Sunday, 30 December 2018

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

Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like its subjects (famous science-fiction editor John W. Campbell and his sometime proteges Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard), this book is riven with contradictions and exhibits both strengths and flaws.

It's carefully researched - almost half the book consists of bibliography and notes, drawing extensively on both private and public writings and interviews with living people who remember the subjects. At the same time, it unapologetically editorializes about the men's many faults, and is something of a hatchet job on them, choosing mostly incidents that place them in a bad light.

It's mostly well copyedited, except for the use of "prophesized" for "prophesied" and some highly questionable apostrophe placement, mostly in quotations from Campbell (even though the author notes that he has corrected and standardized the spelling and punctuation in his quotations).

It's hard to say who comes out looking worst. Campbell, the champion of science who was so frequently taken in by, and obsessed with, pseudoscience (including dianetics), who grew more and more openly racist as he got older, and who would lecture people condescendingly on topics that they understood far better than he did? Heinlein, embraced by the counterculture for his portrayal of free love (reflective of his own promiscuous youth), at the same time that he was becoming more and more rigidly reactionary? Asimov, who (reversing Heinlein's trend) became promiscuous in middle age, around the time his first child was born, and called himself a feminist while unrepentantly groping every woman he met? No, it's probably Hubbard, the malevolent, abusive narcissist who constantly inflated his own achievements and manipulated those around him in order to obtain money and power.

All of them were married at least twice (Hubbard three times), and treated their first wives poorly, often minimizing their contributions to their work, though Campbell, at least, doesn't seem to have been a constant adulterer like the others. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that at least some of their marital problems stemmed from not making much effort to understand women or give their perspective weight and importance equal to men's, which was a fault of the times in general. These were men who weren't, in many ways, very good at people, who were somewhat broken as people themselves. Campbell, Hubbard, and Heinlein, at least, believed they needed to strive to improve humanity, but they retained a tremendous blindness or indifference to their own greatest faults and an inability to correct them. Sadly, they have many spiritual descendants among current SF fandom, some of whom admire in them exactly what this book deplores.

I read Asimov's fiction and nonfiction, and Heinlein's fiction, extensively as a teenager, and although I wouldn't return to it (even separating the artist from the art), I found it powerful at the time. In fact, I read Heinlein even though I didn't like most of his ideas, because of the strength of the writing.

It's inarguable that these men (and other men and women mentioned and unmentioned in the book) laid much of the foundation for the science fiction we have today. I believe we need to grapple with their faults as well as celebrating their achievements, particularly the faults that became embedded in their work and in the field itself. In order to do so, we need to look at those faults, and their context, with open eyes, and this book is an important resource to help us do so, even though - or perhaps because - it comes down so strongly on one side.

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