Heinlein Society – Scholastic/Academic articles
CAMPBELL ON HEINLEIN:
SELECTIONS FROM THE JOHN W. CAMPBELL LETTERS
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Selected and introduced by
Professor of English
Saint Mary’s College of California
©2004 Robert Gorsch. All rights reserved. Used here by permission of the author.
Probably the two crucial figures in the Golden Age of Science Fiction were John W. Campbell and Robert A. Heinlein. Campbell was the inimitable editor of Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown Worlds, and Heinlein was Campbell’s greatest discovery and the mainstay of Campbell’s magazines during the early 1940s.
The correspondence between Campbell and Heinlein during the late 1930s and the early 1940s, when Heinlein’s career was just getting under way, has been selected and presented by Virginia Heinlein in Grumbles from the Grave, pp. 3-36. The present letters, from Campbell to others about Heinlein and, in one instance, from Heinlein to someone else about Campbell, complement the letters already published by Virginia Heinlein and flesh out our picture of their relationship between the years 1940 and 1963. Perhaps one day someone will edit the whole of Campbell and Heinlein’s correspondence, also including Campbell’s letters to others about Heinlein and Heinlein’s letters to others about Campbell. But, for now, this is what we have. Readers of the present letters are encouraged to consult Grumbles from the Grave for that early correspondence between Campbell and Heinlein.
These letters tell a story. At first Heinlein and Campbell, and even Heinlein’s wife Leslyn and Campbell’s wife Dona, really seemed to have hit it off. Campbell gushes in 1940: “The Heinlein’s are swell people. . . . and they both are darned interesting.” Heinlein was then a fast- rising star, already the author of such published stories as “Requiem” and “If This Goes On.” Some of the letters from Heinlein published in Grumbles from the Grave give us a sense of how warmly Heinlein felt toward Campbell. But his career as a Campbell author was relatively brief: 1939-1942. After the hiatus in his writing career occasioned by World War II, Heinlein sought out and was increasingly successful in new markets for his work: soon he was publishing stories in the Saturday Evening Post and other “slick magazines,” juvenile novels, and hardcover and softcover reprints of revised versions of his early work.
Over the years, the warm friendship of the early 1940s faded into acrimony. Virginia Heinlein treats this as an all but inexplicable fact: “The friendship dwindled, and was eventually completely gone. It was just another casualty, probably, of World War II” (Grumbles, p. 36). But, with all due respect, it seems pretty clear that World War II really had little to do with the coming break between Heinlein and Campbell. Both men had programs for the future, and both were men of strong opinions. Heinlein was building a career and, after the end of the war, Campbell and Astounding Science Fiction seemed to have had little or no place in his program for the future. Similarly, Campbell had plans for the advancement of science fiction as a genre and Heinlein seemed unwilling to play anything like the role Campbell had hoped and expected he would and, indeed, was unwilling to play any role at all. Heinlein was increasingly successful without the aid of Campbell, and Campbell had to make do without his greatest writer.
Campbell was increasingly unhappy with Heinlein’s later work. He seems to have thought that the post-war Heinlein, or at any rate the 1950s Heinlein, was intellectually and imaginatively lazy: “Bob can write a better story, with one hand tied behind him, than most people in the field can do with both hands. But Jesus, I wish that son of a gun would take that other hand out of his pocket” (Letter to Isaac Asimov, May 11, 1956). But when Heinlein started getting really serious, as he did with Starship Troopers and its successors, Campbell was even more unhappy. Campbell objected to Heinlein’s new fiction on technical grounds: “I feel,” he wrote to Heinlein’s agent, “that Bob’s departing from the principles he himself introduced in science fiction — ‘Don’t tell the reader about the background; let him gather it from what happens.’ . . . The more fiction is kept at the level of fiction, the more the reader is forced to accept that any conclusions he reaches from the works of a professed liar are his own, personal conclusions, . . .” This critique by Campbell is important since it articulates the dubious attitude of many older readers towards Heinlein’s new, “controversial” works of the late 1950s and 1960s, and, in its essence, it expresses a set of objections felt by many readers of Heinlein’s later fiction even now. At the same time, from both the friendly and the critical remarks about Heinlein’s work in these letters, especially the letters of June 12, 1942, and March 4, 1959, Campbell’s discussions of Heinlein give us some insight into what he himself thought the Campbell revolution was all about in terms of both technique and content and why he was in the early days so enthusiastic about Heinlein as a writer. As the previously quoted passage indicates, Campbell had a very clear idea of the technical innovations introduced or exemplified by Heinlein. He also seems to follow Heinlein’s example when he sketches out a future history of his own which he presents to A. E. van Vogt, of all people, as a sort of consensus future history that all the Astounding writers can take for granted (Letter of June 12, 1942).
