'By 1938, Hubbard was already established and recognized as one of the top-selling authors . . . [and] was urged to try his hand at science fiction. He protested that he did not write about "machines and machinery" but that he wrote about people. "That's just what we want," he was told. The result was a barrage of stories from Hubbard that expanded the scope and changed the face of the literary genre . . .' (About L. Ron Hubbard, Writers of the Future, Volume II, Bridge Publications Inc., 1986)
(Scientology's account of the years 1938-40.)
To science-fiction fans, 1938 marked the dawn of a new era they were pleased to call the 'Golden Age'. Before then, science-fiction pulps with gosh-wow titles like Amazing, Wonder, Planet Stories and Startling had usually been ridiculed if not ignored. Crowded into the darkest corner, or on to the lowest shelf of the news-stand, they were only sustained by the devotion of a small group of passionately loyal enthusiasts who, dreaming of time machines and space travel in the grimly haunted days of the Depression, were widely considered to be dotty.
The sad truth was that the nineteenth century heritage of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe and H.G. Wells had largely degenerated, by the early 'thirties, into trash - uninspiring tales of slavering robots and talking animals written in penny-dreadful prose, mediocre fiction without the science. Bug-eyed monsters figured prominently, either invading earth with the intention of enslaving the human race or carrying away our 'fairest maidens' for use as love-toys on some alien planet. Readers needed considerable faith to relish repeated workings of the same tedious themes, but then science-fiction fans were acknowledged to be particularly fanatical, if not particular.
It was possible to date, precisely, the metamorphosis that ushered in the Golden Age because it began with the appointment of John W. Campbell Junior as editor of Astounding magazine, at the age of twenty-seven, in early 1938. Campbell was the man who dragged science fiction out of the pulp mire and elevated it to an art form.
Opinionated, overbearing and garrulous, he was a chain-smoking intellectual dynamo bursting with ideas which he would expound at length, driving home every point by stabbing the air with his long black cigarette holder. His first science-fiction story, 'When The Atoms Failed', was published in Amazing in 1930 and he quickly made a name for himself as an original, imaginative and sophisticated writer. One of his best stories was transformed, through no fault of his, into one of Hollywood's worst movies, The Thing From Outer Space.
As an editor, Campbell used his magazine to speculate on the implications - emotional, philosophical and sociological - of future scientific discoveries. He expected style, skill, ingenuity and technical proficiency from his contributors. Few of the existing pulp writers could meet his exacting standards and so he set out to nurture new talent. Almost all the biggest names of the Golden Age - Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt and many others - were first published in Astounding. Campbell never compromised. Faulty plots were ruthlessly rejected with pages of closely typed criticism - Theodore Sturgeon once got a story back with a seven-page explanation as to why a particular fission of light metals was not feasible. Yet Campbell's critiques to writers were always accompanied by a flood of new ideas and suggestions for other stories. 'No editor was ever more helpful,' said Jack Williamson, one of his contributors. 'He read every story submitted. Those he rejected came back with useful comments, and many a letter accepting one story also included ideas for another.' The mechanical ants in Williamson's novel, The Moon Children, were Campbell's idea.
Isaac Asimov always remembered his first meeting with Campbell in the Seventh Avenue offices of Street and Smith, the publishers of Astounding. 'I was eighteen and had arrived with my first story submission, my very first. He had never met me before, but he took me in, talked to me for two hours, read the story that night and mailed the rejection the following day along with a kind, two-page letter telling me where I had gone wrong.'
Campbell was both a visionary and a realist. He believed in supernatural power and space travel and rockets and a multiplicity of worlds, but he also fervently believed that science fiction should live up to its name. His writing was studded with extraordinary technical detail explaining how complex machines worked, yet his scientists were always real people with human emotions and foibles.
One of what he called his 'pet ideas' was that less than a quarter of the functioning capacity of the brain was used. 'Could the full equipment be hooked into a functioning unit,' he wrote in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1937, 'the resulting intelligence should be able to conquer the world without much difficulty.' Working on this doubtful
1. Jack Williamson, Child of Wonder, 1985
2. Isaac Asimov, In Memory Yet Green, 1979
premise, Campbell made unremitting attempts to encompass telepathy, ESP and other odd psychic phenomena into a science he called 'psionics'.
As the reputation of Campbell's Astounding grew, new magazines appeared on the streets thick and fast - Marvel Science Stories was out first, closely followed by Startling Stories, Dynamic Science Stories and Fantastic Adventures. To distance his own magazine from the more garish pulps, Campbell changed the title to Astounding Science Fiction, which he thought sounded more dignified and more accurately reflected the content.
Campbell first met L. Ron Hubbard at about the time he took over as editor. Ron provided a typically bombastic account of the circumstances: 'I got into science fiction and fantasy because F. Orlin Tremaine, at the orders of the managing director of Street and Smith, brought me over and ordered John W. Campbell Jr . . . to buy whatever I wrote, to freshen up the mag, up its circulation, and to put in real people and real plots instead of ant men. John, although we became dear friends later, didn't like this a bit.'
Tremaine was an editorial director of Street and Smith and might well have effected the introduction - he would certainly have known Ron, since Ron had contributed many stories to Street and Smith's stable of adventure pulps. But it was inconceivable that Campbell would have been ordered to buy everything Ron wrote. Campbell was an editor of total dedication and a notorious perfectionist - he would never have relinquished his right to edit or to ask contributors for a rewrite if he thought it was necessary. 'Those who could not meet his requirements,' said Isaac Asimov, 'could not sell to him.'
