Alec Nevala-Lee | Longreads | February 2017 | 28 minutes (7,744 words)
L. Ron Hubbard published over four million words of fiction in his lifetime, but his most famous story consists of just a few handwritten pages. Before their contents were leaked in the early ’70s, they could be viewed at the Advanced Organization Building of the Church of Scientology, a hulking blue edifice off Sunset Boulevard where visitors were handed a manila envelope to open in a private room. Most had paid thousands of dollars for the privilege, which made it by far the most lucrative story Hubbard, or perhaps anyone, ever wrote—a spectacular rate for a writer who spent much of his career earning a penny per word.
The story itself, which has become more familiar than Hubbard or any of his disciples ever intended, revolves around the figure of Xenu, the tyrannical dictator of the Galactic Confederation. Millions of years ago, Xenu, faced with an overpopulation crisis, threw hordes of his own people into volcanoes on the planet Earth—then known as Teegeeack—and blew them up with atomic bombs. Their spirits, called thetans, survive to the present day, clinging to unsuspecting humans, and they can only be removed through dianetic auditing, a form of talk therapy that clears the subject of its unwanted passengers.
One of the church members who read this account was screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, who was a devoted Scientologist for over three decades before resigning in an ugly public split. Haggis told Lawrence Wright, the author of the seminal New Yorker piece that became the exposé Going Clear, that after finishing the story, he got the wild idea that it was some sort of insanity test—if you believed it, you were kicked out. When he asked his supervisor for clarification, he was informed: “It is what it is.” Haggis read it again, but the same thought continued to resound in his brain: “This is madness.”
Hubbard himself had another term for it. In an insertion to the original manuscript, squeezed between two lines, the author left his own description of what he had written: “Very space opera.”
L. Ron Hubbard wrote science fiction. His singular transformation from pulp writer to religious messiah has become a cultural touchstone in itself, and it’s impossible to fully understand the Church of Scientology—which made an unwilling return to the spotlight last year in the A&E documentary series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath—without taking stock of his earlier work. Dianetics, the therapy at the center of Hubbard’s teachings, first gained traction in the science fiction community of the ’50s, and without it, he might never have found an audience. He also benefited enormously from his association with the magazine Astounding Science Fiction and its brilliant editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., who played a pivotal role in the development and popularization of Hubbard’s theories.
When I began to look into Hubbard’s fiction more systematically, however, as part of the research for a book that I’m writing on Campbell and his circle, I found that there have been few, if any, serious attempts to survey his work in its entirety. A year ago, I spent several months reading as much of it as I could stand, and I was surprised by what I discovered. If there’s one overwhelming conclusion to be drawn about Hubbard’s career, it isn’t that he wrote science fiction, or even that he was influenced by its ideas. It’s that he ended up writing science fiction almost against his will, and for much of his life, he seems to have actively despised it.
He certainly wasn’t drawn to it by choice. Science fiction and fantasy represented a relatively small fraction of his total output: Hubbard himself assessed it at “a tenth,” and a later estimate by the Church of Scientology, which includes the two huge novels that closed out his career, puts it at about a third of the whole. Most of his published stories were adventures or westerns—Hubbard liked ships and horses, not aliens or robots. Recalling his first efforts at science fiction, he said that he was “quite ignorant of the field and regarded it, in fact, a bit diffidently,” and his attitude never changed. In a letter to Robert A. Heinlein in 1948, toward the end of his most productive period, he wrote: “Between you and me, I hate the hell out of gadgets.”
In reality, he wrote science fiction for exactly one reason—he knew that it would sell. Early on, Campbell had been instructed by his superiors to buy whatever Hubbard wrote, and even after that order was lifted, Astounding and its sister magazine Unknown remained his most reliable markets. Hubbard saw writing as a business in which you had to maximize your rate of return, and he wouldn’t ignore a sure sale, even if his heart wasn’t in it. The fact that dianetics was introduced in Astounding was also largely an accident. Hubbard wasn’t all that interested in reaching an audience of science fiction fans, and he repeatedly tried to promote his theories in other venues, without success, before falling back on the magazine as a last resort.
It’s that he ended up writing science fiction almost against his will, and for much of his life, he seems to have actively despised it.
And it gets even stranger. When we turn to the stories themselves, we find that most of them have nothing in common with the tale of Xenu. In the pages of Astounding, Hubbard tended to write comic fantasies or adventures staged on a very modest scale, with situations lifted straight from the nautical or military fiction that he was publishing elsewhere. Aliens and galactic empires rarely played any significant role. When he employed these conventions, it was as a target for parody or as a kind of painted backdrop for the action. Yet when the time came to give Scientology a founding myth, he turned to space opera, referring to it explicitly in those terms, and the result didn’t look or sound much like anything he had ever written before.
