John W. Campbell was a Racist and a Loon: A Response to Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award Acceptance Speech

John W. Campbell was a Racist and a Loon: A Response to Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award Acceptance Speech


Jeannette Ng

I don’t think I have anything much to add to the commentariat’s discussion of Jeannette Ng’s Campbell Award acceptance speech. But why should that stop me?

The simplest thing to note is this — however you parse the word Fascist (and I would parse it differently than many), John W. Campbell was a racist, and a loon. (However you parse THAT word.) His ideas about how we should best be governed were, if not Fascist by a strict definition, not exactly democratic, to say the least. He cheered on the Kent State massacre, for goodness’ sake. He was sexist too, though in that case I think maybe he was just “a man of his time” — his racism, however, was definitely more virulent than the norm. And loonier! (See his editorial suggesting that black people preferred to be slaves.)

And on those grounds I have no complaint with Ng’s speech. Yes, she misidentified the magazine Campbell worked for (and has apologized for that) — but, heck, she was excited and nervous — these things happen.

The real point is — and I think Alec Nevala-Lee deserves tremendous credit for clarifying this — that “we”, as the SF field, especially those of us who’ve been around a lot longer, kind of ignored how whacko — and downright harmful — Campbell’s views could be. It’s not that they weren’t known — he trumpeted them in the pages of Astounding! — but people tended to sort of excuse them — “Oh, John was just trying to stir conversation,” that sort of thing. It’s pretty clear that he really did believe many or most of the things he wrote. And we should have, collectively and individually, been more forceful in standing against those ideas.

And what did that mean for Campbell as an editor? Well, that’s a pretty complex issue. Ng’s statement was pretty simplistic, but she only had a couple of minutes to talk (and some pretty important things to say about Hong Kong as well), so there wasn’t room for an essay. (I’d suggest looking at her British Fantasy Awards speech for a fuller expression of her views.)

I think Campbell did tremendous good for the field, in a number of ways — insisting on better prose, better story construction, promoting a fruitful formula for using scientific speculation as a way to generate story ideas, and truly supporting new writers (yes, white men mostly), and truly helping them improve. (And that’s the rationale for naming the Campbell Award after him.) But he did lots of harm, too. Many have pointed out that he endorsed a colonialist view of the human future in space, and insisted on human superiority. And this is to a great extent true (though you can find plenty of counterexamples in Astounding.) He supported a lot of really stupid pseudo-scientific ideas, aside from his pernicious racial views, and especially in the last couple of decades of his time at Astounding/Analog these hobbyhorses of his contributed to a real decline in the magazine’s quality (indeed — it did become pretty sterile eventually). These ideas went way beyond the most famous and probably worst of them (Dianetics/Scientology) — he was also at times obsessed with the Dean Drive, with dowsing, with psi, with something called the Hieronymous Machine — and he wanted his writers to write stories with those ideas at the core.

So by all means we should be criticizing what Campbell stood for, and trying to understand how it shaped the SF field. (And, really, writers have been doing that since at least 1950, and really before, but we can still do more and better.) I won’t take a position on renaming the award — if enough people think it needs to be renamed, I won’t complain, but it’s more important to understand Campbell more, to question his influence more, and not to forget what Campbell was really like.

In response to some criticism of her speech, I would dispute the characterization of SF of a certain time as “sterile white male” stuff or whatever. That’s the sort of assertion that ought to be discussed and evaluated. The truth is that there were not enough women involved before at least the 1970s, and even fewer people of color, and there’s no question that having the voices of women and people of color in our field in large numbers makes it stronger, makes it better.

That said, the attempt to suggest that all stuff by white males is bad, or at least sterile, is terribly unfair, and in fact wrong. (And attempts to justify that end up ignoring Sturgeon’s Law — because, sure, you can always cherry pick your bad examples from Sturgeon’s 90%.) So, absolutely, I reject an attempt to throw everything from the past in the dustbin. I could write an article celebrating the greatest SF of that period, and showing how much of it (including much that Campbell published) was antithetical to Campbell’s most hateful views: his racism, his insistence on human superiority, his cranky scientific notions, his weird sort of technocratic ideas about organizing society. But if I did, it would still acknowledge that much SF did accept, or at least tolerate, the worst of Campbell, and more importantly, it would ask how many more powerful and probing stories might have resulted from the imaginations of people actually directly affected by colonization, or racism, or sexism, if people like Campbell had more actively welcomed them to the field.

As to Campbell himself though, I think we should ask if his racism led to making the field less welcoming for people of color. It seems plausible! Indeed, it seems certain, when you consider him rejecting Samuel R Delany’s novel Nova because its protagonist was black. Likewise, there was an attitude (society-wide, it seems to me, not just due to Campbell) that SF was boy’s stuff, and so the field was also less welcoming to women. (And, yes, of course — Campbell published Leigh Brackett’s first stories, C. L. Moore’s best stories, Kate Wilhelm’s first story, and many other women. But there could have been more.) Finally, I think that Campbell’s Analog did indeed become “sterile” by the end of his run.

So, bottom line, I love the SF field, and I love the best work published, well, all along. But I’m also thrilled to see great new stuff from writers from communities who, for whatever reason, weren’t publishing much SF 50 years ago. And it stands to reason that the more writers we welcome, the more chances for great stories — and the more writers with different experiences we welcome, the more new ideas, the more different speculations, we’ll see. And, no, I don’t endorse every word Ng said. But in a 2 minute speech, I don’t really expect a ton of nuance.

(1) Astounding-small (1) Astounding-back-small

And having said all that, one of the best places to start if you want to know the worst (and best) of Campbell more completely is with the book that should have won the Best Related Hugo award this year, Alec Nevala-Lee‘s Astounding.