It is important to remember, however, that the decay in their relationship was a long and gradual process. In 1950, Campbell wrote a very positive introduction to The Man Who Sold the Moon, the first volume of Heinlein’s revised and enlarged “future history” series. In 1954, Heinlein visited Campbell on a trip eastward (see the letter to Henry Kuttner, June 7, 1954). And Campbell did see fit to publish some of Heinlein’s post-war work: “Gulf” (December, 1949), Double Star (Feb.-Apr., 1956), and Citizen of the Galaxy (Sept.-Dec., 1957). The acceptance of Citizen of the Galaxy even occasioned two long letters from Campbell to Heinlein, not included here, in which Campbell takes the opportunity to discuss at considerable length slavery and related issues, such as selective breeding (April 5, 1957, and May 3, 1957: I.320-24 and I.324-330). These two letters make for interesting, if uncomfortable, reading since they are mostly concerned to explain and defend slavery as a beneficial social institution “in the long run.”
In 1963, Campbell recommended Hal Clement, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov as the best and most consistent science fiction writers—the rest “are wildly variable”—but with this proviso: “Robert Heinlein’s older stories are brilliant and well-thought-out; his material since 1955 is entirely different.” Also in 1963, Heinlein wrote to his agent that he regarded the editors of Fantasy and Science Fiction as “stingy” but added that it was still “pleasanter” dealing with them “than offering copy to John Campbell, having it bounced . . . —and then have to wade through ten pages of his arrogant insults, explaining to me why my story is no good” (Grumbles, p. 152).
This collection of letters, in its fragmentary way, affords a reader revealing glimpses of the personal and professional relationship between the two men most responsible for re-creating science fiction in the 1940s and ushering in its “Golden Age.”
These letters are here reproduced with the kind permission of Perry A. Chapdelaine et al. and the estate of Robert A. Heinlein.
Campbell, John W. The John W. Campbell Letters, Vol. I. Ed. Perry A. Chapdelaine, Sr., et al. Franklin, Tenn.: AC Projects, 1985. (CI)
Campbell, John. W. The John W. Campbell Letters with Isaac Asimov and A. E. van Vogt, Vol. II. Ed. Perry A. Chapdelaine, Sr., et al. Franklin, Tenn.: AC Projects, 1993. (CII)
Heinlein, Robert A.. Grumbles from the Grave. Ed. Virginia Heinlein. New York: Del Rey, 1989. (Grumbles)
Robert Swisher June 3, 1940
Last Friday I finally finished up the pile of manuscripts that had accumulated while I was away, plus those that came in while I was trying to polish off the pile that had come in. I’d have finished sooner, but the town’s been deluged with “visiting firemen” —to wit, Robert Heinlein, E.E. Smith, and appropriate wives, plus various and assorted authors and ditto-esses who thought it was about time I saw them, after telling `em I was out of town for three weeks.
So — anyway. As I said in my brief note, accompanied by six rubber-tired ash-trays (I hope the ash-trays as well as the rubber tires arrived in sound condition!), we tried to get in touch with you Thursday, but Fran seemed to be out. As you know, Dona’s mother died that Sunday; Sunday nite I made a flying trip to N.Y., spent Monday working, and came back on the boat Monday nite. The funeral was Tuesday, as you know; Wednesday, Dona, as residual heir, was very busy cleaning things out, and this was finished Thursday. Thursday noon we finally had a breathing spell, and that nite we took the boat back to N.Y. I had to get down by Friday for make-up.
We arrived in N.Y. at 8 A.M., took a taxi to 304 W. 28th St., I stepped into a handy cigar store, and called Willy Ley to inform him that for once the Germans were about to be invaded and to get up and get ready for guests. That Friday nite, Dona, Willy and I went to Kriegspiel at Fletcher Pratt’s, and finally, at about 2 A.M. arrived home. Dona hadn’t wanted to go home alone.
Since then, things have been slightly hectic both officially and socially. The Heinlein’s are swell people. They are taking a tour of the country for the hell of it, and may wander up Bosting way; I’m gonna suggest they look you up if they do. They’re both a little shy and reserved at first —Heinlein puts on a bit of Annapolis manners, and Mrs. Heinlein is naturally reserved —but they loosen up quickly, and they both are darned interesting. Bob Heinlein has some swell stories and anecdotes. One’s good enough to write:
Concernces Couvier, the great French zoologist, contemporary of Darwin. Some of his students decided it would be fun to scare the wits out of the old boy, and arranged for one of the number, dressed in conventional Devil’s attire, complete with accessories to invade his room one night while they were parked outside. The old man woke up, the student leered down at him and intoned: “Mortal, prepare to die! I have come to eat you!”
Couvier looks him up and down somewhat blankly. “Horns! Hooves! Herbivorous! You can’t!” he snapped.
