Best Novels of the Decade Lists Collected

I recently noticed sites making lists of the best novels of the decade, so I decided to see if combining the lists would show which novels were standouts and try to read them. The pictured novels above are the books I have read and loved most from the lists below. I don’t read many mainstream literary novels, just six from these five lists. Maybe I should try to expand my reading mind and try more different books. I imagine a steady diet of science fiction is warping my sense of reality.

These are the five lists:

I only used Paste’s top 20 books to keep the focus tight. It’s worth following these links to read about the various titles.

This first group, are novels on more than one list. A Visit from the Goon Squad made it to 3 of the 5 lists. I guess I really need to read that one. Life After Life was also on three lists, and I have read it. It’s quite impressive. All of these books are ones I’ve seen on many lists over the years, so the consensus of fans makes me think I should give them a try.

These books are in no order. * = read and – = bought but not read

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan (EW, LitHub, Time)
  • Life After Life (2012) by Kate Atkinson (EW, Paste, Time) *
  • The Flamethrowers (2012) by Rachel Kushner (EW, LitHub)
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) by Jesmyn Ward (EW, Time, Paste)
  • My Brilliant Friend (2011) by Elena Ferrante (Esquire, Time) –
  • The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Esquire, LitHub)
  • The Underground Railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead (LitHub, Paste)
  • Fates and Furies (2015) by Lauren Groff (EW, Paste)
  • Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders (Esquire, Paste) *
  • Swamplandia! (2011) by Karen Russell (Esquire, Paste)
  • The Fifth Season (2015) by N. K. Jemisin (LitHub, Paste) –
  • Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel (EW, Paste) *
  • Little Fires Everywhere (2017) Celeste Ng (Time, Paste)

These books only made it to one of the five lists. They are probably great books to some people, but I feel less of an urge to try them over the above group. However, I thought The Overstory was fantastic and wondered why it didn’t make it to more lists.

  • Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid (EW)
  • Commonwealth (2016) by Ann Patchett (EW)
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) by Marlon James (EW)
  • Normal People (2019) by Sally Rooney (EW)
  • Gone Girl (2012) by Gillian Flynn (Time)
  • Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Time) –
  • Tenth of December (2013) by George Saunders (Time) –
  • The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty (Time)
  • The Nickel Boys (2019) by Colson Whitehead (Time)
  • There There (2018) by Tommy Orange (Esquire)
  • Less (2017) by Andrew Sean Greer (Esquire)
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2010) by David Mitchell (LitHub)
  • Train Dreams (2011) by Denis Johnson (LitHub)
  • The Buddha in the Attic (2011) by Julie Otsuka (LitHub)
  • The Tiger’s Wife (2011) by Téa Obreht (LitHub)
  • Salvage the Bones (2011) by Jesmyn Ward (LitHub)
  • All My Puny Sorrows (2014) by Miriam Toews (LitHub)
  • Dept. of Speculation (2014) by Jenny Offill (LitHub)
  • The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty (LitHub)
  • A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara (LitHub)
  • Outline (2015) by Rachel Cusk (LitHub)
  • Imagine Me Gone (2016) by Adam Haslett (LitHub)
  • The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers (LitHub) *
  • In the Distance (2018) by Hernan Diaz (LitHub)
  • Trust Exercise (2019) by Susan Choi (LitHub)
  • Milkman (2019) by Anna Burns (LitHub)
  • Circe (2018) by Madeline Miller (Paste)
  • Homecoming (2016) by Yaa Gyasi (Paste)
  • The Leavers (2017) by Lisa Ko (Paste)
  • The Way of Kings (2010) by Brandon Sanders (Paste)
  • Wolf in White Van (2014) by John Darnielle (Paste)
  • The Water Dancer (2019) by Ta-Nehisis Coates (Paste)
  • The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt (Paste) *
  • The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenster (Paste)
  • Family Life (2014) by Akhil Sharma (Paste)
  • Swing Time (2016) by Zadie Smith (Paste) *
  • The Wise Man’s Fear (2011) by Patrick Rothfuss (Paste)

If you’ve read any of these books and can recommend them, leave a comment.

