When the great authors of science fiction are discussed by hard core SF fans, certain names are almost always mentioned. Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, CJ Cheryth, Andre Norton, Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clark rise to the top like bubbles in a glass of fine Champaign. They are the bright luminaries of the art, who’s work is never out of print because they contributed something truly fresh and insightful into the world. Many of them started in “the pulps.” Cheaply produced, short story magazines that were popular from the mid 1920s to about the early 1950s. In these little gems, one can see the beginnings of a writer’s greatness to come. These early stories were often more about intriguing situation than characters, but they still managed to build our understanding of what science fiction can do. For instance, All You Zombies by Heinlein was a break through in time travel fiction as great as HG Wells’ book, The Time Machine.
Alas, for today’s writer, the pulps are gone. Now we live in an age of digital fiction where everyone can become an author…and so everyone does. Now, some pulp authors were clearly better than others, but at least they all had to pass through the hands of a professional editor. These “gatekeepers” could insist that the science fiction they paid for met some kind of minimal standard. But the gatekeepers are now mostly gone, and it’s pure chaos out there. Self published authors are a dime a dozen, and many produce books that use a great cover to hid the terrible prose within. The challenge for the reader then is to find an author who’s work stands out from all the crap in the market today.
Since the reader can’t go to the pulps anymore to sample their choice of authors, writers are encouraged to “build a platform” to reach the reader. By this, it is meant that the writer should start a blog, a facebook page, a twitter account, anything that will spread the word and create a fan base. This kind of marketing would have boggled the minds of the early masters, who needed only to concentrate on writing good fiction and let nature take its course. But one man was a pioneer in this field. True, he was a poor writer, condemned to forever toil over pulp stories that were barely acceptable to the editors of the time. But as the pulp age grew to a close in the late 1950s (and his livelihood dried up) his true genius bloomed. There was no facebook or twitter in his day, but that didn’t stop him from successfully creating a platform that would create a large and fanatically devoted fan base; he started a religion. Or, as he sometimes called it, “an alternative to psychiatry.” Through Scientology, he created a flock of mentally vulnerable people (who probably would have sought psychiatric help if not for his luring) and convinced them to spread the word for him. Only after the creation of his religion did L. Ron Hubbard become a best selling author, not of mere short sorties mind you but of books! As the 1950s became the 60s, he finally had a platform sufficient to push his lack-luster talent into the wide world of slick publication.
What are the results of his evil little marketing ploy? Well, years after his death his books are still in print, but only his religious zealots speak well of them. I’ve been going to SF conventions since 1985, and not once have I ever heard his name mentioned. By this I mean not at all, even when bad writers are discussed–his name has never come up in my presence. Critics ether deride or ignore his work, and classes in SF literature forget his existence completely…unless the class is being taught by a Scientologist. My name is small in the world of science fiction authors, and it may never be big (who can tell?). If my work spreads far and wide, I want it to be because it actually makes people happy when they read it. I do blog and facebook, as well as buy the occasional magazine ad, but I will never stoop so low as to abuse and manipulate vulnerable people into thinking I’m some kind of messiah just to sell my books. Maybe I am no genius…but nether am I evil.