The Mightiest Machine
by John W. Campbell

Review by
Ron Grube
Astounding Stories, December 1934 - April 1935

Hadley: Providence, Rhode Island; 1947
228 pages

November 2001


Did you ever wonder about the origins of the Mu legend? The Mayan "airfields"? Zeus and the panoply of early gods? Where we got our picture of the Devil's appearance, with horns, goat feet, and red color? How about legends of Hell as a hot, smoky, underground place populated with Devil-like creatures? To take on all of this, add super-science marvels such as truly efficient solar power systems, momentum-wave space drives, anti-gravity, and intergalactic, possibly interdimensional travel, in one not-very-long novel, wow! John W. Campbell did it, and made it believable.

The Mightiest Machine (Astounding, Dec 1934, Brown) - Campbell (small) The Mightiest Machine is a science-fiction story of young scientists and engineers at a time when space travel is comparatively new. There are colonies on the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, and the Jovian satellites. Russ Spencer, third-generation owner of the Spencer Rocketship Yards and himself a talented engineer, teams up with his friends and employees Don Carlisle, chemist, and Aarn Munro, physicist, to make a more efficient space drive. Where will the needed power come from? A power-tapping beam, devised by Munro, obtaining power from the mightiest machine:

Spencer: "Good Heaven! The Sun! Do you mean that thing could tap the awful power of the Sun?"

Munro: "It's hard to think of all at once. Tapping the mightiest machine — the most inconceivably huge engine in the universe really — for any star would do."

Munro has a personal interest in a better drive. He was born on Jupiter, parents voluntarily stranded for 20 years because early chemical rockets could get them down but not back off the surface. He's five feet seven inches tall, and almost five feet in circumference, weighing well over 300 pounds. Immensely strong, and a genius in his field, he is one of Campbell's more interesting characters.

At Campbell's usual breakneck speed of a major invention every couple of pages, they are testing the new drive and propelled into another universe by a high-speed collision with an asteroid. Finding themselves in the middle of an interplanetary war, of course they find it necessary to figure out who are the good guys and help them.

The good guys, who appear to be entirely human, are a story in themselves, telling a tale of fleeing a somewhat familiar-sounding world where horrible carnivorous creatures had appeared from underground:

Their faces were long and narrow, and they had horns, but their eyes and their noses and their mouths were something like those of humans. They had a torso and a pair of true hands, but their feet were the feet of goats and their bodies were hairy. And the strange light had bred something into them that made them red, for the light was greenish in hue. They were hideous.

The last great ruler of this race, a fellow named Tsoo-ahs (He, incidentally, finds the secret of controlled ball lightning. Sound familiar?), sees that the battle will never end until one side or the other is completely wiped out. After much destruction, only one shipload of people managed to escape, followed, of course by the Teff-Hellani, the baddies. The two races settle separate planets and build up civilizations again, and so the war is on. Enter Spencer, Carlisle, and Munro to save the day. I won't give away any more because it's just too much fun to read. Well, just one little thing... I hope JWC didn't bite off the end of his tongue he was holding firmly in cheek when he made up the Teff-Hellani's temple of war. The temple was named Kakkakill, and the God of War was (drum roll) Kak-ka!

Okay, so The Mightiest Machine leans toward space opera. The story is still fun science fiction, and the ideas and inventions are made plausible by Campbell, himself a former MIT student. To combine all of the ideas, science, philosophy, and legend contained in The Mightiest Machine would be impossible for most writers. John W. Campbell makes it seem easy.


© 2001 Ron Grube

Astounding December 1934 cover
by Howard V. Brown

There is a full-page reproduction of this cover in
The Illustrated Book of
Science Fiction Ideas & Dreams

by David Kyle

Aerospace at Troynovant
air and space travel and development

Gravity at Troynovant
gravitation & antigravity:
applied, shaped, & redirected

Solar at Troynovant
Solar System in general,
Sun, multiple planets


... there is another type of error, the consciously made error. In 1933, I wrote a story, The Mightiest Machine, which appeared during 1934 in Astounding. The hero of that story was supposed to have been the son of colonists who had established themselves on Jupiter. That is, I know now, impossible. But the fact that Jupiter has an atmosphere of methane and ammonia was not known until very late in 1934, and announced in 1935.

But Aarn Munro, that Jovian-born hero, makes an interesting character, a Terrestrial man with the body of a heavy-planet man. Further, The Mightiest Machine introduced a great many ideas that I had spent considerable time in formulating as a basis for a new series of stories. [After ceasing work on the Arcot, Morey, and Wade series.]

... I was beginning again, a new character, a new set of scientific tools with which to work. But now I find that my hero is impossible. Should I then drop him, and the background that story built up? Or should I continue, for the sake of a good story, making that false assumption to aid the action along? ...

I'm not dropping Aarn. Munro makes a good character; the rest of the science I introduced in The Mightiest Machine was sound. There will be other points I have to elide, bits of fact that will make the story better [if we forget them]. I'm not trying to explain all science — just interesting bits, illustrated by some interesting application.

Even in the most rigidly scientific fiction story then, errors have a definite place; they must be admitted. However, we can make this rule about their admission: let them enter rather by omission than statement. I will not, then say, "Born in the fine, clear air of Jupiter ...." I will omit reference to the atmosphere of Jupiter. I will not state anything which cannot be true, so far as my knowledge makes this possible, but I may neglect some point which, while not vitally affecting the result to be obtained, would either require a laborious explanation or detract from the story. ...

Error cannot be eliminated from extrapolation, nor from science fiction. It has, in fact, a definite place, in a sense. I do feel strongly, however, that erroneous facts should not be used as truth, nor should a story be based on a fundamental error. ...

John W. Campbell, Jr.
"Extrapolation — and Error"
The Science Fiction Critic, #8, March 1937
published by Claire P. Beck

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