JWH

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 3, 2019

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know is Malcolm Gladwell’s sixth book. I’m a big fan ever since his first book, The Tipping Point. Gladwell is an explainer, but he’s not straight forward in how he explains things. He enlightens by having the reader go step-by-step through the data he’s gathered to reach the same conclusion he has carefully discovered himself. He doesn’t just try to tell us the answer. Gladwell sees the world multidimensionally, so simple explanations won’t do.

In Talking to Strangers Gladwell wants us to understand what happened to Sandra Bland. Bland was pulled over for not using her turn signal when changing lanes, ended up being arrested, and committing suicide while in jail. The story was in all the news in the summer of 2015, and there was even an HBO documentary about the incidence. Gladwell became quite angry by the event and feels the media has failed to explain what happened and why.

It’s such a complicated story that Gladwell doesn’t even get to Bland’s story until page 313, but when he does, it all comes together perfectly.

Many people feel society is coming apart. That politics is disintegrating our culture. That everyone is on a short fuse, overly sensitive, and too easy to take offense. That there is little honesty in the world, and too many people want to carry guns. Our society is being overrun by mistrust and resentment. I am reminded of an experiment I heard about in school back in the 1960s. It involved cramming rats into a cage to simulate overpopulation. The stress of being forced to interact made them go mad and attack each other. Gladwell doesn’t mention this, but I was reminded of it constantly as I read his book.

Gladwell says we don’t know how to talk to strangers. He then goes on using various famous historical and news events to explain how miscommunication created extreme problems, often resulting in lethal consequences. His examples are quite fascinating. The first goes all the way back to Hernán Cortés meeting the Aztec ruler Montezuma, an extreme case of strangers meeting. Then he deals with Cuban spies and the CIA. This chapter is a mind-blower because Gladwell presents several historical cases where the CIA were completely fooled by double-agents. This is impressive because we assume CIA agents are highly trained at observing and understanding people.

After covering the CIA’s failure to detect traitors, Gladwell goes into detail about how Neville Chamberlain totally misread Adolph Hitler. These are fascinating cases of how we misread strangers, but they are so varied that you have to wonder what they mean to Sandra Bland’s case. Gladwell reminds us occasionally that Bland is his real goal, but he also tells us we’re not ready yet. He was right. You really want to stick close to Gladwell’s examples and explanations, because they do pay off big.

The problem is most people default to the truth, which is Gladwell’s way of saying we tend to believe other people are telling the truth. After reading his studies you feel like you should distrust everyone. Gladwell then gives cases of people who are always wary, and this is actually a worse way to live. To complicate matters, he gives several cases, such as Amanda Knox’s and Bernie Madoff’s where people act contrary to how they should act, which makes them even harder to read. I’ve seen a lot of news stories and documentaries about both of these cases and they don’t get to the details and insights that Gladwell does. I get the feeling that Gladwell wrote Talking to Strangers to show us how we’re all thinking too simplistically.

I’m not going to reiterate all of Gladwell’s arguments and cases. Besides not being able to tell when people are lying, and for many reasons, Gladwell gets to two other important insights. Coupling and location. He uses Sylvia Plath’s suicide and various studies on crime reduction methods to explain them. This is where Gladwell’s insights get more subtle. We want problems explained with one answer. Gladwell teaches us that sometimes a problem requires multiple datasets to understand what’s really going on. All too often we jump to what we think is the obvious conclusion when were missing whole areas of evidence. Evidence that sometimes appears to have no connection to the case.

Talking to Strangers is not a book you want to read casually, although it is very easy and entertaining to read. In essence, Gladwell is being a Zen master trying to explain the sound of one hand clapping. His examples bring us to the point where we have to have our own “I see!” moment. He can’t tell us. When Gladwell finally gets down to explaining what happened with Sandra Bland you should come to the conclusion that our present-day problems can’t be explained with the kind of logic we ordinary use with our friends or the kind of thinking we hear from pundits on TV. We’re too quick to lap up easy answers.

