Innocents Abroad
Peter Nicholls

This piece is about what some people have seen, whether hysterically or not, as the scandal of New Era Publications' attempt to manipulate not just the Committee of the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention, but the Convention itself.

I don't think the sequence of events was just a storm in a teacup, though you can argue that there's a funny side to mass moral outrage. Still, I'm almost glad it happened. The paradox is that the fact of its happening will make it almost impossible for it to happen again, and that will be a good thing for science fiction.

There's some argument about exactly what did happen. I'm quite sure that what we witnessed was not an attempt by the Scientologists to take over science fiction. It was merely a tactless and in many ways inept attempt to glorify the memory of their late founder and leader, L. Ron Hubbard.

Here's a background summary, culled partly from my own research, and partly from information given to me and others by Algis Budrys at a lunch a week after the Convention, an enigmatic social event described elsewhere, I understand, by John Clute, who was also present.

Scientologists are not expert in the world of science fiction; they don't understand the way its family relationships work. Why should they? New Era Publications (in the U.K.) and Bridge Publications (in the U.S.A.) came into science fiction almost accidentally. They were originally small publishing companies (legally quite separate from the Church of Scientology) set up to publish the "textbooks" used by Scientologists. These were sold to disciples and potential disciples of Scientology at prices with a very generous profit margin built in. For this reason, these publishing companies were (and are) quite wealthy.

After L. Ron Hubbard began writing science fiction again towards the end of his life, many of his colleagues in Scientology were upset at what they considered the failure of St. Martin's Press to publicize Battlefield Earth (1983) properly. "Why not use our own publishing houses to publish our glorious leader's science fiction," one imagines one of them must have said, "and publicize him much more widely." You must remember that L. Ron Hubbard is known only dimly to Scientologists of today as a talented hack writer who published throughout the 1940s; they know him as a Guru. There is a very real sense in which Hubbard's words, even if in the form of pulp fiction, are seen by them as holy. (It is perfectly possible that there is nobody in the upper echelons of Scientology qualified to say whether Hubbard's recent fiction is "pulp" or not.)

You all know the results. Hubbard is dead now, but he left a legacy, so we are told, in the form of a "dekalogy" – a ten-volume novel – entitled Mission Earth. (It was volume two of the dekalogy, Black Genesis, that was nominated for the 1987 Hugo Award for best novel, placing sixth after "No Award".) I don't want to get involved in suppositions as to whether or not Hubbard is the actual author of the dekalogy; personally it seems to me entirely possible. My point is this: it is very important to New Era and Bridge that the dekalogy should be, and be seen to be, a commercial success; it would, in a way, be a public vindication of their Guru's genius, a genius which they consider to have had inadequate recognition outside the world of Scientology.

The campaign launched to publicize Mission Earth is probably unique in book publishing. Some of the techniques used, including convention and bookfair stands with scantily clad nubile women in attendance, seem to have been borrowed from the motor trade. But the real uniqueness is in the sheer scale of the publicity. An informed guess as to the cost of the campaign, which has included major advertisements in the national press and elsewhere, would be difficult to make; over one million dollars would be a wild guess. It seems likely that despite the mild commercial success of the books, much more money has been spent on selling them than has been made from selling them.

The fact that the books are rambling and ill-written, and apparently not edited at all, would not have endeared them to any but the least demanding of fans. But it is the overall techniques used in advertising them that have created a major backlash effect in science-fiction fandom. SF fans generally show much greater contempt for the books (witness the booing at the Hugo ceremony) than would have been the case if, for example, Hubbard had merely been an elderly ex sf-writer making an unspectacular comeback with a series of paperback originals.

Before Hubbard died, we are told, he said he wanted to do something for the genre of science fiction to which he had once belonged and was now attempting to rejoin, and he set up the Writers of the Future competition as a way of encouraging young or previously unknown writers. As I understand it, he funded the competition himself in the first instance. It was only after his death that the Writers of the Future sponsorship was taken over by Bridge and New Era. With this sponsorship the Writers of the Future competition came to be publicized more obviously than before with techniques that combine American hardsell and American evangelism. And, of course, when the winning competition stories are published in book form, they are published by Bridge and New Era as "L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers of the Future".

