by Alec Nevala-Lee
Dey Street Books
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
One of the seminal figures in the creation of science fiction as it is known today was John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding (later Analog) from 1937 until his death in 1971. Campbell took an active role in encouraging authors, suggesting ideas to them, and trying to lead a technological and sociological conversation in the editorials he ran in the magazine. Despite his one-time prominence in the field, many science fiction fans today may mostly know Campbell through Isaac Asimovís reminiscences of him in his various autobiographies. Alec Nevala-Lee attempts to rectify this situation in Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which Nevala-Lee notes is the first book length biography of Campbell.
In fact, while Campbell is certainly the focus of the novel, each chapter explores the lives of all four men, generally as seen in how they relate to Campbell. The portions with Asimov are, perhaps, most interesting since they can be directly compared to Asimovís perception of his relationship with Campbell. Aside from Campbell, Hubbard comes across as the most vivid of the people Nevala-Lee is discussing. Hubbardís writing career is described as successful, but it always comes across as secondary to his need to inflate himself for an audience and to himself. Heinlein and Campbell are shown as having the closest relationship despite the physical distance between them.
Following all four men from the time their stories became intertwined until their deaths, they all, naturally changed and Nevala-Lee covers those changes, warts and all, from Campbellís racism to Asimovís lechery to Hubbardís brutality. Campbell is shown as moving from being intellectually rigorous to someone who would accept almost any crackpot theory that was supported by psycho-babble. This change created a chasm between Campbell and Asimov, who was the only one with a doctorate in the sciences, as well as between Campbell and Heinlein, who may have been too similar in the way they thought and expressed themselves to fully sustain their relationship as equals. Campbell and Hubbard supported each otherís dive into the metaphysical, but as with Campbell and Heinlein, only one could be the mentor and Hubbard eventually moved beyond his need for Campbellís input and support of dianetics. While it is clear that World War II and the creation of the atomic bomb had an enormous impact on all four men, Nevala-Lee never really explores why each changed the way they did, although there is reference to Heinleinís politics following those of his second wife, Ginny.
Key to Nevala-Leeís narrative is the transparency of his prose style. The book is inundated with footnotes, which run to nearly 100 pages, but they are unobtrusive and are simply footnotes, easily ignored by the reader unless and until the reader decides to pursue Nevala-Leeís sources. The biography owes more of a debt to the science fact books and articles Asimov published than to any of the fiction published by Nevala-Leeís subjects in that he is straightforward in his explanations without talking down to his audience, merely explaining what happened to Campbell and his relationships with Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard. In his acknowledgements, Nevala-Lee notes that he is missing perspectives on the relationships, but what he does cover in the book, he does quite well.
Campbellís role in the history of science fiction and his personality has been covered by Asimov and for those who are interested can read his letters collected in two volumes by Perry Chapdelaine or read his editorials that appeared in Astounding/Analog over thirty-four years. Nevala-Lee provides a synthesis and a context for Campbell. Unlike Asimovís depiction, Nevala-Lee isnít trying to describe a surrogate father figure who was there at an important time only to fall from grace, but rather a complex human who made an indelible stamp on science fiction and the way it was perceived, even if Campbell was never quite successful in making science fiction do what he wanted it to do.
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