Special Feature

The Campbell Machine

by Alec Nevala-Lee

From the forthcoming book ASTOUNDING: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. Copyright © 2018 by Alec Nevala-Lee. To be published on October 23, 2018 by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.


“Joe Kearney was sacrificed; we’re exploring the relationship between the present human mental mechanism and the operation of high-energy, high-performance, extreme-endurance machines. Joe summoned a demon too powerful to handle; it destroyed him.”

—John W. Campbell, in a letter to

    Isaac Asimov, January 20, 1956

*   *   *

On June 6, 1955, a man named Joseph Winter lifted a heavy motorboat engine by himself onto the back of a truck. Winter, who was in his forties and overweight, felt chest pains. He should have taken them seriously—he was a doctor—but he failed to seek treatment. By the time it became clear that he had suffered a coronary thrombosis, it was already too late. He passed away in Englewood, New Jersey, on the morning of June 8, leaving behind a wife and two children.

Word of his death reached the writer L. Ron Hubbard, who was living in a suburb of Washington, D.C. Years later, in an internal document intended to be read only by members of the innermost circle of the Church of Scientology, Hubbard wrote: “There are men dead because they attacked us—for instance Dr. Joe Winter. He simply realized what he did and died.”

*   *   *

Nine days after Winter’s death, his nephew, Joe Kearney, awoke shortly after sunrise. Joe, who was twenty-one, had received his bachelor’s degree from Williams College the week before. After commencement, he had returned to Mountainside, New Jersey, where his mother Peg lived with his stepfather, John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, the title of which would change five years later to Analog.

It was Friday, June 17, and Joe had reason to feel optimistic about his future. He had graduated sixteenth in his class, Phi Beta Kappa, with a Ford Foundation scholarship to study sociology in the fall at Harvard. He spoke of becoming an Episcopalian minister or returning to Williams to teach, and two years earlier, he had impressed Isaac Asimov, one of the most famous writers in his stepfather’s circle, as “a very charming and intelligent young man.”

Joe planned to drive out to meet his fiancée in Chicago, where he was scheduled to take summer classes at Northwestern. After his mother—Joseph Winter’s older sister—made him breakfast, he set off in his 1950 Plymouth sedan. Peg was still grieving for her brother, but she took comfort in her son, whose graduation she had attended. Campbell wrote to a friend: “It was a very good thing for Peg; part of her world might be gone, but another part was doing mighty well.”

It was a clear, bright morning, and Joe made decent time on the road. Five hours after his departure, around noon, he was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, passing through the small town of New Baltimore. He was driving at the legal limit of seventy miles per hour. Directly ahead of him, moving slightly more slowly, was a trailer truck loaded with twenty tons of slag, the glassy waste material left over after metal has been smelted from its ore.

Joe plowed into it at high speed. The truck bed cleared the hood of the Plymouth and smashed into the windshield, leaving him with just enough time to take his left hand from the steering wheel and fling it in front of his face. His skull was crushed, but his only other injuries were a broken arm and some scrapes and bruises—if he had thrown himself down onto the passenger seat, he might have lived. No skid marks were left on the pavement, indicating that he had never even hit the brakes.

The accident occurred near the Carmelite monastery of St. John the Baptist Church, known informally as the Church of the Turnpike, which stood overlooking the highway. A set of concrete steps led down the hillside to the road, and a few of the monks hurried to help, along with a passing physician. Joe never regained consciousness, but he survived for another ten minutes, until the bleeding spread to the motor areas of his brain to stop his heart and lungs.

The day before, Joe had received a routine medical checkup—one of his classmates had been diagnosed with leukemia, prompting him to schedule an exam. A prescription for vitamins was found among his belongings, and after his doctor was notified, he called the Campbells.

When the phone rang at their ranch house in Mountainside, Peg was out shopping for groceries. On her return, she took one look at her husband’s face, which had gone gray, and knew that something had happened.

She asked what was wrong. Campbell stared at her for a long moment. “You’ve really had it, kid. Better sit down first.”

Peg’s mind immediately went to the unimaginable. “What? Not Joe? An accident?”

Campbell told her as bluntly as he could. “Killed instantly on the Turnpike. He hit a truck.”

