John W. Campbell Was the Editor Who Ushered in the Golden Age of Science Fiction

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of John W. Campbell, the editor who ushered in the golden age of science fiction. His father was an electrical engineer and Campbell was interested in science from the time he was a kid. He started writing science fiction when he was 18, a student at MIT and published his first story a year later.

He wrote under his own name and a pseudonym, Don A. Stuart. His work includes the novella Who Goes There? about a group of researchers in Antarctica who discover an alien buried in the ice. The alien has the ability to inhabit the body of anyone it attacks, to such a convincing degree that it is impossible for the researchers to recognize which of them are still themselves and which are now aliens. It was made into the film The Thing From Another World.

Campbell’s most lasting contributions to science fiction came from his role as an editor. In 1937 the editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding Stories retired and hired Campbell to replace him. Campbell changed the name to Astounding Science-Fiction (and later to Analog) and he transformed the magazine. He wanted to change its reputation from that of a pulp fiction publication to one based on real science. He recruited and championed writers like Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon. He demanded that the stories he publish have convincing science as well as convincing characters. He preferred uncomfortable ideas that would push readers, and Isaac Asimov said Campbell had no qualms insisting that his writers completely change the endings of stories if he didn’t like them.

“What he wanted were people who would write stories in which the science was realistic. Not realistic in the sense that they couldn’t go out into the blue yonder, not realistic in the sense that they couldn’t extrapolate wildly, but realistic in the sense that people who worked in science resembled people who actually worked in science. That scientists acted the way scientists do, that engineers acted the way engineers do — and in short, that the scientific culture be represented accurately.”

Asimov said of Campbell: “When I first met him I thought of him as ageless. 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. He was talkative, opinionated, quicksilver-minded, overbearing. Talking to him meant listening to a monologue. Some writers could not endure it and avoided him, but he reminded me of my father, so I was perfectly willing to listen to him indefinitely.”

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