the course of researching and writing The World Beyond the Hill,
book on the conceptual development of science fiction, Cory and I came
to form and express an opinion about L. Ron Hubbard’s place as a
science fiction writer. We gathered all the relevant materials we could
find, we made what we could of them in the context of the overall
picture, and then we said what we thought.|
And what a thoroughly fascinating character Hubbard was!
L. Ron Hubbard entered the science fiction field early in the editorship of the young John Campbell. At this point, Campbell was still worried about how to fill the pages of his magazine with stories each month, and his boss introduced Hubbard to him as a reliable pro he could always count on for copy when he had to have it. And such was the nerve and the verve of this pulp adventure story writer than Campbell was completely bowled over by him at first meeting.
Campbell was able to put Hubbard to good use even though he was all but totally lacking in the usual background in science fiction and fantasy which the editor expected of his writers as a matter of course. This exuberant wordsmith’s stories might never be of the same kind or quality that Campbell would demand from a Heinlein or an Asimov, but they were good enough to print—and sometimes they were better than that—and they were there when he needed them.
And what a personal show Hubbard put on! Here is a description of the kind of impression he could leave, written by Damon Knight in his pioneering critical book In Search of Wonder in 1956:
Hubbard was the typus of a now-vanishing tribe of pulp writer: like Tom Roan, who made occasional appearances in editorial offices wearing a ten-gallon hat and swearing like a muleskinner; like Norvell Page, who affected an opera cloak and a Mephistophelian goatee, Hubbard lived what he wrote. Big, swaggering and red-haired (like many of his heroes); sailor, explorer, adventurer; a man among men and a devil with the ladies; he cut a swath across the science-fantasy world the like of which has never been seen again (p. 29).Not everyone bought Hubbard's yarns of his wild adventures in faraway places. Pulp writer Frank Gruber, in his book The Pulp Jungle, remembers Hubbard once telling of his years doing this and years doing that, until he was deflated—and angered—by having it pointed out how old he must be by his own testimony to have done so many many marvelous things.
On another notable occasion in December 1944, there was a dinner party for Jack Williamson in Philadelphia which included the Heinleins, the de Camps, the Asimovs, and L. Ron Hubbard. From various accounts of the party, it is clear that Williamson was the nominal host, and footed the bills, that Heinlein was the actual host, making all the arrangements and running the show, but that—by common agreement—it was L. Ron Hubbard who was the star of the evening, playing tenor guitar, singing bawdy songs and pirate ditties, and telling war stories.
More than forty years later, the de Camps and Asimov would still remember how entertaining Hubbard had managed to be, overshadowing even the usually dominating Heinlein. There was, however, one holdout in the crowd. Williamson writes in his 1984 memoir, Wonder’s Child.
I recall his eyes, the wary, light-blue eyes that I somehow associate with the gunmen of the old West, watching me sharply as he talked as if to see how much I believed. Not much.Hubbard supplied Campbell with stories from 1938 to 1942, when his duties as a World War II Navy officer made it impossible for him to continue to write pulp fiction. Then again, after the war, Hubbard wrote science fiction from 1947 to 1950. In May of that year, Hubbard published an article entitled “Dianetics” in Astounding and then retired from writing pulp stories to begin a new career, first as the founder of the psychological system Dianetics, and second, a couple of years later, as the launcher of a new religion, Scientology.
He had apparently been thinking about this for a while. More than one person in the science fiction community remembers him speaking of the ambition he had to found a new religion. As one instance, in his 1983 book Over My Shoulder, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, a science fiction writer of the Thirties, and later a pioneer fan press publisher, tells of a time in the late 1940s when he and another small press publisher, John Campbell and Hubbard were involved in a hotel room conversation:
The incident is stamped indelibly in my mind because of one statement that L. Ron Hubbard made. What led him to say what he did I can't recall — but in so many words Hubbard said:During his days as a guru, and as a man of estates and yachts, Hubbard and science fiction went their separate ways. But it would seem that Hubbard always retained an affection for the field, maintaining contacts over the years with certain fans and writers even when he was publicly silent and invisible. Then in his years of retirement, Hubbard, like so many others, including Eshbach, returned to sf writing. First, he produced the gigantic novel, Battlefield Earth, and then a ten-volume series, Mission Earth, as well as a record album on which he played his guitar and sang science fiction songs he had written.
