Friday, July 17, 2015

Threescore and Ten-Part Two

At age seventy, postwar science fiction has reached what we euphemistically call senior citizenship. Some of its peers--some parts of postwar culture--have died or are in decline. Why shouldn't science fiction share that fate? Take the example of flying saucers. After the war, from 1947 into the 1960s, flying saucers were a potent myth and a worldwide craze. Everyone knew what flying saucers were, a sizable number of people believed that they came from outer space, and many had actually seen them. That all went into decline in the 1960s and '70s--with the issuing of the Condon report in 1968, after the last big flap in 1973, with the passing of the first generation of aficionados. Science fiction helped to sustain the myth, but in the end flying saucers came crashing down the way the Martian ships in The War of the Worlds (1953) crashed. Now we know that flying saucers came from science fiction and not from other worlds. They served their purpose in their time, but that time has passed and people have moved on.

Born in 1947, the myth of flying saucers is now nearing its allotted age of three score and ten. We shouldn't be surprised at its decline or death. But what of the other real-life belief system that came out of 1940s science fiction? Dianetics is now sixty-five years old, Scientology a little younger. (1) Those misbegotten twins, born a few years apart, have lasted longer than a belief in flying saucers, but of late they have been displaying signs of decline as well. Every week and even several times a week since the showing of Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (on March 29, 2015), there have been stories about Scientology under fire or under threat. L. Ron Hubbard would not have tolerated such a thing, but then times have changed. The genie is out of the bottle and won't be put back in again. Like Yogi Berra, I don't like to make predictions, especially about the future, but I can foresee a time when Scientology will go the way of the flying saucers (or for that matter the Soviet Union). That can be attributable to lots of things, but what if Scientology, like flying saucers and other parts of postwar culture, is simply running its course, eventually to meet its natural end? 

As a belief system, the religion of flying saucers is not hierarchical or authoritarian. You can pretty much do what you want and believe what you want about those fantastic spinning disks from outer space. Scientology is different. In fact, Scientology is a totalitarian organization, headed by an absolute and arbitrary ruler and held together by applications of force and the firm faith of the True Believer. As we have learned from history, an absolute ruler cannot afford to loosen his grip, for that spells the end of him and his regime. But a totalitarian system also depends upon ignorance and fear. Once the people are no longer ignorant--once they know something of the outside world, can communicate with it, and can escape from the system that holds them prisoner--the system cracks. Once they are no longer afraid, the system falls apart. Since Going Clear, Scientologists can see that others are criticizing, resisting, dissenting, escaping, returning to normal lives (if such a thing is possible for them). They can see that Scientology doesn't seem to have enough fingers to plug all the leaks. How much longer will it be before they go over the wall, the way East Germans went over the wall in 1989? How much longer before they wake up from history?

To be continued . . .

(1) Science fiction may be a belief system as well. I'll have more to say on that topic later in this series.

Astounding Science-Fiction, September 1945, the first issue (by date) of the postwar. The cover story is "World of Ā" (or "World of Null-Ā") by A.E. van Vogt. Note the atmosphere of decay that has descended upon the monumental architecture of the future. Note also the presence of an aircraft, what you might call an unidentified flying object were it not for the 1930s technocratic-gyrocopter look of the thing. An instructive quote from science fiction critic David Hartwell:
No one has taken van Vogt seriously as a writer for a long time. Yet he has been read and still is. What no one seems to have noticed is that van Vogt, more than any other single SF writer, is the conduit through which the energy of Gernsbackian, primitive wonder stories have [sic] been transmitted through the Campbellian age, when earlier styles of SF were otherwise rejected, and on into SF of the present [1984]. [Quoted on Wikipedia.]
Very shortly I'll come back to that key concept--Gernsbackian. Suffice it to say, this cover, by William Timmins, joins the Gernsbackian to the Campbellian, and the decay of the past with the bright future represented by science fiction.

