The science fiction of John W Campbell's Astounding
is very much a literature of IDEAS, and to give a flavor of this here are some
quotations from Campbell and a few of his key writers. To start with I've limited myself to
one quotation each from ten different authors, and to reflect my own interests (and those of
many of the authors in question) I've concentrated on ideas with a Fortean bent - conspiracies,
anomalies, belief systems and the paranormal.
The illustration on the left is from
Hubbard's article on Dianetics, and is copyright © 1950 Street & Smith Publications
(For a similar list of quotations by Philip K. Dick, click here)
John W Campbell
Through his editorship, Campbell shaped Astounding into a unique
phenomenon in two ways - the selection and grooming of the authors he published, and
his characteristically strong editorials. The majority of these dealt with science rather
than science fiction, and Campbell was passionately open-minded about the potential for
breakthroughs in areas such as ESP and anti-gravity. The following excerpt comes from
"Report on the Dean Drive" in the September 1960 issue.
- The trouble with the development contract concept is that it inevitably fails to
recognize that the true break-throughs are not logically predictable... and never will be.
Yet by emphasizing the real, genuine value of logically-predictable research, it makes the
inherently improbable break-through buck logical opposition, after it has successfully bucked
the opposition of the Unknown. It's the old proposition, "If the idea is so good, somebody
would have thought of it long ago - someone with proper training in that field, of course.
So there must be something wrong with your idea," but now reinforced with the added argument,
"... and if it was really good, the government would snap it up at once!" Problem for the
future: How can the break-through inventor get a hearing?
Asimov is one of the small minority of Astounding regulars whose
name is still widely known today (others are L Ron Hubbard and Robert A Heinlein). All of
Asimov's best work from the 1940s and early 50s saw its first publication in Astounding,
including the ambitious Foundation series with its ideas of psychohistory and the
development of psionic powers. The following excerpt comes from a lesser known story entitled
"Belief" (October 1953), which is one of the most Fortean of Asimov's stories. It deals with the
closed-minded arrogance of establishment scientists in the face of new ideas, which as you will
see from subsequent quotes in this section is a subject which came up again and again in the pages
- "I tell you I can levitate", shouted Roger.
Dr Morton turned red. "Look, Toomey, let's not discuss it. I don't care if you fly up in the
air right this minute."
"You mean seeing isn't believing as far as you're concerned?"
"Levitation? Of course not." The department chairman was bellowing. "If I saw you fly, I'd see an optometrist or a psychiatrist. I'd
sooner believe myself insane than that the laws of physics - " He caught himself, harumphed
loudly. "Well, as I said, let's not discuss it."
Like Asimov's "Belief", Mark Clifton's classic short story "Sense from Thought
Divide" (March 1955) deals with a clash between belief systems and new discoveries. But here, it's
not only the scientists whose beliefs are being pushed to their limits...
- "Do you realize, Swami," I asked, "that the one great drawback throughout the ages
to a full acceptance of psi is the lack of permanent evidence? It has always been evanescent,
perishable. It always rests solely upon the word of witnesses..."
I opened my lower desk drawer and pulled out a couple of the Auerbach cylinders which we had
used the night before. I laid them on top of the desk. "These cylinders," I said, "act like
photographic film. They will record, in permanent form, the psi effects you command. At last,
for all mankind the doubt will be stilled; man will at once know the truth; and you will take
you place among the immortals." I thought it was pretty good, and that, with his overweening
ego, it would surely do the trick. But the Swami was staring at the cylinders first in
fascination, then fear, then in horror. He jumped to his feet, without bothering to swirl
his robe majestically, rushed over to the door, fumbled with the knob as if he were in a
burning room, managed to get the door open, and rushed outside...
I drew a deep breath, and exhaled it audibly. My testing procedures hadn't produced the
results I'd expected, but the last one had revealed something else. The Swami believed
himself to be a fraud!