In N.Y., the Heinleins are staying at the apartment of three ex-Navy men —classmates of Bob Heinlein’s. The three live with their family, but maintain the apartment for conveniences and parties. When we went in it, I went to the bathroom to wash off the grime of a day’s toil, and remarked to Bob when I came out that it looked at first glance as though the decorator of the bath had been somewhat of an egomaniac. The room was lined with mirrors. There were three huge mirrors on the walls, and one of those triple all-angle mirror arrangements into the bargain.
Heinlein explained that it was accidental, all due to a misunderstanding. It seems that when they got the place, they decided they needed a long mirror over the couch. Arwine, the principal occupant of the joint, heard about an auction of night-club (deceased) effects, and went around. There was a nice mirror —just what they wanted. About 12 feet long and three feet deep. He bid on it, and got it for a nice price, ordered it delivered. The next day, the trucker arrived, and, with three assistants, brought it up. Then he went down again for the rest. Arwine had made a slight error; he had bid in Lot #288 —all the mirrors in the joint!
The second occupant of the place, in the meantime, had told a glazier to get around and put up the mirror. Arwine had left to tell the other boys what had happened when the glazier arrived. When Arwine and friends returned, glazier looked a bit distressed and reported he didn’t know where to put the other eight mirrors, but he had most of `em up. He did. There are 15 different mirrors, most of them large, in the bedroom, dozens in living room and kitchen, as well as the polyreflective bathroom.
Sprague sold us a story the other day that he called, “The Warrior Race,” but I’m thinking of retitling, “The Earth-Savers.” Earth’s conquered by a Spartan-type people from Alpha Centaurae, a pure warrior race. The Earth-savers are a Philadelphia politician and a Chinese business man. They save the Earth because they’re so completely and colossally crooked they utterly and hopelessly corrupt the warrior race and make them too soft to fight. It’s a rather lovely idea, I think.
I’ve told you about the Solar System having the elements of a giant vacuum tube amplifier: I was telling Smith about it, and he’s thinking of having his Galactic Patrol story wind up with Kim beaming the entire enemy fleet out of existence by using eight solar systems hooked up in push-pull as a final power-amplifier on the beam output. I rather like that, too.
“All” is retired from the active list herewith: Heinlein, to whom I recounted the plot, seems very much interested and wants to work it out. He would do a nice job, I think, and I want him to try.
Incidentally, Heinlein told me something of his system. “Peace! It’s wonderful!” He has a big chart: on the vertical margin, he has years and centuries marked off; on the horizontal margin, technologies. (Physics, psychology, rocketry, etc.) When he writes a story, he decides what century to lay it in, what technology, etc., and looks at his chart. At the chosen time, his chart tells him, such-and-such a form of government was in power (the Prophet, for instance, if it’s laid in 2,300; see “If This Goes On—”) and tells him what characters mentioned in other stories were living at that time. A given character —the Skipper in “Misfit,” for instance— is represented by a vertical line, his life span, in the vertical column of his technology. Horizontal lines across are labeled with the name of the invention of major importance they represent. For instance, the sun-power screens mentioned in “The Roads Must Roll” and in “Coventry” and “Blow-ups Happen.”
All his stories under the Heinlein name in Astounding will have that common historical background. “All” will be rewritten under another name, because it doesn’t fit that historical set-up in any way. “The Devil Makes The Law” (Ex-“Magic, Inc.”) will appear in Unknown. That doesn’t fit either, but it does fit in another history he’s building up.
A.E. van Vogt’s “Slan!,” the superman story, came in while I was away, and has been accepted and will appear beginning in September. It makes nice reading, and is, I think, a thoroughly good job. Heinlein will be interested, I know.
Heinlein is retired from the Navy due to disability —T.B. Seems there are three occupational diseases of the Navy, all due to the promotion scheme they have. The system works as follows: an officer is up for advancement, is considered by the promotion board, and is, let’s say, passed over. Someone else, his junior, is promoted over his head for doing unusually good work. That’s all right; he’s still eligible. He’s up again —and again passed over. Still all right. But if he’s passed over a third time —he’s automatically retired from the Navy. Now the Navy men very evidently love the Navy. But they can’t stay in it if they don’t advance; they can’t stand still. That applies to the men under them, who are trying like holy hell to get up too.
That leads to the three occupational diseases: T.B., Ulcers, nervous breakdown. It works this way. Just short of nervous breakdown, your digestion goes to hell. Now if you’ve got a tough nervous set-up, and a tough physical condition, you’ll get ulcers and be retired. If your physical set-up is a little weak, the over-work, poor digestion and eating, lack of sleep, etc., gives you T.B. If the nervous set-up cracks first, you get rested in a sanatorium.
They all recover, practically speaking, but after they’ve been retired, Heinlein says, Navy’s all they will or want to talk most of the time. So Heinlein made a specialty of not talking or looking Navy for the last 6 years, and went in for politics instead. The Heinleins are also boycotting the war.
