Introduction to “John Campbell and the Modern SF Idiom”
by Ben Bova
It saddens me to realize that an entire generation of science fiction writers and readers has now grown up without knowing John Campbell.
John W. Campbell Jr., as he insisted on being bylined, died in 1971. From 1937 until then, he was the towering figure in the field of science fiction. The following essay goes into some detail on that subject, so I will not try to justify my statement here.
When Florida State University asked me to write a piece about Campbell for their Fantasy Review, I was flattered and delighted. A thousand memories of John flooded through my mind. I will burden you with only two of them:
Scene 1: The lobby of a hotel that is hosting a science fiction convention. Dozens of fans and writers (many were both) milling around, talking, exchanging jokes, looking for the bar. John Campbell, editor of Analog magazine, is surrounded by a shining-faced group of worshipers. At this time, Analog was published by The Condé Nast Publications Inc., a very powerful New York-based magazine house.
One young man worms his way through the crowd and says, with studied diffidence, “I wrote a science fiction story once. But I didn’t send it to you because I knew you’d reject it.”
Campbell, an imposingly large man with broad shoulders and white hair crew-cut militarily flat, looms over the kid and says in a crack-of-doom voice: “And since when does The Condé Nast Publications Incorporated pay you to make editorial decisions for Analog?”
The kid disappeared into the carpeting.
John’s point was that if you took the trouble to write a story, he wanted you to send it to him. Let him judge if it’s good enough to be published. If he thought not, he would send you a detailed letter explaining his reasons – and giving you a hatful of ideas for new stories.
Unfortunately the youngster did not stay around to get the explanation.
Scene 2: A midtown Manhattan restaurant. John Campbell is taking six or seven (I forget the exact number) writers to lunch. John was fond of posing mental puzzlers; he liked to see how bright his writers were.
He asks us: “In the year 1910 there were two railroad stations in the city of Boston. One of them was the largest railroad station in the United States. But as every proper Bostonian knew, it was not the largest railroad station in Boston.”
Talk about challenges! We had to explain that conundrum. Over lunch. If memory serves, I believe it was Joanna Russ who finally cracked it. Think about that as you read about John W. Campbell Jr. There will never be another like him.
JOHN CAMPBELL AND THE MODERN SF IDIOM
When he died unexpectedly in 1971, John W. Campbell, Jr. was the towering editorial figure who had dominated the field of science fiction for more than three decades. In recent years, Campbell’s reputation has been eclipsed by the continuing evolution of the field. Even so, to a considerable extent modern science fiction is the creation of Campbell’s editorial genius. What we call science fiction today is a literature that reflects Campbell’s ideas of what the field ought to be.
Forgotten in today’s dynamic, growing science fiction realm is the fact that it was Campbell, starting in 1937, who insisted on high-quality writing for science fiction stories. The first steps in leading science fiction out of the formulas and dreadful writing of the pulp magazine industry were taken – forcibly, at times – by John Campbell.
The title of the magazine he edited from 1937 until his death reflects his own goals, and the evolution of the field. When the 24-year-old Campbell was given the editor’s job, starting with the December 1937 issue, the magazine was titled Astounding Stories. By February 1938 Campbell had changed the title to Astounding Science Fiction, and over the next twenty-two years insisted on cover type that emphasized “science fiction” and downplayed the melodramatic “Astounding.” Finally, in 1960, when publisher Street & Smith was bought out by The Condé Nast Publications, Campbell was at last allowed to changed the title to the one he had wanted for decades: Analog Science Fiction & Science Fact.
Many contemporary writers think of Campbell as an eccentric who championed a variety of crank ideas, from dianetics to libertarianism. A chain smoker, he refused to believe the Surgeon General’s report on the links between smoking and heart disease – a refusal that may well have cost him his life. He was a great arguer, in the Socratic sense, and enjoyed nothing more than convincing a skeptical audience of his point of view.
His editorial crotchets, especially in his later years, are well remembered. Few now recall, however, that his primary goal – stated boldly early in his career and then more and more by implication as the years rolled by – was to fill his magazine with what he considered to be “good stories.”
How did Campbell define a “good story?” I believe he used three main criteria: technical background, mood, and writing quality.
Clearly he insisted that the technical background of each story be based firmly on what is known of scientific fact and principles. In this, he set the basic rule of modern science fiction: the writer can invent anything so long as no one can demonstrate that it is physically impossible.
To cite one famous example of the result of Campbell’s policy, stories dealing with nuclear weapons began appearing in the pages of Campbell’s ”Astounding long before the first atomic bomb test at Alamogordo in 1945. The most famous of these was Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline,” published in May 1944.
“He stopped before the bomb, looked down at it. He nodded, ponderously…’Two cast-iron hemispheres, clamped over the orange segments of cadmium alloy…and a small explosive powerful enough to shatter the cadmium walls.Then…the powdered uranium oxide runs together in the central cavity. The radium shoots neutrons into this mass – and theU235 takes over from there. Right?'”
Not exactly the way the first atomic bombs worked, but close enough so that the FBI investigated the genesis of Cartmill’s story, fearful of a security leak in the Manhattan Project.
