Canon and Campbell

There is an on-going discussion about SFF canon amid general dissatisfaction with a couple of related aspects of this years Hugo Awards.

The short version of my take on all this is that canon is important but it is not THAT important. Put another way, there are books of great historical significance and there exactly zero books that you must read.

head canon

Canonical books and writers serve two roles:

  1. They can act as kind of metonyms for time periods, literary movements or sub-genres.
  2. They make it easier to talk about current works by providing common points of comparison.

The second point implies a populist conception of canon where it isn’t the critical acclaim of a work but its popular influence. For example, I think it is an easy argument to make that when looking at contemporary fantasy Avatar: The Last Air Bender is a key text, even though it was a kid’s cartoon (all be it one that was critically acclaimed as a kid’s cartoon).

On the first point I’d cite Chuck Tingle’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion, which has canonical qualities to it but which is also a shining example of something that is not required reading. Yet it’s existence is a simple way of pointing to a whole gaggle of aspects of SFF publishing in the second decade of the 21st century (social media, Amazon ebook niches, culture wars etc). You don’t need to have read it to make sense of a whole bunch of stuff that went on in that recently departed decade but it really helps to know about it if you are hoping to make sense of a whole pile of things.

Significance, impact and influence are more relevant factors when thinking about canonical works (IMHO) than literary merit or critical acclaim (or awards) but those factors aren’t wholly independent of each other either.

But canon is also political. Political in the sense of power and of privilege. This is true whether we think of canon in terms of edifying work of great literary merit or canon in the more populist sense that I am using. Not all works get the same chances and “significance” and “influence” can exist for good and bad reasons. That is an issue when considering history in general. The British Empire is of great historical significance but mainly because of all the damage it caused in multiple regions around the world. Historical significance includes disasters, wars and acts of malice and when we consider literary significance there are parallels. Works or influential figures can be significant not just in spite of negative aspects but because of them.

John W Campbell is manifestly a significant figure in science fiction. His role as an influential editor shaped popular perceptions of science fiction particularly in the US (and hence because of the political, cultural and economic power of the US, the world). So yes, if you want to understand science fiction in a historical context it is hard to ignore Campbell. But…it’s hard to ignore Campbell because Campbell was powerful and the how and why of “powerful” are necessarily political questions.

And so Campbell himself becomes a metonym not just for SFF in his time but also for debates about SFF and its future in our time.

Consider two propositions (one of which I believe to be false):

  1. John W Campbell was an influential figure in science fiction because his talent & skills as an editor, his imagination & skill as a creator of science fiction, and his vision/aesthetic for science fiction were better than his contemporaries. He gained that influence because of his own individual competence.
  2. John W Campbell was an influential figure in science fiction through a combination of chance, wider social forces, some genuine talent and skill, and personal ambition.

I don’t think I need to belabour that the first proposition is the one I think is false. What is significant about it is that proposition 1 is not just a ‘great man’ view of history but also neatly aligns with the pseudo-libertarian view of history which also neatly aligns with that section of science fiction fandom that also regards itself as Campbellian in outlook.

The compulsion to not just make some historical figures canonical but also to canonise them is even more obvious in one of Campbell’s proteges, L Ron Hubbard. Hubbard famously (and with Campbell’s initial assistance) first blurred the boundary between science fiction and pseudoscience with Dianetics and then went on to found his own toxic religion. Within Scientology Hubbard’s science fiction writing is consider the most significant of all and part of Hubbard’s visionary powers.

That Scientology is manifestly nonsense and that Hubbard’s role as a cult leader is largely undisputed outside of Scientology, makes Hubbard a simpler figure to talk about than Campbell. If I write Tweets about Hubbard’s many and well documented flaws, nobody (aside from Scientologists) is going to get upset or use such Tweets as an example of ‘cancel culture’. Put another way Hubbard arrives in a discussion about the history of US science fiction pre-cancelled. However, if you want to know about the history of the genre, Hubbard is definitely a figure you should know about but clearly NOT because he was a good person or because he was a particularly talented writer but because he was somebody who used the genre to gain power and influence far beyond his abilities.

