There’s an old joke about the golden age of science fiction being 12 — that is, the age when young people discover and then devour as much sf as they can find. Alec Nevala-Lee even quotes the remark in this enthralling account of science fiction’s other golden age — the period between 1939 and the mid-’50s when John W. Campbell Jr. edited the magazine Astounding.

Until recently, science fiction took particular pride in its past. New fans were expected to know such influential works as Robert Heinlein’s Future History stories, A.E. van Vogt’s “Slan” and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. 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 and James Tiptree Jr., a.k.a. Alice Sheldon, one of Washington’s two supremely influential sf writers. (The other, Paul M.A. Linebarger, also used a pen name, Cordwainer Smith.) A few years back, Maclean — who is still with us — attended Readercon, where the reverence paid to her would have excited the envy of a movie star or member of the British royal family.

Still, I once heard a Hugo Award-winning author declare that the only American science fiction that mattered appeared after 1960. Nonetheless, he was proud to accept his award named after Hugo Gernsback, who founded Amazing Stories in 1926. (For details, see “The Gernsback Days: A Study of the Evolution of Modern Science Fiction from 1911 to 1936,” by Mike Ashley and Robert A.W. Lowndes.) During the 1920s and ’30s, Amazing, along with the early Astounding and other pulp magazines, duly fed the imaginations of adolescents who would grow up to write sf’s early masterpieces.

One of these masterpieces was young Campbell’s 1938 novella, “Who Goes There?,” which Nevala-Lees calls “the greatest science fiction suspense story of all time.” In it a murderous shape-shifting alien devastates an Antarctic expedition. (Campbell’s classic has been filmed multiple times, first as a 1951 B movie about Cold War paranoia, “The Thing from Another World.”) Though an exceptional writer, Campbell set aside his own work when he was asked to take over and reinvigorate Astounding. From then on, like other groundbreaking editors, he focused all his creative energy on the magazine, tirelessly passing along plot ideas to his contributors. For instance, Campbell suggested to a young Asimov that there might be a story in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s speculation about how humanity would react if the stars appeared only once in a thousand years. The result? The haunting classic “Nightfall.” Campbell largely formulated the Three Laws of Robotics, which energize many of Asimov’s early stories, and even helped fashion what became the Foundation Trilogy, long judged the best sf series of all time.

Though Asimov worshipped Campbell, the editor probably felt closest to Heinlein, the genre’s greatest natural-born storyteller since H.G. Wells. Heinlein could do it all, whether writing about a generation starship in “Universe,” playing with time paradox in “By His Bootstraps” or turning out the best juvenile sf novels ever, including my favorite, “Citizen of the Galaxy,” which opens unforgettably: “ ‘Lot ninety-seven,’ the auctioneer announced. ‘A boy.’ ”

While Heinlein’s fiction frequently imagined “the competent man,” a protagonist who could cook a gourmet meal or lead an army, L. Ron Hubbard actually seemed to bring him to life. Campbell and Heinlein were certainly taken in by Hubbard’s self-mythologizing accounts of his derring-do as an explorer and naval officer. But, hard though it may be to swallow, the founder of Scientology really was a major pulp author, and novels such as “Final Blackout” — set in the aftermath of a future nuclear war — and “Fear” are still worth reading. The latter, first published in Campbell’s wonderful fantasy magazine Unknown, is — to quote Stephen King — “a classic of creeping, surreal menace and horror.”

Throughout the book “Astounding,” Nevala-Lee smoothly interweaves a wide variety of sources, written and oral, as he tracks the careers of his four Golden Age giants. Did you know that Heinlein, Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp (co-author, with Fletcher Pratt, of the humorous fantasy “The Incomplete Enchanter”) all worked together in a Philadelphia Navy laboratory during World War II? Or that Heinlein practiced nudism and open marriage? Asimov, alas, relentlessly pawed young women, fancying himself a lovable Dirty Old Man, and, shockingly, died from AIDS acquired from a blood transfusion. Hubbard, no surprise, enthusiastically participated in sexual rituals masterminded by the legendary Jack Parsons, co-founder of California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (For details, see John Carter’s “Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons.”)

Sad to say, in his later years Campbell fell for various harebrained schemes to transform mankind and even foolishly changed the name of his magazine to “Analog: Science Fact and Fiction.” Still, not long before he died at age 61 in 1971, he managed one last major coup by serializing an epic novel about a desert planet called Arrakis, Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”

Yet Campbell’s influence persists even now. When George R.R. Martin was asked whether “A Game of Thrones” had been inspired by the ideas of mythologist Joseph Campbell, he answered, “The Campbell that influenced me was John W., not Joseph.” In the end, Nevala-Lee’s “Astounding” isn’t just Arrakisian spice for science-fiction fans — it’s also a clarion call to enlarge American literary history.

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.


John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

By Alec Nevala-Lee

Morrow/Dey Street. 532 pp. $28.99