John W. Campbell, Jr.

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John Wood Campbell, Jr., generally known as John W. Campbell, (June 8, 1910, Newark, New Jersey – July 11, 1971, New Jersey) was the influential editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 until his death in 1971. He himself preferred John W. Campbell, Jr., which is how his byline appeared in his magazines and books. After first establishing himself as a well-known science-fiction author, he then devoted himself exclusively to editing. As the editor of the most important magazine in the field, he launched the careers of most of the key figures in what is still generally known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction, including Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. van Vogt, and Arthur C. Clarke. Although Campbell had many eccentricities, some of which, such as a belief in psionics, later found their way increasingly into his publications in the 1950s and '60s, he remains, almost without question, the single most important figure in the development of modern science fiction, with the possible exception of his protégé Robert Heinlein. At the time of his sudden and unexpected death after 34 years at the helm of Astounding, however, his quirky personality and occasionally eccentric editorial demands had alienated a number of his most illustrious writers such as Asimov and Heinlein to the point where they no longer submitted work to him.


Campbell was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1910. His father was a cold, impersonal, and unaffectionate electrical engineer. His mother, Dorothy (née Strahern), was warm but changeable of character and had an identical twin who visited them often and who disliked young John. John was unable to tell them apart and was frequently coldly rebuffed by the person he took to be his mother, traumatic experiences that may well have later inspired Who Goes There?, his most famous piece of fiction. Campbell attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he befriended Norbert Wiener, one of the godfathers of computers. He began writing science fiction at age 18 and quickly sold his first stories. By the time he was 21 he was a well-known pulp writer of super-science space opera but had been dismissed by MIT: he had failed German. He then spent one year at Duke University, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in physics in 1932. Asimov notes Campbell's presence at Duke and speculates that Duke was "best known in my youth for the work of Joseph B. Rhine on extrasensory perception, and that may have influenced Campbell's later views on the subject." [1] Damon Knight writes that Campbell was a "portly, bristled-haired blond man with a challenging stare" who told him once that "he wasn't sure how much longer he would edit Astounding. He might quit and go into science. 'I'm a nuclear physicist, you know,' he said, looking me right in the eye." [2] He was married to Dona Stewart in 1931, divorced in 1949, then remarried in 1950 to Margaret (Peg) Winter. He spent most of his life in New Jersey and died at home, "quietly, quickly, painlessly, as he sat before his television.""[3]

Who Goes There?

Written when he was still only 28, a novella called Who Goes There? was Campbell's last significant piece of fiction. Appearing in the August, 1938 Astounding it begins with the memorable line, "The place stank." and is about a isolated group of Antarctic researchers who discover a crashed alien vessel whose single occupant is a malevolent shape-changer. Before the horrific story ends, 15 of the 37 members of the expedition have been replaced by alien impostors. It was twice adapted as a film, the first time rather loosely as The Thing from Another World in 1951 and then far more faithfully as The Thing in 1982. Referring to Campbell's youthful encounters with the unfriendly woman who was the identical twin to his beloved mother, Sam Moskowitz has written in his seminal critical study of science-fiction writers, "From the memories of his childhood he drew the most fearsome agony of the past: the doubts, the fears, the shock, and the frustration of repeatedly discovering that the woman who looked so much like his mother was not who she seemed. Who goes there? Friend or foe?" [4]

"The Father of Science Fiction"

Campbell was regarded by most of the Astounding stable of writers as an important and encouraging influence on their work, and there are many accounts by writers such as Isaac Asimov and Lester del Rey of how he helped shape their careers. Asimov called him outright "the father of science fiction,"[5] and although the somewhat earlier H. G. Wells and Hugo Gernsback are still remembered as being influential pioneers, as Asimov says, they "only laid the foundation."[6] As the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, edited by Peter Nicholls, wrote about Campbell: "More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern sf." His influence reached its height during the period between 1938 and the early 1950s. After that, new magazines such as Galaxy and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which built upon the foundation Astounding had laid during its Golden Age, moved in somewhat different directions and developed talented new writers such as Jack Vance and Philip José Farmer who were not directly influenced by Campbell.

