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Sunday, July 26, 2015


Each weekday, I go down to the back door of the condominium building in which I live to get the mail.  These days, no one ever actually writes letters anymore, so the mail consists mostly of catalogues, political appeals for money, and the occasional bill.  Yesterday, when I was sifting through the junk, I came upon a plastic wrapped magazine called Freedom, which I knew I had not subscribed to.  At first I thought it was a Libertarian journal sent to me by someone who assumed that the author of In Defense of Anarchism would be a sympathizer, but a full page adulatory photograph of L. Ron Hubbard told me that what I had in my hands was a Scientology product.  Scientology is, of course, a total crock, but oddly enough it occupies a warm place in my heart because of its association with my teenage years.  Let me explain.

As a boy, I was an avid reader of science fiction.  In those days [the late '40s], the two leading sci fi magazines were Galaxy and Astounding Science Fiction.  They were both instances of what was then called pulp fiction because they were printed not on the slick, smooth, glossy  paper used by Life, Time, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post, and Fortune, but on rough, nubby cheap paper that betrayed its origin as wood pulp.  I subscribed to Astounding [for reasons long lost in the fog of time, I considered Galaxy the enemy], in whose pages I found the stories of Isaac Asimov, A. E. Van Vogt, and the other sci fi greats.

[Side comment:  In 1960, when I was a resident tutor in Winthrop House at Harvard, one of the co-authors of the Ellery Queen detective novels -- either Frederick Dannay or Manfred Lee, I don't recall which -- spoke at the annual senior dinner since his son was graduating from Winthrop House.  He said something that stuck with me because it so perfectly described me.  "No one," he observed, "is ever a science fiction fan and a mystery fan simultaneously."  And so it was!  Soon after I got to Harvard, I stopped reading sci fi and started reading mysteries.  Some sainted Harvard grad had endowed a collection of mystery fiction to be housed in Widener Library, and in the days when one could still gain access to the stacks, I wandered happily up and down the rows of books, checking out two or three mysteries at a time.  Over the years, I read my way through the complete works of Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, John Dickson Carr, Carter Dickson -- the same person, of course -- Josephine Tey, Ngaio March, Agatha Christie, and all the other greats.  I never did return to reading science fiction, although in the television era I became a Trekkie.]

Anyway, in May, 1950, my copy of Astounding arrived, and in it I found a lengthy essay by one of their lesser authors, someone named L. Ron Hubbard.  When I read the essay, I immediately recognized it for what it obviously was, a brilliantly funny send up of Freudian psychoanalysis and the then quite new science of Cybernetics.  I had a good laugh, which however died when the next issue showed up with Part Two of what now was clearly a serious exposition of a revolutionary new discipline -- Dianetics.

For a while, Dianetics flourished as a therapy scam, flourishing especially in California, the home of crackpot frauds.  But Hubbard got in trouble with the Feds for practicing medicine without a license, so in a move of great brilliance, he transformed the medically suspect Dianetics into a First Amendment protected religion, Scientology.  And the rest of that story is Tom Cruise.

Astounding Science Fiction, by the way, was the locus of my very first publication, a Letter to the Editor defending "Aristotelian logic" -- a.k.a. the Law of Contradiction -- against the animadversions of another reader entranced with The World of Null-A, a famous Van Vogt novel that appeared first in serial form in an earlier incarnation of Astounding Science Fiction.  Van Vogt was inspired by the semantic theories of Count Alfred Korzybski, but that is another story from my youth that can wait for a more propitious moment.

Needless to say, I threw out the magazine.



Jerome Doolittle said...

One of the "greats," not quite unsung but nearly, is the pseudonymous K.C. Constantine. His police procedurals amount to a brilliant sociological study of a small Pennsylvania city, which may account for the pen name, since he lives in one. I thought I had read all his books, but googling him just now I find I missed what's apparently his most recent one(2002)— Saving Room for Dessert. And that he's no longer pseudonymous.

Jerry Fresia said...

" one ever actually writes letters anymore...."

It's actually worse. I just learned that my niece's son, who is about 18, had to print his name in lieu of the required
signature for his passport. The reason I was told is that they no longer teach cursive. So that had to be about ten
years ago. This schooling, as it were, took place in North Carolina. Can this be true? What's next? The elimination of
the requirement to learn multiplication tables?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You don't need to learn multiplication if you have a calculator function on your IPhone. You don't even need to be able to write. Just speak to SIRI!

David Auerbach said...

On our travels we're having a good listening to readings of the wonderful Nero Wolfe series. Back in the prior non-overlapping sci-fi days I remember the prescient story "The Midas Plague", a masterpiece of political economy and equally Kornbluth's *The Space Merchants*.

Chris said...

Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series was simply the best. I've never found another book series that can replace it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Wolfe is probably the most famous person from Montehegro.

Chris said...

Did you ever watch the recent AMC rendition of Nero Wolfe?
The episodes are almost as good at the books, and overall the show is fantastic. The first few episodes take a while to get off the ground (the actor playing Archie doesn't get in rhythm for a little while), but overall it's television worth consuming.