Monday, February 04, 2019

Astounding, by Alec Nevala-Lee

Astounding is extraordinary, a rich, incisive and constantly shocking history of the science-fiction magazine of the same name, and through it a biography of the "golden age" of SF told through the lives of four luminaries of the genre: John W Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and L Ron Hubbard.

I grew up devouring Asimov's stories and a fair bit of Heinlein, and wrote my MA dissertation on the claims made by Campbell and others about the quality - and value - of "real" science in SF. That was all a long time ago, but I thought I knew this story. Not a bit of it, it turns out. And some of my heroes were appalling people.

I'm going to write more about that in a review for someone else, so I'll be brief here. I really admired how Nevala-Lee involves women whose voices have otherwise been lost, reminding us of their presence and underlining their influence. Kay Tarrant, for example, was always at the next desk from Campbell when authors came to visit, so would have had a ring-side view of many of the battles described here. When she had a heart attack, we're told, it took five people to carry out the tasks she'd quietly got on with for decades. We get just an impression of her, but it's a strong one, and important.

The book is also unflinching about the shortcomings of authors - not just the four main subjects - and their sometimes downright awful behaviour. "Asimov, who described himself as a feminist, casually groped female fans for years," we're told (p. 12) - and he's the one who comes off best. But there's effort to understand if not condone them, and we can also glory in their work and their influence.

It's prompted me to read a bunch of Asimov's robot stories again, and I remembered robopsychologist Susan Calvin as a pioneering character - a competent, professional woman getting on with her high-level job. But I think that view must have come from Asimov himself, introducing the stories in his jokey, self-effacing way - as he remarks on his own progressive brilliance,
"You will note, by the way, that although most of the Susan Calvin stories were written at a time when male chauvinism was taken for granted in science fiction, Susan asks no favors and beats the men at their own game. To be sure, she remains sexually unfulfilled - but you can't have everything." - Isaac Asimov, The Complete Robot, p. 327.
I'm keen to look again at Heinlein, and have been eyeing The Pleasant Profession of Robert A Heinlein by my friend Farah Mendlesohn, perhaps (as a kind tweeter advised) after a read of the Expanded Universe collection.

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