Astounding Stories #5: Death’s Deputy and Final Blackout
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here.
Of all the millions of words that have been written about and by L. Ron Hubbard, the one observation that I always try to keep in mind appears in Going Clear by Lawrence Wright:
The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man: an explorer, a best-selling author, and the founder of a worldwide religious movement. The tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man. Hubbard himself seemed to revolve on this same axis, constantly inflating his actual accomplishments in a manner that was rather easy for his critics to puncture. But to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling to the many thousands who followed him and the millions who read his work. One would also have to ignore his life’s labor in creating the intricately detailed epistemology that has pulled so many into its net—including, most prominently, Hubbard himself.
This is a carefully worded and closely reasoned passage from an excellent book, and I think it’s fundamentally correct. And it’s very tempting to believe that the same holds true for Hubbard’s science fiction: that he was a major author whose undeniable accomplishments have been overshadowed by what he later became.
Unfortunately, this is only half true. As I’ve gone back to read all of Hubbard’s stories from Astounding and Unknown, I’ve been struck by two points. The first is the relatively small percentage of his total output that science fiction represents, although he’s invariably categorized as a science fiction writer; the second is how indifferent he often seems to the genre itself. Hubbard’s earliest works for Campbell, like “The Dangerous Dimension” and “The Tramp,” are comic fantasies iced with the lightest imaginable frosting of scientific jargon, and subsequent efforts like “General Swamp, C.I.C.” are straight military or naval fiction that could be transferred from Venus to Earth with a minimum of revision. He wasn’t the only author to write something else and call it science fiction, of course, but Hubbard has a palpable lack of interest in even maintaining the illusion. (Later stories like “The Kilkenny Cats” are written with what feels like a vein of genuine contempt for the genre’s conventions, and it isn’t until the Ole Doc Methuselah series, almost a decade down the line, that we find Hubbard writing it with anything like affection.) He was always more suited for fantasy, and his stories for Unknown are something else: undeniably dated, but written with real energy and enthusiasm. Reading any of his early Astounding stories followed by Slaves of Sleep reminds you of the difference between an author who is just going through the motions and one who is tickled by his own plot. And the half dozen short novels that he wrote for Unknown—along with one really nice, nasty shorter story, “Borrowed Glory”—are still fun and readable, although of limited interest to anyone who isn’t already a hardcore fan.
There are two exceptions. One is Death’s Deputy, a surprisingly superb short fantasy novel that first appeared in Unknown in 1940. Its hero is a pilot in the Canadian Air Force who is shot down over France, only to be saved by the intervention of a supernatural entity who later introduces himself as Destruction Incarnate. After refusing to serve him, the pilot is returned to the world of the living, where he finds that he’s become both unbelievably lucky and a curse to the people around him, who tend to die gruesome deaths that anticipate Final Destination. It’s inventive, vividly written, and enriched by what feels like Hubbard’s real interest in the subject—qualities that so much of his other fiction lacks. The other exception is Final Blackout, usually regarded as his single best novel, which was published two months later in Astounding. It follows a mythic figure known only as the Lieutenant as he leads a brigade of soldiers through a Europe devastated by decades of plague and nuclear war. They engage in small, meaningless skirmishes with the pockets of enemy troops they encounter, treating the rival officers with mutual respect while scavenging for food and supplies. The Lieutenant himself is so effective and beloved that he becomes a threat to the few remaining generals, who recall him to headquarters to be relieved of command. From there, events rapidly escalate into a conflict with global consequences, all of it narrated with an understated professionalism, even eloquence, that is utterly unlike Hubbard’s usual style. Of all his stories, it’s the one on which he imposes himself the least, and the only one in which he seems personally curious about what happens next.
And I’m not sure where it came from. The two novels appeared almost back to back, after a six-month break in which Hubbard published only one short story for Campbell, at a time when he was engaged in a fruitless effort to get a job with the War Department. And both narratives are obviously influenced by the situation in Europe, lending them a tone of fundamental seriousness that is rarely in evidence elsewhere in his work—which is fortunate, because his sense of humor hasn’t aged well. Before long, in stories like “The Professor was a Thief” and The Indigestible Triton, he would be back in his usual groove, alternating between science fiction that doesn’t seem to have interested even its author and engaging fantasy that only completists should bother to read today. (Two of the novels from this period, Typewriter in the Sky and Fear, are sometimes still regarded with respect, but both are uneven stories with ideas that would have been better developed at half the length, although the latter has a good twist ending.) But Final Blackout is powerful, and Death’s Deputy is a real find, which makes it all the more inexplicable that Galaxy Press, which otherwise seems determined to publish every last piece of pulp that Hubbard ever wrote, hasn’t bothered to release it. After the war, Hubbard would go on to write The End is Not Yet, an agonizingly sincere serial that Campbell later said he agreed to publish mostly out of pity—but by then, we’re deep into the next act of his life, which would culminate in Dianetics. In some ways, it’s the solution to the mystery with which this post began: Hubbard is remembered as a major science fiction author because dianetics made its debut in Astounding, not the other way around. And that’s a twist that even Hubbard himself might not have seen coming.