Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Arthur J. Burks

Tales from the pulp jungle

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In 1934, a young man named Frank Gruber moved from Illinois to New York City, where he took up residence at the Forty-Fourth Street Hotel in Times Square. In his memoir The Pulp Jungle, Gruber described the hotel’s usual clientele as consisting of “broken-down actors, starving actors, hungry vaudevillians, wrestlers, poor opera singers, touts, bookies, sharpies, hungry actors, no, I said that before, and all around no-goods and deadbeats. And one hungry, would be writer.” Like Robert A. Heinlein, his slightly younger contemporary, Gruber had grown up entranced by the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger, although he later said that he had come away from those novels with the wrong message:

Virtually all of the Horatio Alger, Jr. books have the same theme—they tell how poor boys became rich. The theme inspired three generations of Americans. Alas! The reading of the Alger books did not instill in me the ambition to become a rich businessman. No, the books inspired me to become a writer, to write books like those of Horatio Alger, Jr.

Gruber, like Heinlein, had been impressed by the example of pulp legend Jack Woodford, and by the age of twenty-three, he had accumulated a stack of rejection slips from dozens of publications, ranging from The Saturday Evening Post to what Gruber considered “the lowest form of writing”—the Sunday School papers. Finally, after a period in which he had as many as forty submissions out for consideration at any one time, he sold a story, “The Two-Dollar Raise,” for three dollars and fifty cents. Gruber recalled his sense of elation: “I had made it.”

After a stint as an editor for a series of farm papers in the Midwest, Gruber moved to New York to try breaking into the pulps. He estimated that the trip would take two or three weeks, but it lasted for seven months. Soon after his arrival, he met the prolific Arthur J. Burks, who offered him some useful advice: “The life of a pulp writer is seven years. At the end of seven years you’ve got to go on to better writing, or go downhill.” Gruber took his words to heart, and he soon learned the everyday survival skills that most aspiring writers are forced to master. As he wrote decades later:

I had “tomato soup” at the Automat on Broadway at least once a day. The Automat restaurants, which are peculiar to the East, are just what the name implies. You get a flock of nickels from the cashier, then go down the battery of little cubicles, inside of which repose the articles of food that appeal to you…So this is how the famous Automat tomato soup came into being. You got a bowl intended for soup, went over to the hot water nozzle and filled up your own. You sidled along to where you got the soup and picked up a couple of glassine bags of crackers (free), supposedly to go with the soup. You now went to one of the tables, sat down and crumbled the crackers into the hot water. Every table had a bottle of ketchup. You emptied about half of the ketchup into the hot water and cracker mixture. Presto—tomato soup!

Gruber continued: “Cost? Nothing. I sometimes had tomato soup four or five times a day.” And he admitted elsewhere that there were stretches when he ate nothing else for three days at a time.

At last, Gruber got his break, after writing five thousand words overnight to fill a gap in the pulp magazine Operator #5, and he became a reliable contributor to the detective and mystery titles, as well as a member of an association of pulp writers called the American Fiction Guild. He wrote a few stories for Weird Tales, along with a much later effort for Fantasy & Science Fiction, but he was never particularly close to the science fiction crowd, with whom he claimed to have waged “a cold war…that exists, to a degree, to this very day.” Gruber was friends with Mort Weisinger, the editor who would later play a significant role in the development of Superman. One day, Gruber got into an argument with Weisinger and the agent Julius Schwartz about what was then known as “pseudoscience fiction,” which encompassed science fiction, horror, and fantasy. Gruber remembered:

In the heat of the discussion I made the statement that all pseudoscience writers were weirdies [sic]. I was roundly denounced by both Mort and Julius and in the ensuing melee I came out with the flat declaration that I could pick out a pseudoscience writer in a roomful of people. Mort promptly challenged me. J. Hamilton Edwards was in New York from his home upstate and would be at the American Fiction Guild. Mort had ten dollars that said I could not pick J. Hamilton Edwards out of the crowd on sight.