The result of this is that no matter how noble the motives of the sponsors, the judges and the entrants, the ultimate effect is (i) to show the founder of the Church of Scientology in a good light, at a time when the Scientologists, especially in the United States, have been coming under severe scrutiny, and (ii) to show the publishing houses set up to publish Scientology texts as idealistic patrons of the arts. In other words, the Writers of the Future programme has become, whether innocently or knowingly, a major weapon in a propaganda campaign.

Quite a few well known sf writers have become involved with the Writers of the Future competition (a British version is about to be launched) as judges and, in the case of Algis Budrys, editor. They include or have included Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, Gene Wolfe, Roger Zelazny, Frederik Pohl and Gregory Benford. I know or knew them all, and I have absolutely no reason to believe that they support the programme for any other reason than a wish to help young writers along.

Rumours of fantastic salaries are false. One judge told me he was paid $25 for each manuscript read and reported on, and while this is mildly generous, it is certainly no more than a top writer might expect to earn in other ways for the same effort and time spent. A judge who reported on, say, forty manuscripts, which would be quite a job, would earn $1000, which is around £600 – the same as I would get, say, for 5000 words written for the Washington Post and The Guardian.

Nevertheless, by lending their prestige and their expertise to the programme, these judges (often visible at conventions with "minders" from Bridge and New Era) are, in my opinion, giving indirect moral support to the Scientologists. Some I have spoken to seem a little uneasy about this, and unhappy about sharing platforms occasionally with their Scientology colleagues, while insisting at the same time that the programme is genuinely useful to neophyte writers. I do not know if any of the judges are themselves Scientologists, but I would guess probably not.

This brings me to the events prior to and at Conspiracy '87, a convention whose title took on unfortunate and unintended overtones. I observed from a moderately privileged perspective. I was not a Committee member myself, but I was an active assistant to Committee member Chris Donaldson in organizing the programme and general convention troubleshooting, and was thus well aware of what was happening administratively. Also, when Brian Aldiss, the toastmaster, dropped out as MC of the Hugo Award ceremony – because he had a book up for the Best Nonfiction award, which he won – I took over. I was not, however, the Hugo Award ceremony organizer. That was Glaswegian fan Vince Doherty.

I believe the Convention Committee made five errors, each of them understandable, and several apparently trivial, which taken together were compounded into a whole which was sadly greater than the sum of its parts. The result was genuine fury from a substantial percentage, it seemed, of fandom, though what the actual number of outraged persons was, out of the 6000-odd people who registered, I have no idea. Certainly well over a hundred people came to me personally and complained.

Fandom – or a highly visible part of it – was furious that their own integrity seemed compromised and up for sale. The science-fiction community values its independence and freedom from commercial pressures. It's a heterogenous community of course, ranging from tremulous aesthetes to beer-swilling thugs, from Trekkies in fancy dress to crazed computer hackers, but on some issues fannish consensus does miraculously occur. I don't think fandom would be too happy at any single film production company or publisher seeming to dominate or be in control of the proceedings of any convention. For example, California fans have taken active steps not to appear formally aligned with Lucasfilm, maker of the Star Wars movies. When the commercial body in question is widely perceived as being a front organization for a religious cult which is to say the least controversial, a cult that has been condemned by several judges from the bench, a cult which whether rightly or wrongly is perceived as being dangerous to cross, then there is bound to be trouble.

And that was the general perception: that Conspiracy '87, which was the biggest event ever to represent British fandom, and one of the biggest ever to represent international fandom, had been made a tool of a publishing company which was itself a front organization for a religious cult. If fandom had been taken over by the Christians or the Jews there would have been bad feeling. Being taken over by the Scientologists was very much worse.

