Hugo-Finalist Alec Nevala-Lee shares a behind-the-books perspective on SFF’s foundational authors
Conducted by Terry Galvan
Alec Nevala-Lee is a Hugo Award finalist for the group biography Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction (Dey Street Books / HarperCollins), named one of the best books of 2018 by The Economist. His novels include the thrillers The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and Eternal Empire (Penguin). His short fiction frequently appears in the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact and has been reprinted in Lightspeed Magazine and two editions of The Year’s Best Science Fiction. His essays and nonfiction were also featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, The Rumpus, and The Daily Beast. He lives in Oak Park with his wife and daughter.
Terry Galvan: Astounding focuses on John Campbell as the ringleader and curator of foundational science fiction writers—Hubbard, Heinlein, and Asimov—who turned out to be more famous than Campbell himself. How did you come to discover Campbell’s thumbprint and decide to focus on him?
Alec Nevala-Lee: Going in, I had not expected to write a biography at all. In the very early stages I’d envisioned this book as a literary history of how science fiction developed within the pages of Astounding magazine. I would read all the stories and go from there, which would have been a pretty interesting book to write, but I realized pretty early on that there had never been a Campbell biography. At that stage, I only knew Campbell as the author of Who Goes There?, which was later adapted into the movie The Thing—his most famous contribution to popular culture. Whenever I talk about Campbell with people, I always mention The Thing because that movie had a huge pop cultural footprint—and it was really Campbell’s story. That tells you a lot about his talents and his influence.
I intuited pretty early on that Campbell was a sensational subject for a book. Little clues pointed to Campbell’s importance to science fiction—Asimov in his memoirs underlines Campbell’s importance to him as a writer, and Campbell is a supporting character in a lot of books about Hubbard and Scientology. I always felt there was more to that story.
This was vigorously researched—the notes and references section is almost a hundred pages! What was the process like for tracking down and reading all that content?
I did what I thought were the best practices for literary biographies. There haven’t been a lot of books like this for science fiction. Many worthwhile SF biographies exist, but they’re often written by fans and they may not be citing all their sources or really delving into the primary sources.
So I thought, as a biographer, what should I do? What should I look for? One obvious thing was letters. I knew lot of Campbell’s and Heinlein’s letters had been preserved. There was obviously a lot of stuff out there for Hubbard, and Asimov has these vast informative and detailed memoirs. The first year was just gathering those sources. I went back and found the original microfilm reels of Campbell’s letters and went through them page by page. I acquired a lot of Heinlein’s correspondence, and pulled together sources scattered everywhere.
Then I went through every issue of Analog or Astounding from the time, trying to read as much of what these authors wrote as possible. I can’t say I hit everything but I came close. I basically read all of Hubbard’s SF from this period which is in and of itself an achievement. I probably read more of Hubbard’s short fiction than anybody who’s not a Scientologist, which is sort of a perverse point of pride. Heinlein and Asimov have so much stuff out there that I can’t say I read all of it, but I definitely read all the stuff that Campbell was involved in.
I feel like Astounding could appear in a college textbooks syllabus for the history of science fiction. You could build a whole syllabus around it.
That’s certainly something I had in mind. There aren’t many books out there like this, and there need to be way more. You could write books about countless writers and editors and communities that would be equally provocative. They need to be written soon, especially while there are still people around that can talk about this stuff firsthand.
So what do you want readers to get out of your book?
I was trying to appeal to a wide range of readers. I wanted to engage people who only have a casual interest in science fiction, but I also wanted to lead science fiction fans to question assumptions about how the genre developed. For example, I put Hubbard back in the story. A lot of people looked his name on the cover and went, “why’s Hubbard there?” I really wanted people to read the book, close it, and say, “Now I get it.” It was tricky—people sometimes think that by including Hubbard in the same title as Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein I’m making some value judgment as to his quality as a writer. I’m not doing that, I’m making a case for his importance on the historical side. The received history of science fiction has been slightly edited to remove Hubbard from the story—because he’s embarrassing. But you can’t understand what happened to Campbell and, by extension, to the Golden Age of science fiction without dealing with Hubbard directly. I’m hoping that a lot of fans who thought they knew the history will come away surprised and maybe with a deepened sense of what was going on.
