L. Ron Hubbard’s Ole Doc Methuselah on Capitalism and Universal Healthcare

OLEDOCDuring the pulp era, there were a great many prolific writers who often turned out a book or two a week.  Of the science-fiction authors from that era, there were perhaps none more prolific in their prime than L. Ron Hubbard.  This is not to say the writing was great, just that there was a lot of it.  It was kind of like the diarrhea of a typewriter.  Hubbard, who is perhaps more infamous than famous, once published Ole Doc Methuselah under the pseudonym ‘René Lafayette (Hubbard likely thought that the accent aigu added some prestige to the name).  The work, which is a collection of episodic stories centered on a futuristic doctor named Ole Doc Methuselah, was republished after Hubbard made a name for himself as the founder and leader of scientology.  While the collection does offer some progressive observations regarding capitalism and universal healthcare, the writing, plotting and characters development simply are not effective enough to maintain the interest of the reader.

 

 

L. Ron Hubbard: apparently they still used quills back in the 1960's.

L. Ron Hubbard: apparently they still used quills back in the 1960’s.

The first narrative, which shares the same title as the collection, ‘Ole Doc Methuselah’, is an example of laissez faire gone wrong.  An entrepreneur named Judge Elsto is tricked into helping the story’s antagonist, Edouard Blanchard, swindle a group of people by selling land on a worthless planet.  Elsto learns of the rouse and proves willing to “absorb any loss occasioned on the matter” (14), but the antagonist, capitalist scum that he is, would rather kill Elsto than lose the money.  The fact the thousands of people will be left broke and trapped on a planet with no help are “concerns [that] rarely trouble the conscience of the Edouard Blanchards” of the world universe (16).  Blanchard, who has ownership over three water reservoirs, is willing to sell all three Methuselah, who poses as a prospective investor, which would allow Methuselah to have a monopoly.  This demonstrates how some capitalists seek to develop a ‘captive market’ (similar to the one presented in Philip K. Dick’s short storyCaptive Market’) and take unfair advantage of the populace.  These “captains of industry” (21), Elsto and Blanchard, are diametrically opposed, and in the end, Hubbard ensures that the responsible capitalist prevails, but the narrative notes that not all capitalists are fair minded.  Whilst corrupt capitalists may not turn profits in the long run, if a short-term gain is large enough, they won’t have to worry about long-term gains.  The moral of the story?  Laissez Faire doesn’t work; government regulations are needed, otherwise the market will destroy lives.  Marx lives on!  But I wish he had a more articulate and eloquent spokesmen than Hubbard.

 

OLEDOC1The first narrative is linked with ‘Her Majesty’s Aberration’, another narrative in the collections, through the concept of universal healthcare, and in this case, the ‘universal’ is especially applicable, since Ole Doc Methuselah is providing healthcare not only universally to the working class and ruling class alike, but across the actual universe as well.  As a member of the “Universal medical society” (20), he travels to a monarchist planet that has recently undergone rebellions.  He is captured and asked to take care of a fellow prisoner of some importance.  The child he examines has tuberculosis, of which “he had not seen an advanced case of… for more than two hundred years”.  It is noted that “it was with great shock that he plumbed the ignorance of these people” (52).  The ignorance is equated with brutality as Methuselah frames the refusal of healthcare as a brutality “He had not seen… for a long, long time” (52).  The choice of tuberculosis is especially important, because it is the result of class discrepancy.  The disease is closely linked with overcrowding, malnutrition, and poverty (Wiki), and is preventable and treatable in many cases.  However, the people who are most susceptible to the disease are unable to afford preventative measures and treatment.  Tuberculosis is a fatal epidemic whose impact can be greatly reduced, but international governments simply do not put up the funding required to combat the disease.  Instead, funding often goes to military operations.  Hubbard’s framing that the failure to treat and combat the disease as a ‘brutality’, is a succinct and frank manner to articulate the problem that persists to this day.  The lack of universal healthcare is a symptom of the brutality of modern governments that are better described as ‘capitalist’ than ‘responsible’, or ‘democratic’.  It is a shame that the narrative Hubbard constructed wasn’t more engaging, but the plot seems forced and the character one-dimensional.

 

L. Ron Hubbard: The electropsychometer say you are very stressed. Tomato: YES!! Because you just stabbed me with your electropsychometer!

L. Ron Hubbard: The electropsychometer say you are very stressed.
Tomato: YES!! Because you just stabbed me with your electropsychometer!

‘The Great Air Monopoly’ is another narrative that speaks to issues related to capitalism.  Just as Blanchard was willing offer a monopoly on water to Methuselah, the antagonists in ‘The Great Air Monopoly’ exploits the monopoly they have on air.  When Methuselah arrives on planet and meets the inhabitants, they tell him that they “have no money to pay their air tax” (80).  There have been dystopian worlds where air has been treated as a commodity that can be tax or sold (to humours effect in the Mel Brooks film Spaceballs), and while this seems absurd, the parallel with monopolies on water is not unheard of.  Water, like air, is a necessity of life, yet in many regions on Earth, people do not have access to clean drinking water.  In some instances, even when clean drinking water is available, people must pay to access it and corporations turn huge profits from this.  Food, clothes, and shelter are all likewise necessities of life, but few are provided this or given the opportunity to secure these things without paying abhorrent prices set out by corporations.  In America, there has even been a public backlash (though it may be a vocal minority given a soapbox by Fox News) against food stamps, and homelessness runs rampant through even the wealthiest nations.  While Hubbard’s narrative isn’t terribly interesting or engaging, it does present some issues that remain relevant today, over fifty years after the books initial publication.

