L. Ron Hubbard, left, and John W. Campbell

L. Ron Hubbard, left, and John W. Campbell

As the 1940s mutated into the ’50s things changed.

All through World War II, and for some time after, Astounding had been king of the hill — eagerly read not just in America but also in England, where a young Arthur Clarke was getting around to mailing in his first story, “Rescue Party,” and in Germany, where in wartime days, Wernher von Braun had been able to get his treasured subscription copies only by means of a false name and a neutral mail drop in Sweden.

Around 1950, though, competitors began to appear — first The Magazine of Fantasy, a more literary take on the field, then Galaxy, a more relevant one, along with lesser titles from others. One might have thought that competition could awaken John’s competitive spirit. It didn’t seem to. He had gone through a period of looking for new editorial challenges before America got into the war, with such ventures as the fantasy magazine Unknown, then an attempt to remake Street & Smith’s hoary old aviation magazine, Air Trails, into a science-news magazine called Air Trails and Science Frontiers, neither of which survived very long.

Then for a time, he seemed adequately fulfilled by concentrating on his services to the war effort. (When the Stars and Stripes ran a piece on new rocket weapons one of the authorities they quoted was described as “John W. Campbell, Jr., physicist and war work consultant.” I sent the clip to John for his amusement, but he may not have been amused. He didn’t reply.)

But when the war was over and he was merely the editor of one really great science-fiction magazine again, he seemed to enter a new phase. That was as a believer in some weird and improbable kinds of — I don’t know what else to call it — magic.

A disclaimer. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only one to whom John talked non-stop about all the wonderful and clever things that had been accomplished by “us” — which I took to mean the presiding triumvirate who ran Dianetics/Scientology. That, as John described it to me, consisted of three more or less equal-ranked persons: L. Ron Hubbard, the almost forgotten skin doctor Joseph Winter, and John himself.

I believe that each of the three was considered by the other two to deserve the ranking because of services rendered; in Ron’s case inventing the subject matter; in John’s the fact that it could hardly ever have got off the ground without the mighty boost John gave it with his magazine.

And Joe Winter?. I don’t know the answer to that for sure. I didn’t know Winter well, only met him a few times, never talked with him or about him with either of the other two at any length. But he did have a legitimate M.D. and did wage a rather persistent, if quixotic (and markedly unsuccessful), campaign with the medical establishment to grant Dianetics and/or Scientology some respectful kind of recognition. So I think, with no more evidence than I’ve shown you, that what Winter represented to the other two was a touch of legitimacy.

And, yes, I wish I did know some other people who had heard as much of John’s proud progress reports whom I could ask what they thought of it all. But I don’t.

I’m pretty sure that John’s audience for that sort of conversation would have included just about everybody he saw. But I don’t know who all the others were, and rather few of them can be still alive.

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  1. Jerry says:

    It is odd that someone with his reputation for emphasizing scientific realism as an editor would go in for that stuff. I know Gen. Patton believed in reincarnation and had dowsers with him in N. Africa. Maybe hearing about things like that during the war is what inclined him in that direction. Just a guess.

  2. Stefan Jones says:

    Scientology aside, it is amazing the “legs” some of Campbell’s fascinations got.

    “Psionics.” Total BS. But for decades afterwards SF futures in print and TV often felt obligated to have psis or espers.

    Dean drive. A run of the mill crackpot invention that still gets dredged up and discussed every few years.

    And: “An armed society is a polite society.”

    This phenomena, and the 1970s era fascination with orbiting space colonies, makes me cautious about new fascinations, like the Singularity.

  3. Bill Goodwin says:

    It’s always surprising to discover the odd ideas seminal figures have espoused, or at least toyed with (Carl Sagan himself was a saucer believer in his youth). And yet not so surprising. Bold minds will tend to flirt with all sorts of peripheral stuff–out of sheer intellectual appetite if for no other reason–and maverick thinkers will suffer both the benefits and drawbacks of immunity to popular opinion. It’s to be expected that an occasional tale-teller will let brain off leash in other areas of life…and if they have a taste for adulation, well…

    It’s a tough game, sorting what is valid from what is merely intriguing–or only flattering–and sadly that difficulty increases the allure of pre-packaged wisdom. People yell at each other over secularity, birth control, global warming…and after awhile one begins to doubt that anybody’s pet subject is the thing that’s actually upseting them.

    I have to wonder what would have happened if Campell and Winter, or their equivalents, had thrown their weight behind Richard Shaver…and how would it might have affected Hollywood!

  4. RAB says:

    Following on from what Jerry and Stefan said, I’ve always wondered how much of this sort of thing might be due to a combination of self-deception and sheer vanity — i.e., someone who’s genuinely more clever than average is that much more effective at deluding him or herself, and someone who knows he or she is very clever may be more likely to think “I can’t be fooled or conned like regular folks because I’m much too smart and discerning for that, so this can’t possibly be a hoax or a fraud!” Only Fred could say if this describes Campbell himself…but it’s probably safe to say it describes most of the folks who still buy into those ideas.

  5. Ahrvid Engholm says:

    Interesting, this that Wernher von Braun read Astounding through WWII, through a maildrop in Sweden. (And you’re not the first to say that. I think I saw it mentioned in an interview with Brian Aldiss first.)
    Does anyone know more about this? Who handled it for von Braun?
    It would have been difficult, but not impossible. Mail US Sweden could probably go to e g Portugal and then on through occupied Europe. (If not by one of the few direct ships to mainly South America the Swedish government negotiated free passage for.)
    Another problem was how to pay for a subscription. Direct foreign payments would have been impossible (and they were restricted even in peace time). Maybe one of von Braun’s contacts in the US paid for him. Willy Ley perhaps?

    –Ahrvid Engholm

  6. tiviana says:

    do you have any infortmation on John W. Campbell like background info? where he was born where he went to school, ext. ?