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, 2018.
Hardcover, 532 pages, $29.

Reviewed by Thomas F. Bertonneau

For one who knows the subject matter, or who thinks so, reading Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding will prove an enriching but also a disturbing experience. Enrichment belongs obviously to Nevala-Lee’s intention. He sees John W. Campbell—editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding from 1937 until his death in 1971—as a central figure in American popular culture. Nevala-Lee acknowledges the stable of writers whom Campbell recruited and encouraged as having significantly shaped the American popular imagination in the mid-twentieth century, and not merely in terms of the genre that they cultivated and patented. Indeed, Nevala-Lee documents that during the Second World War the federal government saw in Campbell and his authorial coterie a high-level propaganda asset and duly put them to work to aid the war effort.

The disturbing aspect of Astounding, one which links itself only tenuously to Nevala-Lee’s intention, consists in the study’s exposure of the selfish, banal, and prurient little world that his group of contributing personae, all of whom knew and socialized with one another, constituted. Nevala-Lee himself treats of that selfishness, banality, and prurience rather indifferently, as though it neither shocked nor repelled him. Perhaps the ambient moral relativism has inveigled his outlook. Nevala-Lee’s book will spur cognoscenti of the genre to reevaluate Heinlein, Asimov, and the others not only in respect of their newly revealed peccadilloes, but also in respect of their literary merit, an avenue of investigation that Campbell’s otherwise intrepid biographer mostly avoids. The discussion will return to the matter of that artistic reevaluation.

Nevala-Lee has written the first full-scale biography of his primary subject, some few details of whose life have previously made their way into the public ken through Campbell’s nonfiction writing and correspondence as well as through chapters on Campbell or Astounding in various histories and encyclopedias of science fiction—see, for example, Chapter Two of Sam Moskowitz’s Seekers of Tomorrow (1965). Nevala-Lee’s early chapters emphasize the future Astounding editor’s wayward, rather neurotic youth, his tense relation to both parents, and his narrow fixation on the technical side of science. Campbell’s father treated his son coldly and distantly although he extended his affluence generously, paying his son’s tuition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose registrar would expel the lad for academic delinquency in his junior year.

“At the age of twenty,” Nevala-Lee writes, “Campbell had seemingly proved his father’s accusation that he was unable to see anything through to the end, and his dreams of a finding a place where he belonged lay in ruins.” After a Wanderjahr in Europe, Campbell managed to get himself admitted to Duke University, where in 1934 he earned a baccalaureate in physics, but in fact he had lost interest in his studies and “didn’t even attend his graduation ceremony.” Campbell had meanwhile been writing and had published a few stories, but he never ranked artistically as anything more than a second-rate penny-a-word man. His stories emphasized gigantic machinery, not just interstellar but intergalactic conflicts, and relegated the human element to the background. Campbell would make his impact as an editor.

It belongs to Nevala-Lee’s group portrait that most members of the Campbell-clique, including Campbell himself, married early, married badly, and by cynical insouciance exacerbated their connubial difficulties and eventually discarded their wives. Second marriages tended to overlap first marriages in the form of mistress-keeping. The exception was A. E. van Vogt, whose name is missing from the book’s extended subtitle but who figures in its narrative as importantly as Heinlein, Asimov, and Hubbard.

Of Campbell and his bride, Donna Louise née Stewart, Nevala-Lee observes that “money was their constant concern.” To support himself beyond the small and irregular income generated by his writing, Campbell worked as a salesman for Mack Truck, but fell victim to a Depression-related downsizing of the workforce. He found a new job in sales working for the Pioneer Instrument Company, where his background in physics recommended him. His fortunes turned when he went on a personal visit to his editor at Astounding, F. Orlin Tremaine. When he left the meeting, Tremaine had passed his office to Campbell, who in his first editorial gesture altered the periodical’s title from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science Fiction. As Nevala-Lee points out, change would become the theme of the magazine—in the sense that Campbell intended to use its currency to manipulate public attitudes—most especially, but by no means exclusively, in regard to science.

Campbell, Heinlein, and Hubbard bear the reputation, anathema to the Left, of having adhered to a pronounced right-wing worldview. It becomes clear from Nevala-Lee’s exposition, however, that these writers would better be classified as technocrats of a somewhat totalitarian disposition. In this sense, whether they were aware of it or not, they were followers of that truly literary founder of science fiction, H. G. Wells, whose large body of work includes a number of utopian stories that describe ideal societies of the future, either near or far. In A Modern Utopia (1905), The World Set Free (1914), Men like Gods (1923), and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), Wells depicts a global technocratic government steered, without any direct responsibility to those whom they govern, by an elite class of scientific experts. The principles of the Wellsian world-state are invariably socialist. Those same principles trace themselves back to the pseudoscientific sociological notions of Auguste Comte in the early nineteenth century.