Gruber took him up on the bet, which he reduced from ten dollars to two, and they went to lunch. Looking around the room, Gruber saw a writer “with buck teeth as big as those of Clement Attlee’s son-in-law.” He confidently identified him as J. Hamilton Edwards—and he was right. (“Edwards” was really the writer Edmond Hamilton, and he eventually got his teeth fixed.) Gruber recalled: “The story got around and the science fiction writers still hate me.”

The anecdote hints at the divide, which may have been more apparent than real, between the different circles of pulp writers, of whom Gruber wrote elsewhere: “A writer spends so many hours inventing adventures for his fictional characters that he sometimes confuses fiction and fact. He begins to think that he has lived some of the adventures of which he has written.” (Much later, S.I. Hayakawa made a similar observation: “If the writer of science-fiction writes too much of it too fast and too glibly…he may eventually succeed in concealing the distinction between his facts and his imaginings from himself.”) As an example, he mentions another aspiring author at the Fourth-Fourth Street Hotel, who often spent time in Gruber’s room with Weisinger and the writers Jack Reardon and Steve Fisher. One evening, this writer was bragging about his own exploits: “He had been in the United States Marines for seven years, he had been an explorer on the upper Amazon for four years, he’d been a white hunter in Africa for three years.” Gruber quietly took a few notes, and later in the conversation, he asked his friend: “You’re eighty-four years old, aren’t you?” When the writer protested that he was only twenty-six, Gruber showed his work:

I read from my notes. “Well, you were in the Marines seven years, you were a civil engineer for six years, you spent four years in Brazil, three in Africa, you barnstormed with your own flying circus for six years…I’ve just added up all the years you did this and that and it comes to eighty-four years.”

Gruber concluded: “The writer blew his stack. I will say this, his extremely vivid imagination earned him a fortune, some years later. He wrote one book that directly and indirectly earned him around half a million dollars in a single year.” It was called Dianetics.

Hubbard and the Little Its

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In his very peculiar memoir Monitors, the pulp writer and occultist Arthur J. Burks shares three significant stories about his friend L. Ron Hubbard. One is the discussion of Hubbard’s supernatural protector, whom I’ve identified elsewhere with Saint Helena; the second is the anecdote about his supposed past life as a pirate; and the third is an incident so strange that I’m frankly not quite sure what to do with it. It all started in the early forties, while Burks, his wife, and their spiritual partner, whom he calls the Dominicana, were staying with some friends on Long Island. One evening, the Dominicana awoke to hear a noise like “a ball being bounced in the sitting room,” along with “big shoes being dragged about the floor.” When they asked their monitor, or spirit guide, what it was, he responded through automatic writing that they were being visited by “kobalds” [sic], or earth spirits:

They are to be attached to you, if you do not object—you always have free will—for some education…Whenever people think, feel, talk, or do anything, there are always invisibles waiting to learn something. They assemble with the speed of thought, as to a great class in school. The difference here is that you know it, and that your pupils are not human…They are of Mongol derivation.

The monitor informed them that the kobalds were “thousands of years, many thousands of years” old; that they would go by the nicknames Blackie and Whitie; and that they were “very small.”

After Burks and the two women returned to New York, the kobalds, who were also known as “the Little Its,” came with them as well, and they had allegedly had an encounter there with Hubbard, whom Burks calls the Redhead:

One afternoon the Redhead walked in on us. We hadn’t seen him since the “appearance” of the kobalds. He was in uniform. He sat on the couch. We waited to see whether he would be aware of The Little Its. Suddenly something in the middle of the bare floor caught his attention. He began to laugh. “What are they?” asked the Redhead. “Little men?”

The fact that Hubbard was “in uniform” points to a period sometime after July 1941, after he had returned from Alaska and succeeded in obtaining a commission in the Navy. Burks continues:

We tried to explain, but he wasn’t listening. He was holding out two forefingers, pointing at each other, but a foot or two apart. We gathered from him that the “little men” were using [his] forefingers as parallel bars. Redhead chucked over The Little Its with great delight, and since he could “understand” them, they sometimes served him as messengers to us.

