Monday, January 12, 2009

SF authors born 1904-13: 1910

1. John W. Campbell Jr.


John W. Campbell Jr. (1910-1971)

American SF editor and author.

To get a sense of the discourse surrounding the so-called Golden Age of SF and what preceded it, read anything written about Campbell.

Campbell attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he befriended Norbert Wiener, one of the godfathers of computers. He began writing science fiction at age 18. By the time he was 21 he was a well-known pulp writer of super-science space opera but had been dismissed by MIT: he had failed German. He then spent one year at Duke University, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in physics in 1932. Asimov notes Campbell's presence at Duke and speculates that Duke was "best known in my youth for the work of Joseph B. Rhine on extrasensory perception, and that may have influenced Campbell's later views on the subject."

The 1940s saw a great wave of science fiction writers, the first to grow up reading the pulps and then writing stories of their own. "Astounding was at the heart of this explosion of writers, and John W. Campbell, Jr. was the heart of Astounding." Effective October 1937 Campbell took over Astounding; he remained there until his death. With the March 1938 issue he changed the title from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science-Fiction. He made the magazine the leader in the field, with its zenith probably being in the early 1940s. He introduced Asimov, Heinlein, del Rey, Sturgeon, and van Vogt to SF.

Campbell had strong ideas about what made good science fiction and he wasn't afraid to make writers do it his way. According to Theodore Sturgeon, "Writers who always sold their stories to editors were suddenly faced with an editor who sold stories to them instead ... and could he sell!" In particular, Campbell stressed scientific plausibility, telling writers, "If you can't make 'em possible, make 'em logical. If you can't research it, extrapolate it!" Those who could adapt did -- Jack Williamson is one who made the leap easily, and his classic 1938 serial The Legion of Space was only one highlight. Meanwhile, Campbell was always hunting for new writers who would do the stories he wanted. The summer of 1939 was the watershed moment. The July issue featured "Black Destroyer" by A.E. van Vogt as well as "Trends", the first Astounding story by a skinny Brooklyn kid named Isaac Asimov. The August issue included "Life-Line", Robert Heinlein's first story, and September served up "The Ether Breathers" from new writer Theodore Sturgeon.

Other magazines began to emulate what was happening in Astounding while Campbell preached his approach to science fiction through the editorial columns. Over the next decade, he would shape the careers of every major SF writer except Ray Bradbury. "Before Campbell, magazine science fiction was brash, exciting, violent, and so lurid that most of it is unreadable today." — Chris Aylott, "The genre was bug-eyed monsters, exploding galaxies, stories written like engineering diagrams, and the occasional Wellsian or Stapledonian meditation. Campbell didn't change all of this, but by 1949, the excesses were toned down, the science made more sense, and sometimes even style would grace the printed page."


* "When the Atoms Failed" (Amazing Stories, January 1930). Campbell started out as a writer, making his debut in 1930 — while a student at MIT — with the short story, "When the Atoms Failed". He was only 20 at the time, but before long he was second only to E. E. "Doc" Smith as a smasher of galaxies.

* "Piracy Preferred" (Amazing Stories, June 1930). The first of the Arcot, Morey, and Wade series (future inventions).

* "Solarite" (Amazing Stories, November 1930). The 2nd of the Arcot, Morey, and Wade series (future inventions).

* "The Black Star Passes" (Amazing Stories Quarterly, Fall 1930). The 3rd of the Arcot, Morey, and Wade series (future inventions).

* "Islands of Space" (Amazing Stories Qaurterly, Spring 1931). The 4th of the Arcot, Morey, and Wade series (future inventions).

* "Invaders from the Infinite" (Amazing Stories Quarterly, Spring/Summer 1932). The 5th of the Arcot, Morey, and Wade series (future inventions).

POST-RADIUM-AGE SF (not a complete list):

Campbell later changed his writing style and gained new popularity as "Don A. Stuart" in Astounding Stories. "It is rather ironical that Campbell made his name as a writer with the heavy-science type of story, a class of writing which he made obsolete by his stories under the "Don A. Stuart" byline and by his editorship of Astounding/Amazing." — Bleiler

* "Who Goes There?" (Astounding Stories, August 1938) — written as Don A. Stuart. Later the basis of the film The Thing.

* The Black Star Passes (Fantasy, Reading, 1953). The first of a science fiction trilogy dubbed the Arcot-Morey-Wade series after its central characters. The twenty-second century, viewed from 1930: giant propeller-driven aircraft carrying two thousand passengers across the country at 500-plus miles an hour, progressing to molecular-motion drives run by solar heat, to interplanetary voyages and war with Venus, to an "invasion" by a rogue star crossing the solar system. The Black Star Passes was originally published in Amazing Stories as three shorter stories: "Piracy Preferred", "Solarite", and "The Black Star Passes", and the book is divided into these sections. Richard Arcot is the nation's leading physicist, only recently supplanting his father, also a great scientist-inventor. Robert Morey, a brilliant mathematician who complements Arcot's genius, is the son of a transcontinental airline owner and Arcot's best friend. Wade is a chemistry genius who turns to air piracy in the first section of the book. Cured of his mental imbalance, he teams up with Arcot and Morey on their adventures.

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