Interzone | May 1990 | The Big Sellers – L Ron Hubbard | Lee Montgomerie | Download as .pdf (A new tab will open – click on the grey box ‘Download through your Browser’ )
Interzone is a minor miracle. It’s a monthly British science fiction magazine founded in 1982, which is still published on paper. Its founders included prominent critics of the genre and the writing is still good. It’s a demonstration that the slapdash days of the pulps are long past, and the genre has grown up.
This article, from 1990, was part of a series that assessed the writing of popular SF authors – the ‘”Big Sellers”. It seems that the author could not ignore L Ron Hubbard in this context.
Montgomerie examines “Battlefield Earth” (which was recently reissued by a publisher wholly owned by the Church of Scientology) and the “Mission Earth” series in detail. However, he makes it clear that there was something suspicious about the ‘best-seller’ status of those texts. As for his opinion on their literary quality, download the .pdf, and read on…
The Big Sellers – L Ron Hubbard
This is a difficult article to quote from. It’s all good, and the author not only knows poor literature when he sees it, he also knows the background to Hubbard’s fiction.
Here are some quotes anyway. After reading the claim in the ‘fact sheet’ which accompanies “Mission Earth’ that Hubbard published 23 million words in his lifetime he comments that this was an:
[..] unbelievable achievement even for a person not simultaneously engaged as an explorer, war hero, mental health supremo and messiah. […] any figures can safely be divided by 10 if not 100.
Having dismissed the Church of Scientology’s official account of Hubbard’s life as something which obviously does not add up, he moves on to Hubbard’s actual writing.
L Ron Hubbard had his day as a science-fiction writer for John W Campbell Jr’s magazines in the 1930s and 40s. Three or four of the stories written and hundreds claimed are still remembered: Fear, Final Blackout, which featured a dictator/messiah arising from the ruins of a future war and Return to Tomorrow, which began with an aristocrat-hero shanghaied aboard a relativistic trading ship and ended by championing genocide on a galactic scale. Others are thankfully forgotten.
Dianetics was introduced in “Astounding Science Fiction” (the best of the titles edited by Campbell) in May 1950 It is often overlooked that Hubbard’s science fiction was written as much as two decades earlier. Hubbard was never much of an author – his best stories are actually paranoid fantasies that don’t have much science in them.
In the late 1940s Hubbard got carried away by a combination of ego, imagination and wish-fulfilment, and founded the modern science of mental health which later became the Church of Scientology. What began as a DIY technique for relieving neurotic symptoms by recovering repressed memories (“Engrams” to dianetic initiates) was represented as a tool to unlock latent powers of telepathy, total recall, vastly enhanced intelligence and a physiological potential to heal all ills. When the the results were not as astonishing as anticipated, the engrams were pushed back into foetal life and then into previous incarnations all down the evolutionary chain. An equivalent of the soul: the Thetan – a member of a race of immortal superbeings who had created the Universe but had become ensnared in the game of life and forgotten their origins – was discovered, and a religion was born.
I’ve not read a more elegant summation of the development of Scientology from Dianetics.
“Battlefield Earth”, “Mission Earth” and Questions of Authenticity
The article moves on to the first publication of “Battlefield Earth” in 1982 (after having written about nothing but Scientology since the late 1940s) and then the massive 10-volume “Mission Earth”.
Montgomerie asks of “Mission Earth”,
Had Hubbard actually finished it before his Thetan packed its bags? Certainly the 2 1/2 volumes ascribed to the character are largely dedicated to knitting up the tangle of loose ends which are thrown off at every twist of the repetitive plot, and to bringing the whole thing to a thoroughly unsatisfactory conclusion.
This is a fascinating speculation, based on a purely literary observation. We have very little reliable evidence concerning the writing of “Mission Earth”.
When he was a Scientologist, and Hubbard’s literary representative, Young was presented with an enormous manuscript (which was all one rambling story) and tasked with somehow dividing it up into ten volumes.
As far as RVY knew, Hubbard was alive and kicking at this time. It’s likely that Hubbard decided that it was time to wind up his epic (but poorly planned) story and tied up the loose ends himself.
However, when Hubbard was writing “Mission Earth” he was in hiding and obsessed with establishing his reputation as a science fiction writer of the “Golden Age”(despite having written no fiction for more than 30 years). There is reason to believe that he was encouraged in this delusion by his successor as leader of Scientology, one David Miscavige. The latter found that this kept Hubbard distracted while he positioned himself to seize power upon the old man’s death.
It’s also possible that Miscavige commissioned someone to provide the final volumes. This kind of thing had been done before. In order to promote “Battlefield Earth” The Church of Scientology provided two postal interviews with Hubbard, one for a book (“Dream Makers“) and another for a newspaper (“The Rocky Mountain News“). They were both actually written by Robert Vaughn Young who captured Hubbard’s style, while still managing to be more articulate than his model.
However, the author of “Dream Makers” included his suspicions that Hubbard was not really the author of the interview he had published – suspicions raised by mistakes made in the letters sent to and fro arranging the interview. He seems to have let it stand because an ‘interview’ with a man who was then a notorious recluse would not do the sales of this book any harm.
Miscavige rose through the ranks to become a personal assistant to Hubbard. He appears in the picture to the right, peering thought the viewfinder of the film camera directly below Hubbard, who is at the top of the image.
As Miscavige grew older, and Hubbard’s health failed, the assistant became master’s gatekeeper. This was a position of great power because all communications with Hubbard passed through Miscavige, and he was the only person who knew Hubbard’s actual condition.
It is feasible that Hubbard (who was undergoing rapid mental and physical decline) was obviously never going to finish his ‘masterpiece’, so Miscavige arranged for a ‘miracle’.
In any case, most of “Mission Earth” was published after Hubbard’s death in 1986 – three months after the publication of volume one.
Is “Mission Earth” Really as Bad as Critics Say?
There follows a long description of the awful plot and writing in “Mission Earth”which is a great service to anyone who might have considered trying to read the thing. It really is far worse than you might think.
The article sums up with a pretty clear statement that, although Hubbard was one of the “Big Sellers” of the title, this status was not deserved. The Church of Scientology actually sent people out to buy armfuls of copies that were put right back into publishers stock, in order to boost apparent sales. He does so through a sarcastic backhanded compliment for Hubbard’s posthumous publicists.
Hubbard’s profile in the sf world has have been higher. Glorified as a guru of the Golden Age, sponsor of new writers, contender for Hugo after Hugo [a prestigious award in in SF world] – hie ghostly presence haunts the field as it never did in his lifetime with a ceaseless blight of bookstalls, bumf and bull (bleep)…
Montgomerie would probably be amused by the recent relaunch of “Battlefield Earth” which seems to aimed not at the book-buying public, but at extracting more money from Scientologists. In the years since this article published, Scientology seems to have decisively turned inwards.
He also points out that “Mission Earth” would never have been taken on by a commercial publisher – it’s basically a vanity publication put out by the Church of Scientology to pretend to its members that the founder of their ‘religion’ was a great writer.
In a world where popular journalists are beginning to notice Scientology and responding with badly-researched articles that get pretty basic things dead wrong, this article is a shining example of how to do it right.