What Scientologists do with Hubbard is to take the undeniable significance of Hubbard to their movement and then re-apply that significance as a moral virtue of Hubbard, which in turn establishes in their eyes the broader moral virtue of Hubbard as a person. For want of a better term, let’s call that process Hubbardisation — the process of canonising influential figures in science fiction. The flip-side of Hubbardisation’s confusion of significance with virtue is that when people cite facts about the painted-saints of SFF that cast them in a bad light (Campbell’s racism for example) it is perceived as an attack on their significance because of the confusion of significance with virtue. The more you think about it the weirder it is, after all there’s no shortage of historical figures in wider history who are significant precisely because THEY WERE BAD PEOPLE (Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler).

Not every notable SFF writer is equally Hubbardised. I guess on the left Le Guin gets somewhat Hubbardised and I get the defensiveness that arises when people point out the moral failings in writers you admire. Other writers not so much. Philip K Dick seems less prone to this process — his struggles with mental health are perhaps too integral to his work for him to be seen as saintly and hence he is romanticised into a tragic figure.

I’ve talked about two aspects of canon but there is a third aspect of looking at literary history which is that it is a buried treasure house. Not everybody is going to enjoy older works but plenty of people do. There is also a hidden history of people whose influence was minimised, under-played or erased from popular recounts. We can infer as well that there must be many people and works that in different circumstances would have been of great significance but through social and political circumstances or the malign influence of powerful figures, never had the opportunity. Exploring this other history is valuable and rewarding in itself but also helps us understand how interesting works and creators still end up being sidelined and marginalised today.


60 responses to “Canon and Campbell”

  1. “Not everybody is going to enjoy older works but plenty of people do.”
    I frequently include YMMV in reviews of anything from before I was born because I know old-school anything doesn’t work for everyone.
    An interesting post. I may have something more thoughtful to say when I think more about it.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. The current Campbell controversy brings up something interesting. What happens when a group turns your hero’s reputation inside out into villainy? You can imagine all of the reactions, from fortifying your hero against the accusations all the way to out-villaining the original accusers! And somewhere in there is a answer that fits the best interpretations of the evidence. I think that’s what is happening to Campbell now.

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    • I have to admit that the current portrayal of John W. Campbell either as the unassailable patron saint of science fiction or “that freaking fascist” annoys me as well, because the truth is a lot more nuanced than either of those positions.

      And yes, Campbell profited a lot from the sheer dumb luck of ending up as the editor of Astounding, the magazines which paid better and more promptly than others thanks to having the financial clout of Street & Smith behind them. Would his reputation be as it is, if he had edited one of the lower paying magazines like Amazing, Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, etc… or a bottom feeder mag like Super Science Stories? Most likely not.

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      • This “dumb luck” trope makes it sound like they opened the New York phone book and stuck in a pin to pick him as the editor of Astounding, when in fact he was one of the most respected sf writers of the day.

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      • It’s worth noting that Moorcock wrote “By the early fifties Astounding had turned by almost anyone’s standard into a crypto-fascist deeply philistine magazine pretending to intellectualism and offering idealistic kids an ‘alternative’ that was, of course, no alternative at all” in 1978.


      • Well, if Campbell hadn’t been a decent SF writer, who produced one true classic in “Who Goes There?”, F Orlin Tremaine likely wouldn’t have picked him to take over the editorial duties of Astounding, so talent does play into it.

        However, the fact that Astounding paid better than its competitors and paid promptly on acceptance did help Campbell, because most writers submitted to him first, so he got first right of refusal of most SFF stories written during the late 1930s and 1940s, unless the authors really didn’t get along with him like Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury (all of whom submitted and were sometimes published by Campbell and then decided they wouldn’t put up with his idiosynchrasies anymore).

        But considering how erratic the payments of the other pulp magazines were, the fact that Astounding paid well and promptly cannot be discounted. Weird Tales’ payment delays were so bad that they likely contributed to the suicide of Robert E. Howard and that his father had to chase down outstanding payments for several years. Hugo Gernsback only paid, when threatened with lawsuits.

        If Campbell had wound up as editor of any other magazine, he would still have been influential, but not as much as he eventually was.

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    • It’s also tricky because Campbell isn’t still alive, which makes it easier for his defenders to get outraged – compare Orson Scott Card, who no one basically defends (or whose defenders are easily dismissed).

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      • Garik16: True — If Campbell was still around he’d have said a bunch of new outrageous and indefensible things by now.

