John W. Campbell’s “Night”

Before he assumed the post of editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell was primarily an SF writer. He began selling stories while he was pursuing a degree in Physics from MIT and Duke University. The manuscript for his first sold story, “Invaders from the Infinite,” was lost by the editor of Amazing Stories, so his first published story was, “When the Atoms Failed,” which appeared in 1930. Malcolm J. Edwards writes in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that Campbell had two phases to his writing career directly followed by his career as an editor during which time he wrote little SF (187). In the first phase of his writing career, Campbell established himself as E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “chief rival in writing galactic epics of superscience” (Edwards 187). His second writing phase began with the story, “Twilight” in 1934, which is “a tale of the far future written in a moody, ‘poetic’ style, the first of a number of stories, far more literary in tone and varied in mood, published under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart” (Edwards 187). It’s from this phase and following that style that Campbell published “Night” in Astounding Stories in October 1935.

The story is about a flight test gone awry that results in the aircraft’s destruction, but the pilot mysteriously disappears. The experimental craft employed what was believed to be an anti-gravity generator, but as is illustrated in other SF examples such as the film, Primer, technology often has unintended consequences and uses not originally envisioned by the engineer/designer.

After the pilot miraculously reappears and is discovered by the farmer guarding the wreckage, he tells his superiors a dream-like tale about the distant future and the eventual death of our solar system. Campbell evokes H.G. Wells in the way that the pilot relates his tale. As Edwards points out, Campbell is employing a poetic voice in describing the future both experientially as well as scientifically.

In the far future, the pilot discovers a ‘race’ of machines that have subsumed humanity in the the solar system. Earth is lifeless and without atmosphere, and the machines have a vast city on Neptune, where the pilot is taken after finding a signally device. The machine city and the necessity of fusion power and greater efficiencies predates The Matrix. However, unlike The Matrix, the machines drop humanity as so much dead weight, but the machine’s representative tells Bob, the pilot, “You still wonder that we let man die out…It was best. In another brief million years he would have lost his high estate. It was best” (112).

Other connections with Campbell’s story are Asimov’s Robots. Campbell goes on a lot about resistances and coils, which is also the language that Asimov uses in his early robot stories. Campbell and Asimov had an extensive editor-author relationship, and Campbell helped Asimov develop the “Three Laws of Robotics.” This example further establishes where some of the imagery and terminology in Asimov’s stories may have originated beyond his own imagination.

“Night” is an interesting story, and I’d be interested to see what connections could be made between it and Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe” (read online here). These are two different stories, but given Campbell’s ideas about SF and the fact that Zoline’s story is very much New Wave and feminist in orientation, I believe that there is some elements of the latter that speak with or in reaction to the former.

I found Campbell’s story in The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, edited by Tom Shippey.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.