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

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“[Astounding] is a major work of popular culture scholarship that science fiction fans will devour.” — Publishers Weekly

"Alec Nevala-Lee has brilliantly recreated the era. . . . A remarkable work of literary history." — Robert Silverberg

"Science fiction has been awaiting this history/biography for more than half a century. . . . Here it is. This is the most important historical and critical work my field has ever seen. Alec Nevala-Lee’s superb scholarship and insight have made the seemingly impossible a radiant and irreplaceable gift."—Barry N. Malzberg, author of Beyond Apollo

Astounding is the landmark account of the extraordinary partnership between four controversial writers—John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard—who set off a revolution in science fiction and forever changed our world. 

This remarkable cultural narrative centers on the figure of John W. Campbell, Jr., whom Asimov called “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.” Campbell, who has never been the subject of a biography until now, was both a visionary author—he wrote the story that was later filmed as The Thing—and the editor of the groundbreaking magazine best known as Astounding Science Fiction, in which he discovered countless legendary writers and published classic works ranging from the I, Robot series to Dune. Over a period of more than thirty years, from the rise of the pulps to the debut of Star Trek, he dominated the genre, and his three closest collaborators reached unimaginable heights. Asimov became the most prolific author in American history; Heinlein emerged as the leading science fiction writer of his generation with the novels Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land; and Hubbard achieved lasting fame—and infamy—as the founder of the Church of Scientology. 

Drawing on unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews, Alec Nevala-Lee offers a riveting portrait of this circle of authors, their work, and their tumultuous private lives. With unprecedented scope, drama, and detail, Astounding describes how fan culture was born in the depths of the Great Depression; follows these four friends and rivals through World War II and the dawn of the atomic era; and honors such exceptional women as Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, whose pivotal roles in the history of the genre have gone largely unacknowledged. For the first time, it reveals the startling extent of Campbell’s influence on the ideas that evolved into Scientology, which prompted Asimov to observe: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.” It looks unsparingly at the tragic final act that estranged the others from Campbell, bringing the golden age of science fiction to a close, and it illuminates how their complicated legacy continues to shape the imaginations of millions and our vision of the future itself.

544 pages, ebook

First published October 23, 2018

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About the author

Alec Nevala-Lee

32 books98 followers
I was born in Castro Valley, California and graduated from Harvard College with a bachelor's degree in classics. My book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (Dey Street Books / HarperCollins) was a Hugo and Locus Awards finalist and named one of the best books of the year by The Economist. I'm also the author of the novels The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and Eternal Empire, all published by Penguin; my short stories have appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Lightspeed Magazine, and The Year's Best Science Fiction; and I've written for such publications as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Longreads, The Rumpus, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. My latest book is Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, which was released by Dey Street Books / HarperCollins on August 2, 2022. I live with my wife and daughter in Oak Park, Illinois.

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Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,219 reviews9,923 followers
April 20, 2022
It’s clear that some kindly authors sit around thinking “What is the exact book that Paul Bryant wants to read? Aha! Got it! I will now write that book!” Alec Nevala-Lee is one of those lovely writers. * His book is that perfect thing I never thought could exist, a kind of biography of John W Campbell who was the living embodiment of science fiction from the 30s to the 70s and whose life was entwined with those of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L Ron Hubbard. As a youthful SF fan I had wondered long about these guys and I never thought I’d ever get to find out what they were like, and what they did apart from type their sometimes brilliant stories.

Lemme tell you, it’s a strange tale.


I was always fascinated by their weird names :

Cordwainer Smith
L Sprague de Camp
H Beam Piper
Theodore Sturgeon
Damon Knight
A E van Vogt
And not forgetting two famous editors
Groff Conklin
August Derleth

Sorry to say that the science fiction community could not sustain this barrage of otherworldliness and modern writers have really boring names like Christopher Rowe, Colin Davies, Robert Reed and Pat Murphy. No offence, but really, how dull.


I thought in my ignorance that a magazine editor reads stuff and accepts or rejects it and sometimes suggests improvements. John Campbell was not like this. He did himself write one very famous story called Who Goes There? In 1938, which was filmed as The Thing, but he was not a writer. Instead he had a whole lot of tame authors at his disposal, and he would spin plots and ideas out of his brain, and tell them to write stories with these plots and ideas in them. Then he would demand rewrites, and then maybe he would publish them. For instance, he pounced on the starstruck overawed 22 year old Isaac Asimov and more or less made him write the Foundation series of stories & later novels, and also demanded more robot stories too. The famous three laws of Robotics were invented during long conversations between the two. Each said the other invented them.

Campbell believed in SF to an almost painful degree, and this was a good thing. His magazine was the best and paid the best. But also, as we get to find out very dismayingly as we speed through this tremendous book, John Campbell was a total crank, not to mention a rightwing pro-Vietnam War anti-civil rights homophobic racist. I will come back to this in a moment. But first…


The story of early SF and the personalities involved is a great story but Alec Nevala-Lee has to hang on tight because one of the three big authors orbiting Astounding magazine was none other than L Ron Hubbard, and HIS crazy mindbending story is way bigger than the main story Alec is trying to tell here. L Ron comes quite close to derailing this book because as soon as the epic mutant wierdness that was L Ron’s life starts to unfold the reader is like to say okay Alec, forget science fiction, this is WAY loonier and way more FUN!

Trying to contain (some of) the story of the amazing fraud that was L Ron Hubbard in this book is like igniting some jumping jacks and then throwing them in a tin box.

It began with the invented gibberish called Dianetics. Campbell was in on the ground floor, taking it all in and suggesting lines of enquiry to the madman Hubbard. It was trailed in an article in Astounding. Dianetics was going to be like the second coming, a new science of the mind which would replace psychiatry, which was totally wrong, and would fix everybody’s mental ailments in one go. Just purchase this slim volume, Dianetics, the Modern Science of Mental Health, published in May 1950, yours for ten measly bucks.

Campbell wrote to Heinlein about the life-saving properties of Dianetics:

We have case histories on homos. One we worked on for ten days got married three months later. A fifteen year record of homosexuality behind him, too.

Naturally the psychiatry industry did not take this seriously, when they noticed it at all they figured LRH was another in a long line of quacks. But of course this was at the time when the psychiatric profession was dishing out electro-shock therapy, insulin comas and pre-frontal lobotomies right and left to their poor customers. So who were the quacks? Well of course just because I’m wrong doesn’t make you right.

So Dianetics became Scientology and for tax reasons Scientology stopped being a therapy and started being a religion, as you know.


So Hubbard and Campbell involved Robert Heinlein in this dianetics/scientology mumbo jumbo, and Isaac Asimov, the other big name author of the day, immediately saw this was a crock and wanted nothing to do with it. Good old Isaac. Also, he always stuck to his socially progressive liberal left ideas when these three looming conservatives were wagging their fingers in his direction. Again, good old Isaac! I always loved his stories.

Unfortunately this book reveals that he was an incessant abuser of all and every women that came within his grasp, and I mean grasp. He was the traditional octopus man. People made jokes about it. Women denounced him. But he never stopped. I hated reading all that.

At another publisher, the women found excuses to leave the building whenever he was scheduled to visit

…but if this treatment of women was often inexcusable, or worse, it did little to diminish the affection in which he was held by other men


This is a warts ‘n’ all book and there is some serious racist shit you have to contend with from Campbell. For instance he defends using the n word, he defends slavery, he votes for George Wallace, he believed that some races had lower IQs than others… he was truly awful.


He ran the best SF magazine for decades but he was the guy who would believe like ANYTHING. Psi powers, the Dean drive (don’t ask), any flake that came in the door, he was Yeah! This will change all of human life! He was a really silly guy.


As I was reading I kept saying hey Alec – tell me more about that guy, or more about this thing here, that thing there…. Bring some more of those old names to life for me… who was H Beam Piper?? But this book was already 525 pages long.

4.5 stars, a must for anyone with a fondness for ancient SF

*There’s the other type too, the one who think “What is the book that will fool Paul Bryant into thinking he will like it but when he reads it he will be driven half crazy with aggravation? I will write that book!” Thank you for nothing, Declan Kiberd and A O Scott.
Profile Image for Gerhard.
1,079 reviews555 followers
August 9, 2020
First of all, I cannot believe that I devoured this 500+ page book in a single weekend. Once I started, I found myself glued to the page. It is testament to Alec Nevala-Lee’s skill as a writer that it reads like a runaway thriller. I suspect, however, I am an ideal reader, having grown up with Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein et al (the first ‘SF’ book I ever read was The Jewels of Aptor by Samuel R. Delany, which is probably why genre boundaries have always appeared mutable to me.)

If the name ‘Astounding’ does not resonate with you, I honestly think your only interest in this book will be purely academic. John Scalzi’s ‘Whatever’ blog entry of 7 August, ‘Oh, Christ, Not the Science Fiction Canon Again’, proposes there is no need to venerate writers like the trinity under Nevala-Lee’s microscope as they are obsolete and irrelevant:

There are at least two generations of adults now, and two generations of genre writers, who didn’t grow up on it and fundamentally don’t care about it. Long gone are the days where a kid’s first introduction to the genre was a Heinlein or Asimov novel, smuggled out of the adult fiction section of the library or bookstore like samizdat. The Kids These Days got their start reading genre through the YA section and grew up on Rowling and Collins and Westerfeld and Black and Pierce and Snicket, and got their science fiction through film and TV and video games and animation and comics as much as if not more than from books.

It just so happened that while I was reading this, the 2020 Hugo Awards ceremony was held virtually at ConZealand. While it was a technological miracle when factoring in all of the time zones involved from the UK to Europe, host George R.R. Martin made sure that the event remained stuck firmly in the past. The bone of contention was that he waxed lyrical about Lovecraft and Campbell, who were both awarded Retro Hugos. This was seen as a particular slap in the face to all of the attendees and indeed winners.

In one of those weirdly serendipitous moments, Jeanette Ng won a Hugo in the Best Related Work category for her ‘2019 John W. Campbell Award Acceptance Speech’: John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist. Through his editorial control of Astounding Science Fiction, he is responsible for setting a tone of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists. Ng adds: Yes, I am aware there are exceptions.

According to Nevala-Lee’s Wikipedia page, Analog editor Trevor Quachri partially credited the critical picture of Campbell in this very book with the decision to rename the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer as the Astounding Award in August 2019. The book has since been cited extensively for Asimov’s treatment of women, among (many) other revelations.

Zen Cho writes on Boing Boing: There are shitty dudes out there today whose path to shitty dudehood got started when they watched Isaac Asimov grope women without their consent and figured that the chuckling approval of all their peers meant that whatever doubts they might have had were probably misplaced. Those dudes don’t get a pass because they learned from a bad example set by their community and its leaders – but they might have been diverted from their path to shitty dudehood if they’d had better examples.

