Saturday, November 25, 2023
John W. Campbell's Beyond the End of Space
John W. Campbell (1910-1971) was a reasonably prolific science fiction author in the 1930s but his main contribution to the genre was as an editor. He was editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 to 1971. He did a great deal to encourage a more serious approach to the genre and was arguably the moist important science fiction editor of the 20th century. His early fiction however was more in the space opera mould.
Beyond the End of Space is clearly set at some point in the fairly near future. Ran Warren is working on a major research project at a university. He is working on the annihilation of matter and hopes to unlock limitless power. The result of his project is a minor earthquake but he is sure he is on the right track. He believes that he has not actually annihilated matter but sent it to another universe.
At this point intrigue within the corporate world and the scientific world takes a hand. A tycoon named Nestor wants to get his hands on Warren’s project. Nestor employs another brilliant but far less ethical physicist named Atkill to try to replicate Warren’s results. Nestor has double-crossed Warren and Atkill intends to double-cross Nestor.
At stake is world domination. The discovery has the potential to give Nestor control of the world but he is not the only one who seeks such power.
Warren allies himself with another tycoon, Putney. For various reasons Warren has decided that he needs to build a highly advanced spaceship (the Prometheus) to continue his research in space. His enemies bomb his laboratory but Warren, Putney and a few associates make their escape in the Prometheus but where have they escaped to? Wherever they are they are no longer in the known universe.
The book becomes a bit of a political thriller crossed with a crime thriller (with gangsters) and a space opera. There’s quite a bit of action throughout and we get a decent spaceship battle at the end.
In 1933 people were very excited by Einstein’s theories, by quantum mechanics and the promise of atomic power and Campbell taps into these obsessions. He takes the science stuff in fairly outlandish directions and there’s plenty of technobabble but I enjoy that sort of stuff. And the science stuff is amazingly convoluted and bizarre.
In 1933 it was believed that atomic power would be able to do truly extraordinary things. In the future everything would be atomic-powered. In the novel Warren’s discovery is expected to revolutionise the world. Nobody will ever have to work. It will be utopia, but if the discovery falls into the wrong hands it could just as easily be a dystopia, with a handful of ruthless men in control of government and of every industry.
Most of the characters are standard pulp science fiction types although Atkill is a bit more complex, and Warren is an interesting portrait of an obsessed scientist, albeit obsessed in a good way.
Campbell’s prose is serviceable rather than dazzling but he keeps things moving at a brisk pace.
Beyond the End of Space is very much of its time, but that’s why I love the science fiction of earlier eras. Recommended.
I’ve also reviewed Campbell’s famous 1938 novella Who Goes There? (adapted for film in 1951 as The Thing from Another World and by John Carpenter in 1982 as The Thing.