As someone in the former group, who wasn’t super familiar with the history, I enjoyed it as I would a novel. It felt like following four unreliable narrators through their shenanigans. In one chapter, I’d feel legitimate sympathy for them, and in the next I’d be mad at them. As a fiction writer yourself, did you consciously design the character arcs that way?
My experience writing novels certainly was an asset for structuring a book like this. My model for Astounding was the big literary biographies that I enjoyed growing up, for authors like Norman Mailer and John Updike, these iconic American writers that get these big fat books written about them. They’re full of gossip and the history of not just one writer’s life, but that circle of authors at that time, and American culture all as one big tapestry. That book deserves to be written for science fiction. I picked Campbell because he seemed like the obvious underlying figure you could track to see how SF has evolved. It was absolutely meant to be a novelistic type of story. I was very lucky in that I happened to pick four protagonists who had such interesting, complex and well-documented private lives.
I really enjoy reading biographies as entertainment. I’ve always loved literary biography. As someone who has wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, I just never get tired of reading about how writers lived and how they worked. I don’t know how useful or necessary it is toward understanding the work itself, but I do think it’s an essential part of understanding how writing works and where it comes from.
Your undergrad degree is from Harvard, in classics. I did not see that coming! Did some of your strategies come from your formal training as a classicist?
Yes. I was drawn to classics for a lot of reasons. I really like close reading and interpretation. I like the tradition of literary exegesis and trying to put together a picture from the texts that we have. My degree was good training for looking at a big body of work. Going through the letters, and the stories, and the primary sources and trying to figure out what it means, and then talking about it in a way that will make sense to people who are coming at it for the first time.
These writers reminded me of other famous groups of authors, like the Inklings with Tolkien and Lewis and the Bloomsbury Group and so on. Why do you think Campbell’s group of SF authors didn’t congeal into a coherent group?
That’s the question. The other big arc of the story is how Campbell alienates the other three. There was this community, especially the one based in New York, where the combination of the good timing and geographical proximity allowed Campbell to be the center of this amazing network of writers, but it didn’t last. The peak of the Golden Age was five years. There’s a lot of other factors like WWII that truncated what was happening in science fiction.
Campbell’s personality also played a big role in the fragmentation of science fiction, especially starting around 1951. I think they were able to work together mostly because they weren’t geographically close together. If Campbell and Heinlein had been in the same room more often I think they would have probably burned out much more quickly, and Hubbard and Campbell had a dramatic falling out after they started working closely. Asimov meanwhile always maintained that Campbell was like an intellectual father figure and he always spoke very highly of him, but Campbell’s racial and political views bothered Asimov to the point where he found it very hard to work for him as a fiction writer.
The story of the Golden Age is one of Campbell getting these writers to work together for a few years and the results are extraordinary, but some of the same factors that made him so influential during that period also lead to the decline or the destruction of the Golden Age too.
Had you imagined an alternate future where World War II and these authors’ ensuing personal problems didn’t happen?
I’m not sure science fiction would have been better served by maintaining the status quo for a few more years, but I think it would have been different. There are definitely stories that Campbell would have written in collaboration with Heinlein and Asimov that didn’t get written because their lives were circumvented by the war.
Then again, fragmentation wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for science fiction; you can make a case that the science fiction of the fifties was actually more interesting because there were multiple magazines and editors out there. Campbell’s control over the genre would have been a liability after a certain point. There were things that he didn’t want to talk about and writers that he didn’t work with or couldn’t work with and subjects that he just didn’t feel comfortable exploring. As a whole science fiction was better off having a greater diversity in terms of the editors and the venues for different writers. And what eventually happened with Campbell’s personality would have happened eventually no matter what. I think the war just made the timing a little bit different.
You don’t pull any punches when you’re critiquing the problematic behaviors and beliefs of these authors who are considered heroes in the genre, and you also make some interesting points reflecting on contemporary “nerd” or “fan” culture—and how it hasn’t really changed much.
