Sunday, 5 October 2014

If I Were You

L. Ron Hubbard If I Were You (1941)

L. Ron Hubbard was the most important science-fiction author who ever lived, and so it is fitting that Galaxy Press should have endeavoured to rescue his many mighty works from pulp obscurity and return them at long last to print - and with this opening sentence I have at least saved you the trouble of reading Kevin J. Anderson's introduction. Galaxy Press seem to be financially although not necessarily ideologically associated with Scientology by some means, existing principally as a vehicle for Hubbard's work; so fair enough I guess. I still think they may have been trying too hard in certain respects given that I would have thought the majority of people picking up copies of these novellas will most likely already be well disposed towards the man. The glowing biographical summary of Hubbard's life in the rear of the book reads somewhat as though puddings may have been over-egged - I'm fairly certain the guy didn't actually invent either science-fiction or fantasy as genres; whilst Anderson smiles beatifically and points out that Shakespeare and Dickens were popular in their days, and that Hubbard's tales in the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties were popular in his day, so L. Ron Hubbard was therefore just like Shakespeare and Dickens for as history has shown, good stories are much more than fancy prose.

If nothing else, this does at least support my hunch that I don't really need to read anything written by Kevin J. Anderson. Oddly - and I realise I am here asking us all to pause and take another look at Hitler's paintings because some of them were quite nice really - I would say that all of this editorial reverence actually does Hubbard's fiction something of a disservice because - quite aside from what one may think of the man and his deeds - If I Were You is good enough to stand on its own merits. I'm not saying it's the greatest thing I've ever read, or that it necessarily represents a little known masterpiece, but Hubbard, if nothing else, was an accomplished writer within his field. Whilst it may be argued that his field was somewhat limited to romps and adventures of the kind which made names for Edgar Rice Burroughs and others, if his tales lack poetry, they were better told than those of many of his contemporaries. That is to say that If I Were You at least reads like the work of someone who knew exactly what he wanted to do and how to do it, and someone who couldn't really be described as a hack with any justification. True, it's the story of a circus midget swapping bodies with that of an unpleasant scheming ringmaster, with a splash of romance and just deserts duly served at the end, but it's an engaging read nevertheless; and I suppose you might also argue that certain themes prefigure the mythology Hubbard later expounded with the Church of Scientology, if you feel inclined to do so.

The Last Drop, the much shorter back up story follows the theme of size by shrinking its protagonists to gnomic proportions, and is less satisfying, but serves as an interesting snapshot of its era nonetheless.

While I'm sceptical of Hubbard's credentials as the neglected genius described in Kevin J. Anderson's introduction, it seems equally dubious to pretend that he never existed or to relegate his writing to a mere footnote in science-fiction history, because for the most part it seems to have been better than you might imagine.

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