Rich Horton’s last article for us was a review of Christopher Priest’s novel A Dream of WessexHis website is Strange at Ecbatan. See all of Rich’s articles here.

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Thomas Parker

I don’t follow the Hugos, but Nevala-Lee DIDN’T get the award for Astounding? That’s unbelievable – what beat him?

John ONeill

Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works.

It was the Best Related Work Hugo winner, beating out Astounding, as well as Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing and Jo Walton’s wonderful An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000.

Complete Hugo winners are here:


Well, I Do not care who wins Hugo’s or any other awards, but I would like to know what is the intended/most useful sense. If fanfic are not related works, what are?

Mister Frau Blucher

We continue to judge people in the past by today’s standards. Fair enough – Campbell was a racist. We should be able to move on.

But should we not then judge today’s people by tomorrow’s standards? Ng would certainly be racist, then. She should be judged so today, but the double standard applied today – a mirror of the double standard in Campbell’s time – prevents that truth from being told, and accepted.

Her tired, retread hatred of white men, all painted as a single monolithic entity, has become the vile norm.

Had she felt otherwise, she would not have phrased it thus in the brief time she had. But she was speaking to the like-minded.

John ONeill

> Her tired, retread hatred of white men, all painted as a single monolithic entity, has become the vile norm.



Ng is responding, in an entirely natural way, to the systematic racism that SF embraced for generations. She’s pissed about it, and she has a damn right to be.

To dismiss her entire argument, and instead characterize her anger as “retread hatred of white men,” is white male fragility at its worst. It’s the language of white supremacy, and it has no place at Black Gate. Period.

Knock it off. You know better than that.

Todd Mason

As someone who for decades would note the mixture of stupidity, credulity and wrong-headedness of many of John Campbell’s “attempts to stir things up”, and who has often been met with sullen silence at best when doing so, I can sympathize with those who remain enraged with him (Ray Palmer leaves a similar corrupt segment of his legacy, and less memorable fiction on balance among that he edited…though both let their enthusiasms for hobbyhorses also lead them to publish no small amount of atrocious or simply dull fiction). That noted, Campbell did do a lot of good work as well. There is no reason to deny the one aspect of his career, and ignore the other…any more than there is with any other public figure. One does have to weigh what one is willing to put up with in any given set of works…Clear-eyed assessments are useful. Those who looked at James Baen’s early selections at Baen Books might or might not be surprised that while editing GALAXY and IF magazines, he published some of the most important feminist sf of the 1970s, including important work by Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin. Campbell did encourage a lot of bad ideas be taken up at least for argument’s sake, as Rich notes (and Rich doesn’t even get into the support for Dianetics, other pseudo-science, penchant for psi stories and other notions that were done to death in the weaker issues of his magazines…while also helping launch the careers of Pauline Ashwell, Kate MacLean Kate Wilhelm, Judith Merril, and Anne McCaffrey…among others.

Todd Mason

Among the Russ works published in GALAXY in the mid-’70s was WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO–, her scathing critique of the kind of default sexism that was Ruling OK in too many stories which posited isolated colonies of humans, where Of Course the women would be willing to be baby factories, under utterly uncertain, at best, and not terribly survival-nurturing circumstances…usually rather than calling on them as much as their male counterparts to figure their way out of their current predicament, or to use their minds more than their uteruses to improve the current circumstances.

Nathan Rasmussen

Ng: “a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists. Yes, I am aware there are exceptions.”

Horton: “the attempt to suggest that all stuff by white males is bad, or at least sterile”

Misconstrued, I think.

Ng’s statement is a description of SF, not of SF *by white males* or any other subset of it. A given piece of SF is more than usually likely to be white, more than usually likely to be male, and more than usually likely to be sterile.

For comparison, “Not much SF is authored by people of color or women” should not be construed to mean “Not much SF by people of color is by women.” You can’t just slip terms from the predicate over to the subject like that.

(And if I think that’s a misconstruction, you can probably imagine what I think of a reading that entirely ignores both the “science fiction” and the “there are exceptions” parts of the text so as to find a claim about “white men, all painted as a single monolithic entity.” But if someone’s all stoked to feel insulted and victimized, there’s not a lot you can say that he won’t take that way, is there?)

All right, so much for that. More ambiguous, but I think also important, is the question of what Ng meant by a piece of SF being white or male. Thus far I’ve gone along with the white/male-authored reading, and I think it’s part of what was intended, but I think she’s also speaking of the worlds that are envisioned and the concerns the plots revolve around.

Consider the bit about imperialists and industrialists. I’m not aware of any pioneering SF that was literally written by a conquistador or a robber baron or whatever, but take a look at the settings, the plot events, the protagonists’ worldview and values, and implicitly the narrator’s values.

Science fiction is full of societies that appear to descend primarily from the power structures North America and Europe, if not indeed directly from the white U.S. (to say nothing of the glut of Euroclones in fantasy).

Many plots are about moving in, settling down, building up, taking over, *conquering* in one form or another. Many plots revolve around power relations, as experienced by privileged people. Many heroes succeed for the sake of a large-scale, civilizational identity, yet by means of plucky independence and unique personal gifts.

I believe Ng was speaking as much of a content-level whiteness or maleness as an author-level one. And that bring us to “sterile,” which I think primarily describes the worlds portrayed, rather than being a mere sneer at the works that portray them. Worlds where technology grows up around and encapsulates the biological and the social, where robot programming is seemingly more important than human connection, where the iron-jawed spaceman dons the armor of absolute rightness to grimly throw the silly emotional woman out the airlock (I owe this particular example to Cory Doctorow’s “Jeannette Ng Was Right: John W. Campbell Was a Fascist”).

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