Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

Nozzle Velocity

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Last year, reviewer and sf scholar Gary K. Wolfe announced on his podcast that he was reading Alec Nevala-Lee's new book titled Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Before he finished reciting the title, his co-host in Perth, editor Jonathan Strahan, could be heard snoring loudly on the other side of the planet. It was a funny and understandable reaction. A few months later at WorldCon in San Jose, Strahan and Wolfe were ensconced in a room with Nevala-Lee for an interview about his new multi-biographical survey - and there was no snoring.

The book is nothing short of fascinating. Nevala-Lee has clearly done a true historian's research while avoiding the usual pitfalls of fan-fueled hagiography or hit job revisionism. To be sure, there is plenty of "tell-all" to tell, and Nevala-Lee lays the facts out for all to see, but his writing style is equal to the best popular historians - and that's what makes this book a landmark work. Rather than bear down on a list of eccentricities, contretemps, and in some cases, monstrous actions in a win/lose morality contest, Nevala-Lee lets the facts largely speak for themselves.

The book maintains a relentless forward momentum as the focus masterfully shifts among the main characters. Additonal authors (deCamp, van Vogt, Silverberg, Ellison, etc.) are often used to elegantly segue to the next author or subject. The Golden Age was a small community, and most of the writers knew each other. Given enough research, you can find a spoken or written opinion about the principle subject or issue at the precise timeline in the narrative. Nevala-Lee's triumph is in finding and coordinating these viewpoints in a way that logically propels his writing through the paragraphs to the next scene. It's a technique that works best in a survey of multiple subjects rather than a traditional, single-person biography. Successfully weaving that tapestery takes a skilled hand and a deep command of the facts.

For science fiction fans of a certain (older) age, this book is a wild roller-coaster ride and a bit of a romp through the field. Anyone else approaching these characters for the first time may be left wondering, "What the hell was wrong with these people?" One thing's for certain, you will not be bored and there will be no snoring as you devour this groundbreaking achievement. Alec Nevala-Lee is now premanently on my radar.
 

Nozzle Velocity

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I've read and enjoyed Knight's The Futurians, and now I think this will be at the top of my wishlist. CC
I still haven't read that. They appear repeatedly in this book.

Something I should've mentioned: the women involved with these men and their various projects played an integral and crucial role. Their voices and viewpoints are heard throughout the book. At one point, Campbell considered turning the editorship of Astounding over to his wife while he pursued his latest Quixote-like quest for scientific relevance. It's all here - the divorces, affairs, professional and family relationships. Campbell's own mother was the inspiration for the alien in "Who Goes There?" Yikes!
 
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