The Big Three

As a bit of a relief to my readers who are no doubt weary of hearing my Jeremiads and screeds against the evils both political and philosophical which corrupt the modern world, let us turn from the disappointments of today to yesterday’s golden dreams of tomorrow, and talk about the three major science fiction writers of Campbell’s Golden Age.

The Big Three are Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and — wait for it— A.E. van Vogt.

Perhaps you have read books by the first two and never heard of the third. That is sad but not surprising. Perhaps, being a lover of triads, you thought the third Big Name of the Golden Age should be Arthur C. Clarke or Ray Bradbury.

Admired as these authors were and are, no one in the day considered them one of the Big Three. Van Vogt was, for a time, bigger than Asimov and Heinlein in popularity. I have seen articles, including the notoriously unreliable Wikipedia, list one or the other of Clarke and Bradbury as the third of the triad. It is partly to dispel the disturbing tendency toward historical revisionism that I write this article.

For neither of these were Campbell authors, and, indeed, I would argue that Arthur C Clarke is from an older tradition of science fiction than Heinlein and Asimov, and is an heir to H.G. Wells, whereas Bradbury was a man before his time, and fathered a younger tradition. He was “New Wave” a precursor to character-driven SF, years before the New Wave was new.  So even if Clarke and Bradbury are cherished men of the Golden Age, they were not of Campbell’s Golden Age. Neither Clarke nor Bradbury wrote in the genre Campbell established.

I cannot speak with any authority about the economic conditions of the time, but I do know that a man could make a living wage in the 1930′s and1940′s just by short story sales if he could sell regularly even to the lower scale magazines, the pulps.

And if he sold a story to the high scale magazines, the slicks, one story could pay his rent and grocery bills for a year. Magazines were the primary source of cheap popular entertainment, more ubiquitous than talkies and more portable than radio. They had a power over the popular imagination unimaginable these days.

Likewise, I cannot say anything about the condition of the genre from my own memory, since this was some twenty years or more before my time, but reading omnivorously as I did of everything in the genre that existed in my youth, any reader could come away with a fairly accurate impression of the state of the genre before and after John W Campbell Jr during his tenure on Astounding Science Fiction later called Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Indeed, the change of the name itself would give anyone the clue about that change.  Aside from a few reprints of literate yet readable speculations from England, the works of H.G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon, and excruciatingly (if not prophetically) accurate technological romances badly translated from the French by Jules Verne, science fiction magazines of the day were mostly boy’s adventure stories set in space, tales actually about mad scientists, yarns of lost races, invasions from the Earth’s core, and various forms of Apocalypse. It was an age of Space Opera, of the Galactic Patrol of E.E. “Doc” Smith and of the Legion of Time of Jack Williamson. It was the time of C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett and “World-Wrecker” Hamilton (a nickname oft I envy).  It was the time of wonder and astonishment and weird tales, and the magazine devoted to such beloved juvenilia had names like WONDER and ASTONISHMENT and WEIRD TALES.

Campbell established a new type of story, less about weirdness and wonder and more about what we now call “Hard” Science Fiction, which consists of two elements. Both elements had been present in the prior lineage of the genre: first, a social or philosophical commentary about man’s place in the universe, as we might see in H.G. Wells; and, second, a fascination with the nuts and bolts of legitimate speculation into the near future of technical advance, as we might see in Jules Verne.

Before Campbell, these two had not been combined. Campbell’s genius was to wed them: Hard SF is  social or philosophical commentary about the changes to man’s place in the universe brought about by near future technical advances.

The social commentary we see in the dismal tales of H.G. Wells is utopian and negative. Do not be surprised if I call them dismal, but reread them for yourself, and decide whether any of them has a happy outlook or happy ending.

Nor be surprised if I say Utopianism is negative, because it is little more than revulsion toward the unhappy circumstances of the present day, combined with dreams, sometimes noble but more often naïve and ridiculous, about how progress will improve the human condition.

Reading Mr. Wells’ socialist sentiments these days, now that socialism has murdered, in the Twentieth Century, some 262,000,000 people (enough that if the corpses were laid head to toe, the line of death would circle the earth ten times) is indeed a disquieting experience.  It is akin to reading a letter penned by a fourteen-year-old girl, filled with charming, goofy, unrealistic and faintly disquieting hopes, about some get-rich-quick scheme or idealistic cult she means to join, whose handsome leader she was to wed, boasting how it would aid her impoverished mother and win her fame; but you are reading this letter while sitting in some autumnal dusk on her neglected gravestone where have been buried, years and years after the letter in your hand was written, the few parts of her body, recovered from the kitchen behind the cult’s brothel, such as a severed arm bruised with manacles and covered with needle tracks and gnaw marks. And no wedding ring was on the finger. That is what reading the deluded predictions of socialist utopia from before the age of world wars is akin.

Campbell embodied the American spirit of optimist just as Wells embodied the European spirit of pessimism. The social philosophy, even among Big Three and the other writers in his stable, had a certain common element. It is difficult to define for a modern reader, since the ideas were an extension of the scientific optimism and classical liberalism of the time.

The modern Radical would see them as conservative, since they placed faith in the free market, individual initiative and ingenuity, and the various values and standards common to civilized men which modern Radical have set about to undermine and destroy. But the modern Conservative would see a Radical bent to such tales, since they place faith in the malleability of human nature,  had faith in the progress and improvement of man, the omnipotence of big governments carrying out big programs. Theses stories dismiss tradition as mere pigheadedness. These stories show a touching childlike faith in Theory, and, for conservatives (in the brilliant words of William Briggs) “Love of Theory is the Root of All Evil.”

I suggest that the modern prism of seeing all things as either Radical or Conservative is misleading here, especially since we live in an age when the so-called Conservatives seek radial changes to our dying socialist systems and so-called Radical are reactionary conformists seeking above all things to keep in place programs and policies dating from the days before the invention of the jet engine or the color television.

These stories were Hard SF. They were Campbelline, and come from a time and reflect an optimism which only conservatives foretelling radical changes could reflect.

Now, I have made two outrageous claims here: first, that the Big Three had even a slightly conservative outlook on anything. That certainly does not seem to be the case, since the Big Three were a Jewish Liberal, a Rock-Ribbed Libertarian, and Scientologist.

