John W. Campbell: Father of the Golden Age

John Wood Campbell, Jr. was born in New Jersey in 1910. Although little is known about his childhood, his mother Dorothy was said to be a warm person. She had an identical twin however, who did not like John. He was unable to tell the two apart, and often felt rebuffed by the aunt he would frequently mistake for his mother. Campbell's father was an electrical engineer, who is described as "cold, impersonal and unaffectionate."


John W. Campbell Jr.

Although he travelled around some, Campbell spent the majority of his life in New Jersey, first marrying Donna Stuart in 1931, then Margaret "Peg" Winter in 1950. He was father to three daughters: Mrs. James Hammond, Mrs. James Randazzo and Mrs. Ian Robertson, and had two grandchildren. He studied at MIT, but after failing German, dropped out and eventually finished his physics degree at Duke University in 1932. Upon his graduation he found that there was little call for physicists in the workforce, and instead turned his attentions toward becoming one of the first professional science fiction writers. Before Campbell, science fiction tended to be more of a hobby; John turned it into his life's work.

Prior to graduating from Duke, Campbell sold his first short story, "Invaders from the Infinite", to Amazing Stories, but it was misplaced by the editor. His second story, "When the Atoms Failed", was again sold to Amazing Stories, and in 1930 became his first published work. The Arcot, Morey and Wade series established Campbell as a "hard" science fiction author. The series contains five stories which are set in and around 2126. They are typical of this period of science fiction writing, with little characterization and very basic plots, but they do expose the reader to Campbell's fascination with the more interesting aspects of modern science and technology. Book editions of the stories can be found in Black Star Passes and Islands of Space, both of which were liberally edited by Lloyd A. Eshbach.

Campbell became bored with writing space opera stories in the mid-1930s. While he had become a popular author with his over-the-top space stories, Campbell aspired to something more, wanting to inject writing into the science fiction field that would contain more literary style and be regarded with greater respect. He knew that science fiction as a genre was being sold short. He set out to teach himself to write, and assumed the pseudonym Don A. Stuart (derived from his wife's maiden name). Under this name, he could more freely develop his talents. He published "Twilight" in F. Orlin Tremaine's Astounding Stories in November 1934.

Continuing to write under the Stuart name, Campbell produced approximately 18 stories. He had begun writing science fiction with deeper characterization and complexity of plot. He had become more popular as Stuart than he had been writing under his real name. He was changing the genre of science fiction into legitimate literature and changing what fans would come to expect from it. Thomas Disch sums up this transition by saying "It's like BC and AD. In science fiction there's Before Campbell and After Campbell. And it's as clear a dividing line." Some of the works created during this time include "The Machine," "The Invaders," and "Rebellion," collectively referred to as The Machine Series. Importantly, Campbell published "Who Goes There?" (Astounding Stories, 1938) under the Stuart name as well. This novelette would go on to be adapted into three different movies (The Thing from Another World 1951, The Thing 1982, and The Thing 2011) and was voted one of the finest science fiction novellas ever written by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1973.


Who Goes There?, 1948.

Working with F. Orlin Tremaine as a writer placed Campbell perfectly to take over as editor when Tremaine was promoted in 1937. Tremaine had been editor of Astounding since 1933. He was unfamiliar with science fiction but Street & Smith had confidence that he could run a magazine in almost any field. Tremaine studied fanzines and reached out to their editors for greater understanding. He also worked with the venerated (albeit only 16 years old at the time) Frederik Pohl, and while he did a passable job and the magazine gained readership, his editorial policies remain dubious. He both bought stories without reading them, and allowed works to be abridged and edited substantially by copyeditors. H.P. Lovecraft referred to him as "that god-damned dung of a hyaena" for truncating his work. In 1937, Tremaine moved on to other projects for Street & Smith and appointed John W. Campbell as editor of Astounding Stories. Campbell did not achieve full editorial control however until 1938.