The solution to this paradox has important implications for our understanding of Scientology itself. If Hubbard didn’t like the genre and wrote it mostly for the money, it makes it harder to dismiss him, as many of his critics do, as a science fiction writer who was carried away by his own imagination. It would be more accurate to say that it was the other way around. Hubbard churned out science fiction to meet the demands of his editors, and he built a religion around it because it appealed to his initial circle of followers, many of whom were fans who had first encountered his work in magazines like Astounding. He didn’t choose his disciples; they chose him. And he told them what they wanted to hear until he was transformed in the process.
As a result, Hubbard ended up living in a genre that he had never particularly liked, which also came to define his literary legacy. For true believers, Hubbard can be nothing less than the greatest writer of all time, while his detractors tend to dismiss his fiction, sight unseen, as uniformly worthless. The truth is more complicated. In his prime, Hubbard was genuinely popular, and from his gargantuan body of work, you can extract a thin slice that is still worth reading, if only by the law of truly large numbers. Yet he was well out of the main line of science fiction, and he influenced it less as a writer than as a gravitational force in the lives of others.
For better or worse, the one constant that we see from the beginning is that Hubbard, who was born in 1911, was a natural storyteller. As a teenager, he filled ledgers with stories and plot ideas, and he embellished his own accomplishments in the colorful tales that he spun about his own escapades. But although he wrote some short fiction and a play at George Washington University, it doesn’t appear to have occurred to him to pursue writing professionally until he was in his early 20s. (Sources of information on his life include the biographies Bare-Faced Messiah by Russell Miller, A Piece of Blue Sky by Jon Atack, and Going Clear by Lawrence Wright, as well as letters, public records, leaked files, and documents released by the Church of Scientology.)
In 1933, Hubbard moved to Maryland with his wife Polly, after an unsuccessful attempt at prospecting for gold in Puerto Rico. He had sold a few articles to The Sportsman Pilot, earning less than $100 over the course of a year, and he was casting about for new markets when he discovered the pulps, of which he had previously known nothing. After purchasing a stack of titles from a newsstand, he studied them to see what editors were buying, and he went to work at a furious rate, cranking out a story every day for six weeks—often typing all night—and never reading what he had written before sending it off.
Before long, he had placed a story, “The Green God,” in the February 1934 issue of Thrilling Adventures. It’s a feverish assemblage of clichés around the barest sliver of a plot, in which a naval intelligence officer in Tientsin spends a dozen pages shooting, stabbing, and clubbing his way through a legion of “ragged, evil Chinese.” As with many of the stories that followed, it draws superficially on the experiences of its author, who had traveled to China with his parents—his father was a naval officer stationed in Guam—on a trip that prompted him to write in his diary: “The trouble with China is, there are too many chinks here.” It’s about as bad as it sounds.
For better or worse, the one constant that we see from the beginning is that Hubbard, who was born in 1911, was a natural storyteller.
Yet he continued to make sales, and he gained a modest following. An editorial note in Thrilling Adventures said: “I guess L. Ron Hubbard needs no introduction. From the letters you send in, his yarns are about the most popular we have published. Several of you have wondered, too, how he gets the splendid color which always characterizes his stories of the faraway places. The answer is, he’s been there, brothers. He’s been, and seen, and done, and plenty of all three of them!” And like many other writers, past and present, he soon realized that his creative energies were most profitably devoted to establishing himself as a personality.
He visited New York, working at a rented desk in a hotel, and paid $10 to join a society of pulp authors called the American Fiction Guild, where he became known as a diverting lunch companion with an endless supply of tall tales. A year later, he was elected the chapter’s president. By then, he had become notorious for his rapid rate of production: he was rumored to work on an electric typewriter—a rarity in itself—loaded with a continuous roll of paper, and he claimed to write 100,000 words a month, working just three days a week. (Based on more realistic calculations of his output, this is a gross exaggeration, and he would continue to compulsively inflate his already impressive numbers for the rest of his life.)
Most of his early stories are forgettable, but they occasionally showed signs of promise. The closer he was to the sea, which he loved, the better his writing became: it elevated reasonably brisk adventure yarns like “The Phantom Patrol,” “Under the Black Ensign,” and the unpublished “Murder at Pirate Castle,” the rights for which were bought by Columbia for the serial The Secret of Treasure Island. The script for the latter, which Hubbard wrote, is notable mostly for a few action scenes set around an exploding volcano—which would later become a symbol of Scientology—and for the character of Dr. X, a scientist forced to build “death bombs.” Hubbard also claimed, without any evidence, to have contributed rewrites to Stagecoach.
