Reading this collection won’t make your life better; on Facebook I compared it to eating a whole box of bon-bons, if said bon-bons were not in fact candy but deceptively-shaped pieces of dog-shit. What it will do is give you a pretty good idea what sort of person John W. Campbell, Jr. was — terrible — and if you’re an SF fan that matters because Mr. Campbell, he was influential within the world of science fiction. Very influential.
John W. Campbell, Jr. (1910 – 1970), loved by fans and writers enough to have not one but two awards named after him, began his career in SF as an author but he is best known for having been the editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog Science Fiction and Fact) from the late 1930s until his death. Each issue had an editorial from Campbell, putting forth his views in a forthright and forceful manner.
In the mid-1960s, Harry Harrison put together a collection of Campbell’s essays, essays he describes as “idiosyncratic, personal, prejudiced, far-reaching, annoying, and sabotaging”. He was assisted in this by Dr. Leon E. Stover, Kingsley Amis, Brian W. Aldiss, Poul Anderson, James Blish, and Tom Boardman, Jr.
ALL CAPS signals section titles. Italic signals editorial titles.
Introduction (Harry Harrison):
Early on, Harrison makes a point of drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that ASF could count among its fans SS-Sturmbannfhrer Von Braun. I’d like to think that’s because Von Braun was by the 1960s part of the US space effort, having been paper-clipped to the US, but the nature of these essays is such that one cannot be sure Harrison isn’t just playing to Analog’s readership by pointing out high-ranking Nazis liked ASF too.
I couldn’t help but notice that while the word “best” appears in this introduction, it isn’t in reference to these editorials but the authors who appeared in ASF.
ASF cannot be dismissed as just another science fiction magazine. As regards its fictional content the history is very clear — the best of all the modern writers were developed in its pages, and the appearance of their stories in this magazine marked the change from pulp fiction to modern fiction.
He does credit that to JWC but it is amusing Harrison worked in a way to collectively praise a set of authors Harrison himself belonged to. It’s all part of the tradition of mutual handies SF authors love to give each other in the absence of wider recognition. I think it is also a signal to those in the know that what Harrison and company are aiming for here isn’t the best ASF editorials but the most provocative.
SHAKING THE FOUNDATIONS
The Lesson of Thalidomide (1963):
Campbell fulminates at length about how Frances Oldham Kelsey denied Americans the opportunity to have its own population of babies without arms and/or legs thanks to the effects of thalidomide. Campbell is convinced that Kelsey could have had no reasonable reason to refuse to allow thalidomide sales in the US (he is either deluded or outright lying); he seems particularly angry that she got this right. He uses this to springboard into a rant whose moral seems to be that since any possible testing regime could miss side-effects that only manifest under conditions outside those of the tests, it’s pointless to insist that drugs be tested for safety. Also, people die exploring frontiers so dead people equal exploration?
You can get a good idea of the strength of Campbell’s grasp on modern science with this little bon mot:
Inasmuch as we now have pretty good indication that genetic information is carried as a chemical code on protein molecules, it’s conceivable that a substance might be discovered which affected only the genetic cells of unborn babies.
Although I lean towards the idea a good chunk of this essay is Campbell intentionally libeling Kelsey, it is true he was also very much behind the times where biological science was concerned. His ignorance does not stop him from presenting his opinions as though they came from God itself.
Campbell comes out in favour of segregated schools. He does put in some effort to disguise why he wants schools segregated by pointing out how some schools stream students of different academic potential and the downside of letting the dullards mix with the poor geniuses but the trained observer can from time to time detect a subtle subtext:
The Caucasian race has produced super-high-geniuses by the dozen in the last five thousand years; the Oriental race has, also. The Negro race has not.
which is that JWC was a big old racist.
As much as Campbell hated black people, it seems to have been as nothing to his loathing for poor people from the Appalachians. The idea that the government could in some way help such people fills him with a sputtering rage. People are poor because that’s their nature, and they make the world around them worse
It isn’t slums that make slum-dwellers; slum-dwellers are a type of people who, when they move into an area, make slums.
Helping them is clearly pointless.
