Astounding Days: John W. Campbell and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

Gonzo SF writer Rudy Rucker is fond of employing a term from alchemy to describe his committment to and passion for science fiction. The “Great Work” was the endless quest that alchemists were mutually embarked on to produce the philosopher’s stone, each practitioner making a large or small contribution towards that Holy Grail. And for a couple of centuries now, myriad writers, artists, musicians, editors, publishers, filmmakers and fans have all been contributing similarly to the “Great Work” that is science fiction. Often also characterized as an infinite conversation on paper enduring down the decades, this grand endeavor to deal imaginatively with the ramifications of science and technology and chart possible futures has likewise benefitted from the contributions of innumerable folks of large talents and small.

Certainly four of the most seminal, pivotal, consequential creators participating in this Great Work of science fiction were editor John W. Campbell, and three of the writers he nurtured: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard. Together, along with a host of other contributors, this quartet–allied by bonds professional, personal, spiritual, fannish and aspirational that glowed brightly before warping and self-destructing–brought to life during the 1940s what is sometimes called the Golden Age of science fiction. SF ideas and methods of the Golden Age are still with us, templates that still frame our conceptions of the future — and the fictional visions generated during this Golden Age have rippled through its audience to cohere into the reality of the internet, the space program, bioengineering, robotics and a dozen other fields that contour daily living in 2018.

This gestational period and first flourishing have been previously explored in detail by scores of books from the scholarly to the purely appreciative. But to some degree, all of these past surveys have been fragmentary or partial or too tightly focused. None of them, even the best, have synthesized all the others and chosen to inhabit the writing of that era with the sensitivity, perceptiveness and insight that Alec Nevala-Lee exhibits in his new book, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Perhaps it is only now–after sufficient passage of time, the demise of all the vociferous and contentious players, and the gaining of hindsight–that such a tale could be told.

This scrupulous account of the lives and careers and spreading waves of influence of the four named participants is simultaneously broad and laser-focused, nostalgic and forward-looking. It delivers both sweeping judgments and anecdotal particularity which fuel each other in a synergistic cycle. Out of the sharply reported quotidian muck and mire of daily living, the confusions, emotions, dreams and pitfalls of being human, somehow arises a visionary structure like a space elevator leading to the stars. Nevala-Lee’s colorful, compassionate, streamlined account of how a handful of young men and women forged an entire esthetic fit for the twenty-first century and beyond reads like a hybrid of the wanderings of Jason and the Argonauts, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Peyton Place, and John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World.

(Readers eager for some fictionalized adventures involving these same folks should rush right to Paul Malmont’s novels The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril and The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown.)

Nevala-Lee’s book follows a fairly strict chronological progression through five sections, beginning in 1907 and concluding in 1971, the year of Campbell’s death. An Epilogue traces the other three men to their passings and beyond. A quadrupartite scheme–one alternating thread for each of the actors–is also imposed. But since their lives were so intertwined, the narrative frequently advances the paths of all four at once.

And Nevala-Lee’s prose is exemplary, reading like the classic fiction it details: witty, vivid, taut, suspenseful, empathetic. And when Nevala-Lee does critically synopsize and dissect a piece of fiction, he inhabits it wholeheartedly and insightfully, making the reader–who might not have encountered a certain tale–completely understand the nature of the story and why the piece was important. He illuminates the evolution of SF–from the rudimentary yet stirring forays by “Doc” Smith to the later baroque sophistications of Frank Herbert–with a warm and penetrating light.

After recounting a symbolic essay by Asimov from the 1960s, indicative of how centrally science fiction was regarded by its partisans, Nevala-Lee quickly sketches in the circumstances of the youths of his protagonists, Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov and Hubbard, their modestly well-off or struggling families. All four men had childhoods that were uncomfortable or troubled, in greater or lesser degrees, full of more disappointments than victories, and their similar desires to do big things in larger fields would bind them together when they met.