He had really been writing a different kind of western, most of which he typed up in a pine cabin at his new house near Puget Sound. Inspired in part by a passage from the journals of Lewis and Clark, he outlined a story about the Blackfeet Indians and their skirmishes with the fur traders of the North West Company, and it was eventually acquired by the publisher Macaulay for an advance of $2,500. Hubbard, in typical fashion, blew the money on a boat, but the deal was remarkable in itself—few pulp writers at that point ever made it into hardcover.
When you read Buckskin Brigades, which was published in 1937, you can start to understand its appeal. Against all expectations, it’s a real novel, with exciting action scenes and a nice, dry sense of humor. Once you come to terms with its hero, Yellow Hair, a blond and blue-eyed warrior adopted by the Blackfeet, you’re left with a story that unapologetically takes the side of the Native Americans—and not out of any of the piousness that sinks most efforts along the same lines, but from an instinctive awareness that this is where the meat of the story lies.
It also draws power from Hubbard’s personal identification with his protagonist. (He would often say that he had been made a blood brother of the Blackfeet in Montana at the age of 4, an assertion that has been convincingly debunked, although it still appears in his official biographies.) In Yellow Hair, he gives us the earliest version of his favorite character, which reflected how he wanted to be seen in his own life—as the last honorable man set against a world of ignorance. He would later portray himself in a similar light, although it’s really the villain, McGlincy, lolling back in gold lace while boatmen row his canoe, who seems to anticipate the author’s future as the commodore of his own private navy.
In any case, despite respectful reviews, Buckskin Brigades never went into a second printing with its original publisher. Hubbard returned, with no apparent loss of energy, to the pulps, where he was about to have a meeting that would change his life—and the history of science fiction—forever.
In early 1938, Hubbard and the pulp writer Arthur J. Burks were invited to the ramshackle building in New York that housed the publishing firm of Street & Smith. According to Hubbard, they were met by editorial director F. Orlin Tremaine and “an executive named Black,” who asked if they would be interested in writing for Astounding. Hubbard had already contributed pieces to some of the firm’s other titles, and, as he remembered years later, the company was unhappy because “its magazine was mainly publishing stories about machines and machinery. As publishers, its executives knew you had to have people in stories.”
After expressing their concerns over the magazine’s circulation, the executives called in John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding, who was then 27 years old. He was told by his superiors to purchase whatever Hubbard and Burks chose to submit. Hubbard recalled: “The top brass had to directly order Campbell to buy and to publish what we wrote for him. He was going to get people into his stories and get something going besides machines.”
Our only source for this anecdote is Hubbard himself, which is reason enough to be skeptical of it, but the evidence implies that something very much like this meeting really did take place. Tremaine had been promoted to editorial director the previous year, and “Black” may have been Frank E. Blackwell, the editor-in-chief. Both men were laid off shortly after the date that Hubbard provides, which means that the timing of the story is basically correct. And Campbell later confirmed to readers that Hubbard’s appearance in the magazine was part of “the effort to get the best stories of the science-fiction type by the best authors available.”
Regardless of the details, the encounter was a turning point in the lives of both Hubbard and his most important collaborator. Campbell was a figure of comparable presence and charisma, a physically imposing man with browline glasses and a black cigarette holder. He had been a popular writer both under his own name and as Don A. Stuart, the pseudonym under which he was about to publish the novella “Who Goes There?”, which would later be filmed as The Thing. As an editor, he would lay down the rules for the entire genre and discover such authors as Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, who called him “the most powerful force in science fiction ever.”
At the time, however, he was still inexperienced—just a year older than Hubbard—and he regarded his new writer with mixed feelings. In his letters, Campbell seems uneasy with their forced partnership, and Hubbard appears to have felt much the same way. Apart from a few elements in The Secret of Treasure Island, his only piece of speculative fiction had been “The Death Flyer,” a throwaway about a ghost train that had appeared two years earlier in Mystery Novels Magazine. But he was happy to take work wherever he could get it, and before long, he had sent in his first submission, “The Dangerous Dimension.”
In the reverent authorized text Master Storyteller: An Illustrated Tour of the Work of L. Ron Hubbard, William J. Widder writes: “With ‘The Dangerous Dimension,’ the genre took a sharp, humanizing turn that would permanently transform it in ways that probably few who read the story at the time could envision.” Really, though, it’s a lightweight fantasy about a scientist who discovers an equation that teleports him wherever he thinks, whether he likes it or not. It’s amusing, but little more, and Campbell didn’t much care for it: in his announcement of the contents of the upcoming issue, he mentioned stories by every writer except Hubbard.