If you think this is an academic argument only, a story broke on Twitter in June about allegations of sexual misconduct at conventions levelled against SF writers Myke Cole, Max Temkin, Sam Sykes and Warren Ellis. A direct repercussion of this was Vault Comics’ cancellation of a series by Cole.

I suppose the big elephant in the room is whether or not all of this can be laid directly at the door of Asimov et al. Scalzi again:

There are still people in our community who knew Campbell personally, and many many others one step removed, who idolise and respect the writers Campbell took under his wing. And there are people — and once again I raise my hand — who are in the field because the way Campbell shaped it as a place where they could thrive. Many if not most of these folks know about his flaws, but even so it’s hard to see someone with no allegiance to him, either personally or professionally, point them out both forcefully and unapologetically. They see Campbell and his legacy abstractly, and also as an obstacle to be overcome. That’s deeply uncomfortable.

In his Acknowledgements, Nevala-Lee quotes Algis Budrys: “It’s becoming increasingly obvious that we need a long objective look at John W. Campbell, Jr. But we’re not likely to get one …” This is exactly what Scalzi refers to in the above quote, in that in many ways the community is still too ‘close’ to Campbell (Ng echoes this sentiment as well.)

Nevala-Lee attempts to position himself as an “ideally situated observer”, so he can deliver a devastating warts-and-all portrait of Campbell as objectively as possible. Yes, it is horrifying to read, but far more than outrage, my overwhelming feeling was sadness. It is indeed tragic how Campbell’s concept of the ‘perfect man’ (sic) – the eponymous hero of SF empowered by science and optimism who strode through the pages of every writer from Clarke to Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and many others – could ultimately morph into something so twisted and narrow-minded.

And here Nevala-Lee makes no bones about the fact that Campbell, due to his position and influence, could have had a lasting influence on shaping the future of the genre and its community … if only he could have broken the shackles of his own prejudices. Neither Heinlein, Hubbard nor Asimov are spared. One soon realises this is a pretty horrible bunch of people to begin with, despite the fact that they were particular products of their age and culture.

Nevala-Lee also states: “My greatest hope is that this book will inspire a larger conversation about the history of science fiction.” And this brings me back to Scalzi’s comments about the importance, or lack thereof, of the SF canon. I feel privileged in being of that generation who not only read (and revered) the writers that Nevala-Lee dissects, but to have seen the genre transform to include major new talent like Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie, Yoon Ha Lee and Kameron Hurley, among many many others. (I don’t count Le Guin and Butler here as they are part of the [old] New Wave.)

Yes, of course it has taken way too long for women – or anybody else who is in any way ‘different’, for that matter – to receive the recognition they are due. And the right-wing, anti-diversity Sad Puppies campaign at the 2013 Hugos, not to mention the appalling treatment of Kelly Marie Tran by Star Wars ‘manbabies’ when The Last Jedi was released in 2017, show that many of these problems, unfortunately, seem to be endemic to the community (though not the genre itself, I would argue).

I first read about GRRM’s torpedoing of the 2020 Hugo Awards when Tade Thompson announced on Twitter that he was quitting SF in disgust. The author of Rosewater, winner of the 2019 Clarke Award for Best SF Novel, went on to explain that his SF fandom was his most ‘problematic’.

Of course, all of this has to be seen against the backdrop of the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements, not to mention the Covid-19 pandemic and an increasingly fractured world. And I don’t think it really helps matters either when BuzzFeed publishes cringeworthy articles like ‘20 Books To Read If You Want To Get Into Black Sci-Fi And Fantasy’ (11 June).

So what is one to do? Well, I think a start would to be place Nevala-Lee’s book on the English curriculum of every single institution on the planet where literature is taught, so as to remind us of where we were, how incremental our progress has been, and how much further we still have to go.

It is sobering but necessary, and is probably the only way that the community can exorcise its own demons: … the most reactionary movements in modern fandom – with their deep distrust of women and minorities – have openly stated, “We have called for a Campbellian revolution in science fiction.”

And yet Nevala-Lee argues, right from the outset, that Campbell “deserves to be seen as one of the key cultural figures of the twentieth century …” This is a fundamental dichotomy that the genre has to come to terms with eventually, because “the sword of Achilles cuts both ways.”
Profile Image for Charlie Anders.
Author 151 books3,791 followers
July 20, 2020
I learned so much about the Golden Age of science fiction from reading this book, including all the weird dramas and politics and feuds and fads and obsessions. It's really eye-opening to see how much of the toxicity and asshole behavior in fandom and writer communities was part of science fiction from the very beginning—and it's also bracing to see all the optimism and the belief that science fiction could change the world for the better. This book is also a corking good read though, a great story about larger-than-life characters who cooked up the weirdest stories they could think of and experimented with sex, drugs, strange psychological techniques and all kinds of weird science. It has the arc of a great literary thriller, with these four men forming tight bonds and creating a whole scene, and then falling apart. Perhaps most fascinating is the way this book showcases the forgotten women behind these men, who did most of the work and were in many ways the real brains behind the Golden Age of science fiction.
Profile Image for Ed Erwin.
959 reviews98 followers
January 12, 2019
Just like it says on the spine: it was "Astounding".

At first I wondered why he didn't just do a bio on Campbell, but gradually I came to see that these four lives, and their work, were deeply connected. Still, it was a bit confusing to me in spots when I had to shift my point of view from one of them to the others.

This is "warts and all" biography, with an emphasis on the warts. All of these guys were flawed. Hubbard was the worst, of course, and I wouldn't be surprised if Nevala-Lee gets sued or harassed by his followers. I was surprised, and saddened, to see how much Campbell was also involved in creating and spreading Dianetics, as well as other pseudo-scientific nonsense. Heinlein and Asimov were imperfect, but come out looking pretty good in comparison to those two.

There are many interesting anecdotes. Here are a few of my favorites.

Asimov had a nasty habit of groping and pinching women. When Asimov groped Judith Merrill, she groped back, grabbing his cock. [Good for her!]

Alfred Bester submitted a story to "Astounding". Campbell called him in to talk, and proceeded to attempt a Dianetics "auditing" session on him in the busy office cafeteria. Bester decided he was nuts.

Once, Asimov went to the home of H.L. Gold, editor of rival magazine "Galaxy". Gold left the room after a short while, then the phone rang and Gold's wife said it was for Asimov, which was strange because no one knew he was there. It was Gold calling from a different room in the house. They continued their conversation by phone because he didn't like to be in the same room as anyone.

Anyway, Campbell had a huge influence over the development of SF, and helped many authors develop their voices. Many ideas in many famous stories by multiple authors were really his ideas. Nonetheless, don't meet your heroes. They all have feet of clay.
Profile Image for Silvana.
1,169 reviews1,143 followers
August 1, 2020
Update (2/8/20): If you watched the Hugo Award ceremony or paid attention to SFF Twitter, you might know that glorifying the name of Campbell should be taken seriously. The brave Jeannette Ng again delivered a beautiful speech and specifically mentioned Alec Nevala Lee since she was not the first one making a stand (though she did lit the fire) on Campbell. Go read this book, you'll get a comprehensive picture.

Original review (2019):
I ended up liking this book more than expected. This is a very useful reading for those who'd like to get a sense of how the science fiction world during those Golden Age and a little bit beyond. As I grow to read more short stories and zines it is great to know about Astounding and Analog and the people behind them.

Full review to come, but I just want to say that Hubbard and Campbell were absolutely vile.
Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,929 reviews386 followers
November 21, 2021
This is a continuation of my Isaac Asimov reading binge, as he is one of the chosen focal points for the last quarter of the year by the Dead Writers Society. Searching for a better understanding of the man through an examination of the ecosystem that he worked in, I picked up this book. It was just what I was looking for, providing a much desired perspective on the so-called golden age of science fiction.

The majority of the book is focused on the editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell Jr. Although he authored some science fiction himself, he seemed to prefer to be a gatekeeper to the genre, supplying ideas to writers and demanding that they produce work in accordance with his prejudices. It is absolutely no wonder that modern science fiction is still struggling to extricate itself from racist and misogynist world views that call Campbell's reign “the good old days.” By which they mean when it was an exclusive straight white male endeavor.

I read a lot of this kind of sci-fi when I was a teen because that was what was available and I enjoyed it because that was what was available. Having reread a fair amount of it relatively recently during my Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Project, I can tell you that the genre may owe these men for getting it started, but it has moved along at a lively pace and that some of the most interesting stuff is now written by women, people of colour, and the LGBTQ+ community. They have wildly varying viewpoints that give them unique windows on possible futures which are a great complement to the white guys in the field today.

It really struck me as significant that three of these men (Campbell, Heinlein and Hubbard) all believed themselves to be strong leaders. They all had a tendency to lecture and a strong antipathy to criticism. It is no wonder that they went their separate ways. Asimov, as the one of the group who had experienced racism, was more tempered in his behaviour, although he benefited from white male privilege routinely, assuming that he could grope and proposition women around him continually without reprimand or repercussion.

If these four are the most influential of the early age of the genre, it's no wonder that there is a conservative faction of fandom who are outraged that more progressive themes are awarded prizes and honours (the Sad Puppies of the Hugo awards for example or the harassment campaign of Gamergate). They don't seem to realize that they may not be the majority of the fandom any more, that there are plenty of non-white and female fans out there who buy just as much product (or more) and have every right to expect to see their faces and dilemmas reflected in the literature and games too. By the way, this book illustrates how the fandom started out exclusively white male as well, often led by men who would be classified as trolls today.

The interactions of these four major players are fascinating to read about, while at the same time knowing that they would be the most tiresome kind of people to spend time with, all of them way too fond of the sound of their own voices. On the other hand, I think it would be fascinating to have a cup of coffee with the author, Alec Nevala-Lee, to get the scoop on all the details he didn't have room to include in this volume.
Profile Image for ♏ Gina Baratono☽.
756 reviews130 followers
March 5, 2019
I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway and would like to thank Dey Street Books and Kell Wilson, Marketing Manager, for the opportunity to give a nonbiased review. The book I received was an uncorrected proof.

As a reader of a large variety of genres, of which Sci-Fi is one, I was anticipating a great read with this book, which revolves around writer John Campbell and his relationship/partnership with Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard. These are, of course, well known authors above and beyond the sci-fi genre.

Although Asimov called Campbell "the most powerful force in science fiction ever", this is, in fact, the first biography of him, and his name may not ring the bells with most people that Isamov's will. That needs to be rectified, and I think this book will go a long way into doing so.