There have always been factions within fandoms, and factions within factions. You can see this in the readership of Astounding. The vast majority of the readers of Astounding during this period were not what you’d call super science fiction fans; a lot of the people that read the magazine were professionals in other fields who were involved in the sciences in some way, or they were fans of science fiction, but not to the point where it took over their lives in the ways that sometimes we of think of it.
Within that readership, there’s a subset of very active fans who had a disproportionate influence on how science fiction is perceived. And it’s the same today. The scale has changed in that science fiction is much more mainstream than it was during the thirties and forties, but there’s still a huge audience of casual science fiction fans, and within that audience there’s a subset of more active, more vocal fans who, with good intentions, shape the evolution of fan culture more directly. That’s been true from the beginning of fan culture itself.
Fandom always attracts certain personalities, and a lot of them are combative. They take science fiction very seriously and, like what you see today, they influence what science fiction is, or who gets to be a part of it. These things are there from day one. In some ways the cast has changed and the people involved don’t look the same as they did in the late thirties, but a lot of the both positive and negative sides of fan engagement were there from the very start. There’s a lot of trolling, there’s a lot of brigading, there’s a lot of controversies that become very personal. And you see them unfolding in fanzines. You see them in letters columns and in transcripts of club meetings. The scale was different again, but the behaviors and the way they express themselves are very similar.
At one point you compare early fan culture—specifically the first Worldcon—to the implosion of a Reddit thread, and how internet communities will have the same infighting, just at a slightly higher speed. It’s easy to blame the internet for making people mean or anonymity encouraging negative behaviors, but maybe it’s just how people are?
Just because it’s always been this way doesn’t mean it’s the way things should be. Just because there were damaging elements in fan culture from the beginning, doesn’t mean they should still be here today. It’s good to acknowledge the history there, but fan culture by definition contains elements that are difficult, and I’m coming to terms with that notion. I don’t have a smart conclusion there, but it’s something I’m thinking about and working through.
What do you think we as writers, creators, and curators of fan culture can do to discourage these bad behaviors, and make the culture more inclusive and empowering?
Well, the question is, how much control does an individual actually have? Even someone like Campbell—how much control do editors or writers or individual fans have over the way something as big as science fiction evolves? And the answer is I don’t really know. Having written a big book about Campbell, I believe he was legitimately influential and important, but sometimes in ways that he couldn’t understand. The ways in which he failed, the ways in which he misunderstood what he was doing, or went about it in strange ways ended up being as important and influential as the stuff that he did deliberately. That’s true of many actors in the story. It’s very hard for someone to say “I’m going to oversee science fiction and determine the direction it goes in.” His story is one of the limitations of his approach and personality, but the fact is that you really can’t be one person who oversees the way something as big as science fiction develops.
Part two of my response—I think there are things that Campbell could have done that would have fit into his program in a very organic way that he didn’t do that damaged science fiction in ways that we are still catching up to. And the big one for me here is diversity.
Campbell was the most powerful single person in science fiction in America in terms of the authors he was publishing and the stories he was printing. He wasn’t just passively accepting things that came in as submissions, but he was actively developing writers—and was pitching ideas for stories. He had his hand on the wheel in terms of what ended up in both these magazines. He made certain choices which reflected his priorities. He’d say, “We’re going to make a systematic effort to improve the sciences,” or incorporate ideas like “the Competent Man,” this idealized engineer hero. He did these things that he did on purpose that were very influential.
What he never really said was, “we’re going diversify our characters and our writers.” People say to me “Well, Campbell was operating in the late thirties, and it’s not reasonable to expect him to conform to our contemporary standards.” But there’s a two-fold problem with that. One is that Campbell wasn’t just an editor in like 1938—he was an editor in 1968 too. He did not progress along those lines in any respect. That failure I think is deeply connected to his racism, which is very real. The second part is that Campbell was saying that science fiction isn’t just escapist entertainment; it’s a way of generating scenarios about the future. It’s a venue to actually work through possibilities for the way that society might change or the way that technology might affect human life, using science fiction as a laboratory to explore ideas of social change. That’s one of his biggest contributions to the field.