One of the first things Campbell did when he gained full control of Astounding Stories was change its name. He wanted to set new standards for the field and pull away from the "garbage" that had passed for science fiction in the past. In February 1938, Astounding Stories became Astounding Science Fiction, making it clear that Campbell would emphasize the science in the stories he would publish. When asked about John's influence on the science fiction field during his early days as editor, Isaac Asimov was quoted as saying "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."

Campbell then attacked the cover art of Astounding. Before 1938 the art had been garish. Campbell wanted something more refined. He wanted to appeal to scientists and hobbyists to produce a magazine that would attract more mature readers. He brought back Hans Wesso and eventually instituted the artwork of Charles Schneeman and Hubert Rogers. Their work was more sophisticated, portraying planets in astronomically correct detail and presenting more muted images of alien life and space travel.


Analog Science Fiction transition cover, 1960.

Campbell also made his mark in the editorial section of the magazine. From 1938 onward, every issue would contain a Campbell editorial. The first year of editorials were mainly concerned with the direction of the magazine and retrospectives on science fiction as a whole. Campbell wanted to inform his readership of his views of the field. He also introduced a regular non-fiction article. He had written an 18-part series on the latest developments in solar system science that had been published in 1936 and 1937, just before he took over the editorial reigns of Astounding. He continued this tradition as editor, not only wanting to educate readers, but also to inspire stories.

Early in his career as editor, John approached a senior editor at Smith & Smith. He wanted to know what happened if he couldn't gather enough stories to fill the magazine. Notoriously the editor "fixed him with a stern eye and said, "A good editor does." Campbell dedicated extremely long hours, nearly twelve a day, to filling the magazine with stories and articles. He approached this task in novel and progressive ways. Under John W. Campbell there was no first reader of incoming manuscripts, in the industry referred to as the "slush pile". John himself read every incoming piece of writing and evaluated it. He preferred up-beat stories and insisted on scientific plausibility. He also wanted to pull the genre away from what he called "the hard, rather brittle practicality of some of the best stories." He demanded high quality writing, and he sought writers that had both experience in science and engineering as well as the ability to write fluently. In addition, John wanted stories that didn't allocate space to explaining the futuristic technology. John pointed out "if you are writing a detective story, you don't waste wordage explaining how the detective's car or automatic work; you take it for granted. I want a story that could have been written in the 25th century." This simple assumption was wonderful for the writers because trying to explain their technology often led to stodgy, difficult reading.

Campbell had a clear vision of what he wanted science fiction to become, and he combed the slush pile, looking to not only discover new authors, but to mold them into writing the fiction he knew they could. Harry Harrison explains in his introduction to Collected Editorials from Analog that Campbell bought "ideas, concepts, not fancy writing If the idea is right, all he asks of the writing is that it be literate and cover the ground enough to convey the idea." Harrison continues by explaining that John's attitude toward generating new stories, "which he has expressed in print many times, [was] 'Come on, all you PhDs, and lab types, earn yourself a new camera or such by batting out a little story...' [and] has produced some of the most incredibly foul fiction ever to blind the eyes of western man." Of course, Campbell wouldn't accept poor writing, so his solution was to send faulty, rejected stories back to the writer with detailed pages of criticism, direction and technique. He was famously kind to young writers, not only instructing them on the flaws of their stories and encouraging them to try again, but also helping to improve the story for submission elsewhere if it simply wasn't right for his magazine.

Isaac Asimov was one such young writer. In 1938 Asimov approached Campbell and submitted "Cosmic Corkscrew". It was rejected, but Campbell included a long letter to Asimov encouraging him to keep trying. Asimov did, and began publishing his work in Amazing Stories. In the July 1939 issue of Astounding, Campbell published "Trends". Asimov had joined Campbell's soon-to-be-famous stable of writers, and in September 1941 published "Nightfall", considered a watershed story in Asimov's career. He was finally being taken seriously. Asimov fully credits John W. Campbell with working with him closely to more fully develop his prose and characterization. More importantly, Asimov credits Campbell with the basic idea of the Three Laws of Robotics. The idea of robots taking over or dominating mankind was silly to Campbell, as he greatly preferred stories that regarded humans as admirable and tough. He believed that rational thought, science and engineering were exclusively human and could solve any problem.

