Strange Vibrations

The most controversial item on the Conspiracy '87 fan programme was a tendentiously titled panel: "Why Have The Americans Hijacked The Worldcon?" Several spoof versions of the panel name were soon going the rounds, the most durable and most productive of glum nods being, "Why Has L. RON HUBBARD Hijacked The Worldcon?"

How was it that a World SF Convention held in Britain, where Hubbard has never been taken seriously, became so saturated with hype for this essentially minor author? And how, conversely, did the biggest publicity operation ever seen in British SF fall so flat on its face?

Let's go back a few years. I have a rather peculiar relationship with Hubbard's later works: reporting on or reviewing them is somehow never simple. Battlefield Earth has a tortuous publishing history, with St Martin's Press (USA) dropping it despite alleged huge sales, and New English Library (UK) taking the very unusual step of cancelling publication after they'd circulated proofs to reviewers. Mildly interesting items for an SF newsletter? When I reported NEL's change of mind in Ansible, there were surprisingly strong reactions from people who went on about evil, prejudiced Langford running down a fine book just because he hated Scientology. [1]

"But," I protested, "I carefully didn't say anything about the book's content, because I haven't yet read it...."

"Aha! He admits it!" was the approximate response from one source. "He doesn't even read books before attacking them!"

In due course Battlefield Earth crashed through the letter box, and I made a point of reading every word -- expecting a fast-moving piece of trashy fun, along the lines of Hubbard's early stuff. I was deeply disappointed by the glacial pace, the windy vacuity, the bone-rattling clichés, the scientific codswallop, the self-congratulatory "this is real SF" introduction, etc. I said as much in a partly humorous, knockabout review: and again there were complaints that this was all a display of wicked anti-Scientological prejudice.

Other negative reviews I've written have provoked people to tell me that I'm too "mainstream" to enjoy escapism, too fond of fun to appreciate total humourlessness, or too lowbrow to swing with post-structuralism. Only with Hubbard was my critical integrity at once challenged. (It could be cattily suggested that to some at least of his supporters, Hubbard's wonderfulness is such an article of faith that no other reaction is possible. [2] ) I developed what you might call a mild, informed prejudice: that Hubbard meant trouble.

This was slightly reinforced at the 1984 British Easter SF Convention, when Fred Harris of Author Services Inc (an organization with seemingly limitless funds for the promotion of L. RON HUBBARD) took me very seriously aside and asked searching questions about the depth of my supposed Scientology prejudice ... a strangely off-key thing for a publicist to do. Later, having presumably discovered that that unfavourable Hubbard review was one of the several from which I'd cobbled together my talk for that very convention [3], he actually rang from Los Angeles and insisted on knowing why I hadn't liked the book. Again, off-key. Trouble?

I didn't feel worried. Battlefield Earth had been such a let-down that (as with a few other authors) I'd already decided I wouldn't bother reading any future works by Hubbard. No reviews; no trouble.

Until Conspiracy '87, the 45th World SF Convention....

"Oh God!" I kept hearing fans say as they discovered the pocket programme book -- L. RON HUBBARD's Pocket Programme of the Future, as many insisted on calling it. The sponsored cover picture came from The Invaders Plan, first of a posthumous, ten-book Hubbard series. "Image of fascism," was frequently muttered (a big green fist with a spiked bracelet, clenched around the Earth); but what irritated was that it looked so cheap, so unstylish, a symbol of all that's old and hackneyed and bad about SF -- as opposed to Jim Burns's lovely and very 1980s Souvenir Book cover. And one couldn't get away from this naff thing for the five days of the Worldcon.

A minor irritation, perhaps, but a constant one.

Then there was L. RON HUBBARD'S (in very big letters) Writers of the Future Contest: a flyer riding with Conspiracy Progress Report 4, five full pages in the infamous pocket programme, an enclosure full of "name" authors poised to dispense wisdom from the best spot in the Dealers' Room (next to the bar entrance), and posters without number.

Here one's reactions are more confused, since at first glance it surely must be a good idea to encourage new authors. Yet the young authors were such a tiny part of the scene. We had the omni-dominant banners of HUBBARD and HUBBARD and HUBBARD again, and beneath this holy name the archangels and angels, the thrones and dominations and powers -- established living authors who for one reason or another had lent their names and images, and who were endlessly touted as endorsing it all, and somehow through a shimmer of publicity the chief though never stated message seemed to be that they're endorsing L. RON HUBBARD, good old L. RON HUBBARD himself, grand master of everything, rehabilitated at last! While as for the aspiring writers of the future, the ostensible raison d'etre of the whole circus ... amidst all the self-congratulatory glitter and hype they faded to invisibility.

