In 2018, films and television shows about superheroes or the adventures of heroes fighting evil across space are commonplace: only a single non-genre film (Crazy Rich Asians) has cracked the top 10 list for highest box office gross this year. Historically, that’s a new development; science fiction was once a reviled genre, dismissed as juvenile trash or escapist nonsense. Two projects are largely responsible for this shift: Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey and the incredibly influential magazine Astounding Science Fiction, which was run in its heyday by editor John W. Campbell. Now, two histories paint a complex portrait of the figures who are often lionized for their brilliance.
Michael Benson’s Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece and Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction are exhaustive, well-researched examinations of two of the genre’s most influential projects. In their own ways, each project helped shape the face of the modern science fiction genre, either by implementing astonishing special effects or by launching the careers of some of the genre’s best-known authors. Each book takes a hard look at the people involved, showcasing a sometimes unflattering look at the creatives behind each big name.
Space Odyssey hit bookstores earlier this year in conjunction with the film’s 50th anniversary, and it’s an engrossing, if at times tedious, read that serves as a definitive history of how Stanley Kubrick developed and directed 2001: A Space Odyssey 50 years ago. While initially panned by critics, the movie went on to be hailed as one of the best science fiction films ever made, turning a previously pulpy premise into a serious story with mind-blowing advances in special effects that would pave the way for future classics.
Kubrick was just coming off of his anti-war film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and while casting around for his next project, he decided that he wanted to do a serious science fiction film that would surpass anything that had been done before. Benson starts with Kubrick’s fascination with space and extraterrestrials, a fascination that ultimately led him to author Arthur C. Clarke, one of the genre’s major figures, who also desired to break into the film industry. They eventually met in New York City, and with some of Clarke’s short stories as a starting point, they began to conceptualize an epic story of humanity’s efforts to reach space, spanning from its prehistoric ancestors to the distant future.
Benson documents each beat of the production, and Kubrick was at the heart of it. He guided the film through a tough and chaotic production. As he and Clarke began work on their film, they hewed out the larger beats of first contact. Kubrick was a perfectionist, and he labored over the script as he worked to pull together a production that was unlike anything else. Filming began without a finished script, and they improvised their way forward, landing on an ending that they hadn’t planned out.
Reading the book in 2018 paints a picture of Kubrick that feels reminiscent of Steve Jobs. He was egotistical and demanded absolute perfection from his production. When he decided that he wanted a certain type of endangered tree for a desert scene, he sent a crew out in the middle of the night to cut down a stand kokerboom from a protected grove and had it driven to the shooting location. One caught fire and another was damaged when one of the trucks crashed. The trees made a brief appearance in the film, and the crew ended up making fake ones in England for other shots.
Kubrick’s attention to detail also came at the expense of his actors and crew. At one point, a stunt actor was hanging dozens of feet above the floor for the film’s EVA scenes, sealed into a space suit, with only a couple of minutes of air. The actor signaled that he was running out of air, but Kubrick grew agitated and demanded that they continue the scene. The actor — a former mercenary — blacked out and was pulled in. When he awoke, he went after the director, only to discover that Kubrick left the set, and he didn’t return until two or three days later. During another spacewalk sequence, Kubrick insisted that a stunt actor wear only a single safety wire, worried that multiple lines would compromise the illusion of floating in space. When the actor descended, meters above the ground, one of the strands in the wire snapped, prompting the actor to drop the prop he was holding, which hit a camera assistant on the head. Crew worried that someone would die due to Kubrick’s demand for absolute authenticity.
Clarke had his own issues with Kubrick. He was an eager collaborator who wanted to break from the world of science fiction magazines into Hollywood. As they brainstormed and came up with ideas, they had a genuine meeting of the minds: Clarke’s literary brilliance and foresight into the future of space travel met Kubrick’s cinematic eye. But as production started, it became clear that it wasn’t an equal partnership. Clarke grew frustrated and depressed with Kubrick’s demands and rewrites, as well as the fact that the director sat on the approval of the novelization that Clarke wrote up, the delay of which cost Clarke thousands and thousands of dollars, putting him into debt as he focused completely on the movie, script, and resulting novel.
