John W. Campbell, 1910-1971, American SF editor and author.

Campbell was never much of a writer. He published his first story in 1920. His earliest work was clumsy pulp fiction, not much better than most SF in those years. With time, he improved slightly. (Or more than slightly, as ximenez observes below).

Campbell is best remembered as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction (renamed Analog in later years), where in the 1940s he "discovered", nurtured, and groomed most of the "Golden Age" generation of important SF writers like Robert A. Heinlein and A. E. van Vogt, along with a few insignificant "filler" writers like Isaac Asimov. Campbell found SF in a muddle of Vast Corruscating Energies and bug-eyed monsters, worked his will upon it, and left it as a medium that could support works like Dune and writers like Jack Vance and Avram Davidson. Vance and Davidson were not Cambpell protégés, nor could have been; Campbell knew what he liked, and what he liked was Man vs. The Universe (Man wins with a knockout in the last round) and whatnot1. Well, that stuff gets old. What matters is that he insisted on decent writing, plausible characterization, and science that wasn't entirely absurd. Campbell was one of the first to take science fiction seriously, and he demanded that his writers do the same. If they wouldn't, he found others who would. He did for SF something like what Ezra Pound did for the Moderns.

In 1938, Campbell wrote Who Goes There?, a, uh, competent novella which was later rendered into film in The Thing, starring Kurt Russell. The Thing is notable only in that it's less of an atrocity than most "SF" movies. It's no more faithful to the novel than you'd expect, which is to say no more than it should be.

Robert A. Heinlein's The Sixth Column is based on a plot provided by Cambpell.


1 Well, Vance wasn't always so far off thematically, but something about him just doesn't fit . . .


ximenez: As it happens, I've got Before the Golden Age at home, and I even read it, but none of it seems to have stuck in my mind -- which supports your assertion very nicely :) I hadn't known "Nightfall" was from a Campbell idea; that's one of the very few Asimov things I've ever liked.

As for "geek culture", such as it is, the word "geek" defined itself out from under me when it became a youth-culture marketing phenomenon aimed at juvenile illiterates obsessed with comic books, tedious kiddie cartoons, and cheap television shows, who write HTML "code" and trivial Perl scripts when they want to get really technical. Rant, rant . . .


Gamaliel: Carpenter's is the version of The Thing I refer to above -- I love that movie! Of course, I haven't seen the 1951 version, but it's hard for me to imagine how it could be any better. 'Course, all I care about in movies is special effects. YMMV, clearly.
It isn't entirely fair to say that Campbell "was never much of a writer." In "Who Goes There?" and "Twilight" he wrote stories that are still readable today--and when you compare his work with the competition (some of the best of which can be found in Asimov's collection Before the Golden Age), he comes out looking pretty good. Campbell could have continued as a writer indefinitely, but he knew he had an opportunity to do something more--when he decided edit Astounding he said, "as a writer I can write dozens of stories...as an editor I can write hundreds."

Even more than "Man vs. the Universe" stories, he went for "Free, Rational Man vs. the Irrational Masses" stories: see Nightfall, an Asimov classic based on a Campbell idea and edited by him. Through his influence on Robert Heinlein, A.E. Van Vogt, and other writers, he indirectly was a major influence on the libertarian movement. His predilection for stories that appealed to his own adolescent self--an alienated, socially inept, and intelligent boy with an aptitude for science and big ideas--was directly responsible for the creation of SF fandom as we know it today--and, in a less successful way, for the creation of characters like Wesley Crusher.

If you're into geek culture, then Campbell might be the most important person you've never heard of.

The 1982 film The Thing (full title: John Carpenter's The Thing - don't you hate egotistical movie titles like that?) is a lukewarm remake of the 1951 film The Thing From Another World, a true classic of science fiction cinema. Both were based on Campbell's story.

Unfortunately Campbell, while he was probably the most influential science fiction editor of all time, had a few major stains on his reputation.

The first is that he did more than anyone else to promote the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, and Analog was the place where Hubbard's writing on Dianetics was first published. Although he later broke away, Campbell was definitely a believer in Hubbard's early work. Without him we may have had no Scientology.

Secondly, a number of the editorials in Analog in the 60s were mildly racist, and definitely disapproving of the civil rights movement. Isaac Asimov said that this racism, extended was what made Campbell dislike stories with aliens that were more powerful than humans, and this in turn made Asimov avoid writing stories with aliens until after Campbell's death.

Also Campbell, while approving of science, seemed to have a shaky idea of the border between science and pseudo-science, at least as far as the 'factual' articles published in Analog go.

Despite all this though, without this man science fiction and possibly libertarian politics as we know them would never have happened. Remove his influence and E2 would be a very different place...

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