In this short clip, Isaac Asimov discusses the golden age of science fiction, which began in 1937 (and ended in 1950) when John W. Campbell Jr. took over as editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. Prior to Campbell’s editorship, most sci-fi stories were published in the “pulps,” and were in Asimov’s words “heavily adventure-flavored” because underpaid writers often wrote in several genres in order to compete in an overcrowded marketplace for escapist stories of romance, war, jungle and sea adventures, and horror tales. Unlike most of the “pulp” writers, Campbell was a scientist who studied physics at MIT and Duke, not to mention a prolific writer of fiction. (Many of Campbell’s novels and short stories are available in full-text as ePUB and PDF files here).
Campbell’s ascension was a watershed moment for the genre since his “engineering attitude” gave him a high regard for writers of science fiction who understood the science of the day and could portray scientists authentically while still having the freedom to “extrapolate wildly.” Astounding published some of the earliest stories by Asimov, Robert Heinlein (an early story, published under the name “Anson MacDonald” in 1941 is here), and L. Ron Hubbard. The relationship between Campbell and Hubbard is a fascinating story. Campbell published a very early version of what would become the founding text of Scientology in March 1950, and he claimed to be an early supporter of Hubbard’s “science of dianetics.”
Campbell is a complicated figure. In addition to supporting Hubbard’s ideas, writer Harlan Ellison has claimed that Campbell was an adherent of pseudoscience who would “believe anything,” and he apparently held some very objectionable racist and far right political views which he championed in his editorials and which made Asimov uncomfortable, as Asimov writes in his introduction to the golden age collection Astounding: John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology. Nevertheless, Asimov acknowledges Campbell as a “Father of Science Fiction” who was indispensable in bringing the genre out of the pulp era.
J. David Jones is currently a doctoral student in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.
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