Sunday, 2 July 2017

Pseudoscience, Belief and Science Fiction

Guest post by Michael Hoskin, Calgarian friend to the club

Authors are apt to develop certain peccadillos in their writing. You would not have to read many stories by Nelson S. Bond before realizing he loved telling tales of the ‘fourth dimension’; Isaac Asimov’s fondness for robots is well-documented; Ray Bradbury loved Mars so much he spoke often of his desire to be buried on the Red Planet.
Ray Bradbury loved Mars so much,
 he got the first martian drivers'
license. (Image Via

For some authors, these recurring ideas are merely quirks. Unfortunately, for others their obsessions become quasi-religious themes for which they feel the need to evangelize. Particularly within science fiction and fantasy, this tendency has undermined the later works of many great authors. 

As we look over the ranks of authors in speculative fiction, we not only see those who had recurring themes but also a desire to see their fiction become reality. There is precedent for such transmogrification: Jules Verne lived long enough to see submarines such as his Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) become practical inventions; H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898) became an infamous hoax and panic in the hands of radio maestro Orson Welles in 1938. Further, Wells wrote of tank-like vehicles in The Land Ironclads (1903) and then saw tanks appear in real life. Although Wells confessed he knew the idea of the tank was not original to him, he still said of the first tanks: “They were my grandchildren - I felt a little like King Lear when first I read about them.”

To some extent, fans of speculative fiction are prepared for epistemological musings from their authors,
Battlestar Galactica is basically just
the Book Of Mormon in space.
(Image via  
perhaps the more so when there is a shade of doubt as to whether the author’s belief or evidence is genuine. For instance, some of the bile directed to authors Orson Scott Card and Stephanie Meyer derives from their status as believing Mormons. Non-believers take offence when they perceive elements in those authors’ fiction that they view as an exhortation of the authors’ faith or exist to convert the audience.

As fans of speculative fiction, how far can you and I take the Death of the Author Theory? Based on the sales of Call of Cthulhu, H. P. Lovecraft remains fandom’s favourite virulently racist uncle. Is it icky to know Theodore Sturgeon and his wife were swingers? If you learned Fritz Leiber was a practicing pagan how would it affect your reading of his sword & sorcery tales?

I can speak plainly of one speculative fiction author whose beliefs interfered with my ability to enjoy his work. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle remains best known for his Sherlock Holmes tales but for our purposes, we remember him for his five Professor Challenger stories (beginning with The Lost World, 1912). Although Doyle’s protagonists tended to be sound, rational men (Holmes, Challenger) Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
pictured here with a fake
ghost, hoped he would
be remembered for his
writings on spiritualism
more than his Sherlock
Holmes stories.
(Image via
himself drifted into the less-than-rational realm of spiritualism. Doyle believed not only in the power of séances but (notoriously) fell for the Cottingley Fairies hoax. This influenced Doyle’s Challenger novel The Land of Mist (1926), told as work of spiritualism advocacy wherein Challenger and his friends were exposed to spiritualism and all went from skeptics to firm believers. As I do not believe in séances, I found this novel extremely difficult to appreciate. I enjoy ghost stories that send a chill down my spine, unnerve me enough to think ‘what if it’s true?’ I do not at all enjoy stories where the author repeatedly tries to convince me, ‘oh no, these ghosts truly exist – just wait, I will convince you.’ One of those whom Doyle did convince was J. B. Rhine, the man who coined the term ‘extrasensory perception’ (ESP).

Ayn Rand is one science fiction author whose personal philosophies have a large life outside of their fiction. Rand’s philosophy of objectivism was born in her fiction and developed a large following that remains closely aligned to libertarian-leaning politics of today. Further, her fiction influenced many in the science fiction fields. Her fans have included: Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J. Ackerman, author Ray Bradbury (who said of The Fountainhead (1943) “It gave me courage to just stand and say to people, 'Go away and leave me alone.'”), comic book artists Steve Ditko & Trevor Von Eeden, author Terry Goodkind, and performer Penn Jillette (renowned for his towering performance on TV’s Babylon 5). Although objectivism seemingly reached its peak in the 1970s and the recent film adaptations of Atlas Shrugged (2011-14) were subject to ridicule, Rand’s philosophy remains effervescent.

