Meet the Editor who Ushered in the Golden Age of Science Fiction

It’s the birthday of the editor who ushered in the Golden Age of Science Fiction: John W. Campbell, born in Newark, New Jersey in 1910.

John W. Campbell in 1942 (Courtesy of Leslyn Randazzo / from Astounding)

His father was an electrical engineer, and Campbell was interested in science from the time he was a kid. He started writing science fiction when he was 18, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and published his first story a year later.

He wrote under his own name and a pseudonym, Don A. Stuart. His work includes the novella Who Goes There? (1938), about a group of researchers in Antarctica who discover an alien buried in the ice.

“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. Chicago: Shasta Pub., 1948. 1st ed. Art by Hannes Bok

The alien has the ability to inhabit the body of anyone it attacks, to such a convincing degree that it is impossible for the researchers to recognize which of them are still themselves and which are now aliens. It was made into the film The Thing From Another World (1951), its remake The Thing (1982), and later this year, a prequel, also called The Thing.

John Campbell’s most lasting contributions to science fiction came from his role as an editor. In 1937, the editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding Stories retired and hired Campbell to replace him. Campbell immediately changed the name to Astounding Science-Fiction (and later to Analog), and he transformed the magazine.

Science fiction writers Campbell worked with, from left: L. Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein in 1944. (John Seltzer and Geo Rule / From Astounding)

He wanted to change its reputation from that of a pulp fiction publication to one based on real science. He recruited and championed writers like Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon.

Book jacket for Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. (Dey Street / Dey Street)

He demanded that the stories he publish have convincing science as well as convincing characters. He preferred uncomfortable ideas that would push readers, and he had no qualms insisting that his writers completely change the endings of stories if he didn’t like them. Isaac Asimov said, “What he wanted were people who would write stories in which the science was realistic. Not realistic in the sense that they couldn’t go out into the blue yonder, not realistic in the sense that they couldn’t extrapolate wildly, but realistic in the sense that people who worked in science resembled people who actually worked in science. That scientists acted the way scientists do, that engineers acted the way engineers do – and in short, that the scientific culture be represented accurately.”

Asimov said of Campbell: “When I first met him I thought of him as ageless. He was a tall, large man with light hair, a beaky nose, a wide face with thin lips, and with a cigarette in a holder forever clamped between his teeth. He was talkative, opinionated, quicksilver-minded, overbearing. Talking to him meant listening to a monologue. Some writers could not endure it and avoided him, but he reminded me of my father, so I was perfectly willing to listen to him indefinitely.”

Last year the Los Angeles Times said of Campbell:

Despite an aimless early life, Campbell eventually stumbled onto the job he was born to do — long before anybody realized it was a job worth doing. Until Campbell came along, the pulps were edited by company men who felt little if any personal affection for the stories they published. But in 1937, when Campbell accepted the editor’s chair at Astounding Stories (which he quickly renamed Astounding Science Fiction), he became the first SF fan to shape the genre he loved; and almost immediately he discovered that exploring futuristic ideas for his stories was not nearly so pleasurable as passing those ideas onto others. “When I was a writer,” he told his youthful discovery, Isaac Asimov, “I could only write one story at a time. Now I can write fifty stories at a time.”

Isaac Asimov in 1984. He was a teenage fan reading Astounding before he met editor Campbell. (Mario Suriani / AP)

Campbell had plenty of ideas to go around and a good eye for the best writers to develop them. Over the next decade, he industriously discovered and/or employed the most influential sci-fi writers of the modern era: Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, A.E. Van Vogt (for my money, the strangest of them all), Henry Kuttner, Robert Silverberg and L. Sprague de Camp; significant female writers such as Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore; and ultimately the three most important writers who helped him shape the “Golden Age”: Robert A. Heinlein, Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard.

The trajectory of all four men describes a similar sudden rise and sad demise. First, a burst of explosive creative energy in the 1940s. Then a withdrawal from the genre that fed them in the ’50s; and finally, a series of strangely unpredictable final acts and departures in the ’70s and ’80s.

L. Ron Hubbard in the 1960s. Campbell was an early supporter of fiction – and his Dianetics. (Express Newspapers / Getty Images)

Astounding/Analog went downhill, and so did Campbell. He developed into an angry old man who drank and smoked too much at sci-fi conventions and collared anyone still impressed by his reputation to talk at them until they weren’t impressed anymore. While Heinlein and Asimov enjoyed their late years as bestselling novelists and cultural celebrities, Campbell’s audience grew smaller, just as the theories he expounded grew nastier. He argued that tobacco might prevent cancer, that “Negroes lack self-discipline” and that homosexuality was a sign of cultural decline. He decried the murdered demonstrators at Kent State and once said, “I’m not interested in victims,” as if he were pronouncing an irrefutable mathematical theorem. “I’m interested in heroes.” Like many men defeated late by their own ambitions, Campbell didn’t respect striving individuals like himself; he only respected super-versions that never existed. Subsiding bitterly into self-dissatisfaction, he went from being one of America’s most prescient futurists to one of its ugliest reactionaries.

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