Astounding (Review): Alec Nevala-Lee’s unflinching look at Sci-Fi’s Golden Era and its hopeless misogyny

Regressive and retrograde.

Two words that come to mind when discussing the racist and misogynist abuse heaped on Kelly Marie Tran, the Asian-American actress who played the role of Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. A single example from the Star Wars Wikipedia captures the venom that came from an outspoken minority of Star Wars fans in reaction to her character and, inexplicably, to her.

Indignant protectors of the Star Wars canon took to Wookiepedia to voice their displeasure: “Ching Chong Wing Tong is a dumbass fucking character Disney made and is a stupid, retarded, and autistic love interest for Finn. She better die in the coma because she is a dumbass bitch”

Granting the science fiction community the benefit of the doubt that the sentiment is reflective of a narrow spectrum of the genre’s fans, there’s little doubt that it has deep and long-standing roots that date back to its formative years. Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlin, L.Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (HarperCollins) goes a long way in establishing that fact.

For Sci-Fi neophytes and old-timers alike, Astounding offers a detailed, unflinching, and critical look at a few of the personalities that helped shape modern science fiction. While centered on John W. Campbell, the editor responsible for commissioning such works as A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan and Frank Herbert’s Dune series, it also tells the stories of three authors often associated with him: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlin, and L. Ron Hubbard. The book’s name comes from the science fiction pulp magazine Astounding Stories of Super-Science which Campbell steered into the so-called Golden Era of Science Fiction.

Eric Nevala-Lee

Starting from Campbell’s precocious boyhood where he exhibited an obvious affinity for science, Nevala-Lee recounts how the future editor first started writing science fiction while attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the early 1930s. One of his best known works, “Who goes there?” was made and remade into a movie numerous time, the best known iteration perhaps being John Carpenter’s 1982 film, The Thing. Somewhat by fluke, he transitioned from writer to editor at the Smith and Sloan-owned pulp magazine, Astounding Stories, in October 1937. By May 1938, he exercised complete editorial control of the magazine. It was the start of a revolutionary era in science fiction.

Campbell championed a form of Sci-Fi that stressed a more rigorous application of real world science as a key element in a story. Unlike other versions of the genre that simply adapted terrestrial storylines to space (e.g. Westerns, Detective stories, or Romance), writers that contributed to Astounding Stories applied science that was consistent with what was known at the time, only extended into a fictional future. Isaac Asimov, in particular, would be one of Campbell’s best known and accomplished protégés, even though he had all but ceased dealing with Astounding Stories, which was subsequently renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact, by the early 1950s.

Nevala-Lee spends considerable time documenting the effects World War II had on Campbell and his stable of writers as well as their uneasy relationship with their inconsequentiality in a real-world conflict. Campbell, Heinlin, and Hubbard’s infantile glorification of the American soldier as a vehicle for honor and adventure bears striking similarities to modern-day, self-proclaimed “incels” with their fetishization of an idealized, Conan-the-Barbarian version of masculinity. Somehow, wrapped up in their insecure complexes of not living up to the macho characters in their stories, Campbell’s crew seemed incapable of appreciating the true tragedy of war. They only saw the opportunity for glory.

That same insecurity found different forms depending on the time and circumstance. Most often, their chauvinism assumed a misogynistic bent. At one time or another, sci-fi scribes and fandom swung from dismissiveness to harassment.

Describing a young Asimov, Nevala-Lee says that

His nervousness around girls — he had never been on a date — could express itself as hostility, as it did throughout the fan community, and in a later issue, he added, ‘Let me point out that women never affected the world directly. They always grabbed hold of some poor, innocent man, worked their insidious wiles on him… and then affected history through him.’

As an adult, Asimov may have lost the sharper edges of his misogyny and traded it in for an ass-tapping-breast-ogling-unconstrained-horniness that was excused as Isaac being Isaac or a genius’ idiosyncrasy. Viewed through #MeToo era lenses, it’s fair to say he’d be absolutely skewered by an untold number of women uncomfortable with his unwanted and unwarranted advances.

