Saturday, 4 February 2017

John W Campbell 1910-1971


John Wood Campbell Jnr loved science fiction magazines from the start, and sold his first stories to them when he was still a teenager.

In the early 1930s he rose to rival E E ‘Doc’ Smith as the greatest writer of galactic epics of superscience. The most popular of these was the Arcot, Morey and Wade series, described in the SF Encyclopedia as stories ‘in which the heroes faced a succession of battles of ever-increasing size fought with a succession of wonderful weapons of ever-decreasing likelihood.’

In 1934 he adopted a pseudonym, Don A Stuart, and started writing science fiction in a different style. He also used the names Karl Van Campen and Arthur McCann.

His greatest success was with a story, Who Goes There? published in the August 1938 issue of Astounding magazine. It was a classic sf horror story about an Antarctic research station menaced by an alien invader and shapeshifter. It was filmed, without the shape-changing aspect, as The Thing From Another World (1951), and later, as The Thing (1982), with the basic premise restored. It was filmed again as The Thing in 2011.


In September 1937 Street & Smith appointed Campbell as editor of Astounding magazine, a post he would retain for thirty-four years until his death at the age of sixty-one (the magazine being retitled Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938 and Analog in 1960). From then on he wrote almost no fiction.
Campbell brought to his editorial post the fertility of ideas on which his writing success as both Campbell and Don A Stuart had been based, together with a determination to raise the standards of writing and thinking in science fiction magazines. New writers were encouraged and fed with ideas, with remarkable success.

By 1939, Campbell had discovered Isaac Asimov, Lester del Rey, Robert A Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon and A E van Vogt. L Sprague de Camp, L Ron Hubbard, Murray Leinster, Clifford D Simak and Jack Williamson, already established sf writers, soon became part of Campbell's "stable". Henry Kuttner and C L Moore became regular contributors from 1942. These were the authors at the core of Campbell's "Golden Age of SF" – a period corresponding roughly to World War Two – when Astounding dominated the genre in a way no magazine before or since could match.

Most of these authors, and many others, acknowledged the profound influence Campbell had on their careers, and the number of acknowledged sf classics which originated in ideas suggested by him would be impossible to assess. Asimov persistently credited Campbell with at least co-creating the articulation of the three Laws of Robotics.

Isaac Asimov called Campbell ‘the most powerful force in science fiction ever, and for the first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely.’

Although the writing had been on the wall ever since about 1945, the period of Astounding's dominance can be said to have ended, quite abruptly, with the appearance of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1949 and Galaxy Science Fiction in 1950. By this time Campbell's domineering editorial presence had become restricting rather than stimulating and several of his central authors had left the stable (sometimes acrimoniously); comparatively few major writers after 1950 began their careers in his magazine. Nevertheless, between 1952 and 1964 he won eight Hugo awards for Best Editor.


However, the magazine remained popular and commercially successful, winning seven Hugo awards under Campbell's editorship. His death in 1971 was marked by an unprecedented wave of commemorative activity. Two awards were founded bearing his name: the John W Campbell Award for new writers and the John W Campbell Memorial Award for novels, both still presented.
Asimov said of Campbell's influence on the field: 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 mold. 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 out the purple 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, while silent movies had given way to the talkies.
[adapted from SF Encyclopedia and Wikipedia]

Ann Marie Thomas is the author of three medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at

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