Wade, and another series with lead characters Penton and Blake.
This early work established Campbell's reputation as a writer of space adventure; and when he began in 1934 to publish stories with a different tone, he used a pseudonym derived from his wife's maiden name.
From 1930 until the later part of that decade, Campbell was prolific and successful under both names. Three significant stories published under the pseudonym are "Twilight" (Astounding, November 1934). "Night" (Astounding, October 1935), and "Who Goes There?" (Astounding, August 1938). "Who Goes There?", about a group of Antarctic researchers who discover a crashed alien vessel, complete with a malevolent shape-changing occupant, was filmed as The Thing from Another World (1951) and The Thing (1982). "Who Goes There?" published when Campbell was only 28, was his last significant piece of fiction.
John held the Amateur Radio Callsign W2ZGU, and wrote many articles on Electronics and Radio for a wide range of magazines.
In late 1937, F. Orlin Tremaine hired Campbell as the editor of Astounding. Campbell was not given full authority for Astounding until May 1938, but had been responsible for buying stories somewhat earlier. He began to make changes almost immediately, instigating a "mutant" label for unusual stories, and in March 1938 changing the title of the magazine from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science-Fiction.
Lester del Rey's first story, in March 1938, was an early find for Campbell, and in 1939, he published such an extraordinary group of new writers for the first time 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 Asimov's early story "Trends"; August brought Robert A. Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line", and the next month Theodore Sturgeon's first story appeared.
Also in 1939, Campbell started the fantasy magazine Unknown (later Unknown Worlds). Although Unknown was canceled after only four years, a victim of wartime paper shortages, the magazine's editorial direction was significant in the evolution of modern fantasy.
Campbell is widely considered to be the single most important and influential editor in the early history of science fiction. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction wrote: "More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern sf." After 1950, new magazines such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction moved in different directions and developed talented new writers who were not directly influenced by him. Campbell often 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.
Asimov said of Campbell's 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 "Deadline," 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, wrote, 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 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 Tom Godwin's famous short story "The Cold Equations". Writer Joe Green recounted 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 would not have the same impact if she had lived."
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.
Green wrote 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 wrote, 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 ... 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 a June, 1961, editorial called "Civil War Centennial," Campbell argued that slavery had been a dominant form of human relationships for most of history and that the present was unusual in that anti-slavery cultures dominated the planet. He wrote, "It's my bet that the South would have been integrated by 1910. The job would have been done — and done right — half a century sooner, with vastly less human misery, and with almost no bloodshed ... The only way slavery has ever been ended, anywhere, is by introducing industry ... If a man is a skilled and competent machinist — if the lathes work well under his hands — the industrial management will be forced, to remain in business, to accept that fact, whether the man be black, white, purple, or polka-dotted."
Campbell was a heavy smoker throughout his life and was seldom seen without his customary cigarette holder. In the Analog of September, 1964, nine months after the Surgeon General's first major warning about the dangers of cigarette smoking had been issued on January 11, Campbell ran an editorial, "A Counterblaste to Tobacco" named after the similarly named anti-smoking book by James I of England. In it, he stated that the connection to lung cancer was "esoteric" and referred to "a barely determinable possible correlation between cigarette smoking and cancer." He claimed that tobacco's calming effects led to more effective thinking.
Pseudoscience and fringe politics
In the 1950s, Campbell developed strong interests in alternative theories that began to isolate him from some of his own writers. He wrote favorably 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 wrote of L. Ron 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.
Asimov wrote: "A number of writers wrote pseudoscientific stuff to ensure sales to Campbell, but the best writers retreated, I among them. ..." Elsewhere Asimov went on to further explain, "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), although few right-wingers would subscribe to some of his opinions, for example his new-age theories of psi powers. There was bitter opposition to this from many."
In the eyes of others
Damon Knight described Campbell as a "portly, bristled-haired blond man with a challenging stare." "Six-foot-one, with hawklike features, he presented a formidable appearance," said Sam Moskowitz. "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," wrote Asimov.
Asimov said that Campbell was "talkative, opinionated, quicksilver-minded, overbearing. Talking to him meant listening to a monologue ..." Knight agreed: "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."
British novelist and critic Kingsley Amis dismissed 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."
British SF novelist Michael Moorcock, as part of his Starship Stormtroopers editorial, would claim Campbell's Stories and its writers were "wild-eyed paternalists to a man, fierce anti-socialists" with "[stories] full of crew-cut wisecracking, cigar-chewing, competent guys (like Campbell's image of himself)", who had success because their "work reflected the deep-seated conservatism of the majority of their readers, who saw a Bolshevik menace in every union meeting". He viewed Campbell as turning the magazine into a vessel for right-wing politics, "by the early 1950's ... a crypto-fascist deeply philistine magazine pretending to intellectualism and offering idealistic kids an 'alternative' that was, of course, no alternative at all".
SF writer Alfred Bester, an editor of Holiday Magazine and a sophisticated Manhattanite, recounted 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." 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. 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." Bester commented: "It reinforced my private opinion that a majority of the science-fiction crowd, despite their brilliance, were missing their marbles."
Campbell died in 1971 at the age of 61 in Mountainside, New Jersey. At the time of his sudden death after 34 years at the helm of Analog, Campbell's quirky personality and eccentric editorial demands had alienated a number of his most illustrious writers to the point that they no longer submitted works to him.
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 Heinlein, perhaps Campbell's most important discovery, and a "fast friend," eventually tired of Campbell.
Radio and awards
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.
In 1996, Campbell was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
The John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer were named in his honor.
Novels and fix-ups
The Mightiest Machine (1947)
The Incredible Planet (1949)
The Black Star Passes (1953)
Islands of Space (1956)
Invaders from the Infinite (1961)
The Ultimate Weapon (1966)
 Short story collections and omnibus editionsWho Goes There? (1948)
The Moon is Hell (1951)
Cloak of Aesir (1952)
The Planeteers (1966)
The Best of John W. Campbell (1973)
The Space Beyond (1976)
The Best of John W. Campbell (1976) (Differs from 1973 version)
A New Dawn: The Don A. Stuart Stories of John W. Campbell, Jr. (2003)
From Unknown Worlds (1948)
The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology (1952)
Prologue to Analog (1962)
Analog I (1963)
Analog II (1964)
Analog 3 (1965)
Analog 4 (1966)
Analog 5 (1967)
Analog 6 (1968)
Analog 7 (1969)
Analog 8 (1971)
Editorial Number Three: "Letter From the Editor", in A Requiem for Astounding (1964)
Collected Editorials from Analog (1966)
The John W. Campbell Letters, Volume 1 (1986)
The John W. Campbell Letters with Isaac Asimov & A.E. van Vogt, Volume II (1993)
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