When all was said and done, 2001: A Space Odyssey debuted to mixed reviews from confused journalists who didn’t understand what they watched. This was to the dismay of Clarke and Kubrick, who ended up recutting parts of the film for the regular release. Benson wraps up by exploring how the film’s roadshow release helped turn it into a wild success, and it went on to influence directors of other influential science fiction classics, including James Cameron, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg.
There are parallels to the story of 2001: A Space Odyssey in Nevala-Lee’s Astounding. This engrossing history delves into the story of one of the genre’s best-known magazines, Astounding Science Fiction. (It’s still in print under the name Analog Science Fact and Fiction.) The magazine has a long and storied history within science fiction circles. It began as a typical pulp magazine in 1930, changing hands a couple of times before John W. Campbell, Jr. was brought on as editor at the age of 30. From there, he transformed the magazine from a publication that churned out forgettable stories to one that launched the careers of some of science fiction’s best-known authors, including Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov.
Just as Kubrick was the driving force behind his movie, Campbell served as the center of his stable of writers. Nevala-Lee explores how the editor ticked and why he became the driving force that transformed science fiction from a genre relegated to the pulps to something a bit more respectable. He used his authors as a sounding board for his own ideas and philosophies and helped shape the worlds and underpinning structures that would become Asimov’s Foundation and Heinlein’s Future History stories. Along the way, Nevala-Lee looks at the respective biographies of Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard and how their editor worked with them and how he became the springboard from which they went on to bigger and sometimes better things. Like Kubrick, Campbell sought for the genre to be more realistic, shedding the bug-eyed monsters of the pulp era and positioning the magazine and genre to focus on hard science. Like 2001, Astounding became a huge influence on the field that followed.
Campbell was a hands-on editor, working closely with his authors to hammer out stories and characters, often setting up the basis for worlds that the authors would build their careers on. Hubbard wasn’t particularly interested in science fiction, but he recognized it as an ideal setting for his swashbuckling adventure stories about heroic men. Campbell pushed Asimov to think about psychology in new ways, resulting in his Foundation and Robot franchises. Heinlein’s prose proved to be the most popular among Astounding readers, and the editor helped shape his Future History series that would start off his career with a bang.
Like Space Odyssey, Astounding takes a critical look at its subjects. Collectively, Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubble were incredibly flawed, toxic, and abusive individuals. Nevala-Lee recounts Asimov’s predilection for sexual harassment and predatory behavior. At one point, he recounts that when Asimov visited a particular publisher, the women found reason to leave. Hubbard was manipulative and physically abusive toward his partners, beating and punching them on more than one occasion. Campbell, at the center of the hub, was also a problematic figure. He was overtly homophobic, sexist, and racist. He once told African-American author Samuel R. Delany that he didn’t feel his readers “would be able to relate to a black main character,” and he told others that he felt that the institution of slavery could be “educational” for its victims. He and the magazine peaked by 1950, overtaken by his own obsession with dianetics and psionics and his abrasive personality that alienated Heinlein, Asimov, and others. Other competing magazines saw their chance to take the spotlight away from Campbell and his magazine and ran with it, eclipsing it with their own innovative stories.
Collectively, both books bring together a central point: some of the greatest works of science fiction were the result of brilliant individuals who demanded a high level of detail and perfection in the stories that they were responsible for producing, injecting much of their personal views and sensibilities into them. But both books also point out that while their visions for the future were influential and at times ground-breaking, they were also inherently flawed, driven by their own egos, racism, and sexism. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Astounding Science Fiction have each transcended their creators and gone on to become enormously influential for the science fiction genre, but they remain a shaky foundation that fans and creators must still contend with.