This review was first published by Booklist on September 15, 2018.
Nevala-Lee (Eternal Empire, 2013) presents a necessary addition to the history of science fiction: a critical look at the life and work of John W. Campbell, legendary editor of Astounding magazine and the central architect of science fiction’s golden age. This period, and the men most central to it, defined the path that still dominates the genre today. Part biography, part history, Astounding covers Campbell’s relationships with his most important writers (Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard); their tumultuous personal lives; the role their wives played in their careers; and the effect WWII and the atomic bomb had on the genre. Campbell and others truly believed science fiction could save the world. Nevala-Lee delves into the development of dianetics and Campbell’s split with Hubbard over Scientology. He also addresses the many biases, prejudices, and personal failings of these eminent men. At times, it feels like Nevala-Lee attempts to accomplish too much, and the mix of history with biography isn’t always comfortable, but it’s all necessary to understand how science fiction became what it is today.
This review was first published by Booklist on May 22, 2018.
Westfahl (Science Fiction Quotations, 2005) offers a well-considered reevaluation of Arthur C. Clarke’s legacy, tracing broad topics and contradicting some commonly held beliefs. For example, although many separate Clarke’s technical sf from his quasi-mystical imaginings, Westfahl shows it to all be of a piece: near-future technology is relatively comprehensible to modern readers, whereas far-future technology would be so far beyond our comprehension as to appear magical—a logical conclusion. His analysis is most valuable in its scope, ranging beyond Clarke’s major works and considering his myriad stories, his less successful novels, his nonfiction, and even his juvenilia. Where this book fails is in its attempts to grapple with Clarke as a person. Clarke was a deeply private man, and there’s little evidence to consider about his life beyond his published works. Westfahl tries too hard to read too much significance into what little evidence there is. It’s a bit abstruse for anyone unfamiliar with Clarke’s work, and it verges on hagiography at times. Still, a worthy analysis of an important sf writer.
The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst isn’t the most comprehensive biography of Lewis Carroll out there. That’s not the author’s intention. Rather, he seeks to explore the available material on Carroll and Alice Liddell—much of which has never been published—as well as their historical context, to trace these elements to the genesis, content, and legacy of Carroll’s most famous works.
This is the biography of a literary creation more than a biography of its author or his Muse.
The book is structured in three main chronological sections, beginning with Carroll’s childhood and ending with Alice Liddell’s death, along with a prologue and epilogue: