Because John W. Campbell Was a Racist, That’s Why!

Isaac Asimov always credited John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Stories, as an important influence on his writing. When Asimov was still a teenager, he submitted his early stories to Campbell, and although they were rejected, Campbell ended up giving Asimov some excellent advice and feedback—especially once Asimov realized that Campbell’s office was just a subway ride away. Asimov spent hours talking to Campbell, not only about writing but also about a range of subjects and concepts. Campbell was a lively conversationalist, and he liked to take the devil’s advocate position and defend unpopular ideas.

When Campbell finally began accepting Asimov’s stories, Asimov gave Campbell first crack at anything he wrote.

And then Asimov noticed something. If there were extraterrestrial aliens in a story (not just in Asimov’s stories but in those of other writers that Campbell published), human beings were expected to triumph because of their superiority over the aliens. And this was something that Asimov didn’t feel comfortable doing, so he stopped writing stories with aliens.

And that’s why in Asimov’s Foundation series, the entire galaxy is populated only with human beings. I’ve heard some commentary on this subject since Apple TV+ started streaming its adaptation of Asimov’s series, and most people don’t seem to know why Asimov didn’t include aliens in his galactic empire.

It’s because Campbell was a racist. And not just in terms of humans and aliens, but for him the “white” race was the superior one. And he was a sexist as well. And he argued against the connection between lung cancer and smoking (he was a heavy smoker). And he championed some crazy pseudoscientific ideas.

Eventually Asimov broke away from Campbell altogether.

After Campbell’s death an annual Best New Writer Award was initiated in his name, but a couple years ago after the recipient of that award gave a speech in which she excoriated Campbell’s views and called him a fascist, Campbell’s name was removed from the award.

So Campbell may have been a good or even great editor, but his views also permeated through the science fiction field to its detriment.

Astounding 165

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