Notes: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Book Notes

Back when I started my pandemic deep-dive book-reading binge in late February, the first book I started with was Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. But it’s only now, months later, that I have a clear sense of why it felt salient right now. Hence this out-of-order notes post based on my tweetstorm from February/March.

I read the book partly because I was interested in the life and career of John W. Campbell, and partly because I had this sense that the Golden Age of science fiction (loosely, 1938-1960), understood in context, had a set of important lessons to offer for us in 2020, dealing with the Great Weirding, and the aftermath of Covid. Turns out, my instincts were correct.

What follows are some prefatory remarks, followed by a slightly cleaned-up version of the live tweetstorm.

The Golden Age of science fiction was a period that coincided with the global industrial mobilization for WW2, the reconstruction afterwards (which I’m reading about now, and livetweeting, in a book about the Marshall Plan,), decolonization, and the dawn of the atomic, space, robotics/automation, and computing ages. Much of what happened during that period was forced, ugly, unpleasantness. There was a lot of grim reality to deal with, and rapidly falling motivation to deal with it.

In that environment, science fiction was, in my opinion, a critical factor in constructing postmodernity as tolerable, inhabitable, and perhaps even stimulating human condition; one that had things to offer besides war and misery.

Campbell and his early cohort of writers were not exactly postmodern. Postmodern sensibilities began creeping in later with writers like Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin. As you’ll see from these notes, Campbell’s crowd was rather reactionary even by the standards of their own time.. But for all the faults apparent to a modern eye, there was a core of genuine positivity to the genre. The Golden Age, I think, offered both solace and motivation for people doing ugly, necessary things in dark times, by putting the positive aspects of all the technological possibilities being opened up in the spotlight. The competent man archetype — now reduced to a snarky trope — was a genuine source of felt agency back then, when most humans alive felt powerless under the shadow of nuclear armageddon.

Something like a reconstructed — but not ironic — version of the competent man trope seems to be emerging again.

Unlike the preceding pulp era, which mostly featured low-quality, formulaic technologically and scientifically uninteresting shallow ports of other genres like adventure and cowboy fiction to sci-fi contexts, the Golden Age unleashed the core genius of science fiction itself. This is why I suspect things like Flash Gordon are unreadable/unwatchable now (except as camp), but Asimov and Heinlein are still stimulating to read. Technology and society have changed, but the central curiosities of the genre have remained the same.

So on to the thread.


I’ve been reading, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. It’s a sort of group-bio of the invention of modern science fiction starting in the 1930s

The book is competent though a bit sloppy. Could be better, but does the job I was looking for it to do. I’m mainly reading it because it’s sort of the only one out there about this weird modern invention of an entire genre.

You realize, reading the story of these 4 inventing modern science fiction around a cheap magazine (Astounding) that when the time is ripe, a fairly random, marginal, not very special group can shake the world. They were just the right people in the right place at the right time. 

I am getting the feeling, which I do NOT get reading biographies of famous scientists or mathematicians, “shit, I could have played the role of one of these 4 in a slightly alternate universe.” It’s astounding (heh!) the extent to which the fact that it was these 4 was mostly chance. 

They were talented in various ways, and high-energy, but clearly each realized they’d just been cast into their roles at a moment when history was overwhelmingly going to make a thing happen. They were kinda regular guys who rose to a challenge and opportunity. Not Chosen Ones. 

This is very encouraging for those of us who think we’re fairly mediocre and normal (or at least normally deviant) people. I personally think most fields of exceptional accomplishment require a mix or exceptional/unique circumstances AND exceptional/unique ability. But not all. 

Which is not to say any random set of 4 people could have done what they did. But there were almost certainly a few hundred people around at the time who might have ended up being The Ones. Unlike say Einstein’s discoveries where perhaps 5-6 others were contenders at the time. 

To put it another way, if Einstein hadn’t happened, there’s a good chance relativity wouldn’t have happened till decades later. But if these 4 hadn’t happened, science fiction would totally still have happened, right on schedule. Just with different initial condition biases. 

Jerbs for the mediocrities 😎 

I don’t think you can rationally calculate and strategize your way to a mediocrity leverage point. You have to flow your way there by just letting go and pumping out your life energy down the channels of least resistance. 

It also seems clear that they didn’t quite realize they were making history until quite a while after they had done it. That’s another marker. When you solve a historic math or science problem, you usually know it right away. That’s what it seems like from the biographies. 

Still reading. Will add to this thread as I read. 

