John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard and the Golden Age of Science Fiction
Dey Street Books 2018
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in BiographyNew Books in Literary StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Science FictionNew Books Network November 29, 2018 Rob Wolf
Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding (Dey Street Books, 2018) is the first comprehensive biography of John W. Campbell, who, as a writer and magazine editor, wielded enormous influence over the field of science fiction in the mid-20th century.
“His interests, his obsessions, and his prejudices shaped what science fiction was going to be,” Nevala-Lee says.
Many people are familiar with Campbell’s name because it’s on the award given out every year by the World Science Fiction Society—the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. (This year, the award went to Rebecca Roanhorse, who was on the podcast in September; other winners who’ve been on the show include Ada Palmer, Andy Weir, and Mur Lafferty.)
From 1937 through the 1960s, Campbell used the magazine Astounding Science Fiction (now named Analog) to popularize science fiction and its potential to predict the future. But he also used the magazine to promote pseudosciences (like psionics and dianetics), and his legacy is tarnished by views that were “clearly racist.”
“He was quite content to keep publishing stories by writers who looked like him… And the characters were almost all white,” Nevala-Lee says. “Campbell thought that maybe black writers weren’t interested in writing science fiction or they weren’t good at it. It never seems to have occurred to him that they might be more interested in writing for his magazine if they saw characters who looked like them.”
Astounding is a powerful contribution to the history of science fiction, offering fascinating stories about the careers and personal lives of Campbell and his stable of talented and influential writers. But its immediate effect may be to spark a conversation about whether the best way to honor today’s emerging talent is with an award bearing the name of a man whose legacy is so problematic. A similar conversation occurred earlier this year over the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award; the debate ended when the American Library Association decided to change the name of the award.
“That debate has not yet extended to the John W. Campbell Award. I think it’s a legitimate discussion because Campbell’s opinions on race, in my opinion, are far more offensive than anything Wilder expressed,” Nevala-Lee says.