Historically speaking, the road to modern science fiction began at the editorial desk of John W. Campbell. Campbell was the editor of Astounding Magazine during its heyday and ushered in the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction (roughly 1939 – 1950). Motivated by his desire to present scientifically accurate sf with believable characters, Campbell shaped the creative output of many science fiction writers which would, in turn, shape the field for decades to come. If literature is an ongoing dialogue, then Campbell was the one who started the conversation.
Campbell's life is discussed in a new, illuminating biography by Alec Nevala-Lee titled Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The long title hints at the bigger-than-one-person focus of modern science fiction's true beginnings. Campbell's relationships with a close circle of friends—specifically, noted authors Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard—offer a peek into the early days of science fiction publishing. Short fiction's booming market was where many writers emerged from obscurity into fame. Campbell himself started out as a writer before he was handed the reigns of the popular science fiction magazine Astounding. The professional relationships he forged with Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard serve as the foundation on which Lee portrays the younger days of sf. Lee provides biographical backgrounds for all the major players along the way. He also frames events in their historical context (like World War II) to examine their impact. Lee backs up his facts with hundreds of citations proving he has thoroughly researched the topic. Even better: he lays out those facts in a way that is interesting, relatable and easily consumed.
On some level, Astounding is portraying the lives of people who were far from perfect. Nevala-Lee deftly avoids the trap of equating influential figures with exemplary character. Campbell's reign of power, for example, occurred at a time when science fiction was predominantly written by white men. Lee doesn't shy away from the fact that the history of science fiction—a literature that Campbell himself sought to usher into a future incapable of escaping the rapid advances of technology—is less than enlightened. He says that Campbell bears some of the blame for limiting science fiction's diversity during those years, the lasting effects of which are still discussed today. Campbell's notoriously racist views and editorial decisions are covered here as well. While he remained an influential figure in the field, his desire to shape psychology and history into an exact science eventually led to his inevitable decline and, ironically, his rebuke of science itself. Campbell was flawed and Lee lets us know how.
Astounding is a captivating read for many reasons: it's a fascinating historical record of science fiction's early days; it offers interesting portraits of science fiction luminaries; it covers tons of short fiction stories and their plots; and it is all laid out in brutally honest detail that's quick to read. It's also liberally peppered with a treasure trove of trivia that even this science fiction fan didn't know. For example:
- While it is relatively well-known that John W. Campbell wrote under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, what is not as widely known is that he modelled that name as a tribute to his first wife, Doña. Even that is a bit odd considering that was just the name by which he introduced her in public. Her real name was Doña Louise Stewart Stebbins.
- If Campbell is widely believed to be an influential force in the shaping of what we consider modern science fiction, then his wife Doña deserves some of that credit. The point where Campbell's pre-editorial writing notably improved is when she acted as his first reader and makeshift editor. Through her guidance, Campbell became a better writer which, in turn, informed his editorial prowess.
- Another woman influential to the influencer was Catherine Tarrant, Campbell's assistant at Astounding, who freed up Campbell's time to choose fiction and art while she performed the more mundane administrative day-to-day duties of publishing a monthly magazine.
- Campbell's requirements for good science fiction included good writing, accurate science, believable characters, and stories that accounted for multiple variables.
- Those requirements for science fiction were difficult to meet and Campbell found that after providing the same plot ideas to multiple writers, the result would be significantly different stories.
- The Futurians—a group of counter-establishment science fiction writers and fans whose early members included authors and editors like Frederik Pohl, Isaac Asimov and Donald A. Wollheim—held a debate on the prospect of alien invasion. Asimov, who took the side of mankind, lost to Wollheim, who took the side of the Martians.
- Science fiction fandom emerged as early as the late 1930s. And yes, fandom politics was as much a part of the very first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) as remains to this day.
- The Futurians were initially barred from Worldcon, although Asimov found a way in and was seen as an "inside man" by the rest of the group.
- Author Frederik Pohl tried to become Isaac Asimov's agent and rewrite his unsold stories in exchange for a majority of the earnings. Asimov declined.
- Ray Bradbury (who repeatedly tried and failed to be published in Astounding Magazine) credited part of his writing skills to Robert A. Heinlein, who "taught him human beings."
- Albert Einstein was a fan of science fiction and a subscriber to Astounding Magazine.
- The reason Astounding Magazine was renamed to Analog in 1960 was because Campbell was trying to transform science fiction from a vehicle for pulp adventures into something more influential. He wanted to transform science fiction into a laboratory for ideas—a kind of machine for generating analogies. Thus, the name became Analog.
- John W. Campbell was a significant contributor to L. Ron. Hubbard's Dianetics, which would eventually morph into Scientology. His motivation? Campbell has trouble remembering his childhood and lacked any visual memory, to the point where he could not mentally picture the faces of his wife and children. Campbell believed that developing a science of the mind was crucial to solving that problem.
There are many more interesting tidbits to be found in Nevala-Lee's comprehensive biography of the creators of modern science fiction. The fun is in discovering them.