Tech pioneering seems somewhere in between math/science and science fiction in terms of necessity/inevitability and interchangeability of the human parts in epochal events. 🤔 

I’m getting the sense that Astounding/Unknown under Campbell were like the blogosphere in the aughts and 10s. Though only a few names like Asimov and Heinlein got big, dozens were experimenting and creating sci-fi conventions and tropes. A kind of Silicon Valley of genre fiction. 

Another thing. Nuclear technology was clearly the biggest thing shaping the imagination of this crowd. Space was just the backdrop. Computers and robots were mostly props. But nukes: as central then as climate change today. Golden age sci-fi was very much an atomic age genre. 

And Heinlein’s competent man trope was the tip of an iceberg. This era appears to clung desperately to the idea of absolute mastery of increasingly inscrutable tech. And we’re not even to the 40s yet. 

Campbell was basically a one-man human internet of sci-fi, a sort of Mycroft Holmes figure, routing ideas, provocations, etc to their correct destinations and absorbing all the best output. He was the market. Intercessionary figure bridging to fandom. 

Heh, Asimov started avoiding aliens and went with robots because he didn’t like Campbell’s militaristic edits based on humans being superior to aliens. Interesting.

Alright, we’re back to live tweeting my reading. Now into WW2. Heinlein is getting jingoistic, Asimov got married and is getting confident and snapping bra straps, Hubbard has messed up his navy career. Campbell is still with the magazines, unable to find a role in war effort.

Heinlein and Asimov work at the same place in the war effort, with Heinlein as superior. Clash of wills. The nerdy, awkward, deferential but strong-willed Asimov (22?) is slowly asserting himself against dominance of the 12-years older Heinlein (34?), a charismatic asshole.

Ironic choice of words in last tweet. Looks like Heinlein had painful hemorrhoids and surgery for it etc. Wife turning into an alcoholic under stress of getting sister and kids back from Philippines interment. Just cause for assholery I guess.

All but Asimov are trying to live up to the competent man trope they’ve mythologized in SF culture and kinda failing. A tale of 3 slow trainwrecks and one bright young kid watching and learning.

Hubbard is coming across in this telling as at once the biggest liar and scammer, and the only one not drinking the competent man kool-aid. This is a story of 3 hypocrites and one narcissistic sociopath.

One thing I can relate to is Campbell’s constant struggle to find steady, quality contributors through the war. Despite his ability to pay top dollar and the fact that his supply was mostly physically unfit-for-duty types. Only a rare few could do what he wanted.

What he wanted was people who could take his prompts and deliver creative results different and better than what he himself might have produced. A sort of laissez-faire writers’ market with Campbellian monopsonic characteristics. He wanted to set grand strategy. Much Schwerpunkt.

Campbell badly wanted sci-fi to be relevant to the war and got investigated and a slap on the wrist for running a story speculating too close to the Manhattan project. He did it on purpose to get exactly such a response. Ultimately all he got to do was produce sonar manuals.

It’s weird reading about this failed attempt at relevance in parallel with actual accounts of wartime R&D. Sci-fi as the insecure fanboy of the real thing, trying to Mary Sue itself into the real thing. Much fractal, so irony.

Oddly this desire for relevance has never been any part of my own motivation for sci-fi experiments. My intentions are pure escapist self-indulgence.

But I guess in 1942, science and science fiction still seemed like vaguely comparable human activities at the same level, kinda like programming vs using the internet did in the 90s.

I hope there’s a similar book available for the counterculture era… PKD/Le Guin etc. And one for Jules Verne to Amazing era. Why is there no proper Big History of all of science fiction? Or is there. It seems like a manageable project. About the size of a Caro book.

The difference between good genre fiction and literary fiction is quantity over quality. You have to read a vast amount and absorb the intellectual currents across the aggregate. If you just read a couple you won’t get the appeal. If you read a few dozen from a period, you will.

I’ve read almost all of Asimov and Clarke, and samples of most in the top 10-15 I think. Taken as a whole, the genre is a sort of fandom of technological civilization. It’s own fandom is 2nd order. This book captures that spirit.

Lol apparently upsetting the Seldon plan was Campbell’s idea and initially Asimov didn’t want to do it. The result was the Mule, probably the most interesting episode in the series.

Campbell was a tactical humbug, pulling PR stunts to position himself and science fiction in the post-war mythology. Some sort of greater good/creating what we would today call transhumans type mission. Reminds me a bit of Elon Musk, the way he appears to have pwned the plot.

Looks like Hubbard wanted glory for himself, while Campbell wanted it for the greater glory of science fiction and the role he thought it ought to play in society. Both succeeded. Hubbard created a self-aggrandizing religion. Campbell faked it so future sci-if could make it.