“No,” Peg said. Her first, disbelieving instinct was to deny it. “It can’t be—”

Through his own shock, Campbell had been thinking of how to break the news, and he deliberately delivered it as a flat statement. By giving it to Peg directly, he hoped to push her into denial, which he compared to a slippage mechanism—like the clutch in an automobile—that could prevent greater damage. In a letter recounting the day’s events, he compared its effects to those of science fiction itself: “It lets you consider the problem before the problem hits you.”

Later that afternoon, a doctor gave Peg a sedative. Campbell recalled: “It didn’t make Peg sleepy, but sort of slightly euphoric. . . . It made everything seem much less important.” But the loss of her son, coming so soon after her brother’s death, was a test of everything that she and her husband believed. For the last four years, Campbell and Peg had spent hours every night discussing the nature of consciousness, including how it dealt with suffering, and their response to these two tragedies would determine how valid their conclusions really were.

Campbell hadn’t always been on the best of terms with his stepson, in part because of the unusual circumstances of his second marriage. In 1949, L. Ron Hubbard, who had been one of the most reliable contributors to Astounding, approached the editor with the theory of the mind that eventually became known as dianetics. Hubbard claimed that his treatment, which was based on a form of talk therapy called auditing, turned psychology for the first time into an exact science.

Dianetics appealed strongly to Campbell, and he became Hubbard’s greatest supporter, serving as the editor—and uncredited coauthor—of the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health and promoting it enthusiastically in Astounding. He wanted to involve a doctor as well, so he contacted Joseph Winter, a Michigan endocrinologist who had written for the magazine. They were joined later by Winter’s sister Peg Kearney, who had recently separated from her husband.

Campbell’s own marriage had just collapsed, largely because of his involvement with Hubbard, leaving him at the age of forty with two young daughters. Peg became his auditing partner, and after their divorces were finalized, they were married in 1951. Shortly afterward, they broke from the movement, along with Winter. Hubbard went on to found the Church of Scientology, while the Campbells continued their work in private, engaging in intense nightly sessions that led them to believe that they were close to understanding the fundamentals of thought itself.

It also led to a complicated situation with Peg’s two teenage children, whose father died soon after their mother’s remarriage. At times, Campbell and Joe clashed, but there had been occasional signs of affection. Two years before the accident, in a collection of his stories, Campbell had written:

“This is 1953. My son will graduate in 1955. The period of his peak earning power should be when he’s about forty to sixty—about 1970, say, to 1990. With the progress being made in understanding of health and physical vigor, it’s apt to run beyond 2000 A.D., however.”

*   *   *

And now it was over. As Campbell wrote to his father on the day after Joe’s death: “And that was the end of that chapter.”

After the accident, Peg spent much of her time with her daughter Jane, who had been a student at Wellesley with Joe’s fiancée. The worst moment was when her son’s personal effects arrived from Bedford, Pennsylvania, including his steel watchband, which had been twisted and crushed. Campbell wrote: “It threw Peg; she hadn’t worked her way through as yet. It did not throw me; it fitted into a completed visualization I already had worked out.”

But Campbell had been through an ordeal of his own. For three days, he obsessively relived the crash, as if he had been the one who had died: “The experience ran through from driving along the highway, through the truck coming in the windshield, the emotional shock of realization, the physical shock of the impact—and back to the driving along the highway.” He became nervous in his own car: “I was afraid to make the familiar drive down to the railroad station, because I now knew that some hitherto unsuspected danger was lurking.”

And the more he thought about the accident, the harder it seemed to understand. The official explanation was that Joe had dozed off, but Campbell refused to believe it. While packing the night before, Joe had mentioned the risk of becoming tired on a long drive, and he had slept for eight hours. The Plymouth had been checked prior to the trip, and after the crash, his stepson’s heart had kept beating, which implied that he hadn’t been incapacitated at the wheel. Campbell also doubted that he had been negligent. Joe had been the manager of his college football team and a crusading editor at the school paper, neither of which pointed to habitual carelessness.

