Conspiracy Theories

There’s recently been some renewed interest in the story of the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, during whose course the Church of Scientology was perceived — I think rightly — as trying to be seen as sponsor of the event, and by extension a central and morally appropriate sponsor of science fiction itself. Scientology’s parallel campaign to rewrite the history of American sf, so that L Ron Hubbard could be seen as central to that history, further muddied the waters and raised the stakes.

After the Convention, Chris Evans — who I think felt he had been personally wrongfooted in Brighton by the Scientology/Writers of the Future people — asked a number of us to contribute to a a critical anthology he called Conspiracy Theories, and which he published privately in an extremely small edition (in the climate of the time, this caution seemed entirely reasonable). At 50 pages, Conspiracy Theories is technically a chapbook, but it came out in A4 format, and probably contains 50,000 words. In view of the current increased interest in the events discussed, and with Chris’s approval, David Langford has put up on his Ansible site, at http://ansible.co.uk/misc/ct-contents.html, a full contents list plus those individual pieces whose authors have agreed to allow this form of reprint. My own piece, “Lunch with AJ and the Wombats”, appears there; and I reprint it below.

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My brief, which is self-imposed, is to describe a lunch. It took place a week after the Convention, and came about because of what happened at the Convention. My sense of what in fact did go on at Brighton is not privileged — many of the participants were closer to events than I was at any point — and I’ll say little about those events, except to state that the implications of the collision between SF and and its mutant offspring Scientology do continue to seem important to me. (The countervailing view, which in my hearing has been purveyed most forcefully by members of the SF community who’d become involved one way or another with the Writers of the Future programme, was that the whole brouhaha was something of a tempest in a teacup. It is a view which clearly invites an ad hominem response, one which could easily descend to indecorum. Fortunately it is also a view which can be rebutted, and has no doubt been rebutted more than once, in more general terms.) So we can pass on from Brighton itself. The Battle of Britain was over, and the valiant warriors had trooped back to London to display their iodine to the home folk. It was the Thursday or Friday after the Worldcon ended. Peter Nicholls rang.

— I thought you’d like to know that you should expect a call from AJ [Budrys].
— Why?
— He wants to have a meeting with you, me, Malcolm Edwards and Dave Langford. He wants us to tell him what we think went wrong.
— Come on.
— It’s true. He said he wanted to have the benefit of our advice as Wise Old Men of the British science fiction scene.
— I don’t believe you. We may be old.
— They were his words exactly. Wise Old Men.
— WOMs.
— Wise Old Men (Britain And Territories).
— WOMBATS.
— Shy creatures of the wild.
— My beard’s being cleaned. Owl shit. You go.
— We go together, old son.
— OK. But given the issues involved, we should all go Dutch.
— OK.

The call came. The lunch was arranged for the next Monday. Langford showed no interest in trundling down from Reading. The rest of us all met in Malcolm’s office at Gollancz, the firm which has published Budrys in this country for decades. I will now call him AJ. Though we’d corresponded for some years, I’d never met AJ in person until the previous week. Throughout the afternoon he exhibited that unflappable and fathomless American courtesy which I (for one) find deeply congenial, but inscrutable; he was of medium height, stocky, almost rotund, pale, serene. Like so many Americans, he exuded a bruising Dynaflow innocence — an innocence not of childhood but of Michaelmas. Peter, as usual, glowed with sartorial embonpoint, as though he had, only moments before, hatched out of a crystal egg; as neat as I know how to be, I resembled a cashiered Mountie; and Malcolm, as usual, looked as though the motorcycle gang had just left him behind in Hamelin. After chatting briefly, we (AJ and the three WOMBATs) then went to lunch at Malcolm’s shabby-genteel club.

We began the conversation. As the one among us most intimately involved in the sequence of decisions and requests that led up to AJ’s disastrous speech at the Hugo Awards ceremony, Peter led off. He described the inexperience and exhaustion of the members of the Convention Committee who were dealing with AJ’s request to speak, and the incrementing momentum of events that kept them off-balance; he gave his own sense that — whether or not deliberately on the part of AJ or Writers of the Future or New Era or Bridge Publications or the Church of Scientology itself — the Committee was ultimately bulldozed into approving a scenario in which the complex of Hubbard-derived organizations would be seen as having sponsored the Hugo Ceremony itself. Advertising (we all said at one point or another) was one thing, and was an accepted part of the Convention scene; but this was something else. It was sponsorship. The distinction was simple. When you advertise, you present your product in a context; when you sponsor, your product presents the context. And your product (we said) was L Ron Hubbard.