Whether it concerns Wells or his American heirs such as the Campbell stable, the words science and scientific ought to be replaced by the more accurate designators scientism and scientistic. Scientism is an ideology that, in its fundamental epistemology, shrinks truth down to what can be demonstrated by the experimental method. Scientism, which provides technocracy with its basic tenets, invariably expresses itself as a materialistic outlook that rejects everything connected with religion and the transcendental. A scientistic or technocratic order will manifest itself in a hyperutilitarian practice rooted in a mathematics of the optimum common good, and it will regard humanity itself as another resource. Despite a constant and pious invocation of humanity, its tendency will be to sacrifice humanity to its notions.

If Campbell, Heinlein, and Hubbard admired, say, the early phases of Italy’s fascism, that admiration never differentiated them from Asimov or his friends in the Futurian Club, an early New York-based fan organization, who admired the Soviet regime under Stalin and sympathized with the American Communist Party. And in neither case would endorsing a scientistic-technocratic ideology prevent the common project from becoming religiose, as it did. An ideology functions, after the expulsion of genuine faith, as a substitute religion.

This tendency towards pseudoreligiosity surfaces most clearly in Campbell’s relation with that mountebank and founder of exploitative cults, Hubbard—the originator of Dianetics, which soon transformed itself into the Church of Scientology. Nevala-Lee rehearses in abundant detail a story of the two men that has been known in its outline for years. Campbell cultivated Hubbard primarily because the latter could produce commercial-quality genre fiction on demand. On the other hand, Campbell regarded Hubbard’s stories as out of conformity with his editorial prescription that material for Astounding should emphasize technical and scientific matters, while exploring the necessity for human beings to adapt themselves to an increasingly technical environment. Hubbard wrote in more of a fantastic vein; he held occult beliefs, and he disliked the space-war or cosmic-catastrophe stories that Campbell preferred. But Campbell had created a companion magazine to Astounding, called Unknown, which would be less rigorous in its editorial demands than the flagship periodical. Hubbard became a regular contributor to Unknown and a sometime contributor to Astounding.

The relation between Campbell and Hubbard became close and complicated and would eventually dissolve as Campbell progressively recognized Hubbard’s mendacity. It nevertheless took some years for Campbell to grasp Hubbard’s perfidy. “Hubbard was cultivating Campbell,” Nevala-Lee writes, “as he did with other useful contacts, and he began paying visits to the editor’s home.” In 1949 Hubbard began developing Dianetics. Campbell not only cooperated in the enterprise; he volunteered as Hubbard’s first test-subject. Hubbard professed the conviction that human misery stems from repressed memories. He claimed knowledge of a technique to discover those repressed memories and neutralize or “clear” them. In Nevala-Lee’s version of these events, Campbell fell for it. “As Campbell’s confidence in the technique increased, he brought in science fiction fans to be treated [by Hubbard] in his basement.” Hubbard asserted that clearing all of a given subject’s unconscious “engrams” would transform him into a mental superman. During the formative period of Dianetics, in which Heinlein and van Vogt also participated in different degrees, Hubbard, who had left one wife, was living with an eighteen-year-old girl, Sara, whom he had seduced in Florida and brought back with him to New Jersey. Nevala-Lee’s account of Hubbard’s lies, sexual indulgences, and fraudulence make it evident that, despite their boastful claim to a type of super-rationality, the Campbell writers regularly exercised bad character-judgment and tended to regard dubious propositions with a too-ready gullibility.

Hubbard’s vulgarity and lewdness mark him as the most repugnant of Nevala-Lee’s cast of characters, but Asimov earns his place next to Hubbard in the repugnance category. Lascivious and self-licensing, he regularly mauled women and tried to seduce them. When science fiction conventions became a feature of the genre, Asimov would patrol the floor and greet strange women by fondling their breasts. It hardly exculpates Asimov that he alone among the Campbell coterie never bought into Dianetics but regarded it as a manipulative con-game. He was running his own sexual con-game. He shared with Campbell and Heinlein (who also behaved lasciviously at times) the scientistic and technocratic convictions described previously. He probably considered himself, intellectually at least, a superman.

