The Black Star Passes by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Back in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, some of my favorite reading material, sci-fi-wise, was the wonderful series of 21 “Best of” anthologies put out by Ballantine. In an early indication of my future tastes, my favorites among those 21 collections were those by C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, Edmond Hamilton and Philip K. Dick, although to be truthful, I thoroughly enjoyed them all… with one exception. The Best of John W. Campbell, it seemed to me, was just OK; a bit crude, and just too dryly written for my tastes… with the exception of one story, the now-classic “Who Goes There?,” which was of course rather loosely transformed into the excellent 1951 film The Thing (From Another World), and more faithfully adapted by John Carpenter as 1982’s The Thing. John W.Campbell, as most of the sci-fi community knows, made his main contribution to the genre as the editor of Astounding Science-Fiction from 1937 till his death in 1971; indeed, he is generally regarded as the single most important editor in sci-fi history, not only helping to steer the young genre into maturity but also fostering the careers of such future luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt and many others, thereby ushering in science fiction’s “Golden Age.” It had been a good 35 years since my last underwhelming Campbell dose, and so, figuring that the time was right to give him another chance (as a writer, that is), I picked up the volume entitled The Black Star Passes. Originally released in hardcover in 1953, the three linked novellas in the book first appeared in 1930 (when Campbell was only 20) in the original science fiction pulp magazine, Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. And it would seem that my memory of more than three decades past was not in error; these tales are decidedly dry, crudely written and creaky… but still, somehow, compelling, and surely of historical interest today.
In the first novella, “Piracy Preferred,” which takes place in either 2116 or 2126 (depending on which of my Ace paperback’s typos is to be disbelieved), a supercriminal has invented an invincible knockout gas as well as the secret of invisibility, with which he commences to steal from the aircraft of Transcontinental Airways while they are in mid-flight! It is up to the nation’s top physicist, Dick Arcot, his engineering pal Robert Morey, and their designing buddy Fuller, to stop the madman. In “Solarite,” which picks up three months later, the trio is back, aided now by the rehabilitated pirate of the previous story, the scientific genius Wade. The four decide to build a ship capable of interplanetary flight and ultimately DO make it to Venus, where they become embroiled in a war between the northern and southern continents. Finally, in “The Black Star Passes,” the residents of a dying solar system set their eyes on our worlds and send a humongous armada of spaceships in their bid for conquest. Once again, it is up to Arcot, Morey, Fuller and Wade to think of a means of combating the menace, leading to a full-bore space battle between the invaders and the Earth/Venus allies.
As is my wont, I shall endeavor to find something nice to say about the book in question, dated and clunky as it may be. Campbell certainly does have a wide-ranging imagination, and his love of science and its limitless possibilities is certainly apparent here. That elusive “sense of wonder,” which was held at a premium in early sci-fi tales, is captured by the author intermittently, and when his tales don’t grind to a halt courtesy of scientific “info dumps,” they really do move. Campbell even manages to foresee the use of “guided missiles with atomic warheads,” which Arcot considers using against the “Venerians” at one point. But basically, these stories can be something of a tough slog. Campbell, who was a physics major at M.I.T. when he wrote these tales, admits in his intro that his early efforts were written for fellow science geeks and engineers, and boy, does it ever show! Rather than using scientific chatter to flesh out his story, Campbell instead seems to be adding some sort of loose plots to expound his physics and engineering extrapolations. In his introduction to The Best of John W. Campbell, author Lester del Rey tells us “…in those days, the science fiction stories had almost no literary value. They were crudely written, at best, and there was little attempt at characterization. The people were merely used as props to discuss the heavy use of superscience and to make the simple plots work.” And that is most assuredly the case here. Arcot & Co. will often engage in pages of discussion regarding counterbalanced condensers, bus bars, Jolly scales, the specific gravity of Venusian elements, and the construction of a new solar generator or molecular motion gizmo. In the latter two stories, the team explores the spaceships of the Venusians and the extrasolar invaders, commenting at length on the generators and so on to wearisome effect. Yes, all this science chatter DOES add a patina of realism to the proceedings, but most people, I have a feeling, will be screaming “Get on with it!” When Campbell tells us at one point that “The planning continued with exasperating slowness,” the reader cannot agree more!
