John W. Campbell
The Man Who Inspired Two Awards

Authors and scholars Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss established the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best science fiction novel of the year as a way of continuing Campbell's efforts to encourage writers to produce their best possible work: "to carry on and expand the tradition that Campbell had started, that of assuring the literary growth and development of science fiction." Campbell, who edited Astounding Science Fiction magazine, now named Analog from 1937 until his death in 1971, is called by many writers and scholars the father of modern science fiction, as it guided the evolution of SF during our Golden Age. Toiday he is seen as a deeply problematic figure in SF's history, and his powerful influence on the genre still resonates today in ongoing debates about how his attitudes and editorial perspective has negatively influenced the SF community even today.

In 1977, Harrison wrote this about the award's inception:

"When John died it was a blow to all of us. After the memorial service a number of his writers were talking, and out of the talk came the Astounding anthology, what has been called the last issue of the Campbell magazine. It was a good tribute to a good editor. There is another tribute I think of just as highly, the award for the best SF novel of the year presented in his name and memory. An award I am sure he would have loved because it instantly became involved in controversy when the first prizes was presented. How John enjoyed a good argument and a good fight! That this fight sprawled through the letter columns of Analog for some months would have cheered him even more."

What follows is an article originally published in Argentus 11 (pdf), November 2011. By Christopher McKitterick.

John W. Campbell:
 The Man Who Invented Modern Fantasy and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

    illustration by Frank Kelly Freas

John W. Campbell was born on June 8 in 1910 - fifteen years after H.G. Wells published The Time Machine, 16 years before Hugo Gernsback began using the term "Scientifiction" for the genre with the April 1926 issue of Amazing Stories, 19 years before the new Science Wonder Stories introduced the modern term "science fiction," and 28 years before he took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction - perfect timing to change the world of literature.

A tall, barrel-chested man, Campbell was often described as "hawk-featured" in part because of his prominent nose and piercing features. He wore engineer's glasses and kept his hair short and bristly, and he almost always held a cigarette in a long holder. He was universally considered to fill a room - not just physically, but with his vibrant presence - whenever he entered, demanding everyone's attention even before he spoke; when he began to talk, conversation shifted to the topics he tossed to his audience and continued long after he left.

Malcolm J. Edwards writes, "More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern SF"; Isaac Asimov says Campbell "was the most powerful force in science fiction ever, and for the first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely"; and Barry Malzberg says, "'s strength was this: he was the best editor. He was the best editor, in this country, in this century. That's his strength. No one was better."

Here's a short look at the man who forever changed speculative fiction.

The young author

When Campbell was growing up, the works of A. Merritt, Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, and Wells were well-known; Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan and Barsoom books enjoyed wide popularity; and authors such as Edmund Hamilton, E.E. "Doc" Smith, and Jack Williamson were busy inventing Space Opera. The son of an electrical engineer, Campbell earned a B.S. in Physics from Duke University (after being dismissed by MIT), so perhaps it's not surprising that he, too, would begin writing space adventures - which he did starting at age 18. In his early work, supermen could warp space using mental powers in order to travel faster than light between the stars in their mighty spaceships and engage in adventures bristling with super-science. He became a well-known author even before graduating college, with his first story appearing in the January 1930 issue of Amazing Stories, and he wrote prolifically until turning his vast energies largely to editing in 1937.

Today, much of Campbell's most-respected works are those he authored in 1934 and 1935 under the pseudonym Don A. Stewart, a light anagram of his first wife's maiden name (Dona Stewart): "Twilight," "The Machine," and "The Invaders." One of his last stories, "Who Goes There?" might be his best-known, with screen adaptations in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, 1982 as Carpenter's The Thing, and 2011 as another The Thing - this time a prequel.

Campbell mostly ceased writing fiction about the time he began his editing career, though some might argue that many of his editorials share more with the supernatural than the fiction he bought and published in the pages of Astounding or Unknown (more on that in a moment). Campbell felt he could have a greater influence on the development of the fledgling genre by mentoring authors than by writing his own fiction; in a sense, his authors served as multipliers of his own ideas and hopes and dreams.

