“How did it get so late so soon? It's night before it's afternoon.” - Dr. Seuss
by Jamie Lutton
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Frederik Pohl died a few days ago, at age 94. He was one of the very last writers from the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
Pohl had even been Isaac Asimov’s literary agent, and this fact caused me to remember the person who created science fiction as we know it, John W. Campbell, the editor of “Astounding Science Fiction,” later called “Analog Science Fiction and Fact,” from 1937 and 1938, when he gradually took over the post, till 1971.
I had always vaguely hero-worshiped Campbell since I was a young teenager. I had access to my dad’s and older brother’s science fiction magazine and book collection, and had plowed through years and years of issues of Analog from the 1960s and 1970s.
Besides that, I read editorials that he wrote during the Vietnam War, which he supported. He also supported smoking – thought it had to be good for you somehow.
Familiar with the state of denial smokers get themselves into, I paid little attention to this. My parents both chain-smoked inside, in grocery stores, in the car. Once, I tried to get my mother to quit for a few weeks, working on her till she turned to me and drawled “Jamie, just how long did you really want me to live?” As well, I knew that many reasonable people supported the war in Vietnam.
In my teen years, I lived in a small town in Eastern Washington filled with Republicans. My parents, however, were staunchly liberal. Both vocally supported the Civil Rights Movement. My mother had supported Shirley Chisholm’s, a black congresswoman from New York, candidacy for president in 1970. So, I assumed that all adults who were good, smart readers were liberals who believed that blacks (and women) had been treated unjustly, and that the new changes that were being struggled for – civil and women’s rights – were very good things.
After Campbell’s death, everyone praised his brilliant work as an editor. He single-handedly developed the standards and concepts of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, instructing contributors to throw out clichés of the field, and insisting that his writers know science and people. Campbell refused to publish the “garbage” that passed for science fiction in the past. The carnage in the field was compared to the upheaval in Hollywood when talkies replaced silent pictures. Often, Campbell showed writers art for covers that he had already bought, and then the author had to create stories to match. He gave story ideas to writers, asking them to flesh them out.
Many inventions that later came to be – moon landings, satellites, computer advancements, etc. – were predicted in “Astounding Science Fiction.” One story published in 1944, one year before dropping atomic bombs on Japan, Campbell worked on a story with Clive Cartmill, “Deadline,” which described the basics on how to build an atomic bomb. For the story, Campbell had read the extant papers available on the subject. When the FBI descended on his office, demanding that he retract the issue and pull it from the newsstands. Campbell rightly pointed out that this would alert everyone that the United States was on the verge of building an atomic bomb, and that it would be better to ignore the story.
As time went on in the 1950s, Campbell became interested in ESP, and asked for stories with various sorts of paranormal psychic powers – telepathy, precognition, teleportation. The huge number of science fiction stories and books with this theme can be blamed or credited to Campbell. He also published the first “Dianetics” story by L. Ron Hubbard, claiming to be an adherent to this religion.
Later on, in the early 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was heating up, Campbell alienated nearly all his friends by claiming that slavery had been good for blacks, and that they had a herd mentality. He proposed these beliefs in a half-joking devil’s advocate fashion, making outrageous statements as fact about such matters. As he got older, most conversations with him became one-sided monologues. This, I surmise, was madness of a sort.
When he died, the new editor of “Analog Science Fiction and Fact” and his old friends chose to forget his excesses, and most of his outrageous beliefs were quietly forgotten. He had been a great editor. Plus, he helped put humans on the Moon, and the development of NASA. Because young people read Science Fiction containing plausible ideas and some good science, they looked up at night and dreamed of the going into space.
Shakespeare said, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” In this case, the great good John W. Campbell is what has survived. Digging up his evil is to make a point: while young people read science fiction published by Campbell, they also read his editorials, and absorbed his racist politics. His influence was pernicious. Campbell helped bring about some of our technical marvels and achievements, but sadly lived in the 19th century.
The future world of brave white men with cleft chins solving the world problems, striding into a future rather like the past didn’t happen. The science fiction that Campbell published and pushed was curiously missing women and non-white people. I won’t hero-worship Campbell anymore, even though I have fond memories of reading two science fiction books a day, mostly Golden Age stuff that he helped create. I’m appalled at his casual and ignorant racism. We live in a much more colorful, complex world than Campbell ever imagined.