< The Soul of an Engineer (Prometheus 2:1)

Volume 2, Number 1, Winter, 1984


The Soul of an Engineer

By Brad Linaweaver


"To paraphrase the comment of a true thinker, render unto introspection the things that are introspective, and unto spectroscopes the things that belong therein. Confusing things in either direction leads to spectacularly wrong answers."

Science fiction has never had a stronger hold over the American imagination than it does today. Somewhere in the collective unconscious is the realization that we are living in a science fiction world (e.g., all those arguments over nuclear armaments that so fill the TV talk shows were once the fantasies in 1930's pulp magazines).

The better examples of the form provide a welcome bridge between Liberal Arts and Science/Engineering Departments at the nation's universities. The genre's concerns are the concerns of the Age—preservation of human values in the automated society. Good stories and novels in the field deal with the effect of new technologies on people. The lion's share of SF writers who have achieved literary success through the aforementioned approach received instruction and inspiration from one remarkable innovator in popular fiction: John W. Campbell, Jr. (1910-1971).

Given its emphasis on scientific solutions to human problems, it is not surprising that SF would attract many liberals to its ranks. And yet the man widely considered the most important editor—the shaper of modern, adult science fiction in the pages of Astounding (later Analog magazine—was a dread opponent of the political left.

A roster of Campbell's writers glows with important names: among them Lester Del Rey, Clifford D. Simak. Fletcher Pratt, William Tenn, Theodore Sturgeon (NR book reviewer at one time), Michael Shaara (Pulitzer winner). A. E. Van Vogt, Gordon Dickson, Poul Anderson, and even H. L. Gold (who became the second most influential editor with Galaxy magazine). But of interest from a political standpoint is that both Isaac Asimov (Democratic Liberal par excellence) and Robert A. Heinlein (Goldwater Republican who became a right wing libertarian) are the two best known Campbell writers. That they both served Campbell's editorial policies so well provides an eloquent proof of Campbell's nondoctrinaire approach to, well, nearly everything.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of an electrical engineer, Campbell began to read at the age of three. His father was a strict disciplinarian who insisted that his son learn to think rigorously. The only trouble was that the boy became so facile in the use of logic that his Dad soon found himself outclassed in arguments. Occasionally they could agree on something, as when John enrolled at MIT in 1928 to study physics. Unable to pass German for his language requirement, he left MIT and took his degree from Duke. The Depression got in the way of a career in physics…but his education came in handy. The engineer's way of thinking that so profoundly affected Joseph W. Campbell, Jr. (1910-1971) affected John Campbell's outlook on everything can be seen in this advice he gave writers: "If you can't make 'em possible, make 'em logical: if you can't research it, extrapolate it."

His first science fiction story "When the Atoms Failed," was published in 1930, and he won tremendous popularity with SF readers of the thirties for a series of Super Science stories. This was the kind of stuff that was to inspire George Lucas's Star Wars saga. except that Campbell's heroes used slide-rules instead of The Force. But Campbell expected more of the field. Adapting his wife's name (Donna Stuart), he wrote stories under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart which stressed characterization and mood. One predicted the modern computer, freeing at least one character from reliance on his trusty slide-rule. Another argued that mankind must not become psychologically reliant on his machines—he must remember that they are tools if he is to remain master in his own house. The most famous story was "Who Goes There" which raised questions about loss of identity. It has been adapted twice as a popular monster movie. The Thing (Howard Hawks in 1951, John Carpenter in 1982).

Then came the big one. John Campbell was hired as editor of Astounding in 1937. His first issue hit the stands in 1938. It was the beginning of The Golden Age of Science Fiction and the birth of a magazine that would find among its subscribers both Albert Einstein and Werner von Braun (the latter having issues sent to him by way of Sweden during World War II). There was more to his magazine than fantastic adventures and the cataloguing of various marvels. At work was a mindset that appealed to mathematicians, scientists and engineers. The dreams of science fiction were becoming technological reality.

Ray Bradbury has written that one of the uses of science fiction can be to prevent the future (as seen in the dystopian satires of C.S. Lewis). John Campbell has a claim to prominence in the area of prediction, which is how the public largely perceives the "function" of science fiction.

In the March 1944 issue of Astounding appeared "Deadline" a story by Cleve Cartmill about a superweapon: the fission bomb. Government agents soon visited Campbell to question him about the source of leaks from the Manhattan Protect. He handled it in characteristic fashion, first explaining how obvious were the inferences drawn in "Deadline" to anyone acquainted with physics, and secondly pointing out that to discontinue such stories would tip off the enemy that America was really developing such a weapon. (Remember those copies of Astounding in Germany) The magazine continued to run fiction about atomic energy. In later years this publication, under its new title of Analog. would become a defender of domestic use of nuclear energy and a critic of the anti-technology movement.

