That time during World War II when the FBI investigated a science fiction magazine for leaking nuclear secrets to the enemy

Science fiction writer Robert Silverberg investigates a well-known incident in genre history: “Cleve Cartmill, a competent writer of middling abilities, published a story describing the workings of the atomic bomb in a 1944 issue of John Campbell’s magazine Astounding Science Fiction, fourteen months before the first successful atomic explosion at the Alamogordo testing grounds, thus causing a Federal security agency to investigate both Cartmill and Campbell to see if there had been a leak of top-secret military information.”

“Reflections: The Cleve Cartmill Affair: One” by Robert Silverberg

“Reflections: The Cleave Cartmill Affair: Two” by Robert Silverberg

I learned about this incident in the 1970s, and it’s often repeated as evidence that science fiction can predict the future.

Silverberg gets his hands on the FBI file of the incident and passes on what he found:

  • The FBI assigned several agents to investigate the story, on both coasts of the US.
  • The story does, indeed, contain significant detail on the workings of an atomic bomb.
  • The story is just plain bad. It features a thinly fictionalized version of World War II, fought on a distant planet, between the “Seilla” and”Sixa” alliances. The evil Sixa include the nations “Ynamre“ and “Ytal,” while the virtuous Seilla include “Acireb“ and “Aissu” (“though not, oddly, ‘Niatir.”)
  • Cartmill himself thought the story was a turkey.
  • The FBI agents who contributed to the file are surprisingly good writers, contributing interesting details and personal observation.

And lots more. Interesting to sf fans and students of World War II history.

Silverberg finds no verification for punchline of this history, the way it’s usually repeated: That the FBI tried to compel Campbell to stop mentioning atomic weapons in the magazine, for fear of tipping off the Axis powers that the Allies were researching such weapons, but that Campbell convinced the FBI that deleting mentions of atomic power would surely tip off the Axis that something was up.

The way I heard the story, the FBI focused on the issue of the magazine containing the Cartmill story; they wanted it pulled from the newsstands which Campbell talked them out of.

I’ve always rebelled against the idea that sf should predict the future, or educate readers in any way. Science fiction’s purpose is to be art. Occasionally quality literature, often bad, often simply entertaining. Anything else sf does is dessert.