Dianetics and Scientology in “Astounding Science Fiction” (Part One) Introduction


L Ron Hubbard and John W Campbell Jr (the editor of “Astounding Science Fiction”)

Historians always like to go back to original documents because they can read the material for themselves -not a version filtered through the ideas of others.

Also, they can obtain a wider impression of the society and culture in which historical events took place – they can understand the historical context.

Some of the earliest documents about Dianetics and Scientology appeared in “Astounding Science Fiction” – and I have recently obtained  a complete run of “Astounding”.

In this post, I will set the scene. In later posts I will:

  • Present  extracts from every issue of “Astounding” which mentions Dianetics or Scientology
  • Discuss their significance in the development of Dianetics and Scientology.
  • Offer downloads of scans of the complete issues of “Astounding” in which they appear.

The Campbell Campaign for Dianetics

ASF may 1950

The iconic May 1950 issue of “Astounding” in which Hubbard introduced Dianetics

Those with an interest in the subject of Dianetics and Scientology will already be familiar with a few issues of “Astounding”, and may have the impression that this was all there was to it – that the magazine published an article by Hubbard about Dianetics and left it at that.

They may not be aware of how committed that the editor of “Astounding” John W Campbell (pictured with L Ron Hubbard, above) was to promoting Dianetics, or how much precious space was given over to actively promoting Hubbard’s creation. The heaviest coverage began in December 1949 and continued through 1950 and 1951 (where there was some mention of Dianetics in almost every issue).

This includes:

  • Editorial comments which reveal how skilfully Campbell  promoted “Dianetics”
  • Several full editorials by Campbell, in which he promotes Dianetics as a revolution in medicine that will sweep away psychiatry
  • Promotional material which staked the reputation of “Astounding” on the validity of Dianetics
  • A rare article by L Ron Hubbard which didn’t  touch the spot at the time – but formed the basis of Scientology’s infamous ‘personality test’, years later
  • Discussion in the letters pages – both pro and con
  • Advertisements for both Hubbard’s first venture as a guru – the ill-fated Dianetics Foundation, and others for independent groups, who practised ‘book auditing’

Historical Context

1950 helicopters for everybody

This illustration created for London Transport in 1950 captures the worldwide spirit of post-war technological optimism

Dianetics was presented in “Astounding” against a  background of articles and stories about (for example) the consequences of nuclear war and disturbing suggestions of scientific advances in the Soviet Union.

These themes  had real resonance for people trapped by the Cold War, and Hubbard was later to exploit them in  a number of books. However, Hubbard also exploited a post-war optimism perfectly expressed in the pages of “Astounding” – a feeling that science and engineering could now transform the world for the better.

After the shocking nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which brought the war with Japan to a close, ordinary people could be forgiven for thinking that they were living in an age of scientific miracles. In this context the claims Hubbard made for Dianetics, however outrageous, would not be immediately dismissed.

Internet? What Internet?

Please bear in mind that, for modern readers, this will be like entering the Twilight Zone. We are used to an information-rich environment. The first issue of “Astounding” that mentions Dianetics was published in 1949, when the world was a far different place.

  • The pulp magazines still provided mass popular entertainment. They were rivalled only by radio programmes (some of which are advertised in “Astounding”)
  • “Astounding” was the premier science fiction magazine but was only published monthly. There were precious few SF books, and they were expensive.  Hard-core fans didn’t just read “Astounding” once, then toss it in the bin. They studied it, collected it and wrote long letters to the editor. They squeezed everything they possibly could out of every issue.
  • Every page counted to the publisher, too. Some references to Dianetics in “Astounding” look extremely brief to modern eyes. However, contemporary readers understood that every column inch was a precious commodity, and accepted that any subject that received regular coverage could be of great importance
  • You can see how letters to the editor are finessed (and sometimes written under pseudonyms) to promote Dianetics
  • The speed with which information could be published was glacial. Campbell discusses how the editorial he is writing will not appear in print for two months – and this was considered lighting-fast for the publishing industry of the time
  • Until May 1950 Hubbard’s stories appear regularly in “Astounding” and (if you can bear his prose) reveal much about the origins of later (‘space opera’) Scientology doctrine.
  • Mobile ‘phones would be scientific miracles – which would likely be embraced by fans of “Astounding” with a cry of “I told you so”. At its best, the magazine expressed a free-thinking optimism moderated by concern for the possible human consequences of scientific discoveries and, above all, a vivid imagination. Campbell’s promotion of Dianetics may be a serious blot in Astounding’s copy-book, but there is much serious thought and fun to be had in its pages, too.

Tomorrow’s post will include issues from December 1949 (in which Campbell published the very first editorial promoting Dianetics) to April 1950 (the issue before Hubbard’s  first full article about Dianetics appeared).


4 thoughts on “Dianetics and Scientology in “Astounding Science Fiction” (Part One) Introduction

    • I was thinking of the opening line of the novel “The Go-Between” L P Hartley.
      “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

      It is one of the diagnostic signs of pseudo-science that it never develops over time, and is held up as ‘eternal wisdom’ (and Scientology certainly display this characteristic. Since vital aspects of dianetics and Scientology were fixed in the late 1940’s /1950s’ we have to understand the mindset of that age to understand the modern Church of Scientology.

    • Thank you.

      When I came across the scans of “Astounding Science Fiction” that I have been using, I thought that the magazine’s involvement was limited to publishing the well-known May 1950 article and, to that extent, fell for Scientology propaganda. There is so much more to it than that -principally the fact that, despite all of Campbell’s support and that of the ‘inner circle’ he assembled for Hubbard, dianetics was a failure.

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