At this point I interjected what would become — in the four hours we were all together — rather a leit-motif for me. Whatever the legal niceties (I said) separating Writers of the Future from New Era/Bridge Publications and from the Church of Scientology as a formal organization, it was absolutely the case that, for the members of the Convention in specific and for the British SF community in general, Writers of the Future and New Era were perceived as being intimately bound into L Ron Hubbard’s posthumous empire. The perception was that only from that empire — perhaps in the form of revenue from the highly profitable publishing of Hubbard texts to a tied market — could New Era/Bridge derive the huge advertising budget so much in evidence at Brighton. So when AJ spoke for Writers of the Future at the Hugo Awards Ceremony, he was also speaking for the whole complex of organizations, and in that sense he was participating in Scientology’s campaign to purchase the posthumous legitimation of L Ron Hubbard as a central figure in the SF pantheon.

Peter and Malcolm went on to describe in detail the events surrounding that ceremony: AJ’s speech; the booing in the hall when Gene Wolfe named Hubbard’s Black Genesis as one of the books shortlisted for the novel award; the strange confusions about where the photo opportunity for Hugo winners would be held, concerning which Peter (as emcee) was given conflicting messages to read out to the Convention, and which he had finally to announce would be held in what turned out to be the Skyline Room, where New Era/Bridge was giving an invitation-only post-Awards party; the reported attempts by Fred Harris and others to ensure that Hugo winners were photographed under a banner advertising L Ron Hubbard and the organizations which used his name; and so forth. Given Scientology’s authoritarian attitude towards the control of information, and their bad relations with the press, it was not surprising (I remarked) that various legitimate members of the press were reported to have been excluded from the photo opportunity.

There seemed no doubt that AJ felt considerable dismay at this recital, and said more than once that, as far as he was concerned, nothing like this sequence of events would ever occur again. I said (and I think others said as well) that we were not meeting him at this point to give advice about how the organization he represented could better accomplish its goals. He then described his purpose in speaking before the ceremony. What he had wished to do (he said) was to dissociate Writers of the Future, with which he identified himself strongly, from any other organization to which it might have been linked. To this end (he said) he did not mention L Ron Hubbard’s name.

— But you did mention his name, said Peter.

— Yes, said Malcolm. You most certainly did.

I am myself absolutely certain that AJ genuinely believed he had not mentioned Hubbard, and when both Peter and Malcolm continued to assure him that he had indeed done so, and that there were tapes available which would confirm he had done so, he was visibly bemused. Thus ended the first phase of the conversation.

Interestingly, and at some considerable length, AJ then told us of his gradual involvement with individuals and organizations connected to L Ron Hubbard, then still alive. This involvement came about originally through AJ’s professional work as an SF writer/critic. Very briefly, after some initial advice he gave about Battlefield Earth, AJ was asked in his capacity as professional critic to read and evaluate the manuscript of the ten-volume novel Hubbard had written next, apparently around 1980-1982, and which is now being serially released by Bridge Publications and New Era, cognate organizations with different market areas (as AJ explained), and both initially founded to release Hubbard texts on Dianetics and Scientology. AJ had read the manuscript and had suggested changes, none of which (he thought) had been made. At around the same time, he became centrally involved with the Writers of the Future programme, and was soon working full-time (“More than full-time,” he said) on its projects; this situation continues. The shape of AJ’s narrative, and the specific details he gave about the complications of funding Writers of the Future during the six months after Hubbard’s death in 1986, were clearly intended to separate Writers of the Future in our minds from any other Hubbard-derived organization. However, though we were in no position to dispute (or to wish to dispute) any of the legal or circumstantial ramifications of AJ’s presentation, I don’t think I was alone in feeling that we were being given material of only marginal relevance to the issues at hand.

I know I felt that, as a highly skilled professional, himself involved in advertising over the past decade or two, AJ should not have failed to understand the Public Relations implications of his pre-Awards speech, should not have failed to understand that publicity for Writers of the Future was also publicity for the guru whose philanthropy had brought it into existence; and that publicity for L Ron Hubbard was also publicity for a militant closed quasi-religious organization which had, AJ now seemed to be claiming, over lunch, not the remotest interest, financial or otherwise, in Writers of the Future. And moreover I thought AJ should have at least suspected that his talk, given as it was in L Ron Hubbard’s name at the most nearly solemn moment of a Worldcon already inundated with welcome-aboard advertising from Hubbard’s scions, must inevitably have been understood by the audience as an attempt to announce the Award ceremony on behalf of the sponsor. On matters like these, I did not feel it was my job to teach AJ how to suck eggs. I was not about to think of AJ as a patsy. But on none of these matters — perhaps because he had suggested the lunch in order to hear our views — was he prepared to comment.

