The Father of Science Fiction: The Best of John W. Campbell

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

In the 1930s, from the thriving jungles of the pulp magazines, a new field appeared. A number of names were bandied about before one coalesced: science fiction. And at the same time, one magazine, Astounding, and one editor, John W. Campbell, emerged as the leading voice in that new field. You could easily call Campbell the father of the science fiction field as we know it today. And like all fathers, his influence evokes a whole gamut of emotions.

My own father started subscribing to Analog when he returned from Europe after World War II, and I started reading the magazine at the age of 10 or 11. In addition to finding much entertainment, my thinking about science, exploration, and many other subjects was shaped by what I read. And I quickly found my father also inherited many of his views, or had them validated, by John Campbell’s editorials. As I grew older, I began to see some of those views as narrow, but they continued to challenge my thinking. It was only later, through this collection, published in 1976, that I was exposed to Campbell as a writer and not just an editor.


About the Author

John W. Campbell (1910-1971) was a science fiction author and editor who had a profound effect on the genre. His fiction was rich in ideas, although his plots and prose often had the stiffness typical of the pulp fiction of the day. His most famous story was “Who Goes There?”, a gripping tale of terror published in 1938, which inspired three movies: 1951’s The Thing from Another World; 1982’s The Thing, directed by John Carpenter; and 2011’s prequel movie, also titled The Thing.

His real mark on the field was as an editor. He was selected to lead Astounding Stories magazine in 1937, and quickly changed its name to Astounding Science-Fiction, the first of a number of changes that eventually led to the name Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The first decade after he joined the magazine is sometimes referred to as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction,” as Astounding became the most influential science fiction magazine of its time. While other magazines like Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories, Planet Stories, and Captain Future continued to pump out lurid pulp stories of “scientifiction,” Campbell promoted a more thoughtful and mature approach. He bought the first science fiction stories from a number of future greats, including A. E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon, and paid on acceptance to attract the top talent. Other authors who appeared in the magazine during the period included Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, L. Ron Hubbard, Henry Kuttner, Murray Leinster, C. L. Moore, Lester del Rey, Clifford D. Simak, E. E. Smith, and Jack Williamson. Science fact columns were a regular part of the magazine, with contributors like L. Sprague de Camp, R. S. Richardson, and Willy Ley.

Campbell also established the fantasy magazine Unknown in 1939. While the magazine lasted only four years, it brought to fantasy the same rigor and attention to detail seen in Analog.

As the decades went on, Campbell continued to find strong writers for Analog, including Poul Anderson, Christopher Anvil, Hal Clement, Gordon R. Dickson, Harry Harrison, Frank Herbert, H. Beam Piper and Mack Reynolds. Campbell won eight Hugo awards for best editor, and would have no doubt won more if the award had been in existence in the earlier years of his tenure. Campbell continued to edit Analog until his death in 1971.

Each year since 1973, in Campbell’s memory, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award has been presented for best science fiction novel. The award was established by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss to honor Campbell’s contributions to science fiction, and to encourage the best from authors. The award is selected by a committee of science fiction authors.

Like many authors of his era, there are works by Campbell which have gone out of copyright, and are available to read on the internet, like these stories, available via Project Gutenberg.


Father Complex

I always thought of my father as a typical Analog reader, an assumption validated when we later started attending science fiction conventions together. My father was bespectacled and shy, worked in research and development for an aerospace firm, and always wore a pocket protector filled with colored pens and pencils, and a miniature slide rule he used for rough calculations. He loved to challenge me intellectually, enjoying a good thoughtful discussion.

We are all shaped by our parents, sometimes by their presence or absence. We model ourselves on them, adopting their strengths and their weaknesses. And as we emulate those strengths, we spend years fighting to avoid copying those weaknesses. The term “father complex” describes the unconscious reaction we have to the idea of a father, which can be either positive or negative, or both, depending on our experience. While I never met the man, John Campbell and his ideas were often intertwined with the discussions I had with my own father. So I naturally grew to think of Campbell as a father figure for the field of science fiction.

Under Campbell’s direction, Analog exhibited a strong “house style.” It celebrated independence, logic and self-reliance, with its typical protagonist being referred to as the “competent man.” The human race was usually portrayed as more clever and inventive than alien races, even those who had superior technology. And when I later read a collection of Campbell’s letters, it was apparent he kept a heavy hand on the helm, insisting writers conform to his notions about the way the world should work. Campbell wanted characters that acted like real people, instead of the cardboard characters of the pulp age (although the fact those real people were almost always engineers or technocrats became a new cliché of its own). He also insisted on rigor in the science that was portrayed. You could present science and technology beyond what we know today, but you had to do it in a consistent and logical manner, and not in conflict with accepted scientific principles. If pulp science fiction tales were driven by the Freudian id or emotions, the stories of Analog were driven by the ego, super-ego, and logic. Campbell almost single-handedly dragged the science fiction field into being a more respectable genre, and when new magazines like Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction emerged in the 1950s, they emulated this more mature model rather than the pulp sensibilities of the past.

Campbell, however, was not without his flaws and foibles. Like many in his era, Campbell displayed an insensitivity on racial issues. In his essay “Racism and Science Fiction,” Samuel R. Delany tells how Campbell rejected an offer to serialize the novel Nova, “with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character.” I remember reading Campbell’s editorials on racial problems in the 1960s, and being struck by the implicit assumption a person of color would not be reading he had written.

