Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #31: John W Campbell Jr

"See the universe! Meet interesting aliens! And exterminate them!"

No, that's not a Berserker or Dalek recruiting poster, but a synopsis of the typical 1930s John Campbell novel. (The term 'novel' when applied to this period, usually means a series of stories eventually published as a fixup novel.) Campbell is best known as an editor, but before he became editor of Astounding, he was one (two) of the most most popular science fiction authors of his time.

Initially, he was known for his grandiose and bellicose space operas. In the typical John W Campbell novel the scientist-hero of the story will make a key breakthrough and almost immediately turn it into a working spacedrive and superweapons, at which point he and his friends will head for outer space to find a war in which to take sides, unless they are lucky enough to have a war to come to them. (Rapidity of application is standard: Any self-respecting scientist who realizes on Monday that E=MC^2 should have a working atomic engine by Tuesday and have it installed in a functioning spaceship by Friday.) The pleasures, for the reader, seem to be in big numbers (It's hard for Campbell, in this period, to cite a distance in light-years without telling the reader what that comes to in miles) and in the unlimited possibilities of Science -- or at least technology.

"The Black Star Passes", "Islands of Space" and "Invaders from the Infinite" represent one series of such books. "The Mightiest Machine" and "The Incredible Planet" represent another. (Fans of the Legion of Super Heroes will appreciate this last for the scene in which our intrepid scientists fetch home a piece of a dwarf star.) The one I reread several dozen times (no exaggeration) when I was about eleven was "The UltimateWeapon" (originally "Uncertainty"), in which the scientist-leader of the invading aliens, and the best human scientist churn out weapon after weapon in a dizzying hundred-page-long arms race, until the human side finally wins by inventing a gizmo that suspends the laws of nature in whatever manner the plot requires. As is typical of the subgenre, close to half the wordcount is devoted just to *explaining* each gizmo. ("TheUltimate Weapon" actually ends with a peace treaty, rather than a planet-sized cloud of debris.) I see no real point in trying to give these ratings, or to describe the plot elements which distinguish one of these books from another: Read any one of them if you're curious, and take my word for it that they are all thrilling to a reader of the right age.

The atmosphere flamed below, and the planet caught fire from the terrible glowing coal. Almost simultaneously, with a precision that was astounding, two bodies struck Teff-el. And the planet burst like a rotten tomato.

I should mention the Penton/Blake stories, collected as "The Planeteers", about a pair of scientists who invent atomic energy, put together the basics (atom-driven space ship, atomic handguns), and set out to explore the solar system. This series is more slapstick than space opera, with every planet seemingly inhabited by escapees from Wonderland.

We did. We destroyed all the thushol. Some of the thushol helped us, but we thought that they were our own people. It happened because a very wise, but very foolish philosopher calculated how many thushol could live parasitically on our people. Naturally the thushol took his calculations to heart. Thirty-one percent of us are thushol.

"The Moon is Hell" (***) is a later (1951) work, and describes the last days of a stranded Lunar expedition in diary form. This science-versus-nature tale of scientists trying to survive by synthesizing or extracting photoelectric cells, water, even food, from lunar materials still has power.Where it strikes the modern reader as being furthest off is not in its science (which is fictional), or in its selenology (which is often wrong), but in the management of the expedition. For example, after over three decades of living with the reality of the space effort, it doesn't make sense to us that a two-year lunar expedition wouldn't set up a communications relay. Or that they'd have forgotten to train backup pilots. But the nearest thing writers like Campbell had on which to base their speculations were arctic or antarctic expeditions. "The Moon is Hell" has its early-Campbell touches, particularly in the timely stream of inventions, but it's a more thoughtful, Golden Age work: Space here is an enemy to be conquered, not just a backdrop for scientific adventurers.

10:30 A.M. Bender cursing us, and refuses to tell where it is. Says he's going to keep us from it. He wants enough of us to die off so there'll be load capacity enough on the rocket ship to carry back precious metals. If he is the sole survivor, as he hopes to be, he will claim the mines. At least he can take thousands of dollars worth of osmiridium. Calls us fools and insane to take loads of instruments back...

(Digression: The first age of sf as a genre -- rather than as mainstream novels with speculative-science plot elements -- came between the Wars. It was gimmick- and gadget-oriented fiction, by and for enthusiasts, and the quality of the writing was typically execrable. Still, this was the period during which many of the enduring staples and plot devices of the genre were originated. Asimov's "Before the Golden Age" collects some of the best stories of that period. The Golden Age of science fiction began in late 1937 when Campbell became the editor of Astounding, and began to insist on stories that were thoughtful, as well as enthusiastic. (They still tended not to be literary masterpieces. More time would pass before readers began to expect such niceties as characterization.) The Golden Age saw the appearance of Asimov and Heinlein and their contemporaries. Fannish flamewars have been fought over such weighty issues as whether the Golden Age of science fiction would have arisen in Campbell's absence, and over whether -- particularly in his later years -- he did more harm than good as an editor. No matter: At the time when sf had to sputter out or start growing up, he was the one insisting that it grow up.)

Even before Campbell became an editor, tales of superscientific superadventure began to wear thin for him, and (under the pseudonym of Don Stuart) he turned to writing the kinds of short stories he would later demand of other writers. Anthologies of Campbell's stories (***) ("TheCloak of Aesir", "Who Goes There?", and (with considerable overlap) "The Best of John W Campbell" are the ones with which I'm familiar) are mostly Stuart anthologies. My personal favorite among the 'Stuart' stories isone of the earliest, "Twilight", about a future in which humanity is going out with a whimper. But even the best of the stories wouldn't find much of a readership if they appeared today. Campbell's later science fiction is a literature of ideas, of wooden characters behaving improbably inorder to make this or that point.

That song made you feel just what the singer meant -- because it didn't just sound human -- it was human. It was the essence of humanity's last defeat, I guess. You always feel sorry for the chap who loses after trying hard. Well, you could feel the whole of humanity trying hard -- and losing.

Again, this was a time when basic cliches of the genre was still being worked out. For example, in the story "Who Goes There", there is a debate between those who wish to thaw and dissect an alien corpse (found in Antarctica) and those who fear the possibility of disease -- but no voices are raised in favor of taking *precautions* against any such disease. That this would not be overlooked today is partially because of real-world experience, but it is partially due to the genre having had over half a century to chew over such issues, and smooth out its handling of them.

Which points at one reason I'm reviewing an author whose work I may seem to be damning with such faint praise. The sf of this time made the later sf with which we are familiar possible. If it often seems crudely done, thisis at least partly because the vocabulary of science fictional ideas was still just coming into being, and these are the early drafts which laid the foundation for the modern genre. Campbell was one of the best draftsmen.


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Dani Zweig