Exclusive Interview: Astounding Writer Alec Nevala-Lee

For better or worse, the current state of science fiction owes a lot to the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, its editor John W. Campbell, and the iconic writers whose stories appeared in its pages. In the following email interview, writer Alec Nevala-Lee discusses Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, And The Golden Age of Science Fiction (hardcover, Kindle), his warts and all look back at this legendary sci-fi magazine and the people both in and behind its pages.

Alec Nevala-Lee Astounding

Photo Credit: © Brian Kinyon

 

I always like to begin with an overview. So, what is Astounding about?

It’s a group biography and history of the golden age of science fiction — which ran roughly from 1939 to 1950. It focuses on John W. Campbell, the editor of the magazine best known as Astounding Science Fiction, and the writers Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard.

Where did you get the idea for Astounding, and why did you think it would both be a good subject for a book as well as a good book for you to write?

For years I’ve been contributing stories to Analog — which is what Astounding Science Fiction is called these days — and I’d always wanted to write a book about the magazine. The idea really took off when I realized that there had never been a full biography of Campbell, who is the best possible subject for a project like this. He’s important and controversial, with a dramatic personal life, and he’s the perfect central figure for an exploration of how science fiction became what it is today.

Non-fiction books take different forms. What structure did you employ forAstounding, and why did you feel this was the best approach for this book?

I really wanted it to be an engaging narrative, with an emphasis on biography rather than criticism, and I tried to structure it like a novel. There haven’t been that many books about the history of science fiction for a mainstream audience, and my goal was to tell a story that could be read for pleasure — just because the events and people involved are so interesting — even by readers who weren’t fans of the genre.

Along similar lines, non-fiction books can also take different tones. Does Astounding take an academic approach, a more light-hearted one, what?

I didn’t want it to feel like an academic book, because there are plenty of good critical studies of science fiction, and I was hoping to reach as wide a readership as possible. This is an important, compelling story, and I wanted it to work both as a serious work of scholarship — there are eighty pages of endnotes — and as a book that you could read for fun on vacation. There’s a lot of great gossip about these writers, and I wanted to include as much of it as I could.

In deciding your approach to Astounding, did you look at any similar books for ideas of what to do or what not to do?

My editor suggested that I look at Positively 4th Street: The Lives And Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, And Richard Farina by David Hadju, which is a great example of a biography that manages to interweave the connected stories of four complex, fascinating people. I also wanted to write a literary biography that could stand on the same shelf as something like Updike by Adam Begley, which is the sort of book that I really enjoy reading. If you can publish a big book like this for Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer, I don’t see why you can’t do the same for Campbell and the others.

WhileAstoundingis a non-fiction book, you have written fiction, and specifically science fiction. Do you think there’s anything about Astounding that’s different because you’ve written some sci-fi novels?

My novels are actually suspense fiction — my science fiction tends to take the form of short stories — but my experience as a novelist was absolutely a factor. I’ve learned to think hard about plot, pacing, structure, and motivation, and it really helped me turn this complicated story into something that a reader might actually want to finish.Astounding had to work as a biography of four writers and their personal lives, a critical look at their fiction, and a history of an eventful period in the genre as a whole, and I don’t think I would have been able to pull it off if I didn’t have experience with these sorts of long narratives.

Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard are all long gone. Did this make researching this book harder for you, or did it make things easier for some reason?

I’m glad that I didn’t have to deal with Hubbard directly, and though I do wish that I could have met my other subjects in person, it was also helpful to have some distance from their lives. All four of these writers still inspire strong feelings, both positive and negative, and the fact that they’ve passed on made it easier for me to stay objective.

So did you talk to any current sci-fi writers for Astounding?

I was determined to talk to as many people as possible who had interacted directly with these four writers, and I was lucky to be able to speak with some of the living legends of the genre, including George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Samuel R. Delany, Ben Bova, James Gunn, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Barry N. Malzberg, Larry Niven, and many others. There are a lot of great stories that have never been written down, and I wanted to record as many of them as possible while there was still time.

In researching Astounding, did you learn anything that really surprised you?

