Science fiction, it is often plausibly argued, is a literature about technology and what it does to humans. But what if this view of the genre is wrong? What if science fiction (SF) is not really about technology at all but something else. What if SF is at its core a religious genre, a literature about the search for transcendent meaning in a post-Christian world?
The story of L. Ron Hubbard is well known: he started off as a successful pulp writer of science fiction (and other popular genres) in the 1930s and 1940s. By the tail-end of the 1940s, he claimed to have discovered a new science of the mind, Dianetics. This purported discovery eventually morphed into the religious movement called Scientology, which now has many thousands of adherents world-wide, including celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Hubbard’s roots in science fiction were hardly an accident. The birth of Dianetics was completely and organically tied with the evolution of American science fiction. In the 1930s and 1940s, SF was very much a messianic, utopian genre. Many writers were Marxists or quasi-Marxists (including Isaac Asimov, Frederick Pohl, Judith Merrill) or adhered to other plans to radically remake society (Robert Heinlein seems to have been some sort of Social Credit acolyte, a fact later suppressed). These utopian hopes were often invested in the genre itself. Both fans and professional writers argued that SF had a real-world mission: by grappling with the new ideas, SF could help humanity come to terms with technology and solve the problems of economic distress and warfare that plagued the 20th century. Science fiction could, it was earnestly argued, save the world.
By the late 1940s, these social hopes for amelioration increasingly moved away from communal projects towards the dream of personal development and self-improvement. Perhaps through evolution or mutation or the cultivation of untapped mental powers, a new type of humanity could emerge to save the world: the superman as messiah. Socially marginal and even alienated, working for tawdry magazines that paid them a penny a word at best, totally despised by the intellectual and cultural elite, SF writers of the 1940s maintained grandiose visions of what they could accomplish through their writings.
When L. Ron Hubbard came up with Dianetics, he found a ready and expectant audience in the science fiction world. The first announcement of this new science was in Astounding Science Fiction in 1950, where it appeared as a special “fact” article. Under the stewardship of John W. Campbell, Astounding was the leading magazine of the genre, renowned for publishing Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Robert Heinlein “future history” stories. Astounding prided itself on being the home of “hard science fiction”, SF that adhered as closely as possible to the real laws of physics and extrapolated with rigor future developments in technology. Yet for all his pretences of being a hard-headed just-the-facts engineer, Campbell had a mystical streak to him which Hubbard cunningly tapped. For at least a while Campbell became one of Dianetics loudest advocates. Even after he gave up on Dianetics, Campbell became a perpetual sucker for all sorts of pseudo-sciences. His magazine became a haven for those who believed in extra-sensory perception (or psionics) and the Dean Drive (an anti-gravity device that required an unfortunate suspension of Newton’s third law).
Aside from Campbell, many members of the SF community got caught up in the Dianetics craze: Katherine MacLean, James Blish, A.E. van Vogt, and Forrest J. Ackerman. More importantly, the underlying promise of Dianetics, the hope for a new science of mind that would unleash hidden mental powers, became a central theme in the genre. Telepathy and psionics became staple concerns in SF magazines, as common as guns in detective novels. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, writer after writer dealt with this messianic hope of unleashing the hidden potential of the human mind. This theme shows up in the most famous and widely read books in the genre, running form Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953), to Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953) to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1963). All these books are charged with a strong transcendentalist yearning, and the Heinlein novel is very explicitly about the birth of a new religion, created by a messianic Martian. By the late 1960s, some hippies had taken the Heinlein book as a new gospel and started to enact communal ritual ceremonies based on Heinlein’s fictional religion.
It’s hard not to find religion in almost all science fiction, a current that is always running a few feet underground. Think of the major movies in the genre: 2001: A Space Odyssey ends on an appropriately mystical note. What is “the force” in Star Wars but a pop version of Zen? In Blade Runner the replicants search for their creator hoping he can offer them immortality.
The true history of science fiction has yet to be written. In most accounts of the genre, Hubbard is treated as an embarrassing digression. He was much more than that: through chicanery he uncovered the true meaning of science fiction. Science fiction is the only literary genre that has led to the creation of a new religion. Why? Because science fiction at its core is a religious genre.
In early 1970s Philip K. Dick, the greatest science fiction writer since H.G. Wells, had a series of bizarre visions and auditions. He heard and saw things that weren’t there. If he had wanted to, Dick could have become the second L. Ron Hubbard. Science fiction fans who heard him speak about his visions were prepared to make him a guru and follow his prophetic teachings. It is part of Dick heroism, the real bravery of a flawed but honest man, that he chose not to become a God, preferring instead to work his visions into writing and remain a writer of science fiction. Science fiction may be a religious genre but there is no need to make a religion out of every science fiction vision. As Dick proved, the demarcation between literature and religion can be maintained even in the face of the temptation to be worshipped.