The trouble is most people will never understand what Gladwell is teaching. Most of us will continue to act on instinct using very limited instinctive thinking. Humans can’t handle the truth. This is my conclusion, not Gladwell’s. We think we know when we don’t. In fact, too many people are absolutely certain of their conclusions because their own explanations feel so right. We all live in the film Rashomon, each thinking we see the truth, but can’t understand the multiplex view we’d get from watching our lives from an outside vantage point.

Talking to Strangers, like other Gladwell books, are ones we should reread periodically. It’s so easy to fall back into simplex thinking. One of my favorite novels is Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a science fiction novel about a farm boy from a backward planet traveling to other worlds and cultures. Before he leaves a wise person tells him that there are three kinds of thinking: simplex, complex, and multiplex. What this kid learns is most people are stuck in simplex and maybe complex thinking, and very few achieve multiplex thought. The story is about the kid evolving through the three stages of thinking.

Talking to Strangers is Gladwell’s attempt to get us to think in multiplexity.

JWH

 

Keeping Up In The 21st Century

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, August 8, 2019

I’m reading a rather disturbing book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media by P. W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It’s disturbing for a number of reasons. First, it shows how completely out of touch I am. Second, it’s very relevant about today’s politics, problems, and conflicts, but makes me realize that I don’t have the tech skills I thought I had – and I’ve been working with computers since 1971. And it’s about a new stage in human communications that I might not be able to join or want to join. I might need to accept I’m too old and let a new stage of human consciousness pass me by.

It’s very difficult to explain why people need to read this book. But here’s a setup that might help. It’s my take on things but relates to what I learn from the book. It’s about the different stages of communications.

  1. Language. This gave us a tremendous boost compared to the other animals, and it’s probably why we’re sentient.
  2. Writing. Let us store knowledge and communicate at a distance.
  3. Printing. Let us mass-produce knowledge.
  4. Telegraph. Let us communicate over distances very fast. This was a tremendous boom for business, war, and journalism.
  5. Telephone. Faster two-way communication without codes.
  6. Radio. The beginning of mass communication. For example, LikeWar quotes Joseph Goebbels saying the Nazis couldn’t have gained power without radio.
  7. Television. More effective mass communication. Truly transformed society.
  8. Computers. They magnified our thinking power and speed.
  9. Networks. Created a world-wide digital nervous system.
  10. Social media. Mass communication with mass participation, or two-way mass communication. LikeWar is about how social media is transforming politics, crime, business, and war. One example LikeWar uses is ISIS, which used social media to overpower traditional national powers.

If you don’t have social media skills you’ll be left behind. Most people’s reactions will be, “Too bad, I don’t care about Facebook.” LikeWar provides significant evidence that all future political power will come from the people who can master social media. LikeWar showed how Trump gained his power with Twitter. Don’t dismiss that out of hand. Singer and Brooking make a powerful case for it being true.

I’m 67 and barely use social media. I blog, I keep up with family, friends, fellow hobbyists on Facebook, I use Twitter to keep up with news about science fiction. That’s essentially nothing. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. When I was growing up I watched the CBS News every night to follow the Vietnam War. The news was about 24-48 hours old. Some people today keep up with wars in real-time, watching people conduct war using the internet to outmaneuver people conducting war at television and print journalism speeds. LikeWar showed how ISIS used social media users worldwide as recruits in their local battles.

In other words, in any field of endeavor, any conflict, if you’re using print, radio, or television to keep up you’re way behind. We really are developing a global hive mind, and it involves new skills. I can use the excuse that I’m too old to chase that bus. But younger people or older folks who want to compete can’t. And I think that’s stressful. I think a lot of stress in our society is because we’re stratifying by the speed in which we can compete.