From 1936 - 1937, Astounding published Campbell's 18-part series, The Solar System, "one of the first ventures of a science fiction writer into the realm of straightforward science," according to Isaac Asimov, inspiring other SF authors to do the same - including Asimov, himself, a decade later in the same magazine.

In all, he published more than 20 short stories plus more than 20 novels, anthologies, and nonfiction books, mostly under his own name, not counting the hundreds of editorial pieces that saw print later. His own evolution as author signifies the evolution he was about to harbor in the science fiction and fantasy genres.

At the helm of Astounding Science Fiction

As editor of Astounding Science Fiction (formerly Astounding Stories of Super Science, which Campbell renamed when he gained full control in March 1938), Campbell's influence on SF is without peer. He singlehandedly transformed the core of the genre from pulpy adventures of super-science to what we now call the Golden Age of SF, during which the focus shifted from the invention or idea to the person affected by these things, never forgetting the reader's need for a good story. Campbell launched the SF careers of such authors as Isaac Asimov, Hal Clement, Lester Del Rey, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and A.E. Van Vogt. Asimov credits Campbell with (at least) co-creating the "Laws of Robotics" integral to Asimov's robot stories and novels. He nurtured the careers of these authors and many others whose works we still enjoy today and which define the Golden Age, including Alfred Bester, Leigh Brackett, Fredric Brown, L. Sprague de Camp, James Gunn, L. Ron Hubbard, Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, Murray Leinster, C.L. Moore, Frederik Pohl, Clifford Simak, Jack Williamson, and countless others until his influence began to decline in the 1960s.

One cannot overstate the influence that Campbell - through these authors and the forum that was Astounding - had on the development of the SF genre and literature in general. The all-important SFnal concept of "sense of wonder" glowed from the pages of Astounding, encouraging readers to believe in a future that might be glorious or dangerous but was always intellectually gripping and often awe-inspiring.

Campbell also encouraged his authors to work within a consensus future and coined the term "future history" in February 1941, a name Heinlein adopted for his series of short stories and novels, charted in the March issue that year.

In February 1960, Campbell finally changed the name of Astounding Science Fiction (he had intended to eliminate the word "astounding" all along, but others pre-empted his preferred, simple title of Science Fiction) to Analog Science Fact/Science Fiction. He continued to edit the renamed magazine until his death on July 11, 1971. One of Campbell's authors, Ben Bova, took over Analog a year later.

To his authors he provided a venue to tell the kinds of humanistic stories they wanted to write but previously had no place to publish, while engaging with them via endless correspondence and regular one-on-one meetings in his office. In an interview for the John W. Campbell's Golden Age of Science Fiction documentary, Frederik Pohl describes Campbell's methods: "When John Campbell wrote an editorial, on the first of the month he would think of an idea - what the subject matter was to be, and then he would discuss it with everybody who came into his office for that month. And at the end of 30 days, he had heard every argument that could be advanced against it and found responses for most of them - so he just sat down and wrote the editorial."

Campbell's devil's-advocate nature and prolific idea-generation spawned countless stories in response, some countering his often appalling concepts (such as when he famously posed an argument for slavery) and others flourishing into visions unique to each author. In another interview for the Campbell documentary, Bova says, "His editorials, his crotchets, his challenges - I think they were all attempts to stir people to write stories that he could publish... he would argue you deaf, dumb, and blind until you generated a story. And a lot of those stories were generated to disprove what John was saying."

Harry Harrison sums up his experience thus: "He took your ideas and bounced them back as mirror images, or warped images. In the Lunch With John Campbell [film by Gunn] you can see it on camera. That we were creating something there, and he was creating - it was a tripartite thing, all three of us working together. Maybe Gordie and I were going to write the book later on, but his input was so vital that it would've been a different novel if he hadn't done it."

