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John W. Campbell's Golden Age of Science Fiction
DMZ & Eric Solstein

John W. Campbell's Golden Age of Science Fiction
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters


Who Is John W. Campbell, Jr.:
Dastardly Villain? Sanctified Savior? or Just a Human Being Devoted to Science and Reason?

The problem with time is that every period has this strange notion of having a better or more objective perspective. In "Our Hospitality," Buster Keaton pokes fun at the early 1800s' simple locomotives (a small dog can fast-walk at the same speed.... They lift the rail to the side to get around a donkey) and "traffic jams" that include a bicycle and a couple of horse-drawn carts (the policeman tells his buddy that that intersection is getting dangerous). It would be hard for us to make fun of the early 1800s since it is so distant to make connections, but we can make fun of, say, the early 1900s when the film was made. After all, we could tease Keaton about his "fast-paced" society... just as some future generation will mock our naïveté about whatever we took so seriously.

Recently, John W. Campbell's importance to the genre has been mistakenly denigrated as though Campbell ruined Wells' vision for science fiction. Among other misunderstandings, both Wells and Campbell believed in progress through science and technology despite their different ideologies. The other thing they shared ideologically was being, as Theodore Sturgeon once put it, "people who believe in something, virtually anything, providing they believe in it.... The movers and shakers have always been obsessive nuts.... But without going to absolutely dangerous extremes [i.e. Hitler], you have to be dedicated to something. You must really believe in something."

(On the other hand, without knowing both sides of an issue, we create straw men and destroy any illusion of reality we might wish to impart and, in that process, destroy any hope of a real argument for your belief.) In this vein, Campbell is no less "transgressive" than Wells in his vision. Ben Bova, in his book Challenges, laments that an entire generation has grown up without Campbell, but how could he have known he'd have to correct fundamental misconstructions?

James Gunn's Campbell film, as buttressed by new material from Eric Solstein taping authors who actually knew the man, may shed new light on the issue. In fact, I don't think there could have been a single movie (book may be too bold a statement) more important to understanding the genre released last year. Or perhaps even in the last decade. If you want to write science fiction with science in it, this is one movie you must watch.

Perhaps the most famous Campbell story, which Hal Clement relates, is that of a young writer who approaches Campbell at a convention, saying he'd written a story for Analog but it wasn't what Campbell was looking for. Campbell raised himself to his full height, hands on hips, and said, "And since when does The Condé Nast Publications, Incorporated pay you to make editorial decisions for Analog?" The most telling point Clement left out, but Ben Bova relates in his essay on Campbell in the collection Challenges is that the young writer left, embarrassed, before he understood Campbell's meaning, which was meant as encouragement: Let Campbell decide whether the story was right for the magazine. This story is crucial to understanding the mind and man of Campbell, for it sets up a familiar pattern:

...irascible statement to provoke thought  listener quits listening due to irascibility, not thought  Campbell's reasoning and good intent is lost.
This pattern may be why Michael Moorcock dismissed Campbell as a fascist. Both Bova and Stanley Schmidt noted Campbell's desire to be challenging -- to get people to look at subjects from a different direction. So dedicated was he to the Socratic method that he'd "get you to contradict what you believe." If everybody believes Philosophy A, reasoned Campbell, then we should question if we really should believe Philosophy A. Moreover, as open-minded (and those able to grit their grit teeth) would learn in the November 1970 issue of Analog, he wanted people to do not merely say.

In his editorial, Campbell labeled the "NOW generation" as "brats" who only complain to their parents and don't try to come up with real solutions to problems. Following the above pattern, it may be at this point that the younger generation quit listening because Campbell had insulted their method -- or, rather, lack of method. (Moorcock may have been able to respond to Campbell's impatience with Moorcock's generation's impatience, but that's another story I'll grapple with when another generation who has never met Moorcock rises up to complain about him). Campbell goes on to describe how the soldiers in Vietnam might be safely evacuated. Not being a military strategist, I cannot say whether his plan was feasible or accurate, but the important issue is that Campbell did more than mention the problems of the world, which is a necessary first step but comparatively simple: he also tried to come up with solutions.

