The Clubhouse: John W. Campbell, genius/crackpot editor?

John W. Campbell is mostly known for being the most innovative, helpful, brilliant, argumentative, interfering, elitist crackpot SF editor of the twentieth century. Truly a renaissance man.

Depends on who you talk to and what period of time you are talking about. I personally view him as a role model in that he hated to let a good idea go if all that was required was a modest rewrite to improve a story as a story. He often worked with his authors to accomplish this. I sometimes take a similar approach to stories submitted to Polar Borealis Magazine.

Like him, I am also keen on discovering new talent and encouraging beginning writers.

However, when you get right down to it, there is no comparison between us. He was a giant in the field, a colossus who single-handedly pulled SF out of the realm of pulp fiction by insisting on higher literary standards and, above all, better ideas. He, more than anyone else, created a safe haven environment for the likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey and others. He not only encouraged them, he stimulated and influenced them with his prolific outpouring of suggestions and ideas. Asimov always credited Campbell with coming up with the essence of the three laws of robotics, for instance.

Me, I’m just a pipsqueak of an amateur editor who happens to hero worship Campbell. I utterly lack his smarts and talent but I admire his style and achievements. My favourite editor.

Granted, he expected writers to conform to his demands and this sometimes led to an acrimonious parting of ways. He received a degree in physics from MIT in 1932 and forever after considered himself an expert in science, to the point of promoting pseudoscience on the grounds there might be something to it, sometimes to an embarrassing extent in the minds of some. And, as he got older he turned into a bit of a conservative fossil, like many do.

But the fact remains he became editor of Astounding (eventually renamed Analog) in 1937 and stayed at his post for over thirty years, a remarkable feat in itself. Obviously, he knew what he was doing. Or, as the author Harry Harrison put it, “When I was fifteen I thought John W. Campbell was God.”

It should be noted Campbell was a popular writer before he became an editor, starting with the story “When the Atoms Failed” in 1930. His last story, “Who Goes There?” published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1938 under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, is probably his most famous work. Most fans today are familiar with it because of the two movies, both titled “The Thing.” The 1951 version retained the concept of scientists in Antarctica discovering the frozen corpse of an alien, but it is Carpenter’s 1982 version that is more faithful to the original story in that it emphasises—to put it mildly—the shape- shifting aspects of the creature. Both well worth watching more than once. I watch them as a double bill once a year on average, but that’s just my sense-of-wonder addiction at work.

I decided to take a look at what shot Campbell to popularity in the 1930s by reviewing two of his works.


By John W. Campbell – First published 1936 as a serial in Amazing Stories under the title “Uncertainty.” This cover Ace Books, published 1966.

The earth has colonized most of the Solar System’s planets and moons. Onboard spacecraft racks of “accumulators” somehow convert water into ion beams for propulsion. In case any space pirates show up, proton beams serve as weapons. Lieutenant Buck Kendall is in command of the six-man crew of the Patrol Cruiser “LP.-T 247.” Buck is six feet two tall, with “the body and muscles of a dock navvy” and the “constitution of an ostrich.” (What? He gobbles his food, poops where ever he likes, and can run like the wind?) This description allows the reader, with some difficulty, to build a mental picture of the character. It doesn’t matter. His physical nature has no bearing on the story. All the reader has to remember is that he is a wealthy Brainiac.

A gigantic spaceship materialises beside the T-247. It is two thousand feet long and fifteen hundred feet in diameter. Naturally Kendall orders a retreat at maximum speed. Meanwhile, without being ordered to do so, the crew opens fire on the intruder with proton beams. Personal initiative is evidently highly prized in the patrol service. Doesn’t do them any good though, as the crew drops dead when their ship is swept by neutron beams, a weapon technology Earth does not possess.

Buck and his buddy Rad Cole flee in a blacked-out ship’s tender which they allow to drift unpowered in the hope they won’t be noticed. Rad is a bit puzzled why they are both still alive, but Buck explains the water tanks surrounding the bridge had prevented the neutrons from reaching them. With some interest they watch the alien vessel take aboard the T-247 and then blast off faster than the speed of light. When rescued they report on the matter but the authorities dismiss their account, declaring the intruder to be just another bunch of space pirates on a spree. Both Buck and Cole resign from the service in order to use their political influence to set things right.

Now we learn the other side’s point of view. They are inhabitants of the planet Sthor which circles the variable star Mira. Sometimes their sun expands and heats Sthor to a near fatal level, sometimes it contracts and plunges Sthor into a brief ice age. Though evolved to handle both extremes, the aliens are keen on finding a stable star surrounded by resource-rich planets and moons. The Solar System be exactly what they are looking for.

