September 11, 2016

Slice of PIE: John W. Campbell, Jr. & Me

Using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City in August 2016 (to which I was invited and had a friend pay my membership! [Thanks, Paul!] but was unable to go (until I retire from education)), I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. This is event #1240. The link is provided below…

The Legacy of John W. Campbell, Jr.
As author, he wrote the story that inspired The Thing. As editor he wrote the rules for an entire genre. But Campbell also has connections to dianetics, the investigation of psychic phenomena and antigravity devices. An understanding of his life and career may help us make sense of the genre today. Joe Haldeman, Sheila Williams, James Bryant

I was fourteen when John W. Campbell, Jr. died. He wouldn’t have known me from a wall, and likely wouldn’t have given me the time of day had I asked him directly. But his influence on my life has lasted some 46 years…

I started reading ANALOG, as near as I can tell, with the September 1970 issue and, ironically, by reading Stanley Schmidt’s “Lost Newton”. I was thirteen and for the next couple of years, without knowing that I was reading the work of a man who would abruptly pass away in the near future, I read dozens of stories of the far future. I read the magazine for the next…well, nearly a half century and counting!

The hook was set, and I read ANALOG from then to the present. Because of Campbell’s unwitting introduction to the genre, I started sending stories to ANALOG when I was sixteen…and got rejections from the editors of ANALOG…until (note the “ironically” above? Here’s the irony:) in early 1996, I sold my first story to the editor of the magazine. His name was Stanley Schmidt. I was 39 and a middle school teacher. When my wife called and read me the brief note saying he accepted “Absolute Limits”, a Probability Zero-length story, I wept. I wrote three more PZs, a short story published in 2004, and in my immediate future, another short story that will not only be in the January/February 2017 issue, but will also have a two-page illustration! A first for me.

I am a part of the train of readers and eventually writers whom John W. Campbell, Jr. carried from the dawn of the space age.

I was born in May of 1957, a few months before Russian Sputnik started orbiting Earth; I read my first science fiction when I was in 6th grade (so 11 years old when I started, 12 when I was done in 1969); then Humanity landed on the Moon on July 21 that same year. A year later, I started to read ANALOG.

This would have been a great discussion. Campbell’s fascination with the non-science fiction aside – or perhaps because of – made him a huge figure in the science fiction world. He’s credited with “discovering” and nurturing men whose influence is still felt in the field: “Lester del Rey, A. E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon…Campbell had a strong formative influence on Asimov and eventually became a friend.” While his increasingly exotic interests – psi, dianetics, and his views on the “place” of blacks in American society – alienated him from not only mainstream society but also much of the science fiction community in his last years, it is undeniable that he left a profound mark on the field.

From 1969 through 1971, I was oblivious to the politics in science fiction. Initially, ANALOG entered my life only through our public library. Because of his push, I still prefer hard science fiction to every other shade of the field; and while he had a powerful interest in fantasy, I read only novel-length in that genre, and ONLY at the direction of my daughter! I write almost exclusively SF, though I confess I dabble in fantasy now and then.

Ultimately, the mark John W. Campbell, Jr. left on me through the writers he worked with and the direction he sent ANALOG is both undeniable and upon startled reflection, most likely to be permanent.

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