Campbell wasn't satisfied with simply accepting ideas that came to him through writers either. He actively shaped what his writers were thinking of and often fed story ideas to them, asking them to flesh them out. He would show authors upcoming covers of Astounding and ask they write a story to match. He educated the writers and readers to not only appreciate the "hard" science fiction, but to also consider the sciences of sociology and politics and to learn to deal actively with the social and human consequences of new technology. Philip Klass (William Tenn), who referred to Campbell as his intellectual father, said of Campbell, "He edited my mind. He was a damn good editor of my mind."

John worked with his authors over legendary lunches. Any writer who had good reason could approach Campbell, but they needed to be prepared to be challenged. John was notorious for playing the devil's advocate on any issue in order to stimulate thinking. He took great pleasure in bandying about ideas with his writers and is noted as being willing to "argue you deaf, dumb, and blind until you generated a story." Harry Harrison says of this process "Come prepared to think, it will be expected of you. Come prepared to remember, because you'll find ideas winging your way thick and fast. I've met a lot of writers in my lifetime, but none ever came close to Campbell in sheer ability to produce ideas, concepts, complete plots and theories at such a continuous clip." He was often misunderstood in this regard. Hal Clement relates that this "sets up a familiar pattern...irascible statement to provoke thought listener quits listening due to irascibility, not thought Campbell's reasoning and good intent is lost."

By July 1939, John's definitive style was fully established. He was turning Astounding Science Fiction into a phenomenon. August 1939 saw Robert A. Heinlein's first published work, "Life-Line". Heinlein and Campbell would become fast and close friends in their first few years of working together, but Heinlein came to him not as a young writer, rather as a mature man with his own ideas and motives. Campbell offered the best rates in the field however, and was consistently the first editor to whom a new writer sent a manuscript. He fully supported Heinlein's early work. He said it was "brilliant and well-thought-out." He did not regard his post-WWII writing with as much regard. It took many years, and tens of thousands of words exchanged in letters, for their friendship to dwindle. Heinlein clearly chafed under Campbell's criticism and, in 1963, stated in a letter to his agent that he "regarded the editors of Fantasy and Science Fiction as stingy but added that it was still "pleasanter" dealing with them than offering copy to John Campbell, having it bounced and then have to wade through ten pages of his arrogant insults, explaining to me why my story is no good."

The same year, 1939, John Campbell launched the fantasy magazine Unknown. The first issue contained Eric Frank Russell's Sinister Barrier. Campbell had demanded revisions to the work, insisting that Russell work out the logical implications of his premises. He ruled Unknown in the same way he did Astounding, requiring that the fantasy elements be treated rigorously. Campbell believed that "your true adult, with fully developed mind, can enjoy fantasy wholeheartedly if its written in adult words and thought-forms, because, being absolutely confident of his own mental capacity, he doesn't have any sense of embarrassment of caught reading "childish stuff." Not surprisingly, Campbell began to publish stories in Unknown by writers who also published in Astounding Science Fiction including L. Ron Hubbard, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert A. Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp.


Unknown, March 1939.

Unknown was highly influential in its field and is generally regarded as the finest fantasy magazine ever published. It did not garner massive commercial success like Astounding, but it did collect a loyal fan base. Lester del Rey describes it as having gained "a devotion from its readers that no other magazine can match." The magazine went through several incarnations, appearing in pulp-sized, then bedsheet-sized, then back to pulp. When wartime paper shortages became severe, Campbell was given the choice to make Astounding a bi-monthly magazine or cancel Unknown. He chose to keep Astounding monthly. The last issue of Unknown was published in October 1943.