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  3. This is rather interesting. As for Hubbard, it’s amazing what some science fiction writers will do given a chance to wear a tux and be treated as VIPs at an awards banquet.

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  4. Part of the fun (for me) of digging into literature is that it’s all part of a conversation, or a whole bunch of conversations – conversations that human culture is having with itself, over the course of thousands of years. The idea of the “canon” of literature – the essential voices in that conversation – is a bit of a dubious one, in my opinion; on the one hand, there historically *are* particular works which (for one reason or another) resonate more widely; on the other hand, trying to *define” the “canon” is intrinsically a divisive act, marginalizing some works, possibly promoting others beyond their real importance. (I’ve been looking up various versions of the “canon of Western literature”, and while it’s certainly possible to cite works which are in dialogue with, say, Kant – obvious SFnal example, Adam Roberts and “The Thing Itself” – and through Kant with earlier philosophers, all the way back to the Greeks… it’s a bit harder to find people who are seriously engaging with e.g. Plotinus, these days.)

    I think the historical perspective adds depth to one’s appreciation of books – they’re more enjoyable, and maybe easier to appreciate, if you can see where they’re coming from. But it’s not actually *necessary* to be familiar with “the canon”, and, really, there are a whole lot of different “canons” around – different conversations, or parts of conversations, to listen to, if you like.

    Quite a few people have pointed out the historical resonances of Kameron Hurley’s “The Light Brigade” – how it’s in dialogue with other major works of milSF, going back to Heinlein and “Starship Troopers”, and thence to Campbell, who fostered Heinlein’s talent. It’s true enough, but you don’t have to know the history of milSF to appreciate “The Light Brigade”… and it does rather illustrate how Campbell is becoming an increasingly *distant* part of the SF conversation. Back in the Fifties and the Sixties, maybe, there were lots of voices in concert with Campbell, and others (like the New Wave) being raised in criticism or opposition. But a lot more voices have come into the conversation since then – which, of course, is a good thing in the end.

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  5. I think the thing with Canon and classic works is that they’re fine, and may still hold interest for others, but we should as a genre and as a readership and fandom emphasize the fact that the genre moves on, with each generation producing its own works equal to the older ones in significance towards the lives of people, as time moves on. Been trying to help a friend who’s a high school teacher who is teaching a SF elective to students this coming year with new books he could possibly teach, and he’s getting push back because well, people dont know these books as well. But that doesn’t make them any lesser, it just is a function of age.

    The problem with the retro Hugos was that instead of bringing forth old works that were overlooked at the time, it has promoted works that everyone already knows. So they serve no purpose. But the current Hugo Awards, award ceremonies notwithstanding, promote the new and constantly show how “canon” has changed – as do other awards. I got back in the genre from reading GRRM’s outraged blog posts about the puppies, which led me to the hugo nominated authors and works (or those who were cut off from the list by the puppies) which got me invested in the new canon. And honestly, that’s been far more interesting to me than going back and reading the classics I missed as a child.

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  6. Campbell was very good at publicizing himself and as Russ so effectively pointed out, other people not so good at it got erased. Through the fifties and the sixties, a lot of SF writers and sometimes the fantasy ones had to define themselves in relation to his very limited ethos, sticking in it or moving away from it, especially as he descended into white supremacy and pseudoscience. The New Wave wasn’t racially progressive but they wanted to write about sex and drugs and moved away from just gung-ho space adventure. Afrofuturism and feminist SF also developed and moved away from post-war American exceptionalism into the social upheavals and civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, SFF progressively got more global and more focused on novels over short fiction and the fantasy market became more separate and developed, having little to nothing to do with Campbell at all.

    Today’s SFF writers do build on some of the earlier writers, but that’s mostly going to be writers from twenty, thirty years ago, not the sixties. There are lines of descent in the history of SFF and academics do study them, constructing curriculum that is sometimes called canon. It’s a canon that is constantly changing, with titles added or dropped out of study and covers a broad range of storytelling mediums.

    But when it comes to fiction read recreationally, there is no canon, not in SFF or any other genre. No other genre screams that fans have to read a supposed canon in order to talk about the genre. Mystery fans do not demand that mystery thriller readers have to start at The Moonstone and read through to Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen before reading or talking about Gone Girl or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Romance readers don’t have to start with Jane Austen and work forward to Nora Roberts books in order to read and discuss Alyssa Cole or Diana Gabaldon. The demand that SFF fans know canon, and very specific canon at that, has simply been a gatekeeping tactic on both writers trying to break in and readers who don’t fit what others who see themselves — wrongly — as ruling the roost find acceptable.