I feel like I am missing context here. Googling suggests that Campbell was reacting to the Appalachian Regional Commission. Still, when I think of people from the Appalachians I think of people who look a lot like me (in fact, I do have relatives in that region) but Campbell’s fulminations and the fact he says
You can’t teach those people anything useful, so it would be useless to import some Scottish farmers, men accustomed to farming barren, treeless hillsides, with soil leached of practically all plant nutrient by the nearly ceaseless rains, with a growing season shortened by the fact that they’re as far north as Hudson’s Bay— and men not accustomed to whining about their hard lot.
suggests he doesn’t think of the people in the region as being of Scottish origin. Was there a substantial black population in Appalachia?
Breakthrough in Psychology! (1965):
So, you know how Heinlein used to work in little lectures about how kids need regular beatings to keep them on the straight and narrow? Campbell agrees but takes it farther, believing whole classes of people will only behave if forced to. This starts off being about juvenile delinquents and Campbell would really like readers to think that is what he is talking about. As seems to happen so often in these essays, Campbell makes it clear who he is really mad at.
Ninety per cent of the Thoughtless Liberals’ excuses for the JD, and for the arrogant defiance of law by many of the Negro “Civil Rights” groups […]
And the fact that he holds up the Jews and the Chinese as examples of how oppressed minorities should act underlines that this is really about race.
It’s kind of interesting to flip through this book to find material that could come right out of the pro-police brutality side in places like Ferguson. I guess the heart-warming lesson here is while the US may change superficially, its essential heart remains the same.
THE DESTINY OF MAN
Arithmetic and Empire (1943):
Campbell runs some numbers and comes to the conclusion that if the galaxy is filled with habitable planets, the numbers involved are large enough conventional modes of government would not suffice to allow a unitary government to control it in any meaningful way.
Note for Chemists (1952):
Campbell suggests that chemists should harness the chemical production potential of living tissues more than they did in 1952.
Space for Industry (1960):
Harrison said in his introduction
Veteran readers of the magazine will look in vain for at least two topics that have been associated with the pages of ASF; the machine known as the Dean Drive, and that rather eccentric theory of mental aberration, Dianetics. This is not wilful censorship on my part, but has been dictated by the material. John W. Campbell never wrote an editorial advocating either of these discoveries.
This essay is all about how to exploit space given “some form of true space-drive”. Campbell comes to the conclusion that Mars and Venus, as understood in 1960, were less promising than the asteroid belt.
Looking at the dates, I would be amazed if this essay and the desire to flog stories to JWC was not a contributing factor in the stories in Poul Anderson’s Tales of the Flying Mountains, swaths of which read as though Anderson was cribbing directly from “Space for Industry”.
THE WONDER OF SCIENCE
No Copying Allowed (1948):
Campbell suggests that there are limits on reverse engineering, illustrating it with a thought experiment in which scientists from the not-so-distant past are confronted with atomic-age devices.
I think this essay may have been in the back of Dean McLaughlin’s mind when he wrote 1968’s “Hawk Among the Doves”.
“Our Catalogue Number …” (1953):
Modern catalogs offer devices that would have seemed fantastic a couple of generations ago.
The Scientist 1953:
A rambling discussion about the nature of science.
(The moral seems to be Campbell needed more coffee that day but he also had to hit a deadline)
Relatively Absolute (1954):
Campbell proposes that the modern world can thank Islam for science, although he grants the Christians and Jews had some talent for science once the basic principles were shown to them. He suggests that science emerged and prospered where and when it did due to monotheism, which he feels is more pre-adapted to the mindset needed to science than polytheism.
I have to say I was genuinely surprised by his favourable view of Islam but rather less surprised by this section, towards the end:
Want to have some fun with the relativity formulas? Try taking some different units, and see what happens to them! The relativity formulas involve a lot of higher power terms— squares,cubes, and higher. If you take your unit of velocity not as centimeters per second, but as c, then all the higherpower terms of c reduce to 1.00, no matter what the power is. Then the v terms all become fractional, and higher powers of fractions are smaller values than the original fraction, whereas higher powers of quantities greater than 1.000 are increased by self-multiplication. By picking the right set of self ‑consistent units, you can make the most marvelous hash out of the relativity formulas— without altering the formulas an iota!
And if we’ve got a relativistic universe, with no absolutes in it, then I can play deuces- wild with the units. You start being relativistic, and I’ll relativistic you right out of business! I’ll make as much of a mess out of your science as the humanic scientists have made out of theirs. All I need is the right to make my choice of units purely a matter of personal preference!