Whatever the circumstances of their meeting, it was clear that the young editor and the young writer hit it off, for in April, 1938 Campbell wrote Ron a long, funny letter, full of friendly gobbledegook, to chide Ron for not making contact when he was recently in New York. 'HUBBARD SNUBBARD: HUBBARD SNUBBARD: HUBBARD SNUBBARD,' Campbell began. 'When I was a little boy, on me fodder's knee, he says to me, says he to me (yes, I was a little boy, and I did have a fodder, and he did have a knee, and he did say to me): "Never take offense, where offense isn't meant." So thata is data . . .'
He continued in similar vein for several pages, invited Ron to contribute some anecdotes about himself for a feature he was writing on the pulp magazine industry and ended: 'My best to your wife and kiddies. I am now about to sign off. By the way, forgive the bad copy; I only learned to type a couple of weeks ago, and can't control the engine sometimes. Addio, John.'
Ron's first story for Astounding, and his first venture into science
3. Ron The Writer, Author Services Inc., 1982
4. The John W. Campbell Letters, Vol. I, 1985
fiction, was 'The Dangerous Dimension', published in the July 1938 issue. It was a diverting little tale about a mild-mannered university professor, Henry Mudge, who works out a philosophic equation enabling him to transport himself to any part of the universe by thought alone. Teleportation causes him endless difficulties since every time he thinks about a place he finds himself whisked there with no more than a 'whup!' By and large, he is remarkably unperturbed, as when he thinks himself to Mars ("Oh dear," thought Mudge. "Now I've done it!").
'The Dangerous Dimension' was followed later in the year by a three-part novelette, 'The Tramp', which also dealt with fantastic powers of the mind. The tramp, one 'Doughface Jack', falls from a train and suffers severe head injuries. After an operation to save his life during which a silver plate is inserted into his head, he discovers he has the power to heal, or to kill, with a single glance. The surgeon is so envious of his patient's remarkable new powers that he decides to have the operation, too, with less happy results.
When, by and by, it became important to promote an image of Ron as one of the world's great thinkers and philosophers, these two stories would be presented as clear evidence that L. Ron Hubbard had begun his research into the workings of the mind. Science fiction, it was explained, was 'merely the method Ron used to develop his philosophy'.
It was a philosophy which was supposedly fully expounded in Excalibur, an unpublished book Ron was first said to have written in 1938. Modestly described as 'a sensational volume which was a summation of life based on his analysis of the state of Mankind', much would be heard of this great work in later years; indeed, it would become a cornerstone of the mythology built around his life. It was claimed that the book derived from Ron's 'discovery' that the primary law of life was to survive, although, naturally, the part played by 'his explorations, journeys and experiences in the four corners of the earth, amongst all kinds of men, was crucial'.
The first six people to read the manuscript were said to have been so overwhelmed by the contents that they went out of their minds. Curiously, however, few of Ron's fellow writers were aware of the existence of the book, with the exception of Art Burks: 'Ron called me one day and said, "I want to see you right away, I have written the book." I never saw anybody so worked up. Apparently he had written it without sleeping, eating, or anything else and had literally worked himself into a frazzle.
'He was so sure he had something "away out and beyond" anything else that he said he had sent telegrams to several book publishers telling them that he had written the book and that they were to meet
5. Ron The Writer, Author Services Inc., 1982
6. L. Ron Hubbard, Mission Into Time, 1973
him at Penn Station and he would discuss it with them and go with whoever gave him the best offer. Whether he did this or not, I don't know, but it is right in line with something he would do.
'He told me it was going to revolutionize everything: the world, people's attitudes to one another. He thought it would have a greater impact upon people than the Bible.'
Burks's recollection of the manuscript was that it was about seventy thousand words long and began with a fable about a king who gathered all his wise men together and commanded them to bring him all the wisdom of the world in five hundred books. He then told them to go away and condense the information into one hundred books. When they had done that, he wanted the wisdom reduced into one book and finally into one word. That word was 'survive'.
Ron developed an argument that the survival instinct could explain all human behaviour and that to understand survival was to understand life. Burks particularly remembered a passage in which Ron explained how emotions could be whipped up to the point where a lynch mob was formed. 'It made the shivers move up your back from your heels to the top of your head,' he said.
Burks was sufficiently impressed by Excalibur to agree to write a brief biographical sketch of Ron for use as a preface. It was the usual 'red-headed fire-eater' material, with only one surprising new claim - that 1934 was the year Ron 'rounded off his application of analytical geometry to aerial navigation'.
The preface also mentioned a facet of Ron's character which few members of the American Fiction Guild had noticed - his unwillingness to talk about himself. 'Long ago he discovered that his most concrete adventures raised sceptic eyebrows and so, without diminishing his activities, he has fallen back on silence. We hear of him building a road in the Ladrone Islands or surveying the Canadian border and bellowing squads east and west with the perfection of a trained military man and delve though we may, that is as far as we can get.'