Hubbard’s involvement in the story ends here, leaving a number of intriguing implications. Jon Atack, the author of the excellent biography A Piece of Blue Sky, has suggested that the Little Its were precursors to the “body thetans” who appear later in Hubbard’s teachings. Their first known appearance is a recording of an auditing session that Hubbard underwent with his new wife, Mary Sue, in April 1952, in which he describes them as invisible entities who have been sent to earth for reeducation: “These things have mutinied, so let’s put ‘em all in one place and lock ‘em on to earth. They gotta stay on earth till we get ‘em straightened out.” (He describes them later as “body holders, horse holders, boot polishers.”) Eventually, he redefined them as the disembodied beings who were blown up in a volcano during the Xenu incident, of which Hubbard wrote:

One’s body is a mass of individual thetans stuck to oneself or to the body. One has to clean them off by running incident II and Incident I. It is a long job, requiring care, patience and good auditing. You are running beings. They respond like any preclear. Some large, some small.

Hubbard went on to explain: “Body thetans are just thetans. When you get rid of one he goes off and possibly squares around, picks up a body or admires daisies.” And while they aren’t exactly the same as the Little Its, the concepts are similar enough that it’s tempting to draw a line from one to the other.

Yet I think that the real takeaway here is less about the specific arrow of influence—which would be hard to demonstrate in any case—than about the general shape of Hubbard’s development. It’s a theme that I don’t emphasize in Astounding, mostly because I got to thinking about it fairly late in the process, but I think it’s helpful for making sense of his career. Hubbard’s life can seem episodic and disorganized, but it had a hidden continuity that even his most diligent biographers have difficulty bringing forward. From the beginning, he was interested in such esoteric figures as Saint Helena and Sir Richard Francis Burton, and regardless of the accuracy of Burks’s recollections, there seems to be little doubt that the two men explored the occult together at length, and that Burks provided Hubbard with much of his mystical vocabulary. (In the “Affirmations,” Hubbard refers repeatedly to the “All Powerful,” which is a term that appears frequently in Monitors.) In this light, Hubbard’s sojourn in Pasadena with the magician and rocket scientist Jack Parsons, which can otherwise seem like a bizarre detour, only represents a return to a line of experimentation that he had explored half a decade earlier. During the development of dianetics, these elements retreated into the background, possibly because of John W. Campbell’s presence, but they returned to the forefront as soon as Hubbard went off on his own, with the addition of space opera themes that he took from his initial circle of followers. The Little Its can best be understood as part of the reservoir of ideas on which Hubbard drew whenever he was running low on inspiration. If the kobalds eventually returned in another form, it was simply because they never left.

Written by nevalalee

May 7, 2018 at 8:43 am

Captain Kidd and the Redhead

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If there was one constant in the very complicated life of L. Ron Hubbard, it’s that he was fascinated by piracy. As a teenager in Helena, Montana, he and his friends dressed up as pirates for the town’s annual Vigilante Day Parade, with earrings made out of brass hoops from his aunt’s curtains, and won the prize for “Most Original Cast”—an award that is still mentioned in his official biographies. In college, he organized the notoriously unsuccessful Caribbean Motion Picture Expedition, an attempt to sail a hired schooner from Baltimore to the West Indies to film pirate scenes for newsreels: “Scenarios will be written on the spot in accordance with the legends of the particular island, and after a thorough research through the ship’s library, which is to include many authoritative books on pirates.” Hubbard’s output as a writer included such stories as Under the Black Ensign, the satirical Typewriter in the Sky, and Murder at Pirate Castle, the latter of which he turned into the Columbia Pictures serial The Secret of Treasure Island, and his fantasies persisted into World War II. After Hubbard was given command of a patrol vessel in Massachusetts, in an assignment that was terminated under unpleasant circumstances, John W. Campbell wrote of his friend and colleague: “He’s got two stripes now, and was soon going somewhere to pick up some command, so he’s back on sea duty, and evidently going to get somewhere near what would really suit his mentality—a chance to be a privateer.” And a few years earlier, in an article titled “Yesterday, You Might Have Been a Pirate,” Hubbard had written:

