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Pulp Puppies & Competent Men:
John W. Campbell, Jr. & the Supermen of Science Fiction

[1]9,259 words

Alec Nevala-Lee
Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction
New York: Dey Street Books, 2018

“We seek nothing less than a Campbellian revolution in genre literature.” — Vox Day[1] [2]

 “The Campbell that influenced me was John W., not Joseph.” — George R. R. Martin

Alec Nevala-Lee, an Asian-American science fiction writer,[2] [3] has here written something remarkable: an intentionally PC multi-biography that nevertheless manages to be well-informed and informative, well-written and compulsively readable.

It’s the first substantive biography of John W. Campbell, Jr., the man – or, as we’ll see, some would insist on “the white male” – who basically invented modern science fiction; and that last point means that to do so properly, we have to take into account the three men – yes, again, white males – whose writing careers he promoted in order to do it.

It’s an index of Campbell’s importance that, although I am not really a science fiction fan – certainly not to the level of the fanatical creeps[3] [4] that slip in and out of these pages – I could recognize almost every work referred to, and had indeed read most of them; and I bet you have, too.

Campbell started off with a bang, writing “Who Goes There?” in the August 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, later filmed as The Thing [5] (1982), The Thing from Another World [6] (1951), and again, not so well, as The Thing [7] (2011).[4] [8] Next, almost by accident, he became the editor of Astounding, and in the decades to come he would find young authors, eager to break into the big time, and feed them his ideas for stories. Even as his career wound down, and the magazine slipped from its dominant position, he was still able to snap up Frank Herbert’s serial “Dune World.”[5] [9]

Reversing the usual role of the Jewish guru,[6] [10] when Campbell met a pimply, bespectacled, socially retarded Russian Jew from Brooklyn – Isaac Asimov – he “took him on as an experiment to develop a writer from scratch, feeding him the premise for his landmark story ‘Nightfall,’[7] [11] the psychohistory of the Foundation series,[8] [12] and the revolutionary Three Laws of Robotics.”[9] [13]

By contrast, Robert Heinlein was an established talent; “Campbell’s primary contribution was to recognize it . . . He was everything that Campbell had ever wanted in a writer, and Heinlein seized the chance to express his ideas in a form that could reach a vast readership . . . they fed off each other’s obsessions.” After breaking away from Campbell, he would go on to write Starship Troopers,[10] [14] Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, among many others.

L. Ron Hubbard was also already a successful pulp writer, but had no interest in science fiction; instead, Campbell “became the enthusiastic promoter and editor” of a book you may have heard of: Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.

According to Lee, all four had “profound similarities”:

All were gifted children who endured professional or academic setbacks in their early twenties. Each remarried at a hinge point in his career, leaving the wife who had supported him at his most vulnerable for another as soon as he was ready to enter a new phase. [Typical white males!]

But above all:

All were generalists who saw science fiction as an educational tool – although to radically different ends. And they all embodied Campbell’s conviction, which he never abandoned, that science fiction could change lives.

Science fiction was a key tool, because “most fans discover the genre at a young age”:

It offers fantasies of escape and control; it can be enjoyed by children or teenagers who might be intellectually precocious but emotionally inexperienced; and it tends to catch them at a moment when they are uniquely receptive to new ideas. As one fan famously observed, “The real golden age of science fiction is twelve.”

To this could be added the twin blows of the Great Depression, which limited opportunities for all, and the looming threat of being swept up in the Second World War. Science fiction provided a broader vision, making it seem that things were still “worth it” and “their lives had value.” The shock of the atomic bomb – Campbell was happy to encourage the idea that science fiction had some role in predicting, if not creating, it – gave Campbell’s literary enterprise a new focus and intensity: to save the world.

And the results of Campbell’s experiment are impressive, and not only due to my own nodding familiarity with the products of his writers.

In 1963, Asimov estimated that half of all creative scientists were interested in science fiction, and he acknowledged that this was probably an understatement.

Public figures of all political persuasions – from Paul Krugman to Elon Musk to Newt Gingrich – have confessed to being influenced by its stories.

Campbell and his writers were creating nothing less than a shared vision of the future, which inevitably informs how we approach the present. . . . When we propose technological fixes for climate change, or place our hopes in the good intentions of a few visionary billionaires,[11] [15] we unconsciously endorse a view of the world straight out of the pages of Astounding.

His ultimate goal was to turn his writers and readers into a new kind of human being, exemplified by “the Competent Man [16],”[12] [17] who would lead in turn to the superman . . . a being of superior intellect [18] who would emerge, perhaps by mutation, from within the human race.

Here’s where Lee begins to push back: “[the] very name points to the way in which science fiction enforces certain assumptions.” Roh roh; you know what that means.

But first, how competent were these men? None of them proves to be a particularly charming specimen, a fact that should upset only the most starry-eyed of fanboys.[13] [19] Campbell and Heinlein come across the best – Campbell is a rather charming, downwardly mobile upper-class duffer (with an “aquiline profile, which bore a striking resemblance, he liked to say, to both Hermann Göring and the Shadow”), and Heinlein was a proto-manosphere guy who joined the military to get control of his body and mind, turned to writing only when illness forced him out of the Navy, and who only became a cantankerous jerk as disease and age caused his body to let him down at the end of his career[14] [20] – but anyone would come off well in comparison with Hubbard and – surprisingly to me – Asimov, who seem to have been competing with each other to take the “Greatest Asshole in the World” trophy from Baron Corvo.[15] [21]

It’s clear Hubbard was a con-man from birth – like most founders of religions, I suppose – and Lee’s relentless chronicling of his nautical incompetence, from college through the Navy to his pantomime pirate antics aboard his extradition-evading “Sea Org,” makes for gruesome amusement.[16] [22]

Although Hubbard is clearly a paranoid nutjob right from the start, here, as in life, he is the most intriguing character, and his section contains most of the remarkable revelations. For example, although there are a dozen or more witnesses to his infamous remark, “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion,”[17] [23] Scientology (as “Dianetics”) was originally an actual (though crank) technology, developed with key input from Campbell, based on the new (real) science of cybernetics.[18] [24]

