Some Thoughts on Nevala-Lee’s “Astounding” and Carter’s “Sex and Rockets”
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Some Thoughts on Nevala-Lee’s “Astounding” and Carter’s “Sex and Rockets”

a closeup photo of red applies and green apple leaves silhouetted against a bue sky
The last days of fall in our apple orchard, at the start of October. A month later the first rain had fallen, by early November there was snow and frost. Photo by S. Manning, 1 October 2022

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

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.

The world is full of wonders / terrors, and the most wonderful / terrible is mankind

Choral speech on the wonders of technology, Sophokles, Antigone, line 334 (Perseus Project)

Astounding is a feminist prosopography of John W. Campbell Jr‘s circle from the Second World War. It is a prosopography because it is a group biography which focuses on the connections between people, what they did at different life stages, and how their careers resemble the careers of other people with similar backgrounds. And it is feminist because he says out loud that many writing and editing teams of the time were a family business, with the husband out front speaking to fans and the wife revising, suggesting plots, and administering the business in the background. E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith split his cheque for The Skylark of Space with a Mrs. Garby because they had started to write the novel together (Goulart’s Informal History of the Pulp Magazines p. 163). The role of women was acknowledged at the time but tended to get forgotten as marriages ended and fandom grew.

Borrowing the method of prosopography from ancient world studies let Nevala-Lee solve a key problem. The last people who were active in fandom in the 1930s and 1940s are dying off, and can no longer pass around their memories and grudges at conventions or on their websites. Most studies of the formative age of science fiction are memoirs and biographies. These tend to take many things about fanish communities and the United States in the middle of the last century for granted. By focusing on communities and connections, Nevala-Lee puts these personalities and anecdotes into context.

A good example is his quick breakdown of New York City fandom in the 1930s. After noting that groups rapidly formed and broke up, he sees a key moment at the First World Science Fiction Convention in 1939 and key factions as New Fandom who wanted to organize events and meet writers and editors, and the Futurians who were conflict prone, talked a lot about leftist politics, and focused on becoming writers and editors themselves (pp. 101, 108-109). I am sure that this model is not perfect, but it gives readers one way to organize individual fans and events from this period. Nevala-Lee is also careful to list connections to people best known outside of science fiction: his subjects met or corresponded with Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, Joseph Banks Rhine, J. Edgar Hoover, Aleister Crowley, James Randi, Fritz Lang, George Lucas, and someone called John Updike.

The biggest void is the absence of H. Beam Piper, Campbell’s great discovery of the postwar era. I would also like to know more about what the different authors were reading and learning that was not weird. Where did they get their data on stars, or planetology, or other technical topics?

John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard all had complicated private lives. Nevala-Lee describes these in detail and tries to put names on as many minor figures as possible. It is perhaps relevant that in 1944 L. Ron Hubbard was intimate with Leslyn Heinlein with her husband’s knowledge (pp. 202, 203). Listing the only known facts about Hubbard’s other bedmate at the time (a woman named Ferne or Firn) and summarizing Virginia Gerstenfeld’s sexual experience before she met her future husband RAH seem a step too far! I also wonder whether the drama was really at its most intense in the 1940s, or whether that is just the period when Cambell and company were living near other gossipy writers whose letters have been combed by fans. Robert Heinlein’s last marriage was open, but he and Virginia kept the details private. (And John Carter, whom I will discuss below, says that Virginia’s idea of protecting her husband’s reputation was destroying all his correspondence from before their 1948 marriage).

