Friday, October 16, 2015

Ole Doc Methuselah - The Apex of Hubbard's Craft

"Ole Mother Methuselah" came out in January of 1950, and was one of Hubbard's last short stories.  Over the rest of the year and the early part of 1951 he published yarns like "To the Stars," "The Final Enemy" and... "Dianomitry?"  But in the May, 1950, Astounding magazine featured a little essay Hubbard called "Dianetics, the Evolution of a Science."  For the next thirty years, he was occupied with unlocking the financial potential of his own tax-exempt religion, fleeing overseas, and doing battle with the international conspiracy of Nazis and psychologists that secretly controls the world's governments.  It was only after he returned to the United States to live the remaining years of his life in seclusion that Hubbard was able to return to fiction with Battlefield Earth and Mission Earth, before dying in 1986.

Between Buckskin Brigades (1937), Fear (1940), the "Ole Doc Methuselah" stories (1947-1950), Battlefield Earth (1982) and Mission Earth (1985), we've now sampled works from the beginning, middle and end of L. Ron Hubbard's literary career.  One of the questions I had after reading Hubbard's last and most infamous novels was just how far the author had fallen to produce such miserable texts.

The answer: not much.

If I took out the dates and asked you to arrange the Hubbard stories I've covered in my blog(s) in the order you thought they were written, my guess is that it'd be a challenge.  You might think that the two Earth titles were obviously early attempts at writing given how badly they need an editor (and an exorcist), and Fear was probably the last thing the guy wrote since it's the closest to competently-executed.  But Hubbard's ability to spin a story, develop characters, and describe action evidently changed very little over fifty years of writing, and not for the better.

His heroes are physically perfect, either unusually young for their ability or else old and experienced yet outwardly youthful.  They can regularly outfight or outsmart their opponents, unless the plot calls for them to be momentarily inconvenienced.  They're usually blond, because objectively speaking that is the best hair color.  And their opponents are either amoral, self-interested and greedy, or else murderous lunatics who think they're doing the world a favor by destroying it - never sympathetic people whose differing ideals happen to place them at odds with the protagonist.

Confrontations between the hero and villains will be described tersely, and in later Hubbard works, in a barrage of single sentences.  The feats of strength and agility displayed in those confrontations will strain the reader's suspension of disbelief.  Oh, and there might be women in the background, but if they're important this relevance is based on their relationship to a male character, and they exist mainly to be wooed or rescued.  If a female has any traits that suggest an ability to take care of herself or keep up with the hero, these are merely to make her a more suitable mate for the male lead, and won't give her any real agency of her own.

What I'm getting at is that Hubbard's not a particularly good author.  But whatever, right?  Not every book has to be Animal Farm.  Sometimes you just want some cheap literary entertainment during your airplane ride or power outage or while waiting for the AI to finish its turns in Civilization.

Here's the thing, though - Hubbard did think he was writing the next Animal Farm when he gave us Mission Earth.  But he wrote it the same way as his first stories, the ones that were published in the pulps, those cheap magazines that were successful because reading had just been invented in the 1930's and we couldn't get our quota of Stupid from TV yet.  Mission Earth was Hubbard's satirical romantic espionage action epic, Battlefield Earth is a grand space opera or something, Fear was his attempt at psychological horror, but they all share those aforementioned similarities.  Even when he was out of the pulps, Hubbard was still writing pulp fiction, and shortcomings you might excuse as being acceptable for low-brow mass-produced literary escapism become less so in these more ambitious genres. 

I'm almost tempted to flip through Dianetics to see how much of Hubbard's writing style carries over into his attempt at scripture.

So that's one of Hubbard's core problems, an inability to grow and rise to the heights he's reaching for.  The other is that he mainly wrote science fiction, and liked to think that he was helping move science forward by envisioning a future with pharmaceutical ray rods and whatnot.  Unfortunately, this was undermined somewhat by Hubbard understanding science about as well as my cat understands English.  When he mentions specific principles or facts in his stories he either gets them wrong, or in Ole Doc Methuselah's case, has to lower the intelligence of everyone else in the story so that his hero seems smart for knowing basic stuff like radiation's existence.  Ironically, this helps Hubbard stand out - he's not just an old pulp writer who churned out stories about aliens and spaceships, he's one with spectacular misconceptions about how the universe works.

The irony is that there is one genre of literature out there where Hubbard's failings wouldn't necessarily be handicaps.  Oh, he dabbled in horror with Fear, but the "spooky" stuff mostly fell flat, and Buckskin Brigades involved him twisting history as much as he usually twisted science.  But there's a type of story where overpowered heroes are only to be expected as the products of destiny, where villains can literally be the incarnations of ultimate evil, and where incredible powers beyond mortal comprehension can be wielded by a few sages.

I'm talking about fantasy, of course.  Hubbard's science fiction tends to be pretty magical in itself, so I wonder why he didn't decide to write about the old sage Methuselah who wandered through war-torn kingdoms, quietly using his mystic healing arts to save lives and his skill at arms to right wrongs.  It wouldn't be a drastically different story, of course, but maybe it would be more palatable than the universe of morons and tyrannical, elitist physicians we've gone through.

Tragically, ironically, or tragironically, fantasy so happened to be the genre that Hubbard looked down his nose at during the intro for Battlefield Earth, where he scoffed at a hero learning how to use a flaming sword just by picking it up right before telling a story where a hero learned how to operate advanced alien equipment by soaking pure knowledge through his skin.  So we can only wonder.  What if Hubbard tried to write the American equivalent of Lord of the Rings?  Would he have been successful enough to get rich that way instead of setting the stage for Tom Cruise going nuts on Oprah's couch?  Would he be remembered as a hack, a master of his genre, or would he be remembered at all?  If fantasy as a genre would mitigate Hubbard's shortcomings, would he have any strengths to help him rise above mediocrity?

Eh, if he kept his anti-psychologist conspiracy theory, he'd probably write something like the Sword of Truth series.  Though of course those are "stories with important human themes," not fantasy novels.

Enough conjecture, let's wrap these ramblings up.  The Ole Doc Methuselah stories, at least compared to the other Hubbard works I've read, can be considered the apex of the author's craft.  They're what he was able to produce after over a decade of writing popular literature, but before he got a literal cult following that would happily pay him money for the privilege of reading Mission Earth's rape and stupidity and paranoid delusions.  And these stories are still awful.  The main character is unlikable, the plot twists rely on a universe of morons, and the underlying premise, that of an elite, untouchable group who hoards life-saving knowledge but doesn't feel obligated to use it, is deeply troubling.  Though I don't think that's what Hubbard intended for Scientology to be like, since he was interested in getting as many customers as possible.  So there's that as a positive.

The best thing I can say about them is that they aren't as soul-searingly bad as Mission Earth, and I guess they're shorter than Battlefield Earth.  And unlike Buckskin Brigades and Fear, Hubbard is writing in the genre he's at home in.  So there you have it: the Ole Doc Methuselah stories aren't good stories, but they may be the best Hubbard stories.  Which means they're ultimately kind of forgettable, sadly.

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