Author built controversial church

L. Ron Hubbard's writing on Dianetics first appeared in a pulp science-fiction magazine

The Globe and Mail, May 12, 2000
By Egle Procuta

Toronto -- In 1950, L. Ron Hubbard was an obscure 39-year-old writer pumping out pulp fiction from a New Jersey beach town for magazines like Astounding Science Fiction. That was where, 50 years ago this month, he published an article that changed his life, and several million others.

Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science was a massive pseudo-scientific treatise on how individuals should use a self-help, confessional process to cleanse themselves of irrational fears and reach their full potential.

Dianetics became the cornerstone of the controversial Church of Scientology. With claims of about 100,000 members in Canada and millions around the world -- including celebrity followers such as John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Lisa Marie Presley -- some see it as a legitimate religious philosophy.

Hubbard's first book on Dianetics was published the same month. This month, Scientologists have been celebrating the milestone around the world. But many of them aren't aware of its unusual origins in a science-fiction magazine.

"There is no link between Scientology and science fiction," said Janet Laveau, president of the Toronto chapter of the church.

That's not the view of some observers, who believe that the sci-fi elements of Hubbard's work permeate Scientology's teachings.

"It would not surprise me that lower-level members [of the church] aren't interested in science fiction," said Stephen Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta. But, he added, the Church's upper echelons support Hubbard's own conviction that his writing about intergalactic battles and space aliens are an integral part of Scientology.

In fact, Kent believes that today's release of the movie version of Hubbard's sci-fi epic Battlefield Earth -- produced by and starring Hubbard devotee Travolta -- might bring the links between science fiction and Scientology into focus.

"The movie is not directly a Scientology recruitment tool, but Scientologists hope its presence in the popular culture will raise Hubbard's image and curiosity about his other work," Kent said. "The risk is that it will raise the public's awareness of the science-fiction elements in Scientology's philosophy."

Before penning his theories about Dianetics, Hubbard was a prolific fiction writer in many genres, including science fiction, Westerns and adventures, said Robert Sawyer, an award-winning Canadian author who, in the mid-1990s, wrote two serialized novels for the magazine that published Hubbard's work. (The name had been changed from Astounding Science Fiction to Analog.)

In the days before television, "reading pulp magazines was what people did for entertainment," Sawyer said. "Good, prolific writers could make a living [writing pulp fiction], but there weren't enough science-fiction magazines, so they worked in many fields."

Starting in 1939, Hubbard developed a close working relationship with Astounding's editor John Campbell Jr. Astounding Science Fiction was famous for the lively debates among readers in its letters column. When Hubbard's article first came out, the publication's New York office was flooded with about 4,000 letters reacting to Dianetics -- both in favour and against it. As the church began to grow, Hubbard's attention naturally moved away from writing sci-fi. But his return to the genre shortly before his death in 1986 included the novel Battlefield Earth.

Nowadays, some Scientologists are still drawn to Hubbard's roots as a sci-fi writer, said Montreal church member Jean Larivière. "There's a certain curiosity [about that] because we respect Hubbard," he said. "But there are also Scientologists who aren't at all interested in science fiction."

Nevertheless, Larivière added, it's a happy circumstance that the principles of Scientology were first published in a best-selling sci-fi magazine whose popularity might have contributed to the growth of the church.

Not all science-fiction aficionados agree that these historical links are a good thing. And, Sawyer said, many of them won't be marking the golden anniversary of Hubbard's article on Dianetics.

"It's not being celebrated at all in the sci-fi community," he said. The connection between science fiction and Scientology is "an unfortunate historical accident."

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