Review: Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Dey Street Books (October 23, 2018)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006257194X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062571946
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.6 x 9 inches

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee, is, without a doubt, one of science fiction’s non-fiction must reads.

And that’s about all I can say objectively about this title.

I don’t mean that in a negative way.  I mean that I am personally so tied up with the history that is related here, was so influenced by the book’s subjects, both personally and through their writings and so steeped in the (increasingly) apocryphal history that is so often undermined by this book that I can’t be sure of being objective.  I’m not going to try.

There seem to be two over-all themes in this work:  one, that Campbell did not do his thing in isolation – it required a special time, a special set of circumstances and the involvement of a host of other individuals, those named on the cover as well as others and, two, that we’re the beneficiaries of a happening created by seriously flawed human beings, each of whom created a public persona that was often at odds with who they really were.

On that last point, I find it interesting that author Nevala-Lee unflinchingly presents the flaws, bizarre ideations and personal failures of the individuals covered, but also offers each of them, collectively and individually, the excuse of “poor health” as a way to minimize or explain some of their worst behaviors.  I can understand the desire to find some excuse – we’ve all revered and admired these individuals for years (well, with the exception of Hubbard), but it rings a little hollow.

So what do we learn about the Golden Age of Science Fiction?  We learn, that at least for Campbell, science fiction was a vehicle for great ambition, but not necessarily the focus of that ambition, by the man who has been credited with making the genre what it is today.  It may be stretching the point a bit, but had Campbell been given the opportunity to edit True Confessions, we’d now be talking about the golden age of true confessions, and not science fiction.

Campbell was all about bending the platform and the audience he’d acquired (and made) to his personal goals  and, when it was no longer serving that purpose, he attempted to take things in other directions (Dean Drive, Dianetics), much to the detriment of the magazine and somewhat to the detriment of the field.

Anyone even passingly familiar witth the history of the genre will be rewarded by this volume with having their suspicions confirmed or unconfirmed:  we’ve all got a lot of history to re-write.  One small example:  that story about Cleve Cartmill, the FBI investigation and Astounding’s subsuquent permission to be the only periodical allowed to publish “atomic weapon” stories?  The whole incident was instigated by Campbell from the beginning and the permission entirely fabricated.

Unlike Patterson’s two volume biography of Heinlein, Astounding dips its toes into the salacious, and it goes beyond the partner swapping and infidelities, to the extent of strongly suggesting that Hubbard and Heinlein enjoyed more than story-sharing sessions.  The only real surprise here is having this rumour somewhat confirmed.

Speaking of Hubbard, he’s pretty much the second star of this tome, and no punches are pulled, but what is perhaps of most interest to the uninformed reader is how deeply involved Campbell was;  had he not believed that his route to fame and societal influence lay through the magazine, Scientology might very well have had a different prophet.

All of the named individuals interacted with Hubbard and, presumably, were well informed of his claims, his actions, his thoughts:  it says something, though I’m not sure what, about all of them that they continued to interact and even support him throughout the course of his fever-dream of a life.

Through it all, Asimov, who remained loyal to Campbell through to the end, comes across as being the most grounded and level-headed of the named protagonists and the reader is left with the feeling that we’d have been better off if everyone involved had been so.

Despite having to weave together a history of the genre, a history of one of its most revered publications and the interactions of a good handful of influential (and, I’d have to say, sometimes batshit crazy) individuals, Astounding is a quick read.

It is informative in a “ahhh, so that’s what really happened” kind of way, but I am left wondering how the field managed to thrive and prosper, despite the involvement of these folks.

When the genre first began, it was often reviled as both kid stuff and crazy.  Maybe it takes crazy to make all of this stuff up.



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  1. Yeah, the book is completely worth reading if you have any interest in the history of sci-fi and the golden age.

    My biggest takeaway from the book is how Campbell felt like the science fiction community, both writers and fans, could be organized into a sort of think tank to guide humanity into the future, and that Astounding magazine could be the vehicle for organizing it all. Back when Campbell took over Astounding the idea wasn’t completely crazy. Sci-fi fandom included a lot of the scientists from the Manhattan Project, for one example. In any case, it gave Campbell and his readers a sense that they were doing something important by being involved in fandom. We don’t have that anymore.

    1. John, believe it or not, that was what Gernback had in mind with Amazing Stories and, later, with Wonder. He had a whole editorial board of leading scientists – including Tesla at one point, and he started his letter columns out deliberately publishing addresses so individuals could contact each other. He’d used the same strategy earlier with the successful Wireless Association of America (which would influence legislation regarding the airwaves) and had the same purpose behind his Science Fiction League. Not to diminish Campbell’s slightly more successful attempt at gaining the attention of scientists and engineers, but it wasn’t an original concept to him – it had been an on-going effort since fandom began in the mid-twentied.

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