Randall Garrett was a prolific contributor to Astounding in the 1950s
(and to Analog in the 60s), often under a variety of pseudonyms. The following excerpt
comes from "Psichopath", published in the October 1960 issue under the anagrammatic alias of
Darrell T Langart. Strictly speaking this falls outside the Astounding era (it's the
first issue to bear only the Analog logo without Astounding in the background),
but it's so "on topic" that I can't resist including it!
- "The Pauli effect is a different thing entirely, a psionic effect. It used to be said
that a theoretical physicist was judged by his inability to handle research apparatus; the
clumsier he was in research, the better he was with theory. But Wolfgang Pauli was a lot
more than clumsy. Apparatus would break, topple over, go to pieces, or burn up if Pauli just
walked into the room... The only thing that can threaten the complex structure formulated by a
really creative, painstaking, mathematical physicist is experiment!"
Senator Gonzales' attentive silence was eloquent.
"Experiment!" MacHeath repeated. "That can wreck a theory
quicker and more completely than all the learned arguments of a dozen men. And every
theoretician is aware of that fact. Consciously he gladly accepts the inevitable; but his
subconscious mind will fight to keep those axioms. Even if it has to smash every
experimental device around!. After all, if nobody can experiment on your theory it can't
be proved wrong, can it?"
Robert A Heinlein
Heinlein was a regular contributor to Astounding in the early Campbell
years, with many of his best stories written under the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald. Of these,
"Goldfish Bowl" from March 1942 is the archetypal Fortean story, with various strange phenomena
linked to an aerial race of beings who may or may not consider us "property".
- "A lot of men have dreamed about an impingement of nonhuman intelligences on the
human race. Almost without exception the dream has taken one of two forms, invasion and war,
or exploration and mutual social intercourse. Both concepts postulate that nonhumans are
enough like us either to fight with us or talk to us - treat us as equals, one way or the
other. I don't believe that X is sufficiently interested in human beings to want to enslave
them, or even exterminate them. They may not even study us, even when we come under their
notice. They may lack the scientific spirit in the sense of having a monkeylike curiosity
about everything that moves. For that matter, how thoroughly do we study other life
forms? Did you ever ask your goldfish for their views on goldfish poetry or politics?"
L Ron Hubbard
Today, Hubbard's name is probably the best known on this page, despite the
fact that the numerous science fiction stories of his that Campbell published in Astounding are largely
forgotten. His non-fiction article "Dianetics" (May 1950) is a different matter entirely -
besides spawning a whole industry, it remains unique reading both for its ideas and the style
in which they are presented.
- Mind AND body. This is one of those things like a ghost. Somebody said they saw one.
They don't recall just who it was or where but they're sure -- Who said they were
separate? Where's the evidence? Everybody who has measured a mind without the body being
present please raise both his hands. Oh, yes, sure. In books. I'm talking to you but I'm not
there in the room with you right now. So mind is naturally separate from body. Only it isn't.
A man's body can leave footprints. Those are products of the body. The products of the mind
can also be viewed when the body is not there, but these are products of and the
product of the object is not the object.
Raymond F Jones
Like Asimov's "Belief", Garrett's "Psicopath" and Campbell's editorial on the
Dean Drive, Raymond F Jones' short story "Noise Level" (December 1952) deals with the problem
of making a genuine scientific breakthrough against the opposition of establishment scientists
with an entrenched paradigm. Jones' solution is to destroy the paradigm before the
breakthrough is made, opening the way to a new system of thought...
- The tape fizzled out in a long garble of buzzing planes and faulty recording. Mart
turned off the machine. That was it. The mind and work of the first man to directly conquer
gravity! With an almost physical weariness he turned to the transcript and scanned through
it. There was more, but it was astonishing how little additional information was actually
added from the memories of the original observers. Mart supposed Dunning's words were such
a shock to those military and scientific minds that they were stunned into semi-permanent
amnesia in respect to the things he said. He leaned back in the chair, summing up what he
had heard. Dunning's thesis seemed to be that much sound data had been excluded by
conventional scientists from standard theories. The dead man had believed much of this data
could be found and explained in the various realms of astrology, East Indian mysticism,
movements of sunspots, the levitation of mediums, and a host of other unorthodox areas.
