Short Reviews – The Automagic Horse, by L. Ron Hubbard

Friday , 18, May 2018 16 Comments

The Automagic Horse by L. Ron Hubbard appeared in the October 1949 issue of Astounding. It can be read here at Archive.org.

Finally, a dame! And she’s having none of that animatronic Moloch….

It figures that the first really good story I’d read in Campbell-era Astounding would be by L. Ron Hubbard. Maybe not good enough start a religion around the guy and give him all my money, but The Automagic Horse is a solid story that would certainly be at home in Planet or Thrilling.

A team of special effects expects have been grafting and defrauding Hollywood studios to get spare parts and tools to build a spaceship. The spaceship will take them to the moon and stars, and they’re gonna be rich and famous… someday.

They get hired to make a stunt horse so that the SPCA won’t be all over the studio for a scene in which a horse has to kick down the door of a burning barn. This may be the job that will finally put them over the top with the funds that they need to finish carving out an underground workshop to test gamma rays… except the studio sends an accountant to keep track of the funds and audit their past projects!

To make matters worse, she’s a no-nonsense dame intent on seeing that the studio hangs onto every penny of their investment!

The team tries to keep the accountant busy and distracted while they build a robot horse, stuff it into the skin of a famous dead race-horse, and even use the critter to scam a guy out of thousands of dollars by racing it against several of his best horses.

Things get messier and messier as the accountant begins to account for more and more of their misappropriated equipment and the guy they hustled insists on buying the horse from them. They only have a narrow window of time and a narrower margin of error to squeeze what resources they can out of the production, and they risk losing everything.

Automagic Horse is a great example of the SF subgenre wherein enterprising and clever fellