I was born in Castro Valley, California and graduated from Harvard College with a bachelor's degree in Classics. My book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction will be released by Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in August 2018. I'm also the author of the novels The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, and Eternal Empire, all published by Penguin; my short stories have appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Lightspeed Magazine, and The Year's Best Science Fiction; and I've written for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, Salon, Longreads, The Rumpus, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I live with my wife and daughter in Oak Park, Illinois.
For most of his life, John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, had trouble remembering his childhood. He had filled his stories with extravagant images, but he had no visual memory, to the point that he was unable to picture the faces of his own wife and children. When L. Ron Hubbard, one of his most prolific writers, approached him with the promise of a new science of the mind, he was understandably intrigued. And he was especially attracted by the possibility that it would allow him to recall events that he had forgotten or repressed.
In the summer of 1949, Campbell was thirty-nine years old and living in New Jersey. For over a decade, he had been the single most influential figure in what would later be known as the golden age of science fiction, and he had worked extensively with Hubbard, who was popular with fans. The two men were personally close, and when Hubbard, who was a year younger, suffered from depression after World War II, Campbell became concerned for his friend’s mental state: “He was a quivering psychoneurotic wreck, practically ready to break down completely.”
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.” Read more…