Burks concluded with a tactful reference to the difficulty of reconciling the adventurer with the author of a philosophic treatise: 'One envisions the philosopher as a quiet gray-beard, timid in all things but thought. It is, withal, rather upsetting to the general concept to think of L. Ron Hubbard as the author of Excalibur.'
Although Excalibur was never published - Burks was convinced that Ron was deeply disappointed he could not find a publisher - Ron assiduously stoked rumours about its existence and its content. 'He told me once that he had a manuscript in his trunk that was going to revolutionize the world,' said his friend Mac Ford. 'He said it was called Excalibur, but that's all I know about it. I never saw it.'
8. The Aberee, Dec. 1961
9. Author's interview with Ford, 1 September 1986
Unquestionably, Ron himself believed in Excalibur, for in October 1938 he wrote a long and emotional letter to Polly in which he expressed his hope that the manuscript would merit him a place in history.
Polly had recently had a riding accident which resulted in her losing the tip of one finger. Ron tried to cheer her up with a funny catalogue of his own imagined ailments and promised her a jewelled Chinese fingernail holder which she could be 'snooty' about. He wrote of his frustration about his work, the constant shortage of money ('I still wonder how much money we owe in incidental bills. It's grave, I know . . .') and the need to spend so much time in New York, away from her and the children.
Then he turned to the subject which was clearly in the forefront of his mind: 'Sooner or later Excalibur will be published and I may have a chance to get some name recognition out of it so as to pave the way to articles and comments which are my ideas of writing heaven.
'Living is a pretty grim joke, but a joke just the same. The entire function of man is to survive. The outermost limit of endeavour is creative work. Anything less is too close to simple survival until death happens along. So I am engaged in striving to maintain equilibrium sufficient to at least realize survival in a way to astound the gods. I turned the thing up so it's up to me to survive in a big way . . . Foolishly perhaps, but determined none the less, I have high hopes of smashing my name into history so violently that it will take a legendary form even if all books are destroyed. That goal is the real goal as far as I am concerned . . .
'When I wrote it [Excalibur] I gave myself an education which outranks that of anyone else. I don't know but it might seem that it takes terrific brain work to get the thing assembled and usable in the head. I do know that I could form a political platform, for instance, which would encompass the support of the unemployed, the industrialist and the clerk and day laborer all at one and the same time. And enthusiastic support it would be. Things are due for a bust in the next half dozen years. Wait and see.'
Ron was clearly worried that he would be hampered by his reputation as a pulp writer: 'Writing action pulp doesn't have much agreement with what I want to do because it retards my progress by demanding incessant attention and, further, actually weakens my name. So you see I've got to do something about it and at the same time strengthen the old financial position.'
Towards the end of the letter he wrote about strange forces he felt stirring within him which made him feel aloof and invincible and the struggle he had faced trying to answer the question 'Who am I?' before returning to the theme of immortality: 'God was feeling sardonic the
day He created the Universe. So it's rather up to at least one man every few centuries to pop up and come just as close to making him swallow his laughter as possible.'
Ron's nickname for Polly was 'Skipper' and hers for him was 'Red'. The letter finished with a single encouraging line: 'I love you, Skipper, and all will be well. The Redhead.'
While Ron's philosophical work languished for want of a publisher, his literary endeavours in other fields continued to find wide favour. Apart from marking his début in science fiction, 1938 was the year Ron rode the range of Western adventure. His name appeared in Western Story magazine almost every month with a series of two-gun titles designed to set the pulse racing - 'Six Gun Caballero', 'Hot Lead Payoff', 'Ride 'Em Cowboy', 'The Boss of the Lazy B', 'The Ghost Town Gun-Ghost', 'Death Waits at Sundown', etcetera.
Campbell thought Ron was wasting his time with Westerns and told him so in a letter dated 23 January 1939: 'I don't, personally, like Westerns particularly, and, in consequence, haven't read your Western stuff. But I'm convinced that you do like fantasy, enjoy it, and have a greater gift for fantasy than for almost any other type. The fact that editor after editor has urged you to do that type seems to me indication that you always have had that ability, and that, in avoiding it heretofore, you've suppressed a natural, and not common, talent. There are a lot of boys that run out readable Westerns, but only about three or four men in a generation that do top-notch fantasy.'
Campbell wanted Ron to contribute to Unknown, a new magazine he was in the process of launching which was to specialize in bizarre fantasy, and promised to reserve space for him with a proviso that only 'genuinely first-rate fantasy' would be considered. In response Ron produced a story called 'The Ultimate Adventure', which was used as the lead novel in the April 1939 issue and marked the beginning of a tenure during which his name was virtually a permanent fixture in the magazine.
The protagonist in 'The Ultimate Adventure' was a favourite Hubbard stereotype - a wimp transported by magic to another, vaguely Oriental, world and miraculously mutated into a roistering adventurer. The wimp in this case was a destitute orphan. Beguiled by a mad professor, tie finds himself in a scene from The Arabian Nights, is condemned to death as a suspected ghoul, shoots his way out, falls in with a band of genuine ghouls who eat human heads, rescues a fair princess from the cliché castle and finally turns the tables on the mad professor. It was rip-roaring stuff.
