Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

About Astounding

Hugo and Locus Award Finalist

An Economist Best Book of the Year

“Amazing and engrossing…Insightful, entertaining, and compulsively readable.”
—George R.R. Martin

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Drawing on unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews, Astounding offers a riveting portrait of this circle of authors, their work, and their tumultuous private lives.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 was released by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, on October 23, 2018. Order it now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and

Critical Praise

“An indispensable book for anyone trying to understand the birth and meaning of modern science fiction in America from the 1930s to the 1950s—a genre that reshaped how people think about the future, for good and ill.”

The Economist (Books of the Year)

“An amazing and engrossing history of John W. Campbell, Jr. and his authors, Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, and Robert A. Heinlein. Insightful, entertaining, and compulsively readable, it brings Campbell and his era back to life.”

George R.R. Martin

“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…Mr. Nevala-Lee is himself a talented science fiction writer for Analog.”

—Michael Saler, The Wall Street Journal

“A smart group biography of key figures in American science-fiction writing, organized around the influential editor Campbell.”

—Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Best Books of 2018)

“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

“Nevala-Lee tells this true story as the interweaving personal biographies of Asimov, Heinlein, Hubbard, and Campbell from birth to death in neo-Freudian psychological depth. His research would seem to be as complete as humanly possible, and I doubt that anyone can ever write biographies of Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein more definitive than Astounding.”

—Norman Spinrad, Asimov’s Science Fiction

“Nevala-Lee has mined letters, interviews, memoirs, and even recordings of convention panel discussions…More than a biography, his book is a recreation of the dawn of modern science fiction and the lives of writers who made their greatest impact on it….An excellent contribution to science fiction studies that deserves to sit on the shelf along with the memoirs and histories written by those who lived through the era it covers and who themselves made their mark on it.”

—Stefan Dziemianowicz, Locus

“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.”

—Gary K. Wolfe, Locus

“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

“[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

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

—Andrew Liptak, The Verge

“A fascinating look at Campbell and three of his most notable contributors…Excellent.”

—Guy Consolmagno, The Tablet

“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

“Will for the foreseeable future represent the standard reference on this time and subject…An engrossing, sweeping, and far-reaching chronicle of one of the most fascinating chapters of American science fiction…An elegant synthesis…It’s actually hard not to find something diverting on almost every random page.”

—Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, InterGalactic Medicine Show

“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.”

—Don Sakers, 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 has a wonderfully breezy writing style that brings the mid-twentieth century to life, piling on the detail and gossip without ever bogging the reader down. The amount of research that had to go into this boggles the mind, but it certainly paid off…If you have any interest whatsoever in how the boom in science fiction and fantasy first came to be…ignoring this book will be doing yourself a grave disservice.”

—Charles de Lint, Fantasy & Science Fiction

“An exquisite portrait…Nevala-Lee does a marvelous job of presenting these authors as they truly were, with all of their genius and all of their flaws. This biography should catch the fascination of any serious science fiction reader.”

—David Walton, New York Journal of Books

“Illuminating…Astounding is a captivating read for many reasons: it’s a fascinating historical record of science fiction’s early days; it offers interesting portraits of science fiction luminaries; it covers tons of short fiction stories and their plots; and it is all laid out in brutally honest detail.”

—John DeNardo, Kirkus Reviews

“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

“[Nevala-Lee] maintains firm control of his multiple narratives, and his pacing never flags…Every page of Astounding is engaging and thought-provoking, and even those familiar with the era will make discoveries here…Nevala-Lee has a good story to tell, and he tells it well…Packed with rich, weird details and told with a storyteller’s brio, Astounding is a welcome account of the field’s pulp origins.”

—Andy Duncan, SFRA Review

“Someone has at last laid a solid foundation on which the rest of the history of modern science fiction can be built, and we owe Alec Nevala-Lee our thanks for at last taking on that hard and long-deferred task, and for doing it so well.”

—Thomas Parker, Black Gate

“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.”

—Jim Killen,

“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

“Without a doubt, one of science fiction’s non-fiction must reads.”

—Steve Davidson, Amazing Stories

“[A] dynamic literary history…Each character is distinct, rendered with care and fidelity as their stories unfold…Even a reader unfamiliar with sci-fi can get behind this poignant, funny and revelatory look at a group of iconic writers.”

—Chris Pickens, BookPage

“An entertaining, informative, and above all clear-eyed look at the incubation of several giants of the genre and of the genre itself.”

—Bill Capossere, Fantasy Literature

“Combines biography and cultural history while tracing the tangled relationships among magazine editor Campbell and three of his principal writers.”

—Sandra Miesel, Catholic World Report (“The Best Books I Read in 2018”)

“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

“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,

“It’s about damn time…[An] exhaustively researched vertical slice into sci-fi history…Fascinating, literate and unsentimental…Among the best-researched books about American pulp magazine history and the complex roots and appeal of genre fiction.”

—Steve Smith, Folio

“Engaging…Readable, informative, often surprising.”

—Paul Kincaid, Science Fiction Studies

“[A] groundbreaking history.”

—James Barber,

“Detailed, unflinching, and critical…Meticulous research…Accessible and compelling.”

—Brice Marsters, Scientific Inquirer

“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

“Excellent…Wonderfully well-written and crammed with information about the magazine and Campbell’s stable of writers.”

—Alan Dean Foster, New York Times bestselling author

Written by nevalalee

May 11, 2018 at 9:33 pm

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