In at least one case, the United States government would have done better to listen to Campbell than to waste time cautioning him. Barry Harrison reports, in his introduction to Collected Editorials from Analog (Doubleday, 1966), that as early as the mid-forties Campbell was suggesting lithium hydride as the most practical material to use in developing the hydrogen bomb. The AEC went ahead with a two billion dollar plant to do the job producing tritium. The Russians, unable or unwilling to go the expensive route, used lithium hydride at twelve dollars a pound.

Suggestions such as these were the reward for reading the Campbell Editorial. National Review provided him with a different audience for one of his essays in its May 3 1966 issue with the cover article, "The 'Say It Isn't So' Syndrome." Campbell argued that the cosmonaut space walk film had been faked, but that its being debunked through analysis by film experts did nothing to lessen its propaganda value.

He took on the Scientific Establishment for its unwillingness to examine ESP and other psi phenomena with an open mind. Treating the Scientific Establishment as a religion was not for him—he was a pragmatist. If it works, use it! Too many preconceived notions struck him as the death of honest inquiry. He was attacked both inside and outside the field for this "mysticism." For editorials where he merely defended the right of L. Ron Hubbard's ideas on Dianetics to be heard, he was falsely accused of being a proselytizer for that folly!

Of interest to libertarians was that Campbell, who had the physicist's respect for cause and effect, was no mechanist and in fact suggested the existence of free will in "The Invisible River," (Astounding, November 1956). His major gripe with sociology was its mechanistic conceits. Campbell was smart enough to know that we have insufficient data to structure social systems on a purely mechanical basis.

One of Campbell's most hated editorials was "The New Stone Age" (September 1970). He argued that the Kent State incident taught college students a valuable lesson: "Immunity corrupts; absolute immunity corrupts absolutely." The result: "The shots came as a terrible, unbelievable shock to the students; they'd known that they were immune to punishment—known the Guardsmen didn't really have bullets in their guns, or that they were really just blanks, like a war scene in a movie. The idea that anybody could punish them for their acts was, of course, impossible"'

Campbell was astonished that those students had not recognized the danger inherent in National Guard soldiers marching over the hill with rifles and bayonets. As to press insistence that no Kent State protester was armed, he provided this terse answer: "Rocks are deadly weapons. If you feel that's a false attitude—try standing out in front of a barrage of thrown rocks yourself sometime." The closest he came to expressing any sympathy was for the ROTC student who had foolishly put himself in the line of fire as an observer. He pointed out that war correspondents die that way.

When this writer attended his first Worldcon in 1971, he overheard some fans talking about Campbell—who had died shortly before the convention. "The Nazi is finally gone," one said, and went on to decry the Kent State editorial. At the Hugo banquet, there was a moment of silence; and most stood in honor of Campbell's memory. Some didn't. There were frowns on their faces. No doubt they had memories of particularly disturbing Campbell arguments.

Is it possible to classify Campbell? He called himself a pragmatist, generally avoiding other political labels. To be provocative, he insisted that he was a member of the Establishment during the period of student unrest. But in his editorial "Three Degrees of Freedom…" (April, 1962) he showed strong antistatist inclinations. He published some of the most unabashedly libertarian science fiction ever written: Heinlein's "If This Goes on…" and "Coventry," Eric Frank Russell's "And Then There Were None." and other stories that examined the full implications of liberty.

In the same sense as that of Whittaker Chambers. John Campbell was probably a man of the Right rather than a conservative. There was too little patience on the part of the iconoclastic editor for him to be thought of as a protector of deadweight social institutions. In the July 1958 Astounding. he wrote a special review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. He said: "The book has the corrosive bitterness that unwanted truths frequently have." He may have written the first positive review of Atlas to see print, and he may have also been the first to claim it as a work of science fiction.

A true engineer, his was a vision of construction, and his few and brilliant criticisms of Atlas Shrugged demonstrate this point. For instance: "The moochers do, in bitter fact, have a technique that her creative-producers never succeed in matching or defeating. It's quite true that the moochers can't survive without the productive, creative thinkers—but her heroes succeed in destroying them only at the cost of destroying everything they ever produced. You can get rid of the rats by burning the infested house down, of course…but it's a poor victory." But he also wrote: "…she has done a better job of pointing out, with perfect clarity, the techniques that will drive men into suicidal insanity, than any psychological treatise I've ever seen."

What matters most about John Campbell is not what label you can put on him, but how he influenced the field he made his own, and the people who were his readers. In 1969, when the country was suffering from the social unrest that reached a kind of peak at Kent State the year afterward, Campbell saw Americans on the moon. He had lived to see his life's work vindicated. But more important for us, he opened the doors for free speculation on the subject of freedom itself…

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