Campbell’s Analog was overwhelmingly dominated by men, both male writers, and male protagonists. Off the top of my head, I can think of only two female leading protagonists I encountered in Campbell’s Analog: the linguist in H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual,” and Telzey Amberdon, the telepath whose adventures were written by James H. Schmitz. I know there were more, but they were few and far between.

Campbell also developed a penchant for ideas from the fringes of science, and even pseudo-science. He was fascinated by telepathy, and the idea human evolution would lead to the ability of humans to control their environment with their thoughts. He also was an early supporter of “dianetics,” the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard that eventually led to the establishment of the religion of Scientology. Despite growing evidence to the contrary, he long argued against the dangers of smoking. He promoted a kind of perpetual motion device known as the “Dean Drive.”

Campbell was very sure of himself and his conclusions, valuing ideas more than relationships, and parted company with many authors over the years. To say his politics were conservative would be an understatement. He could be a very polarizing figure.

While Campbell quite rightly deserves respect and admiration for his positive impact on the field of science fiction, we cannot ignore the fact he also introduced attitudes the field has spent decades outgrowing. Like our relationships with our parents, the field’s relationship with John Campbell is complex.


The Best of John W. Campbell

In his introduction, author and editor Lester del Rey divides Campbell’s career into three phases: the author of straight-ahead pulp adventure stories, the author of more thoughtful and moody stories, and finally the editor of Analog. He only includes one story, “The Last Evolution,” from the first phase, a story of alien invasion where humanity is destroyed, but succeeded by our robotic children. While much of the story is predictable, the humans meet the invading dreadnaughts not with mighty ships of their own, but with tiny autonomous drones, an idea far ahead of its time. And the idea of robots as intelligent successors was also unique for the time.

The second story, “Twilight,” is packed with gloomy ideas about a human race that has lost its drive and curiosity, and hints at the evolution of robots. While the ideas are compelling, the format is infuriating to a modern reader used to authors “showing” instead of “telling.” The story is structured as one man telling another about a story he heard from a hitchhiker who turned out to be a time traveler, removing the reader from the action by several layers.

The next three stories together form a trilogy. The first, “The Machine,” portrays a humanity coddled by a powerful machine that decides its influence is more negative than positive, and turns itself off. Only a few machine-picked survivors are left to rebuild civilization. The second story, “The Invaders,” describes how an alien race, the Tharoo, conquers the Earth, and begins to use eugenics to build the human race into better servants. And in the third story, “Rebellion,” the humans take the eugenic principles of the alien invaders, and breed into themselves the capabilities needed to exile the alien invaders. These stories were written in the 1930s, and I doubt they would have been written in quite the same manner after World War II, when Nazi racism and genocide discredited the very idea of human eugenics.

“Blindness” is a sardonic story about a gifted researcher and his assistant who exile themselves to a close orbit around the sun for three years to uncover the secrets of atomic power. But upon their return, they find their sacrifices are not valued as they had expected. “Elimination,” is another story with a twist, when the ability to predict the future becomes a curse rather than a blessing. In “Forgetfulness,” explorers find a planet they think has fallen from the heights of civilization, only to find the aliens have forgotten less than they thought.

The following two stories represent halves of what is essentially a short novel. In the first, “Out of Night,” an alien matriarchy, the Sarn, has conquered Earth, and proposes converting the human race into a matriarchy as well, killing males so they make up a smaller portion of the human population. The Sarn attempt to play human factions against each other, but in the end, the humans convince them a human god, the Aesir, has arisen to oppose them, and they back down. The Aesir is actually a hoax, which uses a telepathy and a new scientific development to shield an ordinary man from their attacks. The next story, “Cloak of Aesir,” shows the Sarn beginning to bicker among themselves, and fail in their attempts to subjugate the humans. In the end, the humans use their growing mental powers and the threat of Aesir to sow doubts among the Sarn, leading to their eventual retreat.

The final story in the collection, “Who Goes There?”, is clearly Campbell’s finest authorial work, a taut and gripping tale of suspense. The difference in style between the first story in the collection and this one is like night and day. A polar expedition finds an alien creature frozen into the ice, and in trying to thaw its crashed spaceship, accidentally destroy it. They decide to thaw the creature for research, which leads to disastrous results. Not only has the creature survived being frozen, but it has the ability to take over and mimic other living things. The researchers try various methods of determining which of them have been replaced by the alien, encountering shocking deaths and setbacks at every turn. Only a few will survive, and only by the skin of their teeth. It is obvious why this story has since appeared in so many collections, and inspired numerous movie versions.

One of Campbell’s editorial essays is included: “Space for Industry.” It explains how, if the human race expands into the solar system, its efforts will not focus on the planets, and resources trapped at the bottom of gravity wells, but instead on asteroids and other small objects that can be more easily exploited. But it also states “…any engineering development of space implies a non-rocket space drive.” So, since rockets are all we have, and indeed, all we may ever have, in the eyes of the father of science fiction, a large-scale move of humanity into space may not be likely.

The final entry in the anthology, “Postscriptum,” is an essay by Mrs. Campbell, written after his death. It gives us a glimpse into the human side of a man known to most only through his work, a loving husband and father missed by those he left behind.


Final Thoughts

John Campbell’s influence on the field of science fiction was huge. His editorial work brought the field a maturity and respectability that had been lacking. And his writing, as exemplified by the works in this collection, shows the growth and transformation of the field from its pulp fiction origins. At the same time, he left a complex legacy.

And now I turn the floor over to you. Have you read this collection, or any of Campbell’s other tales? Have you, like me, been a reader of Analog? What are your thoughts on the man, his work, and his impact on science fiction?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.


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