Science Fiction: The Other God That Failed

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.

14 thoughts on “Science Fiction: The Other God That Failed

  1. I am struggling to write science fiction, and I am also a religious person, and this article resonates well with me. One of the most interesting essays I’ve read recently.

  2. There are a large number of Christian SF writers and stories.

    And Stranger in a Strange Land was an analytical essay–every religion portrayed in it is Christianity, just seen from various viewpoints.

    Hubbard created Scientology merely as a tax evasion, and after a bar bet with Heinlein as to its feasibility.

    I know Pohl personally. He’s certainly left wing, but I’d hesitate to call him a Marxist. At the same time, consider the America of the 30s and 40s. Who was more big government than FDR? That WAS the culture at the time, even in mainstream fiction. Though I’ll admit that even a far left friend of mine called them “poorly socialized sliderule geeks who called themselves socialists in the 50s.”

    I get some vibes of insatiability from your article. If they were all Christians seeking futures they could be argued as trying to rewrite the faith. By choosing other faiths as models (and thereby allowing speculation that would cause figurative pogroms if attached to current religions) and exploring potential outcomes, they’re considered to fall short of Christianity. A no-win scenario.

  3. “I know Pohl personally. He’s certainly left wing, but I’d hesitate to call him a Marxist. ” I didn’t say Pohl is a Marxist now. What I wrote was , “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.” From an interview Pohl did in 1979, printed in Charles Platt’s book Dream Makers: “Politically I was a Marxist as a teenager and a Democrat for about twenty years.” The involvement of various science fiction writers with Marxism and radical politics in the 1930s and 1940s is well documented in various autobiographies, including Judith Merril’s Better to Have Loved and Damon Knight’s The Futurians. I was not, by the way, using Marxist as a term of insult but rather as a descriptive category.

    The story about the bar bet between Heinlein and Hubbard is a nice bit of folklore but it has to ring of something too good to be true (for a skeptical account from a critic of Scientology, see here In any case, whether Hubbard was a self-conscious fraud or not is immaterial since many science fiction writers believed in Dianetics and helped promote it (from the post above you’ll see see a partial list that includes John W. Campbell, Katherine MacLean, James Blish, and A.E. van Vogt, plus the fan writer Forrest J. Ackerman).

    I’m not sure that every religion in Stranger in a Strange Land is Christianity, although the main character is modeled in part on Christ. There are also elements of Mormonism and Islam in the novel’s fictional religion.

    I’m not judging any of these writers for not being Christians (or Buddhists or Muslims or any other faith). My intention was to describe a strong tendency in the genre.

  4. You could say that religion is a type of speculative fiction. Many say that science fiction should be referred to as speculative fiction.

  5. Oh my goodness science fiction writers have personal beliefs. I am shocked. next thing is i will find out that horror writers have personal beliefs. or even writers of Fantasy novels, or comedy writers. oh wait everyone has some sort of beliefs and yes they often come out in thier writings.

  6. A minor nit. Stranger in a Strange Land was published in 1961, not 1963, and took the 1962 Hugo.

    I’m not sure how reliable the ‘bar bet’ story is either, but it sure sounds plausible, given the two writers certainly knew each other, were writing in the same field, and Heinlein started work on Stranger in 1949.

    Heinlein was at least partially in the Social Credit camp, as shown by some of the expositions in both For Us the Living and Beyond this Horizon. And he was deeply involved with Upton Sinclair’s EPIC (End Poverty in California) movement. I wouldn’t say that this information was suppressed, it’s just that Heinlein never spread it around.

  7. After reading Carrere’s biography of Philip Dick, I Am Alive and You Are Dead, I have my doubts this drug-damaged, mentally ill man could do anything so organized as lead a cult.

    It’s a miracle he attracted the caretakers, wives, girlfriends and young SF writer friends, that kept him from homelessness. Guy was a mess.

    Had a wild imagination, though.

  8. I have had the same thought about Heinlein that you had about Dick — that Heinlein could have been the one to start his own religion rather than Hubbard, but that he resisted the temptation.

  9. Another key figure that you might wish to research was the brilliant rocket scientist Marvel Whiteside “Jack” Parsons, one of the founders of JPL. With Hubbard’s assistance, Parsons was the Southern California leader of Aleister Crowley’s satanist cult in the 1940s. Parsons was then defrauded by Hubbard who ran off with his woman. Parsons friends with many sci-fi greats including Heinlein and Ray Bradbury.

  10. @Steve Sailer. That’s true about Heinlein. Plenty of hippies wanted to make him a cult leader with Stranger in a Strange Land as their bible, but he wisely resisted. Thanks for the Parsons story. I

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