But it introduced a welcome note of humor into the magazine, and the response was a positive one: it topped the reader poll of stories published that July. Two months later, Hubbard’s name was on the cover with “The Tramp,” a serial about a vagrant who learns how to heal or kill with his mind after undergoing emergency brain surgery. It was less popular than its predecessor, but it marked a thaw in Campbell’s relationship with Hubbard, whom he grudgingly began to admire. He later wrote to Heinlein: “L. Ron Hubbard, who is my idea of a man who is both professional and artist in his writing, refuses to write any story that is hard work.”
And it showed. Over the next four years, Hubbard contributed 15 more stories to Astounding, and few were particularly memorable. The first category, which hasn’t aged well, consisted of humorous fantasies like “The Professor Was a Thief,” in which a mad scientist shrinks buildings to add them to his model railroad. A second type included war or adventure stories with a superficially futuristic setting, like “General Swamp, C.I.C.,” which could be transferred from Venus to Earth with just a handful of changes. Finally, there were stories that imitated the conventions of space fiction, but hinged on predictable twists, like “The Invaders,” in which a mysterious nebula turns out to lead into the guts of an ordinary worm.
Hubbard’s fans like to argue that works like “The Dangerous Dimension” reflect his interest in such subjects as the nature of consciousness, but even the most generous reading reveals that he never explored real ideas at any length, although the opportunity was certainly there. In a period when such authors as Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt were filling their stories with prickly philosophical digressions, Hubbard never did. This omission is even stranger than it seems, because we know that he was feverishly working on a manuscript, Excalibur, that set forth his theory of the mind at the very same time that he was writing for Campbell. For whatever reason, he kept it to himself, perhaps out of concern that Campbell would take it over—a fear that turned out to be more than justified in light of later events.
As Asimov later observed: ‘I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.’
Most of his stories displayed little, if any, interest in science itself, an attitude that extended to his protagonists. The heroes of Hubbard’s adventure yarns were invariably tall, virile, and masculine, while the central figures in his science fiction and fantasy stories were more likely to be henpecked weaklings. As Isaac Asimov wrote of his first meeting with Hubbard: “He was a large-jawed, red-haired, big and expansive fellow who surprised me. His heroes tended to be frightened little men who rose to meet emergencies, and somehow I had expected Hubbard to be the same.” His constant use of such characters reflected his low opinion of his audience, and even when he offered up a more conventional lead, as in the relentlessly sour series The Kilkenny Cats, the result reeked of contempt.
Fortunately, Campbell had already channeled his talents into a much more promising vein. Unknown, a fantasy magazine, had been launched by Street & Smith in 1939. Hubbard liked to claim that it had been established expressly for him, which was another self-serving tale—the project went back to Campbell’s predecessor. But it was a natural home for Hubbard, as well as a safe space in which he could be given free rein, and starting with his first story, The Ultimate Adventure, which was featured on the cover that April, it was clear that this was where he belonged.
The Ultimate Adventure turns on the formula, which Hubbard would frequently exploit, of an ordinary man plunged into a world of fantasy—in this case, using a sensory-deprivation helmet that transports him into a realm out of The Arabian Nights. Hubbard would use the same device in such stories as Slaves of Sleep and The Case of the Friendly Corpse, which saved time in delivering exposition. But it also appealed to a fundamental quality of his imagination, which he had always used to transform himself into something more than he was. It was also driven by his fascination with Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer, soldier, scholar, and spy who came closer than any man in history to what Hubbard himself wanted to be.
On the whole, his stories for Unknown, which inspired enthusiastic fan mail from the likes of Asimov and Ray Bradbury, are considerably more entertaining than anything he wrote for Astounding. They also include his single best novel, Death’s Deputy, which appeared in February 1940. Its hero, a pilot with the Canadian Air Force, survives a brush with death, and in the aftermath, he becomes unbelievably lucky, while causing those around him to die in gruesome ways. It’s a surprisingly fine story, packed with ideas and enriched by Hubbard’s love of flight, and it came directly out of his conversations with Campbell.
A second outlier was a serial that ran in Astounding two months later, which Heinlein would call “as perfect a piece of science fiction as has ever been written.” Under the working title of The Unkillables, Hubbard conceived a bleak variation on the Yellow Hair figure, now a military leader known only as the Lieutenant, who leads a squadron of soldiers across a European continent ravaged by nuclear war. He engages in skirmishes with troops from other nations, but a sense of mutual honor prevails, and his real enemies—in a development that plenty of fans would have found familiar—are the craven officers on his own side.
In the end, the serial, which was published as Final Blackout, was the most powerful work that Hubbard ever produced. As the Lieutenant outwits his rivals in a series of land and naval engagements, you can feel the author taking a rare sense of interest in his own plot, which is haunted throughout by the conflict in Europe. Like Death’s Deputy, it was written around the time when Hubbard was trying, unsuccessfully, to obtain a position with the War Department. As a result, his output slowed, and the two novels seem to have benefited from the slight degree of extra attention they received, although he was soon back in his usual mode.
