Reassessing 6 Works from an Astounding Era of Science Fiction

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Alec Nevala-Lee’s new book Astounding is a fascinating, essential history of the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” from the point of view of John W. Campbell, writer and, for decades, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine (read our full review here).

During his tenure as an editor, Campbell discovered and nurtured a group of writers who would go on to stand with the biggest names in the genre’s history. Men (and they were almost always men) like Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard were among Campbell’s inner circle. None of the works produced during the Campbell era were produced in a vacuum, but were created with at least some degree of collaboration with the legendary editor whose vision of the future, for better and worse, shapes our view of science fiction to this day.

Here are six key works that represent the Campbell era’s lasting influence on the genre.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
The title is apt, given the sheer volume of later work inspired by Asimov’s lynchpin series, the one-time Hugo winner for the best sci-fi series ever. Ultimately composed of seven novels published over more than fifty years, the saga began as a series of eight short stories and novellas published in Astounding beginning in 1942 (this structure remains in the books as we know them, with sections with distinct beginnings and endings that tie into an overall story, much like a serialized TV drama). Foundation tells the story of the titular future organization, established to preserve the best aspects of civilization following an inevitable collapse. Though the work is distinctly Asimov’s, it’s origins were decidedly collaborative, reflecting a time when John W. Campbell saw Isaac not as the science fiction superstar he became, but as a gifted student to be molded. The two collaborated on breaking out the initial story, but Campbell’s influence is most keenly felt in the idea of “psychohistory.” In the galaxy of Foundation, large-scale human behavior is predictable to a scientific certainty, even as the behavior of individuals remains subject to chance and whim. It ties into Campbell’s ideas about psychology and the perfectibility of the human mind—ideas that ultimately led him to work with L. Ron Hubbard.

Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell
The “base under siege” mode of sci-fi storytelling has a long history, but few have done it better than Campbell did in this 1940 novella about a team of researchers in the Antarctic who accidentally thaw the alien pilot of a spacecraft that crashed into the ice many millions of years ago. The isolated crew is soon hunted by a shapeshifting “Thing” that can mimic the appearance of anyone on the team. If that all sounds familiar, it’s because the story was loosely adapted by Howard Hawks and company for the 1951 The Thing from Another World, and then later by John Carpenter in the surprisingly more faithful The Thing (and later still in the 2011 prequel). Campbell mostly gave up solo writing after taking over Astounding, but this story remains an influential standout among his limited output, perhaps suggested by his childhood dislike of his mother’s cold and distant twin sister.

“If This Goes On—”, by Robert Heinlein
Described by Astounding chronicler Nevala-Lee as Heinlein’s first great story, “If This Goes On—” is early Heinlein, a work that brings together a great many of the themes and ideas he’d continue to explore over the balance of his life, and evidences what became a customary fearlessness in his willingness to explore issues of politics and religion. Here, America is under the rule of Christian theocrats (the last free and open elections having occurred in 2012—make of that what you will) under President/Prophet Nehemiah Scudder. A devout army officer begins to question the arrangement when he witnesses the impact of sexual servitude on the women in the Prophet’s orbit. First serialized in Astounding in 1940, it announced Heinlein as a rising star and laid out a lot of the details for works in his interrelated “Future History” stories. It was collected as part of Revolt in 2100, a collection of Future History tales.

Final Blackout, by L. Ron Hubbard
Hubbard contributed work to several of the golden age pulps, writing across several genres. Though he’s best known today for science fiction tales like the Mission: Earth series and Battlefield Earth (well, maybe not best known) it wasn’t his primary focus in the era during which he was a part of John W. Campbell’s stable of writers. Still, he was generally seen as a reliable storyteller, and a purveyor of the type of action and fun that pulp readers frequently demanded. Final Blackout stands out among his work for its richly detailed portrait of a dystopian future in which the planet has been blighted by three decades of war. Into this world comes the Lieutenant, a statesman and leader who can help to put things right. It dovetails nicely with Campbell’s longstanding interest in the idea of humanity perfected: both Hubbard and the editor liked stories in which a noble, strong, smart, and virtuous man saves the future. That lofty vision was a direct influence on the development of Scientology, which both Hubbard and, initially, Campbell saw as a means of advancing the species one mind at a time.

Slan, by A.E. van Vogt
Though a relatively minor figure in Nevala-Lee’s book, van Vogt looms large in the history of science fiction. Though controversial for his style and politics (frequently relating to now-obscure debates over General Semantics and non-Aristotelian logic), his volume of output, if nothing else, ensures his place in the canon. Slan was serialized in Astounding in 1940, and represented something of a coup for Campbell: he’d promised readers that he’d introduce several new and talented voices, and van Vogt proved to be a get. The novel’s Slans are psychic, super-intelligent, highly evolved humans who find themselves hunted and feared by less-evolved world leaders. Its themes were wildly influential (cough X-Men cough), and the book became an early rally-point for fandom, as “Fans are slans!” became a slogan among those who felt that sci-fi readers were superior minds harassed by lesser intelligences. It’s unclear if any bullies were put off by the slogan. (But probably they were not.)

Nova, by Samuel R. Delany
Here is a novel significant in the history of sci-fi magazine publishing for having been rejected, despite the author having recently won a Hugo Award for Best Novel, because Campbell didn’t think his readers would relate to a story with a black protagonist. As Campbell grew older, his darker impulses came to the fore, and his ideas about human perfectibility became increasingly exclusionary. Though Astounding (which had, by then, been renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact) had published works by women (C.L. Moore, Anne McCaffrey, and Leigh Brackett, among others), Campbell never seemed to consider their work particularly important, and writers of color were almost entirely left out, a fact that grew increasingly difficult to justify in the civil rights era and beyond. Black and queer writer Samuel R. Delany was one of the voices willing and entirely able to move the genre forward, and his Nova represents a moment, perhaps, when Campbell could have bridged the gap between his glorious—but very white—golden age and a more expansive future. But he said no, praising Delany’s skill while dismissing the potential of people of color to create transcendent SF. Though less experimental than Delany’s later output, this wildly entertaining space opera anticipated cyberpunk trends while paying tribute to earlier works; its ultimate publication as a novel remains a pivotal moment.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding is available now.

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