by William J. Widder
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
L. Ron Hubbard began publishing in February 1932 with the story "Tah," which appeared in The University Hatchet, the newspaper of George Washington University, where he was attending college. Over the next eighteen years, he continued to publish a variety of fiction before taking a sabbatical from writing fiction until 1981. William J. Widder traces Hubbard's career in laudatory text and numerous illustrations in Master Storyteller: An Illustrated Tour of the Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard.
The strongest aspect of Master Storyteller is the reproduction of magazine and book covers and interior illustrations. These pictures, from the earliest 1934 covers on, all appear to have been created from archive copies of the magazines. There is no discoloration or tearing on the covers which are used and the reproduction is vibrant, giving a good idea of what they looked like when they were on the magazine stands trying to draw readers.
Widder quotes numerous authors and historians about the role of Hubbard, but uses these quotes without attribution or context, which leaves the reader wondering about Hubbard's real influence and role in the creation of science fiction. The fact that so few of his stories appear to have been reprinted in anthologies would indicate that that Widder is often exaggerating the influence of Hubbard's work.
In writing about L. Ron Hubbard in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute and Peter Nicholls wrote,
Certainly for John W. Campbell, Jr., in throes of creating his Golden Age of SF, a worthwhile and prolific contributor to the two journals [Astounding and Unknown], though he was not a member of that small group-L. Sprague de Camp, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov being the prime movers-who were rewriting the rules of generic plausibility in terms which survived for many years. Retrospective attempts to elect L. Ron Hubbard to that central role are best seen as gestures of loyalty from those sympathetic to his later career. (p.592)
Widder would appear to fall into the latter category as far as his portrayal of Hubbard as the driving force behind science fiction.
Some of the claims in Master Storyteller appear to be incorrect. Although Widder comments that John W. Campbell, Jr. "quickly convinced Street & Smith to launch a new magazine to accommodate the fantasy stories he was getting from Hubbard." (p.59), others, such as Jack L. Chalker, claim
when Eric Frank Russell submitted Sinister Barrier to John W. Campbell at Astounding that Campbell was so taken with the bizarre and unusual tale that he talked Street and Smith, publishers of the magazine, into launching a new magazine, Unknown. (Entities, p.499).
Chalker goes on to point out that when Russell's story was accepted, Unknown was already being assembled. Most sources believe the real reason for the creation of the new magazine was neither a story by Hubbard or by Russell, but rather the existence of a blank space on the cover sheets printed for Street and Smith magazines that needed to be filled.
The book ends with a detailed timeline of L. Ron Hubbard's life and a listing of Hubbard's fiction from 1932 through his posthumous publications. Although the later contains the month and year of publication, it is hardly a bibliography in that it omits the location of original publication and does not note the various pseudonyms used for some of the works.
Widder's book works best as a display of the artwork associated with L. Ron Hubbard's career, and in that way, the subtitle, An Illustrated Tour of the Fiction of L. Ron Hubbard is appropriate. Widder's critical examination of Hubbard's work and his influence is somewhat more questionable, appearing more as a paean to Hubbard than a serious discussion of Hubbard's role. However, due to Hubbard's activities outside the realm of writing fiction, he is such a divisive figure that a completely unbiased examination of his writing and his influence may not be entirely possible.
John Clute & Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Eric Frank Russell, The Selected Novels of Eric Frank Russell: Entities, NESFA Press, 2001.
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