John W. Campbell versus Appendix N

There’s been some discussion here about the battles over science fiction sub-genres. The folks at Castalia House complain a lot about John W Campbell Jr’s destruction of the heroic tradition in fantasy literature. I have to wonder how he pulled that off. His power was holding the editorship of one magazine: Astounding, later Analog, from 1937 to 1971. He turned that into the flagship of Hard SF, aka Blue SF, and boosted the careers of many writers. He’s been praised as the most influential editor ever . . . by writers whose careers he started and sustained.

I don’t disagree that he was willing to sacrifice heroism and Christian values in stories to get the technical content he wanted. But how much impact did he have outside of the pages of his own magazine?

Fortunately we have a reference for heroic stories: Appendix N. Let’s take a look at those writers and stories and see how much of a dent JWC made in them.

Appendix N Author Careers

This graph looks at how many of the 28 Appendix N authors were active in each decade (excluding posthumous publications). We can see many of them were producing past Campbell’s death in 1971. Michael Moorcock, God bless him, had an original story out in 2014. The graph peaks in the 1960s because the list doesn’t include anyone whose first publication was after 1966 (Bellairs).

Looks like JWC didn’t ruin that many careers. He even published some writers who appeared in Appendix N, such as Poul Anderson’s math puzzle story “The Three-Cornered Wheel.”

But did he force those writers to do different kinds of stories? Let’s graph the works by their publications. Many were series, so those appear in all decades from start to end, again excluding posthumous publications or series continued by new authors (We’ve seen that later authors were not always doing Appendix-N worthy work).

Appendix N Works by Decade

Not as smooth a curve as the authors’ careers, but clearly the bulk of the Appendix N stories were published after JWC began his reign of terror, not before. As a destructive tyrant he doesn’t seem to be much of a success.

Another claim is that JWC tried to wipe out fantasy writing to reserve the shelves for the science side of science fiction. I don’t know how well that matches with when JWC founded the fantasy magazine Unknown Worlds, but let’s see if we can detect his impact.

Wikipedia provides a convienent, if fuzzy, source of data for this. It has categories by decade and genre for its novel pages. Wikipedia’s biases are well known, but consistent. So we can use this to get a feel for how many fantasy novels were released each decade.

I’m just not seeing a 1937-1971 reign of terror there. Yes, there’s a dip in the 1940s. Given that World War II created a paper shortage and put many writers in uniform, I don’t think we can give JWC credit for that. Afterwards the number just keeps soaring. There’s people writing fantasy, and presumably reading it.

Applying the same technique lets us compare fantasy and science fiction. Wikipedia says:

Now that’s interesting. Science Fiction started outselling¬†Fantasy in the 1930s and kept going. The WWII dip was there, JWC couldn’t save his beloved genre from global catastrophe, but after that SF took off and kept going with up to five SF novels for every fantasy one. The genres are closer together now as fantasy production takes off.

Some of that is undoubtedly categorization. There’s a big fuzzy area between Hard SF stories with screwdrivers and Tolkienesque quest fantasy. Star Wars could be classed as “Swords and Sorcery with spaceships” instead of an SF story with fantastic elements if that’s how the marketers wanted to pitch it.

But one thing is certain: fantasy never went away. The number of fantasy books published kept increasing through John W. Campbell Jr.’s career. If he tried to stop that, he failed.

So now what? Is there anything written past 1980 worth reading?

The key test of Appendix N isn’t just that they were good stories. They were the stories that inspired Dungeons and Dragons. In fact they inspired more than D&D. Lovecraft’s stories led to the Call of Cthulhu RPG and its descendents. There’s an Elric RPG. Conan has some RPGs of his own, as well as a GURPS book.

GURPS is a good starting point for looking at other books impacting role-playing games. Steve Jackson has built one of the longest careers in the gaming industry by surfing the trends. Let’s look at his take on Appendix N.

GURPS Conan is the obvious starting point. Other Appendix N authors receiving the GURPS treatment were L. Sprague de Camp (Planet Krishna), Jack Vance (Planet of Adventure), Phillip Jose Farmer (Riverworld), Andre Norton (Witch World), and Lovecraft (multiple variants on Cthulhu).

What post Appendix N authors have a GURPS book? Horseclans (Robert Adams), Uplift (David Brin), Vorkosigan (Lois Bujold), Humanx (Alan Dean Foster), War Against the Chtorr (David Gerrold), Wild Cards (GRR Martin), Discworld (Terry Pratchett), Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon (Spider Robinson), Illuminati (Shea & Wilson), and New Sun (Gene Wolfe). If you include comic authors there’s Hellboy (Mike Mignola) and Case & Andy (Andy Weir).

Some RPG inspiration is going on there. But GURPS is a narrow segment of the RPG market. What’s going on elsewhere?

Lots.

Anne Rice’s Interview With a Vampire led to Vampire: the Masquerade and the many other World of Darkness games (arguably the anti-D&D, but it brought lots of people to the table which makes it a significant influence).

William Gibson’s Neuromancer sparked the cyberpunk genre. Shadowrun was the most famous of these, but there’s several others including a GURPS book.

Gibson teamed with Bruce Sterling to write The Difference Engine, creating steampunk. Again, there’s multiple RPGs in this subgenre.

And that’s just the famous ones. Glen Cook’s Black Company series spawned an RPG. I’m sure there’s lots of others out there I’ve never heard of.

More than game books, we need inspiration from stories. There are two science fiction novels that stand above the three decades for that: A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge) and The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson). Either could keep a gaming group in ideas for years.

I grant those are both on the science fiction side of the genre divide, because that’s where I spend the most of my time. Please nominate your fantasy contenders in the comments.

  • Brian Renninger

    Quibble: Steampunk term and approach was around prior to Gibson and Sterling. See Jeter, Powers, and Blaylock. Jeters coined the term prior to the writing of The Difference Engine.

    • Karl Gallagher

      A quick visit to Google shows you’re right. That moves Steampunk up to the mid-1980s. And there’s some books I need to check out.

  • Nathan Housley

    The fantasy charts only prove that science fiction outproduces fantasy, not that it outsells fantasy. Fantasy has been outselling science fiction for the better part of three decades, by a factor of 2 or more.

    • Karl Gallagher

      That’s certainly true now and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s been going on for decades. But I don’t have data to support it as the big publishing houses hold those numbers tight.

      If fantasy outsold SF in the 1950s that would be the end of the “JWC killed fantasy” argument.

      • Nathan Housley

        Exact figures are hard to find, but I did find some mention in the Resnick/Malzberg dialogues for the magnitude of difference for 1990s and 2000s. Some 2010s data was posted on the Publisher’s Weekly site, but has since gone behind a paywall.

        I’m not sure who is making the “JWC killed fantasy.” Campbell really wanted to make a fantasy revolution as well as a science fiction revolution, but he was forced to choose between his children during the paper shortage. He chose science fiction. This did cause some writers like Leiber to switch gears in the 1940s, but it didn’t kill fantasy. Perhaps it might have overshadowed fantasy a bit, as Campbell did make Astounding prestigious enough to be the only surviving Street & Smith magazine from the pulp era. But other magazines like Weird Tales were still going strong for pulps at the time.

        There is a nice counterfactual history to imagine what might have been if the Campbell science fiction writers concentrated as hard on fantasy as science fiction.