The alien expeditionary commander, Gresth Gkae, is an interesting character. Earth people fascinate him. “All will be well, when we have eliminated that peculiar race … Imagine—two eyes just alike, and in a horizontal row. And that flat face … the peculiar beak-like projection … Those strange, awkward arms and legs were what puzzled me. I have been attempting to manipulate myself as they must be forced to, and I cannot see how delicate or accurate manual manipulation would be possible with those rigid, inflexible arms.”

An enemy alien determined to figure out what makes humans tick both physically and mentally offers all kinds of possibilities in terms of a battle of wits and psychological ploys, but the reader’s hopes are soon dashed. Gresth is shunted offstage for most of the remainder of the plot. As is, for that matter, the plot, in that it is no longer character-driven. Not wanting to waste precious time dealing with petty politicians representing taxpayer concerns, Kendall borrows money from fellow capitalists to fully fund scientific experimentation leading to the creation of powerful fortresses on assorted planets and moons throughout the Solar System.

What follows is mostly repeated experiments to invent the most powerful accumulator imaginable (I gather that an accumulator is a battery) by virtue of subjecting a pool of mercury to one hundred thousand horsepower per minute provided by a single power line from New York city’s power station. This is intended to transform the mercury into a metal that will function as a nuclear reactor generating a chain reaction contained within a tungsten-insulum dome two feet in diameter, the hope being that the resulting raging nuclear energy can be transformed into sufficient magnetic power to both insulate a ship or a fortress from enemy weapons and also function as an energy source for beam weapons aimed at the enemy.

Simple experiment. Easy. The only problem being that the task is so difficult it violates Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle. Trying to circumvent this calls for a lot of explanation, as for example, “What we want to do is transform an electric into a magnetic field and have it stay there. That’s the first thing. The second thing, is to have the lines of magnetic force you develop, lie down like a sheath around a ship, instead of standing out like the hairs on an angry cat, the way they want to. That means turning them ninety degrees, and turning an electric into a magnetic field means turning the space-strain ninety degrees.”

I don’t know what this means, but I can only assume that the author, with a degree in physics from MIT, does. Or is he just offering playful bafflegab? I have no idea.

Certainly, there’s a Thomas Edison-style fantasy to the experimentation that was probably utterly enthralling to 1930s fans. If sodium doesn’t work try copper, or magnesium, or chromium. Keep trying till something works. Finally, an apparatus is constructed that turns a small amount of mercury into the proper form of metal. Huzzah! Now all that’s needed is enough metallic mercury to protect the fortresses and the spaceships. How much is needed? Kendall figures five-hundred-thousand tons. Time for mass production, you betcha.

To sum up, the fortresses and ships can protect themselves as long as the accumulators hold out, but once they’re drained, watch out! As the Chief Technician explains to the Commander of a fort on Europa, “They’ve got a revolving magnetic field out there that would spin a minor planet. The whole blasted fort is acting like a squirrel cage in an induction motor! They’ve made us the armature in a five-hundred-million horsepower electric motor.” To make matters worse, the aliens are chipping away at the bedrock beneath with atomic bombs. Once the fort’s accumulators are drained and its eight-foot thick shell of tungsten-beryllium is separated from the ground, the aliens use their projected magnetic field to spin-tumble the fortress across the surface of Europa to destruction. The aliens also have a beam ray which crumbles metal. The human race be in a spot of trouble.

Kendall believes he can build the ultimate weapon, but the math says he’s wrong. It’s too far ahead of certainty to work. He builds it anyway. The results are remarkable. “An electric motor, humming smoothly stopped with a jerk. ‘This,’ it remarked in a deep throaty voice, ‘is probably the last stand of humanity.’ … ‘I advise,’ said the motor in its grumbling voice, ‘an immediate exodus.’ It stopped speaking, and practiced what it preached. It was a fifty-horse moto-generator, on a five-ton tungsten-beryllium base, but it rose abruptly, spun rapidly at an axis at right angles to the axis of its armature, and stopped suddenly. In mid air it continued its interrupted lecture.”

Fortunately, Kendall manages to shut the thing down. He’s in a state of ecstasy. “‘Uncertainty … we’ve got uncertainty!’ … Kendall roared with sudden, joyous laughter … ‘Everything goes crazy—the laws of nature break down! Heisenberg’s principle showed that the laws of cause and effect weren’t absolute. We’ve made them absolutely uncertain … we’ve still got to find out how to use this …’”

Quick experimentation through the four degrees of uncertainty produces a beam weapon capable of converting any mass into energy instantly. I think there’s a slight flaw in using such a gizmo, but the aliens are impressed and quick diplomacy produces a political resolution advantageous to all. I don’t think it really matters. I suspect the joy for the readers of the era lay in the cascading of one impossible technical idea atop another in a breathless, dead serious manner that left them swimming in a delirium of delighted confusion, their breath taken away by the sheer scope of the concepts presented.