I’ll predict there will be a new class of Luddites, those people who choose not to race at social media speeds. But it means giving up power. We’ve had wealth inequality forever, and education inequality for hundreds of years, but what LikeWar envisions is a new kind of inequality. I’m not sure what percentage of the population will be able to keep up.

LikeWar

JWH

 

A Life in Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, July 23, 2019

I’ve always known that science fiction was an important aspect of my life, but I didn’t know how important until I read The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl, a memoir he wrote back in 1977 about his life in science fiction. This book isn’t in print, you’ll have to order it used, but the first three chapters are available online at Baen Books.

I got to spend a couple hours with Fred Pohl in the early 1970s. I wish I had known everything that was in his book then because I would have pestered him with a thousand questions. At the time I only knew him as the co-author of The Space Merchants with C. M. Kornbluth. I knew he had written several novels with Kornbluth and also with Jack Williamson. This was well before his famous books Man Plus (1976) and Gateway (1977). I think I had read his solo novel The Age of the Pussyfoot and owned a copy of A Plague of Pythons. I probably knew he had once edited Galaxy and If, a couple of my favorite magazines. Back when I met Pohl, along with James Gunn and John Brunner after they appeared at a conference at my university, my college roommate Greg Bridges and I got to sit with them at lunch. I knew Fred Pohl was fairly famous in science fiction, but I had no idea just how famous. I now understand why Brunner and Gunn question Pohl so intently. Years later, I was more impressed with Pohl for Gateway and his later novels, but he was never a big favorite of mine. He is now.

After reading The Way the Future Was I realized he was one of the major figures in the history of science fiction, at least or maybe more important than Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov or even John W. Campbell. Explaining why I now believe that will take some time. I will have to give a quick history of my own relationship with science fiction to connect the dots.

I started reading science fiction in 1962. My father was in the Air Force and I changed schools often. I generally always made a new best friend, but what kept me sane was science fiction. My parents were alcoholics, and I had rejected religion at age 12, so I used science fiction as my guide to life. The fiction part of SF was my mythology, and the genre’s history became my family history. Science fiction writers were the rock stars and founding fathers of my world. Over almost sixty years I’ve put together a rather detail history of science fiction in my head. It’s still constantly growing and expanding. Reading The Way the Future Was showed me that Fred Pohl was intimately active in most of it, almost as if he was a time traveler intentionally trying to experience it all.

Wonder-Stories-Quarterly-Summer-1930Hugo Gernsback began the science fiction genre by publishing Amazing Stories in April 1926, but soon lost control of the magazine, and started another magazine Science Wonder Stories in June 1929. Astounding Stories of Super-Science began it’s run in January 1930. The earliest science fiction fans, sometimes called First Fandom, all began reading science fiction about this time. Fred Pohl discovered science fiction in the Summer 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly. Pohl wrote, “I opened it up. The irremediable virus entered my veins.”

Over the decades I have read many memoirs and autobiographies of science fiction writers recounting the same experience of discovering science fiction in the 1930s. I discovered the science fiction magazine in the 1960s, and they often included short histories or biographies that recounted this knowledge. For almost sixty years I’ve been reading these chronicles, and The Way the Future Was is one of the best. Pohl begins with his discovery of science fiction and goes on to explain his adventures in the Science Fiction League (the first effort to organize SF fandom), of publishing fanzines in their earliest days, to starting the legendary science fiction club The Futurians, and the first World Science Fiction convention in 1939.

By the time Pohl was nineteen, he was editing Astonishing Stories and Super-Science Stories, and just before WWII, he became an assistant editor for Popular Publications, the largest publisher of pulp magazines. After the war, Pohl became a literary agent for most of the famous science fiction writers of the early 1950s. He was also one of the co-founders of the Hydra Club, another legendary SF club. His third wife was Judith Merril. That chapter also tells about his connections all the early book publishers of science fiction, including Doubleday, Gnome Press, and Ballantine Books. The in 1960 he became the editor of Galaxy, If, Worlds of Tomorrow, and International Science Fiction until 1969, buying some of the best science fiction of the decade and discovering many new writers that have since become famous. I don’t know why John W. Campbell gets all the attention as the great SF magazine editor of the genre, someone needs to write Pohl’s biography.