Well, in fact the Scientologists came nowhere near taking over Conspiracy '87. I can personally testify, for example, that only one programme item of several hundreds – the Writers of the Future panel – had any input whatsoever from New Era Publications. The trouble is that the areas in which New Era were active were all very high-profile. They wanted the maximum exposure to fandom, and they got it. They now probably regret getting it. I understand that several senior persons connected with Scientology are absolutely furious at what they regard as a tactless and ill-judged publicity campaign. (On the other hand, two people who are rumoured to think this way, Fred Harris and Algis Budrys, were surely in part to blame.)

The five errors which made it appear that New Era Publications had suborned the Committee were as follows:

(i) The cover of the official Pocket Programme was given over to an L. Ron Hubbard icon;

(ii) Tickets to the New Era party were distributed as part of the official convention greeting pack;

(iii) The masquerade (fancy dress competition to you and me) had several New Era sponsored prizes, much mentioned over the microphone;

(iv) Algis Budrys gave a speech on behalf of the Writers of the Future programme immediately prior to the Hugo Award ceremony, a speech assumed by many to be part of the official ceremony;

(v) The official photo-call for Hugo Award-winners was held at the New Era party.

Of these, numbers (i), (iv) and (v) did the most damage, but let's take all five in order:

(i) As I understand it, for many months before the Convention the Committee felt themselves to be under financial pressure. It is not possible in the U.K. to charge membership fees quite as high as those in the U.S.A., they believed, with any real prospect of getting enough "casual" supporters in, though the hard core of fandom would no doubt attend. Their budget would therefore be smaller than that of an American Worldcon.

Yet, at the same time, expectations of professionalism in World Conventions have gone a long way up over the past decade, and this kind of professionalism is expensive. The Committee were far from sure that there would be enough money to do the things they felt needed to be done, but they would not risk the limited company that was formed to run Conspiracy '87 going bankrupt. It would reflect very badly on British fandom, and anyway, would make life very difficult for the Committee members themselves. Several of them were already directors of other companies, and if Conspiracy '87 went bankrupt, these other directorships would be jeopardized.

In other words, Conspiracy '87 needed additional funds, and the obvious way of obtaining them was through sponsorships, which were most likely to come from publishing companies and from bookshops, as in the event they did. Among the companies that agreed to help sponsor Conspiracy '87 was New Era. I understand that the figure they offered was £5000. They asked in return that the programme should contain a panel item devoted to Writers of the Future, and suggested that the Pocket Programme should use a cover picture provided by New Era. With hindsight, the Committee could properly have said "yes" to the first, but should have refused the second condition.

It's actually a complicated story. Only a few days before the Pocket Programme was due to go to press (the timetable was completely inflexible) the proposed cover picture arrived. By Frank Frazetta, it featured a scantily clad female figure (it may have been naked, I can't remember). In any case, it threw the Committee into a complete turmoil. Several Committee members are active feminists, and most of them are supporters of the feminist movement. They decided that, at no matter what cost to the convention finances, they had to turn the cover picture down, as being offensive to womanhood. (A.J. Budrys told me the picture was meant to have a spiritual meaning; I must say its purely carnal qualities impressed me more than its metaphorical significance.)

A flurry of phonecalls and a threat by New Era to withdraw the cash was followed by a compromise. Would Conspiracy '87 accept a second, absolutely non-sexist picture? They would. It arrived just in time to go to the printers. None of the Committee, with the exception of Rob Jackson who was editor of the Pocket Programme, even saw it. [CE: Rob Jackson did not in fact see it either.]

In the event, of course, it proved much more upsetting than Frazetta's spiritual fairy creature with tits and a pubic mound would have done. It depicted not only the highly identifiable cover of an L. Ron Hubbard book, but – more importantly – it depicted a mailed fist about to crush the world. This picture, too, seemed to have a metaphorical significance, and it didn't need an Algis Budrys to explicate it. The Scientologists, so the picture said quite clearly to a great many people who commented on it, were shown as having the whole globe in their ruthless grasp. Okay, this is melodrama, but the picture itself is melodramatic, and it is difficult to imagine a worse choice.

