The Most Powerful Force

In the memoir I. Asimov, which was published shortly after his death, Isaac Asimov calls John W. Campbell, Jr. “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.” A quarter of a century after he wrote these words, no other contender has emerged to seriously dispute that claim. In 1937, when he was in his twenties, Campbell became the editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog, in which he published dozens of landmark works ranging from the Foundation series to Dune. He laid down the rules for the genre, handed out premises for entire stories, and developed countless major writers. Campbell saw science fiction as a laboratory for ideas, with himself as the head of research, and although other editors have profoundly affected the field, no one else has ever occupied quite the same position.

He was also in the right place at the right time, and he benefited from a confluence of factors, most of them outside his control, that made such a career possible—and which seem unlikely to occur again. When Campbell assumed his editorship, over a decade had passed since Hugo Gernsback, an immigrant from Luxembourg, had founded Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted to science fiction. The initial wave of writers consisted largely of existing pulp authors who opportunistically transferred their stock adventure plots into space, but the results were devoured by younger readers, and Campbell took command at the precise moment that such fans as Asimov and Frederik Pohl had grown old enough to write their own stories purely out of love.

This is how genres evolve, and if Campbell had never been born, science fiction would still have improved in quality and accuracy, perhaps under the watchful eye of another editor. Yet Campbell’s presence meant that it took on a specific form—with narratives focusing on sociology and cultural change—that left it perfectly positioned when a general reader-ship began to look more closely at its vision of the future, particularly after Hiroshima. During World War II, Campbell had planted references to the atomic bomb in the magazine expressly so that he could point to them later, and he was eager to take advantage of the genre’s newfound prominence. Without him, it might not have been prepared for that crucial next step, and he served for years as its most visible advocate to the public.

Campbell was uniquely equipped to profit from the situation, even if the timing was mostly out of his hands. The same was true of the magazine’s financial position, which gave him a strategic edge over his competitors. Astounding was owned by the pulp powerhouse Street & Smith, which published dozens of other fiction titles, along with magazines like Mademoiselle. Its healthy balance sheet allowed Campbell to pay the highest rates in the field on acceptance, rather than on publication—an important consideration for working writers. His predecessor, F. Orlin Tremaine, had methodically cultivated a more mature audience, and even when its circulation lagged behind its rivals, its reputation naturally drew the most ambitious authors.

After he became editor, Campbell was aided enormously by the foundation that had been established by Tremaine, which offered him the financial leverage he needed to impose his ideas on writers. It also allowed him to go after his ideal author—a scientist or engineer who wrote stories on the side. Such writers are common these days, but in the thirties and forties, Campbell had to pursue them, and his payment rates were a powerful incentive. In the February 1941 issue, he extended an invitation to “spare-time writers,” noting they could earn “the equivalent of a couple of new suits, or a suit and overcoat, for a short story, a new radio with, say, FM tuning for a novelette, and a new car or so for a novel.” Such authors had the technical background that he wanted, and unlike professional writers—who might have been reluctant to revise a story repeatedly to order—they were more likely to take his notes.

But he also depended on the existence of a thriving community of working authors. They were embodied by L. Ron Hubbard, a popular writer in the adventure pulps who had been recruited to contribute to Astounding—against Campbell’s will—by the management at Street & Smith. Hubbard wasn’t a science fiction fan, but he was willing to work for any paying market, and Campbell soon found that he needed reliable writers who could crank out fiction to his specifications. For decades, he drew heavily on the authors whom Harlan Ellison derided as “Campbell writers,” such as Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett, who all but made a living in the fifties by writing up ideas that the editor had generated over lunch.

Yet even during this period, it became evident that the field was shifting in ways that would make it impossible for it to be controlled by any one person. At the beginning of Campbell’s career, the pulps had been the only game in town, and he had fully exploited his status as the editor of the most respected magazine. After 1950, such titles as Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction were challenging his dominance, and demand was growing for original science fiction in book form. The genre no longer needed a spokesman to define or justify it for outsiders, and its movement into the mainstream deprived editors of their ability to monopolize it.

