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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

John W. Campbell, icon of science fiction

by Jamie Lutton


Fredrich Pohl died a few days ago, at age 94. He was one of the very last of the writers from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. He had even been Isaac Asimov's literary agent. 



This fact caused me to remember the editor who created science fiction as we know it, John W. Campbell the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, later called Analog. He was the editor from 1937-38, when he gradually took over the post, till 1971.

I had always vaguely hero-worshiped him since I was a young teenager. I had access to my Dad's and older brother's science fiction magazine and book collection, and had plowed through years and years of issues of Analog from the 1960's and 1970's. 

I had read editorials he wrote during the Viet Nam war, and I had known he had supported it. I also knew he supported smoking; thought it had to be good for you somehow. I paid little attention to this; I was familiar with the state of denial smokers got themselves into. My parents both chain-smoked inside, in grocery stores, in the car. I once tried to get my Mother to quit for a few weeks, working on her, till she turned to me and drawled 'Jamie, just how long did you really want me to live?"

And I knew many reasonable people supported the war in Vietnam, I lived as a teen in a small town filled with Republicans in Eastern Washington.. I had been raised, however, by staunchly liberal parents.

 Both my parents vocally supported the Civil Rights movement. My mother had supported Shirley Chisom's candidacy for president in 1970; she was a black congresswoman from new york. 

So I assumed all adults who were good, smart readers \were liberals, who believed blacks (and women) had been treated unjustly, and that the new changes that were being struggled for. civil rights, women's rights was a very good thing.

After his death, everyone praised his brilliant work as an editor. He single handily developed the standards and concepts of the Golden Age of Science fiction.

He instructed contributors to throw out the cliche's of the field, and insisted that his writers know science, and know people. He refused to publish the 'garbage' that passed for science fiction in the past. The carnage in the field was compared to the upheaval in Hollywood when talkies replaced silents;. He often would show writers art for covers he had already bought, and the author had to create stories to match.

He would give story ideas to writers, and ask them to flesh them out.
Many inventions that later came to be were predicted in Astounding Science Fiction - the Moon landing, satellites, advances in computers, etc.
One story published in 1944, one year before the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, Campbell worked on a story with Clive Cartmill, Deadline, that described the basics on how to build an Atomic Bomb. Campbell read the extant papers available on the subject for the story. 

The FBI descended on his office, demanding he retract the issue and pull it from the newsstands. Campbell rightly pointed out that this would alert everyone that the US was on the verge of building an atomic bomb, and that it would be better to ignore the story.

However, as time went on in the 1950's, Campbell got interested in ESP, and asked for stories with 'psi' powers of various sorts in them - telepathy, precognition, even- teleportation, . The huge number of science fiction stories and books that had this theme can be blamed or credited to John Campbell. He also published the first Dianetics story by L. Ron Hubbard, claiming to be an adherent to this religion. 

Later on, in the early sixties, when the Civil Rights movement was heating up, he alienated nearly all his friends by claiming that slavery had been good for blacks, and that they had a herd mentality. He proposed these beliefs in a half-joking 'devil's advocate' fashion, making outrageous statements as fact about such matters. As he got older, most conversations with him became one-sided monologues. This was, I surmise, madness of a sort.

When he died, the new editor of Analog and his old friends chose to forget his excesses, and most of his outrageous beliefs were swept quietly forgotten. He had been a great editor, and he had helped put humans on the Moon, and the development of NASA. Because young people read Science Fiction that had plausible ideas and some good science, they looked up at night and dreamed of the going into space.
Shakespeare said 


"The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones." 
In this case, the great good John W. Campbell is what has survived. But I have dug up his evil to make a point. While all those young people were reading science fiction published by Campbell, they were also reading his editorial and absorbing his racist politics. His influence was pernicious.   Even today, older engineers tend to be more conservative and reactionary; Campbell was helped bring about some of our technical marvels and achievements, but sadly lived in the 19th century as far as human beings went. 

The future world of brave white men with cleft chins solving the world problems, striding into a future rather like the past did not happen. The science fiction that he published and pushed was curiously missing women and people who were not white. We live in a much more colorful, complex world than Campbell ever imagined.

I won't  hero-worship Campbell. anymore, even though I have fond memories of  reading two SF books a day, mostly Golden Age stuff that he had helped create. But I am appalled at his casual and ignorant racism; reading about his racist delusions made me quit liking him much.

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