Featured Writer: John W. Campbell

Stellar Publishing – Wonder Stories, January 1932

It’s that time of the week again where we look at another featured writer from the Hugo Awards. This week we have the influential writer and editor, John W. Campbell. As mentioned previously, this month finds us at the beginning of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. It is thanks to Campbell and his work as a part of Astounding Science-Fiction that the Golden Age flourished with its many voices.

Under his name, Campbell became known for writing super-science space operas. His early work found a home in several of the science-fiction magazines of the time, like Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. However, as we’ll see later this week, Campbell didn’t limit himself to space operas. Campbell had many pen names with his most prominent being “Don A. Stuart.” The use of these pen names allowed Campbell to write stories of a different tone, including his famous work, “Who Goes There?”

Pen Names

  • Don A. Stewart
  • Karl Van Kampen
  • Arthur McCann

Editors never buy manuscripts that are left on the closet shelf at home.

– John W. Campbell

Campbell had a relatively short writing career, beginning about the age of eighteen and retiring when he assumed the role of editor of Astounding Stories. We recognize Campbell today for his work as an editor. He assumed control of Astounding in May of 1938 and quickly implemented changes that would shape the genre we know today. His work as editor began the careers of many of the sci-fi greats, including Heinlein, Sturgeon, Asimov, and even Clarke. His writers knew him to suggest story ideas and to make demands for narratives based upon an artwork design for the magazine. For his work on Astounding, Campbell would posthumously receive the 1939 Retro-Hugo for Best Editor in the Short Form category. Next month we’ll take a closer look at the history of Astounding, including more about Campbell’s influence.

H. W. Wesso / Astounding Stories (Clayton)

While we laud Campbell for his great contribution to science-fiction, the man is not without his controversies. Fellow writers, Samuel R. Delany and Joe Haldeman, faced prejudice from Campbell based on his divisive views on slavery, race, segregation, and gender equality. Both authors criticize Campbell’s refusal to publish their stories because they featured lead characters who were neither white nor male. It was probably his sudden belief in pseudosciences that strained his greatest friendship, that with Isaac Asimov. So much so that 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.” Many of Asimov’s contemporaries share his sentiment, but still, maintain Campbell’s legacy. Without him, it’s doubtful that science fiction would be what it is today.

Campbell served as Astounding’s editor until his death in 1971. In his time, we credit him with the founding of the Golden Age and its many contributors. In addition to numerous Hugo awards for his editorial work, Campbell’s legacy includes a couple of awards named in his honor and a spot in the inaugural class of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. Campbell was indeed a visionary and proved to be a pivotal figure in the veneration of science fiction. Next time, we’ll look at his award-winning novella, “Who Goes There?” and answer the question, “are you who you say you are?”

See you next time!

Notable Fiction:

  • The Black Star Passes
  • Islands of Space
  • The Mightiest Machine
  • The Moon is Hell
  • “Who Goes There?”

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