The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Other Times, Other Wars

Posted on | September 28, 2019 | Comments Off on Other Times, Other Wars

— by Wombat-socho

I have a raft of new SF to plow through in the next couple of weeks, so I need to clear the decks and deal with the stuff I’ve been reading since the last book post.

“Yes, young man, I knew L. Ron Hubbard. Pretty good writer before he turned to crime.”

I was reliably assured by the late Jerry Pournelle that this was not, in fact, said by Robert Heinlein to brush off an overeager Scientologist, since Heinlein and Hubbard were close friends, but it does sum up how a lot of people feel about the founder of Dianetics and Scientology, and seems as good a place as any to start talking about Hubbard’s first and most controversial SF novel, Final Blackout. Serialized in Astounding in 1940, Final Blackout describes a World War II that follows the same bloody path as World War I…only worse. By the time we begin to follow the Lieutenant and his little band of survivors, seventy years of chemical, biological and atomic weapons have ruined Europe, leaving only scattered, fortified farmsteads and equally scattered bands of infantrymen skirmishing for the dwindling stocks of food. There’s no industrial base to speak of, no coherent governments, and no purpose for the remnants of the B.E.F. but survival…until a staff officer from G.H.Q. arrives to recall the Lieutenant and his skeletal Fourth Brigade. This is when the novel shifts into gear – instead of being a mere tale of survival, it becomes one of political maneuvering, isolated staff and inexperienced garrison troops against a veteran officer and his unkillable remnant. The book was quite controversial at the time, catching flak from leftists who hated that the British Communist party were the obvious villains, and from the right for casting the United States in a less than heroic light. Hubbard was wrong about the course of the war, of course; the generals had in fact learned from the last war, and so had the politicians. There were no weapons of mass destruction used in Europe, and even in Asia the Japanese didn’t dare unleash their stocks of chemical weapons. Nobody since has written a novel like Final Blackout; the closest approximations are General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War, in which the war ends with a very limited nuclear exchange, and the role-playing game Twilight: 2000, but even in the latter, where nuclear and chemical weapons are used in greater quantities, things haven’t fallen apart quite as badly as they have in the Lieutenant’s Europe.

I first read Hubbard’s other memorable Golden Age novel, To The Stars, back in the days when teenagers were allowed back in the Library of Congress stacks unaccompanied, which was fortunate for me since this was during the period when the Church of Scientology was pretending that Hubbard had never written any SF and all his books were long out of print. Serialized in the February and March 1950 issues of Astounding, To The Stars tells the tale of Alan Corday, a recently graduated tenth-class engineer trying to make his way to Mars and a well-paying position with the Duke of Mars. Unfortunately, Corday is bankrupt, and can’t find a ship captain willing to let him work his passage; even more unfortunately, he finds a bar occupied by the company of The Hound of Heaven, whose captain is playing a strange melody on a piano, a melody that draws Corday in. All too soon, Corday finds himself aboard the Hound on the “long passage”, being unwillingly trained to stand watch on the bridge and make repairs to the ship as it burns its way to the Centauri Suns at just short of light-speed. By the time the Hound finally returns to Earth, the fiance he was forced to leave behind is a senile old woman, revolution and war have completely changed society – and he realizes he no longer has any home besides the Hound. These days, such a book would have easily expanded to doorstop size, but Hubbard’s taut style and economical writing covey his grim message easily enough.

Finally, some history. Eric Nevala-Lee’s Astounding is a fascinating combination of biographies and history of science fiction – not merely the genre itself but the fandom around it from John W. Campbell’s birth to the death of Robert Heinlein in 1988. In addition to Heinlein, the book also follows the careers of Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard, and can’t help touching on the careers of other writers affected by Campbell such as Lester Del Rey, A.E. van Vogt, L. Sprague DeCamp, and a cast of literally hundreds. It is unsparing in its examinations of the (ample) personal defects of all four men; Hubbard in particular comes off as a liar, abusive husband, and mountebank even before embarking on his career of evil with Scientology. On the other hand, it seems very clear that without Campbell, Astounding as we know it would not have existed, and the careers of Asimov and Heinlein (at the very least) would have been considerably different. I might even go so far as to say that without Campbell, science fiction as we know it wouldn’t exist; his competitors at Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy came into existence so that other publishers could get in on the action. This is a worthy successor to Sam Moskowitz’ Seekers of Tomorrow, sadly out of print, which combines biography and bibliographies for twenty-one authors of the Golden Age.

Next time around, I hope to have finished R.F. Kuang’s The Dragon Republic and Neil Stephenson’s Fall.

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