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The Demolished Man
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2013 Reads > TDM: The Legacy of John W. Campbell

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Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments One of the odd things about this book is that it's considered a science fiction classic despite the central concept -- psychic powers -- having no scientific basis. Why is that? Did people in the 1950s believe ESP might be a real and demonstrable thing?

For the most part, no, but there were exceptions, and unfortunately one of them was John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the leading SF magazine of the 1940s and '50s. If you wanted to get published with Campbell, the best way to do so was to play-up his pet theories, which is why otherwise rational authors like Asimov and Heinlein put psychic non-sense into their books.

Campbell's crazy thoughts went well beyond psychic powers -- there are many faddish pseudo-science theories that turn up in stories he edited because he encouraged authors to use them; he was also an early proponent of Dianetics; and, worst of all, he was a white supremacist who refused to publish stories with non-whites in prominent roles. If you've seen the Deep Space Nine episode "Far Beyond the Stars," Campbell is the basis for Rene Auberjonois' character, while Avery Brooks' part was partly inspired by Samuel Delany.

For a good idea how nutty Campbell could be, Archive.org has a collection of his essyas, including one in which he argues that the FDA should've let thalidomide on the market and only banned it after birth defects showed up. Because human society can't advance without suffering. Or something.


Andreas ESP and other mind capabilities (e.g. telekinesis, teleporting, time bending) are SF's magic.

One very long running continuous SF booklet - Perry Rhodan - introduced a couple of mutants which are a central theme since then. Since over 2000 weeks!


message 3: by Gary (last edited Sep 01, 2013 11:19AM) (new)

Gary Funny. You said John W. Campbell and I thought "Joseph Campbell" and figured this was THAT discussion. :)

In any case, a comparison between JOHN Campbell and Arthur Conan Doyle might be apt.

I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with pseudo-science in science fiction. In fact, I'm confident it's perfectly fine to speculate in a "what if..." way. It's a problem when people go on to present that pseudo-science as a real world theology, but I don't know that doing so necessarily winds up in shifting society as a whole, or if something like Scientology is just fighting with other belief systems/organizations for a slice of the same pie of humanity.

His weird political ideas and callous attitude towards things like slavery and other aspects of human suffering are more problematic, and call his intellectual integrity into question. That's good stuff to know for his readers. People should bear those opinions in mind when reading his work.


message 4: by Robert of Dale (last edited Sep 03, 2013 10:45AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Robert of Dale (r_dale) | 185 comments Andreas wrote: "ESP and other mind capabilities (e.g. telekinesis, teleporting, time bending) are SF's magic.

Parapsychology was (is?) studied in academic settings. Just because today's scientific consensus is that ESP is bunk, it does not follow that it was always thought of that way by the same proportion of scientists. Sure there were dissenters among the learned, but if you go back to the earlier days of any scientific field, you can find the establishment dismissing non-Earth-centric planetary motion, Ohm's Law, germ theory... the list goes on and on. My point being, in the 1950s, serious research into the possible existence of ESP was being done, with the assumption that rigorous methods and advanced measuring devices could tease out real evidence of the phenomenon. In Campbell's day, you'd have had to be psychic to know they would never find that evidence.


message 5: by Gary (new)

Gary Robert of Dale wrote: "Parapsychology was (is?) studied in academic settings. Just because today's scientific consensus is that ESP is bunk, it does not follow that it was always thought of that way by the same proportion of scientists."

I think we learned a lot about how people read faces from research into ESP. I can't help but think that with the advances in DNA sequencing and gene splicing that things like cryptozoology might not turn out to be bio-design in a few years in a way that might compare to the transition of alchemy to chemistry.

I suppose we could think of the research done into things like ESP as (almost) pure research....


Katy | 25 comments Elizabeth wrote: "I hadn't looked in Bester before reading this but he sounds like an unpleasantly crazy sort of guy. However, I've never felt any kind of antipathy toward ESP in SF novels. As far as science goes, h..."

I totally laughed when I read this!!

I'm not that far into the book, and tend to agree with you. I don't have a problem with ESP in science fiction at all, and in fact, have enjoyed it immensely in other books. I've been finding it difficult to get into this book, but the ESP is certainly not the reason why. I find I don't like the main character at all so far. I guess I'll have to push through and see if things become better later one.


message 7: by LegalKimchi (new)

LegalKimchi | 112 comments I was at a panel of the logic of magic with les grossman, lay niven, Mercedes lackey, on someone I didn't know actually talked about this. They felt it was just silly terminology but it is simply magic for sci fi


Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Elizabeth wrote: "I hadn't looked in Bester before reading this but he sounds like an unpleasantly crazy sort of guy. However, I've never felt any kind of antipathy toward ESP in SF novels. As far as science goes, h..."

Just to be clear, John W. Campbell was the dick. Bester was one of the many authors who tried to write what Campbell wanted because it was the only way to make it into Astounding. In this case it failed since the story was published in Galaxy instead, but you can definitely see Campbellian ideas throughout the story.

Campbell's influence goes a long way. Any story where ESP is treated as real science is because of Campbell's non-sense. Any time you read a story in which it turns out humans have some trait that makes us special compared to other species, that's Campbell. Stories where suffering is held up as a necessary part of human advancement -- Campbell. The idea that geeks are a special class of intellectuals who would be better at running things than poor, stupid mundanes -- oh, that's big time Campbell. You'll note that even the supposedly progressive Star Trek series embraces many of these ideas.


Mark Catalfano (cattfish) Andre Norton sprinkled a lot of psi powers into her works as well, if I recall


message 10: by Nathan (new)

Nathan (tenebrous) | 377 comments @Sean - I think most of those things have a long history before Campbell and probably would have shown up anyway, no? It is a bit unfair to blame him for all of those.


message 11: by Sean (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Nathan wrote: "@Sean - I think most of those things have a long history before Campbell and probably would have shown up anyway, no? It is a bit unfair to blame him for all of those."

The ideas may have been part of the mix before Campbell, but when he took over Astounding, which throughout the '40s and early '50s was the science fiction magazine, he shut out all opposing views. Asimov is on record, for instance, as saying the reason he avoided writing about aliens is because Campbell would only publish stories in which humanity turned out to be superior, and the human characters always had to be Aryans. He may not have created the ideas, but he entrenched them in the genre to such a degree that many remain around long past the point when they've been discredited.


Ruth (tilltab) Ashworth | 1864 comments The way I see it, it is the approach, rather than the facts, that makes sci-fi different from fantasy. If you can read minds because you are half-fairy, you are in a fantasy novel. This book treated it like a natural ability either present currently but untapped, or developed in the future. The ability was then trained, and studied. That seemed sci-fi enough for me.


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