Alec Nevala-Lee’s Study of John W. Campbell & Company


Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee: Cover (Daystreet Books)

I review at The University Bookman Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding, a study of the “Golden Age” of science fiction in the 1940s and its chief protagonists . Aficionados of The Orthosphere know of my interest in science fiction. Nevala-Lee’s account of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding in its heyday, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, A. E. van Vogt, and others disturbed me greatly. Whatever literary merit one ascribes to their work – and I am increasingly skeptical about their collective literary merit – in their intertwined personal lives, with the possible exception of van Vogt, the biographical details are disappointing if not, at base, repellent. I have come to the belief that the literary merit of 1940s and early 1950s science fiction resides elsewhere than in these authors. A recent attempt to reread Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1960) failed about forty pages into the novel. Hubbard might be the central scoundrel, but Campbell abetted Dianetics, the early version of Scientology, and Heinlein and van Vogt were complicit in it, at least for a time. Asimov remained skeptical, but his lifelong Harvey-Weinstein-like behavior has forever tainted him in my opinion – not to mention that his prose is primitive and boasts no human depth whatsoever.

Doc & Rachel in Star Fleet Attire

Rachel and “Doc” Beam Down to the Classroom

11 thoughts on “Alec Nevala-Lee’s Study of John W. Campbell & Company

  1. Pingback: Alec Nevala-Lee’s Study of John W. Campbell & Company | Reaction Times

  2. I’ve read very little science fiction, and this is partly because I disliked its tendencies. It seemed that it was always headed towards utopianism or nihilism, very much like creedal Science itself. Of course I have a reactionary’s doting affection for dystopian literature, but not the sort that take the reader to bottomless despair.

    Do you think SF has a unique power to form readers into epigones? Except for fantasy, I can think of no literary gene that inspires LARPing in the way SF does. I am sure some Agatha Christie fan has dressed up as Miss Marple, but I’ve never heard about such fans holding conventions. Why does SF have this hypnotic power?

    Also, is it really a magnet for perverts? If so, are the perverts there to exploit the cultists, or is utopianism/nihilism especially appealing to perverts? My limited experience with perverts is that they like to identify their perversion with a glorious cause, and to suggest that, in submitting to their ministrations, you are really striking a blow against capitalism, or patriarchy, or something like that. It would not take a genius to argue that sexual liberation will hasten the arrival of our glorious Scientific future.

  3. Both English and US Civil War re-enactments are prime examples. Thousands of re-enactors took part in battle scenes in the film of Gettysburg – they did it, I think, for love rather than money.

    • That isn’t exactly a literary genre, although most re-enactors no doubt read novels about the period. I’ll also grant that there is some similarity between what we call a Civil War buff and a SF fan. I first encountered the personality of a fan in Tolkein fans. I really like Tolkein, but it creeped me out to learn that there were people who were doing everything they could to actually become Gandalf. I have plenty of fantasies, but they mostly stay in my head.

  4. Only once in my life have I attended what could be called a science fiction convention. That was some few years ago (seven or eight) and the event, called “Doxacon,” took place under the sponsorship of a Romanian Orthodox parish in Northern Virginia. The sponsors invited me to be the keynote speaker and I spoke about the complex theological issues that inform the work of the philosopher-science fiction writer W. Olaf Stapledon. Science fiction manifests itself in many sub-genres and at many levels of quality. Campbell used his editorship of Astounding to shape a type of science fiction predicated on almost purely materialistic and technocratic theses. He boasted of being a stickler for “scientific accuracy,” despite which Hubbard conned him with Dianetics. Now to answer one of your questions, I would guess that a young reader or “fan” of the Campbell formula for science fiction stories might respond to his enthusiasm by becoming, as you write, an epigone — he might experience something like a conversion to a doctrine or to a point of view and then be stuck there indefinitely. I can only say that it never happened to me although in high school I felt no little enthusiasm for Campbell’s stable of writers and read pretty much everything by each of them.

    I graduated from the Campbell stable to eccentrics and outliers whose work Campbell would never have touched. Stapledon was one, David Lindsay was another, to name but two. What was the difference? Intellectual depth, a degree of disdain for “scientific accuracy,” and the ambition to produce a genuine mythopoeic narrative had something to do with it.

    As for the hypothesis that science fiction might attract perverts, especially through its conventions, I suspect that conventions attract perverts, with little linkage to what occasions them. Science fiction attracts nerdy adolescents, whose uncouth behavior might trespass into boorishness or perversion.

    I am unsure what LARPing is, but I confess to owning a Star Fleet uniform, which I used to wear to class occasionally when I taught my science fiction course.

    PS. — The supercilious dismissal of “escapism” belongs to the English-professor mentality, but, as with much of what belongs to the English-professor (or professoress) mentality, the thought has been ill-thought-through. One should evaluate escapism in relation to that from which it seeks escape. If a randomly selected undergraduate were to spend the next four years cutting class and obsessively reading everything ever written by the Campbell stable, he or she would be better educated than had his or her sole activity during matriculation consisted in attending fish-wife lectures and taking copious notes.

  5. I read your review of the book and found it quite interesting. If you like science fiction – you might enjoy John Wyndham. I found his stories did mesh science and fiction into some interesting tales. His short stories were quite good as well. And the Foundation stuff by Asimov was fun – around the age of say fourteen. I did enjoy Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars stuff but found that to be almost fantasy.

  6. Thank you for this review, Tom. I’ve known some of these names for a long while and even read a few of their books, but I didn’t know anything about their personalities. (It seems that I may have assumed that they were better men than they were.)

    I think Isaac Asimov’s prose style works quite well for his nonfiction books. It’s sufficiently lively, and–most importantly–clear. He was a pretty good science popularizer. I remember having his 3 volume introduction to physics in junior high. Then again, Carl Sagan was an excellent science popularizer, and I’ve never been tempted to read his fiction. But back to Asimov. If you’ll indulge the opinions of a man with little knowledge of literature, I’d say the man couldn’t create an interesting character, not that I see any evidence that he ever tried. I don’t know what people see in the Foundation books. I got through the first two and couldn’t make myself go any further. The Mule was conquering the galaxy, and I just didn’t care. On the other hand, the short story format seemed to work better for him. A twenty page story can be idea-focused without becoming tedious. I remember liking the robot stories many years ago, although I have no temptation to reread them. (Then again, there are very few science fiction books I have been tempted to reread–maybe just The Illustrated Man and the first Dune.) I had never heard about Asimov’s ungentlemanly behavior at conventions. Although he was clearly on the enemy’s team, I’m a bit saddened to hear it.

    • “I’m a bit saddened…” That was my overall reaction to Nevala-Lee’s biographical revelations — disappointment in respect of something that held meaning for me at one time. But like you, I feel no temptation to re-read Campbell’s writers, with the possible exception of van Vogt, whose short stories can still amuse me. (See “A Can of Paint” or “The Village.”) I agree with you about Asimov’s non-fiction prose, but there were and are better prose stylists in the field of popularizing science. Sagan was one. Thank you for taking the time to read the article.


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