Two additional pieces from Unknown have been fondly remembered by fans. One is Fear, a seminal work in the history of horror, about a man who mysteriously loses four hours of his life. It has dated badly, and it draws out its nightmare logic for too long, but its shock ending is undeniably effective, and it made a huge impact on Bradbury. The other is Typewriter in the Sky, a metafictional novel about a man who ends up as the villain in the pulp pirate story that his colleague is writing. It’s a premise that excites those who like to see Hubbard as an innovator, but he lacked the technical ability—or, more likely, the time—to do it justice.
In these novels, along with such solid short stories as “Borrowed Glory” and “The Room,” Hubbard was making real strides as a craftsman, but it all ended on December 7, 1941. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hubbard, who had been commissioned in the Naval Reserve, was on a ship to Australia, from which he was scheduled to continue to the Philippines. It was his chance to become the kind of hero that he had always wanted to be, and that his friends truly believed he was. Campbell wrote to Heinlein: “I imagine that the thing that would really satisfy [Hubbard’s] nature . . . would be a chance to command a sub sent out to raid Tokyo harbor. I wouldn’t permit him to, if I were running the Navy. He’d probably try to up ship and bombard Hirohito’s hovel with his deck gun, just for the hell of it.”
As it turned out, Hubbard alienated his superiors in Australia and Massachusetts, attacked two nonexistent submarines off the coast of Oregon, and fired without authorization in Mexican waters, causing him to be relieved of his command. He would later say that he had been crippled and nearly blinded in action—he really suffered from a duodenal ulcer—and he spent much of the war in the hospital, although he continued to play the charming rogue in public. In late 1944, Asimov attended a party at which Hubbard told stories, played the guitar, and effortlessly dominated Heinlein and the author L. Sprague de Camp, who listened “quietly as pussycats.” The writer Jack Williamson, who was also there, came away with a different impression: “I recall his eyes, the wary, light-blue eyes that I somehow associate with the gunmen of the old West, watching me sharply as he talked as if to see how much I believed. Not much.”
Before long, the mask began to crack, and Hubbard grew visibly depressed. His appearance startled his friends—Campbell wrote that Hubbard was “a quivering psychoneurotic wreck” after the war, and that “his conversation was somewhat schizoid at points.” The reasons for this downturn are unclear, although de Camp may have come closest to the truth in a letter to Asimov: “What the war did was to wear [Hubbard] down to where he no longer bothers with the act.”
One of those who noticed Hubbard’s fragile mental state was Heinlein, who had spent the war at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with de Camp and Asimov. He had recruited Hubbard—on Campbell’s recommendation—for a think tank in which science fiction writers gathered on weekends to brainstorm responses to the kamikaze threat. None of their ideas were ever used in combat, but Heinlein was moved by Hubbard’s tales of being repeatedly bombed, sunk, and wounded, and he evidently encouraged Hubbard to have a sexual relationship with his wife Leslyn. Hubbard later recalled: “He almost forced me to sleep with his wife.”
After the war, Hubbard briefly lived with the Heinleins in Laurel Canyon, where they set up a shared working space. Heinlein was undoubtedly impressed by Hubbard, whom he credited with introducing him to the plot formula of “the man who learned better,” and he introduced him to Jack Parsons, a rocket engineer in Pasadena with an interest in black magic. Hubbard became housemates with Parsons in December 1945, and he took part in occult rituals before the two men had a falling out, caused in part by Hubbard’s affair with Parsons’s lover Sara Northrup. Hubbard married her the following year, without bothering to divorce his first wife.
Heinlein’s proximity seems to have sent a charge through Hubbard as well, although it wasn’t immediately obvious. His first story after the war, The End is Not Yet, ran in three parts, starting in the August 1947 issue of Astounding. Campbell later wrote: “I bought it largely because I felt Ron needed a boost back on his feet. The story, I felt at the time, was mediocre. It was the only time I’ve ever bought a story I did not genuinely enjoy.” The novel is most interesting today for the alternate personas—or futures—that Hubbard seems to be testing for himself. One of its characters becomes a messiah to millions after discovering a new method of analyzing the brain; another is described as the world’s most famous author; and a third writes the definitive book on psychology.
As Hubbard plunged back into writing, his style grew more relaxed. He wrote a string of potboilers for Astounding about Ole Doc Methuselah, a doctor who travels the galaxy with his alien slave Hippocrates. The stories, which are basically comic westerns, suffer from Hubbard’s usual labored gags, and his wife Sara said that she had proposed many of the plots. But along with Conquest of Space, a charming attempt at a future history for Startling Stories, they show more affection toward science fiction than anything he had published, as does “The Conroy Diary,” in which a pulp writer, obviously modeled on Hubbard himself, inspires mankind to enter space.