Leslyn (Mrs. Heinlein) says they’ll learn all they need to about it from one of two sources: the history books or the Man with the Leggings. Bob Heinlein’s retired —but that just means he’s on the reserve list, to be called up when they want him.
Arwine, also ex-Navy, was telling me he had resigned. Heinlein cackled softly; Arwine grinned. It seems Arwine sent in his resignation, was properly ushered out of the Navy, and has gone into publicity (World’s Fair) work. About three months ago a man came around to him inquired rather forcefully why he hadn’t reported to his Area Commander this quarter; Arwine explained he had resigned from the Navy. The gentleman remarked that maybe he thought he had, but the fact was that you just don’t retire from the Navy. You resign from Active Duty, not from the Navy.
Arwine’s a Lt. Commander, but he told me he’d never commanded any ship, which puzzled me. I mentioned it to Heinlein, who said it wasn’t any particular secret, but Lt. Commanders who haven’t commanded ships are in another division of the Navy’s work. He then dropped that, but went on to tell me about the very bad luck the Navy has with men who are sent to the Japanese Language School, also run by the Navy. A number of the very shortest Annapolis men take the course, but the Navy has the worst luck; nearly all of them, just about the time they’ve completed the long and very thorough course, get into a jam, a bad one —they go wrong, like taking a bribe and being caught at it, or something— and get court-martialled out of the Navy with a bang.
Arwine’s not in that division, because he’s very tall, and very, very rugged and North-European of feature.
Heinlein was fire-control officer on the Lexington. Tells me there are four official, and five unofficial classes of Naval information; Public, Service, Confidential, and Secret, are the official ones. The meanings are clear. Unofficially, the men divide them into Public, Service, Confidential, Secret, and Super-colossal Terrific Secret. The last class includes things like the bomb-sight, and the plane-arresting-gear used in landing planes on aircraft carriers. The latter consists of two things; a wire cable stretched about knee-high across the deck, and the arresting-gear proper to which the wire cables run. Frayed wires are fixed by machinist’s mates; the arresting gear is in steel cases below decks. When that needs repair, some of the technical officers get out of their pretty uniforms, get into dungarees, station an officer guard outside the room, and go to town personally on the apparatus.
The apparatus, incidentally, Heinlein says is very, very smooth. It’ll arrest a big bomber with a nice, even, uniform deceleration, and not drag it backward after it comes to rest, but will pull the wires back into place when the bomber’s finger, which catches the wires, is released.
That seems to cover most of the general news available at this time and place.
Dona is now entirely over her spells of sickness, has had only one day when she was somewhat upset, and hasn’t taken to amphogel more than three or four times. She seems to be doing very nicely indeed. She’s got her one of those special dresses, and is slightly annoyed because it’s a nice, new, pretty dress that she can’t wear yet. So far her regular things fit.
Oh, a cousin of ours has a new —very— son. Last year, when she went to her doc about it, she was told to expect results about April 24 —and was annoyed. They’d taken out hospitalization, but the waiting period for, maternity benefits wouldn’t be up until May 4. Missing by couple of weeks meant about $100 to them.
The baby was late. She went to the hospital May 5, and it was born May 6. She claims it showed remarkable judgment, for one so young.
Dona has some remarks to make, I believe, so—
A.E. van Vogt June 12, 1942
Dear van Vogt:
Recently I’ve been pretty well occupied, and have had to confine most of my remarks to you to those put on that pretty pale-green paper the business office makes out. I’ll try to catch up a little more fully.
On the general subject of bouncing manuscripts, I might say that I’ve been writer long enough myself to know that no human being can maintain perfection, or even a reasonable facsimile thereof, for any extended period of time. If you didn’t have an occasional slump, I’d be inclined to believe that “van Vogt” was a pen-name for a literary factory —one of those combines where half a dozen authors work together, A getting an idea, B developing a plot, C working out the rough draft with incidents, D developing the conversation and characters, and E doing final writing, while F specializes in sticking in love scenes, fist-fights and scientific double-talk as the occasion demands.
To date, I believe Bob Heinlein is the only science-fiction writer who has a record of 100% sales of everything he ever turned out. He did it by using a string of pen-names, and selling his slump-stuff to progressively lower markets under progressively more secret pennames. He doesn’t like rewriting. If you are, like myself, an incident-and-idea salvager, you’ll eventually use up those ideas in other stories. If not, you could revamp `em a bit, stick on a pen-name, and try them on the other books. Some one, in the present state of the magazine market, is sure to be willing to publish them under some pen-name, even if the payment doesn’t exceed the lawyer’s fees necessary to collect from the publisher. On the other hand, several of the other books —Amazing, Thrilling Wonder, Planet and others, I understand —pay very decently, both as to rates and willingness, though none quite as promptly as Street & Smith. We have for several years made a special point of getting out checks in full payment more quickly than most houses get out a letter of intent to buy.
