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
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
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, "Campbell'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
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
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
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
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
Much of SF's nature as an ongoing dialogue arose from this unprecedented
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
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
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,
"Campbell 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,
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
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
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
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
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. "Campbell, 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.
James. Correspondence with the author, Sept. 28 - Oct. 4, 2011.
Review of Spring 2011 Fantasy Commentator.
Inside Science Fiction, Scarecrow Press, 2006.
Campbell Award (for best new writer) acceptance speech, Medium.com, August 2019.
Backup Speech," Medium.com, October 2018.
Searles, A. Langley; and
Moskowitz, Sam. Fantasy Commentator, Spring 2011, Numbers 59-60.
Solstein, Eric. "Text Supplement to the DVD,"
Campbell's Golden Age of Science Fiction, Digital Media Zone Productions, 2002.
Campbell Memorial Award (for best
Campbell Award for Best New Writer page
Campbell Award winners
Campbell Award finalists
Campbell Award trophy
Campbell Award history article by Harry
Harrison and Sam J. Lundwall