 

OLEDOC3In capitalist societies that commoditize the basic needs of life, it is not uncommon that they might commoditize life itself, as G.J. Arlington, the antagonist in ‘The Expensive Slaves’, does.  Hubbard writes that “when man… is the scarcity, capital invests itself in human beings and slavery, regardless of the number of laws which may be passed against it, is practised everywhere” (61).  The problem is, of course, that manpower is always a scarcity, and so slavery is ever present, though it might take on different names.  The title speaks to the cost of slavery, not just the economic costs, but the spiritual costs as well.  Arlington believes that he has picked up his slave for what he sees as a profitable price, however, he learns that when they arrive they cause cancer as plutonium is the basis of their metabolism.  This physical illness is perhaps a metaphor for the spiritual or moral illness linked with slavery.  Those who enslave ultimately lose their own humanity, just as Arlington put himself in a position to lose his life.

 

The always photogenic L. Ron Hubbard.

The always photogenic L. Ron Hubbard.

The narrative is also closely linked with conversations on colonialism and imperialism.  Hubbard writes that “big fleas ate smaller ones inevitably” (62), which seems to encapsulate the spirit of colonialism/imperialism.  The ‘might is right’ attitude is articulated by Arlington after Methuselah suggests speaking to the natives Arlington has enslaved.  He responds: “Why should I talk to a filthy native?”  His reason for questing this approach is lacking reason: “We are superior to them in culture and weapons and that makes them inferior to us” (66).  Suggesting that his own culture is superior seems to be taking the biased occidental approach to ‘oriental’ culture, as outlined by Edward Said.  Arlington does not know or understand the native culture, and so is unqualified to compare the two (as if the value of a culture could be quantified).  As to the weapons, this is the aspect that reinforces the ‘might is right’ attitude.  Because Arlington has access to better weapons, he believes he is superior.  This arguments places force above reason, but as Lao Tzu states in the Tao Te Ching, “Even the best weapon is an unhappy tool”.  Hubbard does a good job of framing slavery as a social ill, but he doesn’t do a good job of linking it to contemporary problems, and the characters and plot seemed forced and rushed.

 

Merry Christmas from Kent cigarettes, giving you the gift of cancer one smoke at a time.

Merry Christmas from Kent cigarettes, giving you the gift of cancer one smoke at a time.

Despite the fact that Hubbard addresses some important social issues, there parts of the narrative and the paratext, that undo the work Hubbard is working toward.  While slavery is deplored by Metheselah (not to be confused with Methuselah), he himself has a slave that accompanies him throughout his journey.  This relationship is presented as a symbiotic one that is mutually beneficial to both parties, which makes it especially problematic because it seems to suggest that slavery is a viable institution if done properly (as if that were possible).  There is also an issue with the paratext.  In the middle of the book is an advertisement for Kent cigarettes.  The narrative, though, actually speaks to the ills of smoking, but is funded in part by tobacco companies.  This demonstrates how the capitalist systems undercuts the intent of the author’s work, even whilst he is railing against capitalism.  The fact that it is a tobacco company advertising in the book which promotes health is especially problematic because it suggests that the message is less important than the profits gained by simultaneously promoting smoking whilst arguing against it.  This may be a little joke that the publishers/Hubbard got in on Kent cigarettes since Kent is essentially paying for advertising in a book that speaks to the ills of smoking, but the placement seems unintentional.  It also speaks to the fact that the book is simply a delivery systems for the advertisement, and not a piece of literature.  Such forms of paratext can serve to undermine the work.

 

 

The Young L. Ron Hubbard.

The Young L. Ron Hubbard.

When reading the work, it was clear to me that the person writing it was an intelligent person whose politics I would likely agree with in most instances, and that the author has a strong understanding of capitalist systems and the follies linked with them.  However, the narrative simply wasn’t well executed.  After having re-read some short stories from Philip K. Dick recently, I am only reminded of the expert skill Dick had at addressing some of these very same issues.  Hubbard simply doesn’t know how to create an authentic, relatable characters, and his plotting is too mechanical.  There are some interesting alignments with Arthurian romances, framing the stories as a knight on a quest, but Hubbard fails to follow through after overtly making the link in the opening narratives.  The story and people simply are not engaging enough to maintain my interest, even if the politics are.  If you want to engage in some science-fiction that uses the genre as a means to have conversations about social issues, then it is best to pick up the works of Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick, or check out Star Trek and Star Trek The Next Generation.

 

If you liked this review and would like to get updates on my latest posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @LiteraryRambler.  And now I leave you with my favorite quote from Ole Doc Methuselah:

“Whosoever shall kill large numbers of people solely for satisfaction shall be given a hearing and shall be fined a week’s pay.” (79)

Works Cited:

 

Hubbard, L. Ron.  Ole Doc Methuselah.  DAW Books.  New York. 1970.  Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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