Nor was Hubbard, as critics like to say, even “originally a science fiction writer.” Hubbard was only fitfully a science fiction writer, working in many genres purely to make a buck. After his break with Campbell, failure to interest real scientists, and several abortive “institutes” and “colleges” (all looted by him before collapse), Hubbard fell back on his remaining audience – science fiction fans – and resolved to “give them what they want.” Thus was born the infamous Xenu [25] revelations, which Hubbard described, in the scriptures themselves, as “very space opera [26].” As it had from the start, once more it was fandom itself that gave decisive shape to the product.[19] [27]

Lee also reveals a crucial link between Campbell, Hubbard, and William Burroughs. When Hubbard tried to demonstrate his “new science of the mind” on Campbell, the editor proved immune to hypnosis (which is what Scientology basically is) as well as drugs. Hubbard then resorted to “an apparatus described by the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot,” to wit:

Four mirrors were arranged in a truncated pyramid on a record player, with a lit candle placed nearby. When the turntable revolved at its highest speed, the result was a flicker of light that flashed at more than three hundred times per minute.

In short, what Burroughs and Gysin would later call the “Dream Machine.”[20] [28]

As I said, Hubbard, though a monster, had the con-man’s ability to make himself interesting. Asimov, though, is a complete disaster; a walking, talking, bottom-pinching Jewish stereotype.

When it comes to Asimov, Lee’s agenda begins to become apparent. Born in some Russian shtetl, Little Izzie and his family slipped into America via Ellis Island in 1923, “the last year of relatively unobstructed immigration, and if they had waited any longer, they might not have been allowed to enter.” Wait, I thought America was wide open to everyone until Trump seized power in 2016? How many future science fiction geniuses will his cruel policies deny us?

There’s no need to read Lee’s account of Little Izzie’s early life tending to the family candy store or living on the streets of the Lower East Side; nor for him to have written it, since we’ve seen these movies over and over again.[21] [29] What Lee contributes is his use of Izzie’s schmaltz to denigrate the other three:

It seemed to be his fate to be set apart by some combination of Jewishness, youth, intelligence, and the family business. Unlike Campbell, Heinlein, or Hubbard, he didn’t have to invent forms of exile for himself.

All four are outsiders of various sorts, but some people’s exile has more Pokémon points than others; and guess who wins? Admittedly, Hubbard was always a pathological liar. But how, exactly, did Campbell “invent” his alienating genius? Lee even tries to turn it against him:

Genius, he decided, was the worst handicap of all – which later made him less than sympathetic to those who felt like outcasts for other reasons.

Yes, all that matters is the feels. Of course, atheist Asimov was “Jewish” only in his Yiddish bumptiousness. “He was awkward and overeager,” and “had to be told not to urinate into the gutter,” Lee notes in passing. “Asimov was fond of enclosed, windowless spaces, like the kitchen at the rear of the store, and he fantasized about running a newsstand in the subway.” He took to reading his science fiction magazines in the quiet of a cemetery, until “one day, the caretaker had to ask him not to disturb visitors who might be there to mourn. Asimov had been whistling.”

He began writing about robots to avoid the problems of figuring out how humans interacted, and never overcame his fear of flying. He ignored his family, preferring to lock himself away and type fanatically, producing over four hundred books, mostly on popular science.[22] [30] Although he learned not to urinate in the gutter, he never learned not to talk in theaters, or not to jump up and applaud his own name in screen credits.[23] [31]

And, most notably, he obsessively pinched and otherwise manhandled any woman he could get his hands on, or around:

In his younger days, Judith Merril said, Asimov had been known as “the man with a hundred hands. . . . When it went, occasionally, beyond purely social enjoyability, there seemed no way to clue him in.”

Asimov was becoming a celebrity in the mainstream. But there was also a less attractive side to his fame. He was still pinching women’s bottoms, prompting a friend’s wife to snap, “God, Asimov, why do you always do that? It is extremely painful and besides, don’t you realize, it’s very degrading.” Yet he did nothing to change his behavior.

Well, why should he, when the chairman of a science fiction convention suggested he give a talk on “The Positive Power of Posterior Pinching”? At another convention, an attendee recalls that “Asimov . . . instead of shaking my date’s hand, shook her left breast.”

He later opined (in one of those four hundred books, The Sensuous Dirty Old Man, a supposed “parody”): “The question then is not whether or not a girl should be touched. The question is merely where, when, and how she should be touched.”

Asimov thought that it was generally agreed that he was “harmless,” and that his attentions toward fans were usually welcome: “I kiss each young woman who wants an autograph and have found, to my delight, that they tend to co-operate enthusiastically in that particular activity.”

But if his treatment of women was often inexcusable, or worse, it did little to diminish the affection in which he was held by other men, or his position as an ambassador for the genre.

Indeed, even that disagreeable schmuck and fellow Tribesman Harlan Ellison says, “He didn’t mean anything by it – times were different – but that was Isaac.”[24] [32]

Despite his aversion to humans, and a sex life mostly confined to what the New York City subway system calls “unwanted physical contact,” he still managed to contract AIDS from a blood transfusion; what a schlemiel.[25] [33]

Against these schmendricks, any reader of Counter-Currents is going to find Campbell and Heinlein far more acceptable company. Yet Lee makes Asimov the focus, if not exactly the hero, of the book, giving him literally the first and last words.[26] [34]

This is a function of Lee’s greater, not-so-hidden agenda: to not just establish that Campbell & Co. created modern science fiction, but to relate the “problems” in the genre to the flaws in these men, and thus promote a wholesale revision of it into a more politically correct form. If science fiction was engineered, we can reengineer it; to paraphrase a somewhat low-rent science fiction work: “We can rebuild it. We can make it better.” As Lee says elsewhere [35]:

[It] was reflection of the personality of Campbell. He didn’t think that diversity was worth pursuing. He was undeniably racist, and it affected the stories that he published. Science fiction is still suffering the consequences of that. As we’ve learned, diversity doesn’t happen by itself. It requires a conscious effort to increase the voices you have in science fiction.

