John Wood Campbell, Jr. (June 8, 1910 – July 11, 1971) was an important science fiction editor and writer. As a writer he was first influential under his own name as a writer of super-science space opera and then under the name Don A. Stuart, a pseudonym he used for moodier, less pulpish stories. However, Campbell's primary influence on the genre was as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction, a post that he held from late 1937 until his death. In that role he is generally credited with helping to create the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction, which is often held to have started with the July 1939 issue of Astounding. 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. At the time of his sudden and unexpected death after 34 years at the helm of Astounding, however, his quirky personality and occasionally eccentric editorial demands had alienated a number of his most illustrious writers such as Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein to the point that they no longer submitted works to him.
Soon Stuart also had a strong reputation as a leading writer, and from 1930 until the later part of the decade Campbell was prolific and successful under both his own name and the Stuart pseudonym. Two significant stories published under the pseudonym are "Twilight" (Astounding, November 1934), the first Stuart story, which immediately established the reputation of the apparently new author; and "Who Goes There?" (Astounding, August 1938), about a group of Antarctic researchers who discover a crashed alien vessel, complete with a malevolent shape-changing occupant. This was filmed as The Thing from Another World (1951) and again as The Thing (1982). "Who Goes There?", published when Campbell was only 28, was his last significant piece of fiction. As Sam Moskowitz has written about Campbell in his early critical study of science-fiction writers, "From the memories of his childhood he drew the most fearsome agony of the past: the doubts, the fears, the shock, and the frustration of repeatedly discovering that the woman who looked so much like his mother was not who she seemed. Who goes there? Friend or foe?
Campbell began to make changes almost immediately. He instigated a mutant label for unusual stories, and in March 1938 changed the title of the magazine from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science-Fiction. He had intended to eventually change the name to simply Science Fiction, but Blue Ribbon Magazines brought out a magazine with that title in March 1939, and Campbell decided to retain the existing name.
Lester del Rey's first story, in March 1938, was a notable find for Campbell, but in 1939 such an extraordinary group of new writers were published for the first time in the pages of Astounding that the period is generally regarded as the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction, and the July 1939 issue in particular. The July issue contained A. E. van Vogt's first story, "Black Destroyer"; and Isaac Asimov's early story "Trends"; August brought Robert A. Heinlein's first story, "Lifeline", and the next month Theodore Sturgeon's first story appeared. Virginia Heinlein writes in her collection of Heinlein's letters that Campbell was "a large, tall man who threw off ideas like a sparkler.... Robert did not admire his writing style and objected strenuously to the various changes JWC made in Robert's stories.
Also in 1939, Campbell started the fantasy magazine Unknown (later Unknown Worlds) . Although Unknown was canceled after only four years, a victim of wartime paper shortages, the magazine's editorial direction was significant in the evolution of modern fantasy.
Campbell was regarded by many of the Astounding stable of writers as an important and encouraging influence on their work, and there are many stories in the reminiscences of writers such as Isaac Asimov and Lester del Rey of their interactions with him. Generally, he is widely considered to be the single most important and influential editor in the history of science fiction. As The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction wrote about Campbell: "More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern sf." This influence is generally considered to be during the period between 1938 and about 1950. After that, new magazines such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, building upon the foundation Astounding had laid during the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction, moved in different directions and developed talented new writers who were not directly influenced by him.
Asimov says of his unmatched 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.
The most famous example of the type of speculative but plausible science fiction that Campbell demanded from his writers is Deadline, a short story by Cleve Cartmill that appeared during the wartime year of 1944, a year before the detonation of the first atomic bomb. As Ben Bova, Campbell's successor as editor at Analog, writes, it "described the basic facts of how to build an atomic bomb. Cartmill and... Campbell worked together on the story, drawing their scientific information from papers published in the technical journals before the war. To them, the mechanics of constructing a uranium-fission bomb seemed perfectly obvious." The FBI, however, descended on Campbell's office after the story appeared in print and demanded that the issue be removed from the newsstands. Campbell convinced them that by removing the magazine "the FBI would be advertising to everyone that such a project existed and was aimed at developing nuclear weapons" and the demand was dropped.
Campbell was also responsible for the grim, and controversial, ending of Tom Godwin's famous short story "The Cold Equations". Joe Green says that Campbell had "three times! sent "Cold Equations" back to Godwin, before he got the version he wanted.... Godwin kept coming up with ingenious ways to save the girl! Since the strength of this deservedly classic story lies in the fact the life of one young woman must be sacrificed to save the lives of many, it simply would not have the same impact if she had lived.