The unavoidable conclusion was that the crash had been caused by some external factor, and within a day of the accident, Campbell became convinced of what it was. Joe had been killed by highway hypnosis—a waking trance produced by the act of driving itself. The sound of the wheels, the drone of the engine, and the monotony of the landscape had all created the conditions for disaster.

As soon as Campbell arrived at this explanation, his fear of driving disappeared—but it led to a deeper crisis of conscience. In figuring out the problem of highway hypnosis, he had drawn on information that had been available to him long before the accident: “I didn’t get data from Joe’s crash, and work it out from that—I got data from other sources, and fitted Joe’s crash into that data. I had all the necessary data. . . . And I had not used that data, and those processes, to warn Joe before he started. It is perfectly true that I could have done so.”

Campbell concluded: “I could have warned Joe. I could have saved his life. The fact that I did work out the problem proved that I could have weeks before.” And he decided that he would never be at peace until he was able to say calmly to himself: “I am guilty of Joe’s death.”

It wasn’t a rational statement, but it also pointed the way forward. He would take his revenge on the unseen danger that had killed his stepson, personifying it like the villain in one of his old stories: “I am, as you see, seeking vengeance against the killer that got Joe. This can do me no good; Joe’s dead. But the motivation of vengeance leads me to seek to destroy highway hypnosis.”

He had been preparing for this fight for his entire career. Science fiction, he believed, prepared its readers to survive in a world of constant change, and Joe’s death was the ultimate test case—a deadly confrontation between man and machine. Since he had failed to save his stepson, his atonement would take the form of a campaign of revenge, for which he began seeking allies immediately: “Joe Kearney did not live a futile life; I intend that he shall not have died a futile death. I am not powerless, and I intend to use that power to the best of my ability.”

Campbell seized onto his new cause—“I’m trying to rally the tribe to go on the warpath to avenge Joe’s death”—and reached out for help from all sides, including the county legislature, the highway department, the big three auto companies, and his own professional contacts, including the author Will Jenkins, who wrote as Murray Leinster. He was more skeptical of the medical establishment: “A psychologist knows as much about hypnosis as a dog knows about digestion and enzyme chemistry. . . . I’ll have to solve the damn problem myself.”

And he pointedly failed to approach his best author, Robert A. Heinlein, whose interest in psychology, engineering, and politics would have made him a valuable resource. Eleven months earlier, on May 26, 1954, they had clashed at the editor’s house—it was their first meeting in years—when Campbell awkwardly tried to recruit Heinlein into his work on the human mind. Heinlein had been confused and annoyed, writing to their mutual friend G. Harry Stine: “I wish John would just let it be an ordinary friendship without insisting that his friends be his disciples.”

The two of them would never entirely reconcile, and in Heinlein’s absence, Campbell was left to figure out a plan of action on his own. Highway hypnosis was an established phenomenon, but it remained largely unknown to the public, and he decided that his first order of business was to publicize it. He worked hard on a feature for Astounding, hoping to mobilize his most important team—his authors and readers. When the article, “Design Flaw,” appeared in October 1955, Asimov thought that it was the most powerful piece that Campbell had ever written.

In a twist worthy of one of his own stories, Campbell argued that highway hypnosis disproportionately affected people of high intelligence—the greater one’s ability to focus, the higher the risk of falling into a trance, which meant that it killed “the Good Joes.” To overcome it, psychology had to submit to the harsh discipline of engineering: “No real solution to the problem can be achieved until the basic mechanisms of the mind involved are elucidated. . . . We do not care in the slightest who solves it—whether it’s a psychologist, an information theory expert, or an African witch doctor; the sole consideration is that it must be solved.”

He had rarely allowed himself to appear so vulnerable in the magazine, and after the article’s publication, letters poured in with possible fixes. Campbell welcomed the discussion, but he cautioned readers against missing the big picture: “The pragmatic, trial-and-error approach to a solution is necessary—but must not be allowed to make a fundamental attack on ‘What is hypnosis?’ unnecessary.” He had known all along that the project would require the synthesis of countless disciplines, and he now began to suspect that a systematic assault on the nature of thought itself would be needed before work could even begin.