Needless to say, we think Campbell did nothing wrong. Campbell’s project was to produce a new race of heroes – superman, if you will. For Lee, and too many like him, this is “problematic” because its results fail to satisfy the demand for a rigid, abstract kind of “equality” of results, which supersedes all other goals. One is reminded of the Obama-era head of NASA, who announced [36] its mission had changed from space exploration to “Muslim outreach.”

What, then, of the supposed “evidence”? Let’s start with racism. Interestingly, both Campbell and Hubbard, in their youth, made the same joke about meeting foreigners:

Hubbard: “They smell of all the baths they didn’t take. The trouble with China is, there are too many chinks here.”

Campbell: “Paris itself is fine; too bad there are so many French in it.”

That both use the same joke shows that it is, after all, a common trope; hackneyed even in the ‘30s. It’s the kind of joke one might have felt obligated to make while writing home, like the rain in Spain or it not being the heat, but the humidity; hence its reoccurrence in these two separate contexts. But perhaps no more; the racial component (is there a French race, after all?) makes it a pearl-clutching moment for Lee and his generation of snowflakes.

I’m spending too much time on this “joke” myself because it clues us in on Lee’s SJW perspective. Like all contemporary writers who move within the atmosphere of Political Correctness like trout in a stream, Lee doesn’t handle politics or any contemporary “hot buttons” very well.[27] [37] Campbell is simply a “racist,” which I suppose is technically the case, as the term is used today, but the actual quotes seem mild and rather well-founded; of course, as with Hubbard on Chinese bathing, truth is never the issue in such cases, only the crime of what Steve Sailer has called noticing.[28] [38] For example:

Campbell had cast a disapproving eye on the riots in Newark, saying that it was an example of blacks wanting “something for nothing.”

“The problem with this country is that it doesn’t know how to deal with the niggers.”

“There is such a thing as a nigger – just as there are spicks and wops and frogs and micks. A bum of Italian ancestry is a wop; a bum of Jewish ancestry is a kike – and a bum of Negro ancestry is a nigger.”

“All human beings are not equal. When the Southern white says ‘Negroes aren’t human!’ he is speaking from experience. I’ve been there . . . they are not human-in-the-normal-sense-of-the-term. They’re low-grade morons and high-grade idiots . . . The competent Negro [note the word ‘competent’] moves North or West to an area where he can achieve something.”

 “If you deny the existence of racial differences, the problem of racial differences cannot be solved.”

“Why should all races be alike, Isaac? Simply so you wouldn’t have to think so hard to understand a different kind of intelligent entity? Simply so that you wouldn’t have to work out more than one set of right-wrong values? Simply so that people can identify the Good Guys from the Bad Guys without the trouble of making basic evaluations?”

“The result is that the old question ‘Would you want your daughter to marry a Negro?’ is a very good philosophical question indeed. The only answer I can give, now, is ‘I know too little about genetics to be able to give a reply based on understanding; I cannot compute the risks and benefits involved for the next few generations.’”

Writing to Asimov in 1957, Campbell indulged in a twisted kind of psychohistory, saying that Africans were the only race never to develop “a high-order civilization,” despite the presence of nearby Egypt: “The Negro does not learn from example.”

“The aboriginal race of Australia are . . . useless beggars without self-respect hanging on the fringes of the white man’s civilization.”

Before long, he was arguing that blacks and whites had different bell curves for intelligence.

The horror! For Lee, “Campbell’s opinions on race were horrifyingly unexamined.” I would say, and I think most readers here would agree, that while his language is often intemperate,[29] [39] these are all arguable points, and the evidence would tend to support Campbell. Of course, what Lee means by “unexamined” is “un-self-censored by the demands of political correctness in order to avoid being deplatformed.”

But Lee isn’t just interested in establishing his subject as racist, as a biographical fact; it’s part of his program for rebuilding science fiction:

“If Negro authors are extremely few – it’s solely because extremely few Negroes both wish to, and can, write in open competition.” It never occurred to him that the dearth of minority writers might be caused by the lack of characters who looked like them, or that he had any ability or obligation to address the situation as an editor.

And Campbell, always the futurist, upsets Lee because he’s already foreseen that program, and rejected it:

“Think about it a bit, and you’ll realize why there is so little mention of blacks in science fiction; we see no reason to go saying ‘Lookee lookee lookee! We’re using blacks in our stories! See the Black Man. See him in a space ship!’”

Now, I’d like to pause here, since in a sense we’ve come full circle. That quote I have at the top of this review comes from the book’s opening section; here’s the full context:

At his worst, Campbell expressed views that were unforgivably racist, and even today, the most reactionary movements in modern fandom – with their deep distrust of women and minorities – have openly stated, “We have called for a Campbellian revolution in science fiction.”

Since, as I also said above, I’m not really a part of fandom, I wondered who these jackbooted thugs were. Did they emerge from the alternate reality of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream [40] and start busting heads at conventions?

Now, Lee’s book is one of those annoying ones where there are no numbered references or notes, but you are expected to shuffle around in the back looking for where the phrase in question reappears; sort of like hyperlinks, but without the actual hyperlink.[30] [41] Doing so reveals the quote belongs to Vox Day, from a blog post enticingly entitled “Racists vs. Child Rapists [42].”

So, “the most reactionary movements in modern fandom” refers to the Sad Puppies. Yet other than this oblique reference, no mention of such puppies are to be found in the book; it’s as if Lee doesn’t want to engage with “the most reactionary” of his opponents, nor wants you to know anything about them.[31] [43] I would call that an “unexamined” belief, if not necessarily a horrifying one.

It’s especially interesting since – to circle back to where we were – Lee, after adducing examples of Campbell’s “racism” and how it supposedly affected his editing, and thus the development of science fiction, goes on to examine how “these assumptions affected his treatment of Samuel R. Delany, the most important black writer the genre had ever produced.”

Campbell rejected several stories from Delany, but he had high regard for his talents, repeatedly stating, “the guy can write and he has a lot of brilliant ideas.” [Of his rejection of Nova, Delany recalls that] “Campbell . . . didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black man character. . . . Otherwise, he rather liked it.”