Asimov says of his unmatched influence on the field: "By his own example and by his instruction and by his undeviating and persisting insistence, he forced first Astounding and then all science fiction into his mold. He abandoned the earlier orientation of the field. He demolished the stock characters who had filled it; eradicated the penny-dreadful plots; extirpated the Sunday-supplement science. In a phrase, he blotted out the purple of pulp. Instead, he demanded that science-fiction writers understand science and understand people, a hard requirement that many of the established writers of the 1930s could not meet. Campbell did not compromise because of that: those who could not meet his requirements could not sell to him, and the carnage was as great as it had been in Hollywood a decade before, when silent movies had given way to the talkies."[7]

Deadfall and the atomic bomb

The most famous example of the type of speculative but plausible science fiction that Campbell demanded from his writers is Deadfall, a short story by Cleve Cartmill that appeared during the wartime year of 1944, a year before the detonation of the first atomic bomb. As Ben Bova, Campbell's successor as editor at Analog, writes, it "described the basic facts of how to build an atomic bomb. Cartmill and... Campbell worked together on the story, drawing their scientific information from papers published in the technical journals before the war. To them, the mechanics of constructing a uranium-fission bomb seemed perfectly obvious." The FBI, however, descended on Campbell's office after the story appeared in print and demanded that the issue be removed from the newsstands. Campbell convinced them that by removing the magazine "the FBI would be advertising to everyone that such a project existed and was aimed at developing nuclear weapons" and the demand was dropped. [8]

Editorship of Astounding and Unknown; the Golden Age

Editorials and opinions

Campbell was well known for the opinionated editorials in each issue of the magazine, wherein he would sometimes put forth quite preposterous hypotheses, perhaps intended to generate story ideas. An anthology of these editorials was published in 1966. He also suggested story ideas to writers (including, famously, "Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man"), and sometimes asked for stories to match cover paintings he had already bought.

Asimov once asked Campbell why he had stopped writing fiction after becoming the editor of Astounding. Campbell replied, "Isaac, when I write, I write only my own stories. As editor, I write the stories that a hundred people write."[9]


  • Science-fiction writer Joe Green writes that Campbell "enjoyed taking the 'devil's advocate' position in almost any area, willing to defend even viewpoints with which he disagreed if that led to a livelier debate." As an example, he says that during a conversation with him Campbell "pointed out that the much-maligned 'peculiar institution' of slavery in the American South had in fact provided the blacks brought there with a higher standard of living than they had in Africa." Green goes on to say that he was "very much afraid that in fact he was sincere. I suspected, from comments by Asimov, among others—and some Analog editorials I had read—that John held some racist views, at least in regard to blacks." Finally, however, Green agreed with Campbell that "rapidly increasing mechanization after 1850 would have soon rendered slavery obsolete anyhow. It would have been better for the USA to endure it a few more years than suffer the truly horrendous costs of the Civil War." [10]
  • In a June, 1961, editorial called "Civil War Centennial" Campbell argued that slavery had been a dominant form of human relationships for most of history and that the present time was unusual in that anti-slavery cultures dominated the planet. He went on to say that "'s my bet that the South would have been integrated by 1910. The job would have been done—and done right—half a century sooner, with vastly less human misery, and with almost no bloodshed.... The only way slavery has ever been ended, anywhere, is by introducing industry.... If a man is a skilled and competent machinist—if the lathes work well under his hands—the industrial management will be forced, to remain in business, to accept that fact, whether the man be black, white, purple, or polka-dotted." [11]


  • Campbell was a heavy smoker throughout his life and was seldom seen without his customary cigarette holder. In the Analog of September, 1964, 9 months after the Surgeon General's first major warning about the dangers of cigarette smoking had been issued on January 11th, Campbell ran an editorial called "A Counterblaste to Tobacco." [12] In it he stated that the connection to lung cancer was "esoteric" and referred to "a barely determinable possible correlation between cigarette smoking and cancer". He went on to claim that tobacco's calming effects led to more effective thinking, a true benefit. "How many of the world's great leaders," he concluded, "under maximum tension and pressure, have maintained calm, a sense of responsibility, and the driving will to achieve essential to human affairs... with tobacco?" [13]