And then, slowly but inevitably, he started to back away. Six weeks after the accident, Campbell wrote to his friend Dwight Wayne Batteau, a professor at Harvard and Tufts: “I’ve sort of slowed down on the anti-hypnosis campaign, for a reason. There is no point in trying to get Somebody To Do Something, until you have some idea of what to do that will be effective. As of now, so little is known about hypnosis that efforts to Do Something would be purely trial and error.” The questions involved seemed almost unfathomable: “Define ‘reality’ so that we can distinguish between ‘reality,’ ‘hallucination,’ ‘delusion,’ and ‘illusion.’ That involves a fundamental attack on the problem of the nature of the process ‘to think.’”

He had dreamed big, but it had gotten away from him—and the fact that he walked back his intentions so quickly testified to both his strengths and his limitations. Few men ever aimed so high, but Campbell was constitutionally unable to decide on a single strategy, and his program was so ambitious that it grew unmanageable. He shared this flaw with Hubbard, who constantly undercut himself with his grandiose claims, and it made for a notable contrast with Heinlein, who had the political experience to work on an issue singlemindedly for months.

It was typical of Campbell that he became distracted from his campaign of vengeance almost at once. He lacked the patience to be a true scientist, and any obstacles in the real world tended to discourage him, leading him to abruptly drop projects in favor of the next tempting possibility. Joe’s death was too painful for him to abandon it entirely, but it was too complicated for him to tackle on his own, and he didn’t trust existing institutions. The answer, he decided, was a network of amateurs that he could point in the right direction, and he finally channeled these impulses along lines that would leave highway hypnosis behind forever.

At the end of the year, Campbell announced a new direction for Astounding. Until then, its treatment of psychic powers had been restricted to fiction, but now the magazine would run nonfiction articles on what the editor called psionics—the study of paranormal phenomena using the tools of science and engineering. From there, he thought, it was only a short step to “the basic mechanisms of the mind,” which, in turn, would illuminate the causes of his stepson’s death. It was a turning point in the history of the genre, and although Joe Kearney was never mentioned again, he provided its unspoken motivation, haunting it to the end like a ghost.

*   *   *

The term “psionics” had first appeared in a story by Jack Williamson in 1950, but Campbell’s interest in the subject went back for decades. As a college student at Duke, he had volunteered in the lab of the parapsychologist Dr. Joseph Rhine, where he underwent runs with Zener cards, and telepathy had long been a stock plot device in science fiction, in which it enabled communication with aliens. In the thirties, as the editor of the fantasy magazine Unknown, Campbell had written of the brain: “Is it so strange a thing that this unknown mass should have some unguessed power by which to feel and see beyond, directly, meeting mind to mind in telepathy, sensing direct the truth of things by clairvoyance?”

In later years, he claimed that he had regarded these speculations as mere “fun,” but they became an important object of study in dianetics, with Hubbard writing in Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health: “Exhaustive tests were made on telepathy and ESP and in every case an explanation was found which did not need to go into mind reading or radar sight.” Campbell viewed such powers as a source of objective data about the mind, and his second wife Peg was completely supportive. Her Aunt Virginia was a psychic who had once predicted that she would remarry and that her first husband would die, both of which came true within two years.

At first, Campbell had discussed their work only in his letters. He wrote to the author Eric Frank Russell: “Peg and I...have the basic understanding of what the psionic functions are. . . . I know the general concept of teleportation, levitation, and a few other spontaneous psi phenomena—also telekinesis, etc. In addition, I know the general basic laws which can permit precognition.” As his confidence increased, he grew more forthcoming, and at the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago in 1952, he had dropped hints about his interest in psionics to “various authors and key fans.”

Shortly afterward, in “Unwise Knowledge,” which marked the earliest appearance of the word in his editorials, Campbell argued that science fiction had an advantage over other approaches in the study of psionics, which would only introduce noise into conventional experiments. But he also wanted to present it in a form that his readers would accept. As he wrote to Russell: “Until I can demonstrate the phenomena myself, and communicate the exact nature of the mechanisms involved, with demonstrations of each step, I’m not ready to talk.”