The second outrageous claim is that Hard SF is not Hard SF.

Let me defend the second outrageous claim, if it can be defended, first.

Usually when the Linnaeus society, bored with long afternoons of debating the taxonomy of various species of beetle, wants to get drunk and discuss the definitions and boundary lines of the various genres and subgenres of science fiction and fantasy, the common consensus is that “Hard SF” is any story whose core revolves around some real science, usually astronomy and that “Soft SF” is any story whose core revolves around the humanities or some less rigorous discipline.

The short story NEUTRON STAR by Larry Niven is a perfect example of Hard SF, since the tale cannot be understood, nor even told, without an understanding  the tidal effects of gravitating bodies.  The novel LANGUAGES OF PAO by Jack Vance is a perfect example of Soft SF, since the tale cannot be understood, nor even told, without an understanding of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language influences psychology.

I suggest that the Linnaeus society is wrongly gathering too many stories into the Hard SF category, because it is only looking at the one element of world-building.

I have to digress to explain that comment: In addition to the elements common to all genres, such as plot, theme, characters, and setting, science fiction and fantasy have one element no other genre (except possibly horror) has or can have: world building.

The science fiction story not only takes place in a futuristic or extraterrestrial setting, it takes place with the understanding that the rules of what can and cannot happen are different from the rules here and now on Earth, here in the fields we know. Indeed, many a Twilight Zone or near-future fiction is science fiction even though the setting is neither futuristic nor extraterrestrial, simply because something in the here and now, something in an otherwise ordinary setting, which breaks the rules we know, such as the mysterious children from ROSWELL, or their parents from the People Stories of Zenna Henderson, or Professor Pinero’s machine which predicts how long a man will live.

Whether a story is “Hard SF” or “Soft SF” according to the common Linnaean taxonomy only tells you about the World-Building element. I submit to you, my readers, that this is insufficient, since taxonomy should also tell something of the descent of the organism, or, in this case, the grouping of certain tales and novels into sub-genres should also tell you something of the other elements of the story, including the plot, character, and theme.

If you like, we can call this sub-genre “Campbellian Hard SF” with the understanding that when SF stories moved into novels and other media in the 1950′s and later, the other families of “Hard SF” all descended from this original ancestor. I suggest here that Campbellian Hard SF had a common type of plot, characterization, and theme, in addition to the hardness of its worldbuilding, which gave it its defining quality.

Let us stroll, or, rather, sprint down memory lane, by mentioning three or four of the famous tales of the Big Three that made them famous. If you are not familiar with this stories, you young whippersnapper, go get some anthology of stories back in the days when the moonrocket, instead of being a nostalgic memory of the old, was a pipe dream of the young.

A.E. VAN VOGT:

The first story that started the Golden Age was ‘The Black Destroyer’ by A.E. van Vogt. The story concerns an interstellar expedition landing on a ruined and seemingly empty world, and bringing aboard their ship what they deem to be a beast, but which in fact is the highly intelligent and morally degenerate savage last survivor of the once-great civilization whose towers are rotting around them. The monster is not able to contain its fundamentally emotional nature, nor to adapt to the new situation, despite the superhuman control it possesses over energies and elements in its environment. Korita, the historian, is able to recognize the psychological limitations of the monster based on a Spenglarian view of cycles of history, and this enables the humans to prevail.

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The tale contained in embryo the elements of the typical Van Vogt tale: superhuman powers, in this case housed in the ruthless and monstrous form of the Couerl, the interest in psychology and parapsychology, the scope of action, and the breathless pacing which was Van Vogt’s trademark, including sudden scene shifts and scenes from the monster’s point of view.

SLAN followed after several stories of superhuman monsters similar to ‘The Black Destroyer’ but in this case Van Vogt rose to the challenge (which Campbell offered to more than one in his stable) of writing a story about a superhuman being that a human audience could read.

Cleverly, Van Vogt did this by making the star of his tale a child superhuman, who in his youth is not yet beyond human comprehension. Like a Tarzan raised by apes, Jommy Cross is a Slan, a superhuman, raised by men. To make the boy an orphan not likely to be returned to his parents, Van Vogt invented a world where the humans have committed genocide on the superior beings, and hate them and hunt them down. Unusually for a science fiction story, SLAN recounts not merely Jommy Cross’ escape from his deadly foes, but unfolds the mystery which surrounds the origin and secret history of the Slans, making it a rare story indeed: a detective story about the life and death and destiny of two and three whole intelligent races. What makes the resolution doubly rare is that the problem is solved, not conquered. That is, intellect rather than courage ends the book. Instead of a set piece fight scene as one would expect in a space opera, we have instead an almost mystical revelation of man’s place in the scheme of evolution and cosmic progress.

Any man living in December of 1940, could see the echoes of the evolutionary supremacy theories behind the European War, and compare the superior beings of the Slans, whose moral fineness is as high as their intelligence is broad, with the loutish brutes of Germany and Italy and Russia swimming through their bloodstained headlines of the time. Also, the average SF fan regarded himself as a bit of a visionary or embryonic superhuman, for being able to imagine a future the dullards and conformists of the greater world could not, and likened his imaginary persecution of his imaginary superiority to that of the slans.  It was a book that lodged in the heart of the spirit of the times in the fandom of the times.

WORLD OF NULL-A was Van Vogt’s next serialized novel, and, I regret to say, marks the peak of his career. Few, or none, of his later books achieved the level of ingenuity, story-telling skill, nor popularity as this. Once again, the tale is about a superhuman being, and once again the challenge is how to make such a character sympathetic to the human readers, which in this case is done by making the superhuman an amnesiac.

The tale concerns one Gilbert Gosseyn, a widower who presents himself in the City of the Machine for the great Games which establish any man’s role in the political and business leadership of the world. The Games in this case are not gladiatorial combats, but psychological assessments of a non-Aristotelian philosophy of neurolinguistics called General Semantics. The conceit of the story is that the psychological knowledge of the future has advanced to such a degree that psychosis, neurosis, and their resulting criminal and selfish behaviors can be trained out of the human nervous system. Gosseyn discovers during a routine security scan of his nervous system by a highly advanced thinking machine (ironically called simply a ‘lie detector’) that he is not who he thinks he is; when agents of a gang that have corrupted the game start gunning for him, he finds he is not what he thinks he is. To solve the mystery of himself is the central plot of the book, if not the Riddle of the Sphinx.