    The struggle over Campbell’s name on an award has little to do with Campbell at all, as we know, since even his friends admit that he was a raging racist whose era of influence was sixty years ago. And it certainly has little to do with canon itself. It has to do with the bigoted power structure that has run English-language SFF for its history and how the myth that this is inevitable, unchangeable and that all figures in it must be respected and deferred to is being rejected — just as it was in part when writers moved away from Campbell’s ethos in the past. Canon is political and it’s also how status identities are assembled. A bunch of newer writers for whom Campbell has no relevance as an identity are rejecting that identity as the nadir of SFF, not only in the SFF field itself, which is much wider than the category markets, but within the category markets that used to be ruled by white people, mainly straight men. And a lot of older straight white men used to being uncritically in charge are freaking out. If Campbell is no longer going to be a synonym for SFF excellence in the Hugo corner of the world, what’s going to happen to their reps after they die, they fear.

    If Campbell’s writing really is influential and important in SFF, then it will stick around and be studied in universities and maybe high schools. But that isn’t up to other writers of SFF or convention goers who vote on an award. It’s part of a mass of culture over time that they don’t control and only controlled in the past through illusion and sometimes intimidation. And that’s a good thing because no one small demographic group should control an entire field of literature. And the new writers who aren’t straight white men also don’t control it just because they feel they have a voice in the field to criticize it and its past. They’re just trying to get the same opportunities that men like Campbell used to control and limit. Insisting they be burdened with such a canon that has painful cultural context isn’t respecting art — it’s squelching it. If canon is dogma, it’s not much use.

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  7. The thing that always strikes me about conversations about the “science fiction canon” is how completely haphazard the “canon” is. If you ask fifty older science fiction fans what makes up the canon, you’ll get fifty completely different answers – it will all be older material, but it will all be different arrays of older material. And it will often be some sort of unwieldy mass of older material.

    Science fiction “canon” often seems to boil down to a recommendation to read all of Heinlein’s juveniles, or read all of Fredric Brown’s fiction, or rad all of Asimov’s books or some combination of that sort of incredibly broad, mostly unhelpful suggestion. Compare this to, something like “film canon”, which seems much more focused. Longtime devoted film fans will tell you to watch Casablanca and Treasure of Sierra Madre. If they gave recommendations like science fiction fans do, they’d simply wave their hands and tell you to watch all of Bogart’s movies.

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    • I tend to agree with Aaron, and really, think the “sff canon” is nothing more than an easy to beat-up straw man. Where do you go to find it? Who’s pushing it? (Timothy? Has that cat been up to mischief again?)

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      • Who’s pushing it?

        At my very first convention (I was a teen-ager and it was the 1970s because now I’m an Old Fan), I was happily browsing a bookseller’s booth and had a handful of old paperbacks in my hand that I intended to buy. A guy who I guessed to be late 30s or early 40s noticed the books I was holding and started talking to me about my favorites. Eventually he asked me if I had ever read Slan. When I admitted not only hadn’t I read it, but I wasn’t very familiar with the writings of A. E. van Vogt, he gave me a lecture about how significant Slan was to the foundations of fandom itself, that it was an amazing novel that I simply must read. And then he walked away, clearly communicating that I wasn’t worth talking to because I hadn’t read Slan (which many years later I did, and it is a godawful Marty Stu mess).

        In the years since, I have sat in the audiences of many panels at cons and heard a pro (usually many years older than I was at the time) make similar pronouncements about other books, other authors. “You simply must read X!” With the clear subtext (and sometimes domtext) that those of us who haven’t read and loved those books aren’t serious fans/aspiring pros.

        Then there are those lists that get published again and again, “25 Classics of SF/F Every Fan Must Know,” “100 Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy Books–How many have you read?” And the people who lamented a few years ago that Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today.