Campbell was a force who helped propel others into success in the ever-increasingly popular area of science fiction many years ago. He was an editor at the magazine "Astounding Science Fiction", in which unknowns were given a lift up into the publishing world and many of them became very successful writers in their own right.

Author Alec Nevala-Lee did an enormous amount of research in writing this book, unearthing previously unknown manuscripts, letters, and interviews. Being born well after the Great Depression, I did not realize how important the science fiction genre was to people of that time. It makes sense, however, that the suffering masses would be drawn to stories that would spark their imagination and allow them to separate themselves for some brief moments into a world they never imagined.
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.8k followers
Want to read
July 22, 2019
The publisher sent me the hardback of this non-fiction book about eight months ago. I never got around to it. Now the paperback has landed on my doorstep today. It's a sign! Okay, maybe just a sign of extra publicist attention, but I'm still going to do this thing! It actually does look interesting. :)
Profile Image for John Warner.
779 reviews24 followers
March 10, 2020
I was born during the tail end of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, a period between the late 1930s through the 1950s. It was doing this period that science fiction became respectable. Prior to this period, the majority of science fiction was distributed as "pulp fiction." As an young boy, I cut my teeth on science fiction from the Golden Age with such authors as Asimov, Heinlein, and Simak. The one man that did the most to foster in this age was John Campbell, the editor of such magazines as Astounding Science Fiction. He solicited novellas and short stories emphasizing the psychological development of the characters as well as technological advances.

The author provided biographies of four notables within his book: John Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard. However, the characters of these science fiction luminaries had little to admire.

Campbell was interested in psychology and its potential to create a new man. Since Campbell was a racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic, I shudder at what he might have evolved if his philosophy had been accepted. This was why he was attracted to Hubbard, who shared a similar interest. Shortly after the two met, Hubbard began developing a new form of psychotherapy called Dianetics. Decades later his pseudoscience was repackaged as a new religion, Scientology. He firmly believed that if he had not given this religion to the world, there would have been "social and economic chaos." When Campbell broke with Hubbard, Asimov knew that this split was inevitable since "no movement can have two Messiahs." This statement fostered my opinion that Hubbard demonstrated paranoia and narcissism to the point of megalomania.

Although both Heinlein and Asimov were friend of the younger Hubbard, they distanced themselves from Dianetics and Scientology. However, each had their flaws. Asimov was a chronic philanderer, which resulted in divorce and estrangement from his son. Heinlein, referenced frequently as the "Dean of Science Fiction Writers," espoused militarism in many of his works.

As I said early, I read several authors from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, including Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy) and Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land). However, when one looks at the characters of the authors whose books I relished, there is little to be desired. Sometimes it is better to divorce the works from the men themselves.

Overall, I enjoyed peeking into the lives of the authors who made science fiction popular to the general public, which resulted in such classic literature as 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Star Wars film series. Many of the early astronauts chose their careers being inspired by the science fiction of their youth.
Profile Image for Amy Sturgis.
Author 39 books384 followers
January 16, 2019
This is a well researched and compulsively readable history of how some of the major figures of the so-called Campbellian Revolution -- which took place during the Astounding/Analog editorship of John W. Campbell and heralded the Golden Age of science fiction -- came together, drew apart, and changed the genre in the process.

A longer review is available in my "Looking Back at Genre History" segment on the StarShipSofa podcast here.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,121 reviews112 followers
June 18, 2021
This is a non-fic about four Americans, which had the greatest impact on the development of science fiction during its golden age, from the 1930s to the 1960s, after which several major shifts changed the genre – from the rise of SF movies and TV series, to replacement of magazines with books as the major source for most fans. I read is as a Buddy Read in June 2021 at Non Fiction Book Club group.

This is a jointed biography of four men, mentioned in the title: the editor of Astounding Stories, who almost single handedly set rules about what SF should be like John W. Campbell Jr., the creator of Dianetics as a cure for everything including imminent nuclear war L. Ron Hubbard, and two prominent SF writers – Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The greater fandom is mentioned as well as other authors, like Frederik Pohl, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon.

There are three major parts – [1] pre WW2, when the magazine gets popular, the SF authors start creating their early works and the group gets to know each other; [2] the WW2 and the usage of nuclear weapons; [3] search for a solution to stop nuclear destruction of the mankind, which led Campbell and Hubbard to promote Dianetics. The book actually follows each of the characters to their deaths, but this is less important to the overall story I guess.

All characters, while being important to the genre, are deeply flawed persons, with a lot of even antisocial behavior, from beating or leaving their wives to lying to pinching behinds of women. After reading, I gave all characters nicknames, namely, Gadfly, Boaster, Patriot and Wunderkind.
Profile Image for Gabi.
698 reviews123 followers
June 16, 2021
This was excellent!

Although having been an SF fan for all of my life I never made it to the authors of the golden age. With the exception of Theodore Sturgeon, who made me fall in love with the genre in the first place, I've rarely read or learned about the big names from that time.
This biography paints a vivid and quite sobering picture of the beginning and shaping of commercially successful SF mass publishing. I had no idea that Campbell had such a big influence on ideas and writing of the authors of Astounding. The glimpse behind the scenes was so intriguing that instead of my intended reading in several short pieces I devoured the book more or less in one go (well ... I had to sleep at some time in between).

At first I was a bit dissappointed that there was so little told about Sturgeon. But considering that all the main players got a bright and not very flattering light shone on them it is perhaps for the best.

A highly recommended book for anybody who is interested in the old boys' network that was the golden age of Science Fiction.
January 26, 2019
Oh, what these men got up to. If my mother had known what the early leaders of Science Fiction were really like she would not have been simply annoyed that I read so much of it, she would have been horrified.

Alec Nevala-Lee has revealed the truth of the John W. Campbell era of "Astounding Science Fiction Magazine" in a hard-to-put-down, tell all.
Profile Image for Mike.
Author 45 books161 followers
December 29, 2018
Like its subjects (famous science-fiction editor John W. Campbell and his sometime proteges Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard), this book is riven with contradictions and exhibits both strengths and flaws.

It's carefully researched - almost half the book consists of bibliography and notes, drawing extensively on both private and public writings and interviews with living people who remember the subjects. At the same time, it unapologetically editorializes about the men's many faults, and is something of a hatchet job on them, choosing mostly incidents that place them in a bad light.

It's mostly well copyedited, except for the use of "prophesized" for "prophesied" and some highly questionable apostrophe placement, mostly in quotations from Campbell (even though the author notes that he has corrected and standardized the spelling and punctuation in his quotations).

It's hard to say who comes out looking worst. Campbell, the champion of science who was so frequently taken in by, and obsessed with, pseudoscience (including dianetics), who grew more and more openly racist as he got older, and who would lecture people condescendingly on topics that they understood far better than he did? Heinlein, embraced by the counterculture for his portrayal of free love (reflective of his own promiscuous youth), at the same time that he was becoming more and more rigidly reactionary? Asimov, who (reversing Heinlein's trend) became promiscuous in middle age, around the time his first child was born, and called himself a feminist while unrepentantly groping every woman he met? No, it's probably Hubbard, the malevolent, abusive narcissist who constantly inflated his own achievements and manipulated those around him in order to obtain money and power.

All of them were married at least twice (Hubbard three times), and treated their first wives poorly, often minimizing their contributions to their work, though Campbell, at least, doesn't seem to have been a constant adulterer like the others. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that at least some of their marital problems stemmed from not making much effort to understand women or give their perspective weight and importance equal to men's, which was a fault of the times in general. These were men who weren't, in many ways, very good at people, who were somewhat broken as people themselves. Campbell, Hubbard, and Heinlein, at least, believed they needed to strive to improve humanity, but they retained a tremendous blindness or indifference to their own greatest faults and an inability to correct them. Sadly, they have many spiritual descendants among current SF fandom, some of whom admire in them exactly what this book deplores.

I read Asimov's fiction and nonfiction, and Heinlein's fiction, extensively as a teenager, and although I wouldn't return to it (even separating the artist from the art), I found it powerful at the time. In fact, I read Heinlein even though I didn't like most of his ideas, because of the strength of the writing.

It's inarguable that these men (and other men and women mentioned and unmentioned in the book) laid much of the foundation for the science fiction we have today. I believe we need to grapple with their faults as well as celebrating their achievements, particularly the faults that became embedded in their work and in the field itself. In order to do so, we need to look at those faults, and their context, with open eyes, and this book is an important resource to help us do so, even though - or perhaps because - it comes down so strongly on one side.
Profile Image for Craig.
5,143 reviews122 followers
August 24, 2019
This account of the most formative years of the modern science fiction field is very well-told and most impressively researched. It's primarily the story of what is commonly accepted as the golden age of sf as personified by a decade of Astounding Stories starting in the late 1930's; Campbell was the editor and Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard were the most popular authors. I've read quite a few accounts of the early days of the field as well as autobiographies and biographies of some of the major players in both a fannish and professional light, (and it's wonderfully entertaining to catalog how those books contradict one another!), but I still found some information here that was new to me, particularly regarding Campbell himself. I never know to what extent he was involved in founding Dianetics/Scientology with Hubbard, nor to what extremes he stepped into fringe interests (astrology, for example) later in his life. Heinlein is portrayed as rather elitist and sanctimonious, Asimov as intelligent and innocent (though he must have known it was improper to grope people without their conest), and Hubbard as very cruel and unstable. The author takes particular care to point out the great influence that the wives of the subjects had on them, particularly in the cases of Heinlein and Campbell, as well as the influence Campbell's assistant Kay Tarrant had on the magazine. It's an excellent picture of the birth of the modern sf scene, not to mention a fascinating portrayal of the US before, during, and after WWII. Highly recommended!

In a strange twist of circumstance, just as I was finishing reading this book the John W. Campbell Award was being presented for the current year at a ceremony in Dublin. The winner called Campbell a fascist as part of the acceptance speech. By current standards, if someone believed and acted today as Campbell did eighty years ago that would certainly be accurate. Campbell was probably something of a racist, but historical figures can't always be judged by beliefs out of their time. A hundred years from now we're likely to condemned for something that doesn't seem in scale today. I say all of this not to defend or attack anyone or their beliefs, but as a reminder to judge the book as the book, not by the accomplishments or short-comings of the subjects.
Profile Image for Simona B.
898 reviews3,011 followers
September 10, 2019
The last section does feel slightly rushed, but I absolutely agree with Martin when he describes this book as "compulsively readable." And yes, all right—the last few pages had me crying a bit. They are about Asimov's death, so what did you expect me to do?
Profile Image for Mark.
565 reviews157 followers
November 24, 2018
It’s a well-known adage that you should never meet your heroes/heroines, presumably because you will be disappointed. I’m pleased to say, based on my own experiences, that generally in the Fantasy/SF/Horror genres (with some notable exceptions) it isn’t true.