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I will add mention of the ‘Weapon Shops’ stories, including the novel WEAPON MAKERS OF ISHER. The conceit of these tales is that men, for better or worse, get the type of government they deserve, which means that immoral men cannot be preserved from selling themselves into a tyranny. The only moral way—since man cannot forced to be free—to preserve their liberty is to ensure that men have the opportunity to buy weapons for self-defense so that no government might ever take that final step of giving man a government worse than he deserves, but then has no power to change.

For such a reason and this limited reason only the Weapon Shops, defended by all the instruments of unthinkably futuristic science, stand ready to sell energy firearms to the common man. The stories themselves are tales of time paradox and retribution against corrupt corporations and institutions of interplanetary Isher Empire. The dangers of private firearm ownership are magically waved away, since the guns sold by the Weapon Shops are somehow programmed not to fire except in legitimate self-defense.  Nonetheless, the phrase ‘The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to be Free’ which was utterly unremarkable when the stories were written in the 1940′s, in these far darker (and far more foolish) modern days offends many an authoritarian ear, or sound like the lift of golden trumpets those who recall liberty.

ISAAC ASIMOV:

Asimov’s most famous three inventions were not his novels, which were clever, but his short stories.

‘Nightfall’ may be one of the most famous short stories of science fiction, so I feel no remorse in exposing its surprise ending. It was intended as a philosophical rebuke to the sentiment of Emerson that if the stars only rose once in a thousand years, men would glorify God in awe. Campbell drily suggested that instead they would go mad, and Asimov invented a plausible reason for nightfall to happen so rarely: namely, that the dwellers in a multiple star system, surrounded by suns on every side, would only experience night once every thousand years when all the suns were in conjunction.

The tale is is cleverly-constructed as a detective story (dropping and resolving clues is Asimov’s strong point) when three scientists (as forgettable as they are lacking in personality–characterization is not Asimov’s strong point) attempt to discover why there are ruins in the geologic strata, spaced evenly once per millennium, or why all men are afraid of the dark, a condition that never naturally arises on this world.  Having never developed any artificial lights, when night falls, the population goes insane, and burns their cities and their civilization to create a few hours of light.

His positronic robot stories are all set up as detective stories, the solution of which is based on some unexpected application of the ‘Three Laws of Robots’. The fame of these stories is difficult to understand except when viewed against the background of their time. Until then, robots were always Frankenstein’s monsters, as in Rossum’s Universal Robots, or something of the sort which rose up and destroyed its creator; or else they were the Tin Woodman, a human in all but his construction materials, as in Helen O’Loy by Lester del Ray or Jay Score Eric Frank Russell. The philosophical conceit behind the Asimov robot stories was simple but brilliant: Asimov assumed that robots were neither monsters nor men of iron, but instead were tools, intelligent tools, but tools nonetheless, who could not and did not act other than as designed.

The final set of science fiction stories on which his fame rests are his ‘Foundation’ stories, later gathered into a chronological anthology to pass as novels. It was Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire set in space. The grandeur of the setting and the conceit was sufficient to carry the meandering series through one trilogy and perhaps another: the idea was that humans have free will only as individuals, whereas in statistically large enough groups, countless worlds upon worlds, their actions are predictable in much the same way that the Gas Laws predict the behavior of gas particles in the aggregate, never as individuals. To forestall the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire, or to shorten the period of its Dark Ages, Hari Seldon, armed with the predictive science of history which he alone invents, sets in motion a few small events, such as the establishment of an encyclopedia foundation, in exactly the area and under the circumstances needed to see to the preservation of science and the rise of the Second Empire.

We never discover if the author had the Carolingian Empire of the Franks in mind, or perhaps the Holy Roman Empire of central German, or the Tsar of the Russias, or the British Empire as his model for the Second Empire, because the series falls short of its promised culmination by some centuries.

ROBERT HEINLEIN:

Robert Heinlein is a special case, because, unlike the others of the Big Three, he actually became bigger after he left Campbell’s circle and was no longer one of the Three. His fame mainly rests with his charming and well written Juveniles, the last of which, STARSHIP TROOPERS, made the rather unexceptional argument that nations who cannot produce soldiers willing to die in the common defense perish of terminal selfishness.

Unfortunately, this was written during a generation, the Baby Boomers, suffering from a terminal case of selfishness, and many of their more unsightly ilk threw temper tantrums at this display of plain common sense on Heinlein’s part, and so they called him bad names. (Not being very imaginative, the only bad names Baby Boomers can think of are “Racist” and “Sexist” and “Fascist” and then in the late 1970′s, when sodomy became fashionable, they called him a “Homophobe” a noise-word which they invented whose meaning evaporates on close inspection.)

His larger claim to fame was STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, which is a paean to terminal selfishness, yea, even unto claiming divinity for one’s own awesome self (one presumes for folks who own no looking glasses). This satire mocked monogamy and monotheism, and so many a Baby Boomer was mollified and amused.

His best work was oddly his least controversial, MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, which retold the America Revolution of 1776 set in space, and stars perhaps his only truly loveable character, a computer named Mike.

The only controversial element of the tale was the praise of polyandrous polygamy, which no doubt sounded much more realistic and turned fewer stomachs to a generation of readers who lived in a fairly decent moral atmosphere, in a green land where the human wreckage of the sexual revolution waited undreamed and unimagined in their future: the skull-pyramids of abortions, the countless bastard children and fatherless children and husbandless mothers and teenaged mothers, and a worldview so lacking in hope that the majority of the a population self-medicates itself into numbness to stave off despair. Yes, no doubt the speculation seemed more realistic in those gullible days, among those most gullible generation of all time, that a life of orgy was good for raising kids.

But it is his short stories and serialized novels which won him fame to the readers of Astounding and Analog, and here it was his ‘Future History’ stories that captured the imagination of the readership.

