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Creator / John W. Campbell

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The man himself, contemplating his hatred of the word Astounding

John W. Campbell saved science fiction. John W. Campbell remade science fiction. John W. Campbell ruined science fiction. All of these are true statements.

John W. Campbell, Jr. (June 8, 1910 – July 11, 1971) was an American science fiction writer and editor. As editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine for over thirty years, he was one of the most influential figures in the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

As a writer, the bulk of his work was done in the 1930s. He first made his name as an author of Science Hero Space Opera, including the 'Arcot, Morey and Wade' stories, which were collected in book form in the 1950s. He also wrote more thoughtful science fiction under the name Don A. Stuart, including the linked stories "Twilight" and "Night", and "Who Goes There?", the story that inspired the films The Thing from Another World and The Thing (1982). It was originally written as Frozen Hell, a full novel, but Campbell cut it down and renamed it for publication.

He became the editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1938, and remained in that post until his death. During his tenure, he fostered the careers of many now-famous writers, including Isaac Asimov, who credited him with formulating the Three Laws of Robotics.

His primary influence was that, as editor, he demanded good stories with good science. He inarguably did more to pull SF out of the age of pulp than anyone else. On the other hand, he was not known for his tolerance. Asimov himself testified that Campbell felt that Northern European men were the pinnacle of humanity, and Campbell accepted precious few stories where the hero was identifiably not a Northern European man. He accepted none where any alien race is superior to humanity in a meaningful way. His definition of "good science" was also pretty much limited to "good physics and chemistry"; when it was proven that smoking caused cancer, he pooh-poohed the results, and continued wielding his distinctive cigarette holder until he died of cancer. By the 1960s, he was also deeply into pseudoscience like the Dean Drive and Dianetics. He remains a controversial figure.

There have been two significant awards established in his honour, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. The latter, which is not technically a Hugo Award, but is presented at the same annual award ceremony, was subsequently renamed the Astounding Award for Best New Writer by the sponsor, Analog Magazine, in recognition of the more problematic aspects of Campbell's personality and history, with the first award under the new name being presented in 2020. The sponsors of the former have also announced that they intend to rename the award, but have not yet decided on the new name. Interest in his work continues, considering that when the original manuscript for Frozen Hell was found, it was published after fans initiated a highly successful Kickstarter.

Works by John W. Campbell with their own trope pages include:

Campbell's other works provide examples of:

  • Can't Argue with Elves: Campbell hated this trope and gave an Executive Veto to any story in which aliens were shown to be equal or superior to humans.
  • Deus est Machina: "The Machine"
  • Framing Device:
    • "Twilight" has a frame story about a hitchhiker who claims to have visited the distant future.
    • "Night" has a frame story about a man who disappears during an experiment and later claims to have been projected into the (even more) distant future.
    • "Elimination" is the story of a potentially world-changing invention that destroyed its inventors; in the frame story, a patent attorney tells the story to make the point that some inventions are best left undeveloped.
  • Hard Light: The Arcot, Morey and Wade stories feature lux metal, for occasions when neutronium just isn't super-sciencey enough. It's "made of light — photons so greatly compressed that they were held together by their own gravitational fields."
  • Humanity Is Superior: An Enforced Trope for any story involving humans and aliens.
  • Humanity's Wake: "Night".
  • No Waterproofing in the Future: In "Out of Night", the occupying Sarn give their outnumbered human supporters personal force fields and energy weapons to use against the rebels. The force field emitters explode, killing the bearer, if the field's splashed with water. Justified, as the Sarn's hidden agenda is to cull strong-willed humans on both sides of the conflict; they intentionally hand out sub par equipment so their supporters don't have a Curb-Stomp Battle.
  • Organic Technology: The Double Minds is set on Ganymede, where electricity was never discovered. Light bulbs are powered by fluorescent bacteria and cars have muscles instead of motors. Unlike most examples of Organic Technology, the story clearly states that Ganymedian gadgets are a poor substitute for electric-powered technology. A bit of an Unbuilt Trope, considered that it was written in 1937.
  • Pen Name: Campbell used the pseudonym Arthur McCann several times during issues of Analog, such as short columns for the 1939 issues, such as "Isotope 235" and "Numbers Without Meaning".
  • Science Hero: Arcot, Morey and Wade.
  • The Singularity: "The Last Evolution" is a 1932 short story about a future where mankind and robots coexist peacefully. When aliens attack the Solar System using Death Rays of an unknown type, mankind builds a robot of unheard-of intelligence to figure out a defense. Said robot builds an even more advanced machine, which builds even more avanced robots, up to the creation of a race of Energy Beings that Curb Stomp the enemy fleet. Too bad that mankind, and all organic life, has been killed in the battle... So the superintelligent energy beings inherit the Earth.
  • Suicide Attack: The backstory to "Frictional Losses" mentioned the Japanese super-charging airplane engines, packing the planes full of explosives, and crashing them into enemy ships. The enemy in Campbell's story were extraterrestrials, and once the Japanese gave us the idea, the rest of Earth's nations started using kamikazes against the aliens, too, which is why they didn't wipe out humanity entirely. He wrote this story in 1936.
  • Terminally Dependent Society: The Machine in the short story of the same name. It controlled the entire Earth, and as a result the human race had become totally dependent on it.
  • The Tokyo Fireball: Part of the backstory in "Frictional Losses" is that the invading extraterrestrials nuked Japan so hard that the entire country more or less ripped loose from its foundations and slid into the sea. Tokyo did not get rebuilt, but the Japanese are remembered as heroes (it was their invention of what we'd call kamikazes that pissed the aliens into bombing them so hard).
  • Vichy Earth: "Out of Night" and its sequel "Cloak of Aesir" detail the fight against the occupying alien Sarn that conquered Earth four thousand years ago.
  • Wave-Motion Gun: In one of their stories, Arcot, Wade and Morley come up with the molecular motion gun, which turns the random molecular motion of an object (heat) into motion in a single direction. The ray is catalytic in nature, so basically any object it is used on, from a city to (in one chapter) an entire star, is a) frozen to absolute zero, and b) hurled off in any direction desired.
  • White Male Lead: Enforced Trope under his editorship. Campbell's racism and sexism meant that the heroes of Astounding Science Fiction were white men, with very few exceptions.

Alternative Title(s): Don A Stuart, Arthur Mc Cann