Astounding: Four men who, despite their flaws, helped form science fiction

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-LeeAstounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-LeeAstounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee

The Golden Age of Science Fiction is generally pinned to the decade from 1939 to 1950, and while a host of people contributed in various ways, pretty much everyone agrees that if one could point to a single dominating figure it would John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the pre-eminent magazine for science fiction at the time. In Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (2018), Alec Nevala-Lee explains how Campbell, and the trio of quite different authors who made up his highly influential stable of writers, came to have such outsized influence and then, for Campbell, how it was lost over the decades to follow.

Nevala-Lee divides the book into five segments: 1907-1937, 1937-1941, 1941-1945, 1945-1951, and 1951-1971. In addition, a prologue offers up a general overview of the players and of Nevala-Lee’s reasons for writing the book, and an epilogue carries the history forward through the deaths of all four, ending with Asimov’s in 1992.

Within the segments the book weaves back and forth in time and place, following one then another of the big four throughout their personal and professional lives, showing major events they experienced individually and also detailing their many interactions, again both personal and professional. Some were face to face meetings at the Astounding offices, others were social gatherings — parties, conferences, dinners — and others were by letter and then eventually email.

And while Astounding’s focus is the big four, Nevala-Lee also introduces us to a good number of other writers and editors whose lives intertwined with theirs, such as Lester Del Rey or A.E. Van Vogt, and chronicles as well the rise of sci-fi fandom, competing magazines, and eventually the shift in influence from magazines and books to TV and film, making this not simply a multi-biography but a true work of pop-culture history.

As for the biography itself, it’s a balanced mix of the personal and professional. I wouldn’t have minded, myself, a bit more focus on the actual writing and editing, the genesis and shaping of stories, but that’s a personal preference, and certainly there’s a good amount of that sort of exploration going on here. We learn, for instance, that Asimov’s justly famous Three Laws of Robotics really might have been more accurately labeled “Campbell’s Three Laws” (a point Asimov himself made more than once), that the genesis for two of Asimov’s most popular works — Nightfall and the FOUNDATION series — came from Campbell (it was also Campbell who later told Asimov he needed to upset the predictable arc of FOUNDATION with a monkey wrench of some sort; Asimov then came up with the idea of the mutant Mule).

Campbell had less direct influence on Heinlein (though more than Heinlein later admitted), but we still see how some of Heinlein’s work came out either in response to something Campbell suggested (as for instance when “Campbell proposed an idea about a generation starship … that forgets its original mission, which Heinlein turned into the classic “Universe”) or, especially later, in opposition to some of Campbell’s beliefs. We also get a glimpse of Heinlein’s thinking in his non-Campbell work, as when Nevala-Lee shares his rules for writing his juveniles (which I consider to actually be his best work):

Never write down to them. Do not simplify the vocabulary nor the intellectual concepts … No real love interest and female characters should be only walk-ons.

As for Hubbard, he was the one who was the least a fan of the genre and who wrote the least regularly. Campbell’s influence here was less in the literary (a word meant very broadly when it comes to the quality of Hubbard’s writing) field as in the religious one, with Campbell heavily involved in the early stages of Scientology (he was, for instance, one of the first to be audited and regularly proselytized the religion to his writers).

It was, in fact, Campbell’s deep dive into pseudoscience like Scientology, then later psionics and a strange little “space drive” that defied physics, that found him more and more removed from “his” writers. His views on the military further distanced him from Heinlein, while his clear racism meant he was more and more isolated as the world changed and he did not. Nevala-Lee doesn’t shy away from these uglier aspects of the men’s lives. Not just Campbell’s racism, but other acts and words as well. Charges of forced abortions, physical and mental abuse for Hubbard. Adultery and pettiness from Heinlein. And for Asimov, his well-known philandering, but much worse, his sexual harassment and casual groping of women at conferences or work.

Despite the misogyny of the day, as always, people are complicated. So, while Campbell had racist, sexist, and homophobic views for sure, he also, somehow, was the guy who published a host of women authors at a time when that was rare — women such as Leigh Brackett, Catherine L. Moore, Kate Wilhelm, and James S. Tiptree, Jr. (whom he well knew was actually Alice Sheldon). Speaking of women, one of the nice touches of the book is that the women in the big four’s lives, who usually are either simply not mentioned or, at best, relegated to the deep background, here are brought forward more fully, such as Catherine Tennant, who was Campbell’s second-in-command at Astounding.

As time passed, Campbell’s writers moved on from him, as did the genre. He had nothing to do, for instance, with the New Wave, and the greater diversity was beyond him — he once told Samuel Delaney he liked a story by him but didn’t think Astounding’s audience would relate to a black main character.

While, as noted, I would have preferred a little more focus on that rather than the personal details surrounding divorces and the like, Astounding remains an entertaining, informative, and above all clear-eyed look at the incubation of several giants of the genre and of the genre itself. Recommended.

Published in November 2018. Astounding is the landmark account of the extraordinary partnership between four controversial writers—John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard—who set off a revolution in science fiction and forever changed our world. This remarkable cultural narrative centers on the figure of John W. Campbell, Jr., whom Asimov called “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.” Campbell, who has never been the subject of a biography until now, was both a visionary author—he wrote the story that was later filmed as The Thing—and the editor of the groundbreaking magazine best known as Astounding Science Fiction, in which he discovered countless legendary writers and published classic works ranging from the I, Robot series to Dune. Over a period of more than thirty years, from the rise of the pulps to the debut of Star Trek, he dominated the genre, and his three closest collaborators reached unimaginable heights. Asimov became the most prolific author in American history; Heinlein emerged as the leading science fiction writer of his generation with the novels Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land; and Hubbard achieved lasting fame—and infamy—as the founder of the Church of Scientology. Drawing on unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews, Alec Nevala-Lee offers a riveting portrait of this circle of authors, their work, and their tumultuous private lives. With unprecedented scope, drama, and detail, Astounding describes how fan culture was born in the depths of the Great Depression; follows these four friends and rivals through World War II and the dawn of the atomic era; and honors such exceptional women as Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, whose pivotal roles in the history of the genre have gone largely unacknowledged. For the first time, it reveals the startling extent of Campbell’s influence on the ideas that evolved into Scientology, which prompted Asimov to observe: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.” It looks unsparingly at the tragic final act that estranged the others from Campbell, bringing the golden age of science fiction to a close, and it illuminates how their complicated legacy continues to shape the imaginations of millions and our vision of the future itself.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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5 comments

  1. Sandy Ferber /

    I saw this book in the store a few weeks back and thought that it looked like a must-read for me. Now I know that it is. Thanks, Bill!

  2. On sale for 2.99 until the 24th! (also makes a good present for sci-fi fans of a certain age . .. )

  3. I’m going to have to get this one. Thanks for including it here, Bill.

  4. I’m in the UK but will be grabbing a copy when it comes out here. Thanks for a great review. :)

  5. I need to hurry up and read my review copy — thanks for bumping it up my TBR list, Bill!

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