These stories established a consensus of what the near future was supposed to look like. Private enterprise, in the spirit of the Wright Brothers or Sikorsky, would develop rocketry. Pioneers would first explore, then colonize Luna, Mars, Venus, and the moons of Jupiter. The difficulties and dangers would be met and overcome by much perseverance, much hard work, much engineering know-how, and a little luck. There would be setbacks due to the forces of unreason, and in Heinlein’s world this meant the ‘Crazy Years’ or the rise of religious theocratic fascism by the year 2012. Advances in medicine would produce longevity, progress in liberty would abolish all traditional moral norms except a touchy personal honor and a gentlemanly largesse to guests, and General Semantics (an idea he borrows from Van Vogt) would lead to the maturity of man, and a Covenant forbidding only acts of fraud and aggression. Then Man would be fully mature, faster than light drive would be invented, and a new frontier would open among the stars. Man would pioneer forever.

The three key stories in his Future History are ‘Requiem’, which concerns a man too old for space travel hiring one last rocket to the Moon, which, as it turns out, his genius opened for colonization, but the strain of take-off and landing kills him, and so he is buried in the airless dust of his beloved Luna; ‘Green Hills of Earth’ which concerns the astonishing personal bravery of an aging and blind poet, who, during an emergency, mans his post in a radiation-flooded engine room to ensure the safety of his shipmates, and he dies singing of an Earth he will never see again; and  ‘Logic of Empire’ and remarkably unsympathetic examination of the economics behind indentured servitude and other cruel practices needed for colonization.  These stories are key because they emphasize the sacrifices needed for the interplanetary future to be made real.

In those days, before the Welfare state drained both the money and the talent needed for such a venture, and Nihilism bred the pioneer spirit out of men, and then the manhood, the colonization of space was a perfectly reasonable dream.

Contemplate the works of these Big Three in this short summation. I submit to your candid judgment that there is more in common in these stories than merely the world-building conception of “Hard SF.”

Indeed, most of these stories are not very “Hard” at all. The Van Vogt stories are replete with unscientific gobbledygook as mindreading guns, time travel, teleportation, and the transfer of human memory from clone to clone. Asimov’s planet without a night as well as his Galactic Empire whose history can be predicted by statistics do not bear very close investigation, and even the theory of intelligent robots whose brains can only think what they are told to think evaporates upon sober reflection.

Contemplate, despite the disparity of setting and authors, the unity of characters, theme and philosophy. This was Campbell’s philosophy. It was the worldview, or, rather, since it was not defined and articulated, the mood he and his writers put across.

First, the prime philosophical assumption in all these tales was that mankind is malleable, and therefore that technical changes, and, more importantly, advances in psychology and anthropology, could lead to glorious breakthroughs in the human condition, an evolution upward. The malleability of man is the whole point of Asimov’s nihilistic ‘Nightfall’ and the need for moral codes to bend like the Lesbian Rule to the cold needs of the circumstances is the point of Heinlein’s cynical ‘Logic of Empire.’  The inability to adapt was on display in Van Vogt’s ‘The Black Destroyer’ and the ultimate triumph of malleability, which is the adaption to the next highest plane of existence above man, as far as man is above apes, the region of the superman, is the prime theme of Van Vogt’s SLAN and WORLD OF NULL-A.

As a side-note, it must be observed that Van Vogt held memory to be identity—that a man was only what he consciously and subconsciously recalled himself to be, and that this forms the main point of WORLD OF NULL-A and its sequel PAWNS OF NULL-A (also called PLAYERS OF NULL-A). But if identity is memory, and memory can be molded, so too can Man.

Second, the characters are remarkably similar men. All these protagonists triumph, when they triumph, through their intellect and their correctly set moral compass. They are not action heroes like the Gray Lensman or Northwest Smith, nor are they mere passive observers like the Time Traveler of H.G. Wells, or the forgotten viewpoint characters who observed the Martian invasion or the death of Dr. Moreau.  They are men who solve problems, from how to stop a tunnel leak on the Moon to how to stop the downfall of a Galactic Empire to how to solve the riddle of life and identity and immortality.

The point of Asimov Robot stories, for example, which may be hard for a modern reader to understand, was that robots were neither Frankenstein monsters nor humans made of metal. They were tools which, when they malfunctioned, could be fixed. All these stories are about fixing problems, which a Frankenstein monster story cannot be. In the background of all the Robot Stories and all the Foundation stories is the ideal of man as problem solver.

Finally, the theme was an optimistic one, which said that men were moral creatures who were, or could become, large enough in their time to conquer the stars.

Asimov, who was a Liberal, had no understanding of what morality was or what it was for, so it never appears in his stories, but he clearly thought it was man’s duty to think clearly and to abide by what his reason taught him. Only the cleverness of science would save the Galactic Empire from eternal darkness.

In Heinlein, morality was always voluntary and always based on a firm sense of personal honor and duty. Honor what keeps a blind poet at his duty station even unto death.

Heinlein’s sexual neuroses, thankfully absent from his juveniles and Future History stories might seem to be at odds with this sense of honor, but the libertarian conceit in his philosophy pretended that such vices could be indulged without harm if done by sufficiently mature and virtuous men. Given this false-to-facts conceit, it becomes at least self-consistent for a man to preach that personal independence both required  patriotic defense of self and home and laws and race, and permitted any vice or self-indulgence as the self-sovereign individual or self-apotheosized god might please himself to do.

A.E. van Vogt, the least well remembered of the three, rejected, and rightly so, the shallow philosophical concepts of the European intellectuals as to what would constitute the superman, the next evolutionary step beyond man. The Europeans assumed the next stage of morality was to shed all moral scruples, and to become as cold and hard as a machine.

Do not be deceived, O reader, by such external and extraneous frippery as the mind reading tendrils of Jommy Cross, or the teleportation of Gilbert Gosseyn, or the immortality of Walter S. DeLany, founder of the Weapon Shops. These superman were superior, precisely because their moral conscience and altruism of the supermen was superior. The superpowered Coeurl and the Rull and other monsters from his early stories were inferior because of their inflexibility, their moral retardation. For Van Vogt, the larger brain of the Martians of H.G. Wells, or the cold remorselessness of the superman imagined by Nietzsche were of no account if not also wedded to a greater moral sense.

The philosophy of all three, and indeed of Campbell himself, as we can see in the types of stories he wrote and bought, agreed on its prime axiom: Man is the measure of all things, and if he measures himself against the infinite hostility of the infinite cosmos, he must grow in his soul and reason, and be large enough to encompass that cosmos.

