Books on the history of science fiction are scarce, so I figured that this new volume on the “golden age of science fiction” was worth checking out. I put that in parentheses because though I realize that a lot of important writing appeared in that era, I think that the most significant work that transformed the field into the respected literary genre that it is today occurred during the so-called “new wave” in the sixties and early seventies. Be that as it may, I started out in science fiction on Heinlein’s books, and Astounding magazine certainly was formative and dominant for many years.
This book doesn’t even pretend to offer a comprehensive look at the entirety of the Golden Age. Instead, it focuses on the four major players mentioned in the subtitle and alternates between their stories. Fascinating stories they are too. At the heart of it all is John W. Campbell, the abrasive, opinionated, bombastic editor of Astounding who helped these writers and others develop in the genre as he published their work. Campbell was a good writer as well as a formative editor. He wrote the story “Who Goes There?” upon which John Carpenter’s famous thriller The Thing is based. His literary contributions are all but forgotten, though, and he is much better known as the editor who helped shape science fiction.
The first half of the book is highly absorbing as it recounts the backgrounds of Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard and their beginnings in the field, their early sales, and triumphs and tragedies in their personal lives. An interesting bit of trivia is that Campbell published a story about an atomic bomb during the closing months of World War II while it was still under development by the U.S. government, and he was investigated by various agencies as a result.
However, just over halfway through, the book takes an unexpected nosedive as it goes into far, far too much detail about Hubbard and Campbell’s experiments with dianetics that eventually led to Hubbard forming the religion of Scientology. It was interesting enough to read how Hubbard stated several times to various groups of people that if you want to make big money, start a religion. It was also interesting to read about Hubbard teaming up with a disciple of Alistair Crowley to study and experiment with spells and enchantment. But when the author Nevala-Lee goes into the development of every nuance of thought that caused Hubbard to refine his theory of dianetics, it’s a little too much. It gets very boring for a few chapters, so much so that I almost put the book down. I had picked it up because I wanted to read about the history of science fiction, not the history of Scientology. It turns out that Astounding played an integral role in the publicizing and popularization of dianetics, and you can’t really get away from it in a history of the magazine and of Campbell.
Fortunately, the book picks up again later and gets back into telling the absorbing history of the science fiction field. As Astounding got sidetracked by supposed fact articles on Campbell’s esoteric interests, new magazines such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction entered the arena and published great fiction. Heinlein and Asimov achieved overwhelming success in helping science fiction become a part of the mainstream. And Nevala-Lee also makes the arguable claim that Gene Roddenberry took over Campbell’s torch in further shaping the field for the masses through Star Trek.
All in all, this book is absorbing and interesting, but a good part of it deals with dianetics and Scientology rather than science fiction, so be prepared for that. I kept wishing as I read that the author would write more about many of the famous writers that he only mentions in passing, but that isn’t this book’s intent or focus. It made me hope that someone someday would write that fascinating comprehensive history of science fiction. It would be quite a read.