Campbell also confided his plans to his father, John W. Campbell, Sr., who was living in Sarasota: “Watch what happens, in the next ten years, with respect to the ESP field. My boys are going to take it over and run it.” His “boys” included a lawyer, an insurance broker, a reporter, and a patent attorney, all of whom were working with him to explore the commercial applications of psionics: “We’re in the research business now; we’ll be in something else within two years.”

The project, which he planned to call Serendipity Inc., had arisen from an unexpected source. Gerald Smith, the head of Street & Smith, the publisher that owned Astounding, had left the firm after a long battle with cancer, and Arthur Z. Gray, his successor, was surprisingly open to unconventional ideas. Not only did he encourage Campbell’s interest in psionics, but he introduced him to prospective business partners, and in 1954, he told him about a man named Welsford Parker.

Parker was an inventor in Belleville, Ontario who had spent two decades working on what he described as a gold-finding machine. Its most significant test had occurred a few years earlier, when the treasure hunter Mel Chappell hired Parker to use his equipment on Oak Island, the speck of land off Nova Scotia rumored since the nineteenth century to be the site of a pirate hoard. The expedition failed, and Chappell lost more than thirty thousand dollars.

In the spring of 1954, Campbell and Gray traveled to Belleville to conduct an investigation of their own. Campbell examined Parker’s machine, which was a box with dials on the outside, various “condensers, vacuum tubes, electrical wiring, batteries,” and a pair of rods that were held by the operator. When the desired minerals—or even a photograph of where they might be found—were brought nearby, the rods were allegedly drawn in that direction.

Campbell was convinced: “Parker is not a fool; he’s a brilliant pragmatic experimenter. He has stumbled onto a new, basic principle of the universe.” The editor theorized that the machine tapped into an “urge field” present in all human beings, and that the operator was the real detector. Its best commercial application, he thought, would be as a substitute for radio. All they had to do was build one device that could detect another, which he optimistically estimated could be done within two years.

He was also willing to put his own money on the line. Gray’s investment group had sunk $150,000 into various avenues of research, and Campbell invested as well, buying ten thousand shares of stock in the Parker Universal Contact Co., Ltd. He wanted to become rich, not just for the obvious reasons, but as proof of his legitimacy. Campbell had spent most of his career earning just sixteen thousand dollars a year, and he wrote to his sister: “[A] larger-scale crackpot has to be a millionaire to be a genius, and I’ll be a millionaire.”

The Parker Machine felt like the breakthrough that he had been seeking, but its inventor proved to be strangely uncooperative with his backers. Campbell made a second trip to Belleville, where he alienated Parker by pushing him to define his terms, and the scheme petered out to nothing. It evidently never occurred to Campbell that he was feeling the same frustration that he had inspired in Heinlein, or that a man who could spend decades working on such a device might not be the sort to work well with others—and he would run into this problem again.

In 1955, soon after the tragic deaths of Joseph Winter and Joe Kearney, which made his work on the mind seem even more urgent, Campbell received a more promising lead from Colonel Henry Gross, a member of a group in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that hoped to sell psionic machines. Gross alerted him to the work of Galen Hieronymus, a former engineer for the Kansas City power company who lived in Hollywood, Florida. Hieronymus had developed what sounded at first like another mineral detector, but unlike Parker, he had actually patented it.

Without contacting the inventor, Campbell assembled the device for himself. It took the form of a flat box with a pickup coil on one end, a knob in the middle, and a plastic touchplate sandwiched over a spiral of copper wire. According to the instructions, you placed a mineral sample—Campbell used a chunk of lead—near the coil. You then turned the knob, which rotated a prism, while stroking the touchplate with your free hand. When the prism aligned with the radiation that the sample was allegedly emitting, the touchplate was supposed to feel sticky.

After Campbell was finished, he called in his youngest daughter Leslyn, who was ten years old. The girls were used to helping him out with his electronics projects, and this one seemed like more of the same. “You stroke this plastic gimmick here. Tune it till the plastic feels different.”

“Feels different?” Leslyn asked her father. “What do you mean? Different how?”

“Well, that’s for you to tell me,” Campbell replied. “Maybe it’ll feel furry, like a kitten, all of a sudden, or maybe it will feel as though it turned into a bowl, instead of being flat. But you tune it and tell me.”