This was not Arthur C Clarke’s view, which was more similar to H.G. Wells’ view, that man would eventually evolve into something glorious in its own way but ultimately inhuman, and certainly not Ray Bradbury’s view, which was not so impressed with vast vistas and boastful futures, and more interested in the joys of home and hearth and the mysteries of the woods beyond the backyard, and the deeper mysteries of the human heart.

In the Hard SF view Campbell spread, we men are Homo Instrumenta, the Tool-Using Man, the Problem-Solving Man. Behind us is the ape-man and before us is the interstellar man, the cosmic man.

This is perhaps the inevitable outgrowth of the Enlightenment philosophy which informs the American character. These are typical or even archetypical American stories, as much as anything by Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce.

The cynicism met in the stories is similar to the unromantic view of man, ambitious, easily tempted man, which underpins so much of the American character. It is why we mistrust Big Business and Big Government and credentialed yammerheads without a lick of common sense.

But the optimism, the belief that a clever man with the clever system can solve things, fix things, correct things, also underpins so much of the American character. That is why we trust the brain trusts and experts from City Hall and concerned activists from the college campuses to organize and solve public matters, and why we trust free enterprise.

If any man can explain why Americans mistrust Big Business and trust Free Enterprise, trust academicians and mistrust yammerheads, trust City Hall and mistrust Big Government, that man can explain the American character.

And that man, furthermore, will understand that “Hard SF” is not just any story that puts technology at its heart. The heart of Hard SF is this cynical optimism, the paradox of men whose feet are firmly planted on the ground, and yet whose hands reach for the stars.

37 Comments

  1. Comment by Tom Simon:

    A correction, Sir: It was Astounding that became Analog. Amazing Stories carried on under that name until it folded.

  2. Comment by Tom Simon:

    It is, as you say, quite true that the big three names in Campbell’s Astounding, at its peak in the 1940s, were Asimov, Heinlein, and van Vogt. The reason that those are not the ‘Big Three’ of SF is sadly trivial and accidental: the phrase was not invented in the 1940s, and by the time it was invented, van Vogt had disappeared into a slough of Dianetics and personal troubles and was gradually ceasing to be a famous figure in SF.

    The ‘Big Three’ terminology dates from the era of cheap paperback novels, the 1950s and 1960s. It was those paperbacks that resurrected the ‘Golden Age’ stories and presented them to an audience of millions who had never had the opportunity to read them in the original magazines. Since van Vogt’s best work had already been done before 1950, he did not benefit from the new format as much as Heinlein and Asimov, many of whose best works appeared in the 1950s. On top of that, Damon Knight undertook a deliberate campaign to defame van Vogt (largely on political grounds) and destroy his literary reputation.

    That left van Vogt’s place in SF up for grabs. Bradbury was too obviously not a hard SF writer; he was too ‘soft’, too artistic, and too well known to the general public to replace van Vogt in the rather narrow and sclerotic affections of Silver Age fandom. But Clarke fitted between Asimov and Heinlein like a missing tooth. He is, as you say, the literary heir of H. G. Wells rather than a Golden Age writer, but by the 1950s those lines were becoming rather blurred anyway. And when Heinlein began writing proto-hippie libertarian tracts, and Asimov turned almost entirely to science writing, Clarke was the natural beneficiary. In my own opinion, he was a writer of greatly inferior natural gifts to any of your big three; but in the 1960s he was the only one still writing Silver Age hard SF regularly and well, so his stature in the field tended to increase until it seemed to match Heinlein and Asimov. It was really in the 1960s that the ‘Big Three’ were identified as a permanent and unchangeable group.

    A pity, really: I prefer your taxonomy (and your taste), and would take one van Vogt over a regiment of Clarkes. But I fear it is rather late in the day to try to change the usage of the term ‘Big Three’, so sanctioned and petrified by time.

    • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

      Concerning the issue of Clark being the only writer left still writing Silver Age SF, what about Poul Anderson and Larry Niven? I am not contending these writers belong in the Big Three, by the way. While I love their works, they do not have the kind of gift that these other men described do. However, they were also writing stories of a similar nature as Clarke, unless I am mistaken in my dating, around the same time.

    • Comment by Jordan179:

      L. Ron Hubbard has a lot to answer for, and can serve as the source of a triple moral:

      (1) – A cunning fool can do a lot of damage when people believe him -

      Aside from the direct harm he and his heirs have caused people who have exposed his cult, he sidetracked a lot of people who could have achieved much more in their lives to waste their time, money, reputation and skills. One of the evillest things he did was to get A. E. Van Vogt and other Golden Age science fiction writers (particularly John W. Campbell himself, though thankfully only for a short time) to devote attention to promoting Dianetics.

      (2) – Flaws in one’s own philosophy may leave one open to cunning fools

      The Golden Age science fiction world was tailor-made for exploitation by a cunning fool. The extreme optimism in the possibility not only of hard-scientific advances, but also of dubious soft-scientific advances (I’m thinking particularly of Campbell’s obsession with telepathy and other “psionics”) and that such advances would come quick and easy, made the fandom of the era very vulnerable to being conned by someone familiar with their assumptions — as was Hubbard, since he was himself a science-fiction writer of the day.

      (3) – Cunning fools often fall victim to their own schemes

      If you read of L. Ron Hubbard’s life you quickly realize that he wasn’t a happy man even when he finally became wealthy through his cult. He had to lie constantly to everyone to whom he was close, including his wife who was originially one of his recruits, and there is evidence that he began believing his own nonsense. As his sanity slipped, he could not obtain any meaningful psychological treatment (to do so would be to openly contradict his own premises) and he was probably quite mad by the time that he died (he was none too sane even before he started Dianetics).

    • Comment by Jordan179:

      On top of that, Damon Knight undertook a deliberate campaign to defame van Vogt (largely on political grounds) and destroy his literary reputation.

      Damon Knight has a lot to answer for: among other things he appears to have done much to cause the turn-away of much of science fiction in the 1960′s and 1970′s from an interest in space exploration, and thus created the gap between (supposedly-technologically-realistic) Earth-based science fiction and (sometimes-technologically-unrealistic) space-based “space opera.” He can even be blamed, indirectly, for the Mundane Science Fiction movement, as I discuss in “Damon Knight and the Conceptual Ancestry of the Mundane Science Fiction Movement” on Fantastic Worlds at http://fantasticworlds-jordan179.blogspot.com/2011/05/damon-knight-and-conceptual-ancestry-of.html

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        Yours is an excellent essay, and one I recommend.