        And a little over a week ago when the GRRM and Silverberg both went on and on about a very specific subset of male writers of the 40s 50s 60s… the same set on everyone’s list. And in George’s nonapology, he said that he was including all of that because he thought modern fans needed to know about those guys. Sure, he didn’t say that one has to read them or else, but how he talked about them clearly implied that anyone who wasn’t familiar aren’t real members of the community.

        That’s who’s pushing it.

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        • I occasionally run into that type, but I’m less bothered by them than the evangelical “OMG, you must read this! Let me tell you why it’s so awesome!” fan.


      • Fontfolly: “And in George’s nonapology, he said that he was including all of that because he thought modern fans needed to know about those guys.”

        Yeah, that’s the nub of it. George and Silverberg, etc. are also worried about their own legacies, not Campbell’s. They see authors and fans who aren’t like them being highly critical of figures like Campbell and Lovecraft and fear that those same folk will move on and erase them as well. So they ignore that criticism and instead sing praises of them defensively as the very important people to know, (like us too being the unspoken implication.)

        But the reality is that the people they are scolding or fearing will destroy Campbell’s legacy mostly know more about Campbell than they do. They’ve had to, since knowing about them and their writing was often demanded as part of the entry fee for the more limited opportunities they had in the field, fees demanded by white straight guys as editors, writers and fans who don’t necessarily even know Campbell’s work that well but want cultural deference paid from those they’ve insisted are outsiders. Those outsiders who aren’t outsiders have broken down, deconstructed and analyzed those texts far more than someone like Martin or Silverberg has done. They understand the legacies of those writers and they don’t condemn all of that legacy but they are also going to “remember” the colonialism and damage those guys did as well, because that is also part of Campbell and Lovecraft’s legacy in the history of SFF — the bigoted ideas they promoted and the people who they blocked and hurt, things which did not necessarily shape SFF and other literature into good shapes. And they’re going to sing out about other writers who were limited and overlooked historically as well, as more important and relevant to them.

        Martin and Silverberg, who gets worse and worse as he ages, somehow cannot help viewing that as being partly a threat to a power they never should have had in the first place. Because it’s wrapped up in the cultural identity of what SFF was supposed to be, rather than dealing with the more complex realities of what it was. All these guys did in their pontificating at the awards ceremony was show how out of touch they are not only of the current SFF field, but of the field’s history as well, despite often positioning themselves as the interpreters of it. (And this is what did in the Puppies and partly why they whined about “academics” dominating the Hugos — the people they were condemning as betraying and ruining the legacy/history of the awards and SFF were far more knowledgeable about that history than the Puppies were and batted away their arguments with facts like a cat with a toy mouse.)

        Campbell did not promote and celebrate new writers of SFF. He selected who he wanted to be the new writers of SFF, who he wanted to allow in and it was white cis straight guys who followed his rules. Which is why writers now pointed out that they would not have been selected by Campbell and so that his name wasn’t appropriate as the name for such an award going forward, no matter how many straight white guys he supported in the field in the mid-19th century. In the first year of a fairer name for the award, to insist that the writers who Campbell would want excluded from the field have to know him and celebrate him, as punishment for asking his name to be removed from the award for new writers — that is now unfortunately also part of the history/legacy of SFF, one that those writers are all too familiar with. You’re never going to get Martin and Silverberg to admit it, because it would mean changing the image they have of themselves and of how they want SFF to be seen. But in doing it, they continued the very negative side of Campbell’s legacy and Lovecraft’s prejudiced ideas. And they ensured that fewer and fewer people are going to want to remember Campbell at all, him having no tentacled gods for prosperity. Because Campbell did not want them there, as writers or fans, and the three hundred voters who voted for the Retro Hugos, the convention runners who edited the videos for the ceremony and Martin and Silverberg all echoed that message.

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      • There were plenty of people who voted for the Retro Hugos who did not put Campbell in first place just not enough.

        Also, it’s not as if everybody who voted and nominated for the Retro Hugos wants to tell new writers and fans that they don’t belong in the field. Some probably do, but many others are simply people who like older SFF and wanted to honour writers and stories who never got a shot at the Hugos due to doing their best work before 1953. And yes, I totally agree that John W. Campbell doesn’t need another posthumous Hugo, since he has more than enough.

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  8. My thoughts.

    Campbell can be expected to do well in the Retro-Hugo’s and should. But through name recognition and the advantages of his position he’s done rather better than is perhaps deserved. I don’t think that the negatives should play a huge role in this other than in the way they hurt his work.

