Wednesday, April 10, 2019

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

Dey Street Books, October 2018

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.

1 comment:

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