Near the end of Astounding, Alec Nevala-Lee’s new history of “John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction,” the author quotes Asimov to the effect that very few people would know of Campbell were it not for Asimov’s own constant references to the man. Asimov then goes on to predict his own work would be destined to suffer the same fate, though that bit proved false. The fact is, for all his influence as editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine (later Analog Science Fiction and Fact) and as a writer himself, Campbell is very little known outside of academic circles, save that he’s the namesake for an award honoring new voices in the field. Of course, magazine editors don’t generally make the history books, and Campbell’s place in the pantheon is further complicated by his uncanny ability to alienate many of the same people who he raised up. Nevala-Lee’s book serves as something of a Campbell biography, but ultimately encompasses much of the early history of modern science fiction, and serves as a corrective that places Campbell, warts and all, back at the center of the genre at a time when the rules had yet to be written.
Campbell began his career as a physicist, and wrote science fiction himself. Though he produced one classic work in Who Goes There?, the novella that formed the basis for the various film versions of The Thing, he gave up writing fairly early to take over as publisher of Astounding Magazine, then a struggling pulp. Over his first decade, he discovered or nurtured many of the names still synonymous with the era, including Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov. There are cameos from many of the greats of early modern sci-fi in this book, but Hubbard, Heinlein, and Asimov are the primary focal points, representative of the types of interactions that Campbell had with writers in his stable.
One of the book’s biggest draws is the window it offers into the deeply interconnected lives of these golden age writers. We (or at least, I) tend to picture pulp writers toiling away alone in cramped, smoky rooms. Astounding reveals how Campbell, as an editor, groomed and tried keep a hold on writers who he found talented and reliable. Robert Heinlein was a natural, a man with with deep and complicated politics who was, for many years, Campbell’s very good friend. Isaac Asimov was a persistent amateur who grew through his own determination (and under Campbell’s tutelage) into one of the most popular and prolific writers of all time. L. Ron Hubbard was a natural storyteller, indifferent to science fiction but nevertheless a reliable yarn-spinner, who became far more far more famous for… other reasons.
The lives of these men were intertwined for decades, in and out of wars and through life crises. Nevala-Lee makes a compelling case that they formed an essential brain trust of the era’s SF. There were other publishers, other magazines—but not many. And Astounding, with Campbell at its head and with a stable of prolific writers on call, led the way. That being said, there were factions and divisions even in the earliest days, and it’s fascinating and amusing to read about vintage trolling campaigns, competing conventions, and near-violent confrontations between Campbell’s adherents and other fan groups. Time is a flat circle, you know, though flame wars waged by mail naturally took a LOT longer.
As another corrective to the idea of the solitary writer, Astounding considers in detail the collaborations that led to some of the great works of the era; Campbell felt that he didn’t need to write once he took charge of the magazine because his fingerprints were on everything that went out. As a slightly younger and more impressionable writer, Asimov in particular did some of his most iconic work with Campbell whispering in his ear. The famed “Three Laws of Robotics” were devised in collaboration between the two, and the Foundation series, though written by Asimov, is arguably more reflective of Campbell’s worldview and his notion of a new, hypothetically more scientific branch of psychology which might someday help to perfect humanity. What became Scientology was born of discussions between Campbell and Hubbard about a future in which the human brain would be as easily corrected to as a computer, and he was an enthusiastic early adopter of the nascent religion, continuing to develop Hubbard’s ideas even after it became clear that serial fabulist Hubbard was taking things in an alarming direction.
Throughout his career, Campbell worked to steer science fiction toward a new vision of humanity and the future. He genuinely hoped and believed that by encouraging people to use science and technology to move forward, the genre could change the world to a greater extent than any other form of literature. It’s in the story of his early work with what became Scientology, though, that we see hints of the dark side of that grand vision. His ideal of a perfected humanity is what lead Campbell to work so closely with Hubbard, and it also led him down some strange roads. He felt strongly that ESP was just an undiscovered science, he supported a lot of fringe medicine, and held strong opinions on precisely who was worthy of being perfected.
To put it bluntly, Campbell also held some truly repugnant views. In his younger days, he seemed to harbor the type of casual racism (and homophobia) that wouldn’t have been terribly surprising to encounter in any white man of his era. But it hardened into something even uglier as he grew older, and as the counterculture that he once felt a part of left him behind. Throughout his life and career, he fixated on the idea of brilliant, strong, heroic men who would deliver humanity into a brighter future through wit and grit. Of course, in those stories, the types of people who might lead that charge wind up looking an awful lot like himself.
While his friends were off fighting the Nazis, Campbell seemed to be harboring dreams of the übermensch. Women weren’t entirely excluded from his vision of the future, in that they had roles to play, but dark skin would have likely been a deal-breaker. Astounding isn’t really a book about racism in mid-20th century publishing, but the faces attached to names that appear again and again in accounts of Campbell’s inner circle of trusted writers tend to look a lot alike. As a result, it’s hard not to draw a straight line to a present in which we’re still fighting a perception that science fiction is a white man’s game; without making it a central focus, Nevala-Lee seems to be arguing that what some still see as an inescapable truth about science fiction is much more the result of an influential editor purposefully limiting the genre’s horizons by excluding people who didn’t look like him. (Samuel R. Delaney, one of SF’s leading talents then and now, and not incidentally black, merited from Campbell a compliment on his talents, but also a hard pass on his fiction.) All of that is to say, a history of Campbell’s work is as much a history of those he excluded.
Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding is an essential and long-overdue history of the golden age of science fiction, as reflected through the prism of some of its most significant contributors. As a central protagonist of sorts, John W. Campbell is revealed to be a figure, no question—so too are Asimov, Hubbard, and Heinlein. Nevala-Lee smartly doesn’t dodge exploring their darker sides; instead, he paints a fully shaded picture of an era. The tropes of the genre we know and love didn’t come out of nowhere, but were formed over decades by the determined, often brilliant, unarguably flawed, and very human minds that worked to shape it—usually under deadline, and with the aim of landing a paycheck big enough to keep food on the table. Though the story of Astounding isn’t the whole story, it is an astounding history, and essential guide to a defining era of science fiction.