If there’s one overwhelming conclusion to be drawn about [L. Ron] Hubbard’s career, it isn’t that he wrote science fiction, or even that he was influenced by its ideas. It’s that he ended up writing science fiction almost against his will, and for much of his life, he seems to have actively despised it.
Most of his stories displayed little, if any, interest in science itself, an attitude that extended to his protagonists. The heroes of Hubbard’s adventure yarns were invariably tall, virile, and masculine, while the central figures in his science fiction and fantasy stories were more likely to be henpecked weaklings. As Isaac Asimov wrote of his first meeting with Hubbard: “He was a large-jawed, red-haired, big and expansive fellow who surprised me. His heroes tended to be frightened little men who rose to meet emergencies, and somehow I had expected Hubbard to be the same.” His constant use of such characters reflected his low opinion of his audience, and even when he offered up a more conventional lead, as in the relentlessly sour series The Kilkenny Cats, the result reeked of contempt.
The war offered Hubbard the chance to become the kind of hero that he had always wanted to be:
Campbell wrote to Heinlein: “I imagine that the thing that would really satisfy [Hubbard’s] nature . . . would be a chance to command a sub sent out to raid Tokyo harbor. I wouldn’t permit him to, if I were running the Navy. He’d probably try to up ship and bombard Hirohito’s hovel with his deck gun, just for the hell of it.”
As it turned out, Hubbard alienated his superiors in Australia and Massachusetts, attacked two nonexistent submarines off the coast of Oregon, and fired without authorization in Mexican waters, causing him to be relieved of his command. He would later say that he had been crippled and nearly blinded in action — he really suffered from a duodenal ulcer — and he spent much of the war in the hospital, although he continued to play the charming rogue in public. In late 1944, Asimov attended a party at which Hubbard told stories, played the guitar, and effortlessly dominated Heinlein and the author L. Sprague de Camp, who listened “quietly as pussycats.” The writer Jack Williamson, who was also there, came away with a different impression: “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.”
Before long, the mask began to crack, and Hubbard grew visibly depressed. His appearance startled his friends — Campbell wrote that Hubbard was “a quivering psychoneurotic wreck” after the war, and that “his conversation was somewhat schizoid at points.” The reasons for this downturn are unclear, although de Camp may have come closest to the truth in a letter to Asimov: “What the war did was to wear [Hubbard] down to where he no longer bothers with the act.”
One of those who noticed Hubbard’s fragile mental state was Heinlein, who had spent the war at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with de Camp and Asimov. He had recruited Hubbard — on Campbell’s recommendation — for a think tank in which science fiction writers gathered on weekends to brainstorm responses to the kamikaze threat. None of their ideas were ever used in combat, but Heinlein was moved by Hubbard’s tales of being repeatedly bombed, sunk, and wounded, and he evidently encouraged Hubbard to have a sexual relationship with his wife Leslyn. Hubbard later recalled: “He almost forced me to sleep with his wife.”
After the war, Hubbard briefly lived with the Heinleins in Laurel Canyon, where they set up a shared working space. Heinlein was undoubtedly impressed by Hubbard, whom he credited with introducing him to the plot formula of “the man who learned better,” and he introduced him to Jack Parsons, a rocket engineer in Pasadena with an interest in black magic. Hubbard became housemates with Parsons in December 1945, and he took part in occult rituals before the two men had a falling out, caused in part by Hubbard’s affair with Parsons’s lover Sara Northrup. Hubbard married her the following year, without bothering to divorce his first wife.
Definitely an odd circle. Anyway, Hubbard moved on from science fiction — sort of:
“Terra Incognita: The Mind,” which marked the inauspicious debut of dianetics in print, was published in the Winter/Spring 1950 issue of The Explorers Club Journal. Hubbard’s membership in the Explorers Club, a scientific society based in New York, had long been a feather in his cap. He had applied years earlier on the strength of some unremarkable travels in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico, and after he was accepted, he took enormous pride in the achievement, frequently mentioning the club in his stories and using its address on his personal letterhead.
In the article, Hubbard provides a brief description of dianetics, his new science of the mind, and makes the strange claim that he developed it to provide expedition leaders with a way to screen team members for mental problems, as well as a form of emergency medicine in the field. It was a clear attempt to frame his work in terms of how he liked to see himself — as an adventurer and man of action. The piece aroused no perceptible response, but it sheds a revealing light on the audience that he was hoping to reach. Hubbard wanted to attract explorers and men of the world. Instead, he ended up with science fiction fans.