Campbell very plausibly could have said, “If we’re going to talk about this stuff in a useful way we should expand the range of voices that this magazine is publishing and try to find writers who come from backgrounds that aren’t the mostly white, male engineers that I am publishing.” I think that’s a legitimate objection to Campbell’s program, because he is only getting points of view from a very limited subset of the writers who he could have been publishing.
It’s not like he was just passively reading manuscripts. He was actively looking for scientists, engineers, categories of people who he thought were a priority. He would go out and try to find people like that to write for the magazine. There was a version of Campbell, and I believe this very strongly, who in a very reasonable way could have said, “I’m going to look for writers who don’t look like me and who come from different backgrounds because this will further my goals for science fiction.” That’s a very realistic thing to ask of an editor in his position. And he didn’t do it. I don’t think he was personally capable of doing it, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t criticize him for falling short. As the man who could talk about the future, Campbell asked to be held to the highest possible standard. By his own standards, his indifference to those issues is a real problem. And I think it really affected how science fiction developed in a negative way.
Campbell’s obviously very important to me—I devoted an entire book to his career. While I’m definitely trying to make a case for his cultural importance, I’m also very critical of him. That’s something I try to emphasize. There’s a version of the Campbell story that would be more celebratory and less critical, and there’s a version of this book with the same title that would have overlooked a lot of this. It was important for me to bring out because I think it’s close to questions about what impact can individuals have to shape what science fiction becomes.
Diversity is an inherent good for the health of science fiction, for the quality of the stories it publishes. Campbell’s failure to recognize that doesn’t negate his positive contributions to the field, but it definitely complicates them.
Can your book help today’s developing editors, writers, and fans reflect on that legacy, and take away some valuable lessons for the future of the genre?
[laughs] Well, the book doesn’t offer a lot of useful advice on that front. Campbell’s position as an editor was so singular and I don’t think it could happen again today. Science fiction has exploded to the point where no one editor or author can really affect it directly like Campbell did.
I don’t think the world needs my book to highlight the poor diversity in science fiction. That conversation was going on years ago, and it will continue for years to come. But it’s good to ground it historically, and to point out that this is a conversation we could have been having 50 years ago.
If we had the conversation we’re having now 50 years ago, how much better would we be now? That counterfactual scenario to me is fascinating. Where would we be now if people like Campbell had taken their own assumptions seriously enough to actually ask those questions?
The one thing I want to underline is that this conversation is not incompatible with Campbell’s views on science fiction as this world-changing discussion of the future. Campbell didn’t see it that way. You have to include that point in any discussion of what he thought science fiction would be
To that point: I recall the section you read at Volumes BookCafe when you were headlining with Cory Doctorow. You read a section from Astounding about Asimov’s reputation as a horrible sexual harasser, even for 1960’s standards, and you prefaced it by saying, “In the wake of #MeToo I might’ve written this differently.” What exactly would you have written differently?
Honestly, I would have been harder on Asimov. Most of that section of the book is drawn from his memoirs, and from other reliable secondary sources. It was meant to be fairly objective. Looking back, I wish I had taken the next step–which was not just to present an account of his behavior, but to connect it to the treatment of women in science fiction in general. Asimov’s behavior was systematic of how women were treated, although it went far beyond what was socially expected. But also, Asimov was the most famous science fiction writer in America. I think he really set the tone for how people thought women could be treated at conventions or in public. That example he set was incredibly toxic. The fact that it was condoned and sort of joked about and treated indulgently for decades really troubles me. It really bothers me a lot. And I think if I had the chance to go back and revise that section I would make that point a little more explicit. It’s there but you have to read between the lines to understand the implications, not just for Asimov himself, but for fan culture as a whole. And I do wish I had made that point more strongly.
I was fascinated by your tone throughout the book. You did not crack a single joke, but I burst out laughing while reading it because a lot of the true, factual events were just so absurd. It was like reading through the 80-year old Facebook profiles of these guys—I had this reaction of, “wait who did what with who at which party—in 1930?!” But you didn’t offer a ton of commentary. I thought it was stronger for that neutral tone, but you’re thinking now that you might have revised that tone?