A second L. Ron Hubbard story, 'Slaves of Sleep', appeared in the July issue of Unknown. This time the hero was not a penniless orphan
10. The John W. Campbell Letters, Vol. I, 1985
but an heir to a shipping fortune, although quite as ineffectual. Another wicked professor (Ron did not have much time for academics) causes the young man to be cursed with eternal sleeplessness, banishing him to a world where he is a seventeenth-century sailor on the Barbary coast embroiled in hair-raising adventures. Fortunately, he has a magic ring for use in really tricky situations - as when he single-handedly defeats an enemy fleet by obdurately ordering the ships to fall apart.
Compared to previous years, Ron's output in 1939 was positively dilatory - just seven novels and two short stories. But then he had other things on his mind. A year earlier, his friend H. Latane Lewis II, who was by then working for the National Aeronautic Association, had recommended him to the War Department in Washington as the right man for an advisory post in the Air Corps.
In a letter to Brigadier General Walter G. Kilner, Assistant Chief of the Air Corps, H. Latane Lewis II unexpectedly promoted Ron to the rank of 'Captain', perhaps to enhance his case: 'When you asked me last week to procure advice on the problem of bringing a more agreeable and adventurous type of young man into the Air Corps, I did not know I would be fortunate enough to receive a call today from Captain L. Ron Hubbard, the bearer.
'Captain Hubbard, whom you know as a writer and lecturer, is probably the best man to consult on this subject due to his many connections. He has offered to deliver his views in person.
'As a member of the Explorers Club he has occasion to address thousands of young men in various institutions concerning his sea adventures and his various expeditions. Though he only pursued soaring and power flight long enough to emass [sic] story information, he is still much respected in soaring societies for the skill and daring which brought him two records. He often speaks at Harvard . . .'
Nothing came of Ron's offer to deliver his views in person, possibly because the Brigadier General discovered L. Ron Hubbard was not a Captain, not a member of the Explorers Club, not a lecturer, held no flying records and had never addressed Harvard.
Ron, as ever, was unabashed but as the situation in Europe deteriorated - the newspapers were full of alarming reports that a German invasion of Poland was imminent - he became increasingly enamoured with the idea that his panoply of talents should be available to Washington.
On 1 September, the day England and France declared war on Germany, he wrote to the Secretary of the War Department: 'Because of the possibility that our nation may, in the near future, find itself at war and because I well know the difficulty of finding trained men at the height of such a crisis, I wish to offer my services to my
11. Letter from H. Latane Lewis II, 14 February 1938
government in whatever capacity they might be of the greatest use . . .' He continued with a resumé of his career which was, for Ron, a model of restraint and veracity. It was just possible that he inadvertently implied he had only left university in order to lead an expedition to the Caribbean, and his military experience was perhaps just a little over-emphasized, but by and large he stuck to the facts. He even had the grace to point out that though he had spent five years studying psychology and human behaviour it was purely for his own benefit. His 'pioneering' notes on emotional reactions, he added, would be published in the coming year.
Unfortunately for Ron, two days later, President Roosevelt declared the neutrality of the United States, temporarily thwarting his ambition to play a role in the defeat of Hitler.
Following the move to South Colby, Ron became accustomed to spending summers at The Hilltop, burning the midnight oil in his little cabin in the woods and sailing the ruffled reaches of Puget Sound in the Maggie at weekends, and winters in New York, where he could enjoy the amiable and cosmopolitan company of his fellow writers.
He usually stayed in the cheapest hotel room he could find, but in the fall of 1939 he scraped together enough money to rent a small apartment in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side at 95th and Riverside. To make a place where he could work without distraction, he rigged up a curtained enclosure about the size of a telephone booth, lit with a blue electric bulb to cut down the reflected glare from his typing paper.
Most of the top science fiction writers of the day tended to gather in John W. Campbell's cluttered office in the Street and Smith building on Seventh Avenue and it was there that other contributors to Astounding and Unknown made the acquaintance of L. Ron Hubbard. L. Sprague de Camp thought that he looked like a 'reincarnated Pan who had been doing himself a bit too well on the ambrosia' and Isaac Asimov, who greatly admired Ron's work, became quite flustered at meeting him for the first time.
'He was a large-jawed, red-haired, big and expansive fellow who surprised me,' Asimov recalled. 'His heroes tended to be frightened little men who rose to meet emergencies, and somehow I had expected Hubbard to be the same. "You don't look at all like your stories," I said. "Why? How are my stories?" he asked. "Oh they're great," I said enthusiastically and all present laughed while I blushed and tried to explain that if the stories were great and he was not like his stories, I didn't mean he was not great.
While he was in New York, Ron lobbied assiduously and moved inexorably towards the fulfilment of a long-standing ambition - to be
12. L. Sprague de Camp, Elron and the City of Brass (Fantastic, August 1975) & Science Fiction Handbook, 1953
13. Asimov, op. cit.
accepted as a member of the Explorers Club. He had often hinted, over the years, that he was a member, but in reality it was an accolade that had proved singularly elusive. The club occupied a handsome red brick and stone building of suitable neo-Gothic dignity on East 70th Street, but its worth as a prime piece of Manhattan real estate was as nothing compared to the privilege of being allowed to walk through the wrought iron gates as a member. Membership of the snooty Explorers Club of New York, founded in 1904, conferred prestige, social standing and influence. Ron longed to join this exalted fraternity, not least because it would, at a stroke, forever legitimize his doubtful career as an explorer and adventurer.
