The Calm Before the Storm: Dianetics and Scientology in “Astounding Science Fiction” (Part 7)

Download Complete Issue as .pdf

ASF june 1950Versions of L Ron Hubbard’s  “Dianetics” had been published before, notably in “The Explorer’s Journal” where it was imposingly entitled, “Terra Incognita: The Mind.”

However, it was not until another article about dianetics by Hubbard appeared in “Astounding Science Fiction” in May 1950 that his creation become a popular fad, and kick-started Hubbard’s career as  guru.

So far in this series I have covered the build up to the publication of “Dianetics” in “Astounding” and closely examined the actual article.

This post discusses the references to dianetics that appeared in the two issues which followed Hubbard’s article – in June and July. These can be downloaded via the text links above the cover images (the July issue appears after the break).

In these two  issues, Campbell is obviously determined to keep the dianetics bandwagon rolling. We have already seen how he heavily promoted both L Ron Hubbard and the dianetics article before it appeared. These two issues show how he maintained interest in Hubbard and dianetics until he could begin to publish the reader reaction and build on it. They also show how he kept a canny eye on the promise of a substantial boost in circulation.


In his editorial for the June 1950 issue of “Astounding Science Fiction” (on pg 4) John W Campbell begins by apologising for the fact that it will be several months before he can publish reader reaction to L Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” article  (which had appeared the May 1950 issue). This, he explained, is due to the delays inherent in printing and then distributing a pulp  magazine throughout the US (with 1950s technology).

On page 4 of the magazine, he makes an appropriately astonishing claim – that, as a result of dianetic processing,memory ASF

[…] the existence of photographic and phonographic memory is so readily and clearly demonstrable that as to be accepted as a simple fact.

The actual passage is reproduced in the image on the right. He is claiming to have seen proof of what we would not call ‘total recall’ – the ability to ‘replay’ everything that we have ever seen or heard.

Let’s, for a moment, put aside the facts that:

  • Modern psychology views this ability as more of a handicap, due to a failure of our ability to forget irrelevant information, than a talent. People with such memories are often almost paralysed, as every casual thought sets off a chain of associations that extends back though their entire lives.
  • Hubbard never demonstrated this ability, in himself or his students, and in 65 years of Dianetics/Scientology no convincing evidence for it has ever been presented.

However, Campbell casually accepts Hubbard’s claim as a fact, and launches into a long speculation about how education would be revolutionised if we did not have to remember facts, and could use that time to concentrate on learning how to think. He asks the reader,

What progress could be made in education if seventy-five percent of the time now spent on low-order memory work could be spent, instead, in training thinking?

This passage is typical of Campbell – an intelligent, educated and capable man who often let his tendency for wishful thinking and his enthusiasm run away from him.

The consequences are serious – he is making a claim for dianetics that will appeal a readership which looks up him and trusts his judgement. Many of these readers were in technical occupations where total recall might seem to provide a professional advantage. Little wonder that “Dianetics” sold so well.

Things to Come

On page 32, there is a regular feature entitled “Things to Come” which contains ‘teasers’ for articles and stories planned for future issues.  Campbell repeats the passage in his editorial which explains why there will be a substantial delay before the “Dianetics” article is followed up, but promises that, “[…] there will be further articles on the sidelights of dianetics and dianetic therapy.”

Was Campbell (and Astounding) all Bad?

At this point, I have to defend Campbell and “Astounding”. On page 85, after a number of entertaining stories there is a well-written article (“The Mayan Elephants”) about anthropology by a writer better know for his science fiction and fantasy, L Sprague De Camp. “Astounding” was not a comic book – it could be both intelligent and popular.

It certainly vastly improved the quality of pulp science fiction as Campbell nurtured the careers of writers whose work would begin to be published in book form as radio and television undermined the pulp industry and establish the genre on the literary scene.

However, these achievements were marred by Campbell’s tendency to uncritically fall for fringe ideas because he wanted them to be true. He dabbled with several, but his commitment to “Dianetics” probably did the most damage to his reputation and to that of the magazine.

