Science fiction as we know it today is the result of the work of many people, authors, publishers, directors, editors, designers, enthusiasts and casual readers; everyone has made a contribution, even if only a small drop, into this majestic river.
Only a few, however, have managed to change the course, among them we can definitely count John Wood Campbell, Jr., a physicist, famous pulp fiction writer, and then editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, (later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact) which gave birth to the ‘Golden Age’ and ruled the fiction field for at least a decade.
Campbell was the catalyst that allowed a new generation of writers to emerge, while already established writers changed the tone of their works, developing and adapting to the new times.
The new course of science fiction, however, made several victims, and one of the authors whose career came to an end was the same Campbell, who left the typewriter to devote himself fully to the direction of Astounding.
Yet, during the fruitful and bubbling years before the Golden Age, Campbell was considered a writer of the first rang, on a par with more established authors of space opera as EE “Doc” Smith, Edmond Hamilton, and Jack Williamson.
The three stories presented here contributed to the reputation of Campbell as a writer.
When The Atoms Failed (1930)
When the observatory of Mount Wilson discovers that twenty huge spaceships are heading towards Earth panic grips all hearts. The intentions of the visitors from Mars do not seem friendly, and no one knows what destructive potential is available to their ships.
The invaders land in the desert of Navada, eliminate reconnaissance aviation, and head up to San Francisco, which is completely destroyed: it seems that nothing can save humanity from defeat.
But Earth has an ace up its sleeve, a single ship, built according to the revolutionary discoveries of scientist Steve Warerson, addresses the Martian forces in a duel in which the stakes are the highest: the ultimate. fate of two worlds.
Will Warerson and his brave crew defeat the invaders, or will humanity fall into slavery?
Beyond the end of space (1933)
An innovative scientific experiment destroys a university laboratory and causes a victim. Professor Ran Warren is expelled from the university.
Warren does not give in, he knows that his studies might open the door to an immense source of energy. With a friend, he founds a company to develop the potential of its discovery.
Enters Thaddeus Nestor, a ruthless business that has maneuvered to dismiss Warren so to be able to exploit his research. His plan fails, so Nestor hires an unscrupulous character, James Atkill, to steal the discoveries made by Warren.
After several failed attempts, Nestor manages to get his hands on the patents filed by Warren and starts to build a fleet of ships with the intention to use them in order to surge to power and global control.
The plans of domination of the greedy businessman will have to overcome an obstacle: also Warren was able to build his own spaceship, the Prometheus, which will face the ten Nestor’s in an unequal duel.
But an unexpected help, and the ingenuity of the scientist, seems to be able to overturn the odds of what seems like a hopeless battle.
The solar system has been completely colonized: planets, satellites, and asteroids are home to more or less numerous colonies, scientific laboratories, and military bases of the cruisers of the Interplanetary Patrol.
Pirates are a problem, but the one met by Buck Kendall, commander of one of the ships responsible for monitoring the routes for Pluto, is something far more deadly than a pirate ship, only he and his friend Cole Rad survive the “first contact “with an alien species.
Kendall believes that those who wiped his crew will return to subjugate the entire solar system. He saw the enemy ship leaving for outer space at beyond the speed of light, and is aware that for the first time humanity is confronted with an intelligent breed, hostile, and most scientifically advanced.
Having convinced the Commander of the Interplanetary Patrol to give him carte blanche, Kendall began adopting countermeasures. Studies and preparations are conducted rapidly, and when the threatening alien fleet appears at the solar system’s boundaries, humanity is ready to fight for their freedom.
A long time ago I was moved by reading the adventures of the Jovian Aarn Munro. The magic of the past has not returned with these stories, but the jury is still positive.
The first novel has all the flaws of the first science fiction movies. Campbell tells the same story told by HG Wells in The War of the Worlds, but resolves the situation with the sound of weapons, without resorting to the bacteria. Ultimately, it is an old story that has little if anything memorable.
More complex and interesting is the second novel, where the enemy is human and the strange contrast between a very advanced civilization and gangsters — Roaring Twenties style — is a source of interest.
The story told in the alien attack of Uncertainty is detailed and complex, Campbell also uses a narrative technique that shows us the views of the residents of Mira Ceti, and the reasons for the invasion.
A good novel, with great scenes and a constant high voltage, perhaps the best of the works of ‘superscience’ signed by Campbell.
The traits shared by the three novels are amazing inventions (in today’s view even unrealistic) and the presence of a brave scientist, a rich or rich friends, which brings into play all his resources for a noble and heroic purpose.
What I was a bit surprised of is the way aliens are presented. Firm believer in human superiority, Campbell concludes the first novel with a peace treaty followed by a fruitful collaboration, while in the history with the last Cetani, forced to conquer new worlds for survival, aliens are outlined in order to make them sympathetic.
Eventually the more evil and despicable enemy of the three novels is Nestor, a human driven by ambition and thirst for power, a real, mercilessly monster.
Considering the plots and characterization, both cut with a hatchet, shared by the three novels, it is clear that Campbell was interested in telling the story, bending everything, even the scientific accuracy, to the needs narrative, and will make more than one modern reader smile, unable to sustain the suspension of disbelief.
The characters, though, are complex and sometimes surprising.
Campbell, as a writer, had a short career, divided between superscience (or pseudoscience with today’s knowledge) stories, more complex stories as The Moon is hell! (1950) and poetic stories like Twilight (1934). Today he is better known for Who goes there? (1938), a novel repeatedly brought to the big screen.
Just when it seemed to enter an even more fruitful writing phase, Campbell buried the typewriter to devote himself to a new career, editor of his venerated science fiction magazine. Often, his ideas nurtured a large group of writers who would become famous and which would have ferried, for better or for worse, science fiction to the years of the space race.
Stories coming from a period now far far away, venerable but that fail to bring the same old thrill.
Massimo Marino is a scientist envisioning science fiction. He spent years at CERN and The Lawrence Berkeley Lab followed by lead positions with Apple, Inc. and the World Economic Forum. He is also co-founder of “Squares on Blue”, a Big Data Analytics service company.
Massimo currently lives in France and crosses the border with Switzerland multiple times daily, although he is no smuggler.
As a scientist writing science fiction, he went from smashing particles at accelerators at SLAC and CERN to smashing words on a computer screen.
He’s the author of multi-awarded Daimones Trilogy.
His novels have received the Seal of Excellency from both AwesomeIndies.net and IndiePENdents.org
• 2013 Hall of Fame – Best in Science Fiction, Quality Reads UK Book Club