However, after reading this book I might want to reconsider that view again. Indeed, if you see the early founders of the ‘golden age’ of SF of the 20th century as any sort of hero, this book may make you wonder why anyone would’ve wanted to meet any of them.

Astounding looks at the life of a number of key players in the early days of s-f, and in particular the unifying force of John W. Campbell, often seen as one of the most important people in science fiction in the 20th century for his work as editor in Astounding Magazine from 1937 – 1971. This meant that he had a huge influence on authors of the time also covered in this book, such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. Although other authors are mentioned (Frederik Pohl, Leigh Brackett, Jack Williamson, Sprague de Camp and others) this book concentrates on those three writers and the influence Campbell had upon them.

It is a little sobering to think that some of these details told here are nearly one hundred years old. Whilst researching such details is hardly similar to the search for the Ark of the Covenant (there are archives of their writing, after all), many of the early details have been obscured by time. There are few remaining people mentioned from this time still living, and that may be a good thing.  It is clear from this book that Nevala-Lee has spent some time digging out nuggets of information, much of which from previously unquoted sources, to put together a picture of what it was like in those early days when most s-f was pulp, luridly illustrated and mainly written to attract a male teenage readership.

It also means that what he says cannot always be verified.

Some of the connections made by Nevala-Lee are revelatory, others less so. It is often claimed by readers of SF that without Campbell there would be no Foundation series, no Future History, even no Dianetics (which led to Scientology.) Nevala-Lee examines this and suggests that whilst Campbell’s influence may be overstated by others at times, it seems clear that without Campbell pushing, goading and questioning, these works would not be as well-regarded as they are, even now.

Slightly more revelatory is the point that many of those believed to be important in the creation of the genre, Campbell included, were gifted failures and misfits. For example, Campbell was asked to leave MIT without completing his junior year, Heinlein was invalided out from his lifetime ambition in the Navy due to ill-health, Asimov was a Russian immigrant whose ability was initially limited because his family could not afford the fees to the best universities, whilst Hubbard was a fantasist of the highest order, propped up by family money and then actively adjusting his past to fit whatever image he wished to put forward.  Campbell’s skill was to recognise this and nurture the writers to produce better work than that written by them previously, even at the expense of his own writing.

The events in this book are, of course, of a very different time, when a female presence was often seen by some as a threat to their clearly defined worlds of fiction. Women were, on the whole, meant to support their men or be rescued. Whilst there are examples in this novel that showed that Campbell and others (such as Heinlein) were trying hard to change this, it is clear that it was a move not always welcomed by the reading clientele, who knew what they liked and were reluctant to change it.

Nevala-Lee also highlights as crucial the importance of women to these men. From their protective mother (especially Asimov) to their wives (especially Heinlein and Campbell) and even their co-workers (Campbell’s deputy at Astounding, Catherine Tennant, is shown to work in a long-lasting professional relationship, for example), the importance of women, admittedly in a supportive role, is given pleasing exposure. It is pleasing to read of Leslyn Heinlein, who as Heinlein’s first wife is given short thrift in Patterson’s biography (supervised by his second wife.) By comparison, Hubbard’s relationships with women are generally pretty dreadful, with affairs, forced abortions and sexually transmitted diseases common.

Of the three main authors, their characters are clearly different. I found myself most sympathetic to Isaac Asimov of the three. Younger than the others, and clearly socially inexperienced, for much of the book he is seen as the lesser talent, but given status because Campbell felt that he could mentor him into what he wanted. By comparison, Heinlein was much more grownup, and got on with Campbell and his family so well that he and Leslyn became godparents to his children. Heinlein was clearly a much more pragmatic writer, thinking in terms of sales and permissions more than the rest, and it was an issue over such matters that begins a rift between Campbell and RAH, leading to fewer sales to Astounding in the 1950’s.

In the return to ‘normality’ after the war, the effect on Campbell and the authors is clear. The last half of the book becomes fairly descriptive, as the authors gain experience and respect from their peers and return to writing. Convinced that Astounding magazine should lead the way in science fact as well as fiction, Campbell begins to pursue other personal interests outside science fiction. He becomes a key advocate of Dianetics (later known as Scientology) and is one of Hubbard’s key experimenters. Campbell’s intense passion for the idea spreads to the magazine, but also alienates him from many of the writers he has nurtured, including Asimov & Heinlein.

From the 1960’s it becomes clear that having being unable to fulfil what he sees as his destiny in practical sciences in WW2 – he offered his services, but was not accepted – Campbell seems to latch on to a variety of unusual projects to prove himself: not only Dianetics but also psionics and the reactionless Dean Drive, all of which were unsuccessful.

Although it can be argued that Campbell was perhaps the main reason for evolution in the science fiction genre in the 1940’s & ‘50’s, his influence by the 60’s on the whole genre is debatable. His grip on Astounding by this point was so strong that it became more of a mouthpiece for his ideas than cutting edge. The New Wave of the 1960’s went by pretty unnoticed by Campbell and the magazine, whilst he continued to push his idea in fiction of the so-called ‘competent man’  - the hero who, by intelligence, logic and science, solves the issue or the dilemma at hand.

It is notable that many of these writers who began their careers writing to such a template moved on from Campbell later in their writing career.  Whether it was because they saw through the editor or outgrew him is a point that the author examines. Asimov, for example, despite unswerving loyalty to Campbell, moved on by writing a monthly science column for the new Magazine of Fantasy & SF where his talents were more appreciated. Heinlein broke out into the mainstream, writing for magazines like the Saturday Evening Post and being involved in the creation of the movie Destination Moon. Campbell’s hectoring of Heinlein on Dianetics seems to have soured things enormously as by the 1960’s Heinlein went from bosom buddy with Campbell to distant correspondent. Hubbard seems to float in and out of all of their lives, becoming increasingly paranoid and deluded over his own abilities and spending much of his time outside of the United states, often in seclusion and avoiding authorities.

Nevala-Lee writes in his Afterword that one of the reasons for writing this book is that he hopes that it generates discussion, and I think that it will. It is contentious, sometimes provocatively so. There are a number of points like this in the book that I found I agreed with and others that I disagreed with, even disliked.

One of the advantages of Astounding is that it is a book about key characters that is not restricted by being an authorised biography (see Robert Patterson’s two-volume biography of Robert Heinlein filtered by Virginia Heinlein), nor is it a hagiography or an autobiography written with deliberately selective memory. Instead, it falls somewhat in-between the spectrum, not only pointing out the importance of the authors under study but also not afraid of highlighting their failings.

Such an approach has its advantages and disadvantages. For those readers who are unaware of the historical background and the context in which such developments occurred it is useful. When pulp magazines began in the 1920’s, they were generally seen as enthusiastic but immature, silly and rather seedy, dealing with all matters in a superficial and simplistic manner, entertainment for minors or simple readers. By the time of Campbell’s death in the 1970’s, a mere 40 years, the genre had expanded, matured and become the inspiration for writers, readers and scientists all over the world.

With this in mind, it is perhaps slightly ironic, then, how much of this book is spent not on this aspect but instead on the immaturity, silliness and seediness of the lives of the main writers. Astounding is less of an analysis of their collective writings and more of a study of the personalities, for good or worse, written in a manner that suggests opinions as facts, rather than actual fact. It also didn’t help that, despite pages of notes at the back of the book, the lack of referencing through the main text was a major handicap for me, making verification of details quite difficult.

Perhaps more worryingly, unlike academic research, the book does not follow scientific method and the route of unemotional, reasoned impartiality, but instead deals in the grubby, gossipy details that may be more appropriate for celebrity culture and social media. For many readers, it will be these details that will be most memorable. None of our key characters come out particularly well from this – Asimov was a well-known bottom-pincher for most of his life, Heinlein was a control-freak who bullied people to get his own way, Hubbard was drummed out of the armed services for incompetence despite claiming to be a war hero to his peers and Campbell was a racist, for example.

Admittedly, their failings may be blamed on the fact that they were often young and socially inept young men themselves, and I guess it can be argued that their immaturity was reflected in the genre itself in its formative years, for good and bad. As they grew older their personal story is also the story of the genre’s evolution, and for that reason may be worth telling, even when its subjects are not always shown in a positive way.

In short, Astounding is an entertaining summary of how things may have been in the Golden Age of science fiction for some of the key players. It’s clear that it has taken time to write, and it effectively portrays a picture of a fledgling genre at a certain time, such as it was.  Where it does occasionally lapse into simplification and over-generalisation, there is enough new perspective here for anyone who has in an interest in ‘the old days’ to find something they have not read before. It certainly creates possible reasons for those people’s motivations and assesses their importance at a formative time for the genre. It is not without its issues –and some of the points raised are troublesome – but for those interested in such matters, it is a book worth your time.

Sometimes heroes can be assessed and with hindsight be found to be less than we thought. It is perhaps the curse of the modern age that we put our inspirations under the spotlight and pick out the flaws and the weaknesses. We don’t always like what we see. For me, it is the case here, but that doesn’t mean to say that we shouldn’t accept their weaknesses and appreciate their contributions.

Despite all of the strange behaviours, the tantrums and the shortcomings on display here, Astounding affirms that the key players mentioned here were major influencers in their time to create what is (for me, anyway) an exciting and relevant genre today.   Despite the human failings, the body of work created and guided by these people inspired and still guides writers, if only to show them how to move forward. We would not be here were it not for them, and Astounding does well to show this, warts and all.
Profile Image for James.
3,430 reviews20 followers
June 20, 2019
This confirms one of my personal beliefs is that for the most part you are better off not knowing about an author's life. In this case it makes for a somewhat depressing read. The unsavory aspects of Campbell, Heinlein and Asimov are counterbalanced by the insight into the molding'Golden' Age of SF. It's a much smaller and more intimate world than I even imagined.

Let's start with Campbell, my sole exposure is his writings, if you've read his editorials in ASF/Analog you know he comes across as a cantankerous, conservative curmudgeon, especially in the last decade or so of his life. His obsession with psionics and other oddball science matters you can find in his pieces on the Dean Drive, Dianetics, etc. I was too young to be active in fandom while he was alive and for the most part Campbell was ignored in the mid 70s and later by the fans I hung out with. He didn't voice his more extreme views on race, religion and women in the magazine, I think that was done to avoid alienating many of the readers. It certainly helps explain the cliche Captain Anglo and the Saxon boys stories and the lack of female protagonists in the early days of Astounding. To be fair, he did publish stories by women authors early on and as Norman Spinrad once pointed out, he published The Men in the Jungle with its drug dealer heroes. However, he did pass on publishing Samuel Delany's works so his racism caused him to pass on publishing works that later won Hugos. His involvement in Dianetics/Scientology was much more extensive than I was aware of, he's guilty of spreading one of the more evil cults that exists today.

