Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

An astounding announcement

with 11 comments

Astounding Science Fiction (October 1955)

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.

The first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science

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.

11 Responses

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  1. Congratulations!

    drawneartochrist

    February 26, 2016 at 9:18 am

  2. Congratulations!

    MuchAdoAboutMelle

    February 26, 2016 at 11:38 am

  3. Congratulations! From Slattery’s Art of Horror.

    phil795

    February 26, 2016 at 12:08 pm

  4. Excellent news! Congratulations.

    Cheri Lucas Rowlands

    February 26, 2016 at 12:49 pm

  5. Thanks, everyone! Hope to have more details soon.

    nevalalee

    February 26, 2016 at 5:49 pm

  6. Sounds cool. Should be good. I’m looking forward to it. I can’t say I’d look forward to buying a book with Hubbard in the title… I’d feel compelled to keep it in a brown paper bag or something. Coincidentally, this very day I was browsing ‘I. Asimov’ wherein Asimov worries that Campbell will be unfairly forgotten, so perhaps 20+ years ago Asimov himself had a sense that the Campbell bio was lacking. Don Sakers who reviews for Analog seems to think there is a parallel SF world where Campbell’s influence is not felt (http://donsakers.com/drupal6/node/2715), and he seems quite hostile to it. So there is much to discuss. Campbell was certainly central to American SF. I’ve read a bit around the history of the field myself (just finished an old copy of Hell’s Cartographers and a tome about an English magazine http://wp.me/p3fsue-ys) so I’ll be very interested to see how this project unfolds.

    Darren

    February 26, 2016 at 6:38 pm

  7. I can’t wait to read this! My father had a lifetime subscription to Astounding/Analog. The back room was packed with old issues that I devoured, and in the late 50s and 60s I would swipe each new issue from the mailbox before he came home from work. Still, I know basically nothing of the story behind the magazine or its editor or authors. I will be tapping my foot until this comes out!

    Celia Reaves

    February 27, 2016 at 9:25 am

  8. @Darren: Have you ever read Asimov’s two earlier volumes of autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt? I’ve browsed in them with happiness for years, but I just recently read them both cover to cover in preparation for this project, and they’re two of the most readable and entertaining books imaginable, especially the second volume.

    And thanks for the link to the Don Sakers article, which I hadn’t seen before. I’ll probably reach out to him at some point for his thoughts.

    nevalalee

    February 27, 2016 at 9:37 am

  9. @Celia Reaves: I’m glad to hear you’re looking forward to it! And I’ll be reading a lot of those old issues myself over the next year or so. It’s going to be a real adventure.

    nevalalee

    February 27, 2016 at 9:37 am

  10. I have read the first one (Green) but not the second. Entertaining but almost wholly surface detail, I thought. They make an interesting contrast with Aldiss in Twinkling of an Eye; he is a massive SF figure, one of the few to be a significant ‘literature’ figure and very consciously an artist. Writer, editor, critic, historian of SF, yet not directly in line from Campbell. Pohl’s The Way the Future Was is also valuable in framing Campbell from the outside. (Pg 84+ of my copy). Good luck!

    Darren

    February 27, 2016 at 6:34 pm

  11. @Darren: Pohl’s book is an excellent resource. I picked it up last summer, when this project was just starting to germinate, and reading it gave me an important push toward making it happen.

    It’s true that Asimov’s biographies—by design—are mostly surface detail, which makes them priceless as historical documents. (He seems to cover every week of his life for forty years, and he’s going to be indispensable for establishing a chronology.) And a big part of the challenge for this book will be reading judiciously between the lines.

    nevalalee

    February 27, 2016 at 8:15 pm


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