The Dean drive

A United States submarine in Martian orbit, propelled there by a Dean drive, on an Astounding cover.
  • In the 1950s, Campbell developed strong interests in alternative theories that began to isolate him from some of his own mainstream writers such as Asimov. He wrote favorably, for instance, about such things as the "Dean drive," a device that supposedly produced thrust in violation of Newton's third law, and the "Hieronymus machine," which could supposedly amplify psi powers. He published many stories about telepathy and other psionic abilities. In 1949 Campbell also became interested in Dianetics, a concept developed by one of his long-time fiction writers, L. Ron Hubbard. Campbell was initially a strong supporter, writing of Hubbard's initial article in Astounding that "It is, I assure you in full and absolute sincerity, one of the most important articles ever published."[14] He also claimed to have successfully used dianetic techniques himself: "The memory stimulation technique is so powerful that, within thirty minutes of entering therapy, most people will recall in full detail their own birth. I have observed it in action, and used the techniques myself."[15] In addition to publishing L. Ron Hubbard's first articles on the subject, Campbell continued to write editorials in support of Dianetics for a time.
  • Writing about the Campbell of this period, the noted science-fiction writer and critic Damon Knight commented in his book In Search of Wonder: "In the pantheon of magazine science fiction there is no more complex and puzzling figure than that of John Campbell, and certainly none odder." Knight also wrote a four-stanza ditty mocking some of Campbell's new interests. The first stanza reads:
Oh, the Dean Machine, the Dean Machine,
You put it right in a submarine,
And it flies so high that it can't be seen—
The wonderful, wonderful Dean Machine!


  • And Isaac Asimov writes: "A number of writers wrote pseudoscientific stuff to ensure sales to Campbell, but the best writers retreated, I among them." [16]
  • Asimov was not alone in his opinion. In 1957, the novelist and critic James Blish could write: "From the professional writer's point of view, the primary interest in Astounding Science Fiction continues to center on the editor's preoccupation with extrasensory powers and perceptions ("psi") as a springboard for stories.... 113 pages of the total editorial content of the January and February 1957 issues of this magazine are devoted to psi, and 172 to non-psi material.... [By including the first part of a serial that later becomes a novel about psi] the total for these first two issues of 1957 is 145 pages of psi text, and 140 pages of non-psi." [17]
  • Asimov also says that "Campbell championed far-out ideas.... He pained very many of the men he had trained (including me) in doing so, but felt it was his duty to stir up the minds of his readers and force curiosity right out to the border lines. He began a series of editorials... in which he championed a social point of view that could sometimes be described as far right. (He expressed sympathy for George Wallace in the 1968 national election, for instance.) There was bitter opposition to this from many (including me — I could hardly ever read a Campbell editorial and keep my temper).""[18]

The November, 1949 issue

The famous November 1949 "future" issue, in which all the stories had previously been "reviewed" in November of 1948

Campbell revealed a sly sense of humor in the November, 1949 issue. He had always encouraged literary criticism by Astounding's readership, and in the November, 1948 issue he published a letter to the editor by a reader named Richard A. Hoen that contained a detailed ranking of the contents of an issue one year in the future. Campbell went along with the joke and contracted stories from most of the authors mentioned in the letter that would follow the fan's imaginary story titles. Ironically, when the issue actually appeared, Hoen had forgotten his original letter, and was supposedly "amazed at how many of my favorite authors appeared in one issue". Probably the best-known story from that issue is "Gulf", by Robert A. Heinlein; other stories and articles were written by a number of the most famous authors of the time: Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester del Rey, A. E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, and the astronomer R. S. Richardson.[19]

In the eyes of others

Asimov says in his autobiography that Campbell was "talkative, opinionated, quicksilver-minded, overbearing. Talking to him meant listening to a monologue.... He was a tall, large man with light hair, a beaky nose, a wide face with thin lips, and with a cigarette in a holder forever clamped between his teeth."[20] "Six-foot-one, with hawklike features, he presented a formidable appearance," says Sam Moskowitz, a well-known fan and historian of the field.[21] Damon Knight's opinion of Campbell was similar to Asimov's: "No doubt I could have got myself invited to lunch long before, but Campbell's lecture-room manner was so unpleasant to me that I was unwilling to face it. Campbell talked a good deal more than he listened, and he liked to say outrageous things."[22] The notable British novelist and critic Kingsley Amis, in his seminal 1960 book about science fiction, New Maps of Hell, dismisses Campbell brusquely: "I might just add as a sociological note that the editor of Astounding, himself a deviant figure of marked ferocity, seems to think he has invented a psi machine." [23]

