Media, Multimedia, Sci-Tech

From our vault: John W Campbell, most potent force in science fiction you never heard of, now a centennial man

From our vault: John W Campbell, most potent force in science fiction you never heard of, now a centennial man

Chances are, unless you’re a hardcore science fiction fan, you’ve never heard of John W Campbell Jnr. But if you’ve read Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke or Robert A Heinlein you were touched by his influence. Campbell’s the guy who put science into sci-fi.

Born on 8 June 1910, Campbell started writing science fiction at 18, while studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was first published a year later and for several years he wrote prolifically under his own name as well as a pseudonym, Don A Stuart. He stopped writing at 27 to become editor of Astounding Stories. He soon changed the name to Astounding Science-Fiction and published stories by new, undiscovered writers with names such as Isaac Asimov, A E van Vogt, Robert A Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon.   

Though he died in 1971, most science fiction fans say the exact birth of The Golden Age of Science Fiction was with the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction when Campbell published Asimov and Von Vogt for the first time.

Covers of Astounding Science Fiction featuring stories by Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein.

British Science fiction historian, critic and novelist Adam Roberts described the shift from pulp to realism when “the Golden Age valorises a particular sort of writing: ‘Hard SF’, linear narratives, heroes solving problems or countering threats in a space-opera or technological-adventure idiom”. It was under Campbell’s exacting and demanding editorship that the genre would make the move from fantastical fluff to hard science-based fiction. Campbell demanded realism and developed characters; he suggested stories and threw scripts back at writers again and again until they met his demanding standards.

The result was an industry shakeout that made way for new writers who would later become legends earning the moniker of grand masters or science fiction’s “big three” – Asimov, Heinlein & Clarke. In his memoir Asimov speaks about Campbell’s influence: “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 mould. 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 the purple out 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, when silent movies had given way to the talkies.”

Watch Isaac Asimov speaking on the Golden Age of Science Fiction:

John W Campbell died 61 years old, a shadow of his former self. A compulsive smoker, Campbell pooh-poohed health warnings by the US surgeon-general as “esoteric”. Towards the end of his life the 2m-tall man with hawk-like features and a quicksilver mind had been reduced to what Isaac Asimov described as “a diminishing shadow of what he had once been”.

Alienated from most of the science fiction writers he once championed, Campbell fell deeper into pseudo-science and a fringe thinking that saw the community of writers he fostered reject him. In this case it matters not how the man died – his work had already been done. What matters is what came before and how he forever changed the nature of science fiction. Campbell firmly closed the door on a “pulp era” of science fiction writing, and was pivotal in ushering in the first Golden Age of Science Fiction.

By Mandy de Waal

Read works by John W Campbell at Project Gutenburg, letters by John W Campbell which show his relationship with Robert A Heinlein deteriorating into acrimony.

Main photo: John W Campbell (R) with L Ron Hubbard (L).


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options