Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell Shaped Our Vision of the Future but His Views on Race were Stuck in the Past

I do something unusual on New Books in Science Fiction this week. Instead of focusing on fiction, I delve into a non-fiction book.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction is the first comprehensive biography of John W. Campbell, who, as a writer and magazine editor, wielded enormous influence over the field of science fiction in the mid-20th century.

John W. Campbell Jr.

Asimov once called Campbell “the most powerful force in science fiction.” Or as Nevala-Lee explained it to me on the podcast, Campbell’s “interests, his obsessions, and his prejudices really shaped what science fiction was going to be.”

Astounding has been getting positive reviews in both mainstream (e.g., The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post) and science fiction media, which is a testament not only to Nevala-Lee’s skill but to the fact that Campbell’s role in shaping the genre–and his relationship with some of the most famous science fiction authors of the last century–has been little explored until now.

Many people are familiar with Campbell’s name because it’s on the award given out every year by the World Science Fiction Society—the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. This year, the award went to Rebecca Roanhorse, who I spoke with in September. (Other winners who’ve been on the show include Ada Palmer, Andy Weir, and Mur Lafferty.)

From 1937 through the 1960s, Campbell used the magazine Astounding Science Fiction (now named Analog) to popularize science fiction and its potential to predict the future. But Nevala-Lee also unmasks Campbell as someone with “clearly racist” views, which he expressed both in the magazine and privately.

“I’ve heard people say he reflected the values of his time, which I don’t think is actually true,” Nevala-Lee says. “I think he was more racist in some ways than was typical of that era.”

Nevala-Lee quotes a 1957 letter to Asimov in which Campbell asserts that “Africans were the only race never to develop ‘a high-order civilization.'” To the writer Poul Anderson, Campbell wrote that “there were young black girls ‘that I would not allow in my house in any role but that of a serf labor, the role of a pure slave…. They are to be dealt with as one deals with a domestic animal.'”

Even during the civil rights movement, Campbell expressed hateful and ignorant views–for instance, professing that “blacks and whites had different bell curves for intelligence,” according to Astounding. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Campbell failed to encourage or reflect diversity in his magazine’s pages–a crime against readers, writers, and the very genre he sought to expand and elevate.

“He was quite content to keep publishing stories by writers who looked like him… And the characters were almost all white,” Nevala-Lee says. “Campbell thought that maybe black writers weren’t interested in writing science fiction or they weren’t good at it. It never seems to have occurred to him that they might be more interested in writing for his magazine if they saw characters who looked like them.”

“He bears part of the blame for the lack of diversity in science fiction for many of those years,” Nevala-Lee says.

Astounding is a powerful contribution to the history of science fiction, offering fascinating stories about the careers and personal lives of Campbell and his stable of talented and influential writers, including Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard. But its immediate effect may be to spark a conversation about whether the best way to honor today’s emerging talent is with an award bearing the name of a man whose legacy is so problematic. A similar conversation occurred earlier this year over the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award; the debate ended when the American Library Association decided to change the name of the award.

“That debate has not yet extended to the John W. Campbell Award. I think it’s a legitimate discussion because Campbell’s opinions on race, in my opinion, are far more offensive than anything Wilder expressed,” Nevala-Lee says.

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