- Historic Sites
September/october 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
Doc Smith invented the “space opera”—what Star Wars is, for instance.
Campbell was not perfect as an editor. He had a tendency to believe in fads, cults, and bizarre notions; the highly controversial “religion” of Scientology got most of its early impetus through his magazine. He probably held his job at Astounding (later renamed Analog to satisfy Campbell’s technology-minded tastes) too long— more than thirty years, from 1937 to 1971—and for long stretches of that time he was clearly bored and simply going through the motions. But when he was at his peak, he could not be surpassed. He knew what kind of science fiction he wanted. He described it as “stories which could be printed as contemporary fiction, but in a magazine of the 25th Century.” Since not many writers were doing that sort of thing, Campbell went out to discover some who would. He found them, too. A. E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke—more than half the most famous science-fiction writers of all time made their first or first significant appearance in Campbell’s Astounding in those early years of his reign. He even persuaded some of the writers who had been around for a while—Henry Kuttner, Jack Williamson, L. Ron Hubbard, Clifford D. Simak, and others—to change their ways to suit his new style, usually to their great improvement.
Campbell’s office, in a rickety old building on Seventh Avenue in New York City, just above Fourteenth Street, was a mecca for writers. The writer would sit there beside the rolltop desk while Campbell fitted a Camel into his long filter-cigarette holder and gestured with it as he explained why robots would never equal humans in intelligence (or, on alternate weeks, why they would) and what atomic power would do to electric-utility shares. If he was wrong in what he expounded, as he often was, he was delighted to buy the stories his writers produced disagreeing with him.
If magazines had continued to rule the science-fiction field, Campbell might have remained king until his death. But a new kind of competition emerged—paperbound books—and not long after the end of World War II all the old pulp-magazine houses began to fade. Science fiction was not really a pulp field, but the difference became conspicuous only gradually, as all those Westerns and air-war and sports pulps disappeared.
The difference lay in the audience. Science-fiction readers didn’t just read; they participated. Remember all those fan magazines? As the fan-magazine publishers grew more sophisticated, they began to see that there was a need unmet. The great classic novels of science fiction had always been ephemeral. The three installments of The Skylark of Space appeared in their magazine issues in August, September, and October of 1928 and then were gone. In half a dozen places around the country, fans decided to do something about that. They found printers and binders and put some of the classics into book form. Once in a great while these amateur publishers managed to get one of their titles into a few bookstores—and thus brought about their own extinction. For once it became clear that there were books in the stores by people like Isaac Asimov and E. E. Smith and Robert A. Heinlein —and that people were actually buying them—the trade publishers got the idea. Simon & Schuster tried a novel or two; Doubleday came through with a whole science-fiction program. Other publishers followed. Sketchily financed, lacking the sales forces and the high-volume printing contracts, the fan publishers couldn’t compete.
From near zero at the end of World War II, the amount of science fiction published in the United States soared until nearly one novel in four was science fiction or fantasy by the 1980s, and science-fiction works by Frank Herbert ( Dune and its sequels), Arthur C. Clarke ( 2001 and many others), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle ( Lucifer’s Hammer et al.), and half a dozen others were not only appearing on the best-seller lists but sometimes dominating them.
The field has come a long way from the scaly green monsters of pulp magazines, and not just in volume. The change is even more marked in that quality called respectability.
The earliest conspicuous changes were demographic. The book-review sections of major newspapers began to run columns of science-fiction reviews; noticing this, serious establishment critics and academics began to take an interest. America’s Leslie Fiedler was one of the first to look on science fiction as a literary form worth serious study; from England, that Angry Young Man, Kingsley Amis, came to Princeton University to give a series of lectures that ultimately became his pioneering critical study of science fiction, New Maps of Hell . Suddenly science fiction was a literary vogue. College professors began to teach courses in science fiction; the Modern Language Association conducted seminars on the subject; ultimately the academics and critics who specialized in it formed their own professional academy, the Science Fiction Research Association, whose current president is Dr. Elizabeth Anne Hull (who, as it so happens, is also my wife).