Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Review: The Collected Editorials of John W Campbell

The Collected Editorials of John W Campbell edited by Damon Knight (1966)

John W Campbell Jr was one of, if not the, major players in turning science fiction from just another pulp genre into a major branch of fantasy fiction.  When he started editing Astounding Science Fiction magazine (later Analog: Science Fiction/Science Fact), science fiction was very much a "gee whiz" sort of reading, but under Campbell's direction and his careful cultivation of a stable of writers, he moulded the genre into something more mature, or at least, more competent.

One part of Campbell's method was to generate new ideas for writers to work on and part on this generation was Campbell's editorials where he would deliberately make outrageous and provocative statements in order to stimulate debate.  Campbell had great fun showing that black was white, up was down and then defying his readers (and prospective writers) to rise to the bait. The only problem was that Campbell was also a man of very strong and often eccentric opinions and it in reading his editorials it's hard to tell what is rhetoric and what is Campbell's real opinion.

These editorials from the late '50s and early '60s are a valuable collection of fascinating writing that would have otherwise have been restricted to the browning pages of pulp magazines.  In here we see Campbell's worship of science combined with his paradoxical suspicion that science was dominated by blinkered fogies who refused to see any new discovery until they were bludgeoned over the head with it.   There's some wonderful arguing going on here, but bear in mind this is also a man who firmly believed in psionics, anti-gravity and various quack cures and thought it was only hide-bound conservatism that kept them from respectability.  He's also the man who helped launched Dianetics, though he distanced himself from it once it became too mad, and championed the Dean Drive until it proved an obvious failure.

Take along a large grain of salt and give this one a look in.

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