Leslyn did as instructed. After a minute, she said, “It feels sort of like tar. If I pushed on it, my fingers would get stuck.”

Campbell was delighted. He called Hieronymus in Florida, and the two men cooked up another experiment. Like Parker, Hieronymus claimed that the machine worked on photographs, and that it could be used to kill pests from a distance. Campbell sent him a snapshot of a cherry tree, along with a twig with a few leaves, and was amazed by the result: “All the tent caterpillars dropped out of it, dead, within three days, precisely as he predicted.” Years later, he described it to the author Poul Anderson as the moment that he truly began to take psionics seriously: “I got shown.”

He decided to proceed, inviting Hieronymus to New York to meet Gray and writing an elaborate tease in the magazine. Several months earlier, a letter from a reader had proposed an article on homemade psionic equipment, generating enormous interest. Campbell responded with an editorial, “The Science of Psionics,” in which he repeatedly stated that he would print such material only if fans demanded it, although he also framed it in terms that were impossible to resist: “There are psionic machines that have produced incredible results.”

It was unthinkable that his audience would refuse, and Campbell prepared for publication, even as he privately ventured into weirder territory. Hieronymus revealed that the machine ceased to work during nuclear tests, which intrigued Campbell, but the strangest discovery of all was one that the editor had made on his own—the machine functioned even when unplugged. This led to a series of experiments of which he obscurely wrote: “I have a Campbell Machine, derived from the Hieronymus Machine, that works, too. Only it’s based on something so insane that it makes the Hieronymus Machine look as conventional as a shovel.”

But he wasn’t ready to reveal this yet. Instead, he continued to invite writers to try the Hieronymus Machine, showing it to E.E. Smith, Randall Garrett, and even Asimov, who was perhaps the author least likely to be receptive to it. Campbell had written to him earlier: “My greatest difficulty—the thing that’s holding me back terrifically—is my inability to give up logical thinking.” Asimov, who took considerable pride in his rationality, could hardly have been comfortable with this.

On March 28, 1956, Asimov delivered his novel The Naked Sun to Campbell’s house, where he was asked to test the machine. He would have refused, but he felt obliged to humor the editor, although he later admitted: “I no longer trusted the rigidity and integrity of his judgment.”

Asimov twisted the knob but failed to feel any sticky sensation. After a while, however, his fingertips became sweaty. He said hesitantly: “Mr. Campbell, the plate feels slippery.”

“Aha!” Campbell made a note of the reading on the dial. “Negative stickiness!”

In the June 1956 issue, Campbell described the Hieronymus Machine in detail, saying that he hoped to publish similar pieces in the future: “The articles we run are going to be exceedingly unauthoritative, untrustworthy, incoherent, and misinterpreted.” He drew the line, however, at extrasensory perception, which was too subjective to be tested. A device like the Hieronymus Machine, by contrast, could be studied by anyone, with the magazine serving as a clearinghouse of information.

The following year, in the February issue, he unveiled the Campbell Machine, which he had been secretly developing even before the first article appeared. It was a “symbolic” Hieronymus Machine that used no electronic parts whatsoever, aside from a meaningless switch and a pilot light on the outside of the box. In place of the remaining components, Campbell drew a circuit diagram with ink, made a “touchplate” out of a piece of paper, and linked all the pieces together with nylon thread from Peg’s sewing basket. And it still worked.

Campbell concluded that it was the relationship between the parts that mattered, not the mechanism itself, and he was pleased by how insane this sounded. Yet he never conducted obvious tests on either version, and he resisted calls to do so, insisting that he was just an amateur: “I am not compelled to defend my hunches, or perform any experiments you think I should perform.” It was exactly the attitude that had infuriated him in Parker, and his growing hostility toward orthodox science would undermine any attempts to seriously investigate the subject.

Many were skeptical. When a fan asked Campbell if the Hieronymus Machine was a hoax, like Asimov’s stories about the fictional compound thiotimoline, the editor seemed horrified by the implication. There were inquiries from Bell Aircraft and the Rand Corporation, and the mathematician Claude Shannon offered to test it, although the plans fell through. Campbell soon moved on to other causes, and Hieronymus himself felt that the editor had set back acceptance of his work by a century. The symbolic machine, he said, functioned because the ink conducted lines of force, but when it came to serious research, it wasn’t worth “a tinker’s damn.”