At the time that Cory and I were at work on the question of Hubbard and his contribution to the Golden Age, we reread his early stories. I looked at all the comments on him and his work that I could find, including the two biographies of Hubbard that have appeared since his death in 1986. I even read Battlefield Earth from beginning to end, and listened to a little, a very little, of his record album. Having found out as much as I needed to know in reading Battlefield Earth, and not wanting to overdo a good thing, I skipped Mission Earth.
Learning about Hubbard as a person was my job rather than Cory's, and so fascinated did I become by his character and conduct that I wrote too much. In consequence, when it came time to cut the manuscript of The World Beyond the Hill by a hundred pages, Cory and I found that we had to take out much of what I had had to say about the man. The amount of wordage devoted to his stories didn't change. But since this was so much less than we had found to say about the stories of other writers, it became clear that however entertaining it might be to discuss Hubbard's colorful and enigmatic persona, it wasn't strictly necessary to the purposes of our book.
When all our reading and rereading, our discussion, our writing and our editing were done, the conclusions we came to concerning Hubbard's place in the Golden Age were these:
That the first sf stories he produced in 1938 were among the earliest in Astounding to address the subject of psi powers. (And it appears to us that the area of wild talents and strange states of consciousness in Hubbard's early stories is the aspect of his work which is most in need of further study.)
That Hubbard, beginning with the short novel "The Ultimate Adventure" in the second issue of Unknown, was the first of Campbell's writers to produce stories about transference into alternate storybook worlds, but he was nowhere near as original as Pratt and de Camp in the imaginative devices he employed to effect these transfers.
That his most significant Golden Age story in Astounding was Final Blackout, a novel in which prolonged war in Europe is followed by the protagonist, a natural leader of men, setting himself up as a dictator in England. This future war story, serialized in 1940, six months after the outbreak in Europe of World War II, may have been old-fashioned in form, but at a moment when Campbell was concerned to make science fiction more realistic than it had been, it was admired for its realism and its timeliness.
That Hubbard's most interesting work during the Golden Age was his fantasy short novels in Unknown, particularly "Fear" and "Typewriter in the Sky," both published in 1940. On the basis of his many stories there, Hubbard might even be thought of as the second most prominent contributor to Unknown after L. Sprague de Camp.
That Hubbard was by habit a hasty and careless writer who saw sf as a convenient marketplace, but who wasn't deeply committed to the work he turned out for it, so that even his best stories were first-rate only in brief moments and rare flashes.
And finally, that while Hubbard may have been among the dozen or so writers who made the Golden Age golden, the Golden Age would have been just about as golden without Hubbard's contribution as it was with it. His work may have been necessary, in the sense that it served the useful function of keeping Campbell's magazines running, but it wasn't essential to the development of modern science fiction. His stories weren't notable for their transcendence. Nor was he one of the key writers involved in the conceptual restructuring of space, time and dimension that was the central undertaking of the great Campbellian Works Project.
This, at least, is the way that Cory and I saw Hubbard.
But our view of the significance of his work is apparently not shared by everyone. In the March 1990 issue of F&SF, Algis Budrys says:
The fact is that L. Ron Hubbard played a much larger part in the development of Astounding (and Unknown) than he is generally given credit for, now that the past is receding swiftly into legend. While events were fresher in the minds of fans, there was no doubt that Campbell's Big Three were Heinlein, Hubbard, and van Vogt.Wow! What a reversal of the usual valuation!
Cory's and my intent in writing The World Beyond the Hill was to speak for the science fiction community as a whole, to tell the real story of sf both as truthfully and as insightfully as we could. And in the picture of the Golden Age as we put it together, it seemed to us that a complete and accurate portrait would have the great editor, John Campbell, at the center. Closely grouped around him would be his chief synthesizers, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, and the mystic visionary A. E. van Vogt. Framing this central group would be E. E. Smith on one side, and "Lewis Padgett" — Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore — on the other.
Lending support to them would be another half-a-dozen writers — Jack Williamson, Lester del Rey, Clifford Simak, L. Ron Hubbard, Fritz Leiber and Theodore Sturgeon. And filling out the picture there would be many many others.