Much of SF's nature as an ongoing dialogue arose from this unprecedented interactivity.

Into the Unknown

In 1939, Campbell created another magazine for Astounding's publisher, Street & Smith: Unknown (later called Unknown Worlds), which shared a number of authors and artists. Campbell wanted to transform fantasy into a more mature genre much as he hoped to do with SF. Notable authors whose work appeared in the pages of Unknown include L. Sprague de Camp, H.L. Gold, L. Ron Hubbard, Fritz Leiber, Fletcher Pratt, Eric Frank Russell, Theodore Sturgeon, and Jack Williamson.

December 1939 saw publication of de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall, an alternate history that later grew into the important novel of the same name; in 1939, Campbell also published Leiber's first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story; and the following year he published Williamson's novelette, "Darker Than You Think," which also later grew into a notable novel. Many consider Unknown to remain the greatest fantasy magazine of all time, and as with Astounding nearly every issue sent shockwaves through the genre that generated new ideas and approaches much the way stars and planets form from similar shocks traveling through interstellar gas and dust.

Campbell's vision for a new type of fantasy was one in which the supernatural elements were treated rigorously and whose plot developed logically from the premise. Thus Unknown attracted SF authors such as de Camp and Pratt, who devised a system of magic based on mathematical logic, a concept that appealed to Campbell and his readers. As he did with Astounding, Campbell demanded that his Unknown authors write thoughtful stories of character rather than the dark horror that mostly comprised fantasy in such earlier magazines as Weird Tales.

Unknown was cancelled in 1943 due to wartime paper shortages - Street & Smith forced Campbell to choose between making Astounding a bimonthly or killing the fantasy magazine. Even though it perished after only four years, Unknown's influence can still be felt today, as it ushered in modern fantasy.

Alienating his authors - and much of SF

In his autobiography, Asimov called Campbell "talkative, opinionated, quicksilver-minded, overbearing. Talking to him meant listening to a monologue. Some writers could not endure it and avoided him, but he reminded me of my father, so I was perfectly willing to listen to him indefinitely... Campbell's decline was accelerated by his own quirks of character. He enjoyed dabbling with the fringes of science, slipping over the edge into pseudoscience. He seemed to take seriously such things as extrasensory perception... and even more foolish items called the "Dean Drive" and the "Hieronymus machine." Most of all, he championed "dianetics" [starting with an Astounding article in May 1950], a kind of offbeat mental treatment invented by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard."

Though "Asimov was Campbell's creation," according to Hugo-winning Asimov biographer James Gunn, this is when he finally began to split from Campbell, along with many other authors important to Astounding's earlier success and influence.

James Blish quantifies Campbell's drift toward the supernatural thus: "Astounding Science Fiction continues to center on the editor's preoccupation with extrasensory powers and perceptions ('psi')... 113 pages of the total content of the January and February 1957 issues of this magazine are devoted to psi, and 172 to non-psi material."

However, "by February 1953," Gunn points out in a review of Campbell's previously unpublished letters in the final issues of Fantasy Commentator, " had become disenchanted [with Dianetics]. He explained his earlier belief in Hubbard's methods because of the way Hubbard had restored himself from a psychological wreck in 1935 to a confident, sparkling person four years later." Even so, the die was cast.

None of this should be surprising when considering Campbell's enthusiasm for Van Vogt's superhumans and L. Ron Hubbard's later work - especially Dianetics - not to mention Campbell's own early writings. Ironically it is Campbell's influence and collaborative-writing editing style that conspired to push away many of his authors, including two of his most important: Asimov and Heinlein. If he had simply been an editor with a keen eye toward good fiction rather than opinionated and mentor-ish, we might have seen Astounding remain much as it had been before. But of course it would never have become the giant it was without Campbell's qualities in the first place.

