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Guest Editorial

John and Me

by Stanley Schmidt

Most people familiar with the history of science fiction probably agree that John W. Campbell, as editor of this magazine between 1937 and sometime in the 1940s (then called Astounding), was the most influential single figure in the field’s development. Most also agree that after about 1950, the magazine no longer dominated the field so completely as it had in the Forties.

There’s considerably less agreement about why that happened and what it meant.

I was forcefully reminded of this at Worldcon 76, the World Science Fiction Convention held in 2018 in San Jose, California. I appeared on a panel called “The Astounding John W. Campbell, Jr.” moderated by Alec Nevala-Lee, a writer well-known to Analog readers, who was about to publish the first in-depth biography of Campbell.1 It’s an impressive, intriguing, important book, and it inspired a lively, well-attended panel.

Sitting next to me on it was Robert Silverberg, an extremely important and prolific writer for whom I’ve long had a lot of respect. Bob wrote an astounding number of stories for Astounding in the Fifties, under his own name and pseudonyms, but, like several other important contributors, stopped doing so when he became disenchanted with Campbell over philosophical differences. On our panel he described Campbell’s last five years as a “sorry period” in which the magazine was written mostly by authors who couldn’t sell elsewhere and were being used by Campbell as mouthpieces for his (frequently fringe) views. That, Bob said (and I think I’m paraphrasing pretty accurately) had become John’s main interest, instead of getting good stories as he’d done earlier.

As I listened, I was startled to realize how sharply my view of those last years differed from Bob’s—and I could easily have been a bit insulted. As one of the last writers discovered and cultivated by Campbell, I was one of those writers who was writing only for Analog, but it wasn’t because I couldn’t sell anywhere else. It was because, after familiarizing myself with all the magazines being published, I found that Analog was the one I most wanted to appear in. So I sent everything there first. Campbell bought a lot of it, and what he didn’t want, nobody else did either—sometimes for good reason, sometimes simply because the right match didn’t exist then but did later.

When I told Bob that John never tried to get me to push his views, but did teach me more about storytelling in his first half dozen rejection letters and a couple of long conversations than all the English classes I’d ever had put together, he seemed surprised. “Maybe you were already pushing his views,” he suggested. But I wasn’t pushing any views at all; I was just trying to tell good, thought-provoking stories. I suppose Bob was right, in a limited way, that I agreed with John in some ways, such as a preference for stories about characters making a creditable effort to solve their problems rather than just bemoaning how terrible they were. But I certainly didn’t agree with him on everything. I found his racial views disturbing (though it was enlightening to analyze exactly why), his announcement that he was voting for George Wallace shocking, and we could hardly have been farther apart on the Vietnam War.

So why did Bob and I have such different views of those last few years? Part of it, I think, was that we were looking at the situation from very different viewpoints. Since views similar to Bob’s have become so prevalent that a lot of people have come to regard them as How Things Were, I think I should describe my experience to restore a bit of lost perspective.

Robert Silverberg in the late Sixties and early Seventies was an old pro who had soured on Campbell and become more interested in other types of stories being favored by other markets. Since he had come to believe Astounding was in a “sorry period” and was no longer writing for it, I suspect he wasn’t reading it much either, and so wasn’t as familiar as he had been with either what it was actually publishing or how Campbell was working with writers.

I, on the other hand, was a very new writer with a strong interest in writing the kinds of stories that had made Astounding famous and gave it its later name, Analog: stories that explored possible futures with careful attention to both storytelling and its scientific underpinnings, whether extrapolation of well-established science or exploration of the possible consequences of new kinds of science that might or might not be discovered in the future. Astounding/Analog seemed to me to still have more interest in those than any of the other magazines. Other important ones had come into being around 1950, notably Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction (often just called F&SF). While I found stories that strongly interested me in all of them, I found significantly more of them in Astounding, so I was naturally drawn to trying to make my own contributions there. And, unlike Silverberg, I did not have any prior personal relationship with Campbell to lament the loss of.