The Way the Future Was explores many territories, but actually stops before Pohl became really successful as an SF novelist. It’s a shame he didn’t update it before he died in 2013. However, Pohl was close friends and good friends with all the major and minor writers of science fiction and has tons of wonderful anecdotes to tell. He was also a successful lecturer and often appeared on TV and radio, which provided other great stories. All-in-all, Frederik Pohl was very close to most of the significant events and people in science fiction from 1930-1977.

One reason I liked The Way the Future Was is because I have met many of the people Pohl wrote about. Of course, just barely. In nearly all cases I saw these people at science fiction conventions. Sometimes I’d get to chat a few words with them and shake their hands after a lecture. One time I was selling books at a convention and Donald Wollheim stopped to look over my dealer’s table, even bought a book, and we chatted. I forgot what book he bought. I was always on the distant periphery of science fiction, but I still felt a kinship with these people. They were the clan I identified with most, and Pohl’s book reminded me how I felt about that kinship. I always daydreamed of becoming a science fiction writer and getting closer to the clan. I never did. The Way the Future Was has reminded me of what I missed. It made me sad but in a wistful kind of way.

JWH

 

How to Read The Federalist Papers

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 15, 2019

As previously mentioned, my two-person book club has decided to study The Federalist Papers. Linda and I are two liberals who want to understand conservative philosophy and these 85 essays that began appearing in 1787 are considered essential to understanding how our union was formed while detailing the reach and limits of the federal government.

There are a number of problems in reading and understanding these essays. First, the language is 18th-century English can be difficult for modern readers. Second, it helps to understand the times in which they were written. This is before our Constitution was ratified. Back then, most nations on Earth were ruled by some kind of aristocracy, so we must envision a group of men theorizing how ordinary people could rule themselves. This is very radical. The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay under the pseudonym “Publius.” Basically, Hamilton in his introduction was telling the citizens of thirteen states there are great reasons for forming a union but if you can’t understand them then every state should go its own way.

What’s rather ironic is Publius wrote The Federalist Papers to justify a federal government, but modern conservatives often use these essays to justify limiting or reducing our federal government and increasing the rights of states. We could have been fifty different little countries instead of the United States. Uniting a group of separate countries is not easy, just look at what happened to the Soviet Union or is happening to the current European Union. Neither force, ideology, or economic interests is enough to bind peoples of smaller governments into larger nations. The Constitution is one successful example that is always under attack. Thus the reason to read and understand The Federalist Papers.

The Federalist Papers are the foundations of our social contract. Conservatives want a smaller federal government, but the reasons to be governed are just as great at the local and state level. Hamilton, Madison, and Jay describe in great detail why we should agree to be governed and how to protect our freedoms from too much government and the dangers of those who want to govern.

I’ve just started to read The Federalist Papers and already see their vital importance. If you’ve ever complained about how society is run or offered your own utopian ideas on how to fix it, then you owe it to yourself to read The Federalist Papers. Publius gets down to the nitty-gritty details of the problems to be faced. This is the third reason why it’s so hard to read The Federalist Papers. A solution is almost impossible. No single human can think of all the angles and issues, and together we never agree perfectly.

Linda and I decided to spend this week trying to figure out the best way to read and study The Federalist Papers. Before we started this project we thought it was as simple as reading a book. It’s not. We then looked for books that explained The Federalist Papers or translated them into modern English with annotations. But even those books are tough going. There are many versions of The Federalist Papers. Some are straight reprints. Others organize the 85 essays into individual themes. We also considered picking a history book that covers everything related to the essays.

