“What is generally missed,” L. Ron Hubbard once remarked, “is that my writing financed research.” Nevertheless and notwithstanding all that ensued from his research, L. Ron Hubbard’s literary legacy is of a stature unto itself. Having published a full fifteen million words between 1929 and 1941, the name L. Ron Hubbard was virtually synonymous with popular fiction through the 1930s and ’40s. In point of fact, as friend and fellow author Frederik Pohl proclaimed: “The instant Ron’s stories appeared on the newsstands, they were part of every fan’s cultural heritage.” And given the volume of Mr. Hubbard’s output through these years—more than two hundred stories and novels spanning all popular genres, including mystery, western, adventure, fantasy, science fiction and even romance—that cultural heritage was indeed rich.
Appropriately, Mr. Hubbard’s primary outlet through these years was the pulps. Named for the pulpwood stock on which they were printed, the pulps were easily the most popular literary publication of their day. In fact, with some 30 million regular readers—a quarter of the American population—their impact was quite unrivaled until the advent of television. But if the pulps were first and foremost a popular vehicle, they were by no means without literary merit. Among others to launch their careers in the likes of Argosy, Astounding Science Fiction, Black Mask and Five-Novels Monthly were Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Heinlein. It was not for nothing, then, that Mr. Hubbard would fondly look back on these “dear old days” to tell of evenings spent with the great Dash Hammett, Edgar “Tarzan” Burroughs and Mr. Pulps himself, Arthur J. Burks. But if Mr. Hubbard would not particularly speak of his own status, it was no less legendary.
“In writing an adventure story a writer has to know that he is adventuring for a lot of people who cannot. The writer has to take them here and there about the globe and show them excitement and love and realism.”
—L. Ron Hubbard
As a matter of fact, recalled Pohl, “Nobody was doing the sort of thing he did any better…colorful, exciting, continually challenging.” The case in point is L. Ron Hubbard’s full-length novel, Buckskin Brigades. Acclaimed as the first work to offer an accurate portrait of the Blackfeet Indians, Buckskin Brigades was all that Pohl described and more. A “decidedly rare type of romance,” declared the New York Times, and pointed to the fact it presented the first real reversal of what comprised a fairly ethnocentric cliché, i.e., the Native American as a murderous savage. Indeed, as Council Members of the Blackfeet Nation were to later declare, “Never have our morals and ethics been presented with such clarity.” Additionally marking Buckskin Brigades as unique is the fact it once again rose to the bestseller lists some fifty years after original publication.
Also generally remarked upon in reference to L. Ron Hubbard’s work through the 1930s was his truly astonishing versatility and rate of production. If one needed a story on a Monday, explained Standard Magazines’ Editor Jack Schiff, one only had to telephone Ron Hubbard on a Friday—and the statement was no exaggeration. With a regular production of some 70,000 to 100,000 words a month, Mr. Hubbard became a king of high-speed production writers (and that at only three days a week and in every imaginable genre).
As a Hollywood screenwriter during this same era, his high-volume production on such films as Columbia’s The Mysterious Pilot and The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok and Warner Brothers’ The Spider Returns is likewise still remembered; and all the more so, inasmuch as L. Ron Hubbard’s The Secret of Treasure Island stands among the most profitable serials of the era. Nor was Mr. Hubbard’s 1937 stint in Hollywood his only contribution to the medium; for, in fact, among his last works through the 1970s and ’80s are several screenplays in a variety of genres.
Yet however varied and prodigious his output, no discussion of L. Ron Hubbard’s role in American fiction is complete without considering his hand in reshaping science fiction and his truly indelible stamp on fantasy.
The year was 1938, and if L. Ron Hubbard was not yet exactly a household name, his byline on the cover of a Thrilling Adventures or Five-Novels Monthly was guaranteed to instantly boost circulation. (The same was also true for a number of L. Ron Hubbard pseudonyms employed to span the various genres.) Hoping to capitalize on precisely that popularity, publishing giant Street & Smith enlisted Mr. Hubbard to imbue their newly acquired Astounding Science Fiction with a touch of literary excellence. Although not particularly familiar with the genre, Mr. Hubbard was nonetheless intrigued with the proposal. Whereas Astounding had previously focused on improbable machinery—spaceships, ray guns and robots—Street & Smith decreed the magazine must take a more human turn with fully realized characters, i.e., “real people.”
The result was a body of fiction to forever live in the canon of speculative fiction. To cite but one seminal classic, there was L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout, which Robert Heinlein declared to be “as perfect a piece of science fiction as has ever been written.” Also from this arrangement with Street & Smith came L. Ron Hubbard’s foray into the fantasy genre and his landmark work of the era, Fear. Drawn from his ethnological research, Fear tells of a clash between science and superstition that eventually led horror master Stephen King to call it “One of the few books in the chiller genre which actually merits employment of the overworked adjective ‘classic,’ as in ‘This is a classic tale of creeping, surreal menace and horror.’”
Fear, however, was by no means the only L. Ron Hubbard work to merit that classic adjective. After a thirty-year absence from fiction to devote himself to the development of Dianetics and Scientology, and in celebration of his 50th year as a professional writer, Mr. Hubbard returned in the 1980s with two monumental works: Battlefield Earth, science fiction’s largest single-volume epic and the ten-volume, 1.2 million word Mission Earth.
Heralded as a “huge, rollicking saga,” with what A. E. van Vogt called “the great pulp music in every line,” Battlefield Earth is a novel of legendary proportions and still remains among the bestselling titles in science fiction history. Moreover, it was the first bestseller of the genre in more than a decade and continued riding the lists for a phenomenal eight months after original publication. As such, it was rightly credited with returning science fiction to the forefront of popular literature and otherwise stands as an unqualified landmark. Accordingly, it earned the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films’ Golden Scroll Award as well as the Academy’s Saturn Award. The work was additionally honored with Italy’s Tetradramma d’Oro Award (for the story’s inherent message of peace) and a special Gutenberg Award as an exceptional contribution to the genre.
No less acclaimed was the ten-volume Mission Earth series earning the Cosmos 2000 Award from French readers and the Nova Science Fiction Award from Italy’s National Committee for Science Fiction and Fantasy (a particular honor inasmuch as Mr. Hubbard was the first non-Italian to receive the award). The series is also remembered for the fact each and every volume immediately rose to international bestseller lists—an unmatched feat in publishing history.
But even so, the later novels of L. Ron Hubbard continued making history. Battlefield Earth, for example, repeatedly returned to bestseller lists and was latterly voted among the top three hundred best English-language novels of the last hundred years. Moreover, along with his works of nonfiction, no less than thirty L. Ron Hubbard titles consecutively appeared on international bestseller lists in the 1980s and 1990s—yet another feat unmatched in the annals of publishing history. Both Mission Earth and Battlefield Earth further stand as model works for creative writing in numerous colleges and universities; while L. Ron Hubbard himself now stands among the most widely read authors of this or any other age.