At the beginnings of the 20th century, science fiction entered the pulp era with a bang: Hugo Gernsback was one of many editors who had created major avenues for authors to publish an enormous volume of science fiction stories, while authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E 'Doc' Smith wrote numerous and long stories that found a major audience, while others, such as C.L. Moore, inspired by the stories that she read in pulp magazines, began to write their own fiction. In 1938, science fiction would run into another personality who would change science fiction again: When 28-year-old author John Campbell Jr. was hired to edit Astounding Magazine. Campbell’s influence in the magazine market is commonly cited as the beginning of the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction, and represented a major shift away from the conventions of Gernsback’s pulp era.
In December 1929, L.W. Clayton introduced Astounding Stories of Super Science, designed to compete with the new, dedicated science fiction market that Gernsback’s Amazing Stories magazine helped to put forward. Edited by Harry Bates, the magazine was a typical offering in the pulp era, featuring science action stories, a cheap price and flamboyant covers. In 1931, the magazine simply became Astounding Stories.
John W. Campbell Jr. was born in 1910, and had become a notable science fiction author in his own right throughout the pulp era. His first story, “When the Atoms Failed,” was published in the January 1930 issue of Amazing magazine and was followed by a number of other stories in a similar vein before shifting to a new, less campy style in 1934 under a pseudonym, Don A. Stuart. Along the way, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and Duke University in North Carolina, eventually earning a degree in physics in 1932. With few positions for physicists available, he continued to write, eventually producing some well-known stories, such as “Who Goes There?,” which would eventually be filmed three times as The Thing from Another World and The Thing (in 1982 and 2010).
In 1933, as the Great Depression took hold in the United States, the Clayton magazine chain hit hard times. Astounding had been shifted to a bimonthly schedule to help save money, but it was too little, and too late: The publication vanished from the newsstands abruptly. However, by October, Astounding was sold to another company, Street & Smith, who placed one of their veteran editors, F. Orlin Tremaine, in charge of the magazine. Tremaine brought the magazine to new heights: continuing the pulp elements of the publication, boosting circulation with popular features such as a new sequel to E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Skylark series and popular authors such as C.L. Moore and Don A. Stuart. By 1934, Astounding magazine became the leading SF publication on the market.
Tremaine continued at the helm of the magazine for the next couple of years, bringing in some classic stories: H.P. Lovecraft’s famed At the Mountains of Madness, Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s The Galactic Patrol. By 1937, Tremaine was promoted to Editorial Director at Street and Smith, and the September 1937 issue was his last at the helm. In his place, he brought in John W. Campbell Jr.
With his assumption of Astounding’s editorial duties, Campbell stopped writing fiction, and focused his energies on the magazine. According to Brian Aldiss, Campbell was “a good and ambitious editor. He forced his writers to think much harder about what they were trying to say, and clamped down on the Gosh-wowery.” His training as a scientist also aided his stable of authors, many of whom would receive notations back with their manuscripts that helped with the technical side of the fiction. Throughout the remainder of 1937 and into 1938, Campbell and Tremaine worked together to finish out the backlog of stories, and throughout the remainder of 1938, Campbell began to apply his own particular flavor to the publication, first by changing the magazine’s name to Astounding Science-Fiction. As he began to take over the magazine, his influence became more apparent.
With the release of the July 1939 issue of Astounding, the gloves came off. The issue's table of contents contained a number of high quality stories from new and regular Astounding writers: The Black Destroyer, the first published story by A.E. van Vogt; Trends, Isaac Asimov’s first sale to the publication; City of the Cosmic Rays, by Nat Schachner; Lightship, Ho!, by Nelson S. Bond; The Moth, by Ross Rocklynne; Amelia Reynold's When the Half-Gods Go; and Greater than Gods, by C.L. Moore.
Subsequent issues of Astounding featured a regular stable of authors who have become household names: Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and Isaac Asimov, amongst many others. The magazine had changed the landscape, featuring “quieter, more thoughtful stories, in which the science was realistic, and in which scientists, inventors and engineers talked and acted like recognizable human beings,” according to Asimov in his autobiography. There was still room for pulp stories, such as Smith’s The Grey Lensmen, but predominantly, Astounding pushed the genre beyond its roots in the pulp world.
One of the key resources that Campbell was able to draw upon was a new generation of authors who had grown up reading the science fiction stories from the pulp era. They didn’t have to define the genre that they worked in: Within the long boundaries of the genre, they were able to create and respond to other stories. As editor Donald Wollheim noted: “Science fiction builds on science fiction.” With the focus on realism over the sensational, Campbell had set the tone for the stories that would come over the next decade.
Contentious, argumentative and loud, Campbell was as controversial a figure as he was an influential one. His monthly editorials covered a range of topics, at first covering the contents of the magazines, but later branching out and discussing everything from politics to science fiction. Campbell seems to have enjoyed playing the devil’s advocate, formulating extreme positions that he would play with. He alienated some authors, while others merely tolerated him, but never quite lost the prominence that he gained over the years.
Ultimately, he worked to shift the genre away from the pulp stories that had defined the genre’s existence, and continued to do so until the early 1970s, when the “New Wave” movement began another major shift. On July 11th, 1971, Campbell passed away at his home in New Jersey. The contributions to the genre, however, anchored Campbell as one of the major figures who left deep fingerprints on the genre he devoted himself to.Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found online at his site and on Twitter@andrewliptak.