Reader’s Letters

an labThe next mention of Hubbard is an a regular feature (a sort of customer satisfaction survey) entitled “The Analytical Laboratory” which rated stories in order of popularity according to readers letters.

“To the Stars”, a Hubbard story which had appeared in two parts the February and March 1950 issues of “Astounding” topped the chart.

It’s prominence seems to owe more to the poor competition, and Campbell’s extensive promotion of Hubbard in the lead-up to the publication of the dianetics article than to its merits.

Also, it must be said, that it was Campbell who made the subjective decision whether or not a readers letter counted as a vote. He was, at this time, captivated by Hubbards and his  ideas, and may not have been completely objective.

I have read the story and found it unimaginative and derivative. However, if you download the issues in which it appears from the links above, you can do the same and judge for yourself.

Hubbard Books for Sale

On page 151 three books by L Ron Hubbard appear for sale by mail order  – “Typewriter in the Sky” and “Death’s Deputy“. Curiously, they are both fantasy rather than science fiction.

letter can of vacuumOn page 154 a short story “A Can of Vacuum” by Hubbard which appeared in the December 1949 issue is referred to in a reader’s letter.

This would not have counted as a vote for Hubbard’s story – Rene Lafayette was a pen name used by Hubbard for stories which he used for stories published in the less demanding pulp magazines. The reader’s comment that “[Hubbard] should leave this sort of thing to Rene Lafayette” implies that he considers the story is of inferior quality.

On page 158, another reader rates the story slightly better, but also rate Hubbard as author with 2 out of 5.

 July 1950

Download as .pdf

ASF july 1950Editorial

In this issue, Campbell manages to squeeze a reference to dianetics into an editorial  discussion of how differing experience affects people’s perception of the meaning of words (this begins on page 5, then jumps to pg 106) . Campbell writes,

I have, for instance , described dianetics to a hypnotherapist who said “Oh yes -I understand. That’s the kind of work I have been doing. Hypnosis – that’s what I’ve been using. I see you use a little different technique than I do but I always knew hypnosis was the answer – “

Campbell takes great pains to assert that hypnotism was only used as “[…] a research tool in formulating dianetics” and it actually the complete opposite to hypnotism.  He states,

Hypnotic therapy attempts to plant commands; in exact reverse, the whole principle of dianetic therapy is to remove commands, to break the hypnoticlike (sic) command of unconscious experiences.

Since this criticism that dianetics is ‘only hypnotism’ is so obvious and serious (the ‘dianetic reverie’ that Hubbard taught was obviously a light trance) Campbell might have been better advised to steer clear of this question altogether – especially as he now has to go on to explain why the removal of ‘engrams’ is nothing like the recovery of suppressed memories in Freudian psychoanalysis (which it so obviously is). Nevertheless, he tries and fails.

Real Science

On page 94, “Astounding” lurches back into relevance with a factual (and prophetic) article about the serious problems that will come when nuclear power plants are in operation an need to dispose of dangerous and long-lived waste, “This is Hot” by Arthur C Parlett. Jr.

Campbell could do so much better than dianetics. It is a tragedy that he fell for it.

Readers Letters

On the letters page (pg 130) Hubbard garners a little more praise. Hubbs style

Having read the story in question, I think that the very last thing it could be accused of is possessing “writing style”… but tastes vary, I suppose.

On page 151, the same two Hubbard books that were listed last month are still available for mail order in an advertisement placed by Julius Unger, a Brooklyn bookseller. On page 161 there is a crude illustration of another book by Hubbard (“Slaves of Sleep”) as part of an advertisement for a ‘book club’ – but it is not listed for sale.

August 1950 – The Storm Breaks

The June and July issues of “Astounding” were the calm before the storm. Campbell had carefully planned his editorials ahead, planting material there which would maintain interest in dianetics for those two months.

It was not until the August edition of “Astounding” that Campbell could exploit the reader reaction to the “Dianetics” article. I will examine this edition in the next post in this series.

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