        I have a bit of a personal distaste for Mr Knight. I first heard of him through his essay ‘Cosmic Jerrybuilder’ where he mocks A.E. van Vogt for reasons that seem more emotional than aesthetic or logical — I have not been able to find the essay to reread it, but such is my memory from my youth. The essay was a massive undertaking in the art of not understanding the point.

        Van Vogt is my favorite author, and I sought out books written in the same vein, such as Flight into Yesterday (aka ‘The Paradox Men’) by Charles L Harness. One such book I came across was called ‘Beyond the Barrier’, and utterly forgettable attempt at telling the sort of time-paradox amnesiac superman story with Gordian-knot style plot-twists which A.E. van Vogt tells with such polished perfection. Forgettable? It was actually a stinkeroo. Imagine my surprise when I looked again at the cover and found it was written by Damon Knight.

        Yes, the man most famous for his largely successful attempt to destroy A.E. van Vogt did indeed attempt a pastiche or a homage of Van Vogt, and failed. Failed miserably. He said such books were easy to write, were merely cosmic jerry-building, and he could not write one.

        I have the right to say so, because I could and did write such a pastiche. It was called NULL-A CONTINUUM. So I know how it is done. I, who have the right to criticize Van Vogt because I can do what he did, instead praise him; and Mr Knight, who has no right to criticize Van Vogt because he cannot do what he did, instead condemns him.

        My love and gratitude toward Mr Harlan Ellison, a man as famous for his integrity as for his irascibility, despite any difference between us, will never fade, because he single-handedly wrestled the SWFA guild into submission and restored to A.E. van Vogt some small measure of the recognition owed this grandmaster and father of the Golden Age.

        • Comment by Sean Michael:

          Dear Mr. Wright:

          Very interesting essay. You gave readers much to ponder about. Your comments about A.E. van Vogt comes to mind. I think I read at least his WORLD OF NULL A (and possibly SLAN) as a boy. And the short story version of “The Weapon Shops of Isher.” But I need to hunt up and reread his major works.

          As you know, it was the works of Poul Anderson which really caught my mind and heart. It’s my firm belief that Anderson’s best novels and stories are fully equal to any produced by the Big Three.

          I agree Robert Heinlein became more and more of a sexually obsessed bore after STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. And that his last really interesting novel was THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. Readers should focus on his pre STRANGER works.

          I used to be a fan of Isaac Asimov. But after THE GODS THEMSELVES, I became tired of his work. I thought his writing too colorless, flat, and monochrome. And Asimov seemed unable to create any interesting characters, except for the Mule in FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE.

          I need to reread Sir Arthur Clarke’s 2001: A SPACE OYDSSEY and CHILDHOOD’S END before I can fairly comment on them. I did love his TALES FROM “THE WHITE HART.”

          And so many other writers from the Golden and Silver Ages of SF deserve to be discussed! James Blish has been mentioned, I would add Alfred Bester, Cordwainer Smith, Walter Miller, and Avram Davidson.

          Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

          • Comment by John C Wright:

            The only memorable Isaac Asimov character I recall is also from ‘The Mule’ which is Bayta Darell. I believe in one of his many introductions, commentaries or autobiographies he mentioned the character was based on his wife, which no doubt gave her some additional personality and distinction.

            • Comment by Sean Michael:

              Dear Mr. Wright:

              Interesting, I had not known Asimov based Bayta Darell on his first wife. I should perhaps write that down on a slip of paper and place it with my copy of THE FOUNDATION TRILOGY, to remind me to keep a closer eye on Bayta the next time I might reread the original Foundation stories.

              In fairness to Asimov, I should have added to my original comments that I believe his short stories were better than the novels. The shorter length and the discipline needed for writing shorts moderated Asimov’s defects as a fiction writer.

              Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

          • Comment by Saknussemm:

            Well, James Blish was probably a better writer than Knight, but when he wrote criticism under the pseudonym William Atheling, Jr., he was even more cruel:

            “Some time back, Damon Knight wrote me a letter about this column in which he said, among other things, “…I think it’s a waste of time to bring up your big guns against short-shorts by Charles E. Fritch. You ought to aim at the top, where the cliches are being perpetuated, not down among the black-beetles.”

            Perhaps so…I have several times torn newcomers to shreds, and will be at it again in just a moment. I think Damon has a different conception of what constitutes aiming “at the top” than I do, at least for the purposes of this column. I am not particularly interested in criticizing authors, known or unknown, in a vacuum. If there is to be any point in analyzing what is printed in the professional magazines, the analyses should also be read by editors, who are usually at least as guilty as writers when a nuisance is committed….

            To aim at the top then, let’s examine such a case of editorial collapse on the part of a great editor: John W. Campbell, Jr. The story under consideration is “Final Exam,” by a new writer (if that’s the word I’m groping for) named Arthur Zirul.”

            http://spiralgalaxyreviews.blogspot.no/2008/07/issue-at-hand-william-atheling-jr.html

            Arthur Zirul is mentioned in another blog as well:

            “In the March, 1954 issue of Campbell’s Astounding, a story by one Arthur Zirul titled “Final Exam” appeared. It was the author’s very first story. Blish/Atheling, in the Spring 1954 issue of Redd Boggs’ fanzine Skyhook, devoted almost his entire column (which translated to an incredible six pages in book form) to tearing this story to shreds; calling it “…one of the worst stinkers ever to have been printed…”, and on and on.

            Why? What was the point?

            Is there some reason why a writer, either self-defined as a critic or anointed as such by others, must heap scorn on anything they don’t care for? Spending 2000 (approximately) words to slam the first story by a presumably-young writer is needlessly cruel.”

            http://www.blackgate.com/2011/11/05/so-what-the-hell-am-i-anyway/

  3. Comment by Dirigibletrance:

    I had never heard of Van Vogt until you mentioned him on your Livejournal. Thank you for that. Likewise with Gene Wolf, who’s works I have taken to heart and much adore.

    Speaking of Gene Wolfe, I am surprised to see a post about the great writers of Science Fiction without his name mentioned anywhere at all.