Well, great sucks to Delany, but hardly annudah shoah. Now, again, I’ve never read any of Delany’s science fiction, but if you were to go back and follow that oblique link, you would find that the “child rapist” of the title is . . . Samuel R. Delany. Indeed, the post gives one a very different image of what Lee is supporting, and what he is opposing, suggesting that the issue is not reducible to “Racists vs. Nice Folks”:

If one can reasonably declare John W. Campbell a racist on the basis of his essays and reported words, then one can absolutely, and with utter certainty, declare Samuel R. Delany to be a child-raping pedophile on the basis of his own stated beliefs and published fantasies.

We have called for a Campbellian revolution in science fiction. . . . Campbellian SF vs Delanyite SF. Science vs Subversion. White Male Racists vs Gay Child Rapists.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that a child rapist couldn’t also be a “Grandmaster of Science Fiction,” but if the reader is expected to judge Campbell’s character, and that of the men he promoted, the reader should also be given all the facts about those whose careers he supposedly hindered.[32] [44]

The aversion from presenting the reader with all the facts also occurs politically. Young Campbell’s initial enthusiasm for Roosevelt is “demolished” by his father “in three minutes. . . . It marked the last time he held political beliefs that were even remotely progressive.” In that case, one might be interested in his father’s arguments, but no clue is provided.[33] [45]

And politics is the area that most upsets Lee with regards to Heinlein,[34] [46] whose anti-Communism is presented as growing out of personal pique; his assertion that his views had not changed, but that only the liberals had gotten more radical, is dismissed, and his increasing “conservatism” is attributed to his wife’s influence.[35] [47]

Like Campbell on race, Heinlein on McCarthy is pretty reasonable:

Heinlein had no sympathy for Joe McCarthy, whom he called “a revolting son of a bitch,” but he felt that the outrage on the left was overblown, given the treatment of dissidents in other nations.

Lee calls this lack of concern for the supposed “victims” of McCarthy to be “a strangely unfeeling response”; again, it’s all about the feels.[36] [48]

As for the ladies, Lee is right to highlight the contributions of, for example, Campbell’s secretary – or what used to be called “gal Friday” – Catherine Tarrant (aka Kay or “Miss Tarrant”), although he tends to intuit her “unacknowledged presence” with the lack of recorded evidence being itself a sign of institutional misogyny.[37] [49]

On the other hand, I think Lee overstates the influence of Campbell’s wife, Doña:

When she replaced his father as his reader of choice, she nudged him toward fiction that was more conscious of style and theme. Their collaboration, if not literal, was very meaningful, and they often worked together, smoking on two typewriters set side by side.

“If not literal,” indeed. It’s an important point, as Lee observes that the stories Campbell began to write under the “Don A. Stuart” nom de plume (a tribute to his wife), starting with “Twilight,” effectively reinvented science fiction by “focusing on mood and atmosphere,” as well as “interrogating” (a favorite word among po-mo and PC academics) his previous “assumptions” about technology and “the heroic scientist or engineer.”

But Lee gives little evidence of how Doña “nudged him” thence, other than “as a friend remembers, ‘When his wife Doña was new, she would sit on a hassock at his feet in adoring puppy dog style, while he discoursed on the problems of the universe.’”[38] [50]

The more likely motivator is the new editor of Astounding, F. Orlin Tremaine, who “personally preferred works of the Stuart type” and “forced Campbell to evolve by closing off certain avenues while encouraging others.”

Otherwise, the number of female writers Campbell published, mentored, or at least tolerated is striking, especially for the time and genre:

Contrary to a present-day misperception, the genre — while overwhelmingly a boys’ club — didn’t post a sign on its treehouse reading “No Girls Allowed.” Nevala-Lee lists just some of the distinguished female writers that Campbell published, among them Leigh Brackett (who mentored the young Ray Bradbury and at the end of her career scripted The Empire Strikes Back) and Catherine L. Moore (creator of the sexy and formidable warrior Jirel of Joiry), as well as Katherine Maclean, Judith Merril, Anne McCaffrey[39] [51] and James Tiptree Jr., a.k.a. Alice Sheldon.[40] [52]

Indeed, Lee strikes one as the sort of SJW who thinks that if women don’t make up (as it were) at least fifty-one percent of any organization, and get fifty-one percent of the awards, there must be a “problem” somewhere, calling for “action.”[41] [53]

Considering the number of female writers he brought to the table, it’s hard to think of him as an ogre. He’s more like the bumbling pater familias in some ‘50s TV show. All it takes is for a woman to stand up to him, and he folds. “When he made a crack about the female mind,” Margaret “Peg” Kearney, his second wife, set him straight:

“You don’t know anything about that, and you never will. You’ve never been a woman, you aren’t a woman, and you never will be. I’m talking about something you don’t know anything about, so just sit back and listen.” Campbell did. Peg’s abilities as an auditor, he marveled, made Hubbard look like a kindergartner.[42] [54]

The rest are a mixed bag, and at least two make Campbell look like Alan Alda. Hubbard, of course, is a monster, habitually taking his first wife by the throat and hurling her out of cars; her eventual escape with their daughter, running away at the airport, leaving her bags behind, suggests the sort of story we hear from Scientology survivors today. (Lee notes that Doña Campbell’s skepticism about Dianetics would have made her the first “suppressive person [55].”)

Asimov, though, loved the ladies; as we saw, he loved them a little too much. Moving out of Campbell’s orbit, Hubbard became a full-fledged Jewish guru with his own religion,[43] [56] while Asimov became the embarrassing uncle, a Weinstein avant le letter; only Heinlein, who was already a professional writer before meeting Campbell, went on to pen some of his greatest works, yet still outlived his talents.

