Book reviews / Non fiction / Science Fiction

Book review: Astounding

Astounding is a history of the golden age of science fiction, specifically focussed on John W. Campbell Jr., L. Ron Hubbard, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. And it is quite frankly, bloody brilliant. I didn’t really care about all of this when I was growing up, as it had all ended by the time I was interested in science fiction. I loved The Foundation Series and it is probably the set of books that got me into science fiction, but Asimov had already died by the time I discovered them. However, as a historian who loves reading science fiction, this also just ticked all the right boxes.

But it’s also a bit heartbreaking because it really does shed light upon some of their awful behaviour and views. It’s a case for me of “holy shit am I ever glad I didn’t meet my hero” which would have been Isaac Asimov. He was probably the least awful of them but describing him as “handsy” would have been a conservative moniker about how he treated women. Basically, he would have been me-too’d all over the place if he was still alive.

What was really compelling about the whole book was the juxtaposition of the ideals of Campbell and the reality of his life. He had an idea of a rational man of science, who would lead the world and all that jazz. But in reality, he was going off on all these hair-brained schemes that were deeply irrational. Like, he was a huge believer and practitioner of Dianetics, the precursor to what become Scientology. And that is only one of the weird types of bonkers and unscientific nonsense he would promote in his magazine.

But oh my god, the most bonkers was Hubbard. Like, he would make an excellent villain, but in fiction his absolutely ridiculous level of self aggrandisement and tendency to be an absolute bullshitter would come across as unbelievable. He literally left his wife to get arrested by the FBI instead of taking her with him when he fled. He was genuinely an awful human being. It’s darkly funny that Scientology was born because of him. It just seems improbable that one person was that deeply weird.

Hubbard was definitely the weirdest of the lot, but they were all very strange. I think Asimov was the least strange but he was also a bit of a twat in his own right (aside from being super handsy). Maybe it’s a generational thing, but they just all seemed rather bonkers and somewhat inept when it came to being normal humans. They also seemed to treat their wives quite badly (to varying degrees).

But the whole story is deftly woven together by Alex Nevala-Lee and the staggering amount of research he must have done. There are so many letters sent between all of them which make a rich archive of the inner lives of all these men and women. It is just so bizarre that people look to these men and these stories as the best that could be offered by science fiction. Yes, they had a lot of good ideas, but they were also flawed and weird (and often recycled tropes over and over). You can be part of a history of genre without being the best it has to offer.

Anyway, I heartily recommend this book. It was absolutely brilliant.

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