Saturday, June 23, 2012

To the Stars by L. Ron Hubbard

To the Stars was originally published in the February 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It sold for twenty-five cents. That landmark issue also featured stories by A. E. van Vogt, Lawrence O’ Donnell, Poul Anderson, Roger Flint Young, Cleve Cartmill, and Katherine McLean. Hubbard’s story was the first of two parts and by far To the Stars was the issue’s highlight.

 The now famous letters-to-the-editor page – Brass Tacks – included a missive from a fan named Rudolph W. Preisendorfer from Cambridge Massachusetts who comments that L. Ron Hubbard’s story The Auto-Magic Horse was the best of the October issue. “This novelette is literally bidding for sequels,” Preisendorfer wrote, “and I am certainly looking forward to them.” To the Stars appeared at the tail-end of the pulp era. Paperbacks had begun to proliferate and the magazine market, while still a viable influence, had taken a backseat to television, radio and films. American culture was in transition. The Cold War had begun in tandem with the Atomic Age. Nothing would ever be the same again. Even then we looked back nostalgically at those pre-war Depression years, but the American cultural mind-set was clearly focused on the future. What influence these cultural elements had on Hubbard’s thinking is unknown, but some logical assumptions can be made. His researches into the human condition had begun prior to World War II and the catastrophic events at Hiroshima and Nagaski undoubtedly had an effect on the writer-turned-philosopher. This, then, is L. Ron Hubbard in 1950. He was a man in transition, writing about people in transition, but embracing the future.

Intentionally or not, To the Stars is a reflection of the era in which it was written. It is, in hindsight, the forerunner of science fiction’s next wave which would quite naturally become known as “The New Wave” by the mid 1960s. The opening line is among the best known in literature: "Space is deep, man is small and time is his relentless enemy.” And so begins the gut-wrenching saga of Alan Corday, an engineer shanghaied at New Chicago and facing the interstellar path known as the “Long Passage.” The basic elements of science fiction are but a framework upon which Hubbard draped an elaborate mosaic that is part love story, part adventure story, but “pure science fiction,” as he would later call it.  And there are classical elements of tragedy in Corday’s plight.
The 1950s was science fiction's golden age and To the Stars remains one of those influential books that helped define a generation. It is unlike anything else that Hubbard wrote, although its tone and themes are closely aligned with his 1940 masterpiece, Final Blackout. There are no hidden meanings or obtuse symbols in To the Stars. It’s a tragedy, and by definition this is to say it documents the downfall of certain characters whose plight is determined by the action of others. It is also a morality play; a device wherein the author personifies his characters with moral qualities. These qualities can be such abstractions as death, or charity. In Hubbard’s creative hands the story cautions against certain indulgences but he does so in such a skillful manner that one never senses he is being preached to.

Because Alan Corday has been kidnapped and taken aboard the interstellar trading starship Hound of Heaven, he is destined to lose contact with those he loves on earth, especially his fiancé. Six weeks of time aboard the Hound of Heaven amounts to approximately nine years of earth time. The scene in which Corday eventually returns to earth to confront his aged fiancé is a moving and memorable scene. Hubbard wisely avoids traditional space opera elements and keeps the plausible scenario intact. In fact it’s a heartbreaking story, beautifully written, and one of the genuine classics of early science fiction. But more importantly, To the Stars has withstood its own test of time as a viable classic of literature.

To the Stars was immensely popular when it first appeared and it was reprinted in paperback under the title Return to Tomorrow. This is how I first encountered it sometime in the early 1970s. The current hardcover edition from Galaxy Press is a collector’s item. The star chart endpapers, deluxe binding and glossy metallic dust-jacket that partially reproduces the 1950 magazine cover make this a choice piece of literature for the home library. 
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