Astounding is, broadly speaking, a biography of four seminal figures in science fiction history: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard (although Hubbard’s influence is mostly outside of science fiction), and one seminal science fiction magazine, Astounding. But it is really a biography of John W. Campbell, who was the highly influential editor of Astounding Science Fiction (now known as Analog Science Fiction and Fact) from 1937 to 1971 and who shaped the careers of the other three men (and played a role in Hubbard’s later pursuits).
Nevala-Lee starts by offering biographical sketches of the early life of each man as they themselves would later tell it. Stories that were, to a man, the works of fabulists, as Nevala-Lee notes. That sets a tone for the book: largely laudatory of the work, often critical of the men (all four failed family men who would divorce), and diligent in its research.
Nevala-Lee obviously has done heaps of great primary research and has a strong grasp on the fiction. But while Astounding is packed with information, Nevala-Lee isn’t interested in challenging the every narrative, even when it falls apart under even limited examination. Nevala-Lee credits Campbell with popularizing science fiction, pointing to the current cinematic dominance of comic book movies. But if he means speculative fiction more broadly, Campbell didn’t popularize it. As Nevala-Lee notes, the pulps sold in huge numbers long before Campbell’s day. Edgar Rice Burroughs, E.E. “Doc” Smith, and Weird Tales all predate Campbell.
If he means what has come to be known as hard science fiction, that Campbellian science fiction doesn’t rule the world. The comic book movies that dominate have much more in common with pre-Campbell, adventure-focused pulp speculative fiction than they do with Campbellian science fiction. Hard science fiction has had a nice run in the theaters in the last several years with movies like The Martian and Interstellar, but the successes of those movies are dwarfed by the MCU and its imitators.
The massive box office success of the Afrocentric Black Panther does show, however, that Campbell was right that people want heroes. It also shows that there is no inextricable tie between heroism and Campbell’s racism. Nevala-Lee mentions both often and in short succession toward the end to show how Campbell was out of step with the science fiction community in the late 1960s. He might have been, but it was Campbell, not the New Wave, who would come to be vindicated when it comes to heroes. And it turns out that everybody wants heroes—they are not the sole province of white men.
That change in genre lines is significant, though. John W. Campbell defined and redefined science fiction just as Tolkien did fantasy. Only Campbell did it consciously. (Views on whether that redefinition is a bug or a feature may vary.) Campbell, nonetheless, is not the alpha and the omega of science fiction, even within his era. He never published Ray Bradbury. He lost Leigh Brackett. Eventually he lost Heinlein, and Asimov moved on. Alfred Bester would seem like a natural fit given their shared interest in psionics, but Campbell turned him off by sermonizing about Dianetics at length.
Campbell’s greatest strength was his greatest weakness. He was a brilliant man, but one who knew he was brilliant, who was vain about it, and who wasn’t shy with his great strength of will:
[Asimov] once told the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, “Suppose you meet a man who asks you what your field of endeavor is and you tell him that you are the world’s greatest living vertebrate paleontologist, which is, of course, what you are. And suppose that, on hearing this, the man you meet fixes you with a glittering eye and proceeds to lecture you for five hours on vertebrate paleontology, getting all his facts wrong, yet somehow leaving you unable to argue them. You will then have met Campbell.”
The heart of the book is the period from when Campbell took over as editor of Astounding to after his break with Hubbard. Campbell discovered Asimov and nurtured his early career. Asimov would develop later than Heinlein and Hubbard. Heinlein, on the other hand, was older when he started his career and less protégé than prodigy. He interacted with Campbell more as an equal and they would enjoy a long friendship. Hubbard was already an established pulp writer when he was foisted on Campbell by a publisher frustrated at Campbell’s reticence to fill an issue. Of the four, Hubbard was always by far the least interested in science.
It was in this early period—before Asimov and Heinlein really hit their stride—that Campbell was at his most influential. He famously handed out ideas for stories like candy, remarking that he preferred editing to writing because it allowed him to get out so many more ideas.
This period included WWII and its aftermath. Heinlein, Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp famously worked together at the Naval shipyard in Philadelphia. Only Hubbard saw anything approaching action, but he did the opposite of distinguish himself. His reputation as a war hero was a result of his own tall tales. Heinlein would much later tell Hubbard that he was “an authentic hero, even though a phony gentleman,” but Hubbard was a phony hero too. (Campbell’s imposing physical presence and Hubbard’s self-created war reputation gave them considerable status among their fellow science fiction writers, nerds through and through.)
Campbell had lofty ambitions for what science fiction—most especially he himself—could contribute to the war effort, but the military did not agree. Astounding was popular reading material in Los Alamos. Campbell had perfectly positioned Astounding for the Atomic Age. Suddenly science fiction writers were saying something worth hearing for the normies. Campbell’s square-jawed heroes also fit well with the straight-laced (in public) sensibilities of the 50s.
Interestingly, the third member of the “Big Three” of Campbellian Science Fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, plays only a small role in Nevala-Lee’s narrative. Perhaps because he came later and lived in the UK. Or perhaps because, unlike the four men featured, he wasn’t larger than life. Asimov was an uber-nerd who exemplified every positive and negative stereotype. Heinlein was prickly, brilliant, deeply political, and serious on matters of honor. Hubbard was an unstable grifter. Campbell himself was domineering, arrogant man who attempted to run roughshod over an entire genre.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the section on Campbell and Dianetics. He was very heavily involved in the early days of what would become Scientology. Dianetics was introduced to the world in the pages of Astounding. I had no idea. But then I know very little about Scientology, and an increasingly unstable Hubbard worked to erase Campbell’s contributions along with those of everyone else involved in the early days of Scientology. (Nevala-Lee makes a compelling argument that Hubbard didn’t start Scientology as a money-making scheme. He did frequently comment that starting a religion was a great way to make money, but his initial approach suggests that wasn’t his initial goal.)
Dianetics played a role in ruining Campbell’s first marriage. He was convinced his wife didn’t want their daughters to participate because of what they might reveal and learn. He had the batty idea that you could access memories all the way back to the womb. Campbell himself blamed his poor grades in college German on a derogatory comment made seconds after he was born by a doctor with a German accent.
The Dianetics angle ties in with Campbell’s well known affinity for stories including psionics. Nevala-Lee has surprisingly little to say about that tie and the role that the latter played in Campbell’s waning influence in his later years, focusing instead on the former and the increasing divergence between Campbell’s political views and those of a rising generation of science fiction writers. It is in this later section that the book starts to break down.
I see the attraction of being able to add Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard to the subtitle, all of whom have a higher profile today than Campbell. It serves the early part of the book well, because of the role Campbell played in getting Asimov and Heinlein their start. Hubbard was also central to the early part of Campbell’s term as the editor of Astounding, and the chapter establishing Campbell’s role on the creation of Dianetics and what would become Scientology is fascinating. But they would all go on to lead eventful lives after Campbell’s time. Trying to pull them into what is really his story causes problems when their stories diverge. Astounding is already a hefty tome, but it would have benefited from fleshing out Asimov’s and Heinlein’s later careers more.
I’m not well read in the histories of science fiction, so I can’t judge where Astounding fits in, but it would make a fine introduction for anyone looking to dive in, with the caveat that it overly discounts the earlier pulp era.
4 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received an unsolicited but very welcome review copy from the publisher.
 To differentiate between Astounding the book and Astounding the magazine, I will italicize the latter and not the former.
 He also only published Philip K. Dick once, and never published Richard Matheson, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Larry Niven.