Many millions of words of fiction are disintegrating in the fragile, browning pages of the old pulp magazines, a primary source of entertainment that flourished in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s before dying out in the 1950s. Much, perhaps most of their contents are not worth preserving, but given the talented writers that contributed to the pulps, there must be plenty of worthwhile stories that deserve revival. If an author is commercially successful or important enough--Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, Lovecraft, L'Amour, Heinlein, Bradbury, Max Brand, Fredric Brown, John D. MacDonald--at least some and sometimes all of the work is likely to be reprinted in more permanent form. One subject of such a reclamation project is L. Ron Hubbard, best known for science fiction but prolific and accomplished in a variety of popular genres--mystery, fantasy, western, air and sea adventure, and espionage. If Hubbard's continued life in print is due mainly to his fame as the author of Dianetics and founder of the Church of Scientology, he was a highly versatile and competent writer whose early work brims with energy and excitement.
Drawing on a seemingly endless supply of previously out of print novellas, Galaxy Press intends to reissue over 150 Hubbard stories in a series of 80 volumes, which are also made available in dramatized form as audiobooks. The reasonably priced trade paperbacks could not be more handsomely produced, with colorful pulp-style covers, interior black-and-white illustrations, and good quality paper. Most consist of one short novel, of a length that could be published in a single issue of a pulp magazine. Each book includes the same foreword by Kevin J. Anderson and concluding biographical piece, illustrated with photographs, both highly laudatory, even hagiographic, as befits a religious prophet. Still, there's not a word about Scientology in the biography, just a statement that Hubbard left pulp writing after his World War II service to devote himself to "his serious research."
Unique to each volume is a glossary, defining specialized terms and allusions and sometimes addressing the inevitable political incorrectness, such as the following on Kipling's 1899 coinage "white man's burden": "Subject to different interpretations, it was latched onto by imperialists to justify colonialism as a noble enterprise. Much of Kipling's other writings suggested that he genuinely believed in the benevolent role that the introduction of Western ideas could play in lifting non-Western peoples out of 'poverty and ignorance.'"
Orders is Orders, from the December 1937 issue of Argosy, is an excellent introduction to Hubbard's writing. As war between Japan and China rages, the United States is officially neutral. Those stranded in the American embassy at Shunkien, a city under siege, face diminishing food supplies and a threat of cholera. From a naval vessel anchored offshore, an alcoholic Marine gunnery sergeant and a lifer Private First Class are dispatched on an impossible mission: to traverse two hundred miles through warring armies in five days to deliver the contents of a keg, known to the reader (but not to the couriers) to contain money and serum. Along the way, the pair encounter a beautiful woman telling an unlikely story and the sergeant's missionary father, an uninspiring representative of organized religion--and an interesting depiction given the author's later career. Vivid action writing, exotic background, suspenseful situations, and general storytelling expertise carry the reader on a fast ride. Attitudes and language are reflective of the time: the offensive term "Chinaman" is used casually throughout, and there's a hint of Yellow Peril in the Asian characters.
Wind-Gone-Mad, from the October 1935 issue of Top-Notch, is also set in China, where heroic pilot Feng-Feng (a.k.a. Wind-Gone-Mad) battles an evil leader known as The Butcher. This air-war tale has some typically fine action writing, but a surprise twist that is easily foreseeable. It is accompanied by two shorter tales: "Tah," an untypical vignette about a Chinese child solider, serious and moving but marred by the decision to render the dialogue of the children in a kind of pidgin English; and "Yellow Loot," an effective pure action story also set in China, the title referring to a cache of amber.
If the Wind-Gone-Mad collection is for the Hubbard completist, Orders is Orders can be more generally recommended as a litmus test for the prospective reader. There's plenty more where these came from.