Importantly, in this part of the book Nevala-Lee also lavishes deep care on portraits of Doña Campbell, Leslyn Heinlein, Gertrude Asimov and Polly Hubbard, all of whom, as spouses to these writers were significant influences on the thought and creative work that shaped Golden Age SF.  The first three would remain importantly on the scene for decades, while Hubbard moved through a succession of less-durable partners.  Campbell’s longtime editorial assistant Kay Tarrant gets her fair share of the spotlight as well.  The light cast on these often neglected contributors is just one of the many valuable aspects of Astounding.

The collective literary revolution in which all these figures are actors is the focus of Nevala-Lee’s second section, which finds Campbell taking the helm of Astounding magazine and recruiting writers who could produce fiction that would embody both Campbell’s ideas and his esthetics. Gone would be all the detrimental or impedimental or naive claptrap of 1930s SF:   the clunky infodumps, the lack of believable characters, the alternation between stodginess and superscience. Campbell famously desired stories that would seem like naturalistic fiction wrenched from the “slick” magazines of fifty or one hundred years in the future. Of all his writers, Heinlein came closest to such a product, with Asimov and Hubbard being more idiosyncratic. Additionally, while editing Astounding‘s companion magazine Unknown, Campbell pioneered a type of modern fantasy which, all unintentionally, has come today to dominate the marketplace for fantastika, edging its more rational sibling science fiction into the shadows.

The heroic yet taxing war years follow, during which the four protagonists found themselves swept up in larger global currents, SF somewhat sidelined, with Campbell keeping the literary flame alive by nurturing newer writers such as Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. The postwar period described in the next section discloses the first hints of unravelling and separation, a kind of “breaking up of the band.” (And on the same analogy, the relationships among the wives and between the women and their partners is just as fraught as among the Beatles.) Having achieved in large part their original dream, Campbell and his crew are flailing somewhat, casting about for new horizons, especially in the unprecedented atomic-fallout-tinged era, an SF scenario made real. Heinlein finds a fresh outlet in the field of novels for young adults. Asimov turns to popular-science writing. And, most damagingly, Hubbard invents Dianetics (the forerunner of Scientology) and converts Campbell to his cause.

This marks the beginning of Campbell’s descent–with certain subsequent plateaus of lesser editorial greatness–into a maelstrom of eccentricity, mule-headedness, paranoia and megalomania. From a light-hearted contrarian, always ripe to play devil’s advocate, he becomes a serial crackpot, looking to hitch his cart to one impossible “revolutionary” fad or another, from ESP to several kinds of more-or-less perpetual-motion machines. Competitors–in the form of rival magazines (Nevala-Lee never really digs into what made newcomers like Galaxy and F&SF great, but can be forgiven for not taking that interesting detour) and a new generation of non-adoring fans and writers–steal some of Campbell’s thunder. Also, as waves of cultural change proliferate, Campbell’s old attitudes about social hierarchies and settled customs begin to seem antiquated–poison for a futurist and a supposedly keen observer and critic of life.

The final section of Astounding, from 1951-1971, is pure Greek tragedy, and Nevala-Lee’s restrained, objective telling does not preclude sentimental tears. Common human mortality vies with artistic missteps, treachery, stubbornness and, on the part of Hubbard, pure criminality that damages all the individuals in the saga, although some emerge in better shape than others. Campbell leaves the stage at a mere sixty-one years old with no certainty that his lifelong dream will endure, or that his personal legacy will remain.

Nevala-Lee makes a bold claim in his introduction: “Half a century later [onward from 1963], science fiction has conquered the world… The genre has been absorbed so completely into the mainstream that it can be easy to take its presence there for granted–or to forget that its most recognizable incarnation arose at a specific turning point in the thirties, when it seized the imagination of its readers and never let go.” His lightfooted yet solidly constructed account of how this happened succeeds in conveying the improbable path to this outcome with crystalline precision.   But it never sacrifices the unique personalities of the Founders to any dialectical or tendentious historical program. Instead, we get novelistic beauty with a precisely cobbled Yellow Brick Road that leads from the inchoate fancies of some starry-eyed teens to the mature structures of realized dreams we all continue to inhabit.

If one wishes to take a sampling of what Campbell and his posse ultimately wrought within the genre, here in the far-off future of 2018, there is no better concentrated place to look than in the many best-of-the-year volumes. In these anthologies, state-of-the-art heirs to Campbell strut their stuff. Two volumes–The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Twelve, edited by Neil Clarke and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Three by Jonathan Strahan–come readily to hand, providing some exemplary instances of Campell’s dream sustained, reworked, or contradicted.