I am sure that if I had followed the sea two centuries ago I would have drifted into freebooting. Not for the romance of it, nor for the wild life, nor even for the fighting. I am one of the radical rabble who likes a little personal freedom, a fairly good meal and who dislikes punishment. Yes, I would have undoubtedly fallen in with pirates and my heels would have swung, most likely, from some execution dock.

But Hubbard’s identification with the figure of the pirate may have gone even deeper. In Monitors, the very strange memoir that I mentioned here last week, the pulp writer Arthur J. Burks recounts an incident in which a monitor, or spirit guide, told Hubbard—whom Burks calls “Redhead”—about one of his past lives:

“You were once…” Redhead was informed, and the name of a famous pirate of some centuries previous was given to him. To this his first response was a gasp, followed by: “Since I can remember that guy has been my hero. I’ve dug up chanteys that were sung in his time. I’ve assembled material about him. I’ve read books and stories about him, have even prepared radio skits about him. If this is true, I wonder if such self-worship is justified?”

The monitor added: “In the rare books department of the Public Library, in this particular book, is an ancient oil painting of your former self, done by the Big Hero’s painter friend, which you may scan with interest.” On hearing this, Hubbard promptly went to the library, and Burks writes of his response:

He was paler than is normal even for a Redhead when he returned. “I found the rare book,” he said, “and its title is as we have been given. I found the portrait of my former self too. And listen, folks, if I wore the same costume I could pose for that picture myself! It’s my portrait.”

As far as I know, Hubbard never spoke publicly about this past life in particular—although he didn’t hold back from claiming elsewhere to be the reincarnation of Cecil Rhodes. But it’s tempting to identify this pirate with Captain William Kidd. Hubbard alludes to him briefly in an article on the Caribbean Motion Picture expedition that was published by his college newspaper: “According to Hubbard, the strongholds and bivouacs of the Spanish Main have lain neglected and forgotten for centuries, and there has never been a concerted attempt to tear apart the jungles to find the castles of Teach, Morgan, Bonnet, Bluebeard, Kidd, Sharp, Ringrose and l’Olonnais, to name a few.” In the officially sanctioned book The Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard, William J. Widder mentions an unpublished manuscript titled “Shades of Captain Kidd,” in which “a map to Captain Kidd’s legendary treasure on Mona Island leads two U.S. engineers in Puerto Rico to a hidden cache of a vastly different—but dangerously valuable—kind.” As for the painting that Burks mentions, his description matches the portrait of Kidd pictured above by Sir James Thornhill, who, according to the writer Harold T. Wilkins, “either visited the cell in which Captain Kidd was confined in Old Newgate, or drew a sketch when the prisoner was on trial for his life in the Old Bailey court.” (It appears as a plate in Wilkins’s book Captain Kidd and his Skeleton Island, which was published in 1937, or just a few years before Hubbard’s alleged exchange with Burks’s monitor. Wilkins was the author of several books on pirate treasure, as well as the occult, and he certainly seems like an author that Hubbard might have read.) And to my eyes, the Kidd in the portrait does look a little like Hubbard.