I can understand how that affected his view, and that of other writers who drifted away from Campbell and Astounding. Several of them, including Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, were alienated by Campbell’s interest in “pseudoscientific” ideas like dianetics, psionics, and the Dean machine (a device that gave some indication of being a possibly superior alternative to propulsion systems like rockets, but didn’t pan out)2, and some disturbingly racist social attitudes.

Personally, having had no face-to-face knowledge of the man until I’d already been selling to him for a couple of years, I never felt that I actually knew what he believed. I had the strong impression (reinforced by Harry Harrison’s introduction to a Doubleday collection of his editorials) that he was willing to propound and defend almost any viewpoint (usually one different from either the conventional wisdom or its opposite) to provoke a good argument and force people to think about what they believed—and why. This can be a very effective technique, which I later used in some of my own editorials. Some of his proposals, like the one for a system of “licensed quacks” in medicine, are still worth considering.

His prevailing attitude that nature (or science) imposes fundamental limits on what people can reasonably believe or do, regardless of what they’d like to believe or do, urgently needs to be relearned by a great many people (including some very influential ones) right now. When he wrote about the advantages of slavery for the enslaved, I assumed he was simply doing what he had done so effectively so often before: adopting an unpopular and uncomfortable position to force people to clarify their own thinking about why they disagreed with it. (Though he did cross a line with me when he capped off an intriguing line of reasoning about “political entropy” by using it to justify his decision to vote for George Wallace and urge others to do the same, which I thought was a terrible idea.)

I now suspect, after talking to more people who knew him better and reading Alec’s book (based on more digging into first sources than I’ve done) that Campbell actually believed more of what he wrote than I realized. But that doesn’t change the facts that his primary interest remained, to the end, in getting well-crafted, entertaining stories that recognized that everything humans do is subject to scientific law and that we can use that fact to our advantage—and that he remained very good at it.

The assertion that the magazine was written mostly by people who couldn’t sell elsewhere and were mere spokesmen for John’s gospel is hard to reconcile with the fact that the magazine in that period was full of important and memorable stories by writers like Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, and Anne McCaffrey, as well as continuing to introduce new writers.

To illustrate how he worked with writers (and how he didn’t) I offer my own experience as an example—not necessarily the best example, but certainly the one I’m most familiar with, and arguably one of some historical interest since it also influenced how I worked with writers for 34 years. Initially, I was writing in a vacuum. I had never met a writer, editor, or anyone else professionally connected with science fiction; I didn’t know about SF conventions. My first submissions to this magazine, in high school, quite reasonably got only printed rejection slips.3

When I was in graduate school, something changed. After a few years when the demands of school kept me from writing much, I had learned enough about both science and fiction to approach the task with new insight, and found a way to squeeze some writing time in among all the other things I had to do. I set myself two conscious goals: to produce at least one short story or novelette every month, and to sell at least one, preferably to Campbell, within a year.

As it happened, I sold three, but not immediately. The first submission of my new campaign elicited, after a long wait, my first non-printed rejection letter, which began, with typically Campbellian gruffness, “Dear Mr. Schmidt: This isn’t a story, actually…” It went on to explain that it was an “essay in fictional form,” a “story” about the inventor of a particular type of faster-than-light travel trying to get somebody to take the idea and run with it. It was a good, original idea, inspired by analogy with something I heard Richard Feynman say about potential barrier tunneling and bearing certain similarities to the tachyons Gerald Feinberg proposed a little later, and Campbell liked it and the way I developed the surprising consequences of my initial assumptions. When he was starting out as a writer, he said, he and others could get away with that kind of a plot, but now readers demanded more. I needed a situation in which my drive played a key role in what happened, but was not in itself the star of the show.

I was so new to the game that I puzzled long and hard over whether his two-page single-spaced letter was telling me to try again or to go away and quit bothering him. I finally hit on a brilliant idea: why not ask him? So I did, in a letter, to which he promptly replied, “Of course I want to see more from you! Why else would I have sent you that long analytical letter?”