As for Campbell getting worse, it can’t be denied that he turned into a sour old curmudgeon, sitting around at conventions with a bottle of whisky and an ebony cigarette holder.[44] [57] But Lee tries too hard to make his case for decline. He again misses an obvious joke and takes it for evidence that “he identified with his corporate superiors”:

When a fan told him that he had written a story but wasn’t sure whether it was right for the magazine, Campbell drew himself up: “And since when does the Condé Nast Publications, Incorporated pay you to make editorial decisions for Analog?”[45] [58]

In fact, it was at this moment that Campbell bought Frank Herbert’s serial, “Dune World.”[46] [59] This would be “the most famous story that he would ever publish.” More importantly, it was the ultimate tale of the superman:

The editor wasn’t particularly interested in its philosophy or the ecology of the desert world of Arrakis. Instead, he saw it as a superman story, with his comments concentrating on the teenage clairvoyant Paul Atreides, who resembled an “adolescent demigod” of whom he had mused about writing years earlier.

He rejected the follow-up, Dune Messiah, writing to Herbert:

In this one, it’s Paul, our central character, who is a helpless pawn manipulated against his will, by a cruel, destructive fate. . . . The reactions of science-fictioneers, however, over the last few decades have persistently and quite explicitly been that they want heroes, not antiheroes.

Perhaps, but if they do, it was because Campbell had discovered that trait and actively promoted it. Lee retorts that Campbell had forfeited the “chance to influence the career of a writer whose novels would pave the way for science fiction’s invasion of the bestseller lists,” but that’s only because, for more than a century, both bestsellerdom and the rarefied world of “literary fiction” have been overrun with antiheroes, or what I’ve called “cockroach literature,” best summed up in the title of William Burroughs’ favorite book as a teenager: You Can’t Win [60].[47] [61]

All Lee’s concerns about racism and sexism are just virtue-signaling and a side issue. What really upsets him about Campbell is, at heart, that Campbell (like Colin Wilson) is looking for a literature that promotes Competent Men, supermen, heroes.[48] [62]

Campbell liked to say that the genre’s true protagonist was all of mankind, but he saw it in terms of heroic figures, starting with himself.

And, no doubt, moving on to include other white men.

Heinleien “was burdened by an obsolete idea of heroism.”

Even Hubbard gets a pat on the back, since he “saw through Campbell’s pretensions about the competent man – many of his heroes were pointedly incompetent, and even when he offered up a more conventional lead, it was with a trace of contempt.”

For Lee, even Campbell’s preference for stories where humans prove themselves more than a match for aliens are “problematic” and no doubt based on his racism; talk of the superiority of the human “race” is just a variation on white supremacy. Jeez, even the Race Traitor [63] folks talk about “loyalty to humanity.” Talk about not taking your own side [64]![49] [65]

We can now see why Asimov emerges as the focus of the book; as a Jew, he is incapable of holding the “wrong” political or racial opinions – his concern for his old shtetl in the midst of the titanic conflict of the Second World War is treated sympathetically, not as a sign of racial preference[50] [66] – and his treatment of women is a tragic flaw, not a sign of psychopathy. He is Lee’s implicit hero, the ideal Cockroach.

Ultimately, Lee begins to sound like some SPLC type who conflates dissent with “hate” and “clinging.” Like all “progressives,” change – as long as it continues in their preferred direction – is always good:

Despite his belief in new modes of thought, he was hostile to change that he couldn’t control. The counterculture shared his interest in transformation and alternative viewpoints, but not in supermen or psionic machines.

So, preferring science fiction to be represented by a Heinlein rather than a black pedophile is just being “hostile to change he couldn’t control.”

The fact is, for all Campbell’s faults, it’s precisely his loyalty to the idea of finding, or making, the hero that makes him such an important figure in genre literature. Although Lee’s message seems to be something like, “Campbell was an embarrassing old racist, sexist uncle who only got worse as he aged, though we can forgive him for nurturing the talents of the Golden Age of science fiction,” one might be forgiven for finding a different lesson.

Getting back to me . . . I mean, the book. I mentioned at the start my vague familiarity with the big works, and after reading this book I think that I have, despite Lee’s best efforts, acquired some understanding and respect for the intentions of the not-so-vast conspiracy that produced it. He can’t prevent us from appreciating the sense of being at the start of a group of white men embarking on a bold adventure.

When not promoting his PC agenda, Lee is an excellent writer – he is, after all, a published professional – and he handles his multiple timelines with skill. He does not so much “juggle” them but handle them like a small solar system, focusing on Campbell’s biography and setting the others in various orbits, coming into sight or eclipsing the main story.

I was much taken with his notion that early fandom – which “had sprung into existence almost by accident, after Hugo Gernsback printed letters from readers in Amazing, along with their addresses, allowing them to correspond in private with like-minded fans” – operated much like “modern online communities, except considerably slower,” even including “what today would be called a troll, [Donald A. Wollheim, who boasted] that he could single-handedly drive ‘any fan from the field’.”[51] [67] Not surprisingly, Campbell and Hubbard’s promotion of Dianetics through fandom could be called the first example of something “going viral.”

Unlike Lee, let’s give Campbell, not Izzie, the last word. Confronted by a writer (Barry Malzberg) demanding that science fiction “explore the question of victimization,” Campbell delivered this epic rant:

“I’m not interested in victims,” Campbell said calmly. “I’m interested in heroes. I have to be. Science fiction is a problem-solving medium. Man is a curious animal who wants to know how things work and, given enough time, can find out.”

“But not everyone is a hero,” Malzberg said. “Not everyone can solve problems.”

“Those people aren’t the stuff of science fiction. If science fiction doesn’t deal with success or the road to success, then it isn’t science fiction at all. Mainstream literature is about failure, a literature of defeat. Science fiction is challenge and discovery.” Campbell’s face lit up. “We’re going to land on the moon in a month and it was science fiction which made all of that possible. Isn’t it wonderful? Thank God I’m going to live to see it.” “The moon landing isn’t science fiction. It comes from technological advance –” Campbell broke in. “There’s going to be a moon landing because of science fiction. There’s no argument.”

‘Nuff said.


[1] [68] “Castalia House is a Finland-based publisher that has a great appreciation for the golden age of science fiction and fantasy literature. The books that we publish honor the traditions and intellectual authenticity exemplified by writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Robert E. Howard, G. K. Chesterton, and Hermann Hesse. We are consciously providing an alternative to readers who increasingly feel alienated from the nihilistic, dogmatic science fiction and fantasy being published today. We seek nothing less than a Campbellian revolution in genre literature.” Castalia House, “Mission Statement [69].”