Campbell’s method of brainstorming ideas with his writers and usually supplying them with the idea for a story meant that his prejudices almost certainly filtered down to Astounding Stories/Analog’s readers. His own words, provide a glimpse at the rigidity of his editorial process

When I give an idea to a writer and it comes back to me exactly the way I gave it to him, I don’t give that writer any more ideas. I don’t want it my way; I can do that
myself. I want my idea his way.

Asimov describes Campbell’s understanding of women as awkward, at best. He writes about Campbell’s reaction to to his wife Gertrude,

I don’t think they hit it off. It always seemed to me that Campbell was not at his best with women. At least I have never heard him make a single remark in the presence of one from which one could deduce that he had noticed she was a woman.

The Astounding Stories/Analog editor dismissed feminists out of hand and claimed that a woman’s greatest contribution was to ask, “Are you sure, dear?”

It was Campbell’s views on race that really captured the depths of his prejudice. In 1960, as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum, he described the institution of slavery to his readers in almost glowing terms. “Slavery is a system in which one group of individuals, the slaves, are forced by another group, the masters, to learn something they do not want to learn.” In other words, it was the slavemaster that was doing the slave a favor. It didn’t take him long to deduce that people of color were inherently less intelligent than caucasians.

Because of Campbell’s eager acceptance and promotion of Hubbard’s dianetics movement, which later resurfaced as the Church of Scientology, the second half of Astounding dedicates significant verbiage to the cult. It reads like the Hobbit to Scientology’s Lord of the Rings.

It’s Hubbard’s storyline that provides the most disturbing and damning indictment of a some of science fiction’s creators. When described one of his books, Excalibur, he boasts about its having information on how to “rape women without their knowing it.” Had that been the only example, it would be problematic enough. However, in the Scientology founder’s case, his actual relationship with women were not only cruel but also criminal.

It’s Hubbard’s relationship with his second wife, Sara, where fictional sexism transformed into real-world misogyny. Nevala-Lee recounts how Hubbard had “strangled her so violently that she ruptured a tube in her ear.”

In another instance, Hubbard kidnapped their baby and left her at the Westwood Nurses Registry in Palm Springs. He then returned to his wife’s house and proceeded to kidnap her. When his wife screamed, Hubbard implored her, “If you really loved me, you would kill yourself.” He drove her to San Bernardino and tried to find a doctor who would certify his wife insane, presumably so he could have her institutionalized. When that failed, he took Sara to Yuma International Airport in Arizona, where he told her he’d set her free if she agreed to sign a statement saying that she had gone with him willingly. When she agreed, he left her there with a note telling her where to find her baby. The ordeal was far from finished.

Hubbard went immediately to a phone booth, where he called Dressler, ordering him to pick up Alexis before Sara arrived and find a couple to drive the baby to New Jersey. He then flew to Chicago, where a psychologist gave him a clean bill of health, which pleased him enormously. Hubbard also found time to phone Sara, who recalled, “He said that he had cut [Alexis] into little pieces and dropped the pieces in a river and that he had seen little arms and legs floating down the river and it was my fault, he’d done it because I’d left him.”

In Astounding, Alec Nevala-Lee presents an unflinching and often uncomfortable look at four seminal, but deeply flawed, individuals who helped shape modern day science fiction. Meticulous research and mounds of information never get in the way of Lee’s story which is accessible and compelling.

If there’s one area where the book could have gone deeper, it would be analyzing how the four men’s personal lives and the often tumultuous swirl of events going on around them, informed their fiction. As is, their books — the manifestations of their thoughts and beliefs — factor in as afterthoughts, business deals that just seemed to happen.

It’s a small gripe though and should not diminish Astounding’s achievement, the same way John W. Campbell, John Heinlin, and Isaac Asimov’s contributions to literature should not be devalued as a result of their personal shortcomings.

WORDS: Marc Landas

IMAGE SOURCE: HarperCollins

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