“Forgetfulness” by John W. Campbell, Jr. is story #2 of 52 from the anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction edited by David G. Hartwell (1989) that my short story club is group reading.
Instead of counting all the titles and authors of science fiction books I’ve read, I’m starting to tally all the far-out concepts science fiction has given me. In “Forgetfulness” John W. Campbell took one of my favorite concepts, walking in ancient dead alien cities, which was probably an old SF concept even in 1937, and gave it a couple twists. It’s going to be impossible to talk about this story without giving spoilers so think of this essay as an analysis of SF concepts and not a review. You can read the story online here, or buy it in a $2.99 Kindle edition of Campbell’s collection Cloak of Aeshir. However, I don’t recommend buying unless you’re a big fan of John W. Campbell.
“Forgetfulness” begins with a spaceship landing on the planet Rhth, one of nine planets in the system. The main point-of-view character is Ron Thule, an astronomer, from the planet Pareeth. They have traveled for six years, in a spaceship 2,500 feet long and 400 feet in diameter, covering 3.5 light-years, traveling at nearly the speed of light. These people from Pareeth are looking for a world to colonize, and are disappointed that Rhth is already inhabited. They hope to settle in the remains of a majestic city that was built by spacing-faring race millions of years ago and discover its secrets.
Try and pronounce Rhth. If nine planets weren’t a giveaway, the name Rhth should be. There they meet Seun, a very tall, graceful human-shaped being, clothed in a golden outfit, with a beautiful colored cape. All the people of Rhth wear gold suits and colored capes and live in opalescent domes twenty to thirty feet in diameter situated under giant green trees near the dead city. The buildings of that titanic city are three thousand feet high, but the winds have filled the streets with five hundred feet of dirt.
Seun has told Ron Thule and the commander of the Pareeth mission, Shor Nun, that the builders of the city had once visited their world. And that their world, Pareeth, once orbited the same sun as Rhth, but had been torn away by a rogue star. This hints that maybe the builders had conducted a kind of panspermia across the galaxy. As the story progresses the achievements of the builders become greater and greater. However, the people of Pareeth eventually discover secrets that can shatter their minds and their hopes.
Most of us find a great sense of wonder reading about the rediscovery of lost cities. So, it’s not a remarkable feat of creativity for a science fiction writer to imagine humans finding long-dead alien cities. Still, it’s one that sets off a powerful sense of wonder and has been used time and again in science fiction.
Campbell puts a twist on this concept, by having aliens discover a city from a long-dead civilization of mankind. John W. Campbell has a reputation that claims he wanted humans to be the galactic crown of creation, and this story supports that. In his earlier story, “Twilight” he had a human time traveler discover a far future deserted human civilization. That gave him a chance to imagine the engineering marvels of what we could achieve someday. In “Forgetfulness” he has aliens discover dead human civilization, but this time, Campbell imagined an even more impressive future for us built by super-science. You should read both stories to see just how hopeful Campbell was for the human race.
Both “Twilight” and “Forgetfulness” could be considered Dying Earth stories, although H. G. Wells in “The Time Machine,” William Hope Hodgson in The Night Land, and Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men, took that idea, even much further.
Unfortunately, “Forgetfulness” is hard to read. Part of that is due to a dated writing style, but also because Campbell didn’t really have much of a story to tell. They came, they discovered wonders, they were frightened, they were disappointed. There’s no drama or revealed emotions. “Forgetfulness” was reprinted in the classic 1946 anthology Adventures in Time and Space but has been mostly forgotten since. Damon Knight remembered it in his 1966 anthology Cities of Wonder, and Brian Aldiss and Harrison brought it back again in 1973 for The Astounding-Analog Reader. Both are very minor anthologies. The second contained just seven stories from Astounding covering 1937-1941, a rather odd collection.
It’s interesting that a story about remembering has been forgotten. The big concept in “Forgetfulness” is visiting the remains of an astonishing civilization millions of years after its citizens have gone. Campbell puts his own twist on it by having that civilization be a future version of ours. However, there’s another important concept he wanted to get across, and that’s how we forget the past. Shor Nun and Ron Thule can’t understand why Seun doesn’t understand how the city works. But then Campbell reminds us we couldn’t explain the technology of cavemen, or from other periods of human civilization. Remember all the discussions about how did the Egyptians build the pyramids? Well, it turns out Seun has even newer technologies that are even further advanced than the builders and they have merely forgotten earlier primitive technology.
I have to wonder if Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Rescue Party” wasn’t inspired by “Forgetfulness” and “Twilight.” Or that the screenwriters for Forbidden Planet hadn’t read “Forgetfulness” too. Or were their ideas independently invented?
That’s the thing about science fiction. Concepts keep getting reused. Are they forgotten and then reinvented? Or does science fiction evolve over time as concepts merge and mutate? Will some young writer in the 2020s come up with a story about a far-future space race discovering a future Earth and finding the ruins of what our civilization will become? How will this writer imagine the pinnacle of our success? Campbell wanted to believe that humanity will evolve until it has god-like powers. That idea has shown up in science fiction over and over again. But do we still believe that? Right now the peak of our civilization might end this century.
James Wallace Harris, 5/9/23
2 thoughts on ““Forgetfulness” by John W. Campbell”
Jim, great essay as usual. Thanks for your thoughts and eloquent essay. You and Piet Nel have convinced me Campbell was talking about Earth. As you say, not a great story, but a fun one in the “aliens visit a planet and encounter locals who are move advanced than they appear on the surface and regret it” vein of stories.
One of my very favorite stories of all time. The underlying brilliance of the ideas behind the story, and the sense of wonder it invokes, overshadows what flaws or shortcomings it has. IMO. And something of a forgotten classic.
My own take on the story, that I came to the conclusion quite a while back, and to my knowledge I’m the only one who found it, is something very special:
The idea behind the story, was Campbell’s own metaphor for SCIENCE FICTION ITSELF!
To quote from the story:
> “Seun is not a decadent son of the city builders. His people never
> forgot the dream that built the city. But it was a dream of
> childhood, and his people were children then. Like a child with his
> broomstick horse, the mind alone was not enough for thought; the
> city builders, just as ourselves, needed something of a solid metal
> and crystal, to make their dreams tangible.
“But it was a dream of childhood”
Campbell back then and later on as editor of Astounding Science Fiction was the main mover of taking SF and making it into a regular form of serious literature. Instead of the strictly juvenile form of literature as it was then, which was all about ray-guns and heroes and ever bigger and faster spaceships. From the childish to the adult, from the concrete and mechanical to the more idea-based and abstract.
This IMO is what this story is all about.