Unknown is still chock-a-block on all lengths save novels; at the moment, I have the novel necessary for the issue in sight, but I’ll be needing one before very long.
Astounding is quite badly in need of a serial; it will be more than half a year since the end of “Beyond This Horizon” before we can, because of issues now made up, have another novel. I don’t particularly like that, but the capacious maw of the large-size mag swallows anything shorter than 40,000 words in one bit. If you’ve got anything of 45,000 to 60,000 words on the schedule, we can use it.
“Weapon Shop” was, like much of your material, good without any detectable reason for being interesting. Technically, it doesn’t have plot, it starts nowhere in particular, wanders about, and comes out in another completely indeterminate place. But, like a park path, it’s a nice little walk. I liked it, as you may have gathered from the 25% extra.
I’m genuinely trying to divert the stream of science-fiction a bit, and you, del Rey, and one or possibly two others are the best bets as to authors capable of making the change felt. Heinlein’s out of the business; he’s not at sea, but excessively busy on some work so damned fascinating I wish he could discuss it more fully, and that I could pass on what little I know. Asimov, de Camp and I myself am engaged in the same work to varying degrees; I, because I’m on it only part time, least of all.
But what I’m trying to do in science-fiction is to turn it away from the hard, rather brittle practicality of some of the best of the stories of the last year or two. Up to 1940, science-fiction rather badly needed some more solid background stuff —something small-scale, material taking a close-up look at a technical civilization that used the inventions of science-fiction not for the first time, but as work-a-day tools of industry. Where the atomic generator wasn’t the new and wonderful discovery of Prof. Quzxyktl, who immediately applied it to his spaceship and sailed for Mars, but the common draft-horse of heavy industry. Where atomic engineers got paid an hourly wage or a monthly salary, instead of having as their payment wild and wooly adventures.
Now, that background has been filled in solidly enough so that all the current writers and readers have some idea of what an atom-powered civilization means —that not all atomic engineers spend their lives patching up meteor-smashed atom-burners on experimental Mars-bound space-cans.
(You can always tell when I really get rolling on a typewriter; the letters start coming out at odd intervals. I use the Columbus system of typing —hunt and discover— as I learned to type by typing my first yarn for the old Amazing.)
With that background fairly solid now, I think it is time to go back to the explorers, the first invaders of space. They’ll leave behind them a world with technical resources adequate to support and sustain an atomic-powered spaceship, and with industrial potential —and pressure— high enough to overflow into interplanetary space.
Philosophical problem: Can a socio-technical pressure-potential be determined in terms of some type of arbitrary unit on an arbitrary scale such that by it, the overflow-point of a civilization can be pre determined, and the type of overflow predicted? That is, Ericson discovered America sometime previous to 1000 A.D. —but nothing happened. The socio-technical pressures of Europe were not high enough to drive out a sufficient number of people to found a colony, and the technical means to maintain transoceanic colonies were not at hand. In the latter part of the 15th century they were, so Europe overflowed to America. For a long time, the socio-technical pressures were so low on the North American continent that Europeans remained on the Eastern seaboard only, practically speaking, and the colonies remained colonies. Then the pressures built up, first reaching the point where independence of action was necessary, particularly to those colonies where the pressures were highest —the original United States— while other colonies, where natural conditions hadn’t been so favorable to the accumulation of pressures —Canada— remained colonies. As time passed, Canada required and obtained, its freedom of action, while the pressures here produced the Western overflow.
Socio-technical pressures after the war will be, for some time, directed toward rebuilding Europe, but with atomic technology coming in, and the immense population now available, that job will be effectively completed within 5 years. The time for interplanetary overflow will be at hand. First explorers, then colonies, then —the old cycle over again. Eventually, someday in the not-too-remote future, there will be overflow toward other stellar systems. The overflow will probably be directly from Earth, not from the other Solar planets. Earth will always develop the highest pressures; man is ideally adapted to this planet, and is bound to breed and work best here. The pressure will be for the discovery of other stellar planets more nearly identical to Earth in climate.
I want material laid in the periods of over-flow —either the exploratory, or very early colonization periods— the romantic type of daring-do that characterized, but badly and baldly characterized, the early days of science-fiction. I want hard-boiled idealists who don’t know they’re courageous. Men who, for $500 a month (they think) are doing the impossible, and cursing the job they love and are tackling because no higher pleasure is possible for them, in fact.
Incidentally, the time scale: Science-fiction tends to go very wrong on time-scale, because authors and readers in the field are very timid about it all. I’m betting on a first landing on the Moon by 1965 at the latest, Mars by 1970, Venus at or about the same time. There will be a scientific colony on the Moon from 1965 to 1970, consisting of astronomers, solar specialists, and electronics and atomic engineers. There will probably be some research chemists, and some map specialists too, the chemists working on projects more readily conducted under conditions of total vacuum and low temperature.