[2] [70] “Alec Nevala-Lee graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in Classics. His novels include The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and Eternal Empire, and his short fiction has appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Lightspeed magazine, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. He has written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Salon, the Daily Beast, and Longreads, and is featured in the A&E Biography episode on L. Ron Hubbard. He lives in Oak Park, Illinois.”

[3] [71] “Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos. You see, it works.” William S. Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg, quoted herein.

[4] [72] Campbell later said that the idea was based on his own childhood: his mother and aunt were identical twins, and he claimed they would even dress alike so as to fool him.

[5] [73] As we’ll see, the story of a teenage boy who develops superhuman powers just about summed up Campbell’s vision.

[6] [74] See Kevin MacDonald, “Understanding Jewish Influence III: Neoconservatism as a Jewish Movement [75].” “[Leo] Strauss relished his role as a guru to worshiping disciples, once writing of ‘the love of the mature philosopher for the puppies of his race, by whom he wants to be loved in turn.” Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1952), p. 36. Ironically, Lee passes up the opportunity to even mention the Sad Puppies.

[7] [76] “Campbell read him a line from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown.’ He set the book aside. ‘What do you think would happen, Asimov, if men were to see the stars for the first time in a thousand years?’ Asimov – who never read the essay himself and tried unsuccessfully to find it later – replied lamely, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘I think they would go mad,’ Campbell said. ‘I want you to write a story about that.’ ‘Nightfall’ would later be voted the greatest science fiction story of all time.”

[8] [77] “‘That’s too large a theme for a short story . . . Short stories, novelettes, serials, all fitting into a particular future history, involving the fall of the First Galactic Empire, the period of feudalism that follows, and the rise of the Second Galactic Empire.’ The editor advised him to establish another, secret foundation on the other side of the galaxy – ‘You may need the second one later on’- and ended with an order: ‘I want you to write an outline of the future history. Go home and write the outline.’”

[9] [78] “Look, Asimov, in working this out, you have to realize that there are three rules that robots have to follow. In the first place, they can’t do any harm to human beings; in the second place, they have to obey orders without doing harm; in the third, they have to protect themselves, without doing harm or proving disobedient.”

[10] [79] For a discussion of the book and Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film, see Guillaume Durocher and Fróði Midjord’s on Guide to Kulchur [80].

[11] [81] As opposed to one of those reactionary billionaires like, oh, Trump.

[12] [82] “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love.

[13] [83] Who was it who said that wanting to befriend a poet because you like his poetry is like wanting to befriend a cow because you like hamburger?

[14] [84] “Campbell always remained serenely indifferent if you ended up disagreeing with him, whereas Heinlein would, under those circumstances, grow hostile.”

[15] [85] “The man born as, no kidding, Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe was perhaps the strangest figure to emerge from the English decadent period. He was a complete con man, a sponger on an epic scale, a total ingrate; a fellow seminarian recalled . . . that ‘he had the Protestant horror of lying, but was by common agreement the biggest liar we had ever known’; or, as he was dubbed — by modern day enthusiast [86]— ‘Baron Corvo: The Greatest Asshole Who Ever Lived.’” See my “e-Caviar for the Masses!: Olde Books for the Downwardly Mobile Elite [87].”

[16] [88] Hubbard never met a ship he couldn’t almost immediately scuttle or run aground – he’s the real-life version of what Colin Wilson thought of Captain Queeg; see my “The Plot Against the Hero: Colin Wilson’s Absurd Magick [89].”

[17] [90] Sources gathered by Wikipedia, here [91].

[18] [92] “Scientology . . . is not a religion.” The Creation of Human Ability (1954), p. 251. “Dianetics” was initially intended to insinuate a connection with the new science of cybernetics, much to Norbert Wiener’s annoyance.

[19] [93] Given Lee’s analogy between fandom and the later Internet, it’s ironic that the secret (i.e., available only for a high price) Xenu scriptures, inadvertently revealed in a court document, were leaked to the world via hundreds of anti-Scientology websites [94].

[20] [95] Lee writes more fully on the subject elsewhere [96]: “Of course Scientology attracts all the creeps of the cosmos,” the novelist William S. Burroughs wrote to the poet Allen Ginsberg on October 30, 1959. “You see it works.” Burroughs had just been introduced to the ideas of L. Ron Hubbard [97] through the mystics John and Mary Cooke [98], whom he had met through their mutual friend Brion Gysin in Tangiers. Gysin, who is probably best remembered today for his development of the cut-up technique [99], had recently built the Dream Machine [100], a flicker gadget made of a light bulb placed on a record turntable. The device, which Gysin assembled with the help of an electronics engineer named Ian Sommerville, was designed to stimulate the brain’s alpha rhythms when viewed with the eyes closed. It was inspired by a discussion of “the flicker effect” in W. Grey Walter’s book The Living Brain, and it hints at the remarkable extent to which the counterculture was venturing into territory that science fiction had previously colonized [101]. John W. Campbell had utilized a similar setup while working with Hubbard himself to access his buried memories [102] in 1949, and after reading Walter’s book, he built what he described as a “panic generator” with a fluorescent bulb in his basement. And the fact that Hubbard’s work was circulating among the Beats at the same time reflects how both communities – which seemed so different on the surface – were looking for new approaches to the mind. (Science fiction, like Scientology or beatnik culture, has a way of attracting “all the creeps of cosmos,” and for similar reasons.). For more on Burroughs and Gysin’s interest in magickal methods and crank tech, see my reviews “Curses, Cut-Ups, & Contraptions: The ‘Disastrous Success’ of William Burroughs’ Magick,” reprinted in Magick for Housewives: Essays on Alt-Gurus [103] (Melbourne, Victoria: Manticore, 2018), and “Looking for the Alt-Master [104].”

[21] [105] Lee probably has something like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America in mind, but Izzie and his dad at the candy store remind me of “Slip” Mahoney and Louie Dumbrowski (real-life father and son) in any Bowery Boys movie.