Heinlein's thoughts on many subjects were published in Grumbles from the Grave, so I was aware of some of book's material from one perspective, I was surprised with how close he was to many authors in the early days. As he got older, he did become more conservative, something that people always claimed but this book has concrete examples.

As for Hubbard, I've always thought of him as an opportunistic grifter, I was shocked how much influence he had with many of the earlier writers. Reading about him just depressed me.

I'm fairly familiar with Asimov's writing career and recently found out about his sexual harassment of women so nothing too shocking here, this just adds the same sordid, domestic soap opera information that was also included for the other three as well.

Reading this book will certainly help you understand the evolution of early SF, it comes at the expense of looking at a lot of clay feet on these and other idols. If you want to avoid shattering any illusions, you may want to skip this.
Profile Image for Paul.
Author 92 books319 followers
December 27, 2018
One of the joys of reading on a Kindle (or, in my case, a Kindle app) is the ease of bookmarking. As one indication of how important I found Alec Nevala-Lee's Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I bookmarked it more than ten times as much as any other book I've read in the past few years. (The runners-up are The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction by Grant Wythoff and Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield, though I read those two on paper.) [Much longer review continues here https://paullevinson.blogspot.com/201... ]
Profile Image for David Agranoff.
Author 23 books149 followers
September 7, 2022
My 2019 review

Being a reader of Sci-fi and horror is one thing but being a part of the community is another. I always point out to people not from the punk rock world that one of the differences between mainstream music and the punk scene is the lack of walls. I grew up knowing the bands I listened to. We were friends, if there was a stage it was short and basically for launching stage dives more than separating the fans from the bands. The genre fiction community has a little bit more separation but as a writer myself over the years I have met the majority of my living writing heroes, and a few that we have since lost like Richard Matheson, Ursula Leguin, and Harlan Ellison to name a few.

This process gives insight into the people behind the books and it is a good picture we can learn from. Good or bad you learn a lot about how these people live and you get a positive insight into the business. While I have always known the community and authors interacted since early in the 20th century I never thought we would get a detailed history of the genre going this far back. Not like this history which is not afraid to show you every wart even if it has an infected ingrown hair. Yeah, some of it was that ugly.

Growing up as a super young science fiction reader in the late 80's there were certain names and books you always saw on the shelf. While John Campbell and his magazine were a good part of the foundation of the genre. Our generation knows very little about its history and the value of having a tell-all history of the genre gives everyone a chance to feel like we were hanging out in the New York offices and bars of the conventions. Lee gives us a chance to feel like we were there.

Lee has done his research and this book is very detailed. I loved getting details of how The marriages and lives of Asimov and others were. This was fascinating but I did find myself wanting more details on the operation of the magazine or how the stories were developed. I am sure I was not alone in wondering why the book was not entirely devoted to Campbell but as the book goes on you get an idea for how interwoven their lives were. There are great tidbits about how Campbell worked with his writers. Like how he prompted stories out of Heinlein or suggested classic elements like the law of robotics or the story Nightfall to Asimov.

We got a lot more pages devoted to Ron Hubbard and the creation of Scientology which I admit I didn't know Campbell was so heavily involved. If it wasn't Hubbard and Campbell creating a cult, it was Asimov being a serial groper. I am surprised Heinlein came off as the most likable. Campbell himself had some awful positions and it is hard not to walk away from this book disliking the man. That said it is important also to understand the role he played in making Science Fiction what it is today. There is not one person who had a bigger impact on the growth and direction of the genre and Lee doesn't sugar-coat his flaws while making this point.

Details like that AE Van Vogt reading John W. Campbell's classic story "Who Goes There" while standing at a newsstand and was inspired to become a writer more than the day-to-day growth of Hubbard's cult. It was interesting to learn that one factory during World War 2 was the workplace of three golden-age writers.

I did find myself wanting to know more about other authors and possibly get a wider view of the genre at the time. For example, when Robert Bloch, HP Lovecraft, or the women that wrote for Campbell like Leigh Brackett have mentioned it is maddening to not get the attention on them.

I may sound like I am complaining ultimately I am not. I am so excited this book exists and I am thankful Alec Nevala-Lee took the time to write it and more importantly research it. This book is clearly a labor of love and puts you in the trenches of Golden Age Sci-fi for better or worse. Any serious student of the Science Fiction Genre must read this book.
60 reviews
September 24, 2018
Received an ARC at ALA. Well-written book that weaves together the stories of four key players in the Golden Age of SF, and in doing so provides some interesting insights.

Having just finished William H. Patterson Jr.'s "Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century," I'm a bit struck by the slight differences in framing about some of the same events -- Nevala-Lee is somewhat more forgiving of his subject's foibles.

But overall, the parallels between the four (particularly between Heinlein and Hubbard) make for interesting reading.

A must-read for all classicist fans of science fiction. Worth preordering.
Profile Image for Marlene.
2,951 reviews206 followers
October 14, 2018
Originally published at Reading Reality

They were the men who sold the moon – as well as the rest of the universe. Together they were the Golden Age of science fiction – in some ways both the quip that says that the golden age of SF is 12 and in the historical sense.

John W. Campbell, Jr. was the editor of what became the premiere outlet for science fiction writing during its and his heyday, from 1937 through 1946. Back in the days before SF became mainstream, the pulps were all there were, and Campbell’s Astounding was the top of the pulps as far as SF was concerned.

That golden age was when he found, mentored, developed or at least published two writers who became synonymous with SF, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, and the one who nearly broke it, L. Ron Hubbard.

While Astounding and Campbell both went on after 1946 – Astounding exists today as Analog – and all three writers’ careers flourished in their very different trajectories after that period, SF as we know it today was significantly influenced by them and/or their writing, and they, in turn, were significantly influenced by Campbell’s editorial direction. And in one significant case, vice-versa.

Together, they made the genre as we now know it. And the children who grew up reading science fiction, their particular brand of science fiction, changed the world.

Reality Rating A: First things first, this is surprisingly readable. There’s a lot of information packed in here, and it flows fairly smoothly from one page into the next. I was surprised at how completely I was drawn in and held over a very long flight. I expected to bounce in and out, and I just didn’t.

(That the book is only about ⅔ as long as it appears to be is probably a help. The final ⅓ consists of extensive notes. It is blissfully not necessary to flip back and forth between the text and the notes in order to get the story or the context. The author certainly did his homework, but it’s not required that one read it for the book to make sense.)

Campbell in 1965
While Heinlein, Asimov and Hubbard have all been written about before, and in depth, Campbell really hasn’t. And certainly should have been. For the period when Astounding was at the top of the pulps, and for some time beyond, Campbell wasn’t just the editor of a magazine – he WAS science fiction in a way that just isn’t possible now that SF has gone mainstream. His role hasn’t been recognized, possibly because there is no real equivalent today.

This multi-biography attempts to set all four men in their time as well as their relationships to each other. And while on the one hand it feels both loving and respectful, on the other it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the darker side of all four – even though much of what we now consider that dark side generally passed social muster at the time it happened.

The book does a good job of giving context for why much of what we would consider bad behavior occurred, without ever minimizing it or apologizing for it. I’m thinking particularly of Asimov’s well-known propensity for pinching women’s bottoms and other places without their consent or even seeming to acknowledge that he needed their consent. That all the women in his various editors’ and publishers’ offices literally cleared the building whenever he had an appointment seems to be a message he just never got – and certainly should have.

All of them except Asimov seemed to have drunk to considerable excess. Towards the end of their lives both Campbell and Heinlein crossed the line from conservative to reactionary. None of them gave the credit to any of their wives that was certainly due.

Campbell’s racism undoubtedly affected his gatekeeping of the genre throughout his tenure at Astounding, and is in at least some part responsible for the whiteness of SF through his era and beyond. When some 21st century fans cry out for a “Campbellian Revolution” this is part and parcel of what they are looking back to and wanting to recreate.

And everyone was way more involved in the beginning of Scientology than seems to be widely known. Only Asimov steered clear, and even he got stuck arguing with Campbell about it on multiple occasions.

But we certainly see the hand of Campbell in the underpinnings of Hubbard’s Scientology – and we see a number of promising careers get sidetracked by it. Hubbard’s most of all.

These men were the giants upon whose shoulders the genre now stands, whether their influence was mostly positive, or in Hubbard’s case mostly negative. The author does a deft job of giving them their rightful place in SF history while showing that they all had feet of clay up to the knees. If not higher.

In the end, this is a fascinating study of a group of men who made this most popular genre what it became. And it’s a great read from beginning to end.
Profile Image for Callibso.
689 reviews18 followers
July 30, 2020
Dieses Buch von Alec Nevala-Lee war 2019 für den Hugo Award in der Kategorie Sekundärwerk nominiert, hat ihn aber nicht erhalten. Es ist eine Mehrfach-Biographie, die das sogenannte "Golden Age" der Science-Fiction durch die Analyse verschiedener miteinander verbundener Lebensläufe untersucht. Im Zentrum steht John W. Campbell, der sich vom Autor zum Herausgeber entwickelte und sein Magazin "Astounding Science Fiction" zum wichtigsten SF-Magazin der 1940er und 1950er Jahre machte und den Asimov einmal “the most powerful force in science fiction ever” nannte. Außerdem werden Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein und L. Ron Hubbard vorgestellt, die durch seine Unterstützung und unter seinem Einfluss zu den einflussreichsten Autoren der SF wurden. Bei Hubbard liegt die Bedeutung mehr in der Gründung von “Scientology”, und so beschreibt das Buch auch, wie Hubbard gemeinsam mit Campbell die Gedanken entwickelte, die zu dieser Sekte führten und wie deren Geschichte somit auch eng mit “Astounding” verbunden ist.

Alec Nevala-Lee geht im Wesentlichen chronologisch vor, er hat tausende Briefe analysiert, in Archiven geforscht und Dutzende Interviews geführt. Dies merkt man auch beim Anhang des Buches, in dem auf über einhundert Seiten die Zitate und Aussagen belegt werden und das Buch durch einen ausführlichen Index erschlossen wird.