Even if we restrict ourselves to short fiction, the structure of the market has changed drastically since Campbell’s time. In the early forties, a writer like Hubbard could earn a penny and a half per word, which was enough for an enterprising pulp author to make a living by writing short fiction alone. Robert A. Heinlein, who worked exclusively within the fields of science fiction and fantasy, did well enough to use the proceeds to pay off his mortgage. These days, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America defines a professional market as one that pays six cents a word or higher, which hasn’t kept up with inflation. Even if the market were able to absorb the wordage, a writer who succeeded in matching Hubbard’s levels of productivity would find it difficult to earn anything like a living wage.

Authors can take comfort in the audience for science fiction novels, which is larger than ever before, but the days of the professional writer of short fiction are over—which also threatens the survival of the type of author whom Campbell needed as a vehicle for his obsessions. Themes can be developed more rapidly in a series of stories than in a novel, which is harder for an editor to actively manage. Short fiction continues to be produced primarily by the “spare-time” writers whom Campbell coveted, but their motivations are no longer the same. Few have any reason to write except out of love for the genre, and in the absence of any financial pressure, they’re more likely to send their work to markets that seem inherently welcoming, rather than tailoring their fiction to the demands of a single editor.

In theory, a magazine that paid significantly higher rates than its competitors might still be able to attract and influence top writers, but such a controlling hand may not even be desirable—as Campbell’s own example implies. Campbell believed that he could systematically guide the genre, but he benefited more from the serendipitous arrival of fresh talent—such as Heinlein or the artist Hubert Rogers—that showed up exactly when it was needed. After a brief golden age, which is often defined as lasting from 1939 to 1950, he grew estranged from many of his best writers, and he came to prefer authors who were more accommodating. As Damon Knight observed: “He deliberately cultivated technically oriented writers with marginal writing skills… Campbell was building a new stable he knew he could keep.”

Inevitably, Campbell was unable to work with the some of genre’s most talented and innovative authors. Even Larry Niven, who in an earlier period would have been close to the editor’s ideal, was shut out of Analog, as he recalled decades later of Campbell: “He liked his ideas better than mine.” This was even more obvious in the cases of Philip K. Dick or Samuel R. Delany, to say nothing of the potential contributors from historically underrepresented backgrounds who never broke through at all. Despite his stated interest in starting a dialogue between writers, Campbell—who openly courted engineers and scientists—never saw diversity as a goal to be pursued, which severely limited the stories he could tell.

By his last years, Campbell had degenerated into the kind of gate-keeper whom writers had to reject in order for the field to advance. He took this personally, and throughout the sixties, he became more racist and reactionary, as he pushed back against all the forms of social change he had failed to anticipate. His attitudes left him unable to take part in the most meaningful debates of his time, and he never understood that the role he had once held was no longer needed. Campbell’s image of himself had something in common with the heroic “competent man” who had long dominated the magazine, of whom the rising generation of writers was justifiably skeptical—although nostalgia for the editor’s example persists today among readers who seem drawn to other kinds of authoritarianism.

Yet the result, paradoxically, is close to what Campbell had originally envisioned. He had seen science fiction as a laboratory in which fans and writers could collaborate to develop ideas, and in the end, it became clear that it functioned perfectly well without any head of research whatsoever. What was required was the wide range of perspectives necessary to have a convincing discussion about the future, along with editors who took a conscious interest in diversity, which is the only way that it can ever emerge. “The most powerful force in science fiction ever” has turned out to be the sum of all of its voices, which transcend the impact of any individual. Campbell might not have cared for the result—but the most convincing proof of his success is the existence of a community that no editor could ever hope to control.

Alec Nevala-Lee

Alec Nevala-Lee is the author of the group biography Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (Dey Street Books / HarperCollins), which was recently named one of the best books of 2018 by The Economist. His novels include The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and Eternal Empire, all published by Penguin, and his stories have appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Lightspeed Magazine, and two editions of The Year’s Best Science Fiction. He has written for such publications as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Rumpus, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

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