I’ve decided the best place to start is Wikipedia. Its entry for The Federalist Papers is detailed, concise, and easy to understand. Its Complete List entry offers links to explanatory essays for each of the 85 essays in The Federalist Papers. Starting with #1, which is Hamilton’s introduction, Wikipedia annotates essential quotes. It also links to each paper at Congress.gov, where the full-text can be read.

the federalist papers audio bookI’ve also decided to supplement this approach with The Federalist Papers (Amazon Classics Edition) audiobook from Audible.com and Brilliance Audio. Hearing James Anderson Foster narrate the papers helps me to understand the 18th-century sentence structure of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay. You can hear a sample here. The sample also illustrates what it’s like to try to read The Federalist Papers. It seems obvious to me they were meant for oration. The meaning of some of these complex sentences is often revealed in the cadences of how they are spoken.

Linda and I usually read books in 50-100 pages a week and then spend an hour or so on the phone discussing what we’ve read. This is a very rewarding book club structure. However, it’s extremely doubtful we can go through The Federalist Papers at that pace. Hamilton’s first essay, the introduction deserves a whole week of study and discussion.

I feel we’ve been overly ambitious in wanting to read The Federalist Papers like some other book. I worry that we will give up. I feel it’s a project that will take a good deal of time, but if we do 1 of the 85 essays a week as an extra project, it might be possible to achieve our goal eventually.

JWH

The Most Recommended Books of 2018

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 28, 2018

I love December because of all the best-books-of-the-year lists. I used to compile all the lists I could find into a spreadsheet to identify the most loved books of the year. But for the last two years, Emily Temple at Literary Hub has performed that task for me and collected far more lists than I would ever have the patience to track down. See: “The Ultimate Best Books of 2018 List” where she aggregated 52 lists from 37 publishers totaling 880 separate titles. If you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page you’ll find links to all those lists.

Temple found two books that were on 19 of the 52 lists, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and There There by Tommy Orange, both novels, and both will be available to listen to on Scribd 1/3/19. With such universal acclaim, I believe I’ll have to try them. I can say, when I’ve read books that have been on most of the best-of-the-year lists, they have always been intensely good. The wisdom of the crowds does works.

Best 3 SF novels 2018

I did compile 6 best science fiction books of the year lists to create a similar style report, see “Best of the Best Science Fiction 2018.” Strangely, Emily’s work did not overlap with my lists of best-science-fiction of 2018. My top discovery, Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller was on 5 of the 6 lists I found, but on none of Temple’s lists. However, Severance by Ling Ma was on 4 of the 6 lists I found, and 7 of the 52 lists she found. I don’t think she used any of the best science fiction book lists I used. If she had included those 6 lists, Severance would have been on 11 lists, putting it very high in Temple’s ultimate list. She did include some lists for fantasy books, but not science fiction. My final list had 8 books that had been on at least 3 of the 6 lists. Temple’s cutoff for her final list were all books that had been on at least 3 of the 52 lists. That means several science fiction books I discovered would have made Temple’s final list.

Because Temple missed the science fiction books, I’m tempted to do my own list of nonfiction books that were on the most best-of-the-year lists. Her top nonfiction book was Educated by Tara Westover, which I’ve read and loved. It was on a total of 16 lists.

west_9780399590504_jkt_all_r2.indd

JWH

 

The Rise and Fall of Astounding Science-Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 26, 2018

AstoundingOn October 23, 2018, the magazine Astounding Science-Fiction was remembered in two ways. First, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series came in at #49 on the PBS Great American Read, and second, Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee was published.

For a subgroup of the G.I., Silent and Baby Boomer generations, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was from 1939 to 1950, and mostly due to one magazine, Astounding Science-Fiction under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. There was one other book in the PBS Great American Read where Campbell was the first editor to buy – that was Dune by Frank Herbert, which came in at #35. So, Campbell had two books in the top 50, not a bad legacy. Dune appeared in his magazine just after the name changed to Analog Science Fact & Fiction.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s new book, Astounding, isn’t the first history of the magazine, and I doubt it will be the last. As I listened to the audiobook edition I thought about all the ways writers have tried to tell the story of Astounding and the golden age of science fiction. Alva Rogers in Requiem for Astounding did an issue by issue overview. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a memoir about how the magazine shaped his youth in Astounding Days. And Alexei and Cory Panshin focused heavily on Astounding, Campbell, Heinlein, Asimov, and van Vogt in their Hugo winning book, The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence. All those books focused on the stories. Nevala-Lee focuses on Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, giving us the biographical background to the editor and his three most famous writers.

