The Astounding Mr. Campbell

November 8, 2018


One of the most important influences on American science fiction is a man whose name you might not recognize, but twentieth-century authors lived for his approval. He wrote one of the field’s most famous stories, but he staked out his influence and made his lasting reputation not as an author but as a magazine editor. He was John W. Campbell Jr., and he is the subject of a wonderful new biography named for the magazine he ruled. Alec Nevala-Lee’s ASTOUNDING is also the story of the early careers and diverging paths of three colorful personalities whose work Campbell personally nurtured: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard. If you like science fiction, here is a delicious backstage view, a marvelous read that is long overdue.

A technical writer and editor and budding sf author, Campbell was only 27 when by sheer luck he stumbled into the editorship of Street & Smith’s Astounding Stories of Super-Science in 1937. It had been eleven years since Hugo Gernsback (the namesake for science fiction’s highest award) founded the first “scientifiction” periodical, Amazing Stories, but the field was still typified by garish “pulp” fiction, stalwart space heroes protecting toothsome femmes menaced by tentacled horrors (the fannish term is “BEMs,” or “Bug-Eyed Monsters”), pretty much what non-devotees think it all is. More than any other individual, it was Campbell who forced the genre to grow up.

Before his ascension, the fiction published in magazines — there wasn’t yet a book-length market for sf; Campbell’s proteges helped establish one — was more about action. Campbell wanted to print stories about ideas. He had a ton of intriguing what-ifs jingling around in his mind (the best known is the paranoia-laden story of an alien shapeshifter filmed as THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, “Who Goes There?”), far more than he could use as an author, and his first great contribution was to spread them around. It was Campbell who posited the Three Laws of Robotics that Asimov made famous, and the author was always candid in assigning proper credit. Campbell is also responsible for the notion of psychohistory that undergirds Asimov’s legendary Foundation series, and for showing the young author a passage from Emerson’s “Nature”: If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore. Aficionados will instantly recognize this as the premise for Asimov’s staggering career-best story, “Nightfall.”

Asimov was a special case to Campbell, a new kid whom he could mold and shape to help change the field by emphasizing the science rather than the fiction. Heinlein, a ramrod-straight Navy veteran, and Hubbard, a hamhanded wannabe adventurer and liar of Trumpian proportions, were already established professionals, but they also benefited from Campbell’s fount of ideas and the notoriety gained through appearances in Astounding. Heinlein in particular was most comfortable at novel length, and a series of books intended for juvenile readers (they say the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve, haw haw) drew a generation of new fans to the field and to his novels for adults.

Campbell’s relationship with Hubbard was more troublesome. A prolific author who could crank out fiction at dazzling speed, Hubbard was also an accomplished hypnotist, and the remarkable potential effects of the power of suggestion led him to experiment with supposed triggers for forgotten or repressed memories. Fortified by many conversations with his editor, Hubbard developed a technique — or maybe it was only a bit of snake oil — which he called “dianetics,” and after a few early trials Campbell became a fervent acolyte and even headed a research foundation for “the modern science of mental health.” Years later, amid the foundation’s inevitable financial ruin, the two men broke up. Since a creditor legally owned the word “dianetics,” Hubbard re-cast its revelations into the new theory of Scientology, which the Internal Revenue Service now regards as a religion. Campbell never signed on.

Mr. Nevala-Lee’s narrative is authoritative — he’s an sf author himself and has clearly studied the history of his field — and as propulsive as a well-crafted novel. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch three writers crawl out of the depths of dime-store fiction to become such household names — for radically different reasons — and march on the front lines of a genre that would one day come to dominate popular culture. The historic trio had little in common but this: one proud, willful, irascible, brilliant, imperious figure who used them to carve a path into the future.

Churchy La Fame

March 29, 2013


On the heels of Janet Reitman’s splendid 2011 book INSIDE SCIENTOLOGY comes another superbly reported work on the world’s newest religion, GOING CLEAR by Lawrence Wright. This is the man who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning THE LOOMING TOWER, the single best source for anyone who wants to understand why 9/11 happened.

A staff writer for The New Yorker, Mr. Wright published “The Apostate,” a major piece in the magazine’s February 14, 2011 issue, on the Oscar-winning writer-director Paul Haggis, who left Scientology after 34 years of membership. The magazine is highly regarded for its meticulous fact-checking procedures, and the church is infamous for its extreme litigiousness. Thus, in September 2010, two Scientologists and their four attorneys met with a New Yorker team and brought with them “forty-eight three-ring binders of supporting material, stretching nearly seven linear feet, to respond to the 971 questions the checkers had posed.” Mr. Wright looked at this material and realized he had just been handed the equivalent of years’ worth of research, albeit from the church’s point of view.

GOING CLEAR presents a different perspective than Ms. Reitman’s book, also the expansion of a magazine piece (hers in Rolling Stone), which benefited from impressive access inside the organization. Mr. Wright has three stories to tell: the history of Scientology, its attachment to Hollywood, and what he calls “the prison of belief,” which Paul Haggis finally escaped after spending more than half his life there. Like THE LOOMING TOWER, it attempts to answer very basic questions. How did this come to be? How can otherwise rational people believe in something so zealously? What is the attraction, and how is it preserved and nurtured?

The Commodore.

The Commodore.