Hubbard would be present among the supporting players primarily on the basis of the sheer volume of material he contributed to Campbell's magazines at their most creative moment. In the long run, however, all of his peers — as well as some of the extra players of the Golden Age like Fredric Brown, Hal Clement and Murray Leinster — would produce far more significant bodies of work.
Yet here we have Algis Budrys suggesting that a true snapshot of Campbell's star writers of the Golden Age — at least in the estimate of fans of the time — would have L. Ron Hubbard in the middle, with his arms companionably draped around the shoulders of Heinlein and van Vogt.
Hmm. Even granted that there might be a difference between a fannish response at one certain moment and a well-considered long-term view, this really does give pause for thought.
Cory and I aren't old enough to have been fans of science fiction during the period we are writing about. We have no firsthand memories of anything discussed in The World Beyond the Hill. We've had to depend on the materials we have managed to gather and upon our own assessments, and it is more than probable that we have made our share of mistakes along the way.
Algis Budrys has been reading science fiction longer than we have. He first wrote it nearly forty years ago, and has been reviewing it for nearly thirty. What if he is right? Could it be possible that we have done an inadvertent injustice to a central contributor to the making of modern science fiction?
I've certainly been sufficiently curious to try to check the matter out. I'm not ambitious enough to track down and read all of Hubbard's stories one more time, but I have been willing to spend a little time reviewing the opinion of the science fiction community on the subject of Hubbard's fiction through the years. Admittedly, this check has been a brief one, so it is possible that somewhere along the line I've neglected some pseudonym, or gotten a number wrong by one or two in counting stories and books, or overlooked a comment on Hubbard's work that I might have taken into consideration. All in all, however, you may take it that I've done my best to assemble a fair summation of the documented reaction to Hubbard's career as a science fiction writer by those best placed to observe it.
I'll give what I found in three parts: various views of his early days as an sf writer from 1938 to 1942; the reaction to his second stint in the science fiction pulps from 1947 to 1950 and to his sf career as a whole when it seemed that he had permanently moved on to greener pastures; and the response to his work in the years since it first saw publication.
The initial thing I did was to check the An Lab ratings in Astounding of all the stories that Hubbard published there during the Golden Age. These scores can serve as a direct indication of fan opinion of his fiction at the time it originally appeared.
I count sixteen contributions by Hubbard to Astounding before he went off to war. Most of these were not well received, ranking consistently with the also-rans. None of his stories was rated second in its issue. Just one, Final Blackout, was rated first.
Since Hubbard has been presented as one of a kind with Heinlein and van Vogt during the Golden Age, we can compare this showing to their records during the same period. From 1939 to 1942, Robert Heinlein also had sixteen contributions in Astounding. Ten of them were rated first in their issues — and in some of these issues the second-rated story was by Heinlein as well. During the same years, A.E. van Vogt had fourteen stories in Astounding. Six of these were rated first, and another four came in second.
Even so there is a measure of truth to Budrys's claim that there was a moment when a young science fiction fan like himself might reasonably have spoken Hubbard's name in the same breath with that of Heinlein and van Vogt. This moment came early in 1941, looking back over the previous year. It didn't last long, because the Golden Age was young and had many changes yet to go through, and still there was such a moment, however brief.
1940 was Hubbard's high point as an sf writer. In that year, he had no fewer than four short novels in Unknown, including "Fear" and "Typewriter in the Sky," and Final Blackout was serialized in Astounding. This novel may have been Hubbard's only pre-war science fiction success, but in itself it made a big impression on readers. Judging from letters printed in the Astounding letter column, it would be fair to call it the third favorite story in the magazine in 1940, behind A.E. van Vogt's Slan and Robert Heinlein's second-rated story, "If This Goes On — "
Writing in his book Seekers of Tomorrow some twenty-five years later, science fiction historian Sam Moskowitz could still think that Final Blackout was superior to Heinlein's story, even as he admitted that it had never been as influential. He would describe it as "powerfully written, prophetically warning, with the principal character magnificently drawn."