There’s been plenty written about Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, but other than tributes and collections of letters, I’m not sure how much has been written about John W. Campbell, and he is the real focus of Nevala-Lee’s book. However, his story is so intertwined with the magazine and his famous writers that Astounding is a history of the magazine and a biography of four men.

Reading Astounding was both rewarding and depressing. It’s depressing because we endure the painful deaths of all four subjects, but even worse than that, they all fall from grace. I’m not sure if I should reveal what they become. If I did, some would call it spoilers, but others might call them trigger-warnings. Let’s just say this is a tell-all biography where Nevala-Lee gives us the best and worst on each man. All four men were autodidactic know-it-alls. All four men were egomaniacs. Three, maybe four, had severe delusions of grandeur. All four were hard on wives and women, and at least two of them would have thrown out of pop culture if they lived during #MeToo times. One turns out to be white-supremacist and another started a religion and has been defied by his followers, even though Nevala-Lee makes it abundantly clear he was a pathological liar, and his church is often vilified and has a reputation of being a paranoid cult.

Despite all of this, Astounding is a valuable history book on an important era of science fiction. By combining the four biographies, Nevala-Lee shows us the wizards behind the curtain. Yes, in many ways, they were all humbugs, but in many other ways, they were genuine magicians. Campbell and all the writers of Astounding Science-Fiction created art that inspired a generation. Astounding Science-Fiction was essential to the evolution of the art form we know today as science fiction.

There has always been a problem calling 1939-1950 the golden age of science fiction because for many people it wasn’t. I’ve been systematically reading The Great SF Stories volumes 1-25 (1939-1964) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. I’ve finished the first seven volumes, and I’ve got to say, many of the stories are forgettable. Nearly all the stories come from Campbell’s two magazines, Astounding Science-Fiction and Unknown. I’m sure these stories were mind-blowing back in the 1940’s, but there’s been much better science fiction written since using the same ideas and themes. In 1957 Peter Graham said in a fanzine called Void, that “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” That deeply perceptive observation has been accepted as truth ever since. I turned 12 in late 1963, and the science fiction I discovered was published in the 1950’s. Some of it was reprints from Astounding in the 1940’s, and others were stories that appeared in F&SF, Galaxy, and IF, the Young Turks that usurped Astounding’s reign in the 1950’s, as well as original science fiction books that began being published that decade. Today, I generally think of the 1950’s as the golden age of science fiction, and I’m sure people younger than I feel the same way about the decade they first read when discovering science fiction.

This alternate view of the golden age of science fiction will probably limit the audience to Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee, but it’s already the #1 book in Amazon’s Science Fiction and Fantasy section. Today it is quite common for young people, especially women and minorities, to dismiss older science fiction as being too white-male dominated from an unenlightened era. Nevala-Lee’s book will only reinforce those beliefs. However, I think it’s important to read this book. It does capture the ambitiousness of science fiction’s most ambitious proponents.

Science fiction changed dramatically in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and again this century. I routinely read science fiction stories from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Surprisingly, the ideas and themes remain consistent, but not the storytelling and characters. Science fiction authors have become much more sophisticated writers creating deeper and diverse characters. I see Nevala-Lee’s book as one piece in a very large puzzle. If you look for them, you’ll find plenty of books being written today on the history of science fiction. Most remain obscure and little read. I’m surprised that Astounding is getting all the attention it’s getting. Does it represent a tip of an iceberg of science fiction fans hungering to know more about the evolution of their favorite genre? Or, has all the science fiction fans from my generation suddenly become nostalgic for Astounding again?

