the Little Red Reviewer

The Black Star Passes, by John W. Campbell

Posted on: January 13, 2013

And yes, I am talking about *that* John Campbell. You know, the guy who edited Astounding (later renamed Analog) for nearly 35 years, the guy who kicked off the careers of many of the most famous golden age science fiction writers. This is the guy who in 1938 also penned a little novella called Who Goes There? which later became, among other incarnations, John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing.  Simply put, without Campbell,  science fiction would not be what it is today.

SAM_2425The Black Star Passes, by John W. Campbell

published in 1930 / 1953

where I got it: purchased used

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The Black Star Passes is a 1953 fix-up of three of Campbell’s earlier stories that were originally written in 1930.  I know that the stories were edited from their original forms to become a smoother novel, but I don’t know the extent of those changes. In Campbell’s introduction to this 1953 printing, he says the fiction he writes is for students (he specifies male students, but take it in the time in which it was written) who were discovering the joys of math, chemistry, and engineering while in high school or college. These stories were for people who enjoying thinking about problems and figuring out the answers. Basically, these are stories for science nuts.

In Piracy Preferred, the first story, the young inventors Arcot and Morey are challenged with catching an invisible thief. The pirate manages to gas entire airplanes with sleeping gas, get aboard, steal the valuables, and get away. the plane is able to safely land on auto-pilot, and no one is ever hurt in these attacks, except for the fact that the sleeping gas also cures many cancers and other ailments.  If a pilot begins to feel sleepy, it’s too late.  It’s quite entertaining when entire planes go up filled with the elderly and cancer stricken and all their money, hoping to bait the pirate into curing them.  This isn’t a mystery or a suspense story, and after a bit of experimentation in their labs, Arcot and Morey are able to make themselves invisible, break through the invisibility cloak of the pirate, and catch him. And what do you do when you catch a genius criminal?  you hire him, of course!

In the next story, Solarite, the team now known as Arcot, Morey, and Wade (Wade was the pirate) decide to tackle space flight. The beginning of this story is a giant brainstorm on how to build a ship fueled in such a way that it could escape Earth’s atmosphere, and what the explorers would need to survive outer space.  Our closest neighbor is Venus, so that’s where the fellows decide to go.  They christen the ship Solarite, and start off on an adventure in their flying bachelor pad. Yes, they are brilliant scientists, but they prank each other too. Campbell’s guesses about the Venusian atmosphere would later prove very, very wrong, but a breathable atmosphere makes it so much easier for Arcot and Morey to meet and communicate with the Venusians they meet, who are in the middle of a civil war with their southern neighbors.  By trading technology and scientific knowledge, Earth and Venus become quick allies. And of course, the civil war ends.

The last story, The Black Star Passes, is by far the best of the bunch.  Part of the story is from the point of view of  aliens who are outside our solar system.  Their star has died, their planets have cooled.  Only through their environmental technologies have their survived this long, and they are looking for a young bright star to warm their colorless flesh. And Earth’s sun looks mighty bright and warm.  A classic alien invasion story, Earth and Venus are doomed, unless they can work together to develop new technologies to defeat these powerful and desperate invaders.

it would be a stretch to call these stories “good”.  They read like something a geeky teenaged engineering student would write as a joke to share with his equally geeky friends.  And lo and behold, I learned that Campbell penned all three of these tales at age 19, while an engineering student at MIT.

He certainly had a love for science. But he really could have used a decent creative writing class. The characters lack any sense of a personality, the plots are silly and predictable, the dialog is stale, and the infodumps reach heights of “are you kidding?”. On one page, Campbell bores the reader to tears with scientific ramblings of what chemicals to boil or sublimate to test for rare or new elements, and on the next page he’ll use the trite trick of having a character say “of course you remember the formula for such and such” or reference some chemistry corollary and then have the character review that exact thing, thus educating the reader.  It’s an exceedingly uninteresting method of writing something that is supposed to ultimately be entertaining.

The only place Campbell shines is in descriptions of the Aliens found on Venus and outside our solar system. It’s almost as if the sections on the aliens and their environs were written by a completely different person. His scientifically based guesses on what environmental variables would cause an alien to look this way or that are down right fascinating, and it’s uncanny how Campbell’s 1930 description of an extra-solar alien so closely matches another alien many of us have become familiar with:

“. . . their skin was a strange grey-white, suggesting raw dough. It seemed to Arcot that these strange, pale creatures were advancing at a slow walk, and that he stood watching then as they slowly raised strange hand weapons. He seemed to notice every detail: their short, tight-fitting suits of some elastic material that didn’t hamper their movements, and their strange flesh, which just seemed to escape being transparent. Their eyes were strangely large, and the black spot of the pupil in their white corneas created an unnatural effect”

CGI-PROMETHEUS-ENGINEER

Definitely a “boys adventure”,  if you go into The Black Star Passes with no expectations, I think you’ll do OK.  It’s also very nice to see how far science fiction has come, and even how far Campbell’s writing would improve, as Who Goes There is an excellent chiller (still the over the top infodumping, but balanced with decently written exposition and characters that have personality).   In fact, skip The Black Star Passes entirely, and go read Who Goes There?, which you can read for free here.

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9 Responses to "The Black Star Passes, by John W. Campbell"

Enjoyed reading this post about Campbell’s writing …and the alien description at the end with the pic gave me goosebumps!

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” They read like something a geeky teenaged engineering student would write as a joke to share with his equally geeky friends.” I wonder sometimes if the male-centric SF of the so-called golden age was often the way it was because male authors couldn’t imagine women actually enjoying this stuff…if there was a bit of an embarrassment quality to it? Not justifying it but just wondering if that might have been a small part of a larger equation.

At any rate I learned something today, had not idea Campbell penned the story that turned into The Thing. Campbell is quite the presence in the history of SF, some would probably argue for bad as well as for the good. It is fascinating to realize how much he had his hand in things at the time and how many of the authors we cherish today as Masters had his involvement in their life’s work.

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I am female, and i loved these stories.
The best part is the technobabble; l especially enjoyed his description of an alcubiere warp bubble fifty years before alcubiere, and his
bose-einstein condensate solids lux and relux.

And, i would date morrey anytime.

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Having this in 1952 when I was young and so was SF, I liked it more than you did, which should come as no surprise to anyone. I think I have an SF Book Club edition I got a few years later.

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I enjoyed that review. Especially the doughy alien descriptions.
Lynn :D

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Golden Age SF rears its ugly head! Nothing like square jawed Anglo-Saxon men solving problems to clear one’s palate.
(Note: I quite like Golden Age SF, but I am self-aware enough to realize what I’m reading and poke fun accordingly.)

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[...] The Black Star Passes, by John W. Campbell (littleredreviewer.wordpress.com) [...]

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Downloaded this off of Project Gutenberg and didn’t manage to get very far before I got bored, I’m afraid. I will definitely check out the link to the other story, though; thanks for sharing it. ^^

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Dude, if you keep putting up excellent reviews of authors who have been writing for decades, you are going to break my TBR Mountain and turn it into a Mountain Range ;) Great review!

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