Ah, Langford, you're just prejudiced. But it's an ambiguous business. Will the patronage and the established luminaries add lustre to the name of Hubbard; or will that name (hardly in the past an entrée to the topmost ranks of SF, or anywhere else) ultimately diminish those who march under it as well-meaning mercenaries?

Meanwhile, the constant repetition of L. RON HUBBARD all over the convention did somehow chafe. It was a question of taste. Wall-to-wall publicity on this scale (especially for someone we cannot take seriously as a writer) is alien to the frugal British. Perhaps one should grit one's teeth. It is just the American Way.

After what the fans called L. RON HUBBARD'S Masquerade (at which, I was told by anguished watchers, endless costumes were announced as competing in the category sponsored by New Era and Bridge [4], thanks to L. RON HUBBARD), I met Ross Pavlac. He had chaired the 1982 Chicago Worldcon and had felt pretty bad about the Hubbard crew's attempts to buy the whole event for Battlefield Earth publicity. He also passed disparaging remarks about similar mega-publicity efforts by Lucasfilms. He had, he said, never seen anything like the Author Services/New Era/L. RON HUBBARD "takeover" (his word) of a convention's image. He was surprised and dismayed that the British had accepted an operation so much more blatant than the equivalent Author Services performances in America.

Many of the British had also been surprised and dismayed. The irritation level went up another degree or so, but by and large I stayed out of the way: in the fan suite, doing my bonhomous duty as a fan guest. This included listening to an awful lot of rude jokes and bitchy remarks about Writers of the Future and L. RON HUBBARD. The relentless over-publicization had so far succeeded in converting Hubbard from a minor curiosity into a fair-sized annoyance. Great work, Author Services Inc.

Came the Hugo ceremony ... and here my viewpoint is very much more personal. I was nominated for a couple of Hugos, and sat in the front row telling myself I was going to be very cool and calm about it. One shouldn't take awards that seriously. So there I was coated in clammy sweat, twitching a little as spurts of adrenalin hit the bloodstream, forcing myself to breathe from time to time: and suddenly everything halted.

Why was famous SF person Algis Budrys standing up there, droning on about how wonderful it was that that fine fellow Ramsey Campbell had signed up for the next wave of expansion of L. RON HUBBARD'S bloody Writers of the Future? Was he never going to stop? Why had the committee let him up there at all?

(A good question; clearly the convention committee had to some extent lost control. [5] It was later asserted that Mr Budrys did promise beforehand not to drag in the name of L. RON HUBBARD, nor that of New Era, nor to go on for more than a few sentences. But I believe he has a different version of events.)

It having thus been established that this was L. RON HUBBARD's Hugo Ceremony, the presentations went on much as usual: except that Algis Budrys's words of hype had been the last straw for many fans who already felt -- with what justice I do not know, since I have no intention of reading it [6] -- that the Hugos' credibility had been damaged by the debated presence of Hubbard's Black Genesis on the novel shortlist. When Gene Wolfe read out the name of that nominee, large sections of the audience booed. ("Shame on you," said Wolfe; with, some observers insisted, a twinkle in his eye.)

From a name that fans merely made bitchy jokes about, Author Services Inc had now promoted L. RON HUBBARD to the point where he was openly booed at the Worldcon's major event. There's publicity for you.

I suppose I should have smelt a rat when after posing with the other Hugo winners for innumerable photographs right there in the main hall, the word went round about an "official" photo call. Up, up, up; and it was the Skyline Restaurant, with a beaming Fred Harris welcoming us to the New Era party and saying -- to me, personally -- something about how glad he was that I'd "come in out of the fog at last". This nearly drove me straight back out again, but I am a fairly polite little fan and tagged along after Brian Aldiss....

Looking round at the saturation level of L. RON HUBBARD publicity in this inner sanctum, Brian said something like, "My God, we've just won the L. RON HUBBARD Awards, formerly the Hugos!"