His last major work was To the Stars, a flawed but ambitious story about time dilation at relativistic speeds, with a hero forced to deal with a changing world after an absence of centuries. It unfolds on a vaster scale than Hubbard had ever attempted, and if he had followed up on its example, he might well have become the writer that his followers have always insisted that he was. But he was about to leave the genre for decades. Before long, his life would be consumed by a far more audacious project, foreshadowed in a letter that Campbell wrote to Hubbard on November 21, 1945: “Science fiction better get stepping if it wants to lead the world!”
“Terra Incognita: The Mind,” which marked the inauspicious debut of dianetics in print, was published in the Winter/Spring 1950 issue of The Explorers Journal. Hubbard’s membership in the Explorers Club, a scientific society based in New York, had long been a feather in his cap. He had applied years earlier on the strength of some unremarkable travels in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, and after he was accepted, he took enormous pride in the achievement, frequently mentioning the club in his stories and using its address on his personal letterhead.
In the article, Hubbard provides a brief description of dianetics, his new science of the mind, and makes the strange claim that he developed it to provide expedition leaders with a way to screen team members for mental problems, as well as a form of emergency medicine in the field. It was a clear attempt to frame his work in terms of how he liked to see himself—as an adventurer and man of action. The piece aroused no perceptible response, but it sheds a revealing light on the audience that he was hoping to reach. Hubbard wanted to attract explorers and men of the world. Instead, he ended up with science fiction fans.
And they weren’t his first, or even his second, choice. Hubbard had been working on dianetics for years, and he had approached a number of professional societies with offers to share his research. None of them took the bait, and he ultimately returned to a proven market, writing to Campbell in the spring of 1949. At the editor’s invitation, Hubbard and his wife Sara moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, not far from where Astounding had recently relocated. Campbell could have collaborated with him at a distance, as he had with so many other writers, but he seems to have decided early on that he wanted to keep this one close.
When the two men met again, Campbell was impressed with Hubbard’s appearance, which was newly composed and confident, and he became convinced that the author had healed himself using his own techniques. He was primed to be receptive. Like Hubbard, Campbell had grown depressed after the war. Atomic weaponry had always been a staple of science fiction, but the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led him to publish a series of bleak postnuclear stories, and he became obsessed with making a discovery that would save the world from the bomb.
Hubbard wanted to attract explorers and men of the world. Instead, he ended up with science fiction fans.
Over the following year, Campbell worked intensively with Hubbard to develop dianetics into a science that could prevent a nuclear catastrophe. His goal was to turn Hubbard’s “rules of thumb” into something that his readers could accept. Hubbard himself took a more casual approach, and he spent much of that summer looking into jobs in Hollywood. For a working writer, dianetics was just one angle among many, and Hubbard was cheerfully willing to allow Campbell to turn it into whatever he thought it needed to be.
What emerged was rather different from what Hubbard had initially envisioned. It was a theory of the brain as a kind of computer that could be damaged by recordings, or engrams, implanted when it was unconscious. The treatment, called auditing, required no special equipment, and it could be conducted by an auditor and a “preclear” in any quiet room. After entering a state of reverie, the preclear would relive memories going back to the period before birth. If successful, the subject would be left with total recall, a heightened intellect, and freedom from psychosomatic illness—a “clear” free at last to achieve his or her full potential.
When the first article on dianetics appeared in the May 1950 issue of Astounding, followed by the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it seemed unlike anything else Hubbard had ever written. Campbell—who appears anonymously in several of its case studies—wrote some of the text, borrowing terms and ideas from the new discipline of cybernetics to give it a veneer of scientific respectability. Still, it’s a truly weird book, with a level of sexual explicitness that must have taken many readers by surprise: “Mother is saying, ‘Oh, I can’t live without it. It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful. Oh, how nice. Oh, do it again!’ and father is saying, ‘Come! Come! Oh, you’re so good. You’re so wonderful. Ahhh!’”
On the whole, however, its tone is unexpectedly restrained. Hubbard calls it a provisional theory, subject to revision, and he concludes: “For God’s sake, get busy and build a better bridge!” In fact, it was conceived as the beginning of an ongoing scientific revolution. Campbell saw the newly founded Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth as a think tank for the superior brains that dianetics would produce. Many of the earliest converts were science fiction fans, who had always believed that a major discovery would emerge from their ranks. And no one was more surprised by its success than Hubbard, who embraced his sudden celebrity and boasted to his agent: “I’m dragging down Clark Gable’s salary.”