*   *   *

For many fans, the magazine’s sudden descent into psionics had been inexplicable, but its underlying motivation was the death of Joe Kearney, whom Campbell never mentioned again in print after 1955. He had told his friend Wayne Batteau that solving the problem of highway hypnosis required a frontal attack on what it meant “to think,” and psionics had been a way to define the project and sell it to his core audience. In the editorial “We Must Study Psi,” which was published in January 1959, he laid out his reasoning as clearly as he ever would:

“Psi phenomena exist at the same level that emotion, desire, and want do. . . . If that’s the case, then in studying the psi phenomena, you’re studying the level which men, today, hold to be the ultimate level of privacy—Subjective Reality. An understanding of the laws of this level would make it possible to manipulate desire, change attitudes, control emotions. . . . We must study psi, because it is the only objectively observable set of phenomena stemming from subjective forces. . . .The psi phenomena represent subjective phenomena that can be observed objectively.”

*   *   *

In “Design Flaw,” Campbell had argued that the solution to highway hypnosis lay in “a solid engineering job,” and psionics was his attempt to frame the project in terms that he thought would appeal to his readers, prompting them to collect data that would illuminate the unexplored aspects of consciousness that had resulted in Joe’s accident. The editor had once held out similar hopes for dianetics, but now his motives were far more personal. He had been unable to avenge his stepson directly, so he would overthrow all of physics and psychology instead.

If he proved unable to stick with it for long, this only reflected a pattern that had been evident throughout his life. In his article on Joe’s death, Campbell had claimed that some people had “an acquired immunity” to highway hypnosis, but he didn’t mention that he included himself in that category, or that he attributed it to the hell of his youth. On the day after the crash, he had written a long letter to his father, explaining why he was impervious to hypnotic trances. The drivers who were the most at risk, he wrote, were the ones who were good at concentrating, and Campbell was “not just intellectually afraid of it—deeply and effectively afraid.”

He placed the responsibility for this squarely on his parents: “You and Mother so disagreed that I had a hell of a time trying to satisfy the requirements which both of you placed on me; doing so was inherently impossible, and it was damned uncomfortable. But you did give me a life-long immunity to highway hypnosis!” His childhood had taught him to survive, but at a devastating cost: “You and Mother between you gave me immunity to many things that neither one of you could have; either of you could have crippled me. . . . At the time, of course, I felt a vast injustice; I do not forgive you, because that’s a useless and arrogant thing.”

If his upbringing had protected him from the invisible menace that had killed his stepson, it also prevented him from defeating it. Campbell told his father: “You made it impossible for me to be a physicist; I had to be a philosopher. You made it impossible for me to build my house on the solid rock, so I’ve learned how to sink piles into quicksand and build a stable house on that.” This restlessness was central to his impact on science fiction, but it also kept him from becoming the man he desperately wanted to be, and in pursuing his elusive dream of a great discovery that would emerge from the magazine’s pages, he was all too ready to sacrifice everything else—his family, his friendships, even science itself.

Campbell never solved the problem of highway hypnosis or proved the existence of psionic powers, but he never ceased to believe in the importance of his work, which was a conviction that he had held from the beginning. In the April 1938 issue of Astounding, just a few months after becoming its editor, he had published a letter under a pen name that amounted to a declaration of principles that he would follow for decades. Mankind, Campbell wrote, had to figure out how to live and to think in an environment of constant change, and the stakes were unimaginably high:

“Man molded the machine, but the machine is going to mold Man. Men once learned the wisdom and agility to escape saber-tooth tigers and cave-bears. Now, by the same evolutionary laws, he’s darned well got to learn to escape cruising machines. And he’s got to learn to control machines, or be smashed up.”


Alec Nevala-Lee’s book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction will be published by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, on October 23, 2018. Excerpts of letters by John W. Campbell, Jr. are reprinted with permission of AC Projects, Inc., 7111 Sweetgum Road, Fairview, TN, 37062.

Copyright © 2018 Alec Nevala-Lee

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