Astounding

Cover image for Astounding by Alec Nevala-Leeby Alec Nevala-Lee

ISBN 978-0-06-257194-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

As the atomic age dawned, Campbell was acclaimed as a prophet, a role for which he had carefully positioned himself—he had planted “Deadline” in the magazine so that he could point to it later, orchestrating the most famous anecdote of his career to illustrate the genre’s ability to foresee the future. The fact that he hadn’t predicted anything at all was a distinction lost on most readers, who exulted in their newfound relevance.”

In 1937, a young science fiction writer with a background studying physics and chemistry at MIT, got his big break. He became the editor of Astounding, a pulp magazine that was one of the top publishers of the genre. He was only twenty-seven at the time, and though he had begun as a writer, he is better remembered for his work as an editor, shaping and choosing the direction of the genre, and the authors who would come to define it. He would go on to publish writers such as L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov, ushering in what is commonly known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the years before the Second World War, and serving as the genre’s gatekeeper. He would become the namesake of the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which is awarded by the company that owns Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the magazine formerly known as Astounding, of which Campbell was the editor for more than thirty years. The publisher has billed Astounding as the first full biography of John W. Campbell Jr., though Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard are also major subjects of the work. Author Alec Nevala-Lee is well-read in early science fiction, and can offer commentary on the evolution of each author’s style, and how it fits into the genre more broadly. He is also a science fiction writer himself, and has had stories publisher in the current incarnation of the magazine about which he is writing.

Astounding is a work of biography that grapples directly with the more problematic history and behaviour of its subjects, and how those attitudes shaped the direction of the genre. Campbell was widely acknowledged as a difficult person to work for, even as he was accorded great respect by the writers he shepherded into the field. While he began rooted fairly firmly in the science he had studied at MIT, in the years after WWII, he veered further and further into pseudoscience, beginning with his early involvement in Dianetics. Racism also often lurked beneath the surface of the stories he commissioned and published, and both heroes and writers were almost invariably white, and largely male. His views on race only became more venomous and marked with age, and Nevala-Lee argues that “the question of how Campbell’s views affected the fiction that he published is central to any consideration of his legacy.” Nor does Nevala-Lee shy away from Hubbard’s abuse of his wives, or the fact the Asimov was known for groping and otherwise sexually harassing female fans, as well as women who worked for his publisher.

Nevala-Lee also notes the absence of women from the genre, and devotes significant attention to Leslyn Heinlein, and Doña Campbell, and the important role the two women played in their husbands’ early work, as well as the deep friendship that developed between the two couples. Doña was known to edit and retype Campbell’s early stories, liberally fixing his atrocious grammar and spelling. Both women talked through plots and stories with their partners, playing a significant role in the development of the ideas that finally made it onto the page, and into the annals of science fiction history. Heinlein even suggested that their wives could run the magazine if the two men were pulled into the war. Ultimately, however, both couples would divorce, and the two women slip from the pages of Astounding, though Nevala-Lee returns to them in the conclusion. Each man remarries, and Ginny Heinlein and Peg Campbell take up their places. Kay Tarrant, the woman who Campbell referred to as his secretary, but who in fact handled “the entire practical and administrative side of the magazine” is frequently mentioned, and seems intriguing, but unfortunately we do not get to learn much about her.

Hubbard and Dianetics play an important role in Astounding, but if you are most interested in Scientology, that is not the core focus of the book. However, Campbell was deeply enmeshed in the early days of Dianetics, before the founding of the Church of Scientology. He regarded it as scientific research, and his deep obsession with auditing tore down the remains of his first marriage, and directly led to his second. He was interested in regaining lost memories of his childhood, and recovering from the trauma he believed these forgotten events had left him with. Doña’s resistance to having their daughters audited led him to believe she was hiding some terrible abuse she had perpetrated against them. His second wife began as his auditing partner, and they continued to practice well after the schism with Hubbard. Officially speaking, Campbell’s role in the early days of Dianetics has been erased. Nevala-Lee quotes Asimov as having said, “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.”

Astounding is an insightful look at the early days of science fiction provided through the examination of Campbell’s inner circle of friends and writers. Nevala-Lee’s consideration of the impact their characters and prejudices had on the formation of the genre is a particularly important contribution to the history of science fiction.

You might also be interested in Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

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