And it isn’t hard to see what might have drawn Hubbard to Kidd. Just as he was fascinated by the figure of Saint Helena, who had searched for relics in the Holy Land, he would have been justifiably interested in the only pirate known to have actually buried any treasure. Hubbard returned obsessively to this idea throughout his career, and after founding the Church of Scientology, he reached the point where he could pull others into his delusions. He claimed to have buried gold and diamonds in Africa in his past life as Rhodes, and as Russell Miller writes in Bare-Faced Messiah:

On the south-east coast of Sardinia…Hubbard mustered the crew on the well deck for a briefing. Standing on a hatch cover so that he could be seen, he told them he was on the threshold of achieving an ambition he had cherished for centuries in earlier lives. This was the first lifetime he had been able to build an organization with sufficient resources, money and manpower to tackle the project they were about to undertake. He had accumulated vast wealth in previous lives, he explained, and had buried it in strategic places. The purpose of their present mission was to locate this buried treasure and retrieve it, either with, or without, the cooperation of the authorities.

It led to a treasure hunt throughout the Mediterranean, where members of the Sea Org were deployed to various sites to search with metal detectors. Nothing was ever found, but for Hubbard, the quest may have been its own reward. As he wrote in “Yesterday, You Might Have Been a Pirate”: “I believe the pirate had a reason for existence. I know that if I were sent back into those centuries I would have followed the more comfortable profession. I know the Caribbean to be soft and glamorous and kind, and if I had had to turn pirate to enjoy it, I would have run a Skull and Bones up the truck. And to hell with the Navy!”

Hubbard and the Empress

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One afternoon in the early forties, the pulp writer Arthur J. Burks was seated in the lobby of a publishing firm in New York when he ran into his friend L. Ron Hubbard. The two authors had been close for years—Burks had seen Hubbard’s unpublished manuscript Excalibur, a work on the mind that he later called “the strangest book I ever read”—and their interests ran along similar lines. With the help of his wife and a second woman, Burks had been experimenting with spiritualism, and the three enthusiasts believed that they were in contact with a number of “monitors,” or spirit guides, who spoke by rapping on a table or through automatic writing. When Burks brought Hubbard home that day, it soon became clear that he was a promising addition to their group. In his occult memoir Monitors, Burks recalls of the man whom he calls “Redhead”:

Almost before we were able to explain anything that was happening to us, [Hubbard] told us this: “I was the first flier in the United States to gain a glider pilot’s license. I loved gliders. But sometimes I took too great chances and found myself in difficulties. I shortly learned, though, that when I was in danger, ‘someone’ looked after me. If I was trying to find the ground through the heart of a thunderstorm, and feared a fatal crash, and looked out to see a smiling woman sitting on one of my wings, I knew I would come through. She was always there, and visible, when I knew myself in great trouble.”

The others exchanged meaningful looks, and one of their “monitors” indicated that he had something to say. When Burks’s spiritual partner finished writing the message, it read: “His monitor is a saint. She was a woman. Tell him what has happened so far.”

According to Burks, they spoke with the spirit world for hours, with another guide providing “the name of Redhead’s monitor, together with historical data about her.” When they were unable to find the name in a dictionary, the monitor told one of the women to leaf through the volume with a pencil, which led to this dramatic moment:

Suddenly she stabbed down the pencil, holding several pages. The topmost page told the story. But the name indicated was an entirely different one! It was indeed the name of a saint, about whom much appeared in the big book. And at the very end of the biographical material appeared this line: “Also called…” And that name was that which had been given us, its middle letter holed by the lead pencil point.

Even if we don’t take Burks’s account at face value, we can add it to our limited stock of information about Hubbard’s guardian spirit. Years later, in the secret autobiographical document known as the “Affirmations,” Hubbard provided a few other details, including her name:

The most thrilling thing in your life is your love and consciousness of your Guardian. She materializes for you. You have no doubts of her. She is real. She is always with you. You love her very much. You trust her. You see and hear her. She is not your master. You have a mighty spiritual will of your own. She is an advisor and as such is respected by you. She is wise and worthy and never changes shape…She has copper red hair, long braids, a lovely Venusian face, a white gown belted with jade squares. She wears gold slippers. Thus you see her…Only Flavia Julia and then the All Powerful have opinions worth inclining toward.