The 1950s saw a further decline in Campbell's influence on SF with the appearance of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1949 and Galaxy in 1950. In his collection, Inside Science Fiction, James Gunn writes, "In the 1950s, then, three different but equal definitions of SF - Campbell's, Boucher's, and Gold's - battled for the minds and hearts of writers and readers." In many ways, Gold's Galaxy was a 1950s version of Astounding at its most humane, much as Boucher's F&SF was Astounding at its most literary.

The revolution against King Campbell reached its crescendo when Michael Moorcock took over the helm of the British magazine New Worlds, ushering in the New Wave of SF whose practitioners sought to overthrow all that Campbell - and Gernsback before him - had built. Ellison's 1967 Dangerous Visions anthology carried the revolution to US shores. And during this period of decline, one by one most of the other SF magazines that had sprouted and blossomed during the genre's Golden Age faded and disappeared.

The Golden Age, glorious as it was, had passed into history.

The king is dead... but with us still today

Even so, Campbell's influence on the genre continues to this day, and not just with the ongoing success of Astounding/Analog and ongoing love for Astounding-era fiction. Here are a few examples:

  Lunch with John W. Campbell

To see Campbell in action, check out James Gunn's film, Lunch with John W. Campbell, part of the Digital Media Zone Productions DVD, John W. Campbell's Golden Age of Science Fiction. Among many fine discussions from 20 of the genre's greatest minds is Gunn's recording of one of Campbell's famous working lunches with two of his writers, Harry Harrison and Gordon Dickson, in 1971, showing them develop an idea that later grew into the 1977 novel, Lifeboat.

  John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best SF Novel

At the 1972 Nebula Award ceremony, Harry Harrison, Gordon Dickson, and James Gunn discussed an appropriate memorial for Campbell. Gunn "half seriously suggested a grab-bag of story ideas that SFWA members might contribute for needy authors," then the three settled on a juried award. Soon after, Harrison and Brian Aldiss established the award the award in Campbell's name as a way of continuing his efforts to encourage writers to produce their best possible work.

The first five jurors were Aldiss, Harrison, plus Tom Clareson, Willis McNelly, and Leon Stover. The jury has enjoyed varied membership over the years, including Kingsley Amis, Paul A. Carter, Farah Mendlesohn, Eric Rabkin, and others, always a mixture of writers and academics. The current committee is Gregory Benford, Paul Di Filippo, Sheila Finch, James Gunn, Elizabeth Anne Hull, Paul Kincaid, Christopher McKitterick, Pamela Sargent, and T.A. Shippey [note: updated jury listed on Award page].

The award was first presented at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1973. In the years following, the award was presented around the world, including in Dublin at the founding meeting for WorldSF. In 1979, Gunn created the Campbell Conference at the University of Kansas in Lawrence as a platform to present it at a regular venue. Except in a 2007 joint event with the SFRA in Kansas City during the Heinlein Centennial Celebration, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF novel of the year is presented each year at KU.

  John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

A year later, Conde Nast Publications established another award in Campbell's name, given to the best new science fiction or fantasy writer whose first professional science fiction or fantasy publication appeared in the previous two years. It is administered by the Hugo Award committee and given away during the Hugo Award ceremonies at the World SF Convention, but is not a Hugo.

Conde Nast sponsored the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer from 1973-1978, then Davis Publications sponsored it from 1979-1992, and has since been sponsored by Dell Magazines - each the successive owners of Astounding/Analog, as a way to honor of the man who built the longest-lived magazine in the genre. It has since been renamed The Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

To infinity and beyond

The complicated person who was John W. Campbell helped shape modern SF and fantasy by acting as gatekeeper to two of the most-important magazines of the 20th Century. But more than editor, Campbell was also a prolific idea machine whose authors greatly magnified what might have been a single man's work into entire genres still with us today.

In a note for his Campbell DVD, Eric Solstein writes, "Through the force of his efforts, a third-rate popular entertainment - pulp science fiction - became literature. Under his guidance, a cadre of prophets and artists defined the 20th Century, and for a brief Golden Age, showed it the way."