Scientology is of course the creation of pulp-magazine author L. Ron Hubbard. It evolved from “Dianetics,” “the modern science of mental health” whose auto-psychoanalytic properties intrigued people like legendary science fiction editor John W. Campbell (who, to be Clear, also believed in mental telepathy and other psionic powers). A resulting work, DIANETICS, which Scientologists call “Book One,” was published in 1950 and became a mammoth bestselling sensation, enriching Hubbard beyond compare. But the scientific community was aghast, often vocally, which fanned in Hubbard a resentment of traditional psychiatry, quickly rising to hatred, an aspect still evident among the faithful that you can observe when, say, Tom Cruise confronts Matt Lauer on the TODAY show.

Out of curiosity, I’ve tried to read DIANETICS more than once. I can’t get past thirty pages or so, because I always see before me a bit of verbal jujitsu that makes me recoil. As it begins, we are advised to have a reference book nearby, because we should never read past an unfamiliar word without immediately coming to understand it. That’s very good advice. Helpfully, DIANETICS provides footnoted definitions for potentially difficult words. But soon the footnotes become self-serving: for instance, we get only one particular connotation. And before long, Hubbard starts making up words. Now our trusty reference book is useless. All that’s left is DIANETICS.

An almost ridiculously prolific author with a galloping imagination, Hubbard sold fiction by the pound in the heyday of pulp magazines. He uses the same method for the official recounting of his own life, which is replete with verifiable falsehoods. So most non-Scientologists assume that the bizarre intergalactic cosmology which Hubbard concocted (it makes Philip K. Dick look like a Mennonite) was the cynical output of a space-opera aficionado. Certainly when Dianetics morphed into Scientology, and this “scientific approach to spiritual enlightenment” took on the trappings of a religion, great riches appeared which needed to be sheltered from taxation. Attaining higher and higher “OT” levels (Operating Thetan; don’t ask) costs hundreds of thousands of dollars: the next rung on the spiritual ladder is always just out of reach. Yet if “Commodore” Hubbard retreated to a sea-spanning yacht to avoid landlubbing lawmen, he still spent thousands of hours refining Scientological techniques, and Mr. Wright suggests this was unnecessary labor if the Founder only wanted to sit back and count the dough. It’s quite possible that Hubbard believed that with “auditing” and the “E-meter,” he was really onto something.

David Miscavige.

David Miscavige.

When Hubbard “dropped the body” on January 24, 1986, Scientology was at a crossroads. There were several senior members capable of moving the church ahead, but the most ambitious of all was David Miscavige, who used strategy, cunning and betrayal to seize power. As with Hubbard’s life and military record, nearly every unflattering assertion Mr. Wright makes about Miscavige is denied by the church in a flurry of footnotes, which are so numerous that it’s obvious lawyers placed them there: of course the church denies everything.

Miscavige is content to let others be the “face” of Scientology, perhaps still smarting from a disastrous 1992 appearance on ABC’s NIGHTLINE that won host Ted Koppel an Emmy, and that Mr. Wright describes in excruciating detail. (Miscavige has never gone on “secular” television since that public humiliation.) But, even more lavish and imperious than the Commodore, he has been instrumental in making real the Hubbard dictum that celebrity endorsements were the key to legitimizing Scientology. And the best place to find tender, self-doubting egos, hungry for any possible perceived advantage? Hollywood.

Miscavige and his colleagues cobbled together an A-list so broad that one aspect of their pitch actually became, look at the network you can tap! Though they’re not immune from financial solicitation, celebrities are treated quite differently from the rank and file, especially the pitiful souls working for subsistence in the central “Sea Org” under billion-year-contracts. The Scientology experience of such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta – and, once he made it in the movies, Paul Haggis – takes place in posh Celebrity Centres around the world. Most mundane members are cut off from outside friends and family, and if they “blow,” not only do they face huge unpaid bills for “auditing,” they’re also cut away from any family that remains within the church, inside the “prison of belief.”

Hubbard’s spacefaring story of the Galactic Confederation sounds like gibberish, and it may well be. But as Mr. Wright suggests, it takes a leap of, yes, faith to believe the underlying origin tales of any religion, from Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni to the Judeo-Christian oceangoing vessel that supposedly held two members of every single species on earth. Regarding the top of a faith-based hierarchy living in splendor and opulence, as did Hubbard and now Miscavige, look no further than the Catholic Church. As Mr. Wright notes, it doesn’t matter whether you think Scientology is a religion. The IRS does, and thus endeth the issue.

The LA headquarters on Sunset Strip.

The LA headquarters on Sunset Strip.

Paul Haggis says he’s amazed that he bought in for so long. But nearly every Scientologist has had a very human reason to join the church, like most spiritual seekers in other faiths. (One common cause, as with other religions, is being born into it.) Most of Mr. Wright’s on-record sources are former members who “blew,” therefore they must be apostates and liars; this never-changing knee-jerk reaction by the church is what makes Scientology seem like the insular cult many believe it to be. But unlike most other faiths, the truth here is slippery, even on something as mundane as membership. Mr. Wright reports that the church claims 8 million members worldwide. They’d better be worldwide, because the Statistical Abstract of the United States estimates there are only 25,000 Americans who call themselves Scientologists, and as our very brave author wryly notes, “that’s less than half the number identifying themselves as Rastafarians.”

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