It is perfectly reasonable, then, that in early 1941, a ten-year-old science fiction reader like Budrys, a recent refugee from Hitler and Stalin, might look with fondness upon a story like Final Blackout and think of Hubbard as one of Campbell's Big Three. And he wouldn't be alone in this regard. As late as 1945, when the early Golden Age was a few years in the past and Astounding had taken on a new shrunken shape and a new set of authors to replace those who had gone off to war, a young Damon Knight, writing a first essay in which he castigated A. E. van Vogt for his myriad writing sins, could see fit to name L. Ron Hubbard as one of the missing writers he regarded more highly:
In the absence of Heinlein, Hubbard, de Camp and the rest of Astounding's vanished prewar writers, van Vogt stands like a giant. But he is no giant; he is a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter (page 50).(Whatever that may have meant.)
Another contemporary view of the Hubbard of the Golden Age exists, this one from more mature and knowledgeable observers situated a little closer to Hubbard and his work.
In those days, Heinlein, living in Los Angeles, held regular social gatherings of science fiction writers under the jocular name of the Maņana Literary Society, and Hubbard was an occasional visitor. Mystery writer William Anthony Parker White, who would edit The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as "Anthony Boucher," was a fascinated observer of this circle, and in a 1942 detective story ā clef signed H.H. Holmes — Rocket to the Morgue — he presented a portrait of Hubbard under the name D. Vance Wimpole. A figure primarily modeled upon Heinlein — and sounding very like him — says of this roguish character:
"There, sir, is one of the damnedest and most fabulous figures in the whole pulp field, and he tackles most of it. Fair on science fiction and excellent on fantasy. But what I mean by fabulous: One night in New York Don Stuart and I were seeing him off to Chicago. He got to talking and outlined a fantasy short ad lib from hook to tag. Don liked it, but said, ‘The trouble is, now you'll never write it. You never do write what you've talked out first.' And Vance said, ‘Oh, won't I?'This picture of an agile word merchant whose most impressive quality is speed is reinforced when Wimpole, in need of quick cash, says "'I can do a novelet worth three hundred in four or five days. Send it off airmail, and Stuart always mails my checks airmail . . . A week from today you'll have the five hundred.'"
Hubbard was missing from the science fiction magazines for four and a half years during the war and after, but in 1947 he returned to writing for Campbell with a serial novel entitled Not Yet the End. And he continued contributing fiction to the magazine through a second serial, To the Stars, in February and March 1950.
By my count, Hubbard appeared in Astounding fifteen times during this second period of sf writing. Of these, three stories — two novelets and Hubbard's final novel — were rated first in their issues.
Overall, however, this postwar work wasn't highly impressive. Like L. Sprague de Camp, Hubbard was less adept at science fiction than he was at fantasy and missed Unknown, which had fallen victim to the wartime paper shortage. Commenting on Hubbard in Seekers of Tomorrow in 1966, Sam Moskowitz says that it was a long time after the war "before his writing seemed to assume its old magic." In fact, it was only in Hubbard's final novel that Moskowitz was able to perceive this spark.
As I look back upon all 31 of Hubbard's contributions to Astounding from 1938 to 1950, it seems apparent that he was never hugely popular with the readers of the magazine. Hubbard's stories were rated fourth or worse a total of 18 times, and they were often among the lowest rated in the issue — even at those times when an issue of Astounding might contain as many as nine stories.
As an indication of the degree of impact that Hubbard had on the magazine — or didn't have — we might consider a letter from a reader named Richard Hoen published in the November 1948 issue of Astounding. For quite a while after the war, Campbell and his magazine were in a state of shock, feeling responsible for the atomic bomb and not having a clue as to what might be done about it, and there were many fans who longed for a return to the confident mastery of the universe and the gleefully wild imaginings that had characterized the Golden Age. Hoen was one of these, and he tried to express his feelings in his letter with all the imaginative power he could muster.
Hoen, dating his letter one year in the future, wrote of his desires as though they had become actualities. He spoke of the happy revival of Unknown. He was delighted by the return of Astounding to its oldtime larger size. And he hailed the advent of a new serial story by "Doc" Smith, the beginning of a whole new story series.
Most interestingly, however, Hoen reported his ratings of the stories in the November 1949 issue of the new/old Astounding of his dreams. We may take this as one representative reader's idea of who and what had really been important during the Golden Age.
