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On This Day: John W. Campbell, Jr

On this day, one hundred and five years ago, John Wood Campbell, Jr was born in Newark, New Jersey.

Campbell sold his first stories while still a teenager and, at one point, rivalled E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith as the era’s pre-eminent writer of galaxy-spanning space opera. Before long, though, his style evolved beyond rather simplistic stories of super-science and he developed a more sophisticated voice, writing mostly under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart. This period of his career reached its zenith with the publication of ‘Who Goes There?‘ in the August 1938 issue of Astounding – the magazine that would come to define Campbell’s legacy to the SF field.

‘Who Goes There?‘ features an isolated group of scientific researchers in the Antarctic, who stumble across an alien spaceship buried in the ice. They transport the creature back to their base only to find that they’ve unleashed a predatory shapeshifter into their claustrophobic, fragile world. The sense of tension and paranoia induced by Campbell is almost unbearable – an atmosphere much better reflected in John Carpenter’s excellent 1982 film adaptation, The Thing, than in the markedly inferior 1951 version.

But as seminal a piece of SF as ‘Who Goes There?‘ is, it is in many ways a side note in Campbell’s career; he would write little fiction after his appointment as editor of Astounding, but would go on to be recognised as one of the most influential SF editors of all time. Although, these days, there are almost as many voices raised against the notion that Campbell’s influence was a positive for the genre as there are for, it remains incontestable that he defined an era. To quote The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

New writers were encouraged and fed with ideas, with remarkable success. By 1939, Campbell had discovered Isaac Asimov, Lester del Rey, Robert A Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon and A E van Vogt, though the two latter writers had already been publishing for some time in other genres, and Heinlein came to him as already a mature man with his own agenda. L Sprague de Camp, L Ron Hubbard, Murray Leinster, Clifford D Simak and Jack Williamson, already established sf writers, soon became part of Campbell’s “stable”. Henry Kuttner and C L Moore became regular contributors from 1942. These were the authors at the core of Campbell’s “Golden Age of SF” – a period corresponding roughly to World War Two – when Astounding dominated the genre in a way no magazine before or since could match. Most of these authors, and many others, acknowledged the profound influence Campbell had on their careers, and the number of acknowledged sf classics which originated in ideas suggested by him would be impossible to assess. Asimov persistently credited Campbell with at least co-creating the articulation of the three Laws of Robotics

Love him or loath him, in his famous demand to his authors to “write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man” it seems to us that he was exerting a positive influence on the invention of writers in the field, and a dictum that modern SF writers would do well to consider.