L. Ron Hubbard is a figure of endless fascination, what with the whole “founding an insane religion that has somehow got its grips on a surprisingly large portion of Hollywood” thing. In a new piece for Longreads, author Alec Nevala-Lee digs into a lesser explored side of Hubbard’s life: his work as a writer. Nevala-Lee takes an impressively close look at Hubbard’s literary output, though even he admits he can’t make it through all 10 parts of Hubbard’s Mission Earth series. But he charts Hubbard’s rise from disinterested pulp writer to religious cult leader whose short story about a galactic dictator named Xenu has become literal dogma for his worshipers.
Hubbard began working as a pulp writer in the 1930s, churning out a huge amount of writing in order to earn a living. But though the rise of Scientology has firmly associated Hubbard with science fiction, Nevala-Lee notes that Hubbard was never really a sci-fi fan. In fact, most of his published stories were adventures or Westerns, and he wrote sci-fi solely because he knew it would sell. Nevala-Lee explains:
If Hubbard didn’t like the genre and wrote it mostly for the money, it makes it harder to dismiss him, as many of his critics do, as a science fiction writer who was carried away by his own imagination. It would be more accurate to say that it was the other way around. Hubbard churned out science fiction to meet the demands of his editors, and he built a religion around it because it appealed to his initial circle of followers, many of whom were fans who had first encountered his work in magazines like Astounding. He didn’t choose his disciples; they chose him. And he told them what they wanted to hear until he was transformed in the process.
Nevala-Lee’s piece also digs into Hubbard’s relationship with editor and Dianetics co-developer John W. Campbell Jr., Hubbard’s erratic behavior during World War II (he attacked two nonexistent submarines off the coast of Oregon and fired in Mexican waters without authorization), and his actual talent as a writer. The article is also filled with quirky details about Scientology, like the fact that Scientologists aim to preserve Hubbard’s writing forever by carving it into steel, encasing it in titanium capsules filled with argon gas, and placing those capsules in an underground vault designed to withstand a nuclear blast.