Nevala-Lee makes it clear that, without Campbell’s patient writerly assistance, Asimov would likely not have become an author, or at least not a successful one. When he first met Campbell, Asimov had little competency in storytelling, but Campbell intuited that, if supplied with an idea and given guidance, Asimov might flesh out a narrative. Nevala-Lee rightly praises Campbell’s patience with writers whom he saw as promising. Campbell would insist on many rewrites from Asimov, who learned under this mentorship to produce saleable fiction. Campbell supplied Asimov with the basic ideas of the Foundation stories to Asimov—and according to Nevala-Lee, Campbell, who maintained an interest in cybernetics, likely gifted Asimov with the Three Laws of Robotics.

Nevala-Lee explains how, in the early 1950s, “the landscape of the genre was changing.” During this period, he writes, “Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas had launched what became known as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, an audacious melding of Astounding and Unknown, and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles announced the rise of a major talent who had developed in the absence of any support from Campbell.” Horace Gold’s Galaxy magazine would also publish its first issue in 1950. Gold encouraged a radically different tone from the one associated with Astounding. In addition to serializing Bradbury’s Firemen, the precursor to Fahrenheit 451, Gold gave satirists Robert Sheckley and William Tenn a regular venue.

What was the difference between Heinlein, Asimov, and Hubbard on the one hand, and Bradbury, Sheckley, and Tenn on the other? The latter were definitely not adherents of scientism or technocracy. Au contraire—they were inveterate and implacable critics of these ideologies. Show them a purported Heinlein- or van Vogt-type superman and they would mock him, without sympathy, into the humble clay from which he arose. Bradbury in particular originated in a milieu diametrically opposite to that of the scientistic-technocratic suppliers of prose to Astounding. In his autobiographical essays, Bradbury candidly lists his primary influences—Percival Lowell’s observations of Mars and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars series, beginning with A Princess of Mars. Bradbury enjoyed the mentorship in the early 1940s of Leigh Brackett, who wrote interplanetary heroic tales in the Burroughsian tradition.

Writers like Bradbury and Brackett never worried about the scientific validity of their stories. Their un-Campbell-like scientific insouciance liberated them to cultivate their individual styles and to work in what might be called the mythopoeic dimension. Ironically, the insistence on being scientifically rigorous and au courant powerfully dates the work of Campbell, Heinlein, and Asimov, with van Vogt making himself something of an exception. Of what interest, except as a period-piece, is Heinlein’s 1940 Astounding story “The Roads Must Roll” in 2020? Heinlein’s 1959 novel Stranger in a Strange Land, which owned a species of cult-status through the 1970s, can be read today only with vicarious embarrassment. As for Asimov—his Foundation (1951) will likely strike a cultivated reader as dead, with cardboard characters, and lacking in any direct action. Asimov’s technique involves having one of his (purely functional) characters narrate events in a monologue delivered for the edification of another (purely functional) character. Unsurprisingly Asimov in his later authorship abandoned fiction for nonfiction, but his numerous nonfiction titles date themselves even more severely than his stories. By contrast, Bradbury’s “Ylla,” the first entry of The Martian Chronicles, qualifies as one of the most perfect of American short-stories: The central character emerges as a real person, even though she is a Martian. Bradbury tells his story with great subtlety, and in beautiful gem-like prose, which raises the tragic denouement to a high level. The best of Brackett’s work possesses a similar polished and timeless quality.

Nevala-Lee has produced an impressive, thoroughly researched book. In its way, the story about the creators of science fiction’s “Golden Age” exercises more compulsion over the reader than the actual fiction produced in the 1940s and 1950s by those same creators. Nevala-Lee has clearly had access to the personal papers of his subjects and quotes copiously from letters and diaries. He will undoubtedly have interviewed surviving descendants and relatives of his chief figures. Nevala-Lee writes in his acknowledgments that, “My greatest hope is that this book will inspire a larger conversation about the history of science fiction,” and he describes his research as “a necessary step toward any comprehensive reckoning.”

An in-depth literary reassessment would be a necessary element in that reckoning. Nevala-Lee may be excused from not having undertaken such a reassessment, as including it would have weighed down and made clumsy what, even at four hundred pages, not counting notes and index, is a remarkably streamlined and enjoyable sequence of eminently readable chapters. Perhaps the most significant of those chapters concern the Campbell stable’s contribution to the war. The professoriate might not have taken science fiction seriously, but the war-regime of the FDR government did. Nevala-Lee’s study will fascinate students of the science fiction genre, but it will also appeal to students of American popular culture in general.  

Thomas F. Bertonneau is a long-time visiting professor on SUNY Oswego’s English faculty. He writes about literature, music, religion, politics, and culture.