He could be the most charming and sociable of men when he so desired and he worked hard to make the right connections. On 12 December 1939, he was formally proposed for membership of the Explorers Club on the basis of what appeared to be an impressive application, citing the valuable data he had obtained for the Hydrographic Office and the University of Michigan during his expedition to the Caribbean, his pioneering mineralogical survey of Puerto Rico and his survey flights in the United States, undertaken to 'aid adjustment of field and facility data'.
The club's membership committee did not, it seems, require any of these claims to be checked and on 19 February 1940, L. Ron Hubbard was duly elected, to his enormous and undisguised pleasure. Thereafter, he would rarely forgo the satisfaction of giving his address as 'Explorers Club, New York.'
It not being in his nature to blush quietly on the sidelines, Ron was soon making his presence felt. Within a matter of months the club magazine was reporting rumours that 'our red-headed Captain Ron Hubbard' liked to wrestle fully-grown brown bears. Ron wrote a good-natured denial, slyly contriving to portray himself as both sport and saint: 'I do not make a practice of going around picking on poor, innocent Kodiak bears. The day I arrived in New York City, this thing began: I picked up my phone to hear a cooing voice say, "Cap'n, do you like to wrassle with bears?" And since that day I have had no peace. How the story arrived ahead of me I do not know, I mean the whole thing is a damned lie!
'A man can spend endless months of hardship and heroic privation in checking coast pilots; he can squeeze his head to half its width between earphones calculating radio errors; he can brave storm and sudden death in all its most horrible forms in an attempt to increase man's knowledge, and what happens? Is he a hero? Do people look upon his salt-encrusted and exhausted self with awe? Do universities give him degrees and governments commissions? No! They all look at him with a giggle and ask him if he likes to wrassle bears. It's an
outrage! It's enough to make a man take up paper-doll cutting! Gratitude, bah! Attention and notoriety have centred upon one singular accident - an exaggerated untruth - and the gigantic benefits to the human race are all forgotten!'
In the early months of 1940, Ron was forced to abandon the pursuit of further gigantic benefits for the human race in favour of earning a living. Working under the blue light in the curtained cubicle in his apartment on the Upper West Side, he produced three stories that would come to be regarded as classics- 'Fear', 'Typewriter in the Sky' and 'Final Blackout'.
'No one who read "Fear" in Unknown during their impressionable years would ever forget it,' claimed Brian Aldiss, science fiction writer and historian. The stream-of-consciousness narrative, akin to literary psychoanalysis, charts the disintegration of an academic who writes an article debunking the existence of spirits and demons and is punished by being dragged into a nightmare of black magic and hallucinations. In contrast, 'Typewriter In The Sky' was a typical Hubbard swashbuckler about a character called Mike de Wolfe who finds himself trapped in the past as the unwilling victim of a science fiction writer named Horace Hackett. Transported to the Spanish Main, de Wolfe is saddled with the implausible name of Miguel Saint Raoul Maria Gonzales Sebastian de Mendoza y Toledo Francisco Juan Tomaso Guerrero de Brazo y Leon de Lobo and is required to duel with English sea dog Tom Bristol for the hand of the fair Lady Marion, 'flame-headed, imperious and as lovely as any statue from Greece'. It was an ingenious little tale, but hardly great literature, particularly since the protagonists were given to uttering lines like 'God's breath, milord, you jest!' and 'By gad, he's got spunk!' or even 'Peel your peepers!'
Final Blackout was a novel which many science-fiction fans considered Hubbard's finest work and led to hopeful comparisons with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. (When it was published in hardback later, Ron contrived, unsuccessfully, to appear self-effacing in a jacket note: 'I cannot bring myself to believe that Final Blackout, as so many polls and such insist, is one of the ten greatest stories ever published.')
Serialized in the April, May and June issues of Astounding, Final Blackout precipitated furious controversy in fan magazines and bitter accusations that it was Communist or Fascist propaganda. The story was set in a Europe laid waste by generations of war and populated only by marauding bands of renegade soldiers. Leading a brigade of 'unkillables', the hero, identified only as the 'Lieutenant', fights his way to England, where he establishes a benign military dictatorship until he is overthrown by his former commanding officers, with the backing of the United States.
14. Brian Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree, 1986
It was a peculiarly grim and apposite story to be published in the spring of 1940. Viewed from the United States, the war in Europe seemed like a prelude to Armageddon, the potential destruction of civilized life under the heel of the jackboot. While American liberals were campaigning for positive action from the government to aid the Allies in the fight against Fascism, the anti-war neutralist lobby was equally vociferous. Partisans of both left and right read political significance into The Final Blackout: it was pro-war, anti-war, Communist or anti-Communist, depending on the reader's political inclinations.
Even Ron's friends could not agree about his intentions. Ron was a member of a war-game circle which had been started by Fletcher Pratt, a naval historian who also enjoyed writing science fiction. Using scale models of real warships made from balsa wood, they re-enacted naval battles on the floor of the living-room in Pratt's New York apartment until the group became too large and it was necessary to transfer the battleground to a hired hall on East 59th Street. While the balsa battles were being fought, they often discussed the war and its attendant politics.
