Why John W. Campbell had to crash your pulp magazine with no survivors.

I can hear the comments already. HERESY! Campbell is the reason no one reads Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lord Dunsany, Lester Dent, or Robert E Howard anymore!

Is he, though?

Certainly, Campbell brought about huge changes at Astounding / Analog Science Fiction. He moved it away from the old pulp formulas, and in the direction of scientific plausibility and “competent man with a wrench” stories. He also insisted on quality and diversity, and refused to buy filler stories of stock characters doing the same things they had been doing for 30 years.

Campbell wanted scientific plausibility, but he didn’t want a technical manual. His ideal story about the future was written as though it were nonfiction written in that future. Tech that the inhabitants of that world would take for granted should be introduced organically. People should react to it like real people who grew up around it. People you could relate to, doing something exciting in a fantastic world they seemed native to. Sounds like a basic formula for a compelling story to me. Until the moderns decided that those people should be doing their laundry in that world, anyway.

As David Dubrow (@davedauthor on Twitter) has pointed out that a lot of what is written today sucks.



That’s not a new problem. A lot of pulp-era stories sucked, too. You just don’t remember the ones that sucked, because you can hardly even find copies of the good stories you’re looking for. They were printed next to generic adventures full of stock characters saving women from the dangerous natives of the jungle / orient / Venus. But in an era of exceptionally cheap, plentiful magazines, a certain amount of filler was tolerable.

As World War 2 caused paper prices to rise, filler stories became untenable. Argosy, the ur-pulp, transitioned from weekly pulp to monthly men’s adventure digest slick, and began including things like real war stories, true crime, and racy pin-up girls (nearing softcore porn by the end in 1978). Many pulps folded entirely, including those that had nothing to do with science fiction. Meanwhile, both Galaxy and SF&F magazines were launched on the Astounding model, and in fact eclipsed Campbell at his own game. But it was his game that sold.

Is there a place for inexpensive, frequent, fantastic hero stories with bright covers? Sure, as long as you can continue to put out original content. Did Campbell reject some great authors he shouldn’t have? Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, and Joe Haldeman would likely argue that he did. But forcing science fiction to become something more than simple adventure stories in space was a good an necessary development in the field. Campbell didn’t kill pulp, he saved sci-fi from the collapse of the pulps and moved it forward. I don’t want to read an entire magazine that’s just The Cold Equations over and over. But I don’t want to read the same Doc Savage knockoffs all the time, either.

Oh, no, not me
I never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

– David Bowie, The Man Who Sold the World

One thought on “A Necessary Evil

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