John W. Campbell, mit einer komplexen Familiengeschichte, einem gestörten Verhältnis zu den Eltern und einem IQ von 145, studierte am Massachusetts Institute of Technology unter anderem bei Norbert Wiener, dem Begründer der Kybernetik. Er scheiterte im Studium an der deutschen Sprache; Deutsch, “the language of international research” (S. 33), musste man in den 1920ern in der Wissenschaft beherrschen und diese Sprache lag ihm anscheinend gar nicht. Er hatte schon während des Studiums begonnen, Science-Fiction-Geschichten zu schreiben, um sich zusätzliches Geld zu verdienen, im Zeitalter der Pulp-Magazine konnte man mit SF-Kurzgeschichten Geld verdienen. Nevala-Lee charakterisiert Campbells erste Geschichten als mit “generic heroes” versehen und ohne Frauen: “... there were no women in sight” (S. 33). Schnell erwarb Campbell sich eine gewisse Popularität. Er lernte Dona Stebbins kennen, die seine erste Frau wurde und ihm half, sich literarisch weiterzuentwickeln. In den 1930ern schrieb er mit “Who goes there?” (“Das Ding aus einer anderen Welt”) eine Geschichte, die mehrfach verfilmt wurde und immer noch zu den besten SF-Geschichten gezählt wird. Dennoch geriet Campbell in finanzielle Schwierigkeiten, aber 1937 hatte er Glück und wurde zum Herausgeber mehrerer Pulp Magazine. Darunter war "Astounding Stories", das er bald in "Astounding Science Fiction" umbenannte. So wie seine erste Frau Dona für Campbells Entwicklung wichtig war, so war auch Kay Tarrant, die als “assistent editor” in seinem Büro arbeitete, enorm wichtig für die Entwicklung des Magazins und damit für die Entwicklung der Science Fiction. Beide Frauen wurden bisher kaum beachtet und erwähnt.

Robert A. Heinlein war mit 25 schon in seiner zweiten Ehe und konnte nach einer Krankheit seinen Traumberuf bei der Navy nicht mehr ausüben. L. Ron Hubbard versuchte sich an Science-Fiction-Geschichten und fantasierte einiges zu seiner Kindheit zusammen, Nevala-Lee vermittelt den Eindruck, dass Hubbard es mit der Wahrheit nicht immer so genau nahm. Isaac Asimov schließlich schlug sich als Kind armer russischer Juden in New York durch und zum Glück verkaufte sein Vater Pulp-Magazine, die Isaac immer lesen durfte, wenn er sie sorgfältig behandelte, denn sie sollten noch verkauft werden.

Bei “Astounding” kamen diese vier zusammen, wurden Partner und Rivalen und unter der Anleitung von Campbell veränderten sie die Science-Fiction.

Campbell prägte den jungen Asimov, der jeden Monat mit einer neuen Geschichte bei ihm im Herausgeberbüro aufkreuzte. Anfangs lehnte er alles ab, erst die neunte Geschichte nahm er an und veröffentlichte sie. Sie diskutierten viel, bzw. Campbell erklärte und "young Asimov sat in adoring admiration of Campbell, drinking in every word he said" (S. 95). Campbell versorgte seine Autoren gerne mit Ideen, er formte sie und benutzte sie auch, um eigene Gedanken auszuformulieren. So sagte er einmal im Gespräch mit Asimov: ”I’m an editor. When I was a writer, I could only write one story at a time. Now I can write fifty stories at a time. There are fifty writers out there writing stories they’ve talked about me” (S.97). Campbell forderte und förderte seine Autoren: Asimov und Heinlein besonders, aber auch A. E. van Vogt, Lester del Rey, Ray Bradbury und Theodore Sturgeon, der über Campbell sagte: “I owe him more than I owe any other single human being in the world.”(S. 124). Mit Leigh Brackett tauchte im Jahre 1939 endlich eine Autorin auf und auf diese Entdeckung war Campbell besonders stolz (S. 123). Später kamen weitere Autoren wie z.B. Robert Silverberg und Frank Herbert hinzu.

Beispiele für die fruchtbare Zusammenarbeit des Herausgebers mit Asimov sind die gemeinsam entwickelten Ideen für die “Asimov’schen” Robotergesetze und die daraus folgenden Erzählungen (“I Robot”), für "Nightfall" und für die "Foundation" Trilogie, alles Kernbestandteile des Golden Age. Mit A.E. van Vogt entwickelte Campbell “Slan” und die Liste ging weiter.

Natürlich beeinflusste der zweite Weltkrieg das Leben der hier beschriebenen sehr stark. Heinlein, der zeitweise sehr eng mit Campbell befreundet war, wurde extrem patriotisch und versuchte, bei der Navy eine wichtige Rolle zu spielen; Hubbard landete bei der Navy und es scheint schwer gewesen zu sein, die Wahrheit aus seinen Kriegserzählungen herauszufiltern; Asimov wollte eigentlich nicht zur Armee im Gegensatz zu Campbell, der hinwollte und fast seine Zeitschriften gefährdete, weil er mit “Deadline” eine Geschichte abdrucken liess, die die Funktionsweise der Atombombe (falsch!) beschrieb und die Aufmerksamkeit des Geheimdienstes auf sich zog.

Für Campbell war immer wichtig, dass die Science-Fiction die Welt verändern sollte und er wollte diese Veränderung mitgestalten. Vielleicht war dieser Wunsch mit ein Grund dafür, dass er mit Hubbard zusammen an “Dianetics” arbeitete und damit an Ideen, die schließlich zur Basis von Scientology wurden. Eine immer stärkere Hinwendung zur Esoterik zerstörte Campbells erste Ehe und entfremdete ihn auch von Heinlein und Asimov. Auch wenn er sich später von Dianetics abwandte, das von Hubbard zu “Scientology” umbenannt wurde, so beschäftigte sich Campbell gerne mit mit - freundlich ausgedrückt - Randgebieten der Wissenschaft. Er konstruierte seltsame Geräte zur “Psionik”, konnte aber kaum jemanden von diesen Geräten überzeugen, insbesondere Asimov und Heinlein nicht. Ein gewisses Sendungsbewusstsein mag ihn erfüllt haben und der Wunsch, dass seine Ideen von der Fiction zur Science werden sollten. Dies war vielleicht auch die treibende Kraft hinter der Umbenennung von “Astounding” in “Analog Science Fact & Fiction” im Januar 1960, eine Änderung, die Asimov ihm nie verzieh (S. 326).

Später verlor Campbell etwas den Anschluss an die Entwicklung der Science-Fiction, mit der "New Wave" hatte er nichts zu tun. Aber, als er sich schon mit Asimov, Silverberg und Sturgeon überworfen hat, da machte er mit Frank Herbert noch einmal eine große Entdeckung und veröffentlichte mit "Dune" (S. 357) den nächsten Meilenstein.

Hubbard hingegen wandte sich teilweise ganz von der Science-Fiction ab und verwandelte in den 50ern Scientology in eine Religion. Sein weiteres Verhalten wirkt so, dass man an seiner geistigen Gesundheit zweifelt.

Wenn man dieses Buch liest, erkennt man, wie enorm wichtig John W. Campbell für die Science-Fiction war und wie sehr er die SF über Jahrzehnte Zeit geformt hat. Das Buch hat dabei durchaus seine Längen und manche Ausführungen hätte ich nicht im Detail gebraucht. Die vier Protagonisten waren insgesamt zehnmal verheiratet und das Auseinanderbrechen der Ehen war nicht immer angenehm.

… und der Rassismus?

Alec Nevala-Lee hat mit seinem Buch eine Diskussion angestoßen, die nach der Wutrede von Jeannette Ng beim Weltcon 2019 in Dublin letztlich zur Umbenennung des “John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best New Writer” in “Astounding Award for Best New Writer” führte. Relativ spät im Buch beschäftigt sich Nevala-Lee mit diesem Thema. Es gibt schlimme Zitate aus den 60ern, wo Campbell seine Ansichten stärker und auch im Editorial äußerte. Ich denke, man kann schwer argumentieren, dass seine rassistischen Sprüche "nur" den Zeitgeist spiegelten, denn seine Äußerungen entfremdeten ihn weiter von Asimov und führten zu Diskussionen mit Heinlein oder auch mit Harry Harrison (S. 360 ff.). "This is incredible painful to read" schreibt Nevala-Lee (S. 364) und natürlich kann man sich fragen, wie diese Ansichten, die Auswahl der Geschichten beeinflusst haben, die er veröffentlichte, bzw. die durch ihn und seine Ideen überhaupt erst geschrieben wurde. Noch einmal Nevala-Lee: “He certainly lacked any interest in diversity” (S. 364).

Als er stirbt sagt Asimov: “He was the fixed pole star about which all science fiction revolved, unchangeable, eternal.”

Es gelingt Nevala-Lee ausgezeichnet, die Bedeutung und den Einfluss von Campbell herauszuarbeiten und dabei gleichzeitig auch die fragwürdigen und problematischen Seiten dieser und auch der anderen Personen darzustellen. Ich hätte mir mehr Fotos gewünscht, aber es ist schon ein tolles Buch, das wir wahrscheinlich nie auf Deutsch lesen werden können.
Profile Image for Tim Schneider.
424 reviews3 followers
November 18, 2018
Let's just start off that I've needed this book in my life for a long long time. Alec Nevala-Lee gives us a biography of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding magazine and the midwife of what is generally called The Golden Age of Science Fiction. Along the way he also gives us bios of Campbell's two most important writers Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard...who was a fairly huge writer at the time and went on to greater heights of infamy while his fiction has generally been forgotten or discounted.

This is a warts and all bio for all of those involved. And there are plenty of warts to be found among these foundational figures in SF. The obvious import of this book is the look at Campbell, who is rightly the focus. Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard have all been written about fairly extensively. But Campbell has needed a biography for a long time. Campbell was almost unquestionably the most important SF editor of all time editing the most important SF pulp of all time. He shepherded the early careers of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov and helped transition SF from early pulp space opera to the first Golden Age of SF. Campbell also gave an outlet for Hubbard as well as being instrumental in the development of Dianetics...from which, one hopes, the world may one day recover.

Nevala-Lee gives us an informative and very readable look at the four gentlemen in the title. I love that in his afterward he recognizes that there is still work to be done and biographies and stories from the time to be told. While I was familiar with the broad outlines of the story there was a lot here that was revealing to me...a pretty well-read SF fan of 40 years. I didn't realize how many SF writers had their careers taken off-track by Dianetics and just generally being close to Hubbard, A.E. van Vogt being a particular example. Watching Campbell's (and Heinlein's for that matter) descent from conservative to reactionary was sad and telling. Equally sad was Campbell's descent from being a man attempting to bring science to the masses as entertainment to being the worst kind of patsy for blatant charlatanism.