    However, it was absolutely right to take his name off the award and changing it to the Astounding Award is even more justified when the advantages of editing Astounding are taken into account. There were other talented editors out there who might have done as well in that position.

    And it was not right for GRRM to talk so much about Campbell in the Hugo Award ceremony, especially when Jeanette Ng’s speech from last year’s ceremony was being honoured.

    Campbell’s influence – for good and for bad – should not be forgotten. But it is increasingly irrelevant to the reading and writing of modern sf.

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  9. @Cora – that “Gernsback only paid upon law suit” is a canard, ginned up by Wollheim when he was trying to destroy the Science Fiction League and shouting Fandom to Power. Yes, Wollheim got several other authors together who had not gotten paid to sue, and yes, there was a “dispute” between Gernsback and Wells regarding payment (actually a confusion over pounds vs dollars); Wells continued to allow Gernsback to reprint his stories; the complaints about Gernsback from the fans waned once the SFL was no more.
    (Aside: I hold DAW in high regard – he, along with Pohl and a handful of others are I’ve come to believe, actually the ones responsible for popularizing the genre (a nod to Futurians in general*): and I agree with his sentiment that formed the basis of his actions against the SFL – well, at least the publicly facing one – that Fandom should not be subject to or the creature of commercial interests.)

    People almost always quote Malzberg’s “venal and corrupt…” statement regarding Gernsback, and almost always fail to include the second paragraph of that statement:

    ” I think that he did us a great service and that were it not for Gernsback, science fiction as we understand it would not exist. We would have — as we do — the works of fabulation in the general literature — Coover, Barthelme, Barth, and DeLillo — but of the category which gave us More Than Human, The Demolished Man, Foundation and Empire, Dying Inside, The Dispossessed, and Rogue Moon we would have nothing, and hence these works would not exist. It is possible that some of these writers, who were inspired to write science fiction by a childhood of reading, would never have published at all.” (Barry Malzberg, Engines of the Night).

    Was he a “sharp businessman” or a “crook”? It probably depends – as do reactions to the disrobing of Cambell – on how one was personally affected by those practices.

    If one digs deep enough, one will find that “Gernsback’s Practices” were pretty much in line with most pulp publishers of the day and that the attacks against those practices are largely owing to other factors.

    *Knight – SFWA and Clarion; DAW – paperback pioneer, helped establish SF lines at many publishers; divorced Fandom from corporate entanglement; Pohl – edited numerous magazines that gave space to too many budding authors to list; helped the genre move away from the Campbellian mono-culture; Asimov – popularizer….


    Canon is not, I don’t think, something that “moves” with time. It’s a long list that gets added to, never subtracted from (“the list is long**). Not everyone starts at the beginning of the list, not everyone is aware of how long the list is or that it even has a beginning, but as others have noted, the genre is a continuum, with each succeeding generation standing upon the shoulder’s of giants – even if they don’t realize it.

    **From Eric Frank Russell’s Wasp, an entry firmly entrenched in the SCIENCE FICTION CANON

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  10. The thing about Campbell ironically reminds me of the whole You didn’t build that from Obama’s 2012 campaign. The general point is the same. Campbell benefited from his own talent, yes. But he also benefited from the general good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. I mean, just play with the hypothetical that Campbell had just been a bit better at foreign languages. Would he have dropped out of MIT, and, if he didn’t, would he have then published the stories that put him on the map?

    The second point about sff canon has me thinking about the same in regards to sff *fanzine* canon and the (lesser) controversy over exactly who should be eligible for Best Fanzine/Best Fan Writer/Best Fan Artist.

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  11. I first learned about Campbell from reading “The Early Asimov,” where Asimov talked about his early experiences as a writer. Asimov revered Campbell, and he clearly thought all the rest of the SF magazines in his youth were far behind it.

    Other sources generally seem to credit Campbell with making science fiction into a serious form of writing by separating it from pulp. He wanted real characters, real plots, he wanted stories that took the science/engineering seriously, and he wanted the SF element to matter to the story. One could make the argument that SF didn’t really exist before Campbell. I don’t think you can just brush away his significance or attribute it to luck.