* * *
A.E. van Vogt October 15, 1942
Dear van Vogt:
Before I forget to mention it, there’s a book coming out soon that I think you’ll want to get —if they permit importation of books into Canada. It’s called Rocket To The Morgue, a mystery novel by “H.H. Holmes” —who is Wm. A.P. White, who writes, also, under the name Anthony Boucher. I don’t know whether you know about the Manana Literary Society or not. Anyway, it was a group of science-fiction and fantasy authors in and around Hollywood-Los Angeles area which Bob Heinlein more or less semi-organized as a way of getting new authors for me. He was a big help; through that loose, really 90% social group he found and got started into fantasy-science-fiction for me Anthony Boucher himself, Cleve Cartmill, Roby Wentz and one or two others. The group worked over Hank Kuttner ’til he turned into Lewis Padgett, a damn site better author. Ed Hamilton, Jack Williamson, L. Ron Hubbard and Julius Schwartz, author’s agent in the science-fiction field, were all members. The thing sort of broke up after Dec. 7 because so many went elsewhere.
See also “Robert Heinlein : Murder Suspect
Rocket To The Morgue is laid in that Manana Literary Society. (Incidentally, the club name was adopted because they were always talking about the yarn they were going to write —tomorrow. When anybody actually was at work on a story, he was said to have moved into the Hoy Division of the Manana Literary Society.) All but two or three of the characters in the book are based on the members of the group, they are science-fiction-fantasy writers in the story, and the motivation of the book is science-fiction writing. I’m in it off-stage; the editor the characters all sell their material to is named Don Stuart. One or two of the characters are actually blends of two or more real people, but most are direct, and quite accurate descriptions of the real writers. Austin Carter is Bob Heinlein, sketched very accurately. The detective of the story is A.P. White himself —and his family— although A.P. wanders in and out of the yarn also as Tony Boucher. Joe Henderson is a blend of 10% Ed Hamilton and 90% Jack Williamson; the description is pure Jack Williamson. About half the book is no more than reportorial jottings of Manana Literary Society meetings; 75% of the gags and cracks in the yarn are straight lifting of incidents that did happen.
I had a hell of a good time reading it, because I knew all the people in it. Oh, Duncan is a modified Cleve Cartmill; Cleve is, actually, as I think I mentioned, rather thoroughly crippled physically. If you want a chance to meet some of your fellow authors under a very thin disguise, this is it.
* * *
Harry Kuttner June 7, 1954
Bob Heinlein came east, and we met again for the first time in five or so years. Since a lot of water has flown under a lot of bridges, we started sort of out of phase; dunno if we ever did get back in phase. You’ll probably hear from him; you’ve heard from me somewhat more regularly than he has, so you may get a different impression. There was a certain degree of mutual irritation, due to the out-of-phase relationship.
You know, two currents of the same frequency, the same character, can buck each other more efficiently than two currents of different character. The closer the actual agreement, the more apparent difference there is!
There are some people —particularly the scholastic-scholarly type— who consider the term “research” to be simply and exclusively the plural of “plagiarize.” That’s one extreme of the concept. The other, of course, is the guy who thinks nothing anybody else ever did has any value whatever. But getting a proper balance in between is a damn tough job —and defining that balance caused something of an argument between Bob and myself.
He also somewhat mistook my attitude in another respect. I’ll bet the good householders of Lexington and Concord regarded Paul Revere’s hullabaloo in the middle of the night a god damned nuisance. After all, if some bird coming yammering through the town yelling, “Get out of bed and stand up to be shot by the British!” comes along, it is a damned unpleasant disturbance. Irving Berlin put it:
“Some day I’m going to murder that bugler,
“Some day they’re going to find him dead!
“I’ll amputate his reveille,
“And step upon it heavily,
“And spend the rest of my life in bed.”
Bob maintains that I can’t do research because I don’t have higher mathematics. Yeah —and neither could Nicholas C[h]ristofilos. Only he could get a patent on an idea that worked.
* * *
Isaac Asimov May 11, 1956
How was I to know that “Names” was one of those I-gotta-say-it-or-bust items? I asked for an article; you said you didn’t have anything in mind. . . and the next I know it’s an I just-gotta-tell-it piece!
Anyhow, it was, of course, good; if you haven’t got the check yet, it’s on its way. The thing is, you can write a better article about almost nothing than most people can write about the discovery of a practical anti-gravity device. But that’s no reason to encourage you to write about almost nothing, is it?
I’ve got a Bob Heinlein novel on hand now [The Door Into Summer], for decision, that’s got me worried and bothered. Bob can write a better story, with one hand tied behind him, than most people in the field can do with both hands. But Jesus, I wish that son of a gun would take that other hand out of his pocket. I also have a Jack Vance novel on hand; it’s got a lovely idea. If Vance could write like Heinlein, or Heinlein would take the trouble to think as hard as Vance did in cooking this one up. . . .