I worry if younger science fiction fans read Astounding they may be turned off to 1940’s and 1950’s science fiction. All four men in Nevala-Lee’s book eventually come across as emotionally flawed, delusional, egomaniacal, and if not diagnosable with several DSM disorders, at least very nutty. Until the genre label “science fiction” emerged in the 1950’s, people would call it “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.” I’m afraid the history in Astounding will only reinforce the crackpot reputation of science fiction.

This isn’t a criticism of the book, Nevala-Lee is just telling it like it was. But I believe readers need more context. I’m not sure people today have any idea what the psychological fallout the first atomic bombs, ICBMs, and Sputnik did to the citizens of the 1940’s and 1950’s. They all were looking desperately for answers to monumental existential threats. The stress was tremendous. Many thought the world was coming to an end. Psychiatry almost became a fad in the 1950’s, including experimental use of LSD under psychiatric supervision.

I’m not depressed that Nevala-Lee reveals how science fiction went nuts, but I wished he would have put its breakdown in the context of how everyone was going nutty back then. We look back with embarrassment to Campbell’s embrace of psychic powers, but a large segment of the country was doing the same thing.

I was born in 1951, so I grew up with the 1950’s. I remember my uncles raving about the psychic powers of Edgar Cayce and Jean Dixon, believing in the past lives of Bridie Murphy, excited by the multiple personalities of Eve, and dedicated followers the UFO nut, George Adamski. Nevala-Lee doesn’t mention how crazy America was in the 1950’s, so it seems Campbell is a standout nutter. He wasn’t. He was the mansplainer to mansplainers. He would pontificate to experts in their fields on their own subjects, telling them where they were ignoramuses.

I’ve also read other biographies of Heinlein as well as several biographies of Philip K. Dick, along with many interviews with SF writers of this era. It’s very hard to capture the crazy times from Hiroshima to Woodstock. And if you compare those times to our times, you’ll see that most people believed a lot of crazy crap by then. Of, sure, we still believe a lot of crazy crapola today, but those true believers in weirdness are far fewer now. And it is a fact that back then almost everyone had horrible prejudices and were unenlightened to equality. I’d like to believe society has evolved, and the percentage of crazy and prejudice people are down from those times. Of course, recent events suggest they were only hiding.

My one criticism of Astounding is by focusing on the biographies of Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard Nevala-Lee didn’t convey the tremendous excitement and variety of the science fiction stories that Campbell published. And that probably wasn’t his goal. To most fans, Astounding Science-Fiction magazine was by far the best science fiction magazine of the times because of the stories. They didn’t care about the lives of the editors and writers. I hope future historians of this era include the other magazines like Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder, Startling Stories, Planet Stories, and Astonishing Science Fiction. I’m not sure Astounding deserves all of the attention and credit.

Alec Nevala-Lee’s book is one of a coalescing history. It is valuable because of its biographical slant. I wished he could have included more biographies of Campbell’s writers in his book, especially A. E. van Vogt, C. L. Moore, Clifford Simak, Hal Clement, Lester del Rey, Theodore Sturgeon, Ross Rocklynne, L. Sprague de Camp, and many more. Here is a list of all the stories that appeared in Astounding from July 1939 to September 1960.

Nevala-Lee’s book reminds me of the Beats. They were a literary subculture from the 1950’s that biographers can’t let go of. The Beat library keeps growing. I think the subculture of science fiction is attracting interest in the same way, and Alec Nevala-Lee is helping it by promoting the cult of the character. Heinlein, Asimov, Hubbard, and Campbell remind me of Kerouac, Cassidy, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Over time, I believe the science fiction generation of the 1940’s and 1950’s will be remembered in biographies like The Transcendentalists, The Lost Generation, and The Beats.

Finally, I would like to also recommend The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin. It is coming to the Kindle next month and is currently just $3.99 for pre-ordering. And if you’d like to actually read copies of old Astoundings, click here.

JWH