Wonder’s Child: My Life in Science Fiction

wonders childTitle: Wonder’s Child: My Life in Science Fiction

Author: Jack Williamson

ISBN: 0312944543

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This is the autobiography of Jack Williamson. Williamson is a respected science fiction writer and contemporary of L Ron Hubbard. They were both active in pulp fiction during the same period, and worked for many of the same magazine editors (notably Howard W Campbell of “Astounding Science Fiction”).

Williamson’s scathing assessment of  Hubbard and Dianetics only occupies three pages of the book, but provides considerable insight into many aspects of this period, including Hubbard’s character, and his part in the decline of Campbell as an editor.

jack williamson

Jack Williamson

Hubbard approached Williamson in the early days of the ‘Dianetic Foundation’ , after extracts from the book were published in Astounding Science Fiction by Campbell.

Hubbard offered  Williamson (who had an interest in psychoanalysis) course of ‘dianetic therapy’ for a contingent fee of $1,000.

He made similar offers to other science fiction with limited success – but only seems to have convinced A E Van Vogt, who ran the Los Angeles Hubbard Dianetic Centre from 1950 until 1961. Van Vogt financed the organisation by reworking stories which had appeared in series form in pulp magazines, and publishing them as novels. When it collapsed, it was one of the very few (perhaps the only) Dianetic Centre that did not owe creditors.

Williamson declined Hubbard’s offer of therapy for two reasons. First, he did not take Dianetics at all seriously:

To me it looked like a lunatic revision of Freudian psychology – some of the basic notions seemed credible enough, but it extrapolated from the to make claims that struck me as incredible. Falling for it, Campbell let it cripple Astounding.

Secondly, he simply did not personally trust Hubbard. Most first-hand accounts of Dianetics and Scientology are written by people who became involved in those organisations.  They commonly emphasise Hubbard’s charm and charisma. Consequently, there are few assessments of Hubbard written by people who judged him to be a fraud. Williamson’s assessment of Hubbard is a valuable corrective:

I recall his eyes […] watching me sharply as he talked to see how much I believed. Not much.

Secret Lives - L. Ron HubbardFinally, this extract contains one of the few references by contemporaries to the story that Hubbard said “[…] the best way to wealth would be to invent a new religion”. Although widespread, this story seems to have no firm foundation. It seems to be something that Hubbard tried (and failed) to incorporate into his personal myth.

Jack Williamson on L Ron Hubbard

Dianetics. The brain-child of L. Ron Hubbard. To me, it looked like a lunatic revision of Freudian psychology – some of the basic notions seemed sound enough, but it extrapolated from them to make claims that struck me as incredible. Falling for it, Campbell let it cripple Astounding. He let Hubbard launch it with a long article in the magazine.

Suddenly his letters to me are full of it. Instead of new story ideas, he’s sending me case histories. If I have personal problems – or nearly any sort of problems – a dianetic auditor can solve them.

“Fifteen minutes of dianetics can get more results than five years of psychoanalysis…. We’ve got a set-up at the Foundation that involves a 10-day intensive therapy. We’ve broken homosexuals, alcoholics, asthmatics, arthritics, and nymphomaniacs with that 10-day processing.”

He offers me contingent-payment treatment at his own center. To justify the thousand-dollar fee, he adds, “Incidentally, dianetics is not a money-making, commercial scheme, however much you hear to the contrary. I’m treasurer of the Foundation, and I KNOW.

“In the first place, it’s a non-profit corporation. A lot of people get the idea that our $600 fee for 10-day processing is high; actually it involves full time for three auditors for 10 days.

You should see the sumptuous quarters we have; top floor in an old office building on a back street in Elizabeth, furnished with surplus army cots, surplus navy lecture-hall chairs, and some $20 sheet metal auditor’s desks.