Bob’s got a cat in the yarn, Petronius, known as Pete. Pete’s a wonderful character —Bob’s made him delightful. Only. . . he has nothing to do with the story, dammit.
* * *
Lurton Blassingame March 4, 1959
Dear Mr. Blassingame:
Re: “Starship Soldier,” by Robert A. Heinlein
1. It, is, basically, a juvenile type –“Space Cadet” series— and therefore not dead-center in Astounding’s field.
2. I cannot fully subscribe to Bob’s “Patrick Henry League” approach.
I feel that Bob’s departing from the principles he himself introduced in science fiction —”Don’t tell the reader about the background; let him gather it from what happens.” In this yarn, there are several sections of multi-page preachments of his thesis. Some of the preachments I agree with fully; they still strike me as being ineffective because of the technique of direct-statement presentation.
The real suasion power of fiction lies, and always has lain, in the non-logical solution to the old logical paradox, “Epaminondas, the Cretan, says `All Cretans always lie.'”
The more fiction is kept at the level of fiction, the more the reader is forced to accept that any conclusions he reaches from the words of a professed liar are his own, personal conclusions, and that he, not the author, has reached that conclusion.
Jesus used parables –fictions— because what any listener derives from a fiction is the listener’s own thought. And that sticks far deeper and tighter than the ideas of an external mind.
Properly done, you could produce a profound anti-Nazi feeling in the reader by telling a story 100% from the viewpoint of a dedicated, fervent Nazi.
Here I fear Bob’s going to induce considerable anti-patriotism in a lot of readers by telling a story from the viewpoint of a 100% dedicated patriot.
Therefore, the points with which I agree with Bob in full make me uncomfortable when presented in this overly-homolitic fashion.
And there are points with which I disagree very strongly —including, as a matter of fact, his fundamental thesis-point. That shooting-war is, was, and forever will be, ahmen.
That thesis produces a decidedly down-beat, hopeless, what’s-the-use-of-this-old-cycle-again feeling. And I have reason to believe it’s false.
Bob bases his proposition on “A living organism that does not grow, dies. Therefore the existence of two or more organisms in the Universe inescapably implies physical combat.”
Not true. It does imply competition —but not necessarily physical. Primitive organisms do, in truth, have to grow physically or die; higher organisms have discovered ways of growth that are nonphysical, and so can cease physical growth. We do not need new territory, if we can develop new dimensions. The saurians tried the route of unlimited physical size —and were licked by small mammals, who tried unlimited adaptability instead.
E. E. Smith, in his Lensman series, suggested other directions of growth. Smith’s “Lensmen” could have handled the “Bug War” with neatness and dispatch; the “Bugs” were ruled entirely by a few brain-Bugs. The Lensmen, by controlling mentally a few of those directive intelligences, could have made all the physical weapons of all Bug Warriors totally futile —because intelligence was concentrated so completely that the whole race could be paralyzed by reaching a few control centers.
But Heinlein’s physical-combat-is-all boys couldn’t reach them.
The physical aspect is absolutely necessary; Heinlein’s 100% right on that. Trouble is, if you assume, as he does, that it is both necessary and sufficient, then we might as well quit trying now, because physical powers we already have, and there’s no place else to go. We can “make lace” —we can grow Bigger and Better Brontosaurs— but there is no higher level of reality to explore.
Physical war is inevitable . . . if only physical techniques are real. They are real; Rome did destroy Carthage physically.
But the Glory of Rome wasn’t destroyed physically; the Rome that was Rome —the real, dynamic entity— was dead, and had been dead for centuries when the Goths and Vandals started carving for dinner.
A prefrontal lobotomy doesn’t destroy the physical man, any more than the loss of a finger does. But. if you’ve ever had the experience of dealing with a lobotomized . . . he’s dead. Deader than any corpse.
France wasn’t destroyed physically. The Germans, English, and others tried hard, but they didn’t achieve their intent.
The United States did more to kill France than any other nation . . . and we weren’t even trying! We destroyed France economically and intellectually.
What Bob misses is this; “it’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, as time goes by” . . . but when you discover weapons vastly more efficient than your teeth, you stop biting. When you find techniques of destroying an enemy that are more efficient than cutting, burning, or blasting him . . . you stop that method.
War as we’ve known it is about through. There are more efficient techniques.
Brain-washing isn’t physical torture, you know . . . but it’s very effective. Men stopped killing off the enemy tribe . . . when they learned how to enslave them.
The new weapons aren’t piddling little thermonuclear bombs; those are ineffective.
So war is about through. Spankings for primitive tribes, and small children, yes. But for older children, a tongue-lashing–when well done–is more dreaded than a spanking. It’s a weapon that cuts deeper.
For more mature tribes . . . being made to recognize their own stupidity is more effective than being spanked physically.