Harry Harrison maintained that Campbell was no right-winger or Fascist, but a technocrat who believed science solved everything. Like any great Greek hero in a tragedy, it is his strength and his fatal flaw. Science does solve many of the world's problems: AIDS in the developed world, for instance, is not nearly as terrifying and severe as it was just twenty years ago. However, in the same editorial, he claims that technology, not money, will solve poverty. This is probably true to an extent, but other, more immediate, and possibly even more helpful solutions also resolve the problems of poverty, like education.

Campbell was a talker, an idea man spewing ideas for writers to write about and arguing to generate stories in the minds of his writers (as conflict is what drives stories). Robert Silverberg thought Campbell wasn't particularly good with people, and Philip Klass [aka William Tenn] thought Campbell didn't listen but wanted to get you to write what he wanted, twisting ideas to make you think. Harrison disagreed. He saw Campbell as the best listener in the world although you thought he wasn't listening because he was arguing hard (which, more or less, fits the above-mentioned pattern).

Why was Campbell important to the genre? Ben Bova notes that Campbell knew so much about SF because he had "read more lousy SF than anybody. I had the great advantage of having observed errors. It's a great help in seeing what it needs to be." In addition, backing up to the 20s and 30s, one could compare what was going on to how Campbell changed the genre first by writing more sophisticated stories himself, and second by editing stories that adhered to a realism of science -- in both idea and character, i.e. real scientists, not mad ones, i.e. SF stories not interchangeable with Westerns. Although the advent of SF novels took away some of Campbell's prestige (others would have noted that other magazines' publication philosophies also did this), Campbell still published important works of the genre, including Dune.

What's amazing is how Campbell continues to hold an emotional power today over these men who knew him. Barry Malzberg recalls a story of visiting Campbell and Campbell arguing so vehemently that Malzberg left the office, trembling with rage. Campbell caught up with Malzberg and said, "Don't worry about it, son. I just like to shake 'em up." One needs to look no further for "shaking 'em up" than this pet story structure of Campbell's:
1) Character A espouses standard populist philosophy.
2) Character B points out the exceptions to the rules of A's standard philosophy.
3) A, sticking adamantly to his rules, gets stuck.
4) B saves A's neck.
5) A is still A, and B is still B.

Here one can see that the change or insight is designed to occur within the reader. Like Socrates, Campbell tried to get people to think out their philosophies instead of picking them up from the supermarket rack by the cashier.

The more substantial complaints about Campbell had to do with either being a product of his time or worrying about his readers being a product of their time. Delany said that while Campbell liked Delaney's Nova, he couldn't publish it because the lead character was black. It's truly hard to explain away this issue in Campbell's favor, but many of the leading intellects post-Darwin found themselves convinced that certain genetic groups had evolved higher up the ladder of evolution. Fortunately, some of us, who have grown up post-Hitler and who have insight into eugenic cruelty, realize that the ladder paradigm of evolution is now a tree, branching to suit different functions of their environment (let alone convergent evolution which allows types in different locations to evolve similar functions). Old ideas are hard to shake.

Similar sticky issues are still troublesome but don't stick quite as well. For instance, Delany said that Campbell didn't publish women, which isn't exactly true. Campbell did publish women, but there weren't as many women readers or writers of SF as there are today: Leigh Brackett, Judith Merril, C.L. Moore and Wilmar Shiras, to name a few of the women Campbell did publish.

But his feelings towards Jews are the most complex and, therefore, easy to get confused. Klass described a lunch with Campbell shortly after the holocaust camps had been discovered. Campbell expressed sympathy and his secret belief that the Jews were "homo superiorus." This idea of an evolutionary ladder didn't sit well with Klass and he told Campbell that separating out the Jews was racist, which confused Campbell since he thought that they were superior, which Campbell thought was a compliment. Paul di Filippo, who wrote a touching tribute to both Joseph and John Campbell by conflating the two in "Campbell's World," mistook Klass to mean that Campbell was anti-Semitic. In fact, Campbell was pro-Semitic, which is the problem of racism: seeing one race superior to another, a point that Klass failed to convey to Campbell.

