Lesson 6: John W. Campbell's Astounding: 1938 - 1950

Lesson 6: John W. Campbell's Astounding: 1938 - 1950

Created by James Gunn and Thomas Seay

This course is available for online enrollment as ENGL 506 through the Continuing Education department of the University of Kansas. To take this course for academic credit, click here.

Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify the differences between gadget, adventure, and social science fiction; and
  • Describe how the shift toward social science fiction in the 1940s affected the development of the science-fiction genre.


"Nightfall," by Isaac Asimov
The Road to Science Fiction #2, pp. 446-79

"With Folded Hands," by Jack Williamson
The Road to Science Fiction #2, pp. 348-90

"The Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin
The Road to Science Fiction #3, pp. 213-37



Think what a science fiction story could have been written in 1880 about "an imaginary vehicle that can move without horses by some internal source of power; a horseless carriage, in other words." (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction," Modern Science Fiction, ed. Reginald Bretnor. New York: Coward-McCann. 1953.) In fact, Isaac Asimov had already thought about it and come up with not one story but three, which distinguish among adventure science fiction, gadget science fiction, and social science fiction. He has even made up a word for his horseless carriage; he calls it an automobile.

Writer X spends most of his time describing how the machine would run, explaining the workings of an internal-combustion engine, painting a word-picture of the struggles of the inventor, who after numerous failures, comes up with a successful model. The climax of the yarn is the drama of the machine, chugging its way along at the gigantic speed of twenty miles an hour, possibly beating a horse and carriage which have been challenged to a race. This is gadget science fiction. (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction")


There were, of course, many such stories written in the late nineteenth century. They were called dime novels. In the early twentieth century they would have been called Tom Swift and His . . .

Writer Y invents the automobile in a hurry, but now there is a gang of ruthless crooks intent on stealing this valuable invention. First they steal the inventor's beautiful daughter, whom they threaten with every dire eventuality but rape (in these adventure stories, girls exist to be rescued and have no other uses). The inventor's young assistant goes to the rescue. He can accomplish his purpose only by the use of the newly perfected automobile. He dashes into the desert at an unheard-of speed of twenty miles an hour to pick up the girl who otherwise would have died of thirst if he had relied on a horse, however rapid and sustained the horse's gallop. This is adventure science fiction. (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction")


This, of course, would have been the approach of Jules Verne, and the approach of a hundred science-fiction motion pictures.

Writer Z has the automobile already perfected. A society exists in which it is already a problem. Because of the automobile, a gigantic oil industry has grown up, highways have been paved across the nation, America has become a land of travelers, cities have spread into the suburbs—and what do we do about automobile accidents? Men, women, and children are being killed by automobiles faster than by artillery shells or airplane bombs. What can be done? What is the solution? This is social science fiction. (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction")


As Asimov comments, "It is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem." (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction")

This was the vision of science fiction embraced by John W. Campbell when, in 1938, he took over as editor of Astounding Stories (a magazine that was soon retitled Astounding Science Fiction and, later, Analog Science Fiction & Fact).

By this time, Campbell had already made a mark on the field: Under the penname Don A. Stuart, Campbell was one of the first modern writers to focus his concerns on society and the philosophical, economic, psychological, and sociological aspects of change. As editor of the leading science-fiction magazine, Campbell had the opportunity to translate his vision of science fiction into reality through the work of other writers. Campbell's approach to science fiction is summarized by Anthony Boucher in his mystery roman à clef, Rocket to the Morgue, where Campbell is called Don Stuart:

Grant your gadgets, and start your story from there. In other words, assume certain advances in civilization, then work out convincingly just how those would affect the lives of ordinary individuals like you and me. . . . In other words, to sum it all up in a phrase of Don's: "I want a story that would be published in a magazine of the twenty-fifth century." (Boucher, Rocket to the Morgue. New York: Dell, 1950.)


Such editorial requirements involved less overt descriptions, and more information carried by implication, as Austin Carter (Robert Heinlein) points out in Rocket to the Morgue:

For instance, in one story of René Lafayette's there is a noble amount of whisky drinking, and the name of the whisky is Old Space Ranger. And that one phrase paints an entire picture of a civilization in which interplanetary travel is the merest commonplace. (Boucher, Rocket to the Morgue. New York: Dell, 1950.)


About Campbell's influence on the field, Isaac Asimov has written:

What, specifically, did Campbell do? First and foremost, he de-emphasized the nonhuman and nonsocial in science fiction. Science fiction became more than a personal battle between an all-good hero and an all-bad villain. The mad scientists, the irascible old scientist, the beautiful daughter of the scientist, the cardboard menace from alien worlds, the robot who is a Frankenstein monste—all were discarded. In their place, Campbell wanted businessmen, space-ship crewmen, young engineers, housewives, robots that were logical machines. (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction")


He got them.

Again the dividing line is not sharp. Science fiction with real character existed before Campbell, notably in the stories written by Stanley G. Weinbaum in his short, meteoric career. . . .

The importance of Campbell is that he was not content to let Weinbaums spring up accidentally. He looked for them. He encouraged them. (Asimov, "Social Science Fiction," Modern Science Fiction, ed. Reginald Bretnor. New York: Coward-McCann. 1953.)


Up to this time science fiction had been largely a medium for heroes, larger-than-life characters placed in strange, ultimately demanding circumstances. Such stories would not disappear—they would be found in adventure fiction, in romantic survivals, in teenage fiction—but the central stories of science fiction would be populated by men of their own times, accepting the strangeness of their situations as commonplace realities.

Writing Assignment

Isaac Asimov distinguishes between three types of science fiction: social (which includes all of this lesson's readings), gadget, and adventure. How do this lesson's stories address social issues, and how might the stories have been different if they had instead focused on gadgetry or adventure?