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The Man Who Made Science Fiction What It Is Today

John Campbell never became as famous as many of the writers he published, but he influenced the dreamlife of millions. For more than three decades, an unparalleled series of visions of the future passed through his tiny office in New York, where he inaugurated the main sequence of science fiction that runs through works from 2001 to Westworld. Despite his flaws, he deserves to be seen as one of the key cultural figures of the 20th century, and his singular career—which has never been the subject of a full biography until now—is one of its great untold stories.

He was born in Newark in 1910. As an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he became one of the most popular authors of superscience, or space opera, cranking out futuristic pulp adventures that spanned the entire galaxy. His more mature stories—which he wrote under the pen name Don A. Stuart, in a tribute to his first wife, Doña—heralded the beginning of the genre’s modern age, and his most famous work, the novella Who Goes There?, would have been enough to ensure his immortality, if only through its multiple filmed adaptations as The Thing.

By the time it appeared, Campbell had already moved away from writing. At 27, he landed the job as the editor of Astounding, stumbling into it almost by accident. He took control of the magazine just as fans were emerging as a formidable force in their own right, and he assumed the role of a gatekeeper who controlled access to the top of the genre, in which the pulps were the only game in town. Science fiction, which was still defining itself, was changed forever by his whims, prejudices, and private life. For more than 30 years, Campbell relentlessly worked a virtual staff of hundreds of writers, and they rewarded him with stories ranging from Asimov’s “Nightfall” to Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Their peak became known as the Golden Age of science fiction, which ran roughly from 1939 to 1950—and Campbell was the most brilliant of them all. Asimov called him “the brain of the super-organism,” while the writer Harlan Ellison, one of his harshest critics, conceded that he was “the single most important formative force” in modern science fiction. He was synonymous with the genre, and his influence lasted long after his death in 1971. As a teenager in the 70s, Neil Gaiman paid more than he could afford for a box of old Astoundings, and decades later, when asked if Game of Thrones had been inspired by the mythologist Joseph Campbell, George R.R. Martin responded, “The Campbell that influenced me was John W., not Joseph.”

“Asimov called him ‘the brain of the super-organism,’ while the writer Harlan Ellison, one of his harshest critics, conceded that he was ‘the single most important formative force’ in modern science fiction.”

If Campbell loomed large in the imaginations of his readers, he was even more daunting in person. He stood an inch over six feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds, with sharp blue eyes and a black cigarette holder with a Chesterfield perpetually clutched in one hand. As a young man, he wore his light brown hair slicked back, emphasizing his aquiline profile, which bore a striking resemblance, he liked to say, to both Hermann Göring and the Shadow. In middle age, he switched to browline glasses and a crew cut, and he always struck others as huge. For much of his career, he was hated as much as he was loved, and he was inescapable even for writers he neglected, such as Ray Bradbury, who tried and failed repeatedly to break into the magazine.

Science fiction might have evolved into a viable art form with or without Campbell, but his presence meant that it happened at a crucial time, and his true legacy lies in the specific shape that it took under his watch. Campbell had wanted to be an inventor or scientist, and when he found himself working as an editor instead, he redefined the pulps as a laboratory for ideas—improving the writing, developing talent, and handing out entire plots for stories. America’s future, by definition, was unknown, with a rate of change that would only increase. To prepare for this coming acceleration, he turned science fiction from a literature of escapism into a machine for generating analogies, which was why, in the 60s, he renamed the magazine Analog.

He also expanded the range of the genre’s concerns. Before his editorship, most stories had centered on physics and engineering, but the rise of the Nazis led him to wonder if the study of civilization itself could be refined into a science. Working with Asimov, he developed the fictional field of psychohistory, which could predict events for thousands of years in the future, and he openly dreamed of a similar revolution in psychology. After Hiroshima, history seemed on the verge of overtaking science fiction. With his audience looking to him for answers, Campbell felt that the next step was clear. His ultimate goal was to turn his writers and readers into a new kind of human being, exemplified by “the competent man,” who would lead in turn to the superman. As the atomic age dawned, nothing less than humanity’s survival seemed at stake, and Campbell teamed up with one of his own authors—L. Ron Hubbard—to achieve this transformation in the real world. But none of it went according to plan.


From Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science FictionCourtesy of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2018 by Alec Nevala-Lee.

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