I was surprised to learn that Hubbard didn’t much care for science fiction, and that he incorporated elements of the genre into Scientology mostly to appeal to his initial circle of followers, many of whom were fans. The extent of Campbell’s involvement with Hubbard on dianetics — he was an equal collaborator — was remarkable. I was struck by the hugely important role that the wives of these writers, especially Dona Campbell and Leslyn Heinlein, played in their husbands’ careers. And I was particularly troubled to learn about Asimov’s habit of casually groping women, which went on for decades.

Ew. Did you learn anything that really made you laugh?

The most amusing part of the book is probably the account of the early days of science fiction fandom in New York, which reminded me a lot of modern online communities. You had the same kind of trolls, flame wars, and controversies that you see now, except that they unfolded over the course of months in letters and mimeographed fanzines, instead of over a few hours on Reddit.

I assume that, as part of your research, you read issues of Astounding Science Fiction. In doing so, did you discover any writers you previously didn’t know about?

Absolutely. I became a fan of authors like Eric Frank Russell, whose Sinister Barrier is now my favorite science fiction novel of all time; the married writers Henry Kuttner and Catherine L. Moore, who wrote under the names Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O’Donnell; and A.E. van Vogt, possibly the strangest and most original of all of Campbell’s authors, who was a major influence on Philip K. Dick.

Now, this may be a silly question, but are you familiar with the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Far Beyond The Stars,” in which Captain Sisko has a vision in which he’s a science fiction writer in the 1950s, working for a magazine called Incredible Tales that’s a lot like Astounding Science Fiction? I ask because I wonder how accurate that episode was, or, if you saw it before you started working on Astounding, if it colored your impression of what writing for those kinds of magazines was like?

I watched the episode while I was finishing up the research for this book, and I loved it. Rene Auberjonois is clearly made up to look like John W. Campbell, and many of the views that he expresses are unfortunately all too plausible.

The only real inaccuracy is the depiction of the office of Incredible Tales, which looks like a spacious, beautiful newsroom with salaried writers typing up stories at their own desks. That isn’t how it worked in real life, though it certainly looks great on television.

I also wanted to bring that episode up because in it, Sisko has to deal with racism, and not only were there similar cultural issues in science fiction when Astounding Science Fiction was being edited by Campbell, but both he and Asimov were, as we would say today, not the most woke people around, even back then. How deep into that aspect of things do you go into in Astounding?

It’s a huge part of the story, and I spend a lot of time going into Campbell’s attitudes about race and Asimov’s treatment of women. Campbell expressed views that were undeniably racist, and he had little interest in expanding the range of voices that he published in the magazine. I think he bears part of the blame for the historical lack of diversity in science fiction — it wasn’t something that he found important, and it was a real loss for the genre.

As for Asimov, as the most famous science fiction writer in the world, his behavior set the tone for fandom as a whole, and it clearly had implications for the way in which women were treated within the science fiction community.

In exploring this aspect, did it illuminate anything about the current state of sci-fi, and how it’s been dealing with cultural issues lately?

Right now, the big story in science fiction is the conscious push toward greater representation and inclusiveness in its writers, fans, and characters, which is long overdue. It definitely helps to have a sense of the historical context. We’ve been talking about race in science fiction for a long time, for instance, but this is a movement that could have started decades ago in Analog. If it didn’t, it was largely because Campbell didn’t see it as a priority. He was explicitly trying to publish stories about cultural change, and it’s disappointing that he didn’t recognize that developing historically underrepresented voices was a crucial part of that project.

And did this make you feel better about things. Or worse?

I feel better about science fiction, which is a good example of a self-contained community that can have these conversations in a productive way that leads to real progress. But I’m not as optimistic about our society as a whole.

Alec Nevala-Lee Astounding

Finally, if someone enjoys Astounding, what similar non-fiction book would you suggest they check out, and which of your novels would you suggest they read as well?

My favorite books about the history of science fiction are Asimov’s memoirs, especially In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, which seem to contain the details of every day of his life up until the late ’70s — though they only provide part of the picture. They’re the first books that I’d recommend to someone who really wanted to dive deeper into the subject.

As far as my own science fiction is concerned, I’m most proud of the novella “The Proving Ground,” a climate change story that originally appeared in Analog. It was recently reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Fifth Annual Collection, edited by the late Gardner Dozois, and it’s a good example of the kinds of stories that I’ve tried to tell in my own work.

 

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