My judgement is that the Committee should not have accepted £5000 from New Era, on the grounds that they were not just any publishing company, but a publishing company that is a front organization for a cult. But they needed the money, and at least some of them argued that it would be unethical to make distinctions between publishers as to who was good enough to support science fiction and who wasn't. Also, they didn't see the picture until it was too late! Poor Rob Jackson, who did see it, was desperately pressed for time, and it seemed to him that the alternative was to have a Pocket Programme with no cover at all.

Far from being cynical or corrupt, the Committee showed itself clearly, by refusing the Frazetta cover, to have a strong ethical motivation. The trouble was, that having made an embarrassing ethical stand at the last minute but one, they were very much in the mood to accept an apparently less harmful compromise at the absolute last minute. With hindsight, it was a disastrous decision.

(ii) By putting invitations to a New Era party in the welcome pack, the Committee, it could be argued, made it seem as if the party had their official imprimatur. But didn't they also put in invitations to the Andromeda Books fan party? On its own the inclusion of the New Era party invitations was not a serious error, but in the context that later emerged, it was unfortunate.

(iii) I have no inside information at all about New Era's sponsorship of certain categories of prize at the masquerade. I do know that the masquerade audience was critical at the constant reiteration of the name "New Era" during the competition, and Anne Page the masquerade organizer sounded a bit embarrassed about it over the microphone. I see nothing wrong in events like the masquerade receiving commercial sponsorship, but I don't think any commercial company, be it Gollancz or Pizza Hut, should be allowed to have this kind of intrusive presence at a fun event like a fancy dress competition.

(iv) By the Sunday of Conspiracy, the anti New Era feeling was hotting up. Chris Donaldson and others were hurt and upset at the various samizdat sheets alleging that the Scientologists had taken over control of Conspiracy that were being widely circulated on the Saturday. I think this may have been the first time the Committee realized the strength of feeling that New Era's various sponsorships had aroused.

On the Sunday morning, the Programme Committee, of which I was a member, met in one of the Committee suites. We were told that on the previous day Algis Budrys had approached the Committee to ask if he could speak for a few minutes before the Hugo ceremony on the Sunday night on behalf of the Writers of the Future programme. The Committee had agreed to this.

I was absolutely furious. I was feeling tired and aggressive anyway, after days of the rather thankless hard work that programme organizers have to do. (Largely consisting of placating angry American writers wholly unknown to me who demanded to be put onto the programme at the last minute.) In the context of all the criticism that the Committee had come in for, it seemed to me that letting Budrys speak as if he were actually a part of the Hugo ceremony, which is the nearest thing in fandom to a High Mass, was suicidal. I was told that there was no alternative; the decision was made and was final.

I said I refused to appear on the platform as MC with Budrys there. Paul Oldroyd and Chris Donaldson, the two Committee members present, suggested a compromise. Budrys would speak first with the house lights up, and then I would do my bit only after he left the platform, and the music announcing the ceremony proper would be played only when Budrys had finished. I was still very angry, but I'd spent some time preparing my performance, such as it was, and I couldn't see any advantage to anyone if I simply refused to MC the ceremony with only hours in which to find an unready replacement. So I agreed.

I later learned that Mike Christie, another of the programme organizers and a thoroughly good fellow, was sufficiently disturbed by what I had said to go and buttonhole Budrys himself. Astonishingly, Budrys told Mike Christie that the main reason he wanted to speak was to make it quite clear to the vast audience that the Writers of the Future programme was administratively completely separate from the Church of Scientology, and that they dissociated themselves from Scientology. When I heard this (before the ceremony) I wasn't much placated. My feeling was that the Award ceremony was not the time or place for any kind of special pleading, no matter how well intentioned. (I don't even like things like the Big Heart Award and the First Fandom Award being included in the ceremony, because they are not democratically awarded by fandom; indeed I understand that the entire judges' panel for the Big Heart Award consists of Forry Ackerman.)