Consider the atomic bomb case again. More than four years before Cartmill’s description of an atomic bomb was published, Robert Heinlein wrote “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which appeared in the May 1941 ASF.
“‘Well,’ I answered, ‘what of it? It’s our secret, the atomic bomb, and we’ve got the upper hand. The United States can put a stop to this war, and any other war. We can declare a Pax Americana, and enforce it.’ ‘Hm-m-m – I wish it were that easy. But it won’t remain our secret; you can count on that. It doesn’t matter how successfully we guard it; all that anyone needs is the hint…and then it’s just a matter of time until some other nation develops a technique to produce it. You can’t stop brains from working…
‘It’s like this: Once the secret is out – and it will be if we ever use the stuff – the whole world will be comparable to a room full of men, each armed with a loaded .45. They can’t get out of the room and each one is dependent on the good will of every other one to stay alive. All offense and no defense. See what I mean?'”
Heinlein (once described by Algis Budrys as “the hand of John Campbell’s mind”) correctly described the political implications of nuclear weaponry: the Cold War stalemate between the superpowers, the state of nuclear terror that held the world in its thrall for more than forty years.
Few critics have seen beyond the gadgetry in the pages Campbell edited to understand that ASF pioneered the way for stories dealing with the social, political and human consequences of new technology. Far from restricting the pages of ASF to “hard” science fiction, Campbell educated the readers – and writers! – to consider the “softer” sciences of sociology and politics, as well.
It is no secret that Campbell did prefer “up-beat” stories. He had little tolerance for weaklings or failures. His preference was based on his belief that the human animal is admirable, that rational thought -as exemplified by science and engineering – is our main method for dealing with the environment in which we find ourselves. He was certain that Man is the toughest critter in the forest, and to those who did not believeit, or who felt there is something wrong or evil in such an attitude, he showed scant patience.
In this, Campbell clearly fell into the ranks of the philosophical optimists. He would have laughed at the myth of Sysiphus and immediately started to sketch out a system of pulleys that would allow that tragic mythical figure to get his stone over the top of that damned hill.
Does this mean he automatically rejected “down-beat,” pessimistic stories? No, as a glance at Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (August 1954) will show.
In this story, a young woman stows away on a space ship carrying desperately-needed vaccine to a plague-stricken planet. She wants to reach her brother, who is one of the plague victims. The ship’s pilot, its only crew member, discovers the stowaway and realizes that her extra weight will prevent the ship from reaching its destination. He decides that the lives of millions of plague victims outweigh the life of the stowaway, and forces her out of the airlock, to die in the vacuum of space.
“A cold equation had been balanced and he was alone on the ship….It seemed, almost,that she still sat small and bewildered and frightened on the metal box beside him, her words echoing hauntingly clear in the void she had left behind her: ‘I didn’t do anything to die for – I didn’t do anything.'”
The theme of the story is classical: the universe (or what the ancient Greeks would have called Destiny) does not care about our petty loves and desires. One and one inexorably add up to two, no matter how desperately we would have it otherwise.
Years after “The Cold Equations” was published Campbell laughingly recalled the story’s evolution. “He [Godwin] kept wanting to save the girl.” The editor had to insist on the “down-beat” ending. To do otherwise would have been to turn a memorable story into merely another “gadget” tale.
Beyond his insistence on scientific plausibility and his philosophical attitude, Campbell demanded writing quality much higher than the pulp fiction that preceded his reign at ASF. There were only a few science fiction magazine being published in the late Thirties and throughout the years of World War II. Campbell consistently paid the best rates in the field, and consistently was the first editor to whom a writer sent each new manuscript. He used this powerful position to pick the stories that he considered best, and the quality of the writing was an important criterion, although usually an unspoken one.
Yet consider what was published in ASF before Campbell. I picked two stories at random: “Redmask of the Outlands,” by Nat Schachner, and “Star Ship Invincible,” by Frank K. Kelly. They were the lead stories in the January 1934 and January 1935 issues of ASF. The magazine at that time was considered among the best in the field. Schachner was a regular contributor who had 57 stories published in ASF between 1931 and 1941, several of them under pen names because he often had more than one story in an issue. Kelly had only three stories in ASF in 1934 and ’35.
The opening lines of Schachner’s “Redmask of theOutlands: “The city-state of Yorrick was a huge cube of blackness on the shores of the ocean. On one side stretched the interminable Atlantic, billowing and sun-bright; on the other, the almost interminable forests of the Outlands. In between lay a sudden cessation of light, of matter itself – a spatial void of smoothly regular outlines.The oligarchs of Yorrick had builded [sic] well to protect themselves and their millions of subjects against attack. Against the warped, folded space that inclosed [sic] the three levels of the city, powered as it was by the gravitational-flow machines, the most modern offense was impotent. No weapon conceived by man could break through.”