Who was Flavia Julia, and what did she mean to Hubbard? There have been a number of efforts to fill in the blanks, beginning with a letter that the author’s friend Jack Parsons wrote to Aleister Crowley: “[Hubbard] describes his Angel as a beautiful winged woman with red hair whom he calls the Empress and who has guided him through his life and saved him many times.” Hubbard’s estranged son later claimed that his father referred to her as Hathor, while the biographer Jon Atack shrewdly associates her with the goddess Diana, whose name had a special significance to Hubbard. (He named his daughter after her, along with one of his yachts, and Atack even suggests that she also inspired the term “dianetics,” which was officially derived from the Greek roots meaning “through the mind.”) But I think that the one who comes the closest is the journalist Lawrence Wright, who writes in a note in Going Clear:

In the “Affirmations,” Hubbard explicitly names his Guardian Flavia Julia. He may have been referring to Flavia Julia Titi, daughter of the Roman Emperor Titus; or, perhaps more likely, to the Empress Flavia Julia Helena Augustus, also known as Saint Helen, mother of Constantine the Great, who is credited with finding the “True Cross.”

In fact, the association with Saint Helena seems exceptionally convincing. Her full name includes “Flavia Julia”; she’s often depicted in art as a beautiful young woman, although she was at an advanced age when her son converted to Christinaity; and she’s one of the few Roman Catholic saints who could be accurately described as an Empress.

And the clincher is hiding in plain sight. Hubbard spent much of his childhood in Helena, Montana, of which Russell Miller writes in the biography Bare-Faced Messiah:

Helena in 1913 was a pleasant city of Victorian brick and stone buildings encircled by the Rocky Mountains, whose snow-dusted peaks stippled with pines provided a scenic backdrop in every direction. The Capital Building, with its massive copper dome and fluted doric columns, eloquently proclaimed its status as the first city of Montana, as did the construction of the neo-Gothic St. Helena Cathedral, which was nearing completion on Warren Street.

The italics are mine. A few pages later, Miller adds: “Ron was enrolled at the kindergarten at Central School on Warren Street, just across from the new cathedral which, with its twin spires and gray stone facade, towered reprovingly over the city. Most days he was walked to school by his aunts, Marnie and June, who were at Helena High, opposite Central School.” A glance at Google Street View reveals that, even today, if you stand at the entrance of the old Central School and look northeast, you’ll be facing the cathedral’s twin spires, and the most direct route between Hubbard’s house and school would have taken him right by it. Hubbard, in short, spent much of his boyhood—from 1914 to 1921—in the shadow of a cathedral named for Saint Helena. He would have walked past it nearly every day, and if he ever ventured inside, he would have seen the Empress herself depicted in the stained glass window in the north transept. We don’t know why he was so drawn to her, but Saint Helena was best known for her search for relics in the Holy Land, and the story of the vision that led her to the True Cross may well have appealed to a man who would spend years looking for treasure that he had buried in past lives. Hubbard seems to have genuinely believed that she was his guide and protector, and from his point of view, he was perfectly right. She was the patron saint of new discoveries.

Written by nevalalee

April 19, 2018 at 9:47 am

Astounding Stories #11: The Moon is Hell

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The Moon is Hell

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

On May 11, 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his stepmother Helen. He never mailed it, but it was preserved among his papers, and it’s a document of immense biographical interest. Campbell, who was chafing under what he saw as his father’s lack of appreciation for what he had achieved in his career, spent a full page listing his professional accomplishments, and he concluded:

My current plans are long-range; when I took over Astounding seventeen years ago, my plans were long range, too…The next step which literature must take is to develop a novel-like story in which the story shows the development of a culture through various experiences…Science fiction is now trying to develop the presentation techniques whereby an individual can understand and appreciate the developmental processes affecting entire cultures. Naturally, we haven’t completed the development of these techniques yet, and we have, in consequence, a rather patchy, unsuccessful literature. It’s like the first automobiles; they were less reliable, rougher riding, noisier, and smellier than the horse and buggy.

