There are a lot of very colorful characters from the early days of science fiction. But a handful of them were so influential that they influenced the direction of the whole genre. John W. Campbell undoubtedly falls into this category. In fact so significant was his contribution that the Golden Age of science fiction is generally marked as starting from the time he took editorship of Astounding Science Fiction.
Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1910, Campbell attended MIT but was later dismissed from the school. He began writing science fiction when he was 18 and was a successful pulp writer by the time he was 21.
Campbell’s first publishing success was a story called When Atoms Failed which appeared in the January 1930 issue of Amazing Stories. Between 1930 and 1938 he published twenty one short stories. He built his name initially around pulp space opera fiction.
However a number of stylistically different stories were published under the pen name of Don A. Stuart. One of those is perhaps the best known and most influential of his own fiction Who Goes There which has been adapted for film three times. First as The Thing from Another World in 1951. Then again as The Thing in 1982 and most recently as The Thing in 2011.
After becoming editor of Astounding Stories Campbell moved away from writing himself and started to concentrate solely on editing. His short stories were collected and released in a variety of forms over the subsequent decades.
Astounding Science Fiction
Campbell was appointed editor of Astounding Stories in 1937 but didn’t take full control until 1938. From the moment he took over, he started making changes in an effort to promote the sort of stories he wanted to see.
He instituted regular non-fiction pieces with the idea of stimulating new stories ideas. The style of the cover artwork changed too, with a more mature look that he hoped would be less embarrassing for adult readers. It was during this period that the title of the magazine was changed from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science-Fiction
Those early issues also provided some remarkable finds including Lester del Rey, A E van Vogt, Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Theodore Sturgeon. Established writers also appeared including L. Ron Hubbard, Clifford Simak, E E Smith and L. Sprague de Camp.
During this time Campbell also started Unknown (later to be called Unknown Worlds) which was intended as a fantasy companion to Astounding. Unfortunately, war time paper shortages resulted in cancellation after only four years.
What set Campbell apart from his predecessors was his insistence that his writers use science to underpin their stories. The most famous example of this was the story Deadline by Cleve Cartmil which appeared in a 1944 issue. The story used accurate scientific information to describe how to build an atomic bomb (this was a full year before the first detonation). The publication resulted in a visit from the FBI.
After the war a combination of personality conflicts and increased competition from other magazines.marked the end of Astounding’s overwhelming dominance of the genre. It didn’t help that Campbell became increasingly interested in psuedoscience like psionics and heavily promoted dianetics (which would become scientology). A world view that was very much contrary to his earlier science heavy approach.
For all that many historically significant stories and articles continued to appear in Astounding’s pages.
To further emphasise the serious scientific nature of the magazine, in 1960 the name was changed to Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Campbell continued to edit the magazine right up to his death in 1971.
Campbell had a reputation for writing controversial editorials on a number of topics. It’s not clear if he necessarily believed all of those positions he took. Author Frederick Pohl recalled that every month Campbell would come up with a polemical statement and present it to everyone who came in the offices and encourage them to disagree with it. By the end of the month he was in a position to counter all of the arguments in his editorial.
Some of his more controversial pieces included an argument that black slaves were better off than they had been in Africa and it would have been better if the civil war had not been fought over slavery since increasing mechanisation would soon have undercut the practice anyway.
He was also ferociously dismissive of anti-tobacco campaigns and insisted there was no demonstrable correlation between tobacco and cancer.
Dianetics & Pseudo Science
Campbell’s interest in a variety of pseudo science increased from the 1950s onwards and he published more stories about things like psionics. This emphasis on what could be generously described as fringe science was off putting to many of the authors that had previously contributed to Astounding. By the time of his death many were no longer submitting to the magazine, including major authors like Isaac Asimov.
The dubious science that got the most attention from Campbell though was Dianetics, invented by L. Ron Hubbard (a figure for another article). The original article by Hubbard was published in Astounding and described by Campbell as one of the most important articles ever published.
In the early pre-Scientology days, Campbell was considered one of the top three figures within the Dianetics group although this gradually changed partly due to Hubbards increased interest in concepts like reincarnation and also a reluctance to accept input from others and by 1952 he withdrew from the group.
Talkative, opinionated, quicksilver-minded, overbearing. Talking to him meant listening to a monologue
That was one of Isaac Asimov’s descriptions of Campbell. And it’s more complimentary than what many had to say of him. Like many pioneers of SF he was a controversial figure with a substantial ego and major character quirks. During the 60s even Heinlein (a good friend of Campbells) was complaining about having his stories rejected. Perhaps that is what it took to succeed in those days. Since he is in good company.
But if his later decline is sad, we shouldn’t let that overshadow the effect he had on the entire genre during the 30s and 40s. The list of authors he promoted is exceptional and the style of science fiction he encouraged are a lasting legacy. Not to mention the phenomenal list of fiction that Campbell was responsible for editing over the years.