Possibly as an after-effect of the recent adrenalin rush, I thought this excruciatingly funny. So, later, when I'd had a camera pointed at me by some extremely clean-cut young men, I plagiarized the line as a wry parting joke which (I dimly thought) couldn't possibly give offence, even here. The effect was curiously disturbing. The former smiles became fixed and glassy, the local temperature seemed to drop several degrees, and I was told in very level tones to "Take it easy ... take it easy ... have a nice party."

After I'd left, it occurred to me that I couldn't imagine getting anything like that reaction by making a joke (even a much ruder one) about any other author at a party run by any other publisher I know. Again: there is something different about the L. RON HUBBARD crowd. The tiniest snigger at any of their doings merely indicates that the person responsible is suspect -- a troublemaker.

Of course I may be exaggerating minutiae observed in the feverish aftermath of the Hugo presentations. But the little ratchet of tension and irritation had clicked up another notch ... especially when the world came back into clear focus and I started to feel I'd been manipulated. The "official photo call" ruse had sucked up my own small moment of glory into that omnipresent publicity machine.

By the final day, Monday, it seemed that a large number of fans had become similarly, cumulatively bothered by the grotesque scale of the L. RON HUBBARD promotions. They were still joking, but with much nastier overtones. Algis Budrys had helped tip the balance, with his tedious remarks usurping prime time at the Convention's "central event". Yes, I actually heard the phrases "central event" and "major event" in this context, from fans whose normal reaction to the Hugos is a giggle. Annoyance has reached a remarkable level when it overcomes the British pose of Total Cool about such things. American fans and professionals were likewise muttering in corners. Appalling anecdotes were swapped ("Did you know that when X was President of SFWA he got a call from Author Services Inc asking how much it would cost to buy L. RON HUBBARD a SFWA Grand Master award?"): however exaggerated or fictitious, they revealed the temper of the convention by the readiness with which they were believed.

I don't think Author Services ever quite comprehended the Brits' snobbish preference for understatement, subtlety and humour in advertising. Certainly their Conspiracy '87 splurge was utterly devoid of all three. Perhaps, in the end, Fred Harris did begin to see what went wrong.

This brings us to the infamous SFWA party on Monday night -- with apologies again to mine host, Ian Watson. I have nothing to be proud of. My only excuses for becoming extremely off-sober were release of tension (I'd finally got through my last and most worrying programme item) and trying to keep up with Bob Shaw. It is not my normal practice, however provoked by people droning on about him, to pronounce distinctly and publicly the words "Oh, fuck L. RON HUBBARD!"

This led to a brief and mutually rewarding exchange of hurled drinks with Fred Harris (he had first go, but my glass was much fuller), and rather embarrassingly to fulsome congratulations from innumerable fans, authors, editors and agents throughout the rest of the week. Their response might indicate Author Services' popularity, but I think they all missed the point.

That night, smiling Fred Harris finally lost his own cool. (Interested bystanders tell me that amongst the phrases he gabbled and I didn't quite catch were, "You're all washed up, Langford!" and "You'll never work in this field again!") At the risk of repeating myself, I note that it's an unexpected reaction from a professional publicist who must once or twice before have heard some unflattering words about his late client. Again, things are different in Hubbard country. But consider ...

For five days his organization, fuelled by the limitless coffers of wherever, had hurled vast gobs of money at British fandom to glorify L. RON HUBBARD; and by the end of it all, Hubbard's name was just a bad joke.

Even the vaguely charitable, "public service" flavour of the basic Writers of the Future idea seemed at the time to go sour -- thrown into a new light, by relentless over-exposure of THAT NAME, as another though subtler aspect of this attempt to buy posthumous SF acceptance at any price.

I think that at the close of Conspiracy, picking up the vibrations from all around him, Fred Harris realized this ... and almost, one can sympathize.

Meanwhile, I rather suspect that I've blown my last chance to become a Writer of the Future. To be honest, each contact with Author Services and its doings has left me feeling increasingly negative about them and the things they promote: without being a particularly sensitive person, I kept running into these alien reactions, the false notes mentioned above. [7]

Why? Fandom, ever ready to leap to conclusions, offers an easy answer: "Ah, they're all Scientologists, so any criticism of Hubbard sets them off because it's blasphemy." I wouldn't know. (Though paranoid defensiveness does certainly seem characteristic of the Scientology organization.) There are other possibilities. The Author Services Inc people might have a huge chip on their collective shoulder because they know their efforts are liable to attract just this dismissal -- or because they chafe at the repressed knowledge that their promotion of L. RON HUBBARD as a great writer is in the last analysis absurd.