The top story was by Don A. Stuart, John Campbell's alter ego. Second place went to Anson MacDonald, recognized by Hoen to be Robert Heinlein in clever plastic disguise. Third place went to a story by A.E. van Vogt, fourth place to Lester del Rey, fifth place to L. Sprague de Camp, and sixth place to Theodore Sturgeon. "But," Hoen said, "even this yarn was way above average."
Campbell's response to this letter was to suggest that it must be a vision from "another time track." But then he busted his butt to see that the actual November 1949 issue of Astounding matched Hoen's letter as closely as he could arrange it. This was the famous "trick issue" or "prediction issue" of Astounding. It contained stories by de Camp and Sturgeon and van Vogt and del Rey and Heinlein (if not MacDonald) with precisely the titles that Hoen had foreseen, with a substitution of the first installment of the climactic Foundation serial by Isaac Asimov for the cover story by Don A. Stuart.
In short, at a time when the Golden Age of Astounding was still fresh in memory, we have no fewer than eight different writers, including Stuart and Smith, presented by Hoen and John Campbell as its representative figures. But L. Ron Hubbard was not among them.
In the early Fifties, after Hubbard had ceased to write science fiction, the critics and historians of sf then emerging began to offer comment on the nature and value of the body of work he had left behind.
In 1951, the fan publisher Gnome Press issued "Fear" and "Typewriter in the Sky" in one volume, and Damon Knight reviewed the book. With a little more time and experience under his belt, Knight had grown to see Hubbard as a writer of stories that could easily have been better than they were.
Of this one-time favorite writer, he concluded, "In this volume and elsewhere, there is ample proof that Hubbard had an exquisite word sense, when he wanted to use it; and equally ample proof that he seldom bothered."
Two years later, in Science-Fiction Handbook, L. Sprague de Camp discussed the eighteen most prominent sf writers of the magazine era without including Hubbard, who on the basis of sheer wordage might well have merited the honor. Elsewhere in the book, however, in the context of Hubbard's founding of Dianetics and the fuss it raised in the science fiction community, de Camp did give his work a brief description. He said:
Hubbard's stories fall into two groups: light humorous adventure-tales, zestful and amusing though carelessly thrown together, and more serious stories wherein the hero is a lonely leader, a solitary natural aristocrat who has to kick the unappreciative clods around for their own good. It is easy to surmise whom Hubbard has in mind in his portrayal of this character (page 94).It was these two opinions of Hubbard's writing that were most available to young readers like me who discovered sf in the early Fifties. Sf was still dominated by the memory of the Golden Age then. Coming along all these years after the fact, it was necessary for us to piece its glories together for ourselves from the stories and novels that publishers saw fit to put in book form, and from the clues contained in books like de Camp's Science-Fiction Handbook and Knight's In Search of Wonder.
My starting point in reading adult sf was the giant anthologies of stories gathered from the pulp magazines — with the greatest emphasis on the Golden Age Astounding — that were published in the years immediately after World War II when L. Ron Hubbard was still an active factor in the field. Six books stood out in particular: there was Healy and McComas's magnificent Adventures in Time and Space from Random House; there were four massive story collections edited by Groff Conklin and published by Crown, the earliest of which was a kind of informal historical summary, while the other three were increasingly weighted toward more contemporary work; and there was John Campbell's own Astounding Science Fiction Anthology from Simon & Schuster.
I found these books — the only science fiction listed in the card catalog — in the State Library in Lansing, Michigan. They gave me my basic education in Golden Age science fiction.
Looking through these books now — I'm fortunate enough to have all of them on my shelves today — I find they contained no fewer than 203 different sf stories. (I said they were big.) But of these 203 stories, it would seem that not a single one was by L. Ron Hubbard!
That was a bit shocking to realize, so I turned to the 1978 Contento Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections to determine exactly how many of Hubbard's short stories and novelets had been thought to deserve reprinting in book form, and how this might compare with the record of his fellow contributors to the Golden Age.
