The Astounding Mr. Campbell

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One of the most important influences on American science fiction is a man whose name you might not recognize, but twentieth-century authors lived for his approval. He wrote one of the field’s most famous stories, but he staked out his influence and made his lasting reputation not as an author but as a magazine editor. He was John W. Campbell Jr., and he is the subject of a wonderful new biography named for the magazine he ruled. Alec Nevala-Lee’s ASTOUNDING is also the story of the early careers and diverging paths of three colorful personalities whose work Campbell personally nurtured: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard. If you like science fiction, here is a delicious backstage view, a marvelous read that is long overdue.

A technical writer and editor and budding sf author, Campbell was only 27 when by sheer luck he stumbled into the editorship of Street & Smith’s Astounding Stories of Super-Science in 1937. It had been eleven years since Hugo Gernsback (the namesake for science fiction’s highest award) founded the first “scientifiction” periodical, Amazing Stories, but the field was still typified by garish “pulp” fiction, stalwart space heroes protecting toothsome femmes menaced by tentacled horrors (the fannish term is “BEMs,” or “Bug-Eyed Monsters”), pretty much what non-devotees think it all is. More than any other individual, it was Campbell who forced the genre to grow up.

Before his ascension, the fiction published in magazines — there wasn’t yet a book-length market for sf; Campbell’s proteges helped establish one — was more about action. Campbell wanted to print stories about ideas. He had a ton of intriguing what-ifs jingling around in his mind (the best known is the paranoia-laden story of an alien shapeshifter filmed as THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, “Who Goes There?”), far more than he could use as an author, and his first great contribution was to spread them around. It was Campbell who posited the Three Laws of Robotics that Asimov made famous, and the author was always candid in assigning proper credit. Campbell is also responsible for the notion of psychohistory that undergirds Asimov’s legendary Foundation series, and for showing the young author a passage from Emerson’s “Nature”: If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore. Aficionados will instantly recognize this as the premise for Asimov’s staggering career-best story, “Nightfall.”

Asimov was a special case to Campbell, a new kid whom he could mold and shape to help change the field by emphasizing the science rather than the fiction. Heinlein, a ramrod-straight Navy veteran, and Hubbard, a hamhanded wannabe adventurer and liar of Trumpian proportions, were already established professionals, but they also benefited from Campbell’s fount of ideas and the notoriety gained through appearances in Astounding. Heinlein in particular was most comfortable at novel length, and a series of books intended for juvenile readers (they say the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve, haw haw) drew a generation of new fans to the field and to his novels for adults.

Campbell’s relationship with Hubbard was more troublesome. A prolific author who could crank out fiction at dazzling speed, Hubbard was also an accomplished hypnotist, and the remarkable potential effects of the power of suggestion led him to experiment with supposed triggers for forgotten or repressed memories. Fortified by many conversations with his editor, Hubbard developed a technique — or maybe it was only a bit of snake oil — which he called “dianetics,” and after a few early trials Campbell became a fervent acolyte and even headed a research foundation for “the modern science of mental health.” Years later, amid the foundation’s inevitable financial ruin, the two men broke up. Since a creditor legally owned the word “dianetics,” Hubbard re-cast its revelations into the new theory of Scientology, which the Internal Revenue Service now regards as a religion. Campbell never signed on.

Mr. Nevala-Lee’s narrative is authoritative — he’s an sf author himself and has clearly studied the history of his field — and as propulsive as a well-crafted novel. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch three writers crawl out of the depths of dime-store fiction to become such household names — for radically different reasons — and march on the front lines of a genre that would one day come to dominate popular culture. The historic trio had little in common but this: one proud, willful, irascible, brilliant, imperious figure who used them to carve a path into the future.

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4 Responses to The Astounding Mr. Campbell

  1. onewithclay says:

    All four men had gigantic egos. Just sayin’.

  2. Lisa Graham Parson says:

    Just ordered this for my husband for Christmas. Thanks for the info!

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