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An unsung hero, Scientology, and Isaac Asimov's harassment: Alec Nevala-Lee reveals sci-fi's 'Astounding' origins

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Oct 19, 2018, 1:00 PM EDT

When you're asked about the Golden Age of science fiction writing, the same names tend to crop up. Isaac Asimov. Robert Heinlein. Lester del Rey. Even L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology infamy. But, one of the most important names in science fiction has been largely ignored by history. In his new book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, author Alec Nevala-Lee tells the story of the magazine that started a sci-fi revolution and the unsung hero behind it, editor John W. Campbell.

The book — out October 23 from HarperCollins — is an expansive industry drama masquerading as a biography with four entwined subjects. Nevala-Lee chronicles the origins and impacts of topics like Starship Troopers, Scientology, Nightfall, and the Astounding Stories of Super-Science magazine itself, but the real treat of the book is his dogged efforts to make these authors feel like the imperfect, egotistic, and philosophically-biased people who made such a lasting impact on the genre.

Campbell and Hubbard delved into pseudoscience, Heinlein's politics did a 180, and Asimov went from a candy store employee to the world's most famous (yet problematic) sci-fi author. Understanding exactly how this all happened — what it all meant for sci-fi — required Nevala-Lee to uncover an astounding amount of correspondence, editorials, and other primary sources. SYFY WIRE spoke to the author about some of the implications of his work - and what it means for fans of the genre.

How did this project start?

I've been working for Analog, which is what Astounding is known as these days, for a long time. It occurred to me at some point to write a nonfiction book about science fiction and one approach would be to go through the magazine and see, year by year, how these stories evolve. That'd be a great book that someone could write someday, but what I realized really early on was that there'd never been a biography of Campbell.

John W Campbell

Credit: Public Domain

I thought that was amazing because he's such an obvious subject. So controversial, so influential, his personal life was really interesting...the very strange directions his career took later on - he's a natural for this kind of big book. So the critical study became a biography of Campbell. The editor who took on the project had a great note: Campbell is really fascinating but he's not well-known to mainstream readers. So were there other writers I could look at and make it about four? I said, "I've got Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard." She said, "That sounds good." So it became a group portrait to expand its potential audience.

Did you find that people hadn't written about Campbell due to lack of interest or because he was a private person? That sort of thing?

My private theory about why nobody's written about Campbell until now is that, well, there was a period in the late '70s when lots of memoirs about science fiction writers were written and that would've been the ideal time for a Campbell project. And I think there was concern about Scientology. There was concern about the Hubbard angle. And I think this was legitimate, a legitimate reason to avoid that subject for a while. We've reached a point now where it's easier to talk about that stuff.

You don't tiptoe around Scientology. You felt it was an easier subject to broach now?

I think so. I need to be careful what I say about Scientology. I think there was a period where they were very litigious with writers and books like this. Knock on wood, I haven't heard from them yet. No official response from the Church of Scientology. I think books like [Lawrence Wright's 2013] Going Clear and documentaries have exposed many of the more controversial sides of that story. What I'm adding is material about [Hubbard's] writing career and how he and Campbell collaborated.

War was a huge creative catalyst for these men - do you think current events or conflicts are having the same impact on contemporary science fiction writers?

A big part of Campbell's legacy is pushing against diversity. He didn't think diversity was important, or at least not as important as other priorities. I think a big trend of science fiction in the past few years has been making diversity essential to the conversation. More voices. I think it's great and overdue. That it's become more intense now reflects Campbell's indifference to the problem. These are things we could've had in 1968. But since Campbell's interests were elsewhere - which is the most generous assessment out there - we didn't have it.

Something you're doing to bring more diversity to light is focusing on the women behind Heinlein and Campbell.

Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein have disappeared from the story of science fiction. To some extent, it's because they divorced, especially in Heinlein's case. His third wife, Virginia, got to shape his legacy and frame that story. So Leslyn disappeared, which is a real problem. She was his creative partner. They worked together really closely for what I'd argue was the best period of his career. The same was true for Doña. My favorite thing I discovered when writing this book was that after Pearl Harbor, Campbell was wondering whether he should enlist in some capacity, but was worried about his magazine. Heinlein wrote back saying, essentially, that Leslyn and Doña could run the magazine and do as good a job or better than you.

Astounding Stories of Super-Science

Credit: Public Domain

On the other side of things, there's Isaac Asimov.

You asked earlier about what took me by surprise and when it comes to Asimov, it'd have to be his treatment of women. It's a big part of this book and I'm glad it's coming out at this moment, specifically. He harassed fans for decades. It was forgiven at the time as harmless and "Isaac being Isaac," but it was unacceptable even by the cultural standards at the time and it went on for decades. I noticed when I talked to science fiction audiences about this book and mentioned Asimov's behavior, everyone in the room started nodding. They'd all heard the stories. There're still fans and writers that can tell you what they saw Asimov do at conventions. It hasn't really been written down like this before, and everything in this book is either from Asimov's own memoirs or from verified accounts of his behavior.

It's changed the way I thought of him. Asimov was the first science fiction writer I'd ever heard of. Probably the most famous science fiction writer that ever lived and this is a big part of his legacy. I think it's worth talking about.

It certainly changed how I perceived his appearance in his later years with the big sideburns and thick glasses. It seems now like he was trying to look harmless intentionally.

It's his schtick, right? I'd heard people say that he had this persona as a dirty old man, this joking persona. But deep down he actually was just a dirty old man that was able to get away with it because of the affection that people held.... He was so famous that he kind of set the tone for fans about what kind of behavior was acceptable and I think it absolutely made a difference for how people are perceived and treated in the world of science fiction.

Speaking to the culture of the genre, I was shocked that fan conventions and the Golden Age came about at the same time.

One of the things I was struck by was how little fan culture has changed. With the controversies and the factionalization - it's basically what's going on now. Very similar to what you see playing out online was happening in fanzines over the course of months. It migrated to different platforms but the underlying issues remain the same.

This interview has been edited and condensed.