I am writing this in October, and this book has enough horror for spooky season. Life in mid-century America was rough. Heinlein and de Camp were beaten by schoolmates, and Hubbard and Campbell had troubled relations with their parents. Asimov was a secular Jew in a casually antisemitic United States who escaped being sent to Bikini Atoll and used to test the effects of radiation on soldiers by one day. Many of Nevala-Lee’s subjects smoked, drank, and used other substances heavily. Many suffered strokes or heart attacks at relatively early ages. Cars had no seatbelts and roads were poorly engineered. Their marriages were messy: even the level-headed L. Sprague de Camp had a first wife whom he did not talk about in public for 50 years. Medical science and psychiatry were primitive if they were available at all. Just like today, many people tried to escape through strange theories: social credit, communism, Theosophy, thelema, Freudianism and eventually dianetics. For all its horror, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in how science fiction became a genre based in one specific country, the United States.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

H.P. Lovecraft “The Call of Cthulhu”

John Carter, Sex and Rockets: The Occult Worlds of Jack Parson. New Edition (Feral House, 2004)

Most people who remember the origins of science fiction remember L. Ron Hubbard, even if Nevala-Lee argues that they have forgotten that around 1940 he was as famous and respected as Heinlein, de Camp, or van Vogt. (L. Ron Hubbard founded a litigious and evangelical church whose dissidents have a habit of disappearing, and his fiction was fluff not the kind which is endlessly talked about.) But the history of science fiction which I learned growing up erased John Whitside ‘Jack’ Parsons entirely. He was part of Robert A. Heinlein’s Manana Literary Society in Los Angeles, lived with L. Ron Hubbard until Hubbard stole his savings and his girlfriend, and helped invent the Jet Assisted Take-Off unit (a rocket which can be mounted on aircraft or ground vehicles to give them a push), but he had two problems: he died mixing explosives in a frame building in 1952, and he was a sex magician. Science fiction fans are tolerant of authors’ nonsense, and remember figures like Fletcher Pratt and Keith Laumer whose careers were cut short by death or disability, but the combination of nonsense and an early death was hard to overcome.

I do not have a lot specific to say about this book. When you know there is a book about someone who was founding rocket engineering by day and having sex in front of pagan altars by night, either you go out and get read it or you ignore it. It is written from a sympathetic perspective, spends a lot of space on the details of Parson’s rituals, and has a basic scholarly apparatus in the margins and an introduction by a certain Robert Anton Wilson. I can’t compare it to the other biography of Parsons, Strange Angel by George Pendle, for the reason that I have not read Pendle’s book. The subject is too depressing for me in 2022. But it leaves me in no doubt that nonsense was part of science fiction communities and rocket science in California from the beginning. The weird stuff and mysticism in Heinlein’s fiction or the reactionary turn in American science fiction since the 1970s were not aberrations. Nor are the links between US aerospace circles, UFO enthusiasts, and dreams of angels today. I wish my mind had not correlated these things. But as another mystic tells us, not all of wisdom brings joy.

Like a lot of figures after 1945, I am in a weird in-between state. Help bridge the gap with a monthly donation on Patreon or or even liberapay

(drafted 22 October 2022)

Edit 2022-11-14: added links to short biographies of some of the figures outside fannish circles, made some small grammatical changes

Edit 2023-12-09: see also this long essay on the American black thinker and activist P. B. Randolph who had some of Carter’s’s interests but found it even more difficult to find a place in the United States

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6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Nevala-Lee’s “Astounding” and Carter’s “Sex and Rockets”

  1. Andrew Gelman says:

    Hi, here’s my review from last year of that book.

    1. Sean says:

      Thanks! One of your posts back then talked about the lack of overlap between SF / FA genre circles and literary genre circles (because novels about middle-aged English professors considering having affairs are absolutely a genre). There is a famous anecdote by Neal Stephenson about a conversation with the kind of writer who teaches college and sells a few hundred or a few thousand copies of each book which ends “I had to let her know that the reason she’d never heard of me was because I was famous” (so was not going to her conferences, competing for her grants, or being reviewed in her journals)

    2. Sean says:

      I think Nevala-Lee’s “warts and all” view was his response to the latest war in internet fandom between aggressive reactionaries and people who want to drive figures like H.P. Lovecraft out of the cannon for their bigotry and reactionary politics. People have been talking about SF authors’ racism, sexism, or eccentric politics since the 1930s, but a new round started off around 2010 as part of the wider Internet Feminism Wars at that time and culminated in an attempt to hijack the Hugo Awards and removing HPL’s face from an award trophy.

      1. Andrew Gelman says:

        Yup, see the book discussed here.

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