And the opening of Kelly’s “Star Ship Invincible:”
“He had been sitting hunched on the high stool of the operator’s chair, elbows on the smooth ledge of metal that encircled him, when the receptor tube spat a harsh sound in his ears, a sibilant warning note. He thought, “What now!” but straightened with alacrity, his stiff back shaping a tense angle.He jerked his head upward in an arc, nostrils widened, his thin nose slightly trembling, as if he could smell what was vibrating through the receptor channel. He forgot how cold he was, and how his stomach ached faintly from many days on a diet of compressed-food tablets, and how he wished his relief would come, because he was lonely, the universe seemed strange and hostile all around him.”
It took many months before Campbell used up the inventory of stories that his predecessor (now his boss) had accumulated, and even longer before he began to get the kind of stories he wanted to publish. Here are the opening lines from the lead stories of the January 1940 and January 1941 issues of ASF.
The first is “Neutral Vessel,” by Harl Vincent:
“In the captive military observation sphere a hundred miles above the outer cloud layer of Venus, Tommy Blake idly punched a location spot on the calculating board. He was not greatly impressed by the alarm indication of this body’s approach. Seven million miles it was off, at the limit of the sensitive magnetic pickup system. From its direction, it could hardly be a Martian battle fleet, and even if it were, they would beseveral days getting here. Plenty of time.”
The January 1941 lead story was “Sixth Column,” by Anson MacDonald (Robert A. Heinlein), an acknowledged masterpiece; Its opening lines:
“‘What the hell goes on here?’ Whitey Ardmore demanded. They ignored his remark as they had ignored his arrival. The man at the television receiver said, ‘Shut up. We’re listening,’ and turned up the volume. The announcer’s voice blared out, ‘ – Washington destroyed completely. With Manhattan in ruins, that leaves no – ‘ There was a click as the receiver was turned off. ‘That’s it,’ said the man near it. ‘The United States is washed up.’ Then he added, ‘Anybody got a cigaret?'”
The contrast between the stiff, stilted prose of 1934-35 and the more naturalistic and engaging style of 1940-41 is no accident. Schachner and Kelly were still writing in the early 1940s but Campbell did not buy their work.
Instead, he sought writers who not only had real experience in science and engineering, but who could also write smoothly and naturalistically. He wanted writers who had “been there,” at the edge of modern research and engineering, and who could write out of personal experience of the kinds of people and situations that existed at those frontiers.
The “slick” magazines have died away, but Campbell’s science fiction is a powerful, dynamic field of contemporary literature.
The prolific Robert Silverberg started his career in ASF. While every book publisher in New York rejected Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, Campbell serialized it despite the fact that it was twice as long as ordinary magazine serials of the time. The tremendous reader response to the novel created the audience for the book’s eventual publication – by a textbook publisher in Philadelphia.
No one read the manuscripts submitted to ASF except Campbell himself. There was no “first reader;” he read them all, those sent in by agents, those from the best-known writers in the field, and those from the unknowns. It was particularly that enormous flow of manuscripts from previously-unpublished writers, called in the trade “the slushpile,” that Campbell mined for gold. There he discovered the new talent that made his magazine – and the field – great. He gave up his own not-inconsiderable writing career and spent the rest of his life reading manuscripts, frequently for twelve hours a day or more. For 34 years.
He was inordinately kind to young writers. His letters, even his rejection letters, are legendary for their richness of helpful ideas and encouragement to “try again.” The most famous example, of course, is the teenaged Isaac Asimov, who all his life gave Campbell the major share of the credit for his success as a writer.
Campbell often said, “The real job of an editor is to find a good writer in a bad story.” That is, to recognize talent in a beginner’s clumsy efforts. And then to encourage the beginner until he begins writing publishable stories.
By the 1950s new science fiction magazines such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction began to appear on the newsstands. Book publishers started to take science fiction seriously. They all built on the foundations that Campbell had constructed. Even those editors and writers who decried “Campbellian” science fiction as too restricting and old-fashioned were (perhaps unknowingly) taking advantage of Campbell’s many years of labor and the audience he had built up.
The quality of science fiction writing was unquestionably higher in 1950 than it had been in 1937. More than that, the readers had been trained in the pages of ASF to expect and demand writing that was much better than the earlier prose of the pulp magazines. These expectations and demands increased as the decades rolled on. The “New Wave” of the late 1960s and the burgeoning of science fiction in the 70s and 80s were the inevitable consequences of the evolution of science fiction away from the pulp magazines and toward a true contemporary literature. Campbell played the pioneering role in that evolution.
Perhaps the most revealing incident in Campbell’s long career came immediately after he was appointed editor of Astounding. He asked a senior editor at Street & Smith, “What happens if I don’t get enough stories to fill the magazine?” The older man fixed him with a stern eye and said, “A good editor does.”
From that moment on Campbell spent his enormous energies making certain that he could fill the magazine. His hackles-raising editorials, his voluminous correspondence, his long hours of reading manuscripts, his marathon arguments over everything and anything from quantum physics to slavery to the Dean Drive – all were aimed at making certain there would be no blank pages in ASF.
More than that, he wanted to fill the magazine with his kind of stories: technically acute, up-beat, and well-written. He succeeded far better than anyone before or since. What we call “science fiction” today is what John W. Campbell determined the field should be.
©Ben Bova 2009