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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Review: Astounding: John W Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

I make no apologies that science fiction is my favorite genre of fiction. While mainstream fiction is about people, science fiction is about how technology changes people, and well written fiction frequently tells us how to live with the constantly changing technological landscape we deal with.

Astounding is more than anything else, a biography of John W Campbell, Jr, who through his magazine Astounding (which he later renamed to Analog) shaped science fiction from the 1930s to the 1970s. Because Campbell's true legacy wasn't just the stories in the magazine he edited, but the writers he worked with, the book had to cover Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard as well.

There's lots of stuff in here that I didn't know before, and of course any biography of Hubbard, for instance, had to cover his founding of the Church of Scientology as well. (The book does debunk the story that Hubbard's writing of "Dianetics" was a competition with Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land") All the famous stories are covered, as well as the nurturing of talents such as Asimov and Robert Silverberg. If you're a fan of science fiction, you're going to recognize name after name and titles of story after story in the book, simply because Campbell was so central to the selection and writing to those stories. Campbell viewed himself as a manager of writers, doling out plots and stories to writers so that they would create the stories he envisioned, but in the writers' own style. That's why, for instance, the original Foundation trilogy are so different from the ones that Asimov wrote in the 1980s, after he had passed out of Campbell's orbit.

The book doesn't adopt a worshipful tone of either the illustrious editor or his writers. For instance, Campbell was a rascist and in his later years, dabbled in scientology, crack pot science (investing in various perpetual-machine-type scams) and tried hard to push study of psionics as a serious endeavor. Asimov, as many women friends and acquaintances had told me, would be classified as a serial sexual harassment perpetrator today. (The same has been said of the late Gardner Dozois, who passed away recently) Since I was never very active in science fiction fandom, I knew most of these people through their work, and it's definitely true that their work rarely feature women scientists.

This was a long book, taking me weeks to read, and if it was a novel, I would be complaining that the story drags on and on. (Not being a fan of Hubbard's work, I was unhappy with how much time the book spent on Hubbard, though it's interesting to how one goes about setting up a multi-billion-dollar religion that generates huge revenues --- religion truly is the best legal scam!)

I can recommend this book to every science fiction fan. It's truly an impressive work of history, and well worth your time. But if you don't know who Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, or Silverberg are, then you're better off reading their stories first. Their work is much more interesting than their lives, and continues to inspire the many technological artifacts that you use in daily life around you.

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