Other disturbing things happened that afternoon. Suzy McKee Charnas asked to withdraw from the ceremony (she had been asked to present the award for best non-fiction) on the grounds that she had heard it rumoured that the fix was in, and that L. Ron Hubbard was going to get the award for best novel through a bloc vote of Scientologists. This was, of course, wholly false, but it suggests the kind of wild rumour flying about, and carrying with it sufficient fervour to convince at least one extremely intelligent person. I knew, as MC, that Hubbard had not won, and I had to break the rule of total confidentiality in order to reassure Suzy that she needn't worry. In the event she didn't show up on time to present the award anyway. And the ceremony itself, about which, by now, I was feeling extremely miserable?

Well, I suppose most of you were there. Budrys's speech was embarrassingly disastrous in almost every imaginable way. By personally thanking various Committee members, such as Chris Donaldson, he sought to make it clear that they were allies of New Era; this is just what the Committee didn't need, though some might argue that they deserved it. The promises made to Mike Christie, if promises they were, were broken. Far from dissociating Writers of the Future from Scientology, Budrys stressed the New Era connection and even lavished praise on both the generosity and the literary skills of L. Ron Hubbard. (Curiously, Budrys has total amnesia on this point; he believes he mentioned Hubbard not at all.)

The house lights, as I recall, were not left on. Certainly, the prevailing impression was that even the Hugo ceremony was now sponsored by Scientologists, with the complaisance of the organizers. There was much muttering. To make matters worse, Budrys was himself invited to present one of the awards; he was asked at the last minute to fill in for the Strugatsky brothers, who opted out because of language difficulties. I was not consulted on this until after Budrys was asked.

I really felt quite sick as the spotlight fell on me and I bounced on to the stage to do my bit. I thought that the booing as the novel title Black Genesis was read out was unfortunate but understandable (though one shouldn't interrupt a High Mass). However this was trivial. I truly believe there would have been a riot if Hubbard had won the Award. The evening would have broken up in total disorder.

The unanswered question is: Why did the Committee allow this farce to take place? Well, the Committee are nearly all friends of mine, and I like them. Chris Donaldson has ethics at least as spectacular as those of the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church, and is lovable with it. She simply isn't the person to sell out.

The thing is, though, that she didn't see it as selling out. In my view the Committee was conned. For example, before the Convention Budrys had taken Chris out to lunch, and convinced her that Writers of the Future was a programme of considerable purity, a programme that would do a great deal of good for young British writers at a time when the British magazine and anthology market has sunk to its possibly lowest state for five decades. Chris thought that a number of budding young writers she personally knew would benefit from the programme. She liked Budrys personally (as I do too) and trusted him (as I regret to say I think I don't, for reasons explained below). She felt, as did others, that allowing Budrys to speak before the entire massed Convention membership would be the best possible way of giving the Writers of the Future programme the publicity that it richly deserved. (I'm sorry, Chris, if I seem to be second-guessing you here; I know you'll tell me pretty sharply if I've got this all wrong.)

What I can vouch for personally is that after the ceremony Chris felt devastated and betrayed, and fell into a major depression.

I'm sorry to be running on like this, but I want to make one further point. I have since the 1950s had a very great respect for Budrys as a writer. Rogue Moon, Who? and Michaelmas are all minor sf classics. He has not had the recognition he deserved. I have corresponded with him, also. I felt, prior to Conspiracy, that he was an old friend who through some oversight I had never actually met.

I have met him now, and he's a nice man. I suppose him to be an honest man, but he is certainly obsessed with and passionate about the success of the Writers of the Future programme, a programme to which he has given up several years of his life. In the process, he has developed a much higher profile in the sf community, and travelled a great deal more, than previously. This must have been pleasant in many ways, and may partly explain his commitment to the programme, but there is certainly a lot of idealism in there too. I cannot see A.J. as a knave; I confess that I do see him as a dupe, which is why I do not altogether trust him. I think he has paid too high a price in order to reach what he perceives as a good objective. Also, he is undoubtedly tactless.

