Before the internet, artificial intelligence, the International Space Station, and the mapping of the human genome, there was science fiction, which predicted it all. Where and when the genre began is debatable: among the ancestors of today’s science fiction are Kepler’s Somnium in the 17th century, Gulliver’s Travels in the 18th, and Frankenstein, as well as titles by Verne, Poe, and H.G. Wells, in the 19th. But it was in the late 1930s in America that science fiction entered what is often called its golden age, which ended not long after World War II. As a teenager a quarter century later, I was something of a science-fiction fanatic, subscribing to current magazines even as I devoured anthologies of golden age masterpieces. Although the science-fiction phase of my reading life ended decades ago, the other day, when I ran across a reference to Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, a 2018 book by Alec Nevala-Lee, I knew I had to read it.
Part history and part group biography (and paying more than passing attention to such legends of the genre as Arthur C. Clarke, Lester Del Rey, Frederik Pohl, and A.E. Van Vogt), Nevala-Lee’s book takes its title from the magazine — founded in 1930 and called, first, Astounding Stories of Super-Science, then, in turn, Astounding, Astounding Science Fiction, and Analog Science Fiction and Fact — that was the heart of the science-fiction world during the golden age. From 1937 to 1971, it was edited by John W. Campbell (1910–71), who had first made a splash as a writer: a story he published at 19 while studying physics at MIT included one of the first descriptions of a computer in a work of fiction; at 24, he turned out the classic “Twilight.” But he went on to even greater glory as an editor, helping to establish several major writing careers with his advice, encouragement, constructive criticism, and, not least, story ideas. Although he failed to recognize the promise of some would-be contributors (he rejected Ray Bradbury’s tour de force “Mars Is Heaven!”), Campbell handed Isaac Asimov (1920–92) the premise for his most famous story, “Nightfall,” the “psychohistory” underlying his Foundation series, and the “Three Laws of Robotics” that were essential to his I, Robot stories. Asimov would later call Campbell “the fixed pole star about which all science fiction revolved, unchangeable, eternal,” and, in my teens, reading about him — mostly in Asimov’s own massive, two-volume autobiography — I pictured him as a science-fiction version of Max Perkins, the astute, fatherly editor at Scribners whose stable of authors included Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe. Nevala-Lee, however, introduces us to a Campbell who was — to put it kindly — nothing whatsoever like the levelheaded Perkins.
But first, Asimov, who in many ways was the odd man out in Nevala-Lee’s foursome. While the other three men entered adulthood as precociously worldly WASPs, at once heavy smokers, heavy drinkers, and dedicated womanizers, Asimov, born to Jewish peasants in a Russian village and raised in an immigrant slum in Brooklyn, “didn’t drink, smoke, or have sex” in his youth — the last-named of which he would make up for in his later years, when, even during his two marriages, he became notorious for making vulgar moves on women at science-fiction conventions (even as he pandered to feminists by saying that it was more pro-earth to be a career woman than a “baby machine”). While Nevala-Lee’s other subjects dabbled in pseudo-science, Asimov, who earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry, prided himself on his fierce rationality, although he was not above allowing fashionable left-wing politics to trump reason. In two 1988 interviews, he parroted the era’s population-explosion lunacy (asserting that the world’s standard of living couldn’t be raised unless the number of humans was lowered) and ozone-layer hysteria (an issue that ended up disappearing as quickly as it had materialized). When I was an undergraduate at Stony Brook, Asimov spoke to a worshipful audience of hundreds of students, one of whom, during the Q&A, expressed concern that if low-IQ couples continued to reproduce more than high-IQ couples, the level of human intelligence would decline; Asimov, by way of an answer, called the questioner a bigot. (READ MORE: Conversing With Chatbots)
Politically, Robert Heinlein (1907–88) was Asimov’s opposite — eventually. Drawn early on to hypnosis, mysticism, and theosophy, he became a naval officer only to be “permanently disabled” by tuberculosis at 27. “Fiercely patriotic” during World War II (when he and Asimov had jobs at the Philadelphia Navy Yard as an engineer and a chemist, respectively), Heinlein never forgave Campbell for not doing war work. Later, he alienated colleagues by supporting Goldwater and clashed with Asimov, especially on both a nuclear freeze, which he opposed, and SDI, the so-called “Star Wars” missile-defense program, which he supported. (His position on the latter issue angered Asimov so much that he “banished all of Heinlein’s books from his library.”) As fans of Starship Troopers (1959) know, Heinlein developed passionate views about the importance of patriotism, military service, and manly competence and responsibility; alas, Nevala-Lee rushes past all that, giving short shrift even to such major Heinlein novels as Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and Time Enough for Love (1973). By contrast, Nevala-Lee devotes all too much attention to the dawn of dianetics, the early incarnation of Scientology. I’ll admit that I’d always thought of Ron Hubbard (1911–86) as having, prior to his founding of that cult, been on the margins of science fiction. On this point, it turns out, I was gravely mistaken: like it or not, Hubbard was a central figure in the genre; Heinlein admired his oeuvre, and Bradbury loved his short story “Fear.” (For what it’s worth, moreover, Hubbard’s Scientology-soaked 1982 tale Battlefield Earth is Mitt Romney’s favorite novel.)
But being a mere writer was never enough for Hubbard, who had ambition on a Napoleonic scale: he wanted, he declared in 1938, to “smash … my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form even if all books are destroyed.” At the outset of his career, he “wrote a story every day for six weeks,” formulating the plot “in his sleep,” typing it up in the morning, then “mailing it out without bothering to read it again.” Soon he and Campbell were buddies, bonding over their shared desire to turn human psychology into hard science. To that end, Campbell let Hubbard perform cockamamie experiments on him, using various drugs to supposedly recover memories going back to his birth. And that was only the beginning: one thing I learned from Nevala-Lee is that Astounding played a key role in promoting the scam that would become Scientology. When Hubbard came up with dianetics, a technique that, he boasted, was capable of “controlling human thought” and even curing cancer, Campbell became obsessed with it, hailing it in Astounding in 1949 as “a new science of thought” and even writing part of Hubbard’s first book on the topic. The next year Campbell ran a ridiculously long article on dianetics by Hubbard and even became treasurer of the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation, under whose auspices he saw patients, routinely telling them that their mothers had tried to abort them and, he bragged, “curing” more than a few “homos.” In conversations with some of his writers, whom he ardently, but mostly unsuccessfully, sought to convert to dianetics (Asimov considered the whole thing “gibberish”), Campbell argued that people who weren’t “clear” — i.e., liberated by Scientology from undesirable feelings and memories — should be denied equal rights and that the next president of the U.S. should, of course, be “clear.” In his view, dianetics was so earth-shaking that he was sure Hubbard would win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ultimately, Campbell — whom Asimov depicts in his autobiography as a paragon — emerges here not just as a crackpot but as a full-fledged idiot. And, I’m sorry to say, a racist: long revered by science-fiction fans as the near-personification of enlightened progress, Campbell, in his later years, began to let slip astonishingly primitive remarks about blacks. Even so, he was nowhere near as despicable as Hubbard, a monumental egomaniac, small-time crook, and congenital liar who maintained that the first six readers of an early book manuscript of his “went insane” and who, although a World War II washout, professed to be a war hero. He was also the world’s most appalling husband, performing coat-hanger abortions — yes, plural — on his first wife and telling his second…