L Ron Hubbard – Literary Genius or Hack?

science fictionThe Church of Scientology has invested a lot of time and effort, over the years, in mythologising its founder, L Ron Hubbard

Part of this effort is devoted to promoting the claim that Hubbard was  a brilliant, and critically celebrated, author (especially of Science Fiction)

To this end, the Church keeps all of Hubbard’s fiction in print. In the past, it has not only ordered Scientologists to buy Hubbard’s novels for themselves, but also them sent members out with Church money to repeatedly purchase books (which were then returned to stock) in order to ensure that his titles appeared in best-seller lists.

Today, the Church organises an award for science fiction writers (L Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future) with substantial prizes and a lavish presentation ceremony. The real purpose of these ‘prizes’ seem to be the promotion of Hubbard as an important figure in science fiction history, acknowledged by contemporary authors and critics.

His real status is revealed by two books – both well-respected literary surveys of science fiction. One was published in 1961, when Dianetics and Scientology were still being actively developed by Hubbard, the other in 2005, 10 years after Hubbard’s death.

new maps of hell1961 New Maps of Hell Kingsley Amis

This book, about the history and future of science fiction, by a respected British Author,  was one of the first which took SF seriously as a literary genre.

It was published at a time when authors were still struggling to escape the limitations of a market dominated by (rapidly declining) pulp magazines. People who worked for the pulps, were treated as sources of ‘good enough’ disposable entertainment, and their work  suffered from the tight deadlines and low pay that they had to put up with.

The better science fiction authors were beginning to obtain contracts with publishing houses, and   ephemeral pulp magazines were being replaced by books. These authors could now afford to take greater time and care over their creations – and the genre was moving towards literary respectability.

The only mention Amis makes of Hubbard in “New Maps of Hell” is as an example of someone who was holding this progress back. Amis was seriously worried about the impression  that the antics of people like Hubbard were giving to the wider reading public.

Amis listed the things that needed to be done for science fiction to mature and grow. He included,

[…] above all, kicking out the cranks who seem bent on getting science fiction a bad name – John Campbell , the editor of Astounding, with his psi machine and his interest in reincarnation, and his superman theory, Reginald Bretnor and A E Van Vogt with their conversion to Korzybski’s so-called general semantics, L Ron Hubbard and A E Van Vogt and John Campbell with the mysterious mental science of dianetics (of one book on this subject, the blurb proudly claims that four of the first fifteen people who read it went insane).

pg 131 ppb

For Amis, Hubbard’s contributions to pulp science fiction (which were still relatively recent) did not rate a mention.

 

the history of science fiction2005 The History of Science Fiction Adam Roberts

Amis would have been delighted by the career of Adam Roberts. He is not only Professor of nineteenth-century literature at Royal Holloway, University of London (UK) but is also the author of a number of science fiction books marked by their imaginative power and high literary standard.

This book is a comprehensive, readable academic account of… well… the history of science fiction –  from a man who understands the field from two different perspectives.

Hubbard is mentioned twice. The first reference (on pg 205) concentrates on the influence of dianetics on  his fellow pulp author A E Van Vogt ( who might be better known to readers of this blog as the founder of one of the earliest ‘squirrel’ groups).

The second reference to Hubbard occurs at the end or Roberts’ book, during a discussion of the influence of science fiction on the modern ‘UFO’ mythology

Like Amis, Roberts does not discuss a single one of Hubbard’s many works of fiction. Like Amis his interest is only in Hubbard as an example of the ‘dark side’ of science fiction

The most famous SF-based religion is Scientology, created in the early 1950’s by the SF author L Ron Hubbard as an extension of his lucrative self-improvement programme “Dianetics”. Today this Church contains hundreds of thousands of members in many countries, among them several high-profile celebrities.

Hubbard taught the human beings were immortal spiritual beings (he called them ‘thetans’) who, while passing though many reincarnations have accumulated all sorts of negative spiritual energy. Members of the Church can purge themselves of these so-call ‘engrams’ via a lengthy series of courses (called ‘auditing’) provided by the Church. This expensive procedure (a complete audit costs between $300,000 and $500,000) transforms them from ‘pre-clears’ to ‘clears’.

Supposed cleared out of the thetan’s soul by auditing are the various traumas that Hubbard believed blocked the pathway of the ‘bridge to total freedom’: instances of torture or cruelty from past lives, as well as encounters with unpleasant extraterrestrial races (the Marcab Confederacy and various invader forces). Auditing sometimes reveals past lives spent travelling around the galaxy.

Scientologists can be aggressively defensive about their faith (the Church has a reputation as one of the most litigious in the world); and from my personally atheist and non-spiritualist perspective there is nothing in this religion that seems intrinsically any more absurd than is to be found in more mainstream faiths. But, that said, it’s hard to deny that Scientology is, generally speaking, a malign manifestation of twentieth-century SF.

Hubbard was a liar, a conman and (or at best a man deeply self-deluded) and an exploiter of others. Nobody who read the various exposes of the cult – the best of them is Russell Miller’s Bare Faced Messiah: the True Story of L Ron Hubbard (1987) – can doubt the founder’s primary motivation: ‘If a man wanted to make a million dollars’, Hubbard told a New Jersey convention of SF writers in the late 1940’s, ‘the best way to do it would be to start his own religion’. Tax-exempt and sheltered by social convention from much criticism, a religion is an ideal umbrella for the unscrupulous. Many people have been entrapped  and fleeced by this Church. Of course, as is often the case with cult members, many of them do not consider that they have been exploited.

The idiom of the Church is deeply implicated in SF. One Scientologist was told, during an audit, that he had first arrived on Earth 75,000 years ago to battle black magicians who were ‘using electronics for evil purposes’.  The account of the audit continues: ‘he then goes to another planet by spaceship. A deception is accomplished by hypnosis and pleasure implants (rather like opium in their effects) whereby he is deceived into a love affair with a robot decked out as a beautiful red-haired girl’ (quoted in Miller, pg 203).

Hubbard himself announced that in one of his past lives he had lived on an alien planet, manufactured metal humanoids and offered them to the local thetans, sometimes selling the outright, sometimes by hire-purchase.

It is the banality and cliché of of these sub-Pulp adventures that is most interesting: to capture the hearts of so many thousands it is not even necessary, it seems, to write poetry of the calibre of the Koran or the Gospel of St John; all that one need do is plunder the traditions of second-rate Pulp SF of the sort that Hubbard himself was writing (at one cent a word) in the days before he found a more remunerative income stream.

Pgs 339 – 40 ppb

Hubbard, then, has been honestly assessed as a writer of science fiction, by well-qualified people, both during his career as a pulp magazine author and after his death. He only appears in these accounts as a footnote –  not as an author, but as someone whose pseudo-science gave the genre a bad name. His actual stories are not worth mentioning.

The only remaining champions of  ‘Ron the Author’ work for Church of Scientology – organising the “Writers of the Future”, and Scientology’s other attempts to mythologise Hubbard’s literary career

Further Reading

fantastic_aug_751976 | El-Ron and the City of Brass | L. Sprague de Camp
Fantastic | August1976

Follow the link to a previous post in which L Sprague de Camp (a respected writer and critic of  science fiction) gives a fair and informed account of Hubbard’s real stature in the field.

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