H Beam Piper
The notion of traveling between parallel realities is relatively common in
science fiction, but one of the most sophisticated treatments of the idea can be found in
H Beam Piper's stories of the Paratime Police. The first of these, "Police Operation", appeared
in the July 1948 issue of Astounding, and has a strongly Fortean flavor (the story even
begins with a quotation from Charles Fort's Lo!).
- He pressed the "start" button; the headings vanished, to be replaced by page after
page of print, succeeding one another on the screen as the two men read. They told strange
and apparently disconnected stories - of unexplained fires and explosions; of people vanishing
without trace; of unaccountable disasters to aircraft. There were many stories of an epidemic
of mysterious disk-shaped objects seen in the sky, singly or in numbers. To each account was
appended one or more reference-numbers. Sometimes Tortha Karf or Verkan Vall would punch one
of these and read, on an adjoining screen, the explanatory matter referred to. Finally Tortha
Karf leaned back and lit a fresh cigarette. "Yes, indeed, Vall; very definitely we will have
to take action in the matter of the runaway nighthound of the late Gavran Sarn," he said. "I'd
forgotten that that was the time-line onto which the Ardrath expedition launched those
antigrav disks. If this extraterrestrial monstrosity turns up on the heels of that 'flying
saucer' business, everybody above the order of intelligence of a cretin will suspect some
Eric Frank Russell
Eric Frank Russell was the foremost British author to appear in the pages of
Campbell's Astounding. He was also one of Astounding's pre-eminent ideas men, with
a distinct Fortean slant to much of his work (Russell was an active member of the Fortean Society).
His novel Dreadful Sanctuary, which appeared in Astounding in three parts in
June, July and August 1948, is the ultimate conspiracy story.
- "I don't know what you think," he concluded, "but to me those hold-ups look somewhat
deliberate, as if the rocket is being delayed as much as possible without making the fact too
The information gave her subject for thought which occupied her mind quite a while.
He elfin eyes were serious with concentration as she examined the evidence. At length she
said: "This poses a curious paradox. The ship is government-sponsored and yet some, though
not all, of the snags look government-inspired. The government is trying to build the ship
and, at the same time, to delay its completion... Why should the powers-that-be try to build
the vessel but not too soon?"
"It isn't lack of money for one thing. Ask me an easier one!"
"We've got to ask it. There's logic somewhere in this seeming illogicality."
A E Van Vogt
During the 1940s, Van Vogt was one of the most popular of Astounding's
regular authors, with an inimitable combination of fast-paced SF action and deeply thought-provoking
ideas. His novel The World of Null-A, serialized in three parts between August and
October 1945, presents us with a future society based on Korzybski's General Semantics (a kind
of early version of Neuro-Linguistic Programming). It's almost impossible to find a short
excerpt that does justice to the novel.
- Finally, a hawk-nosed man sauntered over from another door, and looked in at Gosseyn.
He said, with an unmistakeable sneer, "So this is the dangerous man!"
It seemed a futile
insult. Gosseyn started to carry on with his examination of the man's physical characteristics,
and then the import of the words penetrated. He had been expecting to be asked to get out of
the car. Now he settled back in his seat. The idea that he was considered a dangerous man was
absolutely new. It didn't seem to have any structural relation to the facts. Gilbert Gosseyn
was a trained Null-A whose brain had been damaged by an amnesiac calamity. He might prove
worthy of Venus in the games, but he would simply be one of thousands of similarly successful
contenders. He had yet to show a single quality of structural difference between himself and
other human beings.
"Ah, silence," drawled the big man. "The Null-A pause, I suppose. Any
moment now, your present predicament will have been integrated into control of your cortex,
and semantically clever words will sound forth."