- Historic Sites
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
Some of the most prolific of the early contributors are forgotten now. David H. Keller was a country doctor with a gift for satirical science fiction, though, alas, without any gift for the rhythms of English prose. Perhaps his most famous story was ‘The Revolt of the Pedestrians,” which told of a future time when generations of automobile driving had caused the legs of the human race to wither away; an aberrant young man, atavistically born with legs complete, leads a movement to go back to the good old days. Stanton A. Coblentz was a West Coast poet who decided to supplement the chancy rewards of verse with the hardly less problematical ones of science fiction. Coblentz was a satirist too; novels like Into Plutonian Depths and After 12,000 Years and The Blue Barbarians were really quite scarifying attacks on the money hunger and duplicity of Earthlings. Satire has always been a significant part of science fiction because it is easy to poke fun at Earth mores when you set your scene in a fantastic world. It’s safer too, as Swift realized when he wrote Gulliver’s Travels, and many Soviet science-fiction writers would agree.
E. E. “Doc” Smith was a special case. His book The Skylark of Space, published in 1928, was the first of a whole string of novels about supertech spaceships and weapons and interstellar police forces, with half a dozen strange new alien races and dastardly ultrascientific villains in every book. Smith invented the whole category of “space opera”—which is what Star Wars is, for instance. And Jack Williamson, who is still writing, as prolific and loved as ever at the age of eighty-one, was already a big name in the field, with the same sort of space opera as Doc Smith and a few new wrinkles of his own.
In the 1930s a lot of the old masters began to lose ground to fresh young upstarts. One of them, Stanley G. Weinbaum, called his first story A Martian Odyssey, and it marked a quantum leap in science fiction that immediately changed the plans of half the other writers in the field. What Weinbaum did was to portray a wholly alien creature as a person.
No one had done that before. Science fiction was always creeping with aliens, but they were mostly simple monsters who wanted nothing but to kill Earthlings and maybe drink their blood, or they were unbelievably humanoid wise men and women in Roman togas who wished to tell us how to eat yogurt and conform to the Eternal Righteousness. Weinbaum’s Tweel was none of that. He looked like an ostrich. He spoke little English, and none at all in simple declarative sentences; his logic was not the same as human logic, so his language could not be the same. And he was very much his own individual self, not a stick figure labeled “alien.” He inspired a thousand copies—and still does.
Stanley Weinbaum began writing relatively late (most science-fiction writers start around the time they are old enough to vote) and died tragically young, in 1935; his entire writing career had spanned only two years. But his debut as a writer was the most significant event for science fiction in the middle of that decade—at least until John W. Campbell, Jr., arrived as an editor at Astounding Science Fiction.
Campbell began writing science fiction as an undergraduate at MIT. Almost at once he became recognized as the chief competitor to Doc Smith in the space-opera league with blockbusters like The Mightiest Machine and The Black Star Passes. Campbell’s stories were wonderful to us uncritical fans at the time but, in retrospect, not that impressive. He added little to the genre that Smith hadn’t done well enough before him. A few years later Campbell began writing a different kind of science fiction, moody and almost poetic stories like “Twilight” and more complex and original ones like “Who Goes There?” (which later became, in two versions, the cult-classic film The Thing). To mark his new period in these stories, Campbell used the pen name of Don A. Stuart (the maiden name of his wife, Dona, was Stuart). Then, at the height of his powers as a writer, Campbell gave it up entirely for a new career. Street & Smith, the pulp publisher of Astounding Stories, hired him to replace its retiring science-fiction editor, and thus was born what is often called the Golden Age of John W. Campbell.