    But, like a lot of great men, he had great failings. I remember feeling physically sick when I read how he not only rejected “The World Well Lost,” he phoned other editors and tried to convince them not to run it either because it had a positive portrayal of male homosexuality. And although he had a couple of decades of strong work, he seems to have gone downhill fairly fast. Even people like Robert Silverberg quit sending him stories.

    I’m not sure why it’s so hard for us to acknowledge great accomplishments by flawed people. Somehow it seems that once we’ve shown that someone had a flaw, we want to write that person off entirely and erase all of his/her accomplishments. I don’t think this is healthy; no one is perfect.

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    • The interesting thing is that at least by the 1940s, you are more likely to find flat cardboard characters in Astounding than in the other magazines. Campbell can definitely be credited for demanding stories that at least get the science and engineering sort of right by the standards of the era. But with regard to characterisation, neither Campbell’s own work is particularly strong nor are many of the works he published.

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      • There is a quote that I half remember and wish I could track down, by one of Campbell’s boosters (possibly Poul Anderson, possibly not) which compares writing an SF story with painting a picture,and explicitly says that, with all the dramatic cosmic concepts in the background, you would paint the human figures in the foreground small. Bluntly, limited characterization *is* part of Campbell’s literary theory of SF; easily recognized stock characters are preferred to ones with nuance and depth.

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      • I always find myself asking the people who say Campbell pushed the genre to be more serious if they have ever read an entire issue of Astounding under his editorship. He cared about the science, yes. But characters? OMG, characterization was one of the last things on his priority list.

        Like Greg, my first impressions of Campbell came from reading The Early Asimov… but apparently I remember different comments. Asimov praised Campbell in that book, yes. But he also pointed out that Campbell had a lot of eccentric rules, one of which was that if aliens appear in the story they, as a species, must be inferior to humans in at least one way. Asimov was uncomfortable with that idea, as is smacked of racism to him… so he decided to stop writing about aliens, and that’s why Asimovs Foundation/Robots future history has humans as the only intelligent species that ever evolved in the universe.

        At another point in the book, Asimov talked about Campbell’s increasing insistence that writers include the pseudoscience notions into their stories, and Asimov started sending fewer and fewer stories to Campbell.

        I admit, while I have read a shit ton of Campbell’s editorials, I believe the only fiction of his I read was “Who Goes There?” And it’s a good story, yeah. But a lot of other people wrote equally good stories who never got hired by Street & Smith.

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        • Fontfolly wrote: “I always find myself asking the people who say Campbell pushed the genre to be more serious if they have ever read an entire issue of Astounding under his editorship. He cared about the science, yes. But characters? OMG, characterization was one of the last things on his priority list.”

          At some point I read one of James Michener’s many bestsellers — The Source — and was struck by how fully and interestingly he explored the lives of the characters, and not just the action and ideas. I wondered at the time why there seemed to be nobody writing magazine science fiction who reached that level. That “nobody” took into account renowned storytellers like Bradbury and Ellison, and the most impressive prose stylists like Zelazny and Delany.

          It wasn’t until the late Eighties and into the Nineties there began to be sff writers — and now there are quite a few — who wrote characters to match the standard of a commercial bestseller.,

          Which leads up to my point, that you are unfairly and inaccurately singling out Campbell for a weakness that was a trademark of the entire genre for decades.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Mike, I think they’re singling me out for carelessly crediting Campbell with something he didn’t really do. I said, “He wanted real characters, real plots, he wanted stories that took the science/engineering seriously, and he wanted the SF element to matter to the story.” Except the “real characters” claim seems to be false. 🙂

            Still, I think most people seem to have agreed with the rest of it. I just overreached a little. 🙂

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      • Ahh — I apologize for missing the thrust of Fontfolly’s criticism, then.

        Except for the beginning, then, my comment about the genre’s overall shortcomings may then supplement rather than contradict the point being made.

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      • Yes, my point was that in that regard Campbell was no better than most of the field. He was no better than a lot of others in a bunch of areas.

        And it wasn’t just Greg… I’ve heard tons of people make (or imply) that claim.

        As to assertions that no one was doing in depth characterization is sf/f before the 80s, and 90s… I guess I’ll just have to wonder how I got hold of a copy of The Left Hand of Darkness years before it was written…

        Liked by 1 person

        • One of the remarkable things about Sturgeon’s “Killdozer” is that while the characterizations are not in-depth and it’s not a character-centered story, the four characters fighting the alien threat are all distinctive individuals.