“I Know What You Say…” (1957):
After some spurious word-play, Campbell convinces himself that
Soviet Russia has, in all the action-doing particulars, an almost pure Capitalistic system … while the Capitalistic United States has an almost pure Socialistic economy!
OK, Sputnik, but also conservatives never saw an enemy of America that they didn’t think could beat the US.
Research is Antisocial (1958):
This seems to be a plea to consider unconventional ideas in research, one I suspect is driven by Campbell’s fondness for medical crankery.
PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF
The Value of Panic (1956):
This starts off talking about panic as a survival mechanism and then launches into a heart-felt defense of crank medicine. Campbell bitterly resents how sick people are denied the opportunity to provide themselves as test subjects for unconventional treatments, even in those cases when conventional medicine offers no hope.
He offers this touching illustration:
But there are other problems. There was an old doctor in Upper Michigan, years ago, who had his own mystic salve for wounds. (Not cancer.) Some weird gunk of his own. The local medical society tried several times to make him shut up practice, but didn’t succeed. The salve was analyzed at the University of Michigan and rated worthless. People liked his salve, and claimed it helped on ulcerated sores. The medical society objected strongly, back in the ’20s and ’30s, because it was perfectly ordinary salve, except for some highly unsterile, foul-smelling mold he put in it.
By all that was then known, putting a mold in a wound salve was not only nonsense— it was unsanitary, and wrong. How were the doctors then to guess that the old boy had, somehow, accidentally stumbled on some high-potency antibiotic producer? Understandably, they were intensely irked that the old fool with his crazy salve was so well-regarded by patients who didn’t know any better. To the best of their sincere and honest judgment, the salve was, or should be, a menace to the health of the patients. It contained nothing beneficial, to the best of their knowledge, and did contain something that was very probably— to their best knowledge— decidedly unsterile. They would have been dishonest if they had not maintained that, in their best judgment, the salve was a menace. Certainly no honest doctor, in his right mind, in 1930 would have suggested to his patient that smearing a blue-green bread mold on his wound would stop the ulcerative infection!
It just happened to be true.
You know what would make this tale seem even truer? A name for the old doctor. I cannot fathom how that detail was left out.
“Fully Identified . . ” (1964):
Campbell defends Krebiozen by suggesting that the active ingredient might be present in levels too low for conventional science to detect.
Louis Pasteur, Medical Quack (1964):
Another essay in defense of crank medicine — I had no realized how big a part of Campbell’s interests crank medicine way — that wends its way through examples of researchers who were ultimately vindicated to Hoxsey, who wasn’t vindicated but who at least offered hope to people conventional medicine could not. This ends in a suggestion that quacks be licensed and the results of their methods closely tracked in case they are actually on to something.
This is one of the root sources of the “FDA regulations kill millions of Americans a year” stuff, isn’t it?
“The Laws of Things” (1965):
Freud meant well but his acolytes are using an outdated model.
(Around this point my will to continue began to be seriously opposed by my will to spoon my own eye out if it would get me out of reading more of this crap)
“You Know What I Mean . . ” (1953):
Programming computers to carry out tasks will demonstrate that humans do not know as much about how humans do certain things as they think they do.
Limitation on Logic (1954):
Some complex cases may be too complicated to work out using pure logic so let’s make up a new word.
AN ORIGINAL POINT OF VIEW
The Demeaned Viewpoint (1955):
A defense of intolerance, which turns into a defense of what we would call profiling. Of course it does.
A Matter of Degree (1957):
Maybe feedback applies to whole societies!
On The Selective Breeding of Human Beings (1961):
Campbell points out artificial selection could apply to humans given enough time before launching into speculations about how humans might have selected for specific traits in their own young. This — of course! — works its way round to suggesting the Great Work of shaping humanity is not done and that in the name of that Great Work certain types must be prevented from passing on their genes.
I guess if anyone would be familiar with bold initiatives aimed at deliberately truncating specific lineages, it would be a Campbell.
Astrologer— Astronomer— Astro-Engineer (1962):
Maybe old time superstitions had a seed of truth in them!
This seems to be a defense of one John Nelson, Communications Engineer, who appears to have worked for RCA. Googling that name isn’t leading me good places; is anyone here more familiar with his work than I am? He appears to have claimed to be able to predict solar flares from planetary positions.
