Tuesday, August 02, 2022

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

John W. Campbell's editorship of Astounding magazine from 1938 till the end of the Second World War marks the Golden Age of Science Fiction. It was an era when science fiction became, if not mainstream, at least popular with millions of people, particularly in the United States. Many of the greatest names in science fiction writing such as Asimov, Heinlein, Vogt, Pohl, Bradbury and Bester and many others had their career breakthrough in this period. Alec Nevala-Lee's book details the history of Astounding, and in particular the editor and three great authors of its subtitle who are most associated with the magazine - Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard.

While the book might seem a niche history, its importance is much greater. Astounding magazine was enormously important to many writers, those that had their immediate breaks with the magazine and others who came to the scene later, like George R.R. Martin. As Nevala-Lee points out, "public figures of all political persuasions from Paul Krugman to Elon Musk to Newt Gingrich - have confessed to being influenced by its stories". (We can argue how different their political persuasions are another time!) The magazine was also influential like science fiction more generally in encouraging a generation of young people to become scientists, something crucially important to the development of the US nuclear weapons and space programmes during and after the Second World War.

Astounding's most important editor was John W. Campbell, who saw the magazine as precisely a tool for developing such technical skills for America. He was evangelical in believing Science Fiction would help develop humanity, through the US economy, towards its future. As Nevala-Lee points out, "Campbell and his writers were creating nothing less than a shared vision of the future". But it was a very particular vision of the science and technology that would shape the future. As Nevala-Lee points out, "When we propose technological fixes for climate change, or place our hopes in the good intentions of a few visionary billionaires, we unconsciously endorse a view of the world straight out of the pages of Astounding."

Much of Astounding's output under Campbell confirmed to a relatively restricted framework. Stories tended to focus on heroic individuals whose technological adeptness meant they were able to save the world. Plenty of heroic figures, and few, if any, stories interrogated wider society. Campbell moulded his writers, coming up with plot lines, encouraging and shaping them. Their was a comfortable unanimity to Astounding in this period. Its readers knew what they would get, and Campbell provided it for them, issue after issue, turning the magazine into one of the most popular pulp magazines ever.

The author who best epitomises this was Isaac Asimov. When I was a young teen, convinced that scientific rigour and clarity was all that was needed in order to improve society, Asimov spoke to me. His stories had a logic, structure and clarity that spoke to me. Asimov himself was careful not to muddy the water with complexities like relationships, women or, god forbid, sex. According to Nevala-Lee, Campbell joked that Asimov's books would be ordered by librarians unseen, but those of Heinlein had to be checked first. But Asimov's writings, certainly in his early years, are decidedly conservative - though he would become the most progressive of all of the four. The matched, and indeed were shaped, by Campbell's ideas and while they are readable today, they are remarkably dated. Heinlein didn't match Campbell's conservative politics, though he was enormously popular but it was perhaps Hubbard who Campbell most identified with.

This is not to say that all of these stories are rubbish. Some of the great classics of the genre were published by Astounding - Asimov's Nightfall for instance. Campbell shaped authors, but he had an eye for talent too, though he could also dismiss brilliant writers like Ray Bradbury.

Today Hubbard is known as the founder of Scientology, but less well known is the role played by Campbell in the earlier years of Hubbard's search for a new pseudo-science. Campbell fell for Hubbard's ideas hook, line and sinker. But it is also fair to say that Astounding's editor was looking for such ideas. Hubbard's cranky metaphysical fake psychiatry fitted Campbell's belief in that some humans had greater powers and could utilise them in the quest for a better future. It fitted well with his focus on superhumans in the stories he liked to publish.

Nevala-Lee traces the story of Astounding and these four figures. It's a fantastic, if alarming read. None of these individuals were nice. Campbell himself held appalling racist ideas, and all of them were misogynist. Asimov was a serial adulterer, who was renowned for groping and sexually assaulting women, particularly young female fans. Oddly Asimov was the only individual who remained fairly progressive in opposing nuclear weapons and the war in Vietnam. Though his behaviour towards women is quite shocking. I put the book down slightly sickened by how these writers behaved and thought - and how influential they had become.

Reading Nevala-Lee I was struck that all of the writers in the early years, lacked any real link to wider society. Issues such as race, class, gender etc failed to have any real impact. Their writing tended to exist in a vacuum, which saw humanity as essentially malleable, capable of being shaped by the intellectual elite. Campbell himself clearly saw Astounding as a vehicle for shaping and developing that elite.

Nevala-Lee's Astounding then is a disquieting read. It is a window on a particular part of US culture around the Second World War which became surprisingly important. It is less a history of science fiction in the era and more about how key individuals in the science fiction community came to dominate and how their views of people and society in turn became the bedrock of contemporary science fiction. Luckily there were other writers out there and the later half of the 20th century saw a "new wave" of writers who frequently broke with the formulaic writings of Astounding - something that Campbell could never quite understand.

For those interested in the development of science fiction as a genre Alec Nevala-Lee's book is a must read. But it should also be read by those interested in wider historical and cultural post-war developments in US society - not least Scientology. By turns it is entertaining, interesting, shocking and unpleasant - but its always readable.

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1 comment:

Stephen said...

This is one I plan to read. Like you, I was very much drawn to Asimov in my youth and still count him as one of my favorite authors, although at this point I've read as much of his fiction as I can find. I enjoy reading his material in part because of how dated they are, especially the mundane 'atomic' tools in Foundation's later stories. I've read comparatively little of Heinlein and Clarke, the other giants of the age.