John Campbell was the willful, bigoted, brilliant editor who guided science fiction through a shift from juvenilia to something closer to thoughtful adult respectability over the course of his stewardship of the magazine Astounding. In an endlessly entertaining group biography by the same name, science fiction author Alec Nevala-Lee focuses on Campbell and the three writers he nurtured who wore the biggest grooves into American culture: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Ron Hubbard.
Heinlein's off-planet fiction was an inspiration to the actual space age as it unfolded. Asimov became the most thorough and skilled explainer of science to the public after his stories established modern conceptions of robots and galactic empires. And the crafty, troubled Hubbard launched Scientology, a bizarre international empire of real estate and mind control, based on articles he initially wrote, with huge help from Campbell, for Astounding.
Campbell comes across as nearly deranged in his bullheaded attachment to eccentric pseudoscience; the archival research into his letters is Nevala-Lee's freshest contribution to science fiction historiography.
The book is especially revelatory about the ways World War II shaped Campbell and his Astounding writers. Locked out of the military by poor health and out of the volunteer effort by his unwillingness "to subordinate himself to duties that didn't utilize his talents," Campbell kept editing and confounded the military by printing fictionalized versions of its atomic secrets to establish science fiction's predictive power. Heinlein, emasculated by a failure to see combat, became the bard of personal sacrifice for the greater good in his later novels and fought to guarantee U.S. rocket supremacy. Hubbard's ridiculously error-filled naval career steered him in the direction of the controlling mania of Scientology. Asimov, true to his nature, did chemistry work stateside for the military—secure in the hope that scientific rationalism could guarantee a more peaceful future.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Astounding".