And Then I Read: ASTOUNDING, JOHN W. CAMPBELL, ISAAC ASIMOV, ROBERT A. HEINLEIN, L. RON HUBBARD, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION by Alec Nevala-Lee

Cover art by Tavis Coburn

I began reading science fiction magazines around 1962, age 11, starting with “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.” I became aware of the placement of “Astounding Science Fiction” at the top rank of those magazines, but by then the so-called golden age had passed. I did find and love the work of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov in other magazines, and especially the novels of Heinlein written for younger readers, and he became and remains a favorite author. I liked Asimov too, not quite as much. I never read anything by L. Ron Hubbard, and by the time I was getting into SF, he was better known as the founder of dianetics and scientology, often described as crackpot science and weird cults. As for Campbell, I encountered him in older issues of “Astounding” that I searched out for stories by my favorite writers. His editorials were interesting, provocative, sometimes a bit shocking. I never encountered his writing, though I knew a story of his was the basis for the very scary film, “The Thing.”

I thoroughly enjoyed Alex Nevala-Lee’s combined biography and explanation of the rise and fall of “Astounding” under the editorship of Campbell, and it not only was an engrossing history and story, it also helped me fit many disparate bits of information I had about these people into context and into the broader story of science fiction and its role in the development of fiction and science in the 20th century. Having read the massive two-volume biography of Heinlein by William H. Patterson Jr., it was particularly interesting to see how things I learned there fit into this story. For instance, Heinlein always saw Hubbard as a war hero, never knowing (or not believing) that all of his heroic war stories were made up by him.

Campbell himself is a fascinating person to read about, a classic brilliant but anti-social nerd who never quite had the ability to become the scientist he wanted to be, and fell into writing science fiction to make extra money. His placement as the editor of “Astounding” allowed him to cultivate and guide other writers to the kind of work he wanted to do himself, and he supplied them with countless ideas to get them writing. Of the title writers, he was initially closest to Heinlein, and the two formed a tight partnership in the early years. This was derailed by Campbell’s later shift toward crackpot theories and unprovable inventions, with Hubbard’s dianetics at the head of the pack.

Asimov comes off as the most pliable pawn in Campbell’s writing stable, eager to let the editor guide him at first, and certainly benefitting from that guidance. Hubbard is portrayed as just about the opposite of what he claimed to be, from brilliant writer to would-be messiah. It makes me even more certain I’m not interested in his writing, and I have to wonder what kind of push-back this book will get from Scientology, the religion of sorts that Hubbard started.

This is a great read for anyone interested in the period, the genre, or the authors. Highly recommended.

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