    • Comment by Tom Simon:

      The post is specifically about the great writers who wrote for Campbell’s Astounding in the 1940s, and Wolfe, for all his great gifts, never did that. (For heaven’s sake, he was only a child at the time.)

      Even if he had done, Wolfe is very much what they call a ‘writer’s writer’: the excellence of his craftsmanship is highly appreciated by other practitioners in the field, but for one reason or another, he has never really caught on in a big way with the general public — not even the general public of SF fandom. He never had a Stranger in a Strange Land or Foundation, the kind of book that sells by the cubic truckload. But I suspect his work will live on, and still be read and appreciated, long after most of his more famous contemporaries have been forgotten.

  4. Comment by robertjwizard:

    Asimov never did it for me. Like you say, morality never appeared in his stories. That lack will leave me unmoved. I enjoyed The Foundation series only insofar as I liked the general idea and its potentiality that Asimov could not use. He did approach it with The Mule story late in the book. In either of the other authors hands it would have been something.

    Van Vogt just goes out there, I have to acquire more.

    Heinlein pre- Stranger was really good – not consistently. Baslim the Cripple is a great, Hugo-esque character. It is too bad Heinlein could not have had a consistent intention in his writing, he could have been great(er).

    You mentioned Clarke. I just saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time tonight. Arf, this man rubs me the wrong way.

    • Comment by Darrell:

      As a teen I was a huge fan of Clarke’s RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA though I found his other work simply okay. I’ve always meant to go back and reread RENDEZVOUS to see if it is as good as I recall but I am trepidatious that it will mar my memory of it.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Arthur C Clarke perhaps deserves his own essay. His 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY perhaps is best understood as one and the same as the ‘Great Myth’ that CS Lewis describes in his essay “Funeral of a Great Myth” (http://fpb.livejournal.com/297710.html).

      In other words, 2001 is the very symbol of the abortive pseudo-Darwinian belief that technical progress will lead to mystical evolution to a plane beyond the mortal.

    • Comment by DGDDavidson:

      I read quite a bit of Clarke in my youth. Childhood’s End is his magnum opus, and it really blew me away when I first read it. 2001 the book is merely okay, and 2001 the movie has arresting visuals and “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and not much else. Rendezvous with Rama I liked, but not enough to bother reading its innumerable sequels.

      After Childhood’s End, the best Clarke I’ve read is the less well-known Fall of Moondust, a fine little tale about a rescue mission on the moon. It is very well structured and exciting, playing like a good disaster movie.

      Better than any of that is the manga series 2001 Nights by Yukinobu Hoshino, which is meant to pay homage to Clarke but actually outstrips him. The chapter “Lucifer Rising” is one of the best sf short stories I’ve ever read.

      And on that note, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fFOoIo-kMk

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        I will second the recommendation of FALL OF MOONDUST. I would also recommend his ‘Against the Fall of Night’ and perhaps even the rewritten version ‘City and the Stars’ but would strongly suggest avoiding the second rewritten version penned with Gregory Benford.

    • Comment by lotdw:

      Morality appears strongly in The Gods Themselves, though it’s a sort of anti-morality of complete license. I had forgotten about the themes and only remembered the plot elements until I reread it recently and realized he had been trying to make a point which completely went over my head as a teenager, and was pretty poorly expressed.

      I’d like to echo everyone’s complaints about Asimov’s inability to write characters well. He’s one of the “greats” whom I read less and less of as I got older, even as my taste for others like Wolfe or Dick or LeGuin expanded.

      I know there’s a joke there. Please ignore it…

  5. Comment by Mary:

    Oddly enough, someone just cited Asimov as an authority in my LJ. Apparently he wrote an essay in which he hypothesized if Venus had had a moon the size of ours, mankind would never have fallen into the error of geocentrism.

    Man must be very malleable indeed in his eyes if he believed that.

  6. Comment by David McKinnis:

    Poor James Blish, always the outlier.

  7. Comment by jtherry:

    On and on Coeurl prowled!

  8. Comment by John the River:

    As far as Heinlein’s writing career, the two books that I considered the nadir of this career were “I will fear no evil” and “Number of the beast”. Oddly enough, “Friday” (same period) I’ve always liked?
    (here I’m handicapped by the loss of my old library of books and magazines in a house fire, so I can’t check on or name the source of this remembrance.)
    I read an interview by Bob in which he referenced the state of his health at the time he wrote those novels. Afterwards he had a operation (my own father had the same one) clearing a clotted and largely blocked cranial artery. Heinlein said that he felt that he “woke up” and in fact, (in my opinion), produced several excellent and successful works after that. I only mention this since I didn’t notice any mention of it during the discussion of Heinleins career.

    Whoops! “I will fear no evil” is from 1970. I guess I was thinking of “Job”.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I WILL FEAR NO EVIL was written when Mr Heinlein was ill, and there was no time for him to revise it before sending it off to the publisher.

    • Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

      the nadir of his career

      I’ll never forget starting to read The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Ten minutes in, I was thinking “hmm…an SF take on ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’….looks like RAH is back on form. I like this.”

      Twenty minutes in, the insufferable Lazarus Long and his whole tiresome family of immortal sixties retreads showed up, and I literally hurled the book across the room. First and last time I’ve ever done that.

    • Comment by Sean Michael:

      John the River:

      A fire destroyed your collection of SF books and magazines? What a horrible thing to happen to an SF fan (or any other kind of bibliophile)! My condolences! Hope no one got hurt.

      Sean M. Brooks

      • Comment by John the River:

        I was seared on the edges, the radiant heat energy was quite astounding. Melted the plastic trim on the car parked twenty-five feet away (on one side only), melted the plastic trash cans and outside storage shed. The fire burned through the stairs to the second floor where the collection was housed so I never saw what was left.
        In the downstairs library the bookcases and then the ceiling collapsed on top of cardboard boxes that contained my late mother-in-laws art prints. These were her own work, done while she was in Japan. Rice paper and black ink brushes, no margin for error. Very delicate. The twenty-four inches of paper on top of them successfully shielded them from the heat. Four feet away a steel carpenters square I had left leaning against the wall had six inches of exposed metal, melted.
        Today the best of her prints are hanging on the walls of the new house we built on the site of the old one.
        I should have held onto the melted square, I could have sent it to Rosie O’Donnell.