I think so. The book had to walk this very fine line for me because I was hyper aware of how a lot of existing works of science fiction history or biography take a very subjective tone toward their subject.
They’re fan-written, you said?
Yes, it’s generally praising them. Someone who’s going to go through years and years of work to write about a particular writer is usually a fan. It attracts people who have an existing interest and view towards someone’s work and career. I was drawn to it more because I knew it was a great story and I didn’t have a huge emotional investment in any of the protagonists, aside from my love of science fiction in general.
There’s always some degree of authorial discretion when it comes to what to include and even to take sides, but I definitely wanted to retreat into the background and not appear in the book. I don’t use the first person. I don’t try to impose my personal experience in science fiction onto the story I’m telling. And that’s a narrative strategy. I feel like I overcompensated a little bit, by trying to remain balanced even for someone like Hubbard. I think it was the right choice for this project, but the authorial stance had limits.
When it comes to the book’s secondary purpose, which was to make a larger point about the history of science fiction and how it affects how science fiction looks today—there are places where I could have hammered the point home a little bit more for the readers who might be approaching the book from a different point of view than I would. The range of reactions that came in response to the book was indicative of what the reader brings to it. You’d be surprised by the message that different people get from it.
What was a reaction that surprised you a lot?
Well let’s stick with Asimov’s case. There was some discussion online trying to minimize what he did, and excuse it as a product of its time. And this is bad. I feel as though I didn’t make that point as clearly as I might’ve. I don’t want people to come away with any ambiguity on how I feel about Asimov’s behavior, even though Asimov himself is very important to me personally. I think Asimov comes out looking better than other people in the book do in other respects. Nevertheless, for someone like him, where there’s so much good feeling still toward Asimov, that to get that point across would have required a little bit more commentary on my part.
You mentioned you had another biography project in the works.
It’s a little different from Astounding but it follows on some of its themes. It’s the biography of Buckminster Fuller, an architect, designer, and futurist best known for the geodesic dome. Imagine if Steve Jobs had been born in 1895 and had lived until 1983—what he would have done given the culture that he was born in, years before the computer revolution? Fuller was immensely famous during his lifetime, but has fallen out of the conversation a little bit. And I’m trying to sort of restore him to a greater cultural profile because I think he’s one of the most intriguing Americans during the 20th century.
Fuller was the prototype for people like Jobs, for Elon Musk, for the Silicon Valley start-up founder that we think of, except generations earlier, and you can learn so much from his life—again, both the positive and negative sides. He was much more complicated than his public persona indicated, so I’m looking forward to digging out those nuances in the same way I tried to do for some of the people in Astounding.
Have you already started working on it?
I’m currently gathering material, doing interviews. Again, a ton of primary sources. It’s a big project—it’s one of those things that could be a 10-year project but I don’t have 10 years! I feel incredibly lucky that I get to be the writer who gets to work on this material, because it really is spellbinding.
Last week you were named a Hugo finalist! How does that feel?
It feels pretty good! I’m very pleased to be among the finalists. And I’m going to be in Dublin! I’ll be flying out there with my family. My daughter, who’s six years old, is really excited about going to that ceremony. It’s obviously a huge deal, and I couldn’t be happier.
Were you secretly hoping that that was going to happen?
My motivation for writing this book was to produce a book that would be seen as a worthwhile contribution to the history of science fiction. Getting a Hugo nomination in this category embodies the reception I hoped this book would get. It was written for a big audience—to reach people who weren’t necessarily science fiction fans, or deeply familiar with the history of the genre. But I also wanted to reach the hardcore fans–people who really care about this stuff, who have been part of that community. The fact that they seem to have received the book in a positive way is really gratifying.
Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction is for sale here and at most bookstores.
Chicago’s complex social landscape inspires Terry Galvan’s writing, from the realistic to the fantastic to the downright horrifying. A former anthropologist and Fulbright grantee, Terry spends nights performing at literary events throughout the city, shopping their novel, and nursing their Catholic guilt with a good deal of whiskey. Follow Terry on Twitter @TerryGalvanChi and terrygalvan.com