And despite all this goobledygook, much of Campbell’s science comes off as impossibly dated. For example, the Venerians of the southern continent have mile-long aircraft built of impenetrable armor, but how are these supermachines moved around? Via 100 propellers on the wings! In assorted bits of science fallacy, Campbell tells us that the Earth is 2 billion years old, whereas we now know that it is more on the order of 5 billion. He says that Venus has a 24-hour day, like Earth, whereas its “day” is actually more like 243 of ours. He tells us that Venus’ surface temperature is 150 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas 860 degrees would be closer to the mark. He mentions the substance called coronium as being a new element found in our sun, whereas this “new element” was shown, later in the 1930s, to be merely composed of highly ionized nickel and iron. Another dated item: Istanbul is referred to as Constantinople, even though it had been renamed in the early ‘20s! And one more problem: When Campbell gives us the percent constituents of Venus’ atmosphere (“23 percent oxygen, .1 percent carbon dioxide…”), they add up to… 104 percent? And then there is the matter of women in Campbell’s book. There are none — not one — in all its 250-page length. Truly, this is strictly boys’ club reading material. So much so that when our quartet decides to christen their spaceship, the Solarite, Arcot declares, “We can’t have a pretty girl christen this ship, that’s sure. A flying bachelor’s apartment christened by a mere woman? Never!” In a word, oy!
But I have perhaps saved “the best” for last. The name that Campbell gives the residents of that dying black star, despite their pale white skins, is Nigrans; their star, of course, receives the rather unfortunate appellation Nigra. Now, ordinarily I might not make a big deal of this, but in light of Campbell’s later racist comments (he famously proclaimed that the U.S. slaves of the 18th and 19th centuries had a higher standard of living than they’d had in Africa, and that the 1965 Watts riots could be partially explained by the fact that some men were “natural slaves” who were unhappy as free men!), his poorly chosen nomenclature for this alien race cannot come off as anything but subtly (perhaps not so subtly) bigoted. So I suppose the bottom line is that if misogynistic, racist, dated sci-fi is your cup of tea, The Black Star Passes just might be for you! In his introduction to the current Rocket Ride Books edition of “Who Goes There?,” William F. Nolan tells us “In today’s character-driven sf market most of the early Campbell fiction has become outdated,” and I would certainly not argue with that assessment here. This is most surely a book that can only be recommended to those curious about the young roots of science fiction. Others should probably veer off faster than a 100-prop Venerian aircraft!
So sorry about the typo…Campbell did indeed pass away in 1971, not ’61….
Sandy, I’m sorry I didn’t catch the typo during the editing process! I’ll fix it right now. :)
I never liked the tiny bit of his fiction I tried to read. He shone as an editor.
Personally, I’ve always thought we should use physicists to prevent airplane hijackings.
While I’ve read “Who Goes There?” (and enjoy its various filmed iterations) I absolutely didn’t like The Black Star Passes. Whenever I hear people complain that “Modern sci-fi just isn’t as good as it was in the old days,” I always assume that they mean books like this one. And then I’m very glad that things have changed.
This was enlightening, Sandy! I will not even purchase the free version.
Like Jana said, I’m glad we’re no longer in the so-called “Golden Age” of science fiction.
Thanks for the correction, Jana. And don’t sweat it…no one expects you to be a fact-checker as well as an editor. You and Kat always make me look good. But let’s not discount ALL the Golden Age stuff; that would be like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It’s this PRE-Golden Age stuff that tends to get a tad problematic….
Oh, you’re absolutely right–there’s a LOT of great Golden Age and even some pre-Golden Age stuff out there. But the people who complain about the loss of those Good Old Days, in the majority of my experiences, never mean the good stuff. And that makes me sad.