In this post, I would like to discuss the attitudes of writers who worked for “Astounding” and the readers who patronised it with reference to the contents of the October 1950 issue.
It seems to me that the stories, readers and writers of “Astounding” can be placed at different points on a rational – irrational continuum. At one extreme are the careful, rational people like L Sprague De Camp who wrote sceptical articles and carefully thought-out stories. Then there were the purveyors of power fantasy, whose fiction provided an escape from a disappointing reality. Next, there were those whose writing mistook fiction for reality. Finally there was the occasional outright fraud.
There are examples of each type in the the pages of this issue. Taking a closer look at them, and the historical context in which they operated, may help us understand why so many people took dianetics so seriously in the 1950s
The Rational – Irrational Continuum in “Astounding Science Fiction”
L Sprague De Camp – The Rational Face of “Astounding”
We met L Sprague De Camp in the previous part of this series – a scientific sceptic, who pulverised a variety of pseudo-science in two non-fiction articles. Privately, he did not take dianetics seriously for a moment. He represents the ‘rational wing’ of “Astounding”.
He was not alone. The science fiction writer Alfred Bester encountered Campbell at the height of his enthusiasm for dianetics. He read a manuscript copy of “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health” which Campbellpresented him withm and judged it to be incomprehensible nonsense.
Isaac Asimov, was intensely loyal to Campbell, because he had helped launch his writing career. Nevertheless he was saddened by Campbell’s enthusiasm for fringe ideas – especially dianetics. There were many others.
It seems to me that De Camp represents one extreme of a continuum which existed in the world inhabited by the pulp science-fiction writers and fans of the 1950s – the rational story-teller.
De Camp’s Zei series takes an explorer to a planet whose exotic inhabitants and society are a tribute the fantasy world of Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars stories.
However, while Burroughs’ hero travelled to Mars by standing out in the open, staring at the planet and wishing to go, De Camp’s protagonist travels there in a spaceship. De Camp’s world of Zie is also more carefully thought out, and every aspect is supported by a scientific rationale. It’s an entertaining story which respects the difference between fiction and fantasy.
Raymond F Jones – Scientific Power Fantasy
Also in this issue is a story entitled, “Discontinuity” by Raymond F Jones (pg 76). In it, scientists perfect a process which transforms ordinary people into intellectual supermen and saves the world.
Jones’ story is a power fantasy – a temporary escape for readers from a disappointing reality and a type of story that often appeared in “Astounding”. It promises them achievement without effort.
People who read (or write) fiction which offers a comforting alternative to reality are, perhaps, a little more vulnerable to self-deception, so the move a little further down the rational-irrational continuum than De Camp’s approach.
John W Campbell, Conspiracy Theorist
This was the subject of a book, advertised on a full page (164) at the end of the magazine.
Campbell opens his editorial discussion as an apparent sceptic. He suggest that that there is just not enough reliable evidence to support the ‘extraterrestrial visitors’ thesis offered to explain observations of what we would now call UFOs.
Of course, there was no evidence to support dianetics, either. Campbell’s scepticism was curiously selective.
Campbell concludes with a subtle suggestion that, if there is a core of truth in these reports, it is the result of observers spotting secret projects undertaken by the Atomic Energy Commission into ‘anti-gravity’ aircraft. He points out that the security which surrounds nuclear installations would make it easy to conceal such projects.
The same kind of attitude endures today, in the conspiracy theories surrounding ‘Area 51’.
Campbell gives readers a hint of real invincible nuclear-powered US aircraft which would defend them from the bombs of the Soviet Union. This is the point of balance between fantasy and fraud. Campbell is offering a theory for the ‘flying saucer’ reports. He does not offer any evidence for it – but he is not claiming it is true, either. Whether or not you believe is up to you.
L Ron Hubbard – Pseudo-scientific Fraud
Hubbard’s contribution to this issue is his article about dianetics entitled, “The Analytical Mind”(which we will examine in the next post in this series) and an advertisement for the his ‘dianetic foundation’
The advertisement appears on the first page of “Astounding”in the form of an “Announcement”. It is selling membership of “The Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation”
The first page of the magazine, facing the contents page, was a prime spot normally used to sell the subscriptions upon which the financial health of any pulp magazine depended. The fact that Campbell allowed Hubbard to take it, confirms his commitment to the cause.
Campbell practised dianetics, was part of Hubbard’s ‘inner circle’ and wanted the subject to be researched in a systematic way and he enthusiastically supported Hubbard’s ambition to create a ‘Dianetics Research Foundation.’