A.E. van Vogt (1912-2000) was a Canadian author of science fiction. He also contributed to a late incarnation of Weird Tales. Further quotes from Wikipedia:
Van Vogt was always interested in the idea of all-encompassing systems of knowledge . . . .
[I]n his fiction, van Vogt was consistently sympathetic to absolute monarchy as a form of government.
Take those two things, throw in some childhood trauma and a kind of great-man or strongman theory of history, and you have a writer ripe for the plucking. Thus, in 1950, van Vogt, an associate  of L. Ron Hubbard, began subscribing to Dianetics.

Original text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley


  1. As a continuation of my previous comments: I can definitely report that SF is not dying or dead.

    I have just finished what is in my mind the very greatest work of SF that I have ever read, "Seveneves" by Neal Stephenson. This is a huge novel by a giant of a writer. It's a thoughtful exploration of how mankind might deal with an extinction event. And I found it to be really uplifting in spite of what happens in the story. I cannot recommend this book enough.

    1. Dear Howard,

      Once again, I'm glad you wrote and I'm glad to hear that there is still big, ambitious, visionary science fiction being written. Your message is the kind I've been waiting to receive.

      I have not read Seveneves, but I have read a synopsis and some comments on the book. It sounds like Seveneves would fall into the category of hard science fiction, the kind John W. Campbell, Jr., wrote, encouraged, and promoted in Astounding Science-Fiction and Analog. Is that an accurate assessment?


  2. That cover art was not intended to illustrate the "decay" of the bright promise of the future. It just illustrates a scene set on Venus, with its giant trees. The Venus of this novel is home to an enlightened human community of Null-A masters. Have you ever read this novel?

    Politically, van Vogt was a Democrat and identified himself as a moderate liberal. In many of his works, van Vogt displayed hostility to tyrants. Also, van Vogt did get on board with Dianetics, but he he did not become a Scientologist. He disliked the "mystical" bent of Scientology.

    1. Dear Ross,

      I have not read The World of Null-A. In fact, I have read only two of A.E. van Vogt's books, Slan and The Voyage of the Space Beagle. That was a long time ago, but I remember thinking on the theme of the superior human being in Slan and the different ways that theme can be interpreted. I think science fiction fans can easily see themselves as Slans because they, the fans, possess abilities they deem superior to those of ordinary human beings. Call it a kind of arrogance mixed with a sense of humiliation or lack of self-esteem, a common trait among tyrants.

      I'll admit that the fact I haven't read The World of Null-A doesn't make me especially well qualified to comment on it, but I wasn't really commenting on the story. I was commenting on the cover art and what, to me, appears to be an atmosphere of decay. I did not say that the cover art was "intended to illustrate the 'decay' of the bright promise of the future," only that it combines the Gernsbackian sense of wonder with the hard science fiction of John W. Campbell, Jr., also an atmosphere of decay (merely my impression of the cover art, with its dark, dripping, overgrown, and apparently abandoned super-city) with a futuristic, utopian, or even dystopian vision. In fact your phrase--"an enlightened human community"--has a distinct utopian ring to it. (I will write more about the utopian vs. the dystopian later in this series.) Anyway, that's my clarification. Take it for what it's worth.

      I was also commenting on the author. The fact that van Vogt was a Democrat or a moderate liberal is not really relevant. Democrats and liberals can be just as authoritarian, tyrannical, or totalitarian in their beliefs as anyone. Eugenics, for example, grew out of the Progressive Era and included among its advocates H.G. Wells (a Fabian socialist), John Maynard Keynes (a liberal economist), and Margaret Sanger (a feminist and promoter of birth control, including abortion). Keynes and Sanger especially are liberal heroes today. My point is that van Vogt was, like Campbell, supposedly science-minded, yet he went in for a pseudoscience like Dianetics and associated with a fraud, a liar, a thug, and a tyrant in L. Ron Hubbard. I'm not sure that going along with Dianetics but not with Scientology saves him in any way from criticism, although to his credit, he left Dianetics long before his death in 2000.

      Thanks for writing, Ross. I welcome further comments.


    2. Correction: Margaret Sanger advocated for birth control but not necessarily for abortion. I regret the error.