I threw out all single-author collections so that what was represented would be nothing but the stories that independent anthologists had respected enough to include in their books. And I did my best to count only stories originally written and published during the years that Hubbard wrote sf, from 1938 to 1950. Here's my tally:
Not a very impressive record. But then, to give Hubbard his due, we should remember that his strength was not his short fiction, but his longer work, his serials and short novels. So let us have a look at them, too, to see how they have fared.
These stories vary in quality. Some, like the 1939 serial, General Swamp, C.I.C., under the name Frederick Engelhardt, and the 1947 serial The End Is Not Yet, have never been published in book form, and really don't deserve to be.
However, immediately after the war, in the period when mainstream New York publishers were concentrating on gathering anthologies of sf short stories, fan publishers like Gnome Press and Fantasy Press and Shasta had free rein to put sf serial novels and single-author collections in hardcover form. And Hubbard did receive his share of these small press editions:
Hadley issued Final Blackout. Shasta published an expanded version of "Slaves of Sleep ," a modern Arabian Nights adventure from Unknown. Gnome did Fear and Typewriter in the Sky. And Fantasy Publishing Co., Inc. of Los Angeles reprinted three Hubbard titles.
Having these half-dozen books in print did little to affect Hubbard's standing as an sf writer, however. At least, in June 1953, when Astounding's regular book review columnist, P. Schuyler Miller, published the results of a poll he had conducted among the magazine's readers — two lists of twenty-five books (with some overlap) that were considered to be illustrative of the development of sf, in one case, and the best modem science fiction in the other — there were titles by Campbell and Asimov, del Rey and de Camp, Ray Bradbury and "Doc" Smith, and three each by Heinlein and van Vogt. Many of these were fan press books. But no titles by L. Ron Hubbard were named.
During the early Fifties, I went beyond libraries and began to collect science fiction for myself. I was given a run of the postwar Astounding. Little by little, I bought all thirty-nine issues of Unknown. And I acquired all of the fan press Hubbard hardcovers. I had my chance to read all his work but his unreprinted prewar short fiction in Astounding.
My favorite Hubbard novel was his 1950 Astounding serial To The Stars — published in paperback by Ace in 1954 under the title Return to Tomorrow — with its bittersweet portrait of a young, long-suffering star traveler falling more and more out of touch with the Earth society he had been born into as a result of the time-dilation effect. When I got sent off to boarding school in 1956, I took the book along with me as part of my small traveling sf collection.
I also bought the Shasta edition of Slaves of Sleep. The story itself I found a spritely entertainment, though not completely coherent, but I was deeply attached to the gorgeous dustjacket by Hannes Bok.
I tried to read Final Blackout more than once, and quit each time. The primary virtues of the story when it was first published were its timeliness and realism. But its timeliness hadn't survived the war, and realism wasn't what I was seeking in science fiction. To me, Final Blackout seemed dull and untranscendent.
Over the years, the sf collection I had built up got weeded and weeded again — and then married to another science fiction collection. What managed to survive by Hubbard — rather less than the work of any of his fellows from the Golden Age — was just three books: Return to Tomorrow, Slaves of Sleep, and Fear and Typewriter in the Sky. All the rest of Hubbard's work came to seem dispensable.
Sf readers a decade younger than I didn't have the same opportunities that I had had to read Hubbard's fiction. Even the best of it wasn't generally available for many years.
This was true even though the 1950s and ‘60s were a period when paperback houses like Ace, Pyramid, Berkley and Lancer were laboring to put large amounts of work from the pulps and fan presses into softcover form. During this time, Hubbard's stories were largely overlooked.
I checked Donald Tuck's 3-volume Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy to find out how many of Hubbard's novels and short novels had been considered worth reprinting in paperback in those decades, and found just two. Ace did Return to Tomorrow in 1954, at the beginning of the era of intensive reprinting, and Lancer issued Slaves of Sleep at the end of the period in 1967.
In the 1970s, Hubbard did fare somewhat better. He got a paperback story collection, at last. One softcover combined "Fear" and "The Ultimate Adventure," and a few years later another combined "Fear" and "Typewriter in the Sky," and Slaves of Sleep had a new edition from Dell. And Garland did Final Blackout and Return to Tomorrow in their series of limited hardcover reprint editions.
