An astounding announcement
I’m very pleased to announce that Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, has agreed to publish my nonfiction book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. This project has been in the works for a long time, and if I haven’t mentioned it here before, it was mostly out of a superstitious aversion to talking about it before I knew for sure that it was going to happen—but now it looks like it is. We’re still hashing out a few details, including the timeline for delivery and publication, although I suspect that it won’t be in stores until around the first half of 2018. And everything from the title to the release date is subject to change. What isn’t in doubt, thankfully, is that I’ll finally have the chance to write the book that I’ve been mulling over for most of the last year: the definitive account, I hope, of how modern science fiction, along with so much else, emerged from the personalities and lives of four flawed but remarkable writers whose careers intersected in unbelievable ways. It’s a jaw-dropping story that I expect to discuss at length on this blog in the months and years to come. And I’m incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to bring it to a wider readership.
This isn’t the place to talk about the book in depth, but I should probably say something about its origins. As longtime readers will know, I’ve been fortunate enough to place stories on a regular basis in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Analog, once known as Astounding, is the oldest continuously published science fiction magazine in the world—it recently celebrated its thousandth issue—and it’s impossible to write for it for long without reflecting on its history. My thoughts came to focus on Campbell, who is one of the most important, and enigmatic, figures in the popular culture of the twentieth century. Campbell wrote the classic novella “Who Goes There?,” which has been adapted three times as The Thing; he gave up writing at the age of twenty-seven to take the helm of Astounding, where he discovered or developed Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and countless other major writers, laying down most of the rules for modern science fiction along the way; he collaborated closely with L. Ron Hubbard on the therapy that became known as dianetics, and was its greatest promoter and champion before falling out with the future founder of Scientology; he edited the first version of Dune; and despite his massive influence, by the end of his life, his political, social, and scientific views had estranged him from many of his former fans. The Three Laws of Robotics and Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health both came from the same place. And the real question is why.
Campbell, in short, is more than worthy of a book on his own, and the fact that there has never been a full-length biography devoted to his life astonished me, as it still does now. (As I shopped around the proposal, I kept thinking of what Lin-Manuel Miranda once said: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” And a Campbell biography abundantly qualifies.) When I began this project, my goal was to give Campbell the book that he deserved, and it still is, although its scope has widened considerably from what I originally conceived. Campbell remains at the center, but when you expand that circle slightly outward, the first three names that fall within its circumference are Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, whose lives he touched in profound ways. Unlike Campbell, these three writers have already been the subjects of exhaustive memoirs or biographies. But focusing on the points where their lives collided—particularly over the fifteen-year period that starts with Campbell assuming the editorship of Astounding in 1937, runs through World War II, and concludes with the publication of Dianetics—reveals fascinating patterns and parallels. Each man, for instance, was deeply changed by the atomic bomb and the Cold War, and each underwent a traumatic divorce and remarriage at a hinge point in his career. And their wives, whose roles in the history of science fiction have often been overlooked, will play a crucial part in this story.
In any event, I hope to continue covering as wide a range of topics on this blog as always, but you shouldn’t be surprised if the emphasis shifts ever so slightly toward science fiction, particularly as I prepare to discuss the subject more often in public. (I’m currently scheduled to talk about Campbell at the Nebula Conference in Chicago in May, and I hope to do the same at the World Science Fiction Convention in Kansas City in August.) And I wouldn’t have tackled this project in the first place if I didn’t believe that it would seize the imaginations of readers who have never cracked a science fiction magazine. Campbell and his writers shaped our inner lives in ways that can be hard to appreciate today, when science fiction seems so inevitable. In fact, it was the result of many specific choices, often made by Campbell himself, and such conventions as the central role of manned space exploration are less a prediction about the future than a narrative strategy that arose from a particular place and time. And Campbell’s fingerprints are visible on everything from Star Trek to the recent controversy over the Hugo Awards. Teasing out those connections and relating them to the ongoing debates within the genre—which is a canary in the mineshaft for the larger culture—is going to be the pivot around which my life revolves for the next two years. I’ll have more updates soon. And I couldn’t be happier that I can share it with you here first, or more astounded that I get to do it at all.