And they weren’t his first, or even his second, choice. Hubbard had been working on dianetics for years, and he had approached a number of professional societies with offers to share his research. None of them took the bait, and he ultimately returned to a proven market, writing to Campbell in the spring of 1949. At the editor’s invitation, Hubbard and his pregnant wife Sara moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, not far from where Astounding had recently relocated. Campbell could have collaborated with him at a distance, as he had with so many other writers, but he seems to have decided early on that he wanted to keep this one close.
When the two men met again, Campbell was impressed with Hubbard’s appearance, which was newly composed and confident, and he became convinced that the author had healed himself using his own techniques. He was primed to be receptive. Like Hubbard, Campbell had grown depressed after the war. Atomic weaponry had always been a staple of science fiction, but the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led him to publish a series of bleak postnuclear stories, and he became obsessed with making a discovery that would save the world from the bomb.
Over the following year, Campbell worked intensively with Hubbard to develop dianetics into a science that could prevent a nuclear catastrophe. His goal was to turn Hubbard’s “rules of thumb” into something that his readers could accept. Hubbard himself took a more casual approach, and he spent much of that summer looking into jobs in Hollywood. For a working writer, dianetics was just one angle among many, and Hubbard was cheerfully willing to allow Campbell to turn it into whatever he thought it needed to be.
What emerged was rather different from what Hubbard had initially envisioned. It was a theory of the brain as a kind of computer that could be damaged by recordings, or engrams, implanted when it was unconscious. The treatment, called auditing, required no special equipment, and it could be conducted by an auditor and a “preclear” in any quiet room. After entering a state of reverie, the preclear would relive memories going back to the period before birth. If successful, the subject would be left with total recall, a heightened intellect, and freedom from psychosomatic illness — a “clear” free at last to achieve his or her full potential.
When the first article on dianetics appeared in the May 1950 issue of Astounding, followed by the book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, it seemed unlike anything else Hubbard had ever written. Campbell — who appears anonymously in several of its case studies — wrote some of the text, borrowing terms and ideas from the new discipline of cybernetics to give it a veneer of scientific respectability. Still, it’s a truly weird book, with a level of sexual explicitness that must have taken many readers by surprise: “Mother is saying, ‘Oh, I can’t live without it. It’s wonderful. It’s wonderful. Oh, how nice. Oh, do it again!’ and father is saying, ‘Come! Come! Oh, you’re so good. You’re so wonderful. Ahhh!’”
On the whole, however, its tone is unexpectedly restrained. Hubbard calls it a provisional theory, subject to revision, and he concludes: “For God’s sake, get busy and build a better bridge!” In fact, it was conceived as the beginning of an ongoing scientific revolution. Campbell saw the newly founded Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation in Elizabeth as a think tank for the superior brains that dianetics would produce. Many of the earliest converts were science fiction fans, who had always believed that a major discovery would emerge from their ranks. And no one was more surprised by its success than Hubbard, who embraced his sudden celebrity and boasted to his agent: “I’m dragging down Clark Gable’s salary.”
Campbell thought that he had found his life’s work, but the dream quickly fell apart. Once it became clear that dianetics would be a greater financial windfall than anyone had anticipated, Hubbard grew convinced of his own infallibility. (One of his few works of fiction from this period, Masters of Sleep, is an Arabian Nights tale that turns halfway through into a piece of propaganda for dianetics, which has rendered psychiatry obsolete.) Money was spent as quickly as it came in, and a series of messy internal disputes led Campbell to resign. As Asimov later observed: “I knew Campbell and I knew Hubbard, and no movement can have two Messiahs.”
Hubbard subsequently said that Campbell became “bitter and violent” after his ideas were rejected, while Campbell, who had staked his position and reputation on dianetics, dismissed Scientology years afterward as “intellectual garbage.” He also claimed: “It was, as a matter of fact, I, not Ron, who originally suggested that it should be dropped as a psychotherapy, and reconstituted as a religion. Because only religions are permitted to be amateurs.” It’s impossible to verify this statement, although the notion of a religious cult founded by scientists frequently recurs in the stories that Campbell published, and the editor Lloyd Eshbach — to whom Hubbard allegedly made his famous remark that a religion would be a good way to make money — said in a memoir that the plans for the church were drawn up in Campbell’s kitchen.
With Campbell out of the picture, Hubbard published no more stories for decades, but a strain of science fiction remained in his work, and it grew even stronger after he set up shop in Wichita, Kansas, where a businessman named Don Purcell had offered to underwrite his research. Many of the disciples who followed him there owed their first exposure to his ideas to Astounding, and he began to tailor his teachings, consciously or otherwise, to the audience he had left, just as he had opportunistically turned to science fiction to satisfy his publishers and allowed the terminology of dianetics to be shaped by Campbell.