But none of the warts can change the fact that Campbell changed the face of popular culture both through is work as an editor and his development of talent. And one can only wonder what more he could have done if his personal prejudices and his inner demons hadn't constrained both those he cultivated and essentially brought his years of innovation to a pre-mature halt with the end of the Second World War.

This is an excellent work. Easily one of the the best I've read in 2018. If you're a fan of SF at all...if you're a fan of popular culture at all...you owe it to yourself to seek this one out.
Profile Image for L.
891 reviews31 followers
May 27, 2023
How we got here from there

There: one hundred years ago Science Fiction didn't exist as a literary genre. There were a few books (e.g. Frankenstein) that would eventually come to be recognized as science fiction, but in 1923 those dozen or so books were not recognized as a type. Here: we now live in a USA in which almost everyone has heard of Star Wars and Star Trek (whether or not they have seen them) and where science fiction elements are common even in non-mainstream literature. (Example: The Do-Over, a young adult romance built around a time-loop.) Interest in science fiction is especially high among people who are most concerned with building the future: scientists, engineers, venture capitalists, and creative types.

The story of how we got here from there is mostly the story of one man, John W. Campbell Jr.. Campbell edited the pulp (meaning it was printed on the cheapest of paper) magazine Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 until his death in 1971. (I'm ignoring a name change or two.) In that role he discovered, encouraged, and guided many of the authors who created science fiction. In Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, Alec Nevala-Lee, himself a science fiction author, tells this story. It is history, but because the history is so tied up with Campbell's life story, it is also biography. More, Nevala-Lee made the inspired choice to combine four biographies into one. Although Campbell is unquestionably the focus, Astounding also tells the story of three of Campbell's most successful writers, L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov.

Astounding begins with brief descriptions of the early lives of these four men. Campbell, Heinlein, and Hubbard were all sketchy (as in don't-buy-a-used-car-from this-man) types. Hubbard, indeed was a serial fabulist and con-man. Asimov, the youngest of the four, comes across as a solid young man. All four, Asimov included, shared a deplorably Neanderthal attitude towards women. (I have nothing against Neanderthals -- what I mean by this is that to Campbell, Heinlein, Hubbard, and Asimov women were essentially a distinct species -- beings they could barely see as fellow humans like themselves.)

The period from 1937-1950 is often called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Don't mistake the name "Golden Age" for a judgment on the quality of the science fiction of that era. It was during this time that science fiction rose from a tiny niche towards the height it now occupies. Campbell did that, along with the three authors whose biographies are here presented and others such as Arthur C. Clarke and Theodore Sturgeon.

Campbell's primacy fell to pieces after 1950. He fell prey to Dianetics, one of Hubbard's cons, which eventually became the Church of Scientology. From 1950 to 1960, Campbell turned into a kook, and after 1960 he turned into a racist kook -- there is no more honest and simple way to describe what happened to him. Fortunately, by 1950 science fiction was strong enough to thrive without Campbell's guidance. Heinlein and Asimov dissociated themselves from Campbell and continued to write, especially Asimov, who published 400 books before he died. After 1960 new voices like Roger Zelazny and Ursula K. Le Guin were on hand to guide it to a new and real Golden Age.

Astounding is a gripping historical and biographical work. It will be most interesting to science fiction fans.

Blog review.
Profile Image for Alan.
1,124 reviews112 followers
April 27, 2019
What Is Science Fiction, Anyway?

Near the end of Alec Nevala-Lee's Astounding—and near the end of editor John W. Campbell, Jr.'s own life in 1971—Campbell is credited with this dramatic comparison:
Campbell had stretched his arms wide: "This is science fiction. It takes in all time, from before the universe is born, through the formation of suns and planets, on through their destruction and forward to the heat death of the universe, and after." Then he put his hands an inch apart. "This is English literature—the most microscopic fraction of the whole."
Campbell's formulation is... so incredibly close to my own oft-expressed belief about the Venn diagram which encompasses both sf (what I—along with Robert A. Heinlein—prefer to call speculative fiction) and "mimetic" fiction (which must hew more closely to the here-and-now), that I feel I must have read Campbell's words long ago, internalizing them fully before I can even remember—either that, or I'm just really good at unconsciously reinventing the wheel!

A Very Readable Synthesis

The Prologue of Astounding starts near the end of Nevala-Lee's story—in 1963, the year I was born. By that time, Isaac Asimov was already "the world's best explainer" (p.2), and the so-called Golden Age of SF had been over, arguably, for more than a decade. Soon enough, though, Alec Nevala-Lee's narrative jumps back to the beginning—in the 1930s, just before the start of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s editorial career. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard had not yet been brought together—and as Nevala-Lee makes vividly clear, if those encounters had gone even a little differently, what we know as "science fiction" today would have been a very different thing.

It's a fascinating story... and also a well-documented one. Nevala-Lee's extensive Notes provide individual sources for just about all of the events and quotations in Astounding—paragraph by paragraph, sometimes even line by line. His Bibliography and Index are likewise comprehensive. In total, Astounding's supplemental material takes up more than 120 pages. This is a massive research project, in other words, but Nevala-Lee's conversational style and easygoing pace makes it compulsively readable all the way through.

Whoever wrote the jacket copy for Astounding did a really good job, too—this really is a "remarkable cultural narrative" of "unprecedented scope, drama, and detail," that "looks unsparingly" at the lives of the four men named on its cover—but it also "honors such exceptional women as Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, whose pivotal roles in the history of the genre have so far gone largely unacknowledged." Nevala-Lee's cast also includes dozens of other significant contributors, such as Judith Merril, Leigh Brackett and James Tiptree, Jr., and Nevala-Lee examines in depth the major contributions of Catherine "Kay" Tarrant for Campbell at Astounding, and of founding editor Alice Dalgliesh for Heinlein at Scribner's.

The Gods Themselves, With Feet Of Clay

Astounding doesn't focus so much on the end product, though—it has a Bibliography, but is more about the creators—these giants of the Golden Age—than their creations. And they were some pretty fascinating creators, whose lives were often much more lurid than one might expect—
{...}in 1942, Cyril Kornbluth was called up. When he went to say goodbye to Pohl, they drunkenly swore an oath—slashing their hands with a razor—to kill the editor Robert Lowndes for no particular reason. The following morning, they woke up in the same bed, hungover and covered in blood. They stared at each other, pale, and Kornbluth said, "Well, I think I'd better go, Fred. So long. Have a nice war."
No matter how outrageous the anecdotes, though, Alec Nevala-Lee always seems to have researched their origins as meticulously as possible, given that all of the primary participants are now safely deceased. His Notes about the incident above, for example, cite Damon Knight's The Futurians, which was published in 1977 while Pohl, at least, was still alive and, presumably, able to object to any inaccuracies.

Others receive more detailed scrutiny. Campbell's often astounding racism, and his obsessions with pseudoscientific chimerae like psionics and the "Dean Drive," played a significant part in ending the Golden Age. Isaac Asimov's frequent touching and fondling of unwilling women—an open secret at SF conventions even while he was alive—comes under fire, as do Robert A. Heinlein's various marriage troubles, changing political convictions, and feuds with Campbell and others.

In short, Nevala-Lee portrays these literary gods as human beings—capable of greatness on the page, perhaps, but also flawed, given to petty rivalries, bickering, inappropriate and often utterly reprehensible behavior—repeatedly underscoring how entirely possible it is to admire the creation without worshiping the creator.

And, sometimes, vice versa...

The Hydra in the Room

It is impossible, of course, to mention L. Ron Hubbard at all in a history like this one without also examining his (and, to a surprising extent, Campbell's) creation of Dianetics—the "science of the mind" that later became... well, something else altogether. Astounding spends much more time on Hubbard than I am willing to here, though—as Campbell said of Isaac Asimov, I seem to have a "built-in doubter" (p.282) anyway, and I've already gone over my personal encounters with Scientology in my review of Jon Atack's turgid but masterful takedown, A Piece of Blue Sky, back in 2014. (Atack is, by the way, one of the many sources Alec Nevala-Lee acknowledges in Astounding.)

I will mention, however, that throughout Astounding, most of Nevala-Lee's sentences about Hubbard take this form, or something very similar: "Hubbard claimed {x}, but what actually happened was {y}."

Also, the science-fictional connection that I found most surprising of all popped up on p.335: Ron Howes, inventor of the Easy-Bake Oven, was one of L. Ron Hubbard's first "clears"?!?

And in Conclusion...

I'm tempted to call Alec Nevala-Lee's work "amazing," but of course that was a different magazine entirely. Astounding really is astounding, though—a significant and much-needed addition to literary history.

And many thanks to Goodreads colleague Lis Carey for calling it to my attention!
Profile Image for Johnny.
Author 10 books122 followers
January 11, 2019
It is hard for me to imagine Robert Silverberg tapping John W. Campbell’s shoulder at a movie (Heinlein’s Destination Moon or Campbell referring to a shy, uncertain Isaac Asimov as “..the fan who’s been trying to be a writer…” but Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction is the kind of pop cultural history that I’ve always wanted to read. Not only have I read some of the work of every author mentioned in the book, but the book solves some of the mystery behind how L. Ron Hubbard became the high priest of the Church of Scientology (the bet with Heinlein was probably apocryphal, since Hubbard ruminated on the possibility of making money from a religion when living with Jack Parsons, a follower of Aleister Crowley and leader of an occult group known as Ordo Templi Orientis--p. 230) and how Astounding magazine survived Street & Smith’s purge of the pulp magazines (because the readership was largely college-educated with relatively high incomes compared to the readership of the cancelled pulps—p. 248), as well as the background of Heinlein’s refusal to talk to Ray Bradbury for years (Bradbury had said that he would pretend to be gay in order to avoid the draft—p. 153).

I hadn’t realized that the term, psionics, as applied to mental abilities in much science-fiction (and in Dungeons & Dragons, as well) first appeared in a story by Jack Williamson in 1950 (p. 303). I loved the story about Heinlein tricking Asimov into taking a drink. The prank didn’t have the reaction expected and Heinlein laughed, “No wonder Isaac doesn’t drink. It sobers him up.” (p. 159).

References to author Fletcher Pratt’s naval wargame (held first in his NYC apartment and later in a rented Manhattan ballroom) are abundant. Described on p. 116, Campbell invited L. Ron Hubbard to the game (p. 128), Asimov had three destroyers sunk by a cruiser (p. 140), and Isaac Asimov took his eventual wife to the wargame on their third date (p. 162). There were other mentions, but not as significant.