To get a better idea of how Campbell thought and how he interacted with some of the greatest literary minds of the last century, check out his two-volume collected letters. There's much left to learn about this complicated man and the authors who invented SF's Golden Age.

The trouble with Campbell

As important as he was for SF becoming recognized as having greater potential than "that Buck Rogers stuff" and coalescing into a mature genre, during his tenure at Astounding Campbell unfortunately also poisoned the SFnal waters. He was often insensitive in the idea-prompts he gave his writers, and in recent times has been widely exposed as damagingly problematic. When studied in the clarity of contemporary understanding of social-justice issues, Campbell appears to have caused a good deal of harm, especially because of his broad and deep influence on the genre. His stated editorial views on gender, race, authority, human rights, and other matters that SF has re-evaluated as it has grown from its insular, Anglo-American, male-dominated Campbellian era into a much more intersectional mode of examining the human condition today seem not only antiquated but deeply troubling. For example, In a 1998 essay, "Racism and Science Fiction," the award-winning author Samuel R. Delany recalled Campbell rejecting a submission of his, saying the editor didnít feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character."

With the rise of the voice of White fragility in such movements as Gamergate and the Rabid Puppies, his words and attitudes have been weaponized by those seeking to reinstate a fictional narrative of SF's history that does not reflect its diverse roots and authors, nor its cross-cultural and international influences and creative blossoming.

How might SF's evolution have gone differently if he had been editorally open to more-diverse perspectives? If he had embraced SF's subversive nature, questioning not only traditional issues but also assumptions beyond those that mattered most to White-male, Anglo-American capitalist and nationalist interests? Would the anti-Campbellian movements that followed in the form of the New Wave and feminist SF have appeared in the 1940s? Had SF spearheaded uncomfortable social-justice issues during Astounding's period of widespread influence, how might SF have evolved as a literature by now? And how might it have positively affected the wider cultural evolution beyond the SF community?

I'll leave these questions to alternate-history writers imagining other possible timelines. As with all important historical figures, Campbell had both positive and negative influences on his authors and readership.

References and further reading

Ashley, Mike, and Tymn, M.B. "Unknown," Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction Magazines, Greenwood Press, 1985.

Asimov, Isaac. I, Asimov: A Memoir, Doubleday, 1994.

Blish, James (as William Atheling, Jr.). The Issue at Hand, Advent, 1964.

Chapdelaine, Tony and Perry A; and Hay, George. The John W. Campbell Letters, Volume I, AC Projects, 1985.

Chapdelaine, Perry A. The John W. Campbell Letters, Volume II, AC Projects, 1991.

Samuel R. Delany, "Racism and Science Fiction," The New York Review of Science Fiction, August 1998.

Doctorow, Cory. "Jeannette Ng Was Right: John W. Campbell Was a Fascist," Locus, November 2019.

Edwards, Malcolm J. "Unknown," Clute & Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Orbit, 1999.

Edwards, Malcolm J. ", John W(ood) Jr."

Clute & Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Green, Joe. "Our Five Days with John W. Campbell," The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Fall 2006.

Gunn, James. Correspondence with the author, Sept. 28 - Oct. 4, 2011.

Gunn, James. Review of Spring 2011 Fantasy Commentator.

Gunn, James. Inside Science Fiction, Scarecrow Press, 2006.

Ng, Jeannette. Campbell Award (for best new writer) acceptance speech,, August 2019.
.. "Jeannette's Backup Speech,", October 2018.

Searles, A. Langley; and Moskowitz, Sam. Fantasy Commentator, Spring 2011, Numbers 59-60.

Solstein, Eric. "Text Supplement to the DVD," John W. Campbell's Golden Age of Science Fiction, Digital Media Zone Productions, 2002.


Campbell Memorial Award (for best novel) page
Campbell Award for Best New Writer page
Campbell Award winners
Campbell Award finalists
Campbell Award trophy
Campbell Conference
Campbell Award history article by Harry Harrison and Sam J. Lundwall

updated 11/27/2019