In this single novella Campbell did for death rays and exploitation of energy what Olaf Stapledon did for sociology and evolution, namely blew the eager minds of his readers “to infinity and beyond!”

However, I’m glad he got this style of writing out of his system by the time he became editor of Astounding. He went on to encourage others to do much better.


By John W. Campbell – Five stories originally published 1936-1938 in Thrilling Wonder Stories. This cover Ace Books, published in 1966.

I confess I didn’t have time to read all five stories featuring the Space Explorers Penton and Blake. I’ve missed writing a column two weeks in a row so I definitely wanted to get this one in before the deadline. Consequently, circumstances permit only a quick reading of the first story, “The Brain Stealers of Mars.”

I know. Sounds “pulp,” right? Typical of the era? In fact, I was astonished. This is nothing less than a dry run of “Who Goes There?” The creatures in question aren’t “brain stealers” but shape shifters that absorb and become their prey.

Rod Blake and Ted Penton have broken international law by inventing an atomic-powered spaceship. Pity the take-off explosion destroyed about three-hundred square miles of Europe but they figure being first to visit Mars is worth the sacrifice. Not as if anybody is going to build a similar spaceship to catch up and arrest them.

They discover some odd-looking plants. Rod finds a Japanese Maple. He excitedly seeks out Ted to tell him, and Ted says, in Rod’s voice, “I don’t know what to say.” Rod notes that when Ted lifts his foot as if to take a step there are roots still connecting it to the ground. Thinking quickly, Rod pulls out his atomic violet-gun and melts Ted, though not quickly enough to prevent part of Ted from growing wings and flying away. Rod is a bit upset over this but fortunately the next Ted who shows up appears to be the genuine Ted. However, Rod remains perturbed because Ted addresses the other Rod standing beside the spaceship. Ted, in turn, gets a bit annoyed because both Rod’s give perfect answers to his questions. But the solution comes to him. “Oh, yes. It’s simple. Rod, just burn me a hole in that thing with your violet-gun.” Rod does so. Ted had figured out the alien could duplicate Rod and the organic fabric of his clothes, but not the metal of the gun.

Next they discover a morose race of Martian centaurs. Here Campbell indicates what would happen if shapeshifters take over a society. The centaurs believe about 31% of them are shape shifters. “One big one will split into several small ones, and each small one will eat one of the young of our people, and take its place … if we killed one we suspected, we might be wrong, which would kill our own child. If we didn’t … and if the imitation is so perfect one can’t tell the difference, what’s the difference?” The centaurs are unhappy, but resigned to their fate.

More Teds and Rods show up, each armed with a violet-gun. After all, they knew how to enter the ship and open the lock to the armoury. They know everything the originals know. But not how to operate the ship, which is more complex than mere memory can provide. Since the replicas need the originals to infest Earth, they can’t kill them, but don’t mind killing each other to hold their “cover.”

Ted devises a simple test. The first Blake passes. All the Teds kill the replicant Blakes. Now Blake has to think of a test none of the Teds will know and conduct it in such a way that the replicant Teds can be disposed of without any chance of their escaping. It works.

The story is not tongue in cheek exactly, but has comic aspects arising from Ted and Rod’s efforts to solve the puzzle confronting them. Yes, the fate of the earth is at stake, but the mood is not serious. I suspect Campbell pondered the premise after publication for a year or so and realized he hadn’t grasped the full potential of the horror the shape shifters offered. In effect, he revised “The Brain Stealers of Mars” to produce “Who Goes there?”

I suspect that Campbell was well satisfied with his revision. I also believe it convinced him that every mediocre story based on an excellent idea was well worth perfecting and that this is why insisting on revisions and improvements was so important to him as an editor. At any rate, that’s my theory.

Even if my theory is wrong, I still believe John W. Campbell was a genius of an editor.

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  1. I admire Campbell’s work as an editor, and also as a writer (his stories written under the name Don A. Stuart). However, that’s no reason to overlook his negative qualities, including his racism, which has been written about extensively. Isaac Asimov, who knew Campbell well and wrote about him at length, attested to this. Not everyone in Campbell’s time shared his racist views (he expressed support for George Wallace in the sixties, the era of the Civil Rights movement) so it’s not a matter of judging the past by today’s standards.

  2. It’s also said that Campbell was some sort of racist, but I’d take that with a grain of salt. People have said the same about Heinlein (racist, sexist, etc.). There are too many easily-offended people these days who can’t get over the fact that not everyone in the past followed their modern precepts.

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