But in these years before Hubbard's late-in-life return to active sf writing, his early work didn't command much respect or attention from the science fiction community. In 1970, for instance, Library Journal published an annotated bibliography of classic sf compiled by me from books that had been named two or more times on separate lists made up by a broad spectrum of writers who were also scholars, critics, academics or librarians: James Blish, L. Sprague de Camp, Damon Knight, Andre Norton, Alexel Panshin, Joanna Russ, Robert Silverberg and Jack Williamson. And I regret to say that despite my lingering fondness for Return to Tomorrow, there was no book by Hubbard deemed basic enough by the group to make its way into this common bibliography of more than eighty titles.
It was rare during these years for the fiction of L. Ron Hubbard to receive any notice at all. Perhaps the readiest example of this that I can give is to turn to Benchmarks, a 350-page collection of book reviews by Algis Budrys originally published in Galaxy from 1964 to 1971.
When Lancer issued Slaves of Sleep, Budrys had an opportunity to review the book and didn't. Again, in 1970, he had his shot at the Berkley volume of Fear and the Ultimate Adventure, and he chose to overlook that book, too. In fact, search the index of Budrys' book though I may, I can only find two references to L. Ron Hubbard, both of them brief.
One of these was a fond memory of the old fan press hardcovers, which included "such interesting but idiosyncratic pieces as L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout."
The other was a suggestion that the novel Earthblood by Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown read to him "more like a combined effort of Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard than anything else that ever walked the bookstores in the quiet of the night." The points that he found Hubbardian seem to have been along the lines of galactic-Ubermensch-with-secret-sorrows . . . which I am half-ashamed to recognize as a contributing factor to the emotional tonality of Return to Tomorrow which held such appeal for my long-ago teenage self.
Hubbard's latter-day work hasn't commanded great respect or attention, either. Its primary appeal has seemed to be to committed followers of Scientology rather than to regular readers of science fiction.
As an earnest reader of Battlefield Earth, I can say that I found it to be fast-moving pulp storytelling carried to wearying length. The book was very old-fashioned in its conceptions. It wasn't deep, and it was generally lacking in a sense of wonder.
There didn't seem to be much point in going on to Mission Earth. But nothing I have heard of it leads me to expect anything more impressive of it than sheer bulk — a kind of magnification of Hubbard's old-time role for Campbell as a filler of pages.
Summing all the evidence, then, it would seem that except for a period during World War II, when Hubbard made an impression on at least a number of fans and readers, there really hasn't been much of anyone during these past fifty years who has been knowledgeable of sf — whether writer, publisher, editor, critic, anthologist or fan — who has been prepared to claim L. Ron Hubbard as a science fiction writer of other than very minor importance. From Rocket to the Morgue in 1942 to The World Beyond the Hill in 1989, the opinion of independent observers has remained remarkably consistent on the subject of Hubbard's fiction.
At its most generous and sympathetic, this opinion would smile upon Hubbard's obvious intelligence, fecundity and charm, and be tempted to agree with Sam Moskowitz, writing in Seekers of Tomorrow, when he said, "One author who today might be rated with the giants of modern science fiction — with Heinlein, Sturgeon, van Vogt, and Asimov — if only he had continued to write, is L. Ron Hubbard."
But might-have-beens do not count, and potential in itself isn't sufficient to make a giant of science fiction. And in less wishful moments, sf opinion has been ready to look with clear eyes upon the stories that Hubbard actually did manage to write and conclude regretfully, along with Damon Knight, that ultimately they must be reckoned "monuments to a prodigal talent, prodigally wasted."
If we judge from the accounts of those sf people who knew him personally, it would seem that L. Ron Hubbard was a man adept at making a striking first impression, but who was not as impressive after the charm had worn off and the yarns he told were examined closely. And so it would also seem to be with the fiction he wrote.
All that I can advise to readers of today who might wish to judge the matter without reference either to fifty-year-old childhood memories or to the intervening history of reaction that I have sketched here, is that they try reading some of Hubbard's fiction, new or old, for themselves and make up their own minds about its merits. I have a certain confidence in the result.
And I don't think it will be necessary for Cory and me to radically revise The World Beyond the Hill on the subject of L. Ron Hubbard before it appears in paperback.
(This essay originally appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Number Twenty-Five, September 1990.)
Background courtesy of Eos Development