BOOK REVIEW / Cosmic fascists and blondes with long legs: Ole Doc Methuselah - L Ron Hubbard: New Era Publications, pounds 14.99

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GIANTS STALKED the earth in the golden age of science fiction, and most of them wrote for Astounding Science Fiction. In the decade following 1937, when John W Campbell began his inspired editorship of the New York-based monthly, he brought on those who were to become the towering figures of the genre: Robert A Heinlein, Asimov, A E van Vogt, Lester del Rey,Theodore Sturgeon, Clifford Simak - and one Lafayette Ronald Hubbard.

Hubbard was, at the time, regarded by many of his colleagues as the greatest of them all. In 1939 Asimov, then a young unknown, wrote to Campbell nominating three of Hubbard's short stories for inclusion among the 10 best of the year.

Then, in the late Forties, Hubbard produced what he regarded as his master-work: a series of seven pulp magazine-style short stories about the fantastic adventures of Ole Doc Methuselah. Ole Doc was a key member of The Soldiers of Light, 'the most elite organisation of the cosmos'who travelled with his four-armed, multi-alien slave, Hippocrates. The tales are reproduced here with a long and fascinating introductory essay about Hubbard by Robert Silverberg, himself a science fiction writer and historian.

Shortly after the initial publication of these ripping yarns, L Ron Hubbard flipped. In 1950 he prevailed upon Campbell to publish a non-fiction essay entitled Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Then came the book, Science of Survival. Together they formed the basis of the philosophy of scientology, Hubbard's own elite organisation. As executive director of the Founding Church of Scientology, Washington, from 1955 to 1966 he was the first head of the astonishingly successful, money-spinning, pseudo-scientific cult. Hubbard did not resume writing science fiction until the early Eighties when he launched his 10-volume series, Mission Earth, on an unsuspecting world. In 1986 he died - or 'departed this life', to employ the phraseology of his California-based publisher, Bridge Publications, which appears to be a foundation dedicated to the preservation of Hubbard's memory. Bridge Publications intends to republish all his works of fiction and scientological 'fact', stating: 'L Ron Hubbard is one of the most widely acclaimed and read authors of all time.'

Given the cult surrounding L Ron Hubbard, part of the fun of these stories is to see the sort of universe he envisaged immediately before he embarked on the creation of scientology. Essentially he harks back to Wells and others who, at the turn of the century, envisaged science-based, do-gooding elites - fascism with a human face - putting the world to rights for we lesser mortals.

In this case the Soldiers were a secretive group of benign super-doctors known as the Universal Medical Society: 'saluting no government, collecting no fees, permitting no infringement, the UMS became dreaded and revered as The Soldiers of Light and under the symbol of the crossed ray rods impinged their will upon the governments of space under a code of their own, more rigorous than any law.'

The yarns gallop along, driven by this sort of waffle and by pseudo-scientific gobbledegook. Good Ole Doc and his four-armed sidekick rescue simple interplanetary settlers enslaved by social engineers who seek to privatise the very air that they breathe.

The footsoldiers of the evil ones are 'brutish humanoids, eugenicised for slave tending'. The intergalactic villains have nasty accents and the blonde heroines have heaving bosoms and long, long legs. Eventually the baddies and their humanoids are blown away with cheerful abandon.

Superficially, it is all glorious, innocent, adolescent nonsense, perfect for a holiday read. I just wish Hubbard's Soldiers of Light did not remind me quite so much of Heinrich Himmler's SS, that 'dreaded and revered' elite with its lovely silver shoulder flashes and beautiful uniforms, devoted to the cleansing of Europe.

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