But their developmental stage was well worth the effort; their inadequacies in the early days were properly forgiven, but also properly recognized as inadequacies.

When I read these lines, I found myself thinking of Campbell’s novel The Moon is Hell, which first appeared in book form in 1951. It’s best remembered now as one of the very few stories that Campbell published in the three decades after he became the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. By all indications, it’s an apprentice work that was first written sometime in the early thirties, but it appears to have been carefully revised by its author before publication—the writing is far smoother and more accomplished than anything else Campbell was putting out at that stage. And the timing of its release was significant in itself. Science fiction was in a transitional moment: the impact of dianetics was just beginning to be felt, ambitious new competitors were appearing on newsstands, and authors like Heinlein were making their big push into the mainstream. For Campbell, it must have seemed like a good time for a statement of purpose, which is what The Moon is Hell really is—the quintessential hard science fiction novel, built from the ground up from first principles. As the author P. Schuyler Miller wrote in his review in Astounding:

Surely everyone who has done any science fiction has dreamed of writing a realistic story of the first men on another world, worked out with an absolute minimum of hokum—no green princesses, no ruins of alien civilizations, no hostile high priests. The ultimate would be the story of the first men on the Moon—a world without air, without life, or the possibility of life.

John W. Campbell, Jr.

And that’s exactly what Campbell gives us here. The Moon is Hell is told in the form of a journal kept by Dr. Thomas Ridgley Duncan, a physicist and second in command of the first mission to the dark side of the Moon. After the expedition’s relief ship crashes on landing, the astronauts are left stranded with no way to contact Earth; a steadily diminishing supply of food, air, and water; and the knowledge that it will be months before anyone back home realizes that they need to be rescued. They set to work with admirable discipline to obtain the necessities of life from the rocks around them, extracting hydrogen and oxygen from gypsum, developing new techniques for synthesizing nutrients, building generators and engines, turning the starch in their clothes and books into bread, and finally digging out an entire settlement underground, complete with a library and swimming pool. (Much of the plot anticipates The Martian in its determination to science the shit out of the situation.) The diary format allows Campbell to deliver all of this material unencumbered by any interruptions: long sections of it read like a briefing or an extract from a textbook. It’s a novel written by a chemist for other chemists, posing a series of ingenious scientific problems and solutions, and it has enough good ideas to fuel a dozen hard science fiction stories. Reading it, I was reminded of the joke title of the book on which the three protagonists are working in Foucault’s Pendulum: The Wonderful Adventure of Metals. Because although there are no recognizable characters in sight, this is a calculated choice—the real hero is chemistry itself.

The result, to be honest, can be pretty hard going, and although it gets better toward the end, the pages don’t exactly fly by. I found myself admiring each paragraph while vaguely dreading the next: it’s a relatively short novel, but it seems very long. (In its original edition, it was published together with The Elder Gods, a story that Campbell wrote on assignment for Unknown—its original author, Arthur J. Burks, had failed to deliver a publishable manuscript—that provides a much more engaging display of his talents.) But it’s also exactly the novel that Campbell wanted to publish. It provides as perfect a summation as you could want of its author’s strengths and limitations, as well as those of hard science fiction as a whole. This isn’t a narrative about individuals, but about the scientific method itself, and it succeeds in some respects in his goal of telling a story about a culture: it’s implied that the stranded astronauts are laying the foundations for a permanent presence in space. And although it doesn’t work as a novel by any conventional standard, it’s indispensable as a sort of baseline. It’s as if Campbell decided to stake out the limits of hard science fiction as an example to his readers and writers: this is a novel that nobody ought to imitate, but which provides an essential reference point by which all efforts in that vein can be judged. And it’s no accident that it was published at a moment when Campbell was about to push into dianetics, psionics, and fringe science, as if he had already gone as far in the other direction as he possibly could. As Emerson said of Shakespeare, Campbell wanted to plant the standard of humanity “some furlongs forward into chaos,” but first, he had to give us an ideal of order, even if it was hell to read.

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