Without the proposition that we are going somewhere now . . . that war won’t be forever . . . there is none of the upbeat push that science fiction needs to fulfill its job of stimulating people to try for something better than we have, or have had.
Regards, John W. Campbell, Jr.
Rog Phillips Graham January 10, 1962
First, let me explain that part of the delay on that last letter was caused by the fact that Kay Tarrant, my assistant editor, secretary, managing editor, production editor, and everything else for the last 20 years, was hit by a heart attack, and has been laid up. Five of us are stumbling along trying to do what she did routinely and we’re coming out the worse for wear.
The manuscript comes back. As things are, I’ve got novels on hand to carry through next December —which is too much already. (That last one is a Jim Blish Okie story I had to take!)
Your start on this is excellent —as was Bob Heinlein’s start on his somewhat-similar Stranger in a Strange Land.
There are some stories, however, that can’t be written —and among the unwriteable ones are:
1. The Second Coming . . . which could be written only by the Master himself, since no merely human mind could encompass the problems, and the needed solutions inherent in the Second coming. Any human-limited attempt would inevitably sound false, and shallow.
2. The story of the Superman, from the Superman’s viewpoint. Which could, of course, only be written by a genuine superman, obviously. Can a child of 8 imagine realistically what adult love is?
3. Earth culture as seen by a visitor from a far older and more advanced culture.
The same fundamental reasoning applies.
For instance, your man’s trapped into discussing the problems of modern science. Your answers sound phony as hell . . . because, of course, they are. You’re not a 5000-year-old member of a 10 megayear old culture— and what you write doesn’t sound like it!
Your man loses his temper; after the first 5000 years of living, the ones that haven’t been killed by accidents are the ones that never lose their tempers and never panic.
And after kiloyears of visiting other worlds, other peoples, and learning other viewpoints . . . a man’s range of tastes is far too great to be unable to appreciate gourmet cooking.
The trouble with trying to write any one of those three stories I named is that you aren’t either the Master, the Superman, or a visitor with a 5000 year education in a mega-year-old culture.
Among the best superman stories that have been done —the classic and successful-in-popular-enthusiasm terms, were A.E. van Vogt’s “Slan,” and Page’s “But Without Horns” in Unknown.
In “Slan” you never meet a full-fledged, fully-developed Slan; you meet a poor, lost and hunted kid, Jommy. And later an adolescent, desperately trying to find out who and what he is and should be Jommy Cross. And Kathleen, another incomplete Slan-to-be.
John Cross, a full-fledged Slan, is glimpsed only for a moment, as he takes over control of the story-to-be-after-the-story.
In “But Without Horns” the superman’s presence dominates everything that happens . . . but the superman, like the men in the play “The Women,” is always off-stage.
The only way any one of those three stories can be approached involves using one of those mechanisms —some way of telling it within the limitations of human scope, for the author remains human. The best we can possibly do will be like the three blind men reporting back on their investigation of the elephant. We can’t see . . . and if the blind men are reporting back to the group of blind-from-birth men who sent them to investigate, then their audience couldn’t understand if the investigators, miraculously given sight for the moment, did report correctly!
Some stories can’t be written … by human beings.
Regards, John W. Campbell, ANALOG
Robert A. Heinlein to Lurton Blassingame March 9, 1963
I don’t think Fantasy and Science Fiction is riding the edge; I think they are just stingy. They claim 56,000 paid circulation. In view of their rates and their cheap production, plus some revenue from France and Germany, they should be showing a clear profit each month. Back in December ——— told me that the publisher would happily pay me in advance. As it is, they got a bargain-copy for $1,500 that they normally pay $1,800 for, to any writer, known name or not. Still, it is pleasanter than offering copy to John Campbell, having it bounced (he bounced both of my last two Hugo Award winners) —and then have to wade through ten pages of his arrogant insults, explaining to me why my story is no good.
* * *
John Diebold April 3, 1963
Dear Mr. Diebold:
Recommending science-fiction books to someone is difficult unless you know him personally; the range of interests expressed in science-fiction is, actually, wider than in standard literature. Adventure-type? Technical puzzle-type? Future sociology? Where is your field of interest?
Almost anything by Hal Clement is tightly thought through, and well-written. Robert Heinlein’s older stories are brilliant and well-thought out; his material since 1955 is entirely different. Isaac Asimov’s fiction books were all of good to excellent quality.
Most of the other authors in the field are rather wildly variable, each sometimes doing excellent stuff, and sometimes landing with a dull squelch.
The anthologies on the market do serve fairly well as samplers to give you a chance to find what you like.
Sincerely, John W. Campbell, Editor
MLA Style Citation of this Web Page
Gorsch, Robert. “Campbell on Heinlein: Selections from The John W. Campbell Letters”. The Heinlein Society website. URL:https://www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/history/campbellonheinlein.html (June 2004).