Later in Campbell's editorship, he began to champion strange, pseudo-scientific notions in a scientific manner, such as telepathy and the Dean Drive. Some like Robert Silverberg saw Campbell as becoming preposterous in his scientific unorthodoxy. Others, like Stanley Schmidt, saw Campbell as thumbing his nose at the scientific establishment for ignoring other potential avenues of scientific exploration. Robert Sawyer explained Campbell's outlook as "The universe is queerer than we suppose."

If you can set his personal beliefs aside, Campbell made invaluable changes that revolutionized the genre several times over. Solstein's and Gunn's video capture the most clear and unbiased picture of the real man -- intellectually stimulating and shaping the genre into what it is today -- not a straw man erected by detractors to knock down.

*     *     *

The "Lunch with John Campbell" portion of the DVD presents the man in action -- sadly one of his last actions as, just weeks after filming, Campbell died. The film is a permanent record so that we may see for ourselves the mind of the man whom everyone has discussed so passionately. It's a product of its time as well -- funky clothes, far-out restaurant ambiance, elevator Muzak in the background. But also shining through is the high regard this older generation had for Campbell -- the admiration and deference quite clear in their body language. The cameraman often did not capture Campbell when he was speaking (because the camera focused on him broke down), but on Harry Harrison and Gordon Dickson drinking and trying not to look concerned about the cameraman focusing on the wrong people. Yet it's informative to see the reactions on their faces as Campbell shredded and rebuilt a story idea that they had bounced off Campbell.

Lunch, said Harrison, was how Campbell did business, turning ideas over, inside and out, in these bull sessions until the ideas accreted a novel sense of excitement. His advice was to take an idea and develop second-order reasonings: the world may be falling apart, but how does the falling affect the people in the world? Other advice included: If everything goes okay, there's no story. Unfamiliar aspects of the familiar breaks people down. Give a reason for why they are there. Two groups represent two sides. Those who want to destroy should seem most logical to begin with.

As an interesting aside about the film and but germane to the topic of how what went on during the film became a reality, James Gunn writes, "it's authentic, except for the fact that we shot it after lunch, about 3:30, when Gordy showed up from another editorial lunch and John was getting impatient to get home.... But that's the way writers and editors worked and later Harry and Gordy wrote the story that got published in Analog as 'Lifeboat' and by Harper & Row in hard covers as Lifeship."

*     *     *

Other non-video features are here to peruse, including letters to writers he encouraged (he was most celebrated and adored for his devotion to new writers). I cannot recommend highly enough this indispensable DVD. It opens a door into the history of genre that many of us were never lucky enough to be witness to. Kudos to both James Gunn and Eric Solstein for creating a vibrant document to help establish who we are by showing us where we've been.

Allow me to close with quotes from my betters:
Samuel Delany: "Of course, I would have loved to have been... a Campbell writer. What young science fiction writer wouldn't have?"

Barry Malzberg: "Campbell's strength was this: he was the best editor. He was the best editor in the country, in this century. That's his strength. No one was better."

Harry Harrison: "One of my greatest pleasures was... finally meeting God. And I'm happy to say that I was not let down."

Brian Aldiss: "Astounding... was an enormous revelation to me. And that was to be preferred to Amazing, or Science Fiction Stories, or the other competing magazines.... Silverberg... will say the same thing; but he was such a snob, he would only read Astounding. And it was only later that he kind of repented, and found these other, lesser magazines.... [Astounding] was the holy grail."

Philip Klass: "I don't know why Campbell was my intellectual father -- he was.... I told him I'd been very disappointed there'd been so little editing of my story. And he said, 'What was there to edit?' He said 'good syntax all the way through.' Nonetheless, he edited me. He edited my mind. He was a damn good editor of my mind."

Robert Silverberg: "And I thought, 'How awesome! What a titan!' And he was. He was a man -- brilliant man with a powerful sense of what science fiction ought to be, and he demonstrated it month after month."

Copyright © 2004 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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