Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard And The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Kindle Edition by Alec Nevala-Lee (ebook review).

The difficulty with this sort of book for the fan/reviewer is how to describe it without summarising it. While reading I jotted down interesting facts and ended up with seventeen pages of notes which, if I put them down here, would spoil the book for you.

The names in the title are familiar to any fan of Golden Age Science Fiction. The Golden Age is the name given to an era when American pulp magazines dominated the field and the foremost of them was Astounding Science Fiction edited by John W. Campbell Jr. It began with the July 1939 issue of that magazine and ended in 1946 or later, depending on whom you believe. Robert Silverberg includes the 1950s (as would I) but it definitely changed with the advent of the New Wave in the 1960s.

In any case, Campbell started it. He evolved Science Fiction from gee-whiz gadgetry to being about the human beings operating the gadgets and also about their psychology and social systems. Back then, writers and readers believed that technology could solve the problems of the future and the stories generally have upbeat endings in which the male hero solves the scientific puzzle and stands triumphant.

If he could beat some aliens along the way and show that humanity was probably the toughest, meanest, smartest species in the galaxy then that was even better as far as Campbell was concerned. After 1950, if he did it with psionic powers the writer had a sure-fire sale. By that time, Campbell had gone a bit loopy.

Hubbard made him that way. L. Ron Hubbard was a successful pulp writer before Campbell came on the scene but while most writers tell lies for entertainment, Hubbard did it in real life. A convincing charlatan (Heinlein was fooled), Hubbard convinced everyone he was a buccaneering adventurer who had sailed the South China Seas and excelled in feats of derring-do. His war record was laughable but he came home with stories of sinking multiple Japanese subs and gave the impression that McArthur would have been lost without him.

Then, from the depths of his own psychological issues, he dreamt up Dianetics, a new science of the mind. Sadly for the genre, he messed up Campbell’s mind with it. In part, this is explained by detailed biographies about the early lives of both men but Alec Nevala-Lee’s contempt for Hubbard is clear. He’d better keep an eye out for disgruntled Scientologists.

Prior to this downfall, Campbell was the best editor in the field. His enquiring mind fired off ideas like a catherine wheel which he would give out freely to his writers. The author then had to go home and turn the idea into a coherent yarn, which is the hard part, but having a good idea is the foundation of a good Science Fiction story. One of his young protégés never stinted in his praise of Campbell and in giving him credit for the development and success of Isaac Asimov. From the Three Laws of Robotics to the ‘Foundation’ trilogy that was the basis of his career, he credits Campbell.

Heinlein, on the other hand, doesn’t. In his later career, he wrote that only one book, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, was significantly influenced by Campbell. This isn’t true. Certainly, he started writing later in life and was a mature man when he began submitting stories but the editor gave him significant useful feedback and suggested ideas and changes. The other person uncredited by Heinlein was his first wife, Leslyn. In an early letter, he admitted that she was so helpful in writing his stories that they were practically collaborations. After their divorce, he disowned her completely.

They were all changed after World War II. During the war, Campbell pined for some leading research role and ended up doing nothing much except editing ‘Astounding’. Hubbard was mostly useless to the war effort and spent a lot of time in the hospital where he could make up lies about what a hero he was. Heinlein, Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp eschewed glory seeking and got down to the routine, hard, boring work of testing apparatus at the Navy Yard in Philadelphia where, as much as anyone else there, they made a decent contribution.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction didn’t end in 1946 but it did expand to other magazines and ‘Astounding’ was left behind. ‘Galaxy’ and ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ began to publish better stuff as Campbell pursued his obsession with a science of the mind and crazy gadgets that couldn’t possibly work. He also became somewhat obsessed with the idea of elite supermen who ought to run the world because of their superior intelligence.

I suppose this struck a chord with smart nerds and Heinlein but it left both men with the reputation of being fascists. Campbell had always been a social conservative but the civil rights movement hardened his stance. Heinlein was a progressive democrat until he fell for Virginia and adopted her rock-ribbed Republican positions hook line and sinker.

Of all his subjects, Nevala-Lee seems to like Asimov best, though there’s more wordage about the other three. Campbell is the main focus and his early career is rightly admired, his decline and fall observed more in sorrow than anger. Heinlein is given due credit but truths are told he wouldn’t admit later. Hubbard is acknowledged as a good pulp writer and all his faults are examined in detail.

The book covers all four subjects from birth to death. By its very nature it’s a good history of the Golden Age. As well as information on the title characters, there are many asides and anecdotes about others in the field. Even if, like me, you’ve read in-depth biographies of Heinlein and Asimov it will still give you some interesting new facts (Asimov the sex pest!) and it’s a fascinating insight into the lives of Campbell and Hubbard. What’s more, the extensive bibliography at the back is a testament to the scholarship involved and also gives you a long reading list for further study.

A must-read for anyone interested in the four men who shaped the early history of science-fiction. A must not read for anyone who thinks L.Ron Hubbard was the Messiah.

Eamonn Murphy

October 2018

(pub: Dey Street Books. 544 page ebook. File Size: 3779kb. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ASIN: B074M6QRMP)

Paper version: £22.26 (UK), $18.99 (US))

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Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories for small press magazines. His works are available on Amazon and on Kindle Unlimited.

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