Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

About Astounding

“Enthralling…Nevala-Lee’s Astounding isn’t just Arrakisian spice for science-fiction fans—it’s also a clarion call to enlarge American literary history.”—Michael Dirda, Washington Post

“Authoritative…fascinating…A major work of popular culture scholarship that science fiction fans will devour.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A gift to science fiction fans everywhere.”—Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

“The most important historical and critical work my field has ever seen.”—Barry N. Malzberg, author of Beyond Apollo

Astounding is the landmark account of the extraordinary partnership between four controversial writers—John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard—who set off a revolution in science fiction and forever changed our world.

This remarkable cultural narrative centers on the figure of John W. Campbell, Jr., whom Asimov called “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.” Campbell, who has never been the subject of a biography until now, was both a visionary author—he wrote the story that was later filmed as The Thing—and the editor of the groundbreaking magazine best known as Astounding Science Fiction, in which he discovered countless legendary writers and published classic works ranging from the I, Robot series to Dune. Over a period of more than thirty years, from the rise of the pulps to the debut of Star Trek, he dominated the genre, and his three closest collaborators reached unimaginable heights. Asimov became the most prolific author in American history; Heinlein emerged as the leading science fiction writer of his generation with the novels Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land; and Hubbard achieved lasting fame—and infamy—as the founder of the Church of Scientology.

Drawing on unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews, Astounding offers a riveting portrait of this circle of authors, their work, and their tumultuous private lives. With unprecedented scope, drama, and detail, it describes how fan culture was born in the depths of the Great Depression; follows these four friends and rivals through World War II and the dawn of the atomic era; and honors such women as Doña Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, whose pivotal roles in the history of the genre have gone largely unacknowledged. For the first time, it reveals the startling extent of Campbell’s influence on the ideas that evolved into Scientology, which prompted Asimov to observe: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.” It looks unsparingly at the tragic final act that estranged the others from Campbell, bringing the golden age of science fiction to a close, and it illuminates how their complicated legacy continues to shape the imaginations of millions and our vision of the future itself.

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction will be released by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, on October 23, 2018. Preorder it now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.

Critical Praise

“Enthralling…Nevala-Lee smoothly interweaves a wide variety of sources, written and oral, as he tracks the careers of his four golden age giants…In the end, Nevala-Lee’s Astounding isn’t just Arrakisian spice for science-fiction fans—it’s also a clarion call to enlarge American literary history.”

—Michael Dirda, Washington Post

“The golden age of science fiction, spanning the years 1939 to 1950, gets an authoritative examination in this fascinating appraisal of its key players…This book is a major work of popular culture scholarship that science fiction fans will devour.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A captivating cultural history of the genre…Fascinating and complex…An awesome degree of research into the lives of these four men and the women who helped shape their careers…It reads with the immediacy of a good novel (and at times like a good soap opera)…Nevala-Lee has managed to distill the essence of their stories into a compelling tale of ambition, idealism and opportunism that should fascinate even those who have never read much science fiction at all.”

—Gary K. Wolfe, Chicago Tribune

“[An] engrossing, well-researched history…Mr. Nevala-Lee pays welcome attention to his subjects’ spouses and partners, whose indirect contributions to the genre’s development are noteworthy…This sure-footed history addresses important issues, such as the lack of racial diversity and gender parity for much of the genre’s history, which Campbell himself did little to redress.”

—Michael Saler, The Wall Street Journal

“Fascinating…A compelling account…Nevala-Lee’s portrait of [Hubbard] as a paranoid narcissist and skilled manipulator is scathing…Multifaceted and superbly detailed…A rich, gripping cultural and historical study.”

—Rob Latham, Nature

“A mighty work of scholarship…Nevala-Lee packs a lot of story into his five hundred-plus pages…A vivid account…Nevala-Lee’s admiration for his subjects is reflected in the depth of his scholarship, not in any disingenuous attempt to rehabilitate their reputations for contemporary standards.”

—Chris Klimek, Dallas Morning News

“[An] enjoyable, cinematically absorbing history of Campbell and his magazines.”

—Scott Bradfield, Los Angeles Times

“Excellent…Ingenious…The story that Nevala-Lee pieces together here has never quite been assembled in such a detailed, balanced, and clearly written way…A coherent narrative arc that moves forward with the grace of a good tragicomic historical novel…As literary and cultural history, Astounding may well stand as the definitive account of this important era in the growth of modern SF.”


“Combines a biography of John W. Campbell with a kinescope of the lab in which modern science fiction got invented…Background, perspective, and textures [are] carefully laid in: the history of magazine science fiction, sketches of early fandom in all its fledgling earnestness, tales of lost and self-immolated friendships, science fiction’s place in the war effort, stories of desperation and hand-to-mouth existence, broadsides of L. Ron Hubbard’s traveling magic-and-medicine shows…This wonderfully researched, expansive biography—humor, perspective, depth all much a part of it—is a document of things all but lost to time’s slurry, the portrait of a great editor in tandem with that of a genre’s maturation.”

