Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Black Star Passes

When the first issue of Amazing Stories came out in the spring of 1926, one of the people who bought a copy was a fifteen-year-old boy from New Jersey named John Wood Campbell, Jr. He became a devoted fan of the new scientifiction genre, and in particular of the work of E. E. Smith, the first new star of the genre. The August 1928 issue included the first installment of Smith's novel The Skylark of Space, which established a new sub-genre of scientifiction, the super-science story. The Skylark of Space featured larger-than-life scientist heroes who discovered fantastic new scientific principles that allowed them to travel among the stars. Amazing's readers, including Campbell, fell in love with Smith's super-science stories. When Campbell began writing scientifiction stories of his own, they were unabashed imitations of Smith.

Campbell sold his first story, "Invaders from the Infinite", to Amazing when he was 18, but editor T. O'Conor Sloane lost the manuscript, and Campbell hadn't made a carbon copy. Campbell eventually recreated the story, but in the meantime he wrote more stories, finally placing one called "When the Atoms Failed" in the January 1930 issue of Amazing. However, it was his third published story, "Piracy Preferred", appearing in the June 1930 issue, that established Campbell as a major writer in the field.

"Piracy Preferred" was a Smith-style super-science story about two 22nd century friends, world-renowned physicist Richard Arcot and world-renowned mathematician Robert Morey. When a pirate begins robbing airliners in mid-air, leaving the passengers and crew in a state of suspended animation, Arcot and Morey deduce that the pirate is using an invisibility machine to hide his own aircraft. They work out a countermeasure, and chase down the pirate. When the pirate is finally captured and cured of his criminal tendencies, Arcot is so impressed with his brilliance as a chemist that he hires him for his own laboratory.

"Piracy Preferred" was popular enough with Amazing's readers that Campbell produced a sequel, "Solarite", that appeared in the November 1930 issue. In "Solarite", Arcot and Morey, together with the pirate, whose name is Wade, and Fuller, an engineer, build an interplanetary spaceship and travel to Venus. There, they find the Venerians, who are blue-skinned humanoids, are at war with each other. The Earthmen side with the Venerian nation that is under attack and use their superior technology to help them defeat their enemies. The story ends with the Earthmen deciding to let the diplomats back on Earth work out a peace treaty between the Venerians.

Campbell followed up "Solarite" with a short novel called The Black Star Passes that appeared in full in the Fall 1930 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly, an extra issue of the magazine that appeared four times a year. The Black Star Passes opens on a planet circling a dead star that is home to an immensely ancient race. As the dead star approaches Earth's sun, one of the planet's inhabitants decides to build a fleet of spaceships and lead his people to settle the worlds of the new solar system. When the alien fleet reaches Earth and discovers that it is already inhabited, a conflict begins. After a short battle the alien fleet retreats back to its solar system, and Arcot, Morey, and Wade are called in to investigate some of the wrecked alien ships. They do so, and Arcot realizes that the aliens come from another star, a dead star which he names Nigra. Knowing the Nigrans will be back in greater strength, Arcot and his friends set about designing and building a fleet of warships that will allow Earth and Venus to repel the attackers. There is an epic battle as a second Nigran fleet invades the Solar System and is almost completely destroyed by the Earth-Venus battle fleet. The remnant of the Nigran fleet retreats back to its own system, which is now moving away from the Solar System. The two stars are now too far away for the Nigrans to mount a third attack.

In due course, Campbell became the editor of Amazing's rival Astounding Stories, a post he held until his death in 1971, and he ceased writing science fiction. However, the stories he wrote in the 1930s would achieve book publication in later decades. In 1953, these first three Arcot stories (there were five altogether) were published by Fantasy Press under the title The Black Star Passes. In his introduction, Campbell pointed out that

In 1930, the only audience for science-fiction was among those who were still young enough in spirit to be willing to hope and speculate on a new and wider future -- and in 1930 that meant almost nothing but teen-agers . . . . But while these stories don't have the finesse of later work -- they have a bounding enthusiasm that belongs with a young field, designed for and built by young men. Most of the writers of those early stories were, like myself, college students.

As the readers of science fiction matured, so did science fiction itself -- helped along greatly by Campbell in his capacity as a science fiction editor. As Campbell notes elsewhere in his introduction, much of the readership for science fiction at the time of writing in 1953 consisted of the same people who were reading it in the 1930s, no longer college students but "professional engineers, technologists and researchers". This was still true to a great extent at the time of Campbell's death in 1971 -- many of the readers from the 1930s were still reading science fiction, and many of the writers Campbell discovered or encouraged in the 1940s (de Camp, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Sturgeon, del Rey) were still writing science fiction. The fact that so many of the same people populated the field for its first half century helped to build a sense of community among writers and readers. Although that first generation has passed away, and the field has grown enormously, the sense of community within science fiction remains strong.

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