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Sunday 16 August 2015

The Pulp Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard

L. Ron Hubbard is most famous (or notorious) as the founder of the Church of Scientology. People may also be aware that he wrote a series of blockbuster sci-fi novels called Mission Earth in his later years. What is less well known is that between 1935 and 1950 he was a prolific writer of escapist adventures for various pulp magazines.

Over the years I’ve read ten of Hubbard’s pulp stories – three short novels, one novella and six shorter works – most of which originated in Astounding Science Fiction and Unknown Worlds. Hubbard’s contributions were well below the best those magazines had to offer (which came from the likes of A.E. van Vogt, Henry Kuttner, Isaac Asimov and Eric Frank Russell)... but on the other hand they’re not the worthless trash that Hubbard’s detractors might expect. Interestingly, in light of his subsequent career, none of the stories I’ve read had any philosophy in them (which may seem an unusual thing to expect in pulp fiction – but it was Astounding magazine that first published van Vogt’s Null-A novels, which are replete with references to Korzybskian General Semantics).

The particular book which prompted this blog post was Slaves of Sleep (top left in the photograph above), which was one of my one-pound purchases at the Bookbarn shop a few weeks ago (see Old Books of the Fortean Kind). The paperback dates from 1967, but the story originally appeared in the July 1939 issue of Unknown. This makes it the earliest long work by Hubbard that I’ve read, and it also struck me as the weakest. It’s basically the sort of blank-check wish-fulfilment fantasy that any starting-out writer might try their hand at. The protagonist is a weedy young nebbish who suddenly (thanks to a genie being let out of a bottle) finds himself transported to an astral dream-world in the persona of a powerful, all-action hero. It’s one of those archetypal themes that every writer is going to handle differently, but I don’t think Hubbard made as much of its potential as he might have ( L. Sprague de Camp did much better justice to the same basic idea in his novella “Solomon’s Stone”, which appeared a few years later in the June 1942 issue of Unknown).

Continuing chronologically (in the order the stories were written, not the order I read them) the next in sequence is Typewriter in the Sky, which appeared in Unknown in two parts in November and December 1940. In one sense this is very similar to Slaves of Sleep – insofar as the protagonist finds himself suddenly transported to a swashbuckling life on another plane of existence – but in another sense it’s far more interesting. Instead of the “other plane” being a dream-world (yawn), it’s a fictional narrative that’s being churned out in real-time by a friend of the hero, who happens to be a hack writer. He is desperately pounding away on his typewriter in an attempt to finish his latest trashy novel, Blood and Loot (the one the protagonist is trapped in), in time to meet the publisher’s deadline. This makes Typewriter in the Sky one of the few examples of pulp metafiction!

Besides these two short novels, I’ve read one other story by Hubbard from Unknown Worlds – a novella called “The Case of the Friendly Corpse”. It originally appeared in the August 1941 issue, but as you can see from the photograph I read it in the British reprint edition for Spring 1947. Yet again this has the protagonist miraculously transported to another plane of existence. In this case it’s a wacky parallel world where he’s a student – not of Ancient Languages as he was in this world – but of Satanic Sciences! Unlike the two previously mentioned stories, this one is played for laughs – and I found it by far the most enjoyable of the three.

Of the various short stories I’ve read by Hubbard, the most memorable were the ones featuring a space-travelling medic called Ole Doc Methuselah and his alien assistant, Hippocrates. These stories (of which I’ve read three) were published in Astounding between 1947 and 1949, under the pseudonym RenĂ© Lafayette. The only one that made the cover was “Plague” in the April 1949 issue, pictured bottom right in the photograph.

Next in chronological sequence comes the science fiction novel Return to Tomorrow. The paperback (pictured in the middle of the bottom row) was published in 1954, but the novel originally appeared as a two-part serial in Astounding in February and March 1950, under the title “To the Stars”. As space adventures go it’s depressingly downbeat stuff, but it’s notable for one thing in particular. Unlike most science fiction it acknowledges the existence of relativistic time dilation, even including the mathematical formula for it: Tv = T0  1 – v2/ c2 , where T0 is Earth-time and Tv is ship time. In fact this equation is the whole point of the novel (and the reason it’s so downbeat) – the crew travel so close to c that each time they return to Earth (a few months later subjective time) everyone they met last time is either dead or senile.

