Typewriter in the Sky: Introduction

by Kevin J. Anderson

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It had been a horrendous six months.

I had written a 500-page “Star Wars” novel (from start to finish in eight weeks), then moved right into an ambitious science fiction novel, the most complex book I had ever attempted (also 500 pages, also done in about two months), then I completed the third novel in a Young Adult series co-written with my wife, and then there were the juvenile science fiction books, the editing of three anthologies, writing comic book scripts, a few short stories….Don’t expect me to keep track of it all.

And here I had always imagined being an author simply entailed wearing cable-knit sweaters and dangling an unlit pipe from one corner of the mouth, all the while waiting to be inspired by the elusive Muse….

Which was why, when the phone rang—the twelfth time that day—I was somewhat daunted by the conversation. It was my friend from Bridge Publications, and he wanted me to write the introduction for a reprint of L. Ron Hubbard’s classic novel Typewriter in the Sky.

I finally got him off the phone by saying, “Just send me a copy of the book, and I’ll read it. If I like it, I might be able to write you something. When is the absolute latest I can turn in the introduction?”

The book arrived before I managed to forget what I had promised, and so I hefted it in my hand, cocked my arm back, and tossed it to the top of my stack of things to read. That evening, as I attempted to dissolve in a hot bath, I leaned back and flipped to page one of Typewriter in the Sky and began to read:

—about a harried writer behind on his deadlines, buried under dozens of projects, and talking as fast as he can to convince his editor that everything is indeed under control, that the blockbuster novel (which he hasn’t even started yet) is well on its way.

Boy, things sure haven’t changed in fifty years!

Right away I knew I was going to enjoy reading this book. Very much, in fact.

Typewriter in the Sky is about Mike de Wolf, friend of the popular pulp fiction writer Horace Hackett, who—through a freak accident—finds himself transported into the pages of Hackett’s swashbuckling work-in-progress…and to his horror finds himself cast as the villain!

Mike, having read most of his friend’s hack fiction, knows full well what a horrible end Horace’s villains always encounter!

Since the original publication of this novel, Mr. Hubbard’s idea has often been emulated. As “The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction,” edited by James Gunn (1988) says, “Typewriter in the Sky, which anticipates plot gimmicks now popular among experimental metafictionists, ought to be taken seriously by the critics who will evaluate his strange genius.” Author Frederik Pohl said much the same: “Fans and other writers were doing variations on that for years.” Most recently, John Carpenter’s film In the Mouth of Madness adds a macabre twist to this idea: horror novelist Sutter Cane has such power in his prose that he was able to rewrite the world according to his own nightmarish visions.

Typewriter in the Sky, though, is a much more exhilarating romp, filled with delightful twists and turns. Mr. Hubbard uses the material to its fullest effect, playing even self-parody to great effect. The snapshots of the New York writing life in the 1940s are pure gems.

The tale of a modern man stranded in a pirate adventure, complete with obvious anachronisms and sloppy details, makes the reader’s head spin. Mike de Wolf comments aloud about his own stilted dialog, how his surroundings blatantly change as the writer pounding on his “typewriter in the sky” remembers belatedly to put in the necessary details.

Once he finally figures out what has happened, Mike must play upon the predictability of Horace’s hackneyed plots to save himself and change the outcome of the story. Meanwhile, outside the story, Horace Hackett himself goes to a bar to commiserate with another pulp fiction writer about how sometimes characters just sort of take on lives of their own! Typewriter in the Sky” is a true masterpiece of the genre, my personal favorite among the L. Ron Hubbard books I have read.

This novel was published in two installments in the November and December 1940 issues of Unknown magazine by the famous science fiction editor, John W. Campbell, Jr. The author had had an intensely productive year in 1940, and Typewriter in the Sky was written under great pressure—but L. Ron Hubbard seemed to work well under pressure.

That same year, within a six-month span, he produced two more of his greatest works, the chilling psychological horror novel Fear (soon to be a major motion picture) and the bleak story of the aftermath of a future war, Final Blackout. (And only months earlier, in July 1939, one of his other favorites, Slaves of Sleep, was published in Unknown magazine.) In short, it was a very good year for vintage L. Ron Hubbard.

At his peak, Mr. Hubbard was astoundingly prolific, publishing 154 novels and short stories—over ten million words—in the decade from 1930 to 1940. With the low pay rates of the day, pulp fiction writers were forced to be prolific or starve—and there was absolutely no question of L. Ron Hubbard starving! He supposedly wrote a hundred words a minute on an electric typewriter on many diverse topics. Following the credo that “a writer writes,” Mr. Hubbard was indeed a writer.

He follows a tradition set by a number of classic authors who wrote quickly and in first-draft form. Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne and Charles Dickens were amazingly prolific, and their works have remained on bookshelves for more than a century. Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” one of the best-loved novels of all time, in a feverish frenzy that lasted only a few days. William Faulkner supposedly wrote his classic “As I Lay Dying” in one weekend and published his first draft without a single editorial change.

L. Ron Hubbard was a very different type of writer from the one-book-per-decade “artistes” whose work was wrenched out with angst and hair-pulling to critical acclaim (one hopes), yet was totally devoid of enjoyment.

Typewriter in the Sky, as I discovered, is a book that remembers how to be fun and entertaining, a pleasure to read instead of a chore.

Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride!

— Kevin J. Anderson