A laser-sharp study of science fiction's golden age, the product of a small circle of writers and their guiding editor.
Many classic-era science-fiction biographies and memoirs, such as Isaac Asimov’s three-volume memoir and William H. Patterson Jr.’s two-volume life of Robert Heinlein, make generous mention of the pioneering editor and publisher John W. Campbell, whose Astounding Science Fiction was the flagship magazine of the genre for decades. Sci-fi practitioner Nevala-Lee (Eternal Empire, 2013, etc.) does a solid job of situating Campbell at the head of modern science fiction, a vanguard figure who, though himself a spinner of robots-and-aliens stories, “never became as famous as many of the writers he published.” However, Nevala-Lee adds, “he influenced the dreamlife of millions.” Generous with dollars and advice—Asimov worriedly informed him that he’d paid too much for an early story, but Campbell had awarded him a bonus—Campbell also was an early champion of Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, and L. Ron Hubbard, becoming involved in Dianetics, the forerunner of Hubbard’s Scientology. Nevala-Lee shrewdly writes that after a long absence, Hubbard returned to sci-fi in the 1970s after the release of Star Wars, “even if it owed more to Joseph Campbell than to John.” The author’s history of science fiction as it developed under Campbell’s aegis is first-rate. Campbell himself is problematic, since he was a notorious racist who rejected Samuel Delany’s early work, with its African-American lead characters, and who said of Harlan Ellison, who was Jewish, “he’s one of the type that earned the appellation ‘kike.’ ” Those views, as Nevala-Lee observes, eventually “began to infect the magazine,” worrying even the far-right leaning of his authors, especially Heinlein. That politics caused a schism in the community as profound as the magazine’s transition from Astounding to Analog, of which Asimov wrote, “I have never quite managed to forgive Campbell for the change.”
Nevala-Lee's warts-and-all look is a welcome contribution to the study of popular literature.