So what does it add up to? A tempest in a teacup? I continue to think not. There are two issues. One) sponsorship. Two) Scientology. Much of the conversation over lunch with AJ had concerned, directly or indirectly, the first of these, and it may well be the case that all four of us came essentially to agree that a scene as uncoordinated and collegial as an SF convention should not be seen to be sponsored by anyone. (Throughout our conversation I used the term “undue sponsorship,” a regrettable tautology I mention only now. In the context to which we were restricting ourselves, no sponsorship is due.) We may have all agreed about sponsorhip in the abstract, and AJ may have agreed that appearances were at the very least misleading; but it is certain that the three of us did not persuade him that in fact Scientology et al had a case to answer — that we were not at all foolish in suspecting that there had been an attempt to buy-out the convention and to present it as gift from L Ron Hubbard’s folk.

Which brings us to Scientology. Perhaps because he felt it was irrelevant to his concerns, AJ did not make any comments on the Church of Scientology at all, beyond disclaiming any connection between the Church and Writers of the Future. As I’m restricting myself to this lunch, neither will I attempt to to discuss Scientology in any extended fashion. But (even cursorily) I think a few things can be mentioned. Given the intertwined histories of American SF and Dianetics/Scientology, and given AJ’s strongly argued version of the history of the genre, in which L Ron Hubbard has a central role, I think it both perfectly natural and unexceptionable that AJ feel a kind of affinity both to Hubbard and to the revanchist longings of his heirs. But this sense of a community of discourse should not extend — and as far as I’m concerned should be seen not to extend — to any form of complicity or intellectual sympathy — on AJ’s part or anyone else’s — either with the tenets of Hubbard’s Church or with the behaviour of the leaders of that Church, insofar as an extraordinary barrier of litigation — funded from a seemingly bottomless purse — permits those tenets and that behaviour to be known. If all the facts were known, Scientology might not prove to be a repellent monolithic faith, a contaminated can-do cod Freudianism which transmogrifies the darkest truths about homo sapiens into imbecile litanies of Popular Mechanics soul-tinkerer’s prattle, user’s manuals for customizing the human machine, as though Thomas Alva Edison had been reborn as Shirley MacLaine; but the facts are not permitted to be known. If all the facts were known, the tactics of the Scientology organizations might not seem authoritarian, paranoid, manipulative, illiberal, claustrophobic, destructive of any sense that those with power should fund not prisons of the human mind but clerisies; but the facts are not permitted to be known. (It is here, incidentally, that one can begin to construct an argument with the tempest-teapotters, by introducing the concept of the trahison des clercs.) But none of this was properly aired, and if the lunch with AJ failed, if the WOMBATs felt drained and melancholic as 4pm rolled around, I think it may have been the failure of any of us to address one central issue that sapped the spirit.

I have no idea what AJ thinks of Scientology as a system for private adherence or belief, if indeed he thinks about it at all; and perhaps it’s none of my business. More sadly, after four hours with a man for whom I felt a strong liking, I ended up with no real sense of what AJ thought about anything. We tossed facts, tales, suggestions, hyperboles, accusations and commiserations at him; but it was like lobbing rocks into a black hole. Except for the statement that certain events would not happen again, and the insecure moment about whether or not he mentioned L Ron’s name, he remained, as far as we could tell, fully imperturbable, untouched, untouching. And as far as the lunch went, that was that. But the debate continued internally, at least in my head. It was all well and good (I argued) to grant Scientology (or Scientology’s quasi-corporate compadres) every right to advertise their presence at a Convention and promulgate their views there. Indeed it was germane to SF’s sense of collective identity — which was vested in Committee members last August — not to act in an oppressive fashion against a group suspected of themselves acting oppressively against others, for to act as one’s enemy was to become one’s enemy.

But the principle did not apply (I continued) in the same fashion to individuals. When an individual said Yes to something associated with Scientology and/or its founder (like Writers of the Future), he was speaking as an autonomous person, not a forum. Persons did not accept advertising. They became advertising. So when a person said Yes, he gave something of himself to that organization. He gave his name. He donated his virtue. It was a gift which, to mean anything at all, had to have been free. AJ must have been free to work for Writers of the Future. Robert Silverberg and Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny and the others must have been free to lend their names to Writers of the Future, and to all that it implied. But being free of course meant being free to say No. Which is what some writers in the field did say. When they were asked to lend their names to an organization connected — obscurely but ineradicably — to a philosophy of which they could not approve, they said No. I wished it were not the case, but nothing AJ said over lunch persuaded me (or I think any of us) that there had ever been any good reason for any person not to say No.

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