Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Best of John W. Campbell

For those unfamiliar with the history of science fiction, the name John W. Campbell means very little. And yet Campbell may be the most important and influential man in the history of the genre. After the bright lights of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells at the end of the nineteenth century, science fiction entered a difficult time—the writing was generally not very good nor very well received; it is at this point, I think, that science fiction became stereotypically attached to juvenile readers. And there had been no leading lights in American science fiction at all, no names that resound to mainstream readers like Wells and Verne. But in 1937, Campbell took over the editor duties for Astounding Stories, with (as Lester del Rey says in the introduction of this collection) "a clear vision of what science fiction should become." And thus began the golden age of science fiction, as Campbell mentored the writers that are now recognized both in the genre and outside as great: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon and many more. For 34 years, Campbell preached his vision and science fiction thrived, at first due to his near single-handed raising of both the potential and the literacy of the genre and then later, inevitably, in reaction to his vision. Campbell saw beyond the bug-eyed monsters and the ripped bodices of the women on the covers of the pulps to a genre that could deal equally with adventure and technology, mingling action and contemplation with style and storytelling craft.

But most of my generation of science fiction readers are unaware that Campbell also had a career as a writer before he became an editor, that he was extraordinarily popular among fans looking for the best stories that the pulp magazines had to offer in the early 1930s. Part of del Rey's premise in the introduction is that you can find threads of Campbell the editor by examining his writing. Such a premise seems intuitive to the point of obviousness, but unfortunately, the stories collected in the volume don't bear out the premise very well at all. I've spent three weeks struggling through a 350-page collection, struggling to see the beliefs and style that are somewhat characteristic of Campbell's editing (and mentoring—never forget the mentoring), until I closed the book this afternoon with relief.

What is astonishingly clear from this collection is that, if Campbell ever really was considered a great stylist in his own works, then the stories just have not aged very well at all. I found the general tone of the stories to be dry to the point of dust, and every story felt like a slog through dense and baleful language. There was no joy in the wordcraft, no poetry in his sentences. This is not the storytelling that I imagine kept young boys up reading through the night against the stern warnings of wary parents. And while I recognize that it might just be a matter of taste that causes me not to appreciate what Campbell is trying to do, the dissonance between his perceived greatness and my appreciation is so great, I look for reasons outside of taste to explain it. It may well be that you need to be the right age to be captivated by his work, and once beyond that age, the stories fail to excite. But whatever the reason, this collection was a difficult read.

Often, poor writing can be balanced by an effective story—the action pulls the reader along despite the drag of the words used to tell it. Sadly, this was not true of the stories in this collection either. And I found it ironic that the most strongly held belief in Campbell's view of science fiction recedes into the background of his writing whereas he used his career as an editor to push it to the forefront. Campbell fully endorsed the idea of human dominion over nature and thus, eventually, over the universe. He believed that there is no problem so great that man will not eventually overcome it, whether it be travelling faster than the speed of light or dealing with races immeasurably superior to our own. It may take time, but man eventually finds a way, usually due to equal parts of his insatiable curiosity and his joy for life. This human exceptionalism is a thread that ties so many of his students' work together throughout the decades, and it is primarily this facet that later writers rebelled against with the free-thinking of the 60s and the cynicism of the 70s.

Most typical of this attitude is Campbell's most famous work, the novella "Who Goes There?" which has been adapted into movies twice, once as The Thing from Another World and again as John Carpetner's The Thing. Typical (and arguably stereotypical) of the idea of human exceptionalism, man stumbles upon a race of aliens with a biology so alien and so destructive that it is terrifying and potentially cataclysmic. If its discoverers cannot defeat the alien, surely it will go on and singlehandedly take over and/or destroy the world. And after some hesitating starts, man defeats the creature through a combination of pluck and fast thinking. Man emerges from the story wary but triumphant, better prepared to take on the next challenge that Nature can throw at him. "Who Goes There?" is a fine story and worthy of reading for its role as a milestone of the genre, but also to see how far both film presentations go in changing the story as they brought it to the screen.

But while the rest of the stories in this collection eventually end up with man being triumphant, in those same stories man spends literally generations under the yoke of alien races, emphasizing his being conquered with sheer number of words instead of his triumph at the end of the story. And while man triumphs, often the means of his original fall point out the inherent weakness that balances man's potential when he succeeds. Two of the stories that best typify this narrative path have titles that speak to the weakness of man: "Blindness" and "Forgetfulness". These stories have the common thread of man achieving the heights of technology—creating a paradise run by science—only to lose it all from laziness and idle boredom, making humans easy targets for invading races. The stories include wondering aliens who are amazed at the technology humankind once possessed and lost because life was too easy, because there was nothing to struggle against. Yet those aliens never consider that their very presence is the impetus for the struggle to begin again, the catalyst for man's inevitable rise to superiority. And while that narrative path might be appealing to readers enamoured with the gloss of the stories, more astute readers cannot help but hear the warnings and criticism of humanity, depictions of his inherent weakness rather than his exceptionalism.

Campbell also seems to feel that traits such as rebellion and curiosity can be worn away by carefully planned eugenics, essentially bred out of the human population over time. Following the theories of evolution, when those traits return, it is a mutant characteristic but one that is seized upon as essential for survival of the individual and eventually the species. This position muddles the idea of the exceptionality of humans—if there is something inherently more valuable about humans, how can it be bred away and then return again? Given that evolution would appear to be a universal constant, how then can he be assured that other intelligent species don't have the same traits? Through Campbell's long career as a writer and editor, I don't believe he ever addressed that possibility, laying the foundation for later generations of writers to rebel against his paradigm.

1 comment:

  1. Most of your commentary is spot-on, but you missed the point of "Forgetfulness." The Earth humans haven't fallen from the heights of the technology that the Pareethians find in ruins on their planet -- instead the Earth humans have advanced so far beyond that technology that they have "forgotten" it for exactly the same reasons that the Pareethians have forgotten the art of stone knapping. "Forgetfulness" is the ultimate "Earth uber alles" story: in it, Mankind has essentially ascended to godhood.