In 1949, Campbell, who had been good friends with L. Ron Hubbard for many years, became interested in Dianetics. For many writers and readers, this is the point where Campbell crossed the line from idiosyncrasy to pure lunacy. In one editorial, Campbell wrote of Dianetics, "it is, I assure you in full and absolute sincerity, one of the most important articles ever published." Campbell had been one of Hubbard's first test subjects. Campbell became an enthusiastic supporter, working with Hubbard and others to establish a Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Campbell arranged for Hermitage House publisher to print a full length Dianetics book. In a letter to one of his writers, Campbell wrote "I know Dianetics is one of, if not the greatest discovery of all Man's written and unwritten history." Later however, when Hubbard insisted that there be only the singular "Hubbard-approved" standard procedure of Dianetics, Campbell chafed under this attempt to monopolize the practice and he resigned from the board in 1951. His initial support however was fundamental to Dianetics' success. By the end of 1950, Dianetics had sold more than 150,000 copies, mainly attributable to its appearance in Astounding Science Fiction.


John W. Campbell and L. Ron Hubbard.

Campbell's editorials brought a lot of attention to Astounding, both good and bad. They caused him to be labelled a fascist, a racist, a great discoverer, a philosopher, a forward thinker and a crazy person. Nothing else could generate the amount of feedback that arose from a Campbell Editorial. The majority of them dealt with science rather than science fiction and John was a passionate technocrat, believing science and technology could and would solve any problem. He believed that "There will be a scientific colony on the Moon from 1965 to 1970, consisting of astronomers, solar specialists, and electronics and atomic engineers." He was a philosophical optimist, always looking forward, always challenging. His editorials reflected this, and over the years contributed to his being viewed negatively. There were specifically strong reactions to the editorials "The Lesson of Thalidomide" in January 1963 and "Segregation" in October 1963.

Campbell's point was often missed in his editorials. For instance, in "The Lesson of Thalidomide," John clearly states his thesis, which is "If the Federal Drug Administration can recruit a staff of expert crystal-ball gazers, tea-leaf readers and Tarot-card shufflers, it might be possible for the F.D.A. to rule correctly on all future drug licensing applications. Nothing short of genuine precognition can prevent such disasters completely." He is simply defending the old adage that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Despite all evidence that Thalidomide was not only harmless, but *better* than benzodiazepines for obtaining casual sedative effects, it was a drug that caused devastating defects in fetuses. John believed that there is no way to test for simply everything and technology must advance in the face of that fact. Lester del Rey says Campbell was using his editorial page to stir up thinking, to say "yes, but how do you know your obvious truth is so darned obvious? Now, let's try a different assumption." Praise or condemnation, Campbell wrote editorials for 28 years, giving a modest total of more than 900,000 words. He claimed that he would "continue to try to investigate the nature of the stuffing in any suspiciously bulging shirts around. My business is directly concerned with the progress and achievement of the human race; any orthodoxy that tends to sidetrack or otherwise impede progress is interfering with my business, and I will do what I can to sabotage them."

By the 1950s, Campbell had boosted Astounding Science Fiction reader base to more than 150,000 and had changed the face of science fiction forever. Before him, publishing a science fiction novel outside of a magazine was unheard of but under his tutelage the genre had finally reached a literary level and was being picked up by major publishing houses. Science fiction had finally reached the mainstream, and in addition to the boost it gained by being published in paperback form, the 1950s introduced The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Galaxy. This was all direct competition to Astounding. Unfortunately, by this point many of Campbell's more illustrious writers had come to find his editorial demands too restricting and had left his stable. Additionally, John had begun to pour his energies and interest more and more into his editorials.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy were attracting writers that shied away from Campbell because of his perceived prejudices. He had gained a reputation for refusing to publish works authored by black people and women. Campbell did in fact refuse work written by people of color, and while this can be seen as racist, in reality Campbell was a product of his time. He claimed that he wanted to avoid offending groups of his readers by showing this level of progressiveness. His reputation in this regard had become solidified. In 1998, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine aired an episode called "Far Beyond the Stars", in which the character Douglas Pabst (Rene Auberjonois) represents John W. Campbell and refuses to publish the story written by Benny Russell (Avery Brooks) because the main character in his story is black. As for women, Campbell did publish works written by Leigh Brackett, Judith Merril and C.L. Moore, but there simply were not many female science fiction writers submitting work during his time as editor. Whether Campbell was actually racist or sexist is surely up for debate, but the fact remains he was editing a magazine directed toward scientists and hobbyists during a period of civil rights struggle, and many otherwise respectable persons still believed that blacks and women were less intelligent than white males.

