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For sci-fi, an 'astounding' yet tarnished golden age

A new book looks at four men who are largely responsible for the genre of science fiction as we know it today. 

'Astounding' is by Alec Nevala-Lee.

Eight decades ago, American science fiction entered a Golden Age when authors like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein built the modern foundation of a genre that dominates pop culture today. Largely in large part to them, we're enraptured by tales of rogue technology and the clashes of interstellar cultures.

They didn't do it alone, as novelist and science fiction writer Alec Nevala-Lee reveals in his fascinating new book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. A magazine editor and the founder of Scientology also played major roles in this remarkable literary transformation.

All four men were deeply fascinated by the future. But, as Asian-American author Nevala-Lee explains in a Monitor interview, they couldn't conquer their own prejudice and personal demons. One of the authors, in fact, treated women so horrifically that he belongs in the #MeToo hall of shame. Yet his work and his legacy shine on.

Q: What was science fiction like in the years before the Golden Age, and how did these authors shake things up?

"Amazing Stories," the science fiction magazine, had been around for a long time. The first generation of writers had mostly worked in westerns, adventure, and military fiction. They'd write for a living, crank out these stories, and transfer their stock plots to science fiction.

The stories that resulted were not that great, and very few are still being read today. But they did make an impression on young teenagers who read these stories. They started clubs and fanzines and created a community.

Then this generation of fans of readers who loved science fiction started to write it themselves.

Their stories built on a foundation of affection and excitement that you didn't really see in the first wave of science fiction. There's a big difference between those who write as mercenaries and those who write because they love science fiction and grew up reading it.

Q: How did Campbell, the editor of the short-story magazine "Astounding Science Fiction," fit in?

]He benefited from this community of fans and writers, and he was in the right place to shape and guide that process.

His personal obsessions and interests played a big role in shaping what science fiction was about. Campbell is interested in the human mind, and he encourages writers like Asimov and Heinlein to explore cultural change, human behavior and ethics. Their stories are not just about the future and technology but also about social change.

Q: We remember Hubbard as the founder of Scientology, not as an author, and his science fiction doesn't get much attention today. Why did you make him one of the major players in your book?

I don't think he was a great writer, and most of his stuff was really bad. But he's a hugely important figure because of his personality and the impact he had on people around him.

After World War II, Hubbard and Campbell worked on the philosophical foundation of what became Scientology. Campbell used "Astounding" to publicize this theory, and he was so obsessed that he drove away Heinlein and Asimov. That's the crisis in the story that I'm telling.

Q: It's amazing how Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein were forward-thinking but far from ahead of their time in regard to women and minorities. How did they have such a huge blind spot?

Much of it was reflection of the personality of Campbell.

He didn't think that diversity was worth pursuing. He was undeniably racist, and it affected the stories that he published.

Science fiction is still suffering the consequences of that. As we've learned, diversity doesn't happen by itself. It requires a conscious effort to increase the voices you have in science fiction.

Q: Even worse, these men all had poor personal relationships with women in their lives. Asimov actually assaulted women, correct?

Asimov was a real sexual harasser. He groped female fans for decades. It's part of the unspoken history of science fiction, and nobody talked about it in print.

It's disappointing and horrifying. He was the most famous science fiction author in the world.

Q: Why is it important to consider the unpleasant aspects of their lives?

You can't separate the personal from professional because these men were so influential.

There's an interesting theme about mentorship in the book. Campbell takes on Asimov as a project. But if you're a woman, you know there's no way you can have Asimov as a protege. He'll just see you as a sex object.

You can see why it look a long time for any kind of gender parity to appear in science fiction.

Q: What is the legacy of Asimov and Heinlein?

I love their writing, especially that of Heinlein, who's probably the best science fiction author who ever lived.

Science fiction encouraged people to go into the sciences, and the shared vision of the authors affected how we think the future will look in areas like space travel.

There's also a message that it's the outsiders – those who don't seem that impressive at first – who can make a difference. Being different and excluded can become a positive.

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