As I said at the start, Hubbard is best known as the founder of Scientology, which has its roots in a non-fiction book he wrote in 1950 called Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. To coincide with its publication, Astounding magazine ran a 40-page article by Hubbard called “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science” in the May 1950 issue. My copy, which is pictured bottom left in the photograph. was purchased a dozen or so years ago in a London shop – for around 4 pounds, if I remember correctly. Last year I saw a copy of the same magazine on one of the dealer tables at a science fiction convention for ten times that price. Maybe the dealer was a scientologist!


Anonymous said...

"Unlike most science-fiction it acknowledges the existence of relativistic time dilation" - early last year I finally got around to reading Pierre Boulle's original novel of Planet Of The Apes and I was impressed by his understanding that a couple of months spent on the spaceship meant that many centuries had passed back on Earth but then he wrecked his scientific credibility by locating the apes' planet in orbit around the star Betelgeuse which is a red giant and so only lives for a few million years and couldn't possibly have existed for long enough for live to evolve. On Earth it took about 700 million years for even the most primitive single-celled life to emerge and another 3 billion years to develop into higher forms of life. That colossal blunder rather spoiled the book for me (although it was still fascinating to read the original POTA novel which I'd been aware of ever since I was an apes nut in the mid '70s).

Andrew May said...

Very interesting, Colin. I've read a few of Boulle's short stories, but I've never read the Planet of the Apes novel - sounds like I ought to. And well done on spotting the Betelgeuse error. I've got a PhD in astrophysics (admittedly in stellar dynamics rather than stellar evolution) and I'm not even sure I would have noticed that one myself!

Kid said...

I'm always amused by the way 'millions of years' are casually mentioned in regard to the age of anything when the reality is nobody has a clue and it's all guesswork. Hubbard seems like a bit of a conman to me, so I can't see me ever being motivated to read one of his books. I'd rather watch paint dry.

Andrew May said...

I think a lot of people feel that way, Kid (I received a similar comment on Facebook) - that's why I said "on the other hand they’re not the worthless trash that Hubbard’s detractors might expect". The conman aspect just doesn't come across in his fiction, which is surprising because a lot of authors with axes to grind (both on the political left and the political right) have used science fiction as a convenient way to proselytize their ideas to a relatively naive and uncritical audience. But Hubbard didn't do that - at least not in the stories written prior to 1950.

That doesn't mean his fiction isn't eminently forgettable, of course - so you're not missing anything by not reading it.

Anonymous said...

Kid, "millions of years" is a bit more than just guesswork - give scientists some credit. The age of the Earth was once believed (and still is by some) to be only 6,000 years old but more and more understanding of geology slowly increased its' age to the current 4.6 billion years which is believed to be very accurate. As for stars - different types of stars have different lifespans, Betelgeuse is a red giant which only lives for about 10 million years and will explode in a supernova explosion in the next million years or so. Scientists don't make this stuff up !!

Kid said...

CJ, scientists depend on carbon (and other) dating methods. Using Radio Carbon 14, at living mollusk was tested and found to be 'millions of years' old. I have meals in my freezer that, if I cook them in the oven, will take about 40-odd minutes to cook. Or I can do them in the microwave in about 11 minutes. Someone not knowing about microwaves would assume that, if I served them up a meal as they came in the door, it had taken 40 minutes to do. Likewise, perhaps the world was 'cooked up' in a way that scientists just haven't considered. It's assumed that the world (the universe even) must be millions of years old because it would take that long (so they say) for things to 'eveolve', and the 'evidence' is then interpreted in a way that supports that theory. The world may well be millions of years old, but whether it's 10 million or hundreds of millions years old is essentially all down to guesswork.