From December 1957 until June 1958, Campbell hosted a radio show called "Exploring Tomorrow". It was a science fiction show in the same vein as "2000 Plus!", "Dimension X" and "X Minus One". It was billed as "The first science fiction show of science-fictioneers, by science-fictioneers, for science-fictioneers." The scripts were written by major writers of the time including Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, Philip K. Dick, Gordon R. Dickson and Tom Godwin. Campbell would give comments on the story and relate them to current scientific advances before and after the show.

Campbell continued to discover new writers of quality through the 1950s and 1960s, although at a slower pace than in the 1940s. In 1947, Poul Anderson appeared in Astounding with "Tomorrow's Children" and "Chain of Logic". Gordon R. Dickson appeared in Astounding in 1951 with "The Friendly Man" and "The Error of Their Ways". Most significantly, in 1954, Campbell pulled Frank Herbert out of the slush pile. In 1954, Astounding published Herbert's first short stories, "Operation Syndrome" and "Pack Rat Planet". Starting in November 1955, Herbert's first novel Under Pressure was serialized in three parts. In 1960, Street & Smith sold Astounding Science Fiction to Conde Nast Publications and Campbell was finally allowed to rename the magazine to Analog Science Fiction & Science Fact, a name he had wanted to utilize for decades. Analog serialized Dune starting in 1963. It was published in two parts, eight installments: "Dune World" in 1963 and "Prophet of Dune" in 1965. Campbell and Herbert worked closely during the development of the novel, and it was to be one of Campbell's greatest finds as Dune went on to be regarded, almost universally, as the most powerful and spectacular work of science fiction ever to be written.

Through his thirty-four years of editor of Analog, Campbell developed some of the most influential writers in science fiction. In addition to Asimov, Herbert and Heinlein, he brought to light Alfred Bester, A. E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester Del Rey, L. Ron Hubbard, Clifford D. Simak, Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Henry Kuttner, Jack Williamson and many others. Whether or not these writers personally liked John or not is irrelevant; none of them will deny his impact on their careers. His influence changed science fiction from something nearly unreadable by the masses into its modern incarnation, which has grown to be regarded as respected literature. No less than thirty books have been dedicated to Campbell, surely a record unique in the publishing world. Under his administration, Astounding Science Fiction won the Hugo Award nine times for Best Science Fiction Magazine of the Year, and Campbell was inaugurated into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1970 for his contributions.

In addition, Campbell's life's work has inspired two separate science fiction awards. Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss founded the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for new novels. This has become one of the three major awards in science fiction. The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer has no connection to the memorial award and is voted on by Hugo voters. It is awarded to a new writer whose first work in science fiction or fantasy had appeared in a professional publication in the previous two years.

John W. Campbell died in his home in Mountainside, New Jersey in 1971, at age 61. Practically everyone who knew him attended his funeral with just a few hours notice. According to Philip Klass (William Tenn), "we came to his home and there were folding chairs in the living room. There was an enormous mob of us who sat in those folding chairs. Everywhere you looked, there were Campbell writers all over the place. And we were told to take chairs I mean, this was going to be the funeral. There was no casket visible. And after everyone was seated, Peg Campbell "turned on a tape recorder. And Campbell addressed us. He conducted the funeral. He had prepared for his funeral in advance. And he did his own eulogy; and he spoke about his contribution. And you just listened to him. It was Campbell after all. He was talking. He was dominant. He was the editor."

Whether as writer, editor, critic or essayist, Campbell never failed to influence writers and readers. It was his passion, his life. Isaac Asimov has the perfect anecdote to explain how Campbell felt about his work and his influence. Asimov says he asked Campbell late in his life whether or not he was sorry he didn't continue as a writer. Campbell reportedly replied, "Look, as a writer, I was one writer. But as an editor, I had an Asimov, I had a Heinlein, I had a Kuttner, I had all of these people doing my work - taking my ideas and doing my work. I was, as an editor, I was a hundred writers."

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