Hubbard exploited this vulnerability to the hilt and benefited from invaluable publicity – an now income. It cost $15 per annum to become and “Associate Member” of “The Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation.” This was a substantial sum of money for readers of “Astounding” – a year’s subscription to the magazine (12 issues) only cost $2.50, including postage.
What’s more, the only benefit of associate membership seems to be the receipt of “Bulletins issued by the Foundation periodically to Associate Members.” Hubbard was selling newsletters, written by himself, for the same price as a substantial magazine.
Finally, “Professional Membership was “[…] only open to those trained at the Foundation”. Hubbard was planning to:
- Planning to charge money to ‘train’ people to deliver ‘dianetic therapy’
- Promising trainees professional status.
- Planning to charge an subscription for ‘Professional Membership’ (likely to be significantly more the $15 ‘associate membership’ charge).
L Ron Hubbard whiting decisively tips the balance from fantasy to fraud. In his articles about dianetics, and the activities proposed for his ‘foundation’ he is presenting fiction as if it were reality (and exploiting it for money).
For example, he claims that the ‘Dianetic therapy’ described in his book will make them superior to ‘ordinary’ humans. If they train with him at the new ‘Dianetic Research Foundation they will earn the respect and income due to a medical professional. If everyone receives this therapy, it will bring about a golden age of peace an prosperity. All he asks for in return is a (substantial) sum of money.
Hubbard had no evidence whatsoever to support any of his claims – but never hesitated to assert that he did. According to Hubbard, his claims had been demonstrated again and again, without exception in ‘research’ and ‘case studies’ – none of which actually existed. The people who sent him that cheques did not care about this – they wanted to believe.
Hubbard may have believed his own claims. However, the fact that he could not back them up, and the amount of money he extracted from his followers suggests that he was, nevertheless, a fraud who had taken in John W Campbell and, through him, many of the readers or “Astounding”.
There is only one reader’s letter in this issue which mention dianetics (on pg131). One reader describes to Campbell the articles and stories she and her husband had most enjoyed during the last two years of “Astounding” and notes,
“Dianetics”, of course, will last as a top article. I don’t know if this because of your personal enthusiasm or not, but we’ve sent for the book. The “Aphrodite Project” was exciting; we wished it were authentic.
Campbell’s promotion of Hubbard’s book had evidently persuaded even sceptical readers to buy Hubbard’s product and try it out.
However, these were people who had just lived through a World War, which had accelerated the advance of science and engineering. That conflict ended with the use of nuclear weapons – a scientific miracle. Then, it struck up again in the form of the Cold War – a terrifying stand-off which the Soviet Union which could turn ‘hot’ at any time. Stories of the aftermath of nuclear war constituted a well-recognised sub-genre of science fiction.
People did not generally understand the science (some of which was still a military secret) behind these advances. They did not know the difference between a scientific miracle and a pseudo-scientific claim and relied upon men like Campbell for reliable information. In the case of dianetics, he let them down, and L Ron Hubbard mercilessly exploited his weakness.
The Prototype for the Dianetics Fad?
This kind of thing had happened before. In 1945, the editor of another science fiction pulp magazine – “Amazing Stories” had published stories by a Richard Sharpe Shaver, a writer who claimed that the things he described in his fiction were real.
Shaver relates an arc-welding accident in which an electric shock gave him the power to receive the thoughts of malignant entities who lived underground (the “Deros”). Their ‘mind rays’, he assured readers, were responsible for most of the evil that befalls mankind.
People took this seriously, for a time forming groups which discussed “The Shaver Mystery”, and finding evidence of the activities of the malignant Deros in everyday life. Sales of “Amazing Stories” soared until the editor came to over-rely upon it, and the fad ran out of steam.
“Astounding Science Fiction” was a ‘broad Church’ which, at one time or another, embraced a variety of writers from rationalist debunkers to fantasy writers. Although the emphasis was on science fiction stories based on science (or reasonable extrapolations from contemporary scientific developments) in practice it embraced a wide range of styles.
“Astoundings” editor, John W Campbell, made it the leading periodical in its field – but he also occasionally upset the balance with his enthusiasms for fringe ideas. In the case of L Ron Hubbard and dianetics, he allowed wishful thinking to lead him astray. He mistook a power fantasy for a real scientific development because he wanted to believe in Hubbard’s promise. Hubbard made a fortune from Campbell’s mistake, which started him out on his infamous career as 20th Century guru and founder of Scientology.