          Liked by 1 person

        • This topic really brings out the Kermit flail in you. Now you’re taking up the implied position that the characterization you respect in a 1969 book by Ursula K. Le Guin was the standard of the genre up to that time.

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      • I’ve heard the claim that Campbell introduced better characterisation into the SF genre, too. It’s one of those bits of received wisdom that just don’t hold up, when you look at the actual texts. And yes, you find cardboard characters in the other magazines, too, and it depends more on the writer than the editor whether a story will have decent characterisation by golden age SF standards.

        And what was once Campbell’s strength – that he insisted on reasonably plausible science and wanted his writers to explain the science to the reader – is now a weakness of any Astounding stories, because the science is usually as outdated as that in any other magazine of the era (and some was nonsense from the start, i.e. A.E. van VogtÄs bachelor stars), But unlike e.g. Leigh Brackett’s adventures on Mars and Venus, which are still enjoyable stories even though I know that Mars and Venus don’t look like that, several of the stories in Astounding are marred by indigestible lumps of outdated technobabble.


    • Mike:

      No, my dude, no one would reasonably infer that from my comment. That was NOT was I was saying. Half of the things you keep inferring from my comment no one would infer.

      We agree way more than you seem to think. Please read only the words I type, and stop adding stuff I absolutely did not say.

      It was a stupid, flippant, pedantic comment. It was supposed to make you laugh. I’m sorry that it did not. That is my fault, because clearly I didn’t phrase it correctly.


      • I’ll bet I would have gotten that if it had been said in person. I find social media has deadened my perception of humor as much as the next person’s. If you’ve ever seen the movie Prince Valiant and that scene where Robert Wagner is bashing away at foes with the Singing Sword, which by then looks like the battered, potmetal prop it is, sometimes I think my sense of humor is about that banged up.

        Liked by 1 person

      • OMG! The Wagner version of Prince Valiant!!! ❤

        You're one of my heroes, Mike. And I am sincerely sorry that comments I have made here and on File 770 have evoked a different response than I meant.

        It's a weird and subjective decision where to put the dividing line on less formulaic fiction is sf/f. My point was only that maybe 1980 wasn't the right line in the sand, and not that 1944 or so was. While I found that some of the stories in the mid-40s did a better job at some of those literary points than others, I did not mean to imply that everyone who wasn't Campbell was a paragon on those features.

        My personal feeling is that Campbell state goals that his actual editorial direction for rewrites did not map to. But again, for most of those, we only have the word of some of the writers to go on.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. A few weeks ago, I read this essay about AI tropes and was surprised that the paragraphs about the “Polite AI” option was missing the reference that seemed obvious to me – the author of this well-written essay just wasn’t familiar with it. Stuff that’s an obvious (or even “canonical” (!) example might not be for someone else – which is fine, since I’m sure that there’s plenty of stuff (maybe even older examples, or better written more current examples) that I’ve never heard of.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So what was the obvious reference they left out? I’ve thought of a few that might or might not be it, but no one that jumps out as the obvious answer.


  13. The flip-side of Hubbardisation’s confusion of significance with virtue is that when people cite facts about the painted-saints of SFF that cast them in a bad light (Campbell’s racism for example) it is perceived as an attack on their significance because of the confusion of significance with virtue. The more you think about it the weirder it is, after all there’s no shortage of historical figures in wider history who are significant precisely because THEY WERE BAD PEOPLE (Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler).

    Thanks for helping me noodle through my trouble with the current trend in minimizing influential figures in SFF’s history. They were (and should be) considered influential for their work in the field. Campbell’s work is why they named an award for him. The same is true of Lovecraft and the Retro Hugos, etc.

    Both men obviously had deplorable qualities. But those qualities (unlike Stalin or Hitler) are not what made them notable within the field.

    It’s useful to study and acknowledge the inconsistencies and flaws of various historical figures. Understanding those flaws within the context of their respective eras does not excuse those flaws. Acknowledging those flaws should not serve as a basis for undermining their presence in the history of the genre.

    Of course, this trend is a reflection of the flaws of our larger current culture. The only good news is that the future cultures (both general and genre) will have a different set of flaws.

    The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. – Dorothy Parker

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