'Hubbard gave a varied impression of himself,' recalled L. Sprague de Camp, who was also a member of the war-game circle. 'Some thought him a Fascist because of the authoritarian tone of certain stories. But one science-fiction writer, then an idealistic left-liberal, was convinced that Hubbard had profound liberal convictions. To others, Hubbard expressed withering disdain for politics and politicians, saying about the imminence of war: "Me, fight for a political system?"
There was certainly no doubt that Ron was anti-German, for on 16 May he wrote a letter to the FBI in Washington on his exotic personalized stationery featuring his initials and a charging cavalryman: 'Gentlemen; May I bring to your attention an individual whose Nazi activities, in time of national emergency if not at present, might constitute him a menace to the state?'
This luckless individual was a German steward at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York whose sister, according to Ron, was a member of the Gestapo. Ron accused him of being anti-American, an illegal immigrant and 'definitely fifth column'. 'My interest in this is impersonal,' he added, 'though possibly shaded by the feeling of dislike which he always inspires in me.'
J. Edgar Hoover replied promptly, thanked Ron for the information and promised an investigation. But when an FBI agent called at Ron's apartment on Riverside Drive, he discovered that Ron had moved out on 1 June. The agent reported that Ron had told neighbours he was moving to Washington DC, but as he left no forwarding address, the case was closed.
15. Fantastic, August 1975
16. FBI files on L. R. Hubbard
Ron had not gone to Washington DC but to Washington State, back to The Hilltop and to Polly and the children. There was perhaps little time for a lengthy family reunion, however, for he was deeply involved in the planning of his next great adventure - the Alaskan Radio-Experimental Expedition. He was, of course, the leader and would be carrying with him, for the first time, the flag of the Explorers Club.
The signal honour of carrying the club flag was jealously guarded and only granted to members taking part in expeditions with proven serious scientific objectives. Every application was obviously subjected to rigorous scrutiny by the Flag and Honors Committee, lest the significance of its award be devalued. Thus Captain Hubbard proposed eminently laudable aims for his Alaskan Radio-Experimental Expedition, notably to rewrite an important navigation guide - the US Coast Pilot, Alaska, Part 1 - and to investigate methods of radio position-finding with experimental equipment and a new system of mathematical computation. In a committee room at the Explorers Club, these creditable aspirations clearly met with unhesitant approval.
In and around Bremerton, members of the Waterbury family had a rather more prosaic perspective on the Alaskan Radio-Experimental Expedition, referring to it simply as 'Ron and Polly's trip'. As far as the family was concerned, Ron was going to take Polly on a cruise up to Alaska. Aunt Marnie viewed the venture as a wangle entirely typical of her nephew. 'Ron dreamed up the trip as a way of outfitting the Maggie,' she said. 'His brain was always working and when he was trying to figure out how he could afford to outfit the boat he wrote letters to all these different manufacturers of instruments and equipment offering to test them out.'
The letters were written on crisply designed notepaper headed 'ALASKAN RADIO-EXPERIMENTAL EXPEDITION', with a sub-heading 'Checking data for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey and the US Navy Hydrographic Office'. The expedition's base was given as Yukon Harbor, Colby, and its address, inevitably, was the Explorers Club of New York. With such impressive credentials, it was no surprise that manufacturers responded positively to letters from 'Captain L. Ron Hubbard, Director AREE '40' asking for equipment to be submitted for scientific testing.
Aunt Marnie knew all about 'Ron and Polly's trip' because they had asked her to look after Nibs and Katie at The Hilltop while they were away. She and her husband, Kemp, were living in Spokane, but Kemp had been unemployed throughout the Depression and they were happy to move into The Hilltop as Kemp thought he might find work at the Navy Yard in Bremerton. 'It was a beautiful spot,' said
Marnie. 'Polly had fixed up the house and the garden real nice. She was very clever with flowers, very good at gardening. From the garden you could see the ferry boats coming over from Seattle.'
A few days before they were due to leave, Ron offered to take Marnie and Toilie for a trip round the bay in the Maggie. It was not an outing that augured well for the Alaskan Radio-Experimental Expedition - 'We were quite a ways out', Marnie recalled, 'when the engine suddenly went phut-phut - out of gas. Polly was furious and shouted at Ron, "I thought you were going to re-fuel it." He had forgotten to do it. We prayed for a wind to blow so we could get in under sail. In the end we had to drain the little oil lamps. That gave us enough fuel to give the engine a shot to get us moving, then we would drift for a bit and give it another shot and finally we got back. That was my last trip on the Maggie.'
The 'expedition' departed its Yukon Harbor 'base' in July, with May, Marnie, Toilie and Midge and their various children waving farewell from the quayside. Marnie and Kemip settled into The Hilltop with Nibs and Katie, their own two children and Marylou, the daughter of Marnie's sister, Hope. For the next several months their only contact with Ron and Polly was through letters posted from various ports in British Columbia as the Maggie sailed erratically northwards along the Pacific coast of Canada.
From the start, the Maggie's new engine, fitted only a few weeks before they left Puget Sound, gave trouble. On their second day out, nosing through thick fog in the Juan de Futa Strait, between Vancouver Island and the US coast and barely eighty miles from Bremerton, the engine spluttered and died. They very nearly ran aground before Ron could get it going again. The same thing happened in Chatham Sound, off Prince Rupert, also, coincidentally, in a pea-souper.