The noted science-fiction writer Alfred Bester, an editor of Holiday Magazine and a sophisticated Manhattanite, recounts at some length his "one demented meeting" with Campbell, a man he imagined from afar to be "a combination of Bertrand Russell and Ernest Rutherford," across the river in Newark.[24] The first thing Campbell said to him was that Freud was dead, destroyed by the new discovery of Dianetics, which, he predicted, would win L. Ron Hubbard the Nobel Peace Prize. Over a sandwich in a dingy New Jersey lunchroom Campbell ordered the bemused Bester to "think back. Clear yourself. Remember! You can remember when your mother tried to abort you with a button hook. You've never stopped hating her for it." Shaking, Bester eventually made his escape and, he says, "returned to civilization where I had three double gibsons." He adds: "It reinforced my private opinion that a majority of the science-fiction crowd, despite their brilliance, were missing their marbles."

Asimov's final word on Campbell was that "in the last twenty years of his life, he was only a diminishing shadow of what he had once been."[25] Even Robert A. Heinlein, perhaps Campbell's most important discovery and, Virginia Heinlein tells us, by 1940 a "fast friend", [26] eventually tired of Campbell. "When Podkayne [Podkayne of Mars] was offered to him, he wrote Robert, asking what he knew about raising young girls in a few thousand carefully chosen words. The friendship dwindled, and was eventually completely gone." [27] In 1963 Heinlein wrote his agent to say that a rejection from another magazine was "pleasanter than offering copy to John Campbell, having it bounced (he bounced both of my last two Hugo Award winners) — and then have to wade through ten pages of his arrogant insults, explaining to me why my story is no good." [28]


  1. I. Asimov, Isaac Asimov, page 72
  2. Hell's Cartographers, edited by Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, page 114
  3. "Introduction: The Father of Science Fiction", by Isaac Asimov, in Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology edited by Harry Harrison, pages vii-xii
  4. Seekers of Tomorrow, Masters of Modern Science Fiction, by Sam Moskowitz, page 52
  5. "Introduction: The Father of Science Fiction", by Isaac Asimov, in Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology edited by Harry Harrison, pages vii-xii
  6. "Introduction: The Father of Science Fiction", by Isaac Asimov, in Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology edited by Harry Harrison, pages vii-xii
  7. "Introduction: The Father of Science Fiction", by Isaac Asimov, in Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology edited by Harry Harrison, pages vii-xii
  8. Through Eyes of Wonder, by Ben Bova, pages 66-67
  9. "Introduction: The Father of Science Fiction", by Isaac Asimov, in Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology edited by Harry Harrison, pages vii-xii
  10. "Our Five Days with John W. Campbell", by Joe Green, The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Fall 2006, No. 171, page 15
  11. Editorial of June, 1961, Analog, page 5
  12. Editorial of June, 1961, Analog, page 8 — The e on Counterblaste was deliberate: he was referring to a 16th-century diatribe about the evils of smoking.
  13. Editorial of September, 1964, Analog, page 8
  14. Astounding Science Fiction, April, 1950, page 132
  15. Astounding Science Fiction, April, 1950, page 132
  16. I. Asimov, Isaac Asimov, page 74
  17. James Blish, The Issues at Hand, pages 86-87.
  18. "Introduction: The Father of Science Fiction", by Isaac Asimov, in Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology edited by Harry Harrison, pages vii-xii
  19. A Requiem for Astounding, by Alva Rogers, pages 176-180
  20. I. Asimov, Isaac Asimov, page 72
  21. Moskowitz
  22. Hell's Cartographers, edited by Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, page 133
  23. New Maps of Hell, Kingsley Amis, page 84
  24. Hell's Cartographers, edited by Brian W. Aldiss and Harry Harrison, page 57
  25. I. Asimov, Isaac Asimov, page 74
  26. Grumbles from the Grave, edited by Virginia Heinlein, page 8
  27. Grumbles from the Grave, edited by Virginia Heinlein, page 36
  28. Grumbles from the Grave, edited by Virginia Heinlein, page 152