Campbell thought that he had found his life’s work, but the dream quickly fell apart. Once it became clear that dianetics would be a greater financial windfall than anyone had anticipated, Hubbard grew convinced of his own infallibility. (One of his few works of fiction from this period, Masters of Sleep, is an Arabian Nights tale that turns halfway through into a piece of propaganda for dianetics, which has rendered psychiatry obsolete.) Money was spent as quickly as it came in, and a series of messy internal disputes led Campbell to resign. As Asimov later observed: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.”
Hubbard subsequently said that Campbell became “bitter and violent” after his ideas were rejected, while Campbell, who had staked his position and reputation on dianetics, dismissed Scientology years afterward as “intellectual garbage.” He also claimed: “It was, as a matter of fact, I, not Ron, who originally suggested that it should be dropped as a psychotherapy, and reconstituted as a religion. Because only religions are permitted to be amateurs.” It’s impossible to verify this statement, although the notion of a religious cult founded by scientists frequently recurs in the stories that Campbell published, and the editor Lloyd Eshbach—to whom Hubbard allegedly made his famous remark that a religion would be a good way to make money—said in a memoir that the plans for the church were drawn up in Campbell’s kitchen.
With Campbell out of the picture, Hubbard published no more stories for decades, but a strain of science fiction remained in his work, and it grew even stronger after he set up shop in Wichita, Kansas, where a businessman named Don Purcell had offered to underwrite his research. Many of the disciples who followed him there owed their first exposure to his ideas to Astounding, and he began to tailor his teachings, consciously or otherwise, to the audience he had left, just as he had opportunistically turned to science fiction to satisfy his publishers and allowed the terminology of dianetics to be shaped by Campbell.
He didn’t choose his disciples; they chose him. And he told them what they wanted to hear until he was transformed in the process.
A key development was the E-meter, a rudimentary lie detector invented by Volney Mathison, another former writer for Street & Smith. Its adoption by the movement profoundly influenced its next phase, which was dominated by a preoccupation with past lives. Dianetics had always encouraged its subjects to think back to the moment of conception, and it was only natural that some would go further. Once Hubbard and his remaining core of followers were free to work without interference, past lives came to the forefront, and many of the memories recovered with the new device were colored by aspects of science fiction.
The concept of Earth as a prison for thetans first appears in a purported recording of an auditing session that Hubbard underwent with his third wife, Mary Sue Whipp, in April 1952. A few years later, more than a dozen case studies of past lives with science fiction elements were published in Have You Lived Before This Life? In assembling this material, which his followers seem to have provided of their own accord, Hubbard was reaching backward, almost inadvertently, to create a cosmic timescale of life on other planets. And he ultimately came to believe many of his own teachings, if the countless hours that he spent auditing himself are any indication.
It culminated in the Xenu documents, which were written in North Africa in late 1966 and early 1967. Years of scrutiny from the press and various government agencies had left Hubbard increasingly paranoid, and he was drinking heavily and popping pills as he prepared to board his refurbished fishing trawler, on which he hoped to live out his fantasies of adventures at sea. His most cherished dreams had always been of himself as a commodore with a jaunty cap, but science fiction refused to let him go. His crew members were told that they were searching for gold that he had buried in a past life, but also that they were looking for a hidden space station in Corsica. The expedition was canceled at the last minute.
And then, after decades of silence as a fiction writer, there came an unlikely resurgence. In 1977, Hubbard wrote Revolt in the Stars, first as a novella and then as a screenplay. It includes an expanded version of the Xenu narrative, but it reads more like an attempt to capitalize on the success of Star Wars, with scenes and characters that verge on outright plagiarism. After it failed to attract any interest from studios, Hubbard seriously considered filming it himself, raising millions of dollars and constructing a soundstage in La Quinta, California.
No usable footage was ever produced, but it inspired him to make a more ambitious return to fiction, in the form of a novel with the working title Man: The Endangered Species. Hubbard pounded it out in eight months, switching between two typewriters whenever one had to be repaired, and the final draft ended up just short of half a million words. In the introduction, he says that he wrote it during “a period when I had little to do”—in fact, he was lying low from a growing array of legal problems—to celebrate his 50th anniversary as a writer, and it was published by St. Martin’s Press in 1982 as Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000.
Any doubts that the novel was truly written by Hubbard are dispelled within the first few hundred pages, which are close to a straight rewrite of Buckskin Brigades. Its hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, is the latest incarnation of Yellow Hair, living in buckskin and moccasins with the last vestiges of humanity, which was devastated by an attack 1,000 years ago. The primary difference is that the colonists here are gold-mining aliens called Psychlos, who used poison gas to wipe out most of mankind in an almost casual conquest of Earth. (They were prompted to invade the planet by the discovery of the gold phonograph record on the Voyager spacecraft—a nice, sick joke that passes by all but unremarked.)