Hydrogen Isn’t Cultural (1963):
Campbell suggests that the language of DNA is the way it is because that is the only way natural law allows it to be.
The part of this that caught my eye was:
Technically, under international agreement, there is no such element as “tungsten” any more— but the metal they use for incandescent lamp filaments maintains the same characteristic of phenomenally high melting point, whether it be called “tungsten” or “wolfram.”
Anyone care to explain this? Was there some epic battle over what to call this element that I missed because I was too young? And did this have anything to do with Poul Anderson’s essay “Wolfram”?
POLITICS‑A NEW LOOK
Constitution for Utopia (1961):
Campbell waxes nostalgic for the good old days when voters were means-tested. Those poors ruin everything!
After musing about the various forms colonialism can take, Campbell comes to the conclusion that whenever colonialism has produced results certain parlour pinks weak sisters might call “bad” or “oppressive” or even “Spectacularly genocidal”, which specific dismal outcome the colonized suffer is down to the specific way the colonized people are inferior to the colonizers.
Campbell fulminates against the arrogance of Westerners trying to inflict culturally inappropriate institutions on America’s Vietnamese allies when a good, firm boot on the neck is obviously far more comfortable for the less culturally evolved Asian types.
A FINAL EXAMINATION
We Must Study Psi (1959):
This delivers exactly what it promises on the tin: Campbell believes PSI IS TOO REAL AND HE TOTALLY HAS ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT THAT!
I suggest that Subjective Reality bears the same relationship to Objective reality that field-forces do to matter. Field forces are not material; they obey wildly different laws— but they do obey laws.
I suggest that Subjective Reality is a true, inherent level of reality in the Universe. It’s no more something exclusively generated by human minds than “organic” chemical compounds were exclusively generated by living organisms. For all men knew, as little as one hundred fifty years ago, the ability to perceive light was a subjective mystery; no known inorganic system had the ability.
And America must study this new field but just for its own sake but because
As of now, Russia’s got us licked at the level of science and logic. We’re ahead by reason of progress we made earlier, but our rate of acceleration has dropped way down, while theirs is rising.
I bet there were Politburo insiders who didn’t have a quarter the faith in the Red way of life as American conservatives did.
Non-Escape Literature (1959):
Science fiction is awesome! And totally not the literature of choice for gullible, self-deluding saps!
Even if they do go on thinking we’re kidding when we talk about antigravity, faster-than-light interstellar travel, and some other things we don’t have yet.
Or … at least we don’t have them yet publicly. But two friends of mine, both professional, recognized scientists, have separately, and circumstantially, reported watching a demonstration of an antigravity device that worked.
“An antigravity device that worked” would likely be that Dean Drive for which Harrison said readers would look in vain. Well, I guess Campbell never mentions it by name.…
Where Did Everybody Go? (1963):
Campbell uses the then recent revelation that Venus is a hell world to launch in to a speculation that perhaps humans have been mislead by the entirely atypical Earth-moon system. Without a twin planet to strip the atmosphere away, maybe terrestrial planets of any size have dense atmospheres, which has all kinds of implications for life and alien civilizations.
Huh. Is this the earliest use by an SF person that big moons are needed for habitable worlds? Is this where Niven (who, yes, was a Galaxy writer or would be in a few years) go the idea or were Campbell and Niven drawing on a common source?
God Isn’t Democratic (1964):
Yeah, I am just going to cut to the money shot:
Perhaps there is no God after all.
But there is One Universe, and its laws are absolute, unswerving, unyielding, and enforced on us without argument.
The danger to a nation, to a people, is in the idea that the Will of the People can legislate away the necessity for discipline, the necessity of recognizing there are greater and more important things, than human wishes.
Only weaklings and self-deluders refuse to push the little girl out the airlock! Although I don’t really know why prayer in class in particular was important to Campbell.
In the normal run of things — the old run of things, pre-interwebs — I would have had to stumble over a moldering hardcover from the single print-run this collection got but this is the future and copies are to be had from the Internet Archive.
Note: This is not a Because My Tears Are Delicious to You review because I didn’t encounter Analog until years after Campbell was dead. His editorials were never part of my teenaged years. Go me for being born when I was!