Fans of science fiction, especially those interested in its historical trajectory from the 1930s to the 1960s, will enjoy a new book written by Alec Levala-Lee, “Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction.”
The book is a definitive account of the remarkable partnership between an editor, John Campbell, and three of the most prolific science fiction writers of the 20th century. Campbell was the editor of the most influential science fiction magazine, Astounding Science Fiction, and he and his three collaborators provided America its Golden Age of Science Fiction during the 1940s and 1950s. The author credits Campbell with turning science fiction “from a literature of escapism into a machine for generating analogies” and using his magazine as “a laboratory in which his writers could work out scenarios for the future.”
Researching through archival material, thousands of unpublished letters and dozens of interviews, Nevala-Lee provides a fascinating portrayal of this circle of authors, their bodies of work and their tumultuous private lives. “Astounding” describes in great detail how science fiction culture was born in the depths of the Great Depression through a proliferation of pulp magazines; follows these four friends and sometime rivals through World War II and into the beginning of the atomic era; and honors such exceptional women as Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, whose partnerships with their husbands allowed them pivotal roles in the history of the genre.
Campbell is clearly the focus of the book, and Nevala-Lee begins with his childhood, his mediocre academic performance at MIT, his early writing for pulp magazine sales and later employment struggles. However, as luck would have it, he fell into the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction and it became his life’s work. He was a visionary author, writing the story that was later filmed as “The Thing.” He published classic works ranging from the “I, Robot” series to “Dune.” Over a period of more than 30 years, from the rise of the pulps to the debut of “Star Trek,” his magazine dominated the genre, and his contributors’ troika of Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard became the most well known of the genre’s authors.
Subsequent chapters alternate between presenting similar biographical material on Heinlein, Hub¬bard and Asimov, all the while leading back to Campbell and his influence on their writing.
One of the themes that Nevala-Lee pursues relentlessly is the tension between Campbell and his authors as their careers progressed and egos grew. After World War II, Campbell began to display a passion for loony pseudoscientific fads, which he shared with L. Ron Hubbard and his emerging Church of Scientology. He also began to write cantankerous editorials, which alienated many of his magazine’s fans, not to mention all three of his most important writers. And all four were men of their times, often racist and misogynist in their actions and attitudes. Asimov was a notorious womanizer with perpetually roaming hands. These men may have been great science fiction writers, but they all possessed human frailties.
I read the book, even though I am not a hardcore science fiction fan, because of its inclusion of Robert Heinlein. “Starship Troopers,” “Strangers in a Strange Land,” and “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” are his best-known works, all of which I have read. They all explore provocative political and social ideas and speculate on how progress in science and engineering might shape the future of politics, race, religion and sex.
Heinlein’s books appealed to a wide swath of readers for their themes of militarism, individual liberty, the obligations individuals owe to society and the influence of organized religion on culture and government. Having never read a biography of Heinlein, this book provided me some interesting insights on Heinlein the man as well as Heinlein the author.
A most interesting theme of the book advanced by Nevala-Lee is Isaac Asimov’s beliefs on the importance of science fiction to the nation’s future. He and his scientific peers often discussed the best way to identify children who had the potential to affect the future. He wrote in his seminal essay, “The Sword of Achilles,” that what was required was a simple test to find the innovators of tomorrow; he believed it was simply an interest in good science fiction that would allow gifted students the inspiration and the ways to develop their creativity.
Asimov believed that most science fiction fans discover the genre at a young age because it offers fantasies of escape and control; it could be enjoyed by children or teenagers who might be intellectually precocious but emotionally inexperienced; and it tended to catch them at a moment when they are uniquely receptive to new ideas. While this book is about the golden age of science fiction, Nevala-Lee actually quotes a fan saying, “The real golden age of science fiction is age 12.”
Well Mr. Asimov, I recently did my part. I introduced my 11-year-old neighbor boy to Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” which he read in 2 days. Then he made short work of “Ender’s Shadow” and “Ender in Exile.” He is extremely smart, a gifted student and now a full-fledged member of the Enderverse, just the type of young person Asimov would say is desperately needed for the future.
Readers that may desire a more highbrow account of an editor and his three famous authors might want to read the 1978 National Book Award winner “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.” Perkins edited F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway and Thomas Wolfe. Both stories of editors and their authors reveal much about the inner-workings, rivalries and passions of the literary world, regardless of genre.
Bob Funk is a retired U.S. Marine and a retired high school principal.