The Psychlos are employees of the Intergalactic Mining Company, and there’s something oddly inspired about Hubbard’s decision to turn them into overworked middle managers. Despite its obscene length, the book is perversely uninterested in worldbuilding, and the Psychlos are indistinguishable from humans in monster masks. I had assumed that “Psychlo” was a pun on “psycho,” but it’s actually an even weirder play on words, notable only for taking 900 pages to reach the punchline: the unseen rulers who control the Psychlos with brain implants are the Catrists, which means that the real villains are the “Psychlo Catrists.”
No less an authority than Mitt Romney once called Battlefield Earth his favorite novel, and you can almost see why. One page after another unfolds in the same blunt style—“With the impact of a bullet the mask was hit!”—but the longer it drags on, the more exasperating it becomes. Jonnie Goodboy Tyler is a bore, while the scheming alien Terl, the only character with any personality, inexplicably disappears a third of the way from the end: he literally dies on the way back to his home planet. Hubbard spends the introduction alternately building Campbell up and tearing him down, often in the same sentence, and the entire book plays like a frenzied attempt to escape from his former editor’s influence.
Battlefield Earth became a bestseller, aided by faithful Scientologists who flocked to bookstores to buy copies by the armful. And Hubbard wasn’t finished. He spent another eight months writing an even more bloated novel—weighing in at over 1 million words—that was delivered in a banker’s box to Author Services, the publishing arm of the Church of Scientology. The editors, including a young David Miscavige, were reluctant to touch it, aside from carving it up at random into a “dekology” of 10 volumes, and the first installment of Mission Earth was released exactly as Hubbard intended in 1985, three months before his death.
Mission Earth has a slangy style that is surprisingly bearable for a paragraph at a time, as if Hubbard had built up a head of steam in exile, although the prospect of plowing through the whole thing is unbelievably depressing. (I confess that I’ve never made it to the end.) It’s distinguished by a newfound attention to sex, and in particular to homosexuality, which is treated as a joke. And Hubbard makes the passably clever decision to recast his usual craven villain, here known as Soltan Gris, as the narrator. Gris’s voice seems to have loosened up Hubbard a little—he had clearly forgotten how to write a convincing hero—but the result is still hideously distended, an hysterically pitched satire without a shred of affection for anyone or anything.
Life is short, and Mission Earth is so very long.
All 10 books made the bestseller lists, using the same mass buying tactics as before, and the rest was hardly silence. Hubbard died in 1986, leaving behind a thriving literary estate. Galaxy Press, an imprint of Author Services, published a new edition of Battlefield Earth last summer, backed by a massive marketing campaign—complete with appearances by Terl at comic book conventions—and an unabridged audiobook that runs close to 50 hours.
The same imprint has also reissued much of Hubbard’s pulp fiction—although, curiously, not Death’s Deputy, which is arguably his strongest novel. It’s unclear if Hubbard himself would have wanted the likes of “The Green God” republished in any form, since they can only undermine his reputation as a major author, and their fawning introductions and glossaries make it even harder to take him seriously. His executors would have had better luck if they had allowed the market to salvage the few stories worth reading: he might be more fondly regarded now if his admirers weren’t determined to render all of his fiction equally canonical.
A small but undeniable portion of his work is worthwhile. Death’s Deputy and Final Blackout are fine short novels that deserve to be rediscovered. Fear is worth preserving for its historical significance, and his other stories from Unknown are entertaining, if inessential. Buckskin Brigades and To the Stars hold up for enthusiasts who are actively in search of deep cuts, and even Battlefield Earth can be sampled as a gigantic curiosity. It’s hard to recommend the rest, at least not until a reader has sought out the fiction of Asimov, Heinlein, Jack Williamson, Eric Frank Russell, A.E. van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, C.L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, and countless others. Life is short, and Mission Earth is so very long.
Hubbard’s real legacy, which is incontestable, lies in his status as a volcanic event in the lives of those around him, especially Campbell, and in the disruption that he caused with dianetics, which opened a fissure in the history of the genre that is visible even today. Yet it might not really matter. At a remote compound in Trementina, New Mexico, plans have been made to preserve his writings forever, in an underground vault designed to withstand a nuclear blast. Written on steel and encased in titanium capsules filled with argon gas, they might conceivably outlast most of the other works that our civilization has produced. Future generations may well read Hubbard, assuming that he is all that survives. But they might be the only ones who will.
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Alec Nevala-Lee is currently at work on the nonfiction book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which will be released by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2018. His novels include The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and Eternal Empire, all published by Penguin, and his short stories have appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Lightspeed Magazine, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oak Park, Illinois, and he blogs daily at www.nevalalee.com.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Fact-checker: Matthew Giles