John W. Campbell

The first science fiction book I ever read was Robert Heinlein’s first published novel, Rocket Ship Galileo, the story of a scientist and some teenagers who built a rocket, flew to the moon, and fought Nazis there. As a third grader who loved astronomy and all things associated with the early efforts of NASA, I was entranced. I’d never read or seen anything like it before.

As time went by, I read all the other science fiction books that I could find in my school library and then in the public library. Soon, I discovered that there were magazines devoted to publishing science fiction. One of the first I found was the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. At the time, the editor of that magazine was John W. Campbell. He was born a little over one hundred years ago on June 8, 1910.

John W. Campbell had a profound influence on the development of science fiction as a literary genre. In 1937 he became the editor of that magazine, then called Astounding Stories, that had begun publishing in 1929. Almost at once, he changed the title of the magazine to Astounding Science Fiction. Then, in 1960 he changed it to its current name, Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It is the longest running continually published magazine of science fiction in the world.

Prior to Campbell, science fiction was mostly bug-eyed monsters with very little emphasis on the underlying science. Campbell forced his authors to develop an internal logic and to have a scientific basis for the stories they created. Science fiction, post Campbell, was much more rigorous, logical and scientific, and moved away from its pulp origins. He insisted on good writing, as well. The other science fiction magazines of the time started to copy what Campbell was doing. Campbell shaped the careers of every science fiction author of his era except Ray Bradbury. In fact, he published the first stories of several authors who wound up becoming well known: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon and Lester del Rey. Most first appeared in print in 1939, ushering in what has been called “the Golden Age” of science fiction.

Isaac Asimov wrote the Foundation trilogy, about the fall of a galactic empire, and he wrote a series of short stories and novels about robots, developing the “three laws of robotics” and even coining the word, “robotics.” The “positronic brain” of his robots was later adopted and used in Star Trek to explain how the android Data worked.

Robert Heinlein is best known for his novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. He wrote the screenplay and served as technical advisor for the 1950 movie, Destination Moon. It was the first major science fiction film produced in the United States to deal seriously with the prospect, problems and technology of space travel. Two of his later novels were subsequently made into movies: The Puppet Masters in 1994, and Starship Troopers in 1997.

A.E. Van Vogt is best known for the The Weapon Shops of Isher in 1951 and The World of Null-A in 1948. More controversially, Campbell published L. Ron Hubbard’s first article on Dianetics, with which van Vogt become involved for a short time.

Theodore Sturgeon later wrote screenplays for several Star Trek television episodes, including “Shore Leave” in 1966 and “Amok Time” in 1967 which introduced the concept of pon farr, the Vulcan mating ritual. It also contained the first use of the phrase “live long and prosper” and the first use of the Vulcan hand gesture. In one of the episodes that he wrote for Star Trek that was never produced, he introduced the concept of the Prime Directive, which prohibited the Federation from interfering in the development of less developed cultures. Sturgeon is also responsible for coming up with what is now called Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.”

And finally, Lester del Rey went on to become an editor of science fiction himself, and today, Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, is one of the largest publishers of science fiction books in the world.

Before he had become an editor, Campbell had been a prolific author of science fiction himself, having written the short story “Who Goes There” about a group of scientists in Antarctica who found a crashed alien spaceship with a still living, shape shifting occupant. The story was subsequently made into two different movies, the 1951 The Thing from Another World, which was loosely based on the story and then The Thing, directed by John Carpenter in 1982 which closely adhered to the story. John Campbell had sold the movie rights for the story for only 500 dollars. When Isaac Asimov later questioned him on how cheaply he’d let it go, his response was simply that he just wanted to get more people to develop a taste for science fiction.

John W. Campbell, a lifelong smoker, was always skeptical about the health dangers of smoking. But after 34 years as the editor of Analog, he died of heart failure at the age of only 61 in 1971. Every year since 1973, at the Hugo Award ceremonies, where the best science fiction novels, short stories, TV shows and movies are honored, a special award is also given: the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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