Haha nice stunt

“Cybernetics is the big new idea of the times, and it is my opinion Hubbard…has got cybernetics, and got it bad; this is to say, he has got it wrong” — Yvette Gittleson, American Scientist, 1950 Wiener strikes again. The 40s/50s apparently just contained like 10 people

Current ranking of who I want to model my Act 2 after. I’m 2-15 older than any of them at the point in the story (1950) they’re at right now.

  1. Campbell (1910, 40)
  2. Asimov (1920, 30)
  3. Heinlein (1907, 43)
  4. Hubbard (1911, 39)

Similar fork in road though. Subculture —> mainstream leap

Might seem like a weird comparison, but it seems reasonable actually. At that point, pulp sci-fi was about as marginal a subculture as insight-porn blogosphere is today. These 4 were not famous then the way they are now. But by 1950 each had the option to go mainstream or go home

Unit economics sidebar. There’s an episode where Astounding tries to go up in quality from cheap digest to glossy “slicks” but fails to gain a foothold there, and goes back down to cheapie digest. Equivalent of serious blog trying to go magazine-scale in 2012 say.

Today we don’t realize this, but all print is not the same. Print saw its own Moore’s law type cost curve, with each gen creating a cheaper class of media if you could fit the rigid specs to make unit economics work for you. Pulp fiction got its name from wood-pulp cheap paper.

Think of pulp vs slick/glossy kinda like WordPress blogs vs mainstream media websites built on bespoke web publishing stacks. Heinlein in 1950 trying to break out of astounding and into glossies is like blogger trying to get a New Yorker byline today.

So where are we now, circa 1950?

Campbell is parlaying nuke-age attention on SF into mainstream influence

Heinlein is using YA fiction to slingshot into mainstream, and trying to get foot into space program

Hubbard has found cultish feet

Asimov starting to flex

Reading on…

On a darker note, all 4 have woman trouble. Campbell’s wife Dona has left him, Heinlein’s wife Leslyn is out as an alcoholic, Hubbard has hooked up with clingy 18 year old he now wants to dump, Asimov is a mildly frustrated newlywed turning into a low-intensity harasser.

Still wrapping my head around the fact that letters to magazines = blog comments.

Magazines printed addresses of letter writers so sliding into dms = writing to other fans.

Early fan conferences *were* the basic Facebook groups and slacks. Not escalations from something else.

Magazines also ran reader polls like we do Twitter polls. The community dynamics, rivalries among different kinds of fan clubs etc all sound very, very familiar. We just do it all online now.

It truly is astounding (heh!) all this rhymes with blogosphere of last decade.

To us all this sounds very heavyweight. But back then this *was* the lightest-weight, cheapest way to get anything done.

Fans coordinated regional meetups and stuff through postcards not even phone!

Stamp = 3c, postcard = SMS
letter = email
Local phone call = 5c

Imagine how you’d form a group then

  1. Postcards to letter writers you “follow”
  2. Exchange of letters
  3. Bunch of postcards to invite people to regional meetup
  4. Asimov might show up
  5. Escalate to phone for locals you meet more often on short notice/impromptu

Phone was also limited because a) landlines b) answering machines weren’t yet big (first commercial failure = 1949, first successful ones ~1960)

Local postcards would have been easier, and as quick if high chance phone wouldn’t be answered and you had to leave a message anyway

This all feels alien to me though I did grow up in landline/postcard/letter era. We did pen-pal crap in the 80s (my sister had one, I never bothered). Long-distance was letter-writing. “Trunk” calls were too expensive except for emergencies. Local phone was also sparingly used.

In general I did very little non-locally except join a kids club sponsored by our regional newspaper which sent me a dumbass badge, membership card, and some stickers. I had one letter published in a comic book I subscribed to (more stickers as reward). Circa 1982-86 I think.

Okay now we’re at dawn of Scientology, 1950 or so. Hubbard has convinced Campbell his stuff is real. They’re experimenting with hypnosis, regression to past lives, scopolamine, barbiturates. Terminology like engrams, clear, preclear, auditing is coming together. Dianetics time!

Hubbard picked up his shtick via disciple of Alesteir Crowley, english occultist. This is outside scope of the book, but clearly occult and SoCal new age religion scene was the other parent of Scientology if sci-fi was the first parent.

Heh, early Scientology is reminding me of current blogosphere interest in trauma. Question is who’s the Hubbard of this crowd? A charismatic older blogger with vaguely occult leanings and a line in technobabble-infused talk therapy and a self-improvement/perfection protocol? 🤔

Oh shit, I know exactly where to map this. Won’t say it out aloud to avoid beef provocation.

Gonna skip over Scientology bit in my live-tweeting.