From a certain perspective, the most successful science fiction author of all time is L. Ron Hubbard. Although Hubbard never won a Hugo or a Nebula for his fiction, how many other authors in his field can claim to have developed a powerful international organization/religion? Perhaps it is hard (or painful) for science fiction fandom to recall it now, but when Hubbard introduced Dianetics in 1950
From a certain perspective, Hubbard
is one of the most successful authors
of all time.
(Image via 
he was met with glowing reviews from seemingly all corners. Boosters included such as authors James Blish (who is a Hugo winner and resides in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame) and Hubbard’s early ally A. E. Van Vogt (Science Fiction Hall of Fame). Excepting Lester Del Rey and Theodore Sturgeon (Hugo winner, Nebula winner and Science Fiction Hall of Fame; he recalled Hubbard saying to him: “If a man really wanted to make a million dollars, the best way to do it would be to start his own religion.”), virtually all of science fiction passively let Hubbard tell them how ‘clear’ they were. Hubbard’s Church of Scientology remains a powerful and influential body in spite of the motion picture flop Battlefield Earth (2000) and despite Hubbard’s nearest brush with prestige in the sci-fi community being his controversial 1987 Hugo nomination for Black Genesis.

Another proponent of Dianetics was one of science fiction’s most lauded names: John W. Campbell (Hugo winner, Science Fiction Hall of Fame). Campbell wrote only one well-remembered story (Who Goes There?, 1938) but his tenure as editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog; 1937-71) produced some of the most consistently great sci-fi literature in the medium’s history. Yet despite his accolades, he was a racist, a homophobe and a believer in pseudoscience. His pseudoscience beliefs frequently interrupted the pages of Astounding to champion the hokum of not only Dianetics but also ESP, the Dean Drive, the Bridey Murphy hoax and the Hieronymus Machine.
As it turns out, there is no
secret lost civilization living
beneath the Earth's surface.
(image Via

Editor Raymond Palmer of Amazing Stories (1938-49) fell along similar lines to those of Campbell, but courted controversy in the 1940s when he presented various stories by Richard Sharpe Shaver as though his fanciful tales of an underground civilization were factual accounts. The ‘ShaverMystery’ ended in 1948 (due in part to complaints from Amazing Stories readers) but Palmer, embittered by the series’ end, leaned hard into similar ideas. His magazines (such as Fate) ventured outside the bounds of science fiction in order to serve as proponents for all the related pseudoscience, parapsychology, cryptozoology, UFOlogy and suchlike.

In the instance of television’s Star Trek (1966-69), the rabid fandom that sprang up around that program seemed to spur its creator Gene Roddenberry into fashioning a philosophy to support it. When the series returned with the feature film Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Roddenberry opted to jettison much of the interpersonal sparring and
Star Trek sometimes seems
like a Utopian Cult.
It's adherents are caught
up in a holy war over
which captain is better.
(Image via
emotionalism of the television version, believing it antithetical to the ‘utopianism’ he retroactively believed Star Trek embodied. Regarding Roddenberry’s novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Darren Mooney felt it “almost reads like the sacred text of a utopian cult.” This sense of utopianism would permeate the remainder of Roddenberry’s contributions to the franchise (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987) but would be noticeably absent elsewhere in that franchise (i.e., Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, 1982).

There are also those science fiction creators who have unintentionally caused a belief system to spring up without intending to. Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) helped inspire the creation of the Church of All Worlds, a religion that persists to this very day.

We of fandom have often encouraged the idea that our favourite creators are more than mere tellers of tales; they are ‘visionaries’ or perhaps ‘futurists.’ Doyle, Rand, Hubbard, Campbell, Palmer and Roddenberry each reached points in their careers where the applause of their fans was not enough; they felt the need to use their stage as a means to impart some philosophy or impart ‘secret knowledge.’ 

Many fans no longer worship the science fiction author as ardently as before – but perhaps only because the pantheon of science fiction gods is constantly wheeling out new deities to affirm.


Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made of (Free Press, 1998).
John R. Eller, Becoming Ray Bradbury (University of Illinois Press, 2011).
Martin Gardner, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Dover, 1957).
L. Ron Hubbard, Theodore Sturgeon and Lester Del Rey, The Dianetics Question (Marvel Science Stories, May 1951).
Darren Mooney, Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Gene Roddenberry (Review)
Jonathan Rosen, Doubles: Wilkie Collins’s Shadow Selves (The New Yorker, July 25 2011).
H. G. Wells, War and the Future (Simon & Schuster, 1917).

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