On Friday 30 August, the Maggie limped into the harbour at Ketchikan, Alaska, with the engine crankshaft banging ominously. Ketchikan was a small fishing and logging community surrounded by spruce forests on the southern tip of the Alaskan panhandle, some seven hundred miles from Bremerton. The Maggie's arrival merited a story in the Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle, although no mention was made of the expedition:
'Captain L. Ron Hubbard, author and world traveller, arrived in Ketchikan yesterday in company with his wife aboard the vest pocket yacht, Magician. His purpose in coming to Alaska was two-fold, one to win a bet and another to gather material for a novel of Alaskan salmon fishing.'
It seems Ron told the newspaper that friends had wagered it was impossible to sail a vessel as small as the Maggie to Alaska and he was
17. Author's interview with Mrs Roberts, April 1986
determined to prove them wrong. 'Captain Hubbard covered their bets and, now that he has arrived, will have the satisfaction of collecting.'
Ron no doubt wished the story was true, for he had hopelessly underestimated the cost of the trip and they were already so short of money that they could not afford to get the engine repaired. More in hope than anticipation, he sent an angry cable to the engine supplier in Bremerton demanding a replacement crankshaft, free of charge. Meanwhile, they were effectively marooned in Ketchikan.
While Ron and Polly were carefully saving wherever they could, a letter arrived from Marnie saying that Nibs had been up crying all night with a toothache and she had taken him to the dentist. Ron was angry that Marnie should involve them in further expense and dashed off an irritable reply telling her it was none of her business and she should have waited until they got back. Marnie responded furiously: 'What kind of heel are you?'
Despite these trials, Ron did his best to invest the trip with scientific purpose. In mid-September, he despatched a package of sailing directions and eleven rolls of film to the Hydrographic Office in Washington DC with a note expressing the hope that they would prove of value. He was also able to report favourably to the Cape Cod Instrument Company in Hyannis on the accuracy of its 'Cape Cod Navigator', which he had tested with 721 bearings on radio beacons. 'It has at all times performed its duties like a true shipmate,' Ron wrote.
A solution to their predicament presented itself later that month in the shape of Jimmy Britton, the owner and president of the local radio station. KGBU Radio was a home-spun operation which proclaimed itself to be 'The Voice of Alaska' since it was virtually the only radio station in the area. Jimmy Britton made all the announcements, read the news, conducted interviews, played records and filled in time as best he could.
KGBU was usually so short of material that anyone in Ketchikan was welcome on the air to talk about almost anything. It was hardly surprising, then, that the arrival in town of Captain Hubbard, leader of a scientific expedition carrying the flag of The Explorers Club of New York, was nothing short of a godsend to Britton, particularly as Hubbard was not only willing to broadcast, he seemed positively eager to do so. He was soon regaling listeners with a gripping account of his expedition and his adventures navigating through fog-bound, tide-bedevilled and uncharted waters.
Britton recognized that Ron was a natural broadcaster and storyteller, with a seemingly limitless reservoir of material, and his talks on KGBU became a regular and popular feature for several weeks. In one
of them he revealed how, after only a week in Alaskan waters he had discovered, with the help of his advanced radio navigational instruments, a source of interference which had baffled the local coastguard and signal station. In another he described his role in tracking down a German saboteur who had been sent to Alaska with orders to cut off communications with the United States in the event of war. And his dramatic and sometimes hilarious account of how, on a fishing expedition with a friend, he lassooed a swimming brown bear which then climbed on to their boat, had listeners everywhere glued to their sets. Off the air, at Jimmy Britton's request, Ron re-organized the station and wrote new programming schedules with all the confidence of a man who had spent a lifetime in broadcasting.
With little interference from other radio stations, KGBU's signal, on 900 watts and 1000 kilocycles, carried for hundreds of miles and could often be heard as far south as Seattle and Bremerton. It was for this reason that Ron always contrived to mention that he and his wife were stranded in Ketchikan because the Regal Company of Bremerton had refused to meet its obligations and replace their defective crankshaft. When a new crankshaft arrived in early December, Ron was convinced it was his constant needling on the air that was responsible.
As soon as the new crankshaft was fitted, Ron and Polly set sail for home. No one was more sorry to see them go than Jimmy Britton: he felt that KGBU had hardly begun to tap Ron's fund of stories. The Maggie sailed back into Puget Sound on 27 December 1940. Ron bought Marnie a yellow canary to thank her for looking after the children and not a word was said about the dentist.
Beset once more by debts, Ron went straight back to work to earn some money. For many weeks a light could be seen burning all night in the window of the little cabin at the back of The Hilltop as the stories rolled relentlessly out of his typewriter. In one of them, 'The Case of the Friendly Corpse', published in Unknown, Ron cheekily disposed of Harold Shea, the hero of a story by L. Sprague de Camp that had appeared in the magazine two months previously. Ron had his own hero meet Harold Shea and demonstrate a magic wand which turned into a serpent and proceeded to swallow up poor Harold. L. Sprague de Camp fans were outraged that Hubbard should so brusquely dispatch someone else's hero.
When he was not working, Ron spent a lot of time, as before, with his friend Mac Ford, who had recently been elected to the state legislature. During the hours they spent playing chess they talked at length about the war in Europe and the likelihood of the United States becoming involved. Ron seemed somewhat subdued after his return from Alaska; he was convinced that the Japanese were planning to
attack the West coast mainland and gloomily prophesied that US forces would be driven back to the Rockies before they could stem the tide of the invasion.