So I wrote an entirely new story, a novelette in which that drive was in use and led to a conflict with an alien civilization. He liked that one better, but complained that it reached its resolution too easily; I needed a climax that felt like a climax, and arose logically from what went before. Thus I learned that fixing a story with a weak ending doesn’t just mean fixing the ending, but fixing the whole thing so that a strong ending emerges organically from the whole. When I did that, he bought it.

Meanwhile, oddly, he bought another that hadn’t existed at all when I submitted that one. In those days he was taking much longer to respond to “slush” (unscreened unsolicited manuscripts) than “pros” (writers whose work he knew was likely to interest him). Unbeknownst to me, once he’d taken a serious interest in one of my submissions, he’d promoted me from one category to the other. Where my first submission waited two or three months for a response, I started hearing back about later ones in a couple of weeks. One of those involved a holographic vision system, which in my first attempt I gave to a little boy as a neurological abnormality.

John said, “You’ve got a lovely idea in this, but the wrong plot for it.” He correctly pointed out that the type of wiring needed for such a system was just too incompatible with the way the human nervous system is built. But he had inside knowledge of research being done at MIT to develop a Mars rover robot, and suggested that building such a robot with the kind of vision system I suggested could have interesting consequences. He didn’t say what consequences, but simply challenged me to explore the possibility. I did so, in a story having nothing in common with the first one except the basic concept—and that one he bought with no changes whatsoever.

There were several examples like that, and eventually there were personal contacts, few but memorable. The summer after my first year as a physics professor, I made a sizable road trip to the northeast and wondered if that might be a chance to meet Campbell face-to-face. Having read accounts by other writers (e.g., Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison) of their audiences with him, I wondered whether he might grant me one too. I wrote ahead to ask, and he said he always liked kicking ideas around with authors and I should come ahead.

I thought maybe he’d give me twenty minutes, with the attitude that I’d better have something interesting to say. Instead I got three hours of his undivided attention, during which he took me to lunch and we kicked around all manner of ideas, some mine, some his. I was a little apprehensive because I remembered Harry Harrison’s comment, in his introduction to that editorial collection, that a Campbell writer’s conference had been likened to “being fed through a buzz saw or a man-sized meat grinder.” I went in resolved not to be intimidated, and I never felt that I was. To me it seemed more like the intellectual equivalent of a good gymnastic workout.

The idea we spent the most time on was one I’d brought with me and was almost afraid to mention because it seemed so far short of even half-baked. It concerned a future in which humans had decided to forsake space travel and channel all their resources into “solving problems here on Earth” (as many were advocating then), and thereby forever thrown away their chance at a much-needed escape into space. I was frustrated because I’d been led to believe (by others) that John always demanded upbeat endings and I couldn’t see a way to get one. “That’s because you can’t,” he said. “This story only works if the situation is completely hopeless.” So I went home and wrote the story the way I’d thought I had to all along, and he rushed it into print faster than anything else I ever sold Analog.

On subsequent visits to New York I had one long telephone conversation with him, and another long visit, this one at his home in Mountainside, New Jersey. Both were comparably stimulating, even exhilarating, and I came away from them with both new thoughts about how to develop ideas I already had, and new ideas that interested me enough to want to work on them. I’ve written some of those, and passed at least one on to other writers when I was editing. But I want to point out some important things about how John worked with me, which seem to contrast sharply with what Bob thought he was doing then:

1. He always seemed interested in my ideas. Sometimes he suggested ways I might do more with them than I’d thought of, but he never tried to get me to forget them and do his instead.

2. He often tossed out ideas that he thought could lead to good stories that I might be interested in writing, and often I agreed with him and was interested in writing them. But those ideas were things like applying the holographic vision system to a Mars rover robot, or humans meeting an all-biological civilization. He never told me how to turn them into stories, and he never tried to get me to write propaganda pieces for his social or political views.