The tactlessness is partly because of his perfectly genuine admiration for L. Ron Hubbard, at least for Hubbard in his role as a science-fiction writer of the 1940s. He sees nothing odd about giving the highest possible praise of Hubbard, who for him is one of the most influential and important writers of the period, and somehow the praise seems to spill over Hubbard generally, his later life as well as his earlier. (I think some earlier Hubbard, notably Fear, is extremely interesting, but I don't rate him nearly as high as Budrys does, either as writer or as influence.) For the record, although A.J. never said so in so many words, I don't think he believes Hubbard's recent "dekalogy" to be any good.

(v) During the Award Ceremony some of you may have observed bits of paper being pushed at me from the side of the stage. I don't know where they came from; presumably from the stage manager or one of her assistants. One asked me to make an announcement forbidding flash photography. Most of the others related to my being asked to announce the venue for the photo-call session for award-winners after the ceremony was complete. The first and last of these mutually contradictory messages gave the venue as the Starlight Room. The second gave some other venue, I can't remember which. None of them mentioned the New Era party.

I did not then realize that the Starlight Room was the room in which the New Era party was scheduled to take place. If I had remembered the wording on my own invitation to the party, and therefore realized what had happened, I'm not sure whether I would have read out the notice or not. Certainly, when I found out after the ceremony, I violently disapproved. Nor do I know who authorized this as the venue. Vince Doherty was the ceremony organizer, and it may have been him, but I don't know.

It was yet another disastrous decision. For one thing it made life difficult for photographers who were not asked to the party. I understand there is an argument about whether any photographers were not allowed in. Steve Jones (who unfortunately was Press Officer to both Conspiracy '87 and to New Era Publications – I don't know if this was known at the time to the Committee) says nobody was kept out. But I hear that Charlie Brown says he wasn't let in to take photographs for Locus.

Much more important, the Hugo photographs should not be connected to any commercial organization. It would be absolute death to the Hugos if they came to be seen as connected in any way to any one publishing house. It would be even worse if New Era publicity material appeared in the background of the photographs, but even if it didn't, there's nothing to prevent them using the photographs with captions reading "The winners of the 1987 Hugo Awards have a celebratory champagne at the New Era party", or words to that effect. This would make it seem as if the "most important" writers in science fiction supported the work of New Era, and would be invaluable propaganda material. Fine, if New Era invite the winners individually and personally, and they agree to be photographed in this way. But it's simply not on for Conspiracy itself to announce that the official photographs will appear with what is effectively a New Era logo pasted over all of them.

This is the point at which bile and disgust really welled up in me. I went to bed quite early that night, exhausted and angry, despite the rival attractions of Toby Roxburgh's continuous, floating now-you-see-it-now-you-don't room party. Before I went to bed I quickly became aware that nobody was talking about anything but New Era's "takeover" of Conspiracy. Voices were raised, drinks were thrown (the next evening as well), and Scientology lost a few friends and made many enemies among people who were previously neutral or disinterested.

The whole thing was disgraceful. I know that many people are blaming the Conspiracy committee for the debacle, and I can see why. My defence of them is bound to seem patronising, though this is not my intention. My defence is this: they were desperately overworked, they meant well, and they were innocents abroad. The only Committee member with any really long-term knowledge of the ins-and-outs of what sf professionals get up to and what commercial interests get up to, was Malcolm Edwards. And Malcolm, whose marriage had recently collapsed, did not play the central role as Chairman that was originally hoped and expected from him. That left decisions to be made by people who (a) had to make them in a hurry, and (b) didn't necessarily have the worldly wisdom to realize their implications.

I'm old, sour and cynical, and have been around for a long time. I saw a lot of these problems coming, but I was in no position to do anything very concrete about them. With hindsight (again) I wish I had made my feelings more strongly known earlier on. But I wasn't on the Committee, and I've never been on a Convention committee, and I simply didn't see myself (my own ethics have been queried over the years) as having the moral authority to tell the Committee what to do and what not to do. I'm sorry now, when it's too late.

However, perhaps it was just a storm in a teacup after all. But I don't really think so.