Neil Clarke, editor of Clarkesworld magazine, has produced a volume that is resolutely Campbellian. Not intentionally, I am sure, but simply as a result of selecting favorites from a wide range of authors who–although they might not even have been born when Campbell died, and might consciously deny or reject his influence–have nonetheless inherited his protocols, precepts and themes. All of Campbell’s beloved tropes are at play here: interstellar war; colonizing the solar system; understanding aliens; scientific paradigm shifts; the traps associated with thinking inside the box. And a story like Suzanne Palmer’s “The Secret Life of Bots” might have flowed directly from Asimov’s pen.

The prose employed by these authors does not mirror the stylistic flourishes of the the field’s non-Campbellian pyrotechnical wizards (Silverberg, Malzberg, Bester) or its poets (Le Guin, Bradbury, Crowley) but is instead of the sturdy straightforward variety that gets the narrative job done. No current writer is operating in the satirical mode of Astounding‘s rival, Galaxy magazine (Pohl, Sheckley, Tenn).   Stories are told in linear fashion–no Ballardian condensed novels or Burroughsian cutups here. And those avowed enemies of Campbellianism, the New Wave authors, might never have existed so far as these tales are concerned: Michael Moorcock need not apply. Yes, the bylines are much more heterogenous and diverse than the average table of contents of Astounding. But the authors still valorize problem-solving and the people who confront the universe and boldly wrest concessions from it –albeit with a little more self-reflection and empathy. A story like Indrapramit Das’s “The Worldless” does feature disenfranchised characters as the protagonists–but then again, Thorby, the lead in Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, serialized by Campbell, started as a slave boy.

Cyberpunk, with its cynicism and nihilism and funkified tech, might remain the genre esthetic perhaps least congenial to Campbell’s worldview. And so Rich Larson’s nth-generation cyperpunk tale, “An Evening with Severyn Grimes,” stands out as the most unlikely contender for a place in Campbell’s pages. But then we recall Campbell’s publication of an early story by James Tiptree, “Your Haploid Heart,” which critic Carter Scholz says features a “depiction of psychosexual madness [that] is an exceptional departure from the genre’s norms.” Perhaps if Campbell had survived another fifteen years, Analog would have been featuring William Gibson tales after all.

Jonathan Strahan’s volume overlaps with Clarke’s by only five or so stories. But half of the book, according to its titular remit, consists of fantasy stories, which we can’t really use as a gauge of Campbell’s continuing influence. The unduplicated SF stories that Strahan features likewise continue to support Campbell’s dominance. Karl Schroeder’s “Eminence” uses economics as its armature–just as did many of Mack Reynolds’s tales, once he became a favored contributor of Campbell’s. Dave Hutchinson tackles the hot-button topic of immigration, illegal and otherwise, in “Babylon.” Readers might ponder Heinlein’s “Coventry” from a 1940 issue of Astounding which concerns the injustice of a country of criminals forbidden to pass their borders back to civilization, and a man who voluntarily exiles himself to their ghetto.

Samuel Delany is cited in the Nevala-Lee study for his brushes with Campbell and possible elements of racism that tinged those encounters. And so the inclusion of his story “The Hermit of Houston Street” might seem the ultimate repudiation of Campbell. And it’s true that Delany’s uniquely gorgeous prose, his outlaw sexuality and his impressionistic, enigmatic, meandering plot do run counter to Campbell’s preferences. But the story’s core strategy of depicting a changed culture through the first-person account of a naive character’s perigrinations, and the inclusion of a kind of Jubal Harshaw-type mentor, Cellibrex, (Harshaw being the Heinlein mouthpiece in Stranger in a Strange Land) do situate the tale smack dab in the middle of Campbell’s baliwick.

Nevala-Lee proclaims that the legacy of John W. Campbell and his cohort continues to flourish and dominates books, movies and the general culture nearly five decades after the editor’s death. Anyone contending otherwise is going to have their work cut out for them as they seek counterexamples among the stars.