3. He never attacked my stories with an oversized blue pencil and rewrote them to make me sound like him. If something bothered him about a story, he never told me how to fix it, but simply explained what bothered him and challenged me to come up with a remedy that we both liked at least as well. That seemed to me an excellent technique, which I stole shamelessly to use in my own editing. By making me come up with my own solutions to problems, he let me create a story that in the end was truly mine, not his under my byline—and forced me to learn more about writing, which would help me in the future.

4. In our personal meetings, the way we worked together was very much like James Gunn’s video Lunch with John W. Campbell, a video showing an actual, unscripted, unrehearsed working lunch in which John, Gordon R. Dickson, and Harry Harrison kick around ideas that eventually turned into Gordy and Harry’s collaborative novel Lifeboat.

It seems to me that what really happened after the “Golden Age” was not that Astounding deteriorated, as it has become fashionable to believe in some circles, but rather that the field opened up and became more diverse. In the “Golden Age” most people considered Astounding the clear leader of the field because it had no competitors with anything close to its standards. Galaxy, F&SF, and to a lesser extent a few other magazines had editors who were just as demanding but had different tastes, leading toward other flavors of stories, with less emphasis on scientific speculation and more on psychology, sociology, and literary experimentation. Naturally there were also readers with different ranges of tastes, and when they found new high-quality options that better matched those tastes, of course they gravitated there. Nor is it surprising that, like most humans, many of them in all categories tended to think their preferences were “best,” and to disparage the others. But it’s ridiculous to claim, as some did, that Astounding/Analog had become “unreadable,” when circulation figures clearly and unequivocally showed that more people were reading it than any of its competitors.

*   *   *

As for what kind of editing John was doing in his last years, my experience indicates that he was still doing the kinds of things he was famous for, and still doing them very well. It’s unfortunate that some of his personal idiosyncrasies drove away some of his best writers, but that’s a separate question from the quality of his work. Maybe I was fortunate that I didn’t know him personally before I started writing for him, or I might have found it harder, too—though I hope I wouldn’t have let my disagreements with him, even on big issues, make me reject him entirely as a person. I did disagree with his editorials more often in those years than I had earlier, but as far as I knew he was just doing the professional argument-baiting he had always done. Even if I had known that he really held beliefs that I found highly objectionable, I doubt that I would have found that adequate reason to sever all contact with him and his work. A lot of people hold misguided beliefs, but my experience, I think, is a good example of how it’s possible to work productively with somebody, and respect some of his qualities, even while sharply disagreeing with some of his views. Maybe that’s a lesson that a whole lot of people need to relearn about now.

 

Footnotes:

1   Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

2   But note carefully that in at least most such cases he was not saying that these things were scientific facts, but rather that there appeared to be something there that deserved but wasn’t getting serious scientific study to determine its validity and possible implications. This is a valid and important point, though as a scientist myself I also appreciate the necessity for professional scientists to make choices about what to study—and how to get funding.

3   Ironically, years later, when I was editing, at least one indignant and inexperienced writer protested, “John Campbell wouldn’t have sent me that printed rejection slip!” To which I had to reply, “John Campbell wrote that printed rejection slip, and sent me quite a few before he sent me anything else.”

 

 

Stanley Schmidt (PhD, Physics) was the editor of Analog for a long time (34 years!) and enjoys writing for it just as much now as he did before he became editor in 1978. His recent contributions include the serialized novel Night Ride and Sunrise (now available from FoxAcre Press), and stories, articles, and guest editorials of various shapes and sizes. A small selection of Dr. Schmidt’s many accolades and accomplishments inlcude the Hugo Award for Best Editor, Short Form, the SFWA Solstice Award, and the Robert A. Heinlein Award given for outstanding published works in science fiction and technical writings that inspire the human exploration of space. When not reading Analog just for fun, Dr. Schmidt can be found hiking, traveling, and playing various sorts of music. Find more information about Stanley Schmidt on his website: https://sfwa.org/members/stanleyschmidt.

 

Copyright © 2019 Stanley Schmidt

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