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

Book - 2018
Average Rating:
Rate this:

Hugo and Locus Award Finalist

An Economist Best Book of the Year

A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Best Book of 2018

"An amazing and engrossing history...Insightful, entertaining, and compulsively readable." -- George R. R. Martin

"Enthralling...A clarion call to enlarge American literary history." -- Washington Post

"Engrossing, well-researched... This sure-footed history addresses important issues, such as the lack of racial diversity and gender parity for much of the genre's history." -- Wall Street Journal

"A gift to science fiction fans everywhere." -- Sylvia Nasar, New York Times bestselling author of A Beautiful Mind

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Drawing on unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews, Alec Nevala-Lee offers a riveting portrait of this circle of authors, their work, and their tumultuous private lives. With unprecedented scope, drama, and detail, Astounding 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 exceptional 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.

Publisher: New York : Dey St., an imprint of William Morrow, [2018]
Edition: First edition.
Copyright Date: ©2018
ISBN: 9780062571946
Branch Call Number: 809.3876 NEVALA-L
Characteristics: 532 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm


From the critics

Community Activity


Add a Comment
Mar 02, 2019

Very well researched, documented, and written. A great read that should be of interest to any science fiction fan.

For the SF fan, a fascinating treatment of the early days of modern science fiction. The focus is on the editor and occasional author John W. Campbell, Jr. who was always looking for something outside SF that would confirm his opinion of himself as a great genius, but, alas, it would never happen, even though at one time he told Ted Sturgeon that he had such control over his cell structure that he would never die. Indeed, reading between the lines, he was always readily susceptible to the influence of others.

One of those was L. Ron Hubbard, beyond doubt the greatest BS artist of the twentieth century, a man to whom the truth was like a foreign language. In real life, he was a world-class screw-up. The highlight of his career in the US Navy was an attack on Mexico. Hubbard's wild stories and con schemes also took in Robert Heinlein, a fine writer who was, like Campbell, subject to delusions that his sophomoric, bull-session level rantings were sublime universal truths of human behavior. Imagine what happens when a mountebank like Hubbard meets two all-day suckers like Campbell and Heinlein. It isn't pretty.

The only one immune to looney ideas like dianetics, Krebiozen, the Dean Drive, the Hieronymus Machine, etc., was workaholic egomaniac Isaac Asimov, who had a real scientific education, unlike the other subjects of the book, including Campbell, who was known to sign his name "John W. Campbell, Jr., Nuclear Physicist." These days he would probably claim to be a String Theoretician. Asimov certainly had his own massive character flaws, but gullibility was not among them. As hard as he worked, it's not easy to see how he could find time for his outrageous womanizing.

The author is correct that his subjects were a large force behind the growth of SF as a genre, but it was really TV that gave it the prominence it has today. He mentions the classic "Star Trek," but omits the earlier "Science Fiction Theater," a syndicated program that opened up SF on TV, unlike kiddie shows like "Captain Video" and "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet." "The Outer Limits" was real science fiction, while "The Twilight Zone" could best be described as fantasy, and "Thriller" was straight horror when it got over its birthing pains.

The book is a great read. He tries to tell these tales, as astounding as anything in Campbell's magazine, in an impartial way. Not for the general reader, but for the fan it's a great introduction to these outsize personalities, both as heroes and villains, and a great source of tips for books you might not have read. Strongly recommended.


Add Age Suitability

There are no ages for this title yet.


Add a Summary

There are no summaries for this title yet.


Add Notices

There are no notices for this title yet.


Add a Quote

There are no quotes for this title yet.

Explore Further

Browse by Call Number


Subject Headings


Find it at LPL

To Top