“A lot of the fans think I have gone Palmer one better, with a new Shaverism.” (Raymond Palmer, one of my first fan correspondents and editor of Amazing through the 1940s, had gone farther off the deep end than Campbell ever did – he actually believed the Richard Shaver “articles” he published as fact. In a crudely lurid hoax seemingly believed by legions of paranoid readers, Shaver was warning the world of the “deros,” malevolent robots using sinister psychic powers to control humanity from a hidden underground world. In the grip of dianetics, Campbell seemed equally credulous.)

The skeptics, he continues, “haven’t seen a raving psychotic snapped back to sanity in half an hour; I have. (She’d spent 16 years at St. Elizabeth’s; Ron broke her back to sanity in 30 minutes.) They haven’t seen a navy veteran come in with a calcified right hip, arthritis of the spine, ulcers of the stomach, eyes down to 2/20 and falling – and go out, eight months later, with no ulcers, no arthritis, eyes 18/20 and improving – perfect, full, physical and mental health. I have.

“I KNOW dianetics is one of, if not the greatest, discovery of all Man’s written and unwritten history. It produces the sort of stability and sanity men have dreamed about for centuries. And a sort of physical vitality men didn’t know they could have!”

I declined to be audited, partly because of what I recalled of Hubbard when I saw him at Heinlein’s party in Philadelphia before I went overseas. Hubbard was just back from the Aleutians then, hinting of desperate action aboard a navy destroyer, adventures he couldn’t say much about because of military security. 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.

Earlier, he had been one of the top writers in the pulp field, reputed to hammer his copy out on an electric typewriter, two thousand words an hour with never a revision. He had written such fine things as Fear and Typewriter in the Sky for Unknown. I respected his imagination more than his new psychology. The astonishing success of his recent space opera, Battlefield Earth, seems to show his old pulp skills still alive-or perhaps his better-paying skills in commercial exploitation. He is apparently living now in impenetrable seclusion, if in fact he is really still alive; his estranged son has claimed that he is dead.

There’s a story I used to hear, about a little group of hungry pulp practitioners sitting around a table, drinking beer and discussing tactics for survival. As the story goes, Hubbard said that the best way to wealth would be to invent a new religion. That tale may well be false, but he did invent a new religion.

The history of “scientology” reads like his own fantastic stories about a super-competent future medic, “Ole Doc Methuselah.” He coined the word in 1952. His new faith spread fast; by 1953 it had reached Australia and South Africa. Incorporated in 1955, the Church of Scientology fought dramatic battles with unbelievers.

No longer welcome here in America, Hubbard moved to England. Deported from the United Kingdom and later sentenced to a prison term for fraud in France, as Peter Nicholls reports in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, he ruled the movement from a fleet of ships in the Mediterranean.
One early dianetic convert was A. E. van Vogt, who had ranked along with Heinlein and Asimov at the top of Campbell’s team. Van’s enthusiasm is understandable; his most popular stories – for example, Slan had been about supermen evolving fantastic new powers of the mind. Hubbard promised to turn such fiction real. Involved in dianetics, Van was almost out of science fiction for the next dozen years.

To the cynics among us, Ron’s new scripture had the look of a wonderfully rewarding scam, though he may well have been as sincere as any other prophet of a new faith. I’m sure Campbell and Van were true believers, like all the loyal adherents who still defend the church. Sometimes with excessive zeal. Now and then, expressing my own heresy too candidly, I receive an unexpectedly hot protest.
I try to understand. People need faith. With the old dogmas under fire, scientology seems to offer new ones. For those who can believe, the promise to liberate the superman trapped inside us becomes a sort of substitute for the Christian promise of eternal salvation.

Dianetics didn’t kill Astounding, and Campbell’s early faith must have waned, because he soon turned to other obsessions that looked no more rational to me. The Dean drive was one, a device for space propulsion presented as a clever end run around Newton’s Third Law of Motion. Yet he kept a loyal readership. Transforming Astounding into the graver and sometimes duller Analog, he stayed on for another twenty years, a successful and respected editor.

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