Another Look At:
L. Ron Hubbard, Pulp Master
L. Ron Hubbard (1911—86) was really two people. From about the mid-1940s, he was Hubbard the founder of science, Dianetics, and a religion, Scientology. Before that, he was Hubbard the adventurer and writer. …
As a writer, Hubbard is primarily known for his science fiction and fantasy stories, originally published in such magazines as Fantastic Adventures, Unknown, and Astounding Science Fiction (the latter was the most respected of the many science-fiction and fantasy pulps and published such notables as Heinlein, del Rey, van Vogt, and Asimov). Dianetics, billed as “a new science of the mind,” made its debut in Astounding (May 1950). A couple of Hubbard’s stories, “Fear” and “Typewriter in the Sky,” both from 1940, are considered to be minor classics. Nearing the end of his life, when Hubbard returned to fiction writing, he produced Battlefield Earth and the 10-volume Mission Earth. …
Galaxy is releasing the stories across several genres—Hubbard wrote adventure, westerns, thrillers, and crime-espionage as well as sf—and they reveal both the range and quality of the author’s work. The Professor Was a Thief, for example, is a corker. Originally published in the February 1940 issue of Astounding, it tells the story of a New York City newspaper reporter, Pop, who’s being muscled out of the paper by its new city editor, the publisher’s incompetent son-in-law. Given just two days to find a story to justify his continued employment, Pop stumbles onto the biggest story in the world: somebody is making some of the city’s most famous landmarks, such as the Empire State Building, disappear. Could Hannibal Pertwee, an eccentric scientist working on a new way of transporting large objects, be involved? Most contemporary readers will figure out what’s going on pretty quickly, but remember: the story was published nearly 70 years ago, when the now-familiar theme was in its infancy.
Hubbard wrote with a breezy style, long on action and dialogue and rather shorter on character development. He was not a stylist in the manner of some of his contemporaries (some of whom, like Heinlein and Asimov, are considered literary giants, genre aside), but he sure knew how to turn out a catchy phrase. Here’s how he introduces Pop’s professional predicament: “Long overdue for the job of city editor, lately vacated via the undertaker, Pop had been demoted instead of promoted.” Just a few pages later, Hubbard writes, “[Pop] loved the paper … and they were letting him off at a station halfway between nowhere and anywhere.” This story is a perfect example of good pulp fiction: an imaginative tale, crisply told.
Also appearing in the Galaxy edition of The Professor Was a Thief are two other memorable short stories. “Battle of the Wizards,” published in the magazine Fantasy Book, which put out eight issues between 1947 and 1951, posits that Earth’s Mineralogy Service has its sights set on Deltoid, a planet rich in “catalyst crystals in a natural state.” Angus McBane, a Civil Affairs officer, is sent to Deltoid to resolve the conflict between the humans and the planet’s native inhabitants. This sets the stage for a battle between science (McBane) and magic (a local tribal chief). Fans of The Flying Sorcerers, a 1971 novel by Larry Niven and David Gerrold, will note some interesting thematic similarities.
The other story in this volume is “The Dangerous Dimension,” published in Astounding in July 1938. It was … Hubbard’s first foray into the science-fiction genre. But you’d never know it: this tale of a professor who discovers an equation that allows him to teleport himself anywhere he can imagine, whether he wants to or not, is clever and funny, with moments of evocative imagery (“The carpet was a snowdrift of wasted paper”). More comic than serious, the story is essentially plotless: Dr. Mudge pops in and out of various places, confounding his house staff and his colleagues, until he discovers a way to control his teleportation. Hubbard is once again tapping into a theme that will become a staple of the genre: see, for example, Alfred Hester’s classic The Stars My Destination (1956).
Hubbard was also a prolific and popular author of western stories. His first hardcover novel was a western, 1937’s Buckskin Brigades, and he was a regular contributor to Western Story magazine. Six-Gun Caballero, reprinted by Galaxy, was published in the March 1938 issue of Western Story. It is the very involving tale of a landowner who resorts to unorthodox methods to protect his land from a band of crooks. Its hero, Michael Patrick Obañon, is as quiet, cold, and methodical as another famous literary Michael (Corleone), and Hubbard does an excellent job of making us wonder just how far Obañon is willing to go.
Caballero tells a story that goes beyond genre boundaries, a story about a man forced to find out where he will draw his moral line in the sand. Sure, Hubbard gets a bit slick at times—Obañon’s plan is improbably convoluted, and it comes off without a hitch—but there’s no denying he could crank out a western that holds up against the works of established genre giants like Brand, Flynn, or Le May.
A good example of Hubbard’s work in the thriller category is Cargo of Coffins, which was published in the November 1937 issue of Argosy, the oldest (some say the very first) pulp magazine. In Rio de Janeiro, Lars Marlin, recently escaped from the Devil’s Island penal colony, runs into, of all people, the former partner who sold him out and put him behind bars: Paco Corvino, con man extraordinaire. Lars confronts Paco, planning to murder him, but Paco has other ideas, and before Lars can figure out how he did it, Paco gets Lars hired on as captain of a luxury yacht—the very same yacht on which Paco is chief steward. As the two men sail toward an inevitable showdown, Lars is distracted by the beautiful Teresa Norton, daughter of the yacht’s wealthy owner. But is Miss Norton merely a passenger, or part of a devilishly clever plot about to be revealed by Paco?
This is one of Hubbard’s most accomplished, even stylish, stories. “We hate each other with great cordiality,” Paco says to Lars early on. A bit later, Hubbard writes that the self-educated Lars had “slugged a course in maritime law until it flattened into a diploma.” And, about halfway through the story, there’s a right-angle plot twist that would make Jeffery Deaver proud, a downright brilliant example of lulling the readers into a false sense of security before shocking the heck out of them.
Sabotage in the Sky, from the August 1940 issue of Five-Novels Monthly, is a World War II adventure about competing American airplane designers and the German spy sent to make sure their new planes fail their air trials (thus ensuring the French and British won’t want to buy either of them). When two competing hotshot test pilots, tough Bill Trevillian and beautiful Kip Lee, discover that their lives are in jeopardy at the hands of a Nazi infiltrator, they join forces to save themselves. Oh, and they fall in love, too.
Cleverly, Hubbard tells us about the German spy in the opening scenes, setting up a situation where the reader knows what’s going on, but the characters don’t. …
The packaging of the Galaxy editions is uniformly excellent. The covers feature illustrations taken from the pulps of the period; the pages, like those of the old magazines, are unevenly cut, giving the reader the physical sensation of paging through a pulp magazine. Each book offers a glossary of references that may not be familiar to contemporary readers, and a short biographical essay about L. Ron Hubbard.
All in all, the Galaxy project should open the eyes of genre fans, many who almost surely aren’t aware of Hubbard’s roots as a fiction writer. Even a sampling of Galaxy’s catalog makes it clear that pulp-fiction devotees need to put Hubbard’s works on their must-read lists.
David Pitt is a frequent Booklist contributor.