[22] [106] Asimov believed his son “David’s great hobby is to tape the television shows he likes and to build up an enormous library of such things.” In fact, after Asimov’s death, David was arrested for possessing the “biggest child pornography collection in Sonoma County history, with thousands of videos found in his home.” Though ignored by Asimov, he managed to combine his father’s chief traits: obsessive collecting and aberrant sex.

[23] [107] Lee cites two instances, some twenty years apart; in the latter, at a showing of the Star Trek pilot, he was rebuked by Gene Roddenberry: “’Hey, fellow, stop talking. That’s my picture they’re starting to show.’ The speaker fell silent, and it was only then that Roddenberry was informed that he had scolded Isaac Asimov. He tried to apologize, but Asimov quickly admitted that he had been the one in the wrong.”

[24] [108] Campbell regarded Ellison as a “destructive, rather than constructive,” genius: “He needs a muzzle more than a platform. . . . He’s an insulting little squirt with a nasty tongue. He’s one of the type that earned the appellation ‘kike’; as Einstein, Disraeli, and thousands of others have demonstrated, it ain’t racial – it’s personal.”

[25] [109] Prior to the operation in question, Izzie demanded that the surgeon “explain to everybody involved in the operation that I have an unusual brain that must be protected.” One can’t help but be reminded of another Jewish writer, Barton Fink [110], who acts as if “the whole world revolves around whatever rattles inside that little kike head of [his].”

[26] [111] The prologue, “Asimov’s Sword,” describes Asimov appropriating a passage from Homer — in which Achilles, hidden by his mother among women, is discovered by his preference for a sword as a toy – to provide an “analog,” as Campbell would say, for Campbell’s project. But doesn’t this reify gender stereotypes? And isn’t this cultural appropriation? Or is that okay, when the appropriators have names like Asimov or Zuckerberg [112]?

[27] [113] “One quickly realizes that reading this book is just like talking to a liberal: certain things are unacceptable, no evidence is needed to justify the claim of unacceptability, and that’s that.” Donald Thoresen, reviewing [114] Jason Stanley’s How Fascism Works.

[28] [115] Lee has an interesting way of making the reliance on the evidence of the senses, seemingly a good thing, especially in a budding scientist, to seem rather sinister – as young Campbell studies at Duke University, “He also kept an eye on race relations, which were more visible here than they had been in New Jersey or Massachusetts, and his opinions on the subject began to grow silently inside of him.” Usually this sort of language is researched for describing the boyhood of Adolf Hitler. He traces Campbell’s preference for stories where humans prove superior to aliens to a “casual assumption” of European superiority.

[29] [116] After rejecting Barry Malzberg notion that science fiction should explore “victimization,” giving him the lecture on heroism we’ll get to later, Campbell later says, “Don’t worry about it, son, I just like to shake ‘em up.”

[30] [117] The Kindle edition has a hyperlink from the phrase in the notes section back to the text, so it’s only half as dumb.

[31] [118] But you, the Counter-Currents reader, are, as per usual, well informed: see the posts gathered here [119]. Greg Johnson says, in his review of Vox Day’s [120]SJWs Always Lie: Taking Down the Thought Police (indeed!): “Chapter 5, ‘Release the Hounds,’ deals with the campaigns of Day and fellow conservative sci-fi writer Larry Correia against the SJW lock on science fiction and fantasy journalism and awards. The ‘hounds’ in the title refers to the Correia’s Sad Puppy campaign to nominate non-PC writers for the Hugo Awards and Day’s Rabid Puppies campaign, based on the GamerGate model. Due to the hounding of the Puppies, the Hugo Awards was forced to adopt new nomination rules that make them less under the control of SJW cabals. But the dogs are not done yet. They are pushing for the firing of leading SJW editors. They are also picking off the weakest members of the SJW herd, who fall silent due to demoralization and depression. Better them than us.”

[32] [121] I said just now I have never read any of Delany’s science fiction; I did, however, read – a bit of – his Times Square Red/Times Square Blue (New York: New York University Press, 1999), which an Amazon reviewer describes, accurately, thus: “The author looks back nostalgically at what many would call the seedy demi-monde of Times Square as it existed in the 1960’s, 1970’s and a bit later. Turns out he admits his tastes in public sex and homeless men as partners, along with the drug addled and others who inhabit this world. He makes spurious claims that such places are the only opportunities for genuine ‘contact’ and class mixing in society. He seems to have spent a great deal of time in these locales, and I perceive perhaps his need to justify how he has spent his life. I found this raunchy and degenerate.

In the second part of the book, he spins out dense academic prose with a strongly Marxist bent to denounce the re-developers of Times Square who have displaced him and his ‘contacts’. He mentioned in Part One that many of them died of drug problems, AIDS, or other diseases. Yet, he argues for such cesspools to persist, subsidized by the land and building owners.” At the same time, I attended a free public reading from the book, and found the author to be distinctly creepy, despite the adulation surrounding him. I would not be surprised if Campbell, even so early on, had the same vibe from the author, despite his “brilliant ideas.”

[33] [122] Interestingly, Lovecraft’s views moved in the opposite direction, from a naïve belief in the pro-business views of the upper class to an enthusiastic New Dealer, precisely because he realized that Roosevelt was a fascist. Campbell “despised” Lovecraft’s writing, but “At the Mountains of Madness” – which Tremaine had published in Astounding in 1936 – must have had an influence on “Who Goes There?” (1938). In one of his many surprising revelations, Hubbard, shortly after embarking on his literary career, met Lovecraft, who called him “a remarkable young man.”

[34] [123] Campbell will eventually conclude that “[Heinlein is] much more concerned with selling his philosophy of sexual promiscuity [and nudism!] than in writing science fiction tales.”

[35] [124] So much for the “science fiction writers should listen to women” theme; I guess it depends on what they say, which kinda makes the whole thing a big runaround; why not just judge everyone’s opinions as such?

