“Twilight” by John W. Campbell

Campbell was only 24 when this story was published, among the first if not the first under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, to distinguish his more serious work from the pulpier stuff he had already published in Amazing and Wonder Stories. This might have been his first story for Astounding, it was followed by a string that lasted for the next few years until he became editor of the magazine. The editor he succeeded, F. Orlin Tremaine, doesn’t seem to know what to make of this story, the blurb on the title page says “A story that will set you to dreaming of purple distances – of a far future world wherein a race is dying seven million years away – seven million years!” And in the index it says “A world confused – millions of years from now – brings a strange confusion to a story – but the confusion fades to be succeeded by a spellbound fascination.” You can’t help but think that Tremaine was the confused one, but to his credit he published it anyway, purple distances notwithstanding.

Again the narration is second hand, someone picks up a hitchhiker from the future who tells him this long story about travelling to a far future Earth, and then overshooting on the way back and ending up in the present day. It’s a melancholy travelogue of wandering the planet that is mostly devoid of people and wildlife, where everything is maintained by machines that never wear out. The cautionary tale is that mankind advanced their technology too well, and lost their sense of curiosity after solving all the world’s problems, even though some of the solutions were a bit drastic. This tell-don’t-show style seems to be common in this era, not as cosmic as Olaf Stapledon but with a similar feeling of detachment and sense of wonder.

What’s most interesting to me is the notion that he had to go seven million years into the future to see such a dramatic shift to humanity’s fate. If this is supposed to be a cautionary tale, that timescale is too big for anyone to really care. I’m not sure if Campbell underestimated the rate of change, even a thousand years seems like it would be enough to get to self-repairing robots and perfecting the environment, or maybe a smaller timescale didn’t seem sufficiently sfnal. His premise is legitimate enough and maybe was a new thought at the time, even in 1934 changes to the status quo probably seemed to be getting out of hand. Campbell’s influence on the field as an editor changed the direction of SF towards hard science, maybe it would have happened eventually anyway but under his watch it was a more decisive and dramatic shift. It’s a shame he stopped writing fiction entirely, but given the turn in his later years towards things like psi powers and dianetics maybe it’s just as well.

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