Unbeknown to Ford, Ron had made up his mind to join the Navy and was making painstaking preparations to ensure he was offered a commission, tenaciously cultivating useful contacts and soliciting letters of recommendation wherever he could. Jimmy Britton of KGBU Radio was naturally happy to oblige and despatched a two-page eulogy to the Secretary of the Navy on 15 March 1941, listing Ron's abundance of accomplishments. Among them he mentioned that Ron was a 'good professional photographer' whose work he had seen in National Geographic Magazine. No one else had, for National Geographic had never published any of Ron's pictures. 'I do not hesitate', Britton enthused, 'to recommend him without reserve as a man of intelligence, courage and good breeding as well as one of the most versatile personalities I have ever known.'
Ten days later, Commander W. E. McCain of US Naval Powder Factory at Indian Head, Maryland, added his support: 'This is to certify that I have personally known Mr L. Ron Hubbard for the past twenty years. I have been associated with him as a boy growing up and observed him closely. I have found him to be of excellent character, honest, ambitious and always very anxious to improve himself to better enable him to become a more useful citizen . . . I do not hesitate to recommend him to anyone needing the services of a man of his qualifications.' (McCain was the Lieutenant who had shown Ron and his mother around Manila in 1927 and whom Ron mentioned in his journal.)
Meanwhile, Ron was in touch with his Congressman, Warren G. Magnuson, who was a member of the Committee on Naval Affairs. Ron had suggested to Magnuson that the US Navy should set up its own Bureau of Information, both to improve the Navy's public relations and to counter the 'defeatist propaganda' about naval affairs which Ron claimed was 'flooding the press'. At Magnuson's request, he produced a nine-page report which the Congressman submitted with an introduction which cannot have displeased the author: 'This plan of organization has been prepared by Captain L. Ron Hubbard, a writer who is well-known under each of five different pen names. His leadership in the Authors' League and the American Fiction Guild, his political and professional connections and the respect in which he is held by writers and newsmen make his aid in this organization valuable. His participation in this organization will give to it an instantaneous standing in the writing profession, and bring to it a standard of high ideals . . .'
As if this was not enough, the Congressman also took it upon
18. Letter to author from National Geographic, 3 Mar 1986
himself to write to no less a person than President Roosevelt to extol the virtues of 'Captain' Hubbard. The letter, dated 8 April, added yet another laurel to Ron's crown with the improbable claim that he held more marine licences than anyone else in the country. It also introduced an aspect of his personality that was certainly not obvious to other people who knew Ron Hubbard - his 'distaste for personal publicity'.
'Dear Mr President,' Magnuson wrote. 'May I recommend to you a gentleman of reputation? L. Ron Hubbard is a well-known writer under five different names. He is a respected explorer as Captain Bryan, Navy Hydrographer, will confirm. [Bryan acknowledged the sailing directions and films that Ron sent to the Hydrographic Office from his Alaskan trip.]
'Mr Hubbard was born into the Navy. He has marine masters papers for more types of vessels than any other man in the United States.
'He has written for Hollywood, radio and newspapers and has published many millions of words of fact and fiction in novels and national magazines. In writing organizations he is a key figure, making him politically potent nationally.
'An interesting trait is his distaste for personal publicity. He is both discreet and resourceful as his record should indicate.
'Anything you can do for Mr Hubbard will be appreciated . . .'
On 18 April, Ron reported to the Naval Reserve Headquarters in Washington DC for a physical examination. Next day, he persuaded the Dean of the School of Civil Engineering at George Washington University to write a letter to the Navy Yard recommending him for a commission. Professor Arthur Johnson complimented Ron's leadership, ingenuity, resourcefulness and personality and strove to explain why such a paragon had failed to graduate: 'His average grades in engineering were due to the obvious fact that he had started in the wrong career. They do not reflect his great ability.'
Unquestionably the most lyrical of all the letters of recommendation was that signed by Senator Robert M. Ford on the notepaper of the House of Representatives for the State of Washington. Ford was not the kind of man to be too bothered by protocol or paperwork. 'I don't know why Ron wanted a letter,' he said. 'I just gave him a letter-head and said, "Hell, you're the writer, you write it!"'
Ron was unstinting in praise of himself. 'To whom it may concern,' he began. 'This will introduce one of the most brilliant men I have ever known: Captain L. Ron Hubbard.
'He writes under six names in a diversity of fields from political economy to action fiction and if he would make at least one of his pen
19. Interview with former Senator R.M. Ford
names public he would have little difficult entering anywhere. He has published many millions of words and some fourteen movies.
'In exploration he has honourably carried the flag of the Explorers Club and has extended geographical and mineralogical knowledge. He is well known in many parts of the world and has considerable influence in the Caribbean and Alaska.
'As a key figure in writing organizations he has considerable political worth and in the Northwest he is a powerful influence.
'I have known him for many years and have found him discreet, loyal, honest and without peer in the art of getting things done swiftly.
'If Captain Hubbard requests help, be assured that it will benefit others more than himself.
'For courage and ability I cannot too strongly recommend him.'
On 19 July 1941, L. Ron Hubbard was commissioned as a Lieutenant (Junior Grade) in the US Naval Reserve.