        • Comment by Sean Michael:

          Hi, John the River!

          I’m glad you were not seriously injured. And that your mother in law’s art was saved. I’m reminded of how, very often, it’s because of sheer accidents like this that we lose books and works of art.

          I’m sure you’ve been busy rebuilding your SF collection! Even if only concentrating on your favorite authors.

          Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

          • Comment by John the River:

            No, not rebuilding. To replace the signed copies I’d have to buy replacements from a dealer for big bucks. So I just have the memories of all the conventions I attended where I obtained the originals.
            Ike (Isaac A.) used to attend the meeting of NESFA when I was in high school. He signed one for me back in ’65 at a meeting and then we all went for ice cream. He liked strawberry if I remember correctly. Can’t replace that.
            After the fire I was able to download hundreds of my ebook purchases from Baen and of course many friends sent me books when they heard. It’s funny, but I ended up with four copies of Foundation. (those and other dups ended up at the local library). Now that I think about it, no one sent me any Heinlein? Not even, “By his Bootstraps”.

            I used to wonder what would happen to my book collection after I died, one sister is mildly interested in SF (but no room) the other sister and her husband very definitely is not. It’s a little like worrying about your old cat. Hmm, interesting thought. You can’t will rights to a electronic book collection, can you?

            • Comment by Sean Michael:

              Hi, John the River.

              I agree! Books signed by their authors can’t be replaced. Altho I only had in mind buy unsigned copies as replacements. I would have dearly loved Poul Anderson to have signed some of my copies of his books!

              As for what to do with SF book collections if you don’t have any friends or relatives to bequeath them to, how about leaving them to NESFA? Doesn’t the New England Science Fiction Association have an admirable collection which it would love to have augmented?

              And I wouldn’t fret about “electronic books”! They will get wiped out when your old computer gets trashed.

              Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  9. Comment by Dan Kurt:

    re: The Big Three

    Appreciate the essay. Now, let me vent as I am in my 72nd year.

    Here is how I discovered S.F. I was in my sophomore year of high school just having given up my paper route after four years so I now had some free time. Accompanying a few friends to a large bookstore I stumbled upon a book titled The Pawns of Null-A. I was intrigued by the cover art and the blurb about “The Man With TWO Brains” so I bought it and devoured it. Yes I was hooked. Soon I was reading ACE DOUBLE after ACE DOUBLE. Other S.F. publishers were (if memory serves) Bantam, Ballantine, and Berkley. A friend showed me a used book store where I could save money yet fill my appetite. ( Thank you dear Olga, the proprietress, for not letting me buy the Fountain Head at age 14. ) Over the next nearly three years I read hundreds of S.F. books. Once in college, grad school, service, more grad school ( post Docs. ) followed by a career, my S.F. reading dwindled to an occasional book. Alas, I never got into the pulp magazines but I sure remember the BIG THREE of S.F.

    Agreed, Van Vogt was the best. Now a story. Met a mother of a fellow player on my son’s little league base ball team. I learned her surname name was Vogt. She was divorced and had reassumed her family name. I mentioned that the Vogt name was rare and that I held an author named A. E. van Vogt in the highest regards. She then almost knocked me over with her comment: “Oh, you mean uncle Alford. He always sends us copies of his books.” I responded, “What do you think of them?” Her rejoinder was, “I never read any of them.” Years later her son now grown up came up to me in ( I think ) a Mall and introduced himself to me saying he remembered me from little league ball. He was a cop by the way. He inquired about my son as he and his mother had moved away from the area soon after his little league era ended. After telling him about my son, I asked him if he ever read anything by his great uncle A. E. van Vogt. You can guess the answer. Yes, it was “NO, never have.”

    As to Heinlein, read a lot but for some reason he left me cold. Detested his later works that I read as an adult. Only his Moon as a Harsh Mistress remains in my memory as a good read.

    Asimov also did not light many fires with me. There was one exception that is worth a story. During my senior year in high school I had to take a course in Health. One requirement was to do a term paper on a medical subject. I had read an Asimov story about Beryllium dust poisoning and wanted to write on the topic. At the school library I found nothing and the same was true at our town’s Carnegie library. Then I got an idea. I visited a medical doctor that I had delivered papers to for the four years I was a paper boy. He knew me well and I always enjoyed talking to him. I also had been in the Boy Scouts with his oldest son and his younger son took over my paper route. It was almost as if I were a member of the family.

    When I visited him he was delighted to help find information on Beryllium dust poisoning. He had decades of bound medical journals. He and I searched through the indexes without success. He said that he had never heard of the disease. And at the end of the search he was laughing me off. I never told him about the Asimov story because I knew it wouldn’t go over well. I wrote the term paper on a different disease.
    Months later the doctor had a heart attack and died. After school ended the mother sold the house and moved to another state to be with her mother taking both boys with her. I never saw either of them again. Now the irony. In the August issue that year of Scientific American the cover story was on Berylliosis. That was the actual medical name of Asimov’s Beryllium Dust Poisoning. Oh how I would of loved to have been able to show that issue to the good doctor. This was a delayed (so to speak) variation of L’esprit de l’escalier.

    As to Arthur C. Clark, I consider him to be a ponderous writer typified by his Prelude To Space but he produced two real gems: Childhood’s End and Tales from the White Hart.

    What do I read now? Mostly hard science stuff and literature. Suggest you and lurkers find and read Pari Spolter’s Gravitational Force of the Sun (1994).

    Dan Kurt

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Well, Mr Kurt, you are welcome to write at length here. I’d like you to read my homage to A.E. van Vogt, NULL-A CONTINUUM, and tell me what you think of it. I spoke to Lydia van Vogt, the widow, on the phone, and she gave me permission to write the book, and never have I spoken to a nicer individual. I wrote it partly in the hope of making money for her, to pay her back for all the hours of enjoyment her husband had given me.

  10. Ping from No. 12 Alfred Elgin van Vogt, Weapons Masters, and The Big Three. - Amazing Stories:

    [...] he makes some interesting points in his argument, I’ll just recommend a redirect to Wright’s article for you. In summary, however, van Vogt worked with John W. Campbell, Jr. who edited both Robert [...]

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