Without needing to pick and choose between these or other causes for the organization's ways, I know I want nothing to do with Writers of the Future. As an author and critic, I value my independent judgement: with my sincerely held opinion of Battlefield Earth and my general inability to keep my big mouth shut, I cannot get involved with people who go icy-cold at the merest hint that this trash is not an SF masterpiece. Meanwhile, as a science fiction fan, I value my independent sense of humour. I refuse to accept that (as implied in certain Author Services reactions noted above) there are secrets of the universe, such as L. RON HUBBARD, about which one may not make jokes.

Prejudice? Yes indeed. In all these little ways, Author Services Inc has resolutely managed to prejudice me. Further misgivings arise from my quite honest efforts to research L. RON HUBBARD himself and find whether he's as black as he's painted. These researches consistently imply that the final line of Hubbard's Times obituary was a delicate understatement: "He was not a nice man."

If I were a beginning writer, I'd think more than twice before associating myself with that name.


The Footnotes

  1. Concerning prejudice.... There's plenty of weird and worrying reportage of Scientology to be had, the bitterest diatribes usually coming from ex-Scientologists. It's hard for laymen to decide how much has changed since the bad old days. Is Hubbard's dismayingly paranoid and misogynistic Dianetics (1950) still a central text, or have things -- as one hopes -- moved on a bit? This isn't relevant to a critique of Battlefield Earth, but assumes some importance if you take the not uncommon view that Hubbard's name smells and the sole purpose of Author Services Inc is to sanitize it.
  2. "It is in the uncompromisingness with which dogma is held and not in the dogma or want of dogma that the danger lies." Samuel Butler, 1902.
  3. "The Dragonhiker's Guide to Battlefield Covenant at Dune's Edge: Odyssey Two", published in Dave Wood's fanzine Xyster (1984) and most recently reprinted in the Langford booklet Platen Stories, a collection of articles published by Conspiracy '87. [1997: also Let's Hear It For The Deaf Man (NESFA Press, 1992) and its expansion The Silence of the Langford (1996).]
  4. New Era Publications UK Ltd is the publishing house responsible for the Hubbard "dekalogy" (the term "vanity press" is being strenuously resisted in this article) and the Writers of the Future anthologies. The Bridge imprint is the American equivalent. • By a funny coincidence, New Era also publishes such works as Hubbard's Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, for which I have just received a new stack of sales literature. The historically-minded may remember that Dianetics was the early name for what become Scientology. • By another funny coincidence, many fans reported being approached on the Brighton seafront by people with clipboards, who asked questions about whether one was satisfied with one's present self, and whether one had heard of Dianetics.... • A note on scale: it is not unknown for Masquerade categories to be sponsored, or for flyers to go out with progress reports, or for multi-page ads to appear in convention publications, or for shiny four-colour pocket programme covers to be paid for, or for Dealers' Room stands to be hired, or for SF events to be papered with glossy promotional literature, or for lavish parties to be thrown. But doing all these things and more does smack of excess.
  5. Thanks to the combination of a lack of sponsorship co-ordination, the usual deadly fear of making a loss, and at least one disaster late in the day (previous arrangements for the Pocket Programme cover had fallen through), even the Conspiracy '87 committee found itself dismayed by the huge preponderance of L. RON HUBBARD advertising. Presumably it's difficult to say No when the representative of an outfit which has pumped large sums of money into the Worldcon asks for permission to make a "harmless" announcement. • The convention, I gather, just about broke even. • The committee did manage to resist a pre-convention attempt to arrange for the paid circularization of all members with flyers urging them to vote Black Genesis a Hugo ... but obviously it's possible to point the finger of censure at them for accepting (by some accounts, canvassing for) the overpublicization. Since everyone seems to agree that the publicity splurge went beyond excess into counterproductive overkill, one wonders how and why Author Services professionals allowed themselves to be lured on to their doom.
  6. What I've been reading is Russell Miller's Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard -- a fascinating book which incidentally reveals that I'm not the only one to find Hubbard's latest works uninviting. "A.E.van Vogt, whose endorsement of [Battlefield Earth] appeared prominently on the cover, later confessed that he had been daunted by its size and had not actually bothered to read it."
  7. I have omitted a minor encounter or two, in which politesse prevailed and that odd, characteristic sense of strain was (though present) less tersely describable.