Tuesday 23 October 2018

Astounding: an elegant use of four-part disharmony

Given the outsize impact that John W. Campbell had on the development of modern science fiction, it is surprising that we had to wait until 2018 for an examination of his life story.

No doubt that the tension between fandom’s love of Campbell’s oeuvre and a revulsion at his racist,
Nevala-Lee's work reassess Hubbard's
contributions to science fiction ... and
science fiction's contributions to
Dianetics and Scientology.
(Image via TonyOrtega.org)
sexist, and classist beliefs kept a few biographers away. Alec Nevala-Lee’s ability to grapple with these tensions is welcome.

His book Astounding, which we’ve previously discussed on this blog, is one that I’ve been mulling over for months. I can think of no other trade press book that offers a biography of an editor, possibly because most editors are known primarily through how they’ve contributed to the works of others. How do you highlight the work of a collaborator?

Nevala-Lee resolves this conundrum by focusing on more than just the life of Campbell, and complementing Campbell’s narrative through the lives of three of his protegees. There were other authors equally close to Campbell’s orbit, but these are inescapably the three authors best-suited to reflect aspects of Campbell’s oeuvre. They are the technocratic Asimov whose positivist beliefs could occasionally lead to inflexibility; the political Heinlein whose self-certainty could lead him to didacticism; and the theologaster Hubbard who’s search for larger truths ended in madness.

Each of these authors is used to illuminate aspects of Campbell’s personality.

At times (particularly when Nevala-Lee is discussing the misdeeds and scandalous lives of these four primary figures), reading Astounding can be like sitting down with a rumour-monger friend and hearing all the dirt about the ‘very important people that they know.’
It is hard not to compare
Astounding to Heinlein
In Dialoge With His
. Certainly,
Astounding is more fun
to read.
(Image via Amazon.com)

Having recently slogged my way through William H. Patterson’s biography of Heinlein, I couldn’t
help but compare how Heinlein is treated by the two authors. While Patterson’s work is more extensive and detailed, Nevala-Lee may be slightly more willing to wrestle with some of the more questionable characteristics of Heinlein’s personality, and that makes the story feel more viscerally real.

In far fewer pages, Nevala-Lee paints a more complete and complex portrait of Heinlein as a person, rather than a collection of facts and figures. By paralleling the evolution of Heinlein’s navel-gazing with Hubbard’s descent into madness, Nevala-Lee skillfully puts into context the late-period ‘world as myth’ books such as Job: A Comedy Of Justice and The Cat Who Walked Through Walls.

Throughout the first two thirds of the book, there is a recurring themes of self-delusion and self-aggrandizement, particularly in the portions on Campbell, Heinlein and Hubbard. In the last third of the book, this theme metastasizes into Scientology and solipsism. I sometimes wondered if Nevala-Lee had more of a soft spot for Asimov, or if Asimov was genuinely less inclined to fabulism than the other three subjects of the book.

Nevertheless, Asimov does not escape entirely unscathed from Nevala-Lee’s unflinching accounting.
Susan Hereford gets into a
scuffle with Isaac Asimov at
Boskone 5 in 1968.
One suspects that Asimov
deserved it.
(Image via NESFA.org)
And it is the documented cases of Asimov’s mistreatment of women that were the most unsettling to me.

Of the four subjects, Hubbard’s life has received the most attention in the popular press. Documentaries such as Going Clear and My Scientology Movie, and in-depth investigatory tomes such as Bare-faced Messiah and Inside Scientology have examined his life in detail. There is little in Astounding that will surprise those who have read up on Hubbard. What is interesting is the argument Nevala-Lee weaves about Hubbard’s impact as a pulp author, and his ties to the overall science fiction community.

Campbell’s oversized influence on early science fiction is a weighty topic that deserves attention and analysis. Astounding is an excellent and important part of this conversation, but one hopes it is not the last. There are omissions and narratives that warrant further exploration - at least one additional book could be written about his racism and its effects on the development of science fiction as a genre.

When those further explorations of Campbell’s life are written, I expect to return to Nevala-Lee’s Astounding, both as reference, and as entertainment.

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