Okay maybe a snippet or two. This bit made me actually lol

The book’s understanding of Wiener and cybernetics is weak. Planting a Gell-Mann amnesia flag for this bit. Like most outsiders he credits Wiener with way too much. He was at best a sort of P. T. Barnum of control theory with a few contributions.

Oh shit Shannon got roped into it too?

So tldr of this subplot: Hubbard went back and forth on computer metaphor of mind, ultimately abandoning it, Campbell convinced himself there was a link via cybernetics. His influence just launched Scientology with cybernetics branding, which both sides disavowed later.

Lol. Asimov’s Thiotimoline parody had sparked a parody genre that made it hard to introduce Dianetics as real.

Now we’re into a rather sad description of Campbell unraveling under obsession with Dianetics 😢

Okay will skip lightly over the rest of this bit. We’re now at the point where Heinlein and Asimov reject the hard sell initiation attempts into Dianetics and get on with their lives.

Ray Bradbury enters as first major non-Campbell stable talent. Asimov starts selling to other outlets via Pohl. The fellowship of Astounding is unraveling as Dianetics eats it.

Horace Gold gets both Heinlein and Asimov contributing to Galaxy. The Astounding monopoly ends. This feels like the PC entering the market Apple created. Action shifting to books and movies as well.

Lol, the casual use of denouncing people as communists to the FBI in the 1950s is an interesting footnote. Weapon of choice in institutional infighting of the decade it seems. Like revenge porn today.

Damn. Now I want to collect a few issues of Astounding. There’s an 8 volume anthology but I’d like originals. Found one for $5. Wonder if there are archives with complete collection anywhere.

WHOA it’s all online looks like wtf. There goes the rest of my 2020. Link to Astounding archives.

And now we have early Dianetics imploded, Campbell remarried and now exploring his 2.0 concept, Psionics 🙄

Revised ranking of who I want to model my Act 2 after.

  1. Asimov
  2. Heinlein
  3. Campbell
  4. Hubbard

I relate far less to Act 2 Campbell. He comes across as credulous, traumatized, and broken. Messianic obsessive.

Campbell’s slow descent into general crackpottery and insecurity, punctuated by a series of personal tragedies, is painful to read about. But all along he keeps trying to parley his science fiction social capital into a social movement he can control and fails.

General disclaimer: all 4 were terrible people in important ways. People who make history often are. But except for Hubbard, their worst traits didn’t end up defining and shaping the most significant aspects of their legacy. That’s all anyone can hope for.

Looks like at 39, in 1959, Asimov had invested his identity entirely into writing. He wanted to write 100 books. Not unreasonable. In my head it converts to 2000-3000 longform blogposts.

At once a weirdly unimaginative and imaginative goal. Cf quantity has a quality all its own.

Update he hit the goal at age 50 🤨

Campbell fumbles Herbert and Dune, it’s ~1969. Looks like he’s down for the count now. Too old to change, left behind. Also, an Ayn Rand fan, so minus 10 points there.

And now he’s turned into a rather sophomoric basic racist uncle at Thanksgiving type with little left in him except residual prejudices. Sad how many interesting people from that era ended up there in the 60s.

And now we have Asimov the harasser trying to persuade Campbell the racist, by now a full-blown reactionary, that he is on the wrong side on civil rights, race etc. Kinda funny. Both would be born canceled today 😂

Alright to bed. To be continued.

Okay the book sprints through the rest of their lives. They’re all dead within the next couple of chapters.

Campbell dies in 1971, watching Mexican wrestling on TV

Hubbard, 1986, stroke

Heinlein dies, 1988, at 80, old age

Asimov 1992, transfusion-HIV

The last few chapters are unexpectedly poignant, and the last third of the book the strongest. Does a great job threading the needle between showcasing their contributions and honestly portraying their flaws, and not flinching from judging them.

What struck me the most is the extreme degree to which severe physical and mental health issues shaped their lives and work, and the extent to which their flaws and failures seem like natural products of those struggles.

There’s a whole “everybody’s fighting a hidden battle” aspect to their stories. Only Hubbard comes across as irredeemable, turning into a true psycho-sadist by the end. The other 3 are redeemable I think. Their reputations/legacies can be rehabilitated/salvaged, and deserve to be

But damn the blast radius of personal tragedy around their personal lives is non-trivial. Asimov’s estranged son ended up getting convicted of child pornography. Hubbard’s son committed suicide.

Final rankings:

Only Asimov survives the tale with a life worth emulating, modulo some editing of flaws. He’s the only one on the list.

Campbell is a cautionary tale, grew himself into a cul de sac.

Heinlein ended up pwned by his ideological leanings

Hubbard beyond the pale.