[36] [125] Again, context matters. “But in fact it’s unfair to accuse Senator Joseph McCarthy [126] of conducting an irrational witch-hunt against communists. Unlike witches, wreckers and racists in other eras and places, communists were a real force and a genuine danger [127] in 1950s America. Spies like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg [128] passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and were caught and executed. But many more spies went undetected and unpunished.” Tobia Langdon, “Whites as Witches: ‘We Must be Eternally Vigilant Against Racism [129]’.”

[37] [130] She does get a wonderful line: “Personally, I don’t give a fuck what you write, but we have teenagers who read the magazine.”

[38] [131] For her part, Tarrant remembers “how the young Asimov ‘sat in adoring admiration of Campbell, drinking in every word he said.’”

[39] [132] Lee tries to blow smoke around McCaffrey’s evidence by suggesting that Campbell promoted her to subvert more non-traditional female writing.

[40] [133] Michael Dirda, “Let Us Praise the Giants of Science Fiction [134],” located behind the paywall of Bezos’ Blog.

[41] [135] Remember, “As we’ve learned, diversity doesn’t happen by itself. It requires a conscious effort to increase the voices you have in science fiction.” Lee, op. cit. “Academics are supposed to believe all groups have equal abilities. Thus, lack of ‘racial parity’ becomes ipso facto evidence of discrimination. After all, what else could account for the unequal states of affairs that we find, well, everywhere? The obvious problem with this perspective is that there’s no empirical justification for the belief that all groups have equal abilities. What’s really at work here is a certain moral delusion. For a number of reasons – pity, envy, irrational guilt about the past – many people want groups to have equal outcomes. And so, when they don’t find them, they’re motivated to perceive discrimination in situations where it’s not present.” Christopher DeGroot, “The Genteel Touchiness of Academics,” here [136].

[42] [137] Is this a sister speaking Truth to Power, or an implicitly trans-phobic assertion of male/female essentialism? It’s so hard to keep up!

[43] [138] Reviewing Dianetics, Martin Gardner already detects the mode: “Like the later works of Wilhelm Reich, his book is simply a Revelation from the Master, to be tested and confirmed by lesser men.” Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (New York: Dover Publications, 1957; 1st ed. 1952); Chapter 22, “Dianetics.”

[44] [139] One of his many crank ideas was that cigarettes cured cancer. This might be connected to his admiration for Atlas Shrugged, which causes Lee to wince.

[45] [140] “Campbell retained what Heinlein called his ‘slightly open-mouthed adoration’ of businessmen – he loved Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, although he suspected that its author was ‘somewhat of a lesbian’.”

[46] [141] For no particular reason, other than denigrating Campbell, Lee says that he “stumbled across” the serial “almost by accident.” It’s an odd way to describe an editor opening an envelope with an unsolicited submission.

[47] [142] See, most recently, my “The Plot Against the Hero: Colin Wilson’s Absurd Magick [89].”

[48] [143] There is, perhaps, a more than verbal resemblance between Campbell’s project and Baron Evola’s, as described by this contemporary scholar: “He was not interested in being a pure scholar, providing some kind of new information. Evola wanted to change the world. Evola’s aim in writing was always a ‘pedagogic’ or rather ‘anagogic’ (leading upwards) one. What he wanted was to ‘educate’ the readers in order to lead them towards transcendence or to ‘become gods’ in his specific sense. This holds true not only for his religious or esoteric research but for all his work, be it in philosophy, art, or even politics and racial theories. “ (Hans Thomas Hakl, “Deification as a Core Theme in Julius Evola’s Esoteric Works [144],” Correspondences 6, no. 2 (2018) 1–27). I’ve explored the similarity between the emotional tone of Evola’s doctrine of cosmic cycles and the “cosmic horror” of Lovecraft’s work – especially the novellas which, as noted above, appeared in the pre-Campbell Astounding and which may have influenced Campbell’s own novella, “Who Goes There?” – in the title essay of my collection The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others: Traditionalist Meditations on Literature, Art, & Culture [145]; ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2014).

[49] [146] A commenter at Unz opines “God forbid we ever do get invaded by aliens: our ‘intelligentsia’ will be too busy debating whether the little green men [are] racist/sexist/anti-Jewish/homophobic/transphobic/otherwise ‘problematic’ to notice the giant death ray being pointed at the Capitol.” Anonymous396 on “Alice Walker: The Color Reptile,” here [147]. Oddly enough, Lee’s implicitly pro-alien stance echoes the perfidious, pro-alien scientists in the original The Thing [From Another World], based on Campbell’s initial classic novella, “Who Goes There?” The more usual “plucky humans” trope received canonical form in It Conquered the World (Roger Corman, 1956), where Dr. Paul Nelson (Peter Graves) intones the film’s moral [148]: “’He learned almost too late that man is a feeling creature . . . and because of it, the greatest in the universe. He learned too late for himself that men have to find their own way, to make their own mistakes. There can’t be any gift of perfection from outside ourselves. When men seek such perfection, they find only death . . . fire . . . loss . . . disillusionment . . . the end of everything that’s gone forward. Men have always sought an end to the toil and misery, but it can’t be given, it has to be achieved! There is hope, but it has to come from inside, from man himself.’ This is the precursor to what has come to be known as ‘The Patrick Stewart Speech [149],’ in which he may concede that humans are weak (at least for the moment), but there is much that is noble about humanity as well. . . . Note this is not just defending humans out of a general respect for life, or even for sentient life [150]: the Patrick Stewart Speech notes specific qualities of humanity itself which make it worth saving, above and beyond simply being a sentient lifeform. In short, Humans Are Special [151] and Rousseau Was Right [152]. One variant of this speech will praise our flaws [153] instead, pointing out how in overcoming/fighting them we grow better and create beautiful things. When done well, can give the viewer a sense of pride [154]. When done poorly, comes off as overly preachy [155], pretentious or even ridiculous [156].”

[50] [157] Much as American Jews promote open borders for the US and walls for Israel.

[51] [158] Lee doesn’t find it a bit odd or noteworthy that the first New York science fiction clubs were essentially associations of Jewish Communists; the fact that they immediately started acting as such, splintering, anathematizing, unpersoning, leafleting, and disrupting rival meetings, becoming personality cults in the process, is detailed as if par for the course.