Prior to reading this volume, I had never quite realized the relationship of L. Ron Hubbard’s early Dianetics work was influenced by Campbell. I hadn’t realized that Campbell had collaborated so closely with Hubbard originally and even tried to get Claude Shannon (father of modern information theory) involved in testing the procedure eventually to be known as auditing (p. 262). Shannon was also invited to test the so-called Campbell Machine that was supposed to psionically alter one’s perception of matter. Shannon never did (p. 319). I was also horrified that he required Alfred Bester of The Demolished Man fame to eliminate all references to Freudian psychology in a story (p. 278), which Bester did after deciding to submit no further stories to Campbell.

Later, Hubbard and Campbell split, leaving Asimov to state, “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.” (p. 295) As an act of revenge against Hubbard’s Dianetics, Asimov and Campbell teamed on a parody article about a method of turning psychology into “an exact science,” (p. 319) ironic in that turning psychology into an exact science was exactly what Campbell had originally desired. Indeed, the move from Dianetics to the Scientology movement was partially a rights dispute and partially because Dianetics (and its content) sounded so much like cybernetics it could be associated with Campbell (p. 329). Hubbard claimed to be influenced by “psychoanalysis, hypnosis, and Christian Science” while Campbell claimed L. Ron’s influences to be, “Christian Science, Catholic miracle shrines, voodoo practices, native witch methods of European tradition, as well as modern psychology’s teachings.” (p. 261)

Hubbard was ruthless in the manner in which he discarded his colleagues. A. E. van Vogt was extremely successful in keeping the L.A. branch of the foundation going, mainly due to his work ethic (p. 285), but Hubbard called van Vogt’s loyalty into question as, “a heavy foe of dianetics…for years, although pretending to be involved in it.” (p. 328)

Nor had I realized the very racist side of Campbell. I was horrified to read some of the direct quotations from his letters. I will not quote any for the sake of this review except for the following reprehensible, but not “colorful” reply to Isaac Asimov when the writer told Campbell that he was against segregation. “If you deny the existence of racial differences, the problem of racial differences will never be solved.” (p. 361)

I also hadn’t realized just how pessimistic Heinlein became. When an editor asked him to tone down the violence in one of his “juvenile novels,” he responded: “I don’t think we have a better than even chance to survive, as a nation, through the next five years. … I don’t ever want to pull my punches again.” (p. 338) It’s ironic to know that Starship Troopers with its pro-military message and Stranger in a Strange Land with its Messianic theme and its ubiquitous presence within the counter-culture were written at close to the same time.

One of my favorite touches in Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction was the depiction of Isaac Asimov’s first wife being vehemently opposed to Asimov’s goal of writing 100 books (p. 346) contrasted with the 200 books he reached in only nine years after surpassing 100 (p. 400) and the more than 400 books he had written by the time of his death (p. 407).

Although, as with any biographical work (even dealing with the biographies of men whose work and significance were so intricately entwined), there were some aspects and attitudes of these literary heroes that I would have preferred not to know, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction is the book I’ve longed for about the so-called “Golden Age of Science Fiction.”
Profile Image for David H..
2,070 reviews19 followers
November 17, 2022
John W. Campbell, Jr., was the long-time editor of Astounding (renamed Analog) magazine from 1937-71, and he was massively influential in his heyday. This book biographized not only Campbell, but three authors whom he also took under his wing in various forms--Hubbard, Heinlein, and Asimov. I had vaguely known of Heinlein and Asimov's connections with Campbell, but as someone completely uninterested in Scientology, I hadn't realized Hubbard was also involved.

I think Nevala-Lee did a great job not only of writing about all four men, but also capturing the atmosphere at the time. I had also previously read Frederik Pohl's memoir The Way the Future Was, and it was fun to see Pohl continually popping up throughout the book. Astounding of course benefited from a wider range of views than just Pohl, especially since Nevala-Lee was able to read through so many letters between Campbell and the others. I also liked that the author was able to talk about the women involved, even as they were often dismissed and minimized throughout the time period in this book.

Campbell was definitely a man with a certain attitude, and I felt like I could see a throughline between his background as someone who studied physics in college and gleeful at a story in his magazine predicting the atom bomb to feeling like he could "mainstream" science fiction in such a way to be taken "seriously" (whatever that meant to him). But he was also a freaking racist contrarian conservative crackpot, who got sucked into Hubbard's early pseudoscience work in dianetics (literally the first public article about dianetics was published in Astounding magazine). It was interesting to see just how much collaboration Campbell did with his "regular" writers for the magazine in terms of giving them stories/plots to write about (poor Tom Godwin, forced to write the ending to "The Cold Equations" that Campbell wanted).

You really get to see the evolution of what might've been seen as progressive at the time eventually become reactionary attitudes. I was quite amused, for instance, at the counterculture adoption of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land since it's pretty clear he detested hippies. (Also, holy hell, never make a joke about the military in Heinlein's presence--this is definitely the book that confirmed once and for all for me that he meant the society in Starship Troopers to be a desirable future).

The less said about Hubbard the better, but I'll just express disgust about almost everything about him in this book and that so many were taken in by his scams (Heinlein always believed Hubbard's lies about his wartime service and gave him the benefit of the doubt due to that). Also, he was connected with Aleister Crowley at one point? Weird.

All the information I learned about Asimov was both interesting and sad--it's clear that he was probably introduced to this "scifi geek club" way too young and he had some terrible role models, but he was also a serial harasser of women that really diminished my respect for him, even though compared to the other three, he was the most "normal" of them (which is really freaking weird to think, but if even Asimov thinks Randall Garrett is too much of a sexual predator, you should be running far far away from Garrett).

Anyway, I love reading about the history of science fiction, and this is probably a great entry to the field, but it also helps that I was probably familiar with half the fiction stories that Nevala-Lee mentioned in the course of this book (even if I haven't read them yet), so I don't know if people who aren't interested in this era would also find it interesting.

The main "flaw" in this book is probably how the book was structured--I ended up listening to it as an audiobook and we're constantly moving forward and back slightly in time to catch up with one or another "main character," and I wish that the author had introduced more of Campbell's racist issues earlier in the book than he did because of that. But all in all, a very useful book about these very human and cantankerous people whose legacies are both great and terrible and still impact the genre today.
Profile Image for Lis Carey.
2,190 reviews101 followers
April 8, 2019
Astounding was a vital part of science fiction's Golden Age, and its editor, John W. Campbell, a major, or perhaps rather, the major, driving force. He developed many new, young writers who became part of that Golden Age, but most notably three creative, often eccentric, often difficult men with whom he was both in partnership and in conflict.

This book is a serious look at their lives, their partnership, and their conflicts. Based on letters, memoirs, interviews, we learn a great deal about Campbell's formative years, as well as the other men's, and their interactions. None of them saw themselves only or even primarily as writers. Campbell's ambitions included being a great scientist, a great inventor, a leader on the path of world peace. What he became was one of the most important editors of science fiction, as well as a major part of the founding of dianetics, until he and Hubbard finally split completely, and the transformation of the "mental science" of dianetics into the religion of Scientology began.

Asimov was a teenager when he wrote his first story, and went on to have a successful career as a scientist and university professor, and later as a seminal science popularizer--a vital need then and now. Heinlein wanted a naval career. A graduate of Annapolis, he started out to have a successful one, until it was cut short by tuberculosis. Writing was, more or less, what happened while he was making other plans.

Hubbard saw himself as a hero. He was continually inventing colorful stories about his past and his adventures, which had a loose relationship at best to real life.

For all four men, we see both their strengths and their weaknesses, and the way those affected their interactions. Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein had two marriages each, with the surrounding events being sometimes very colorful. And there's no question that today, Asimov would have a massive MeToo problem. This was never even a secret; as a young fan I was warned of Asimov's roving hands. Yet the breakdown of his first marriage to Gertrude, and his later remarriage to Janet Jeppson, looks tame and normal by comparison to the others. And while Campbell and Heinlein weren't saints either, all three men never became seriously involved with a woman who didn't have some real intellectual heft, as well as backbone, of her own.

Hubbard's multiple wives and girlfriends mostly look like dupes and victims, and relationships ended either due to Hubbard's boredom, or the woman in question starting to assert herself.

There seems no graceful way to raise the subject of racism, yet it can't be ignored, either. Campbell was deeply racist, despite his intelligence and his good qualities, and it had a big impact on what he bought as editor of Astounding, and how he influenced or tried to influence his writers. Both Asimov and Heinlein drew a line on how far they'd accommodate it, but not both in the same place, and not necessarily where modern readers would prefer. It's worth remembering they were all born significantly more than a century ago, and were not young men when the Civil Rights movement came along. They're important figures from our past, but they are the past, not the present, and we have made some progress since then, even if not as much as we would prefer.

They're all interesting characters. In some ways, of course, Hubbard has had the most impact outside of science fiction, but to my mind the other three all had more real worth as human beings.

This book is a fascinating account of some of the foundational figures in modern science fiction.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book.
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741 reviews18 followers
September 17, 2019
What can I say about this that isn't already thoroughly covered in that Goodreads summary? I can think of a couple of things:
1) Alec Nevala-Lee is a meticulous researcher who seems to have left no fact uncovered. His accounting of the rise of contemporary American science fiction from it's pulp magazine roots to cementing it's foundation in the '40's and '50's and building on that in the '60's and '70's until paving the way for Star Wars, etc and the plethora of choices available today is detailed in clear, concise prose.
2) This is the literary history of a genre of fiction that took off during the atomic age, all detailed here with interesting stories of how these authors participated in the war effort, both in research and in the field. Their experiences came to influence their fictional ideas and creations.
3) Beyond the history of Astounding (now Analog) magazine, that acted as a garden bed for developing writers, Nevala-Lee includes a complete biography of the four pillars of that era: editor/writer Campbell, and writers Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard.
4) Nevala-Lee doesn't hold back in his warts-and-all accounting of the lives of these four pioneers, and reveals that every single one of them was imperfect, some with some flaws that hampered their growth and popularity. Heinlein and Asimov come off as a bit more restrained versus Campbell and Hubbard (the wackiest one of the bunch), yet both of them had some serious issues.
5) If you're curious about the origins of Diabetics and Scientology, that development is detailed here - - the product of Hubbard's experimentation - - as well as how he worked hard to pull the others into his sphere of influence (and only really snagged Campbell).
6) I'm amazed at how much background work and research Nevala-Lee did in compiling this history. Happily, rather than insert a mountain of numerical footnotes on every page he just includes every single one of them in a page-by-page in a Notes Section at the back of the book that totals 84 pages of content. Likewise, the bibliography of sources used numbers another nine pages.
7) If you grew up reading these authors, as I did, or are just curious about the founding fathers of American science fiction this book will tell you everything about their background and beginnings you wanted to know.
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