So… Competent Man viewed through the lives of these 4 eigenauthors of the archetype?

Campbell and Heinlein believed most fervently in the silly unreconstructed ideal, but in different ways.

Hubbard rejected it in his fiction but aspired to it in his life and failed badly.

Asimov is the interesting one. He inherited and faithfully executed on the archetype but didn’t believe in it or aspire to it, proclaiming his own unworthiness etc in the beginning. Yet by the end he found he’d come closest to achieving a version of it with psyche intact.

Heinlein and Campbell present diffferent patterns of arrested development. Hubbard a degeneration into unrestrained deviancy. All 3 aspired to being Competent Men in life. None deserves the title Competent Man. All 3 realized it and it soured their last years, making them bitter.

They died with relationships to individuals, society and posterity in a troubled, unresolved state of failed self-actualization.

Asimov though, kinda conquered life and seems to have died genuinely happy, having managed to grow old along with himself. Competent man.

A nice thought experiment: what combination of these 4, who bridged the worlds of campy Flash Gordon and complex Rick Deckard, would make the best Frankenstein Competent Man? What traits would you pick from each, what would you leave out?

Campbell: keep the confident authoritah, imagination and OG contrarianism, leave out the utter sloppiness when it came to rigorous thinking, the insecurity in relation to science.

Heinlein: Keep the political and artistic courage, leave out the intolerant conviction in himself.

Hubbard: keep the sociopath realism and spiritual daring, leave out the cartoon levels of 7 deadly sins and more.

Asimov: keep the energy, IQ, humility, loyalty, and general integrity. Leave out the odd conservatism, misogyny, and deep self-absorption/neglectfulness of relations

For those interested, the Golden Age was followed by New Wave. Kinda like DC —> Marvel in comics.

Series Navigation<< Notes — Freedom’s Forge by Arthur HermanNotes: The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

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  1. Jens Alfke says

    > clearly occult and SoCal new age religion scene was the other parent of Scientology

    Yes, and there is some _fascinating_ stuff there…

    Jack Parsons, a Pasadena-born self-taught explosives expert, talked himself into the rocketry lab at nearby Caltech in the late ’30s and became a project member despite having no college degree. After a lot of very dangerous experiments with rocket engines in a nearby canyon, this lab eventually turned into JPL.

    Meanwhile, Parsons and his wife had a strong interest in the occult. They joined the LA chapter of the OTO — Aleister Crowley’s church/cult — took it over, and moved it to Parson’s family mansion in Pasadena. The mansion became home base for, basically, a polyamorous sex-magick research lab. By this time Heinlein and Hubbard were involved. Parsons and Hubbard invented and performed a month-long sex ritual to summon the goddess “Babalon”, who then showed up in the person of an 18-year-old woman joining the group. She became Parsons’ primary partner until she and Hubbard absconded with a lot of Parsons’ money and immediately started up Scientology. (Heinlein left too, but took with him only a bunch of ideas about polyamory and communal living that gestated into Stranger In A Strange Land.)

    A year or so later, Parsons blows himself up in his garage lab, in an accident that some still find very suspicious.

    This stuff is crazy, and ties together so many threads of Weird 20th Century — rocket science, the occult, cults, SF, the sexual revolution — that it might as well be a Tim Powers novel; but it’s true as far as I know. I’ve read one biography of Parsons, “Strange Angel” by George Pendle, which I found riveting. There are a few other books, and apparently a miniseries from a few years ago. (It also clearly inspired one of the plot arcs in the recent TV series “Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels”.)

    • Oh yeah that episode is covered in the book. I just didn’t cover it on my tweets. Fascinating stuff.

    • In a sense this fits neatly into the 14th century stuff, Venkat reviewed recently.

      For a sunken aristocracy which is confronted with the (supposed) effectiveness of the bourgeois world and its projection into a perfectly managed future, there is no other route of escape than becoming full trickster. Slaying peasants and taking woman and property from rivals in combats looks like the high time of the aristocratic instinct, one, which doesn’t need all the secret paths through “magick” territory. Modern age decadents can only make small step, mostly sexual transgressions ; they do cults and commit fraud.

      A much fiercer God than their liberal Satan, one who is a wicked Freudian, would admit that he did intend to let them build rockets and only decadents with suppressed desires, looking for an escape from his rule, would have been able to do this with such vigor. That was his plan and that’s why he created them.

  2. The part comparing this era to the blogs of the early days is the most interesting to me. I think a lot of people feel like blogs don’t have the prominence that they once did tho I feel that’s not quite right
    But I also don’t deeply understand how to explain what I’m missing

  3. Great summary! I’ve really been reading your pandemic reads posts.