Campbell revealed a sly sense of humor in the November 1949 issue. He had always encouraged literary criticism by Astounding's readership, and in the November 1948 issue he published a letter to the editor by a reader named Richard A. Hoen that contained a detailed ranking of the contents of an issue one year in the future. Campbell went along with the joke and contracted stories from most of the authors mentioned in the letter that would follow the fan's imaginary story titles. Ironically, when the issue actually appeared, Hoen had forgotten his original letter, and was supposedly "amazed at how many of my favorite authors appeared in one issue". One of the best-known stories from that issue is "Gulf", by Robert A. Heinlein. Other stories and articles were written by a number of the most famous authors of the time: Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, A. E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, and the astronomer R. S. Richardson.
Isaac Asimov once asked Campbell why he had stopped writing fiction after he became the editor of Astounding. Campbell explained, "Isaac, when I write, I write only my own stories. As editor, I write the stories that a hundred people write.
In a June, 1961, editorial called "Civil War Centennial" Campbell argued that slavery had been a dominant form of human relationships for most of history and that the present was unusual in that anti-slavery cultures dominated the planet. He went on to say that "...it's my bet that the South would have been integrated by 1910. The job would have been done — and done right — half a century sooner, with vastly less human misery, and with almost no bloodshed.... The only way slavery has ever been ended, anywhere, is by introducing industry.... If a man is a skilled and competent machinist — if the lathes work well under his hands — the industrial management will be forced, to remain in business, to accept that fact, whether the man be black, white, purple, or polka-dotted.
Writing about the Campbell of this period, the noted science-fiction writer and critic Damon Knight commented in his book In Search of Wonder: "In the pantheon of magazine science fiction there is no more complex and puzzling figure than that of John Campbell, and certainly none odder." Knight also wrote a four-stanza ditty about some of Campbell's new interests. The first stanza reads:
Asimov was not alone in his opinion. In 1957, the novelist and critic James Blish could write: "From the professional writer's point of view, the primary interest in Astounding Science Fiction continues to center on the editor's preoccupation with extrasensory powers and perceptions ("psi") as a springboard for stories.... 113 pages of the total editorial content of the January and February 1957 issues of this magazine are devoted to psi, and 172 to non-psi material.... By including the first part of a serial that later becomes a novel about psi the total for these first two issues of 1957 is 145 pages of psi text, and 140 pages of non-psi.
Asimov also says that "Campbell championed far-out ideas.... He pained very many of the men he had trained (including me) in doing so, but felt it was his duty to stir up the minds of his readers and force curiosity right out to the border lines. He began a series of editorials... in which he championed a social point of view that could sometimes be described as far right. (He expressed sympathy for George Wallace in the 1968 national election, for instance), although many of his opinions were extremely far left, for example, the new-age theories of psi powers more often associated with the so-called 'counter-culture', something which no right-minded right-winger would ever consider as 'science'. There was bitter opposition to this from many (including me — I could hardly ever read a Campbell editorial and keep my temper, but then, I'm not very smart).
This attempted (and often successful) steering of writers' efforts led to a filksong:
The noted SF writer Alfred Bester, an editor of Holiday Magazine and a sophisticated Manhattanite, recounts at some length his "one demented meeting" with Campbell, a man he imagined from afar to be "a combination of Bertrand Russell and Ernest Rutherford," across the river in Newark. The first thing Campbell said to him was that Freud was dead, destroyed by the new discovery of Dianetics, which, he predicted, would win L. Ron Hubbard the Nobel Peace Prize. Over a sandwich in a dingy New Jersey lunchroom Campbell ordered the bemused Bester to "think back. Clear yourself. Remember! You can remember when your mother tried to abort you with a button hook. You've never stopped hating her for it." Shaking, Bester eventually made his escape and "returned to civilization where I had three double gibsons." He adds: "It reinforced my private opinion that a majority of the science-fiction crowd, despite their brilliance, were missing their marbles."
Asimov's final word on Campbell was that "in the last twenty years of his life, he was only a diminishing shadow of what he had once been. Even Robert A. Heinlein, perhaps Campbell's most important discovery and, Virginia Heinlein recounts, by 1940 a "fast friend", eventually tired of Campbell. "When Podkayne was offered to him, he wrote Robert, asking what he knew about raising young girls in a few thousand carefully chosen words. The friendship dwindled, and was eventually completely gone. In 1963 Heinlein wrote his agent to say that a rejection from another magazine was "pleasanter than offering copy to John Campbell, having it bounced (he bounced both of my last two Hugo Award winners) — and then have to wade through ten pages of his arrogant insults, explaining to me why my story is no good.
After Campbell's death, stories by various of the authors who felt they owed a special debt to him were published in Astounding: The John W Campbell Memorial Anthology. Each story was prefaced by comments either by the author or the editor, Harry Harrison.
In 1996 Campbell was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, in the first year of its existence.
The John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer were named in his honor.
The main bibliographic sources are footnoted from this paragraph and provided much of the information in the following sections. For more bibliographic information see the separate bibliography article.
Dates indicate first book publication.