—James Sallis, Fantasy & Science Fiction

“Exhaustive, well-researched…[An] engrossing history.”

—Andrew Liptak, The Verge

“A laser-sharp study of science fiction’s golden age…First-rate…A welcome contribution to the study of popular literature.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Brings a contemporary sensibility to the golden age of [science fiction]…Nevala-Lee is also meticulous about crediting the contributions of the women in the authors’ lives and recognizing female pioneers…Highly recommended.”

Library Journal

“A thoroughgoing scholarly effort…Yet it doesn’t read like a dry academic book; instead, it’s like a chatty, slightly gossipy popular biography…If you’re curious about the history of this magazine, or science fiction, or of the modern world—you don’t want to miss this one.”

Analog Science Fiction and Fact

“A necessary addition to the history of science fiction: a critical look at the life and work of John W. Campbell, legendary editor of Astounding magazine and the central architect of science fiction’s golden age…It’s all necessary to understand how science fiction became what it is today.”


“Nevala-Lee’s book…[puts] the spotlight back on women who have been airbrushed out of most official histories of the Golden Age, particularly Campbell’s first wife Doña, Heinlein’s first wife Leslyn, and perhaps the true hero of the story, Campbell’s assistant Kay Tarrant.”

—David Barnett, The Independent

“[No previous history has] synthesized all the others and chosen to inhabit the writing of that era with the sensitivity, perceptiveness and insight that Alec Nevala-Lee exhibits…Colorful, compassionate, streamlined…Reads like a hybrid of the wanderings of Jason and the Argonauts, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Peyton Place, and John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World…Nevala-Lee’s prose is exemplary, reading like the classic fiction it details: witty, vivid, taut, suspenseful, empathetic.”

—Paul Di Filippo, The Barnes & Noble Review

“One of the smartest young SFF writers out there…A welcome analysis of one of the most significant periods in science fiction’s history, explored by a talented writer with a clear love for the genre.”

“Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding is an essential and long-overdue history of the golden age of science fiction, as reflected through the prism of some of its most significant contributors…A fully shaded picture of an era…An astounding history, and essential guide to a defining era of science fiction.”

—Ross Johnson, The Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

“Fascinating…Nevala-Lee’s portrayal of the four is complex, and gives them their due without shying away from the less savory parts of their natures and reputations. He read hundreds of stories from the annals of science fiction history, as well as reams of letters by and to the story’s main figures, and that deep research shows.”

—Sarah Lewin,

“Absolutely enthralling. It’s been a long time since a book kept me up two hours after my bedtime, but this one did…Well written, fascinating, and wonderfully well researched. Highly recommended.”

Black Gate

“A big biography of John Campbell, the genius magazine editor who created a mass market for science fiction, couldn’t be timelier. Alec Nevala-Lee’s granular portrait of Campbell and the quirky superstars whose careers he launched in the 1940s and 1950s is a gift to science fiction fans everywhere.”

—Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind

“Alec Nevala-Lee has brilliantly recreated the era eighty years ago when a handful of dedicated writers and one extraordinary editor gave American science fiction its modern shape. It is a remarkable work of literary history.”

—Robert Silverberg, Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

“Science fiction has been awaiting this history/biography for more than half a century…Here it is. This is the most important historical and critical work my field has ever seen. Alec Nevala-Lee’s superb scholarship and insight have made the seemingly impossible a radiant and irreplaceable gift.”

—Barry N. Malzberg, author of Beyond Apollo

“A riveting read—a journey to another dimension, one that tells us a lot about creativity, human resilience, and even American exceptionalism. The book is a must read for lovers of science fiction, to be sure, but really for anyone interested in culture, and how it jumps, bounces, and changes.”

—Cass R. Sunstein, New York Times bestselling author of The World According to Star Wars, and Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School

Astounding is a sharp and detailed history of some of the major players in one of the most significant periods in modern science fiction. Highly recommended!”

—Greg Bear, author of Blood Music

Astounding has taught me things I didn’t know; put in context things I did know; and corrected things I thought I knew. This is a wonderful, well-written book; a delight to read.”

—David Drake, author of Hammer’s Slammers

“This is a fascinating, well-written, and deeply researched account of the golden age of science fiction. The lives of the writers are every bit as compelling as their best stories and Nevala-Lee brings them alive.”

—Jon Atack, author of Let’s Sell These People a Piece of Blue Sky: Hubbard, Dianetics and Scientology

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2018 at 9:33 pm

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