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Book Review: Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction
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Astounding
John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction
Hardcover | Paperback | Kindle | Audiobook
By Alec Nevala-Lee
Dey Street Books
Paperback Release Date: July 30, 2019

You know, I went into this with a completely different mindset. When I saw this book in the lists for review, I truly thought it was an anthology of classic science fiction. Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction is actually a highly detailed exploration of the rise and evolution of modern science fiction as I knew it growing up. It has continued to evolve, but this book delves into the life of John W. Campbell and how he influenced not just what readers saw in print, but also, in many ways, what many authors were writing.

We all know what they say about not meeting your idols, right? Well, it certainly holds true with regards to many of the authors presented within the pages of this text. Focusing in on Campbell and his mechanisms of publication, the reader is quickly able to notice how intertwined so many of the authors were with one another. In fact, had they not been, one must wonder how different the genre would be today. Add to that the onset of World War II and the reader is empowered to see history made, thanks to author Alec Nevala-Lee. The sheer amount of research that went into this project is mind boggling.

Literarily, I am familiar with Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard. I know Asimov from both his massive library of amazing written works as well as the magazines that I lovingly subscribed to in the 1980s. I always found Heinlein’s books more prolific, but often less fun or entertaining than Asimov’s. And Hubbard I never really cared for, but thanks to his book Dianetics and the Scientology propaganda that I still see to this day, his is the name I probably still hear the most. But regardless of my particular feeling on any of these authors, their writings have lived on and continue to influence people to this day.

Each of these larger than life scribes were human, and as such had faults like any of the rest of us. Campbell must be mentioned here, for he was just as flawed as the others, probably more so, in fact. But in spite of all this he continued to produce their works for as long as their relationships continued. Racism and bigotry, sexism and misogyny, narcissism and chicanery, these all existed in one form another within this once tight-knit group. But time and truth take their toll; and as events separated these creative geniuses, they continued to mold and shape science fiction in their own unique ways. The stories and tales herein shaped who they were and in ways we may never know, influenced their writings and expanded the world of science fiction.

Astounding is truly the story of Campbell and his efforts to create and influence the world through science and science fiction, often failing to differentiate the two. His obsessions with pseudoscience is what alienated him from most others, though he and Hubbard spent much time designing and crafting their own version, for make no mistake, Campbell was a huge part of bringing Scientology into being. So much of what he did seems crazy today and by all accounts may have then, as well. But without his drive to engage writers to create and expand, we may never have had some of the classic mainstays we all know so well. Frank Herbert’s Dune series would be so much different without Campbell’s input.

This book is so well detailed that you actually think you are there in the room with these giants. But the book expounds on so many others, often frightfully so. The sadness I felt after reading the last parts about Asimov was almost heartbreaking. I also had similar feelings with regards to how Heinlein is depicted at the end. And while I mostly see Campbell in a bad light, he was always humanized and the empathy I felt was probably due to the wordsmithing of Nevala-Lee. In any event, we see the rise of science fiction through the actions of Campbell and those he surrounded himself with at the beginning. But following their stories to the inevitable endings was fulfilling, allowing the reader just this once to see it all in its entirety.

I implore you to grab a copy of this book. For while it is entitled Astounding, it is a truly fitting name, for no other work about this subject could ever come close. I opened this book knowing almost nothing about John W. Campbell but I set it down understanding how life alters people and even though someone may be completely different than you expected, they can still give so much to the world in the short span of one lifetime. There is no one story here, as in life, it is a collection of tales and experiences. i hope you decide to share in it, is really was astounding.

Astounding is the landmark account of the extraordinary partnership between four controversial writers—John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard—who set off a revolution in science fiction and forever changed our world.

This remarkable cultural narrative centers on the figure of John W. Campbell, Jr., whom Asimov called “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.” Campbell, who has never been the subject of a biography until now, was both a visionary author—he wrote the story that was later filmed as The Thing—and the editor of the groundbreaking magazine best known as Astounding Science Fiction, in which he discovered countless legendary writers and published classic works ranging from the I, Robot series to Dune. Over a period of more than thirty years, from the rise of the pulps to the debut of Star Trek, he dominated the genre, and his three closest collaborators reached unimaginable heights. Asimov became the most prolific author in American history; Heinlein emerged as the leading science fiction writer of his generation with the novels Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land; and Hubbard achieved lasting fame—and infamy—as the founder of the Church of Scientology.

Drawing on unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews, Alec Nevala-Lee offers a riveting portrait of this circle of authors, their work, and their tumultuous private lives. With unprecedented scope, drama, and detail, Astounding describes how fan culture was born in the depths of the Great Depression; follows these four friends and rivals through World War II and the dawn of the atomic era; and honors such exceptional women as Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, whose pivotal roles in the history of the genre have gone largely unacknowledged. For the first time, it reveals the startling extent of Campbell’s influence on the ideas that evolved into Scientology, which prompted Asimov to observe: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.” It looks unsparingly at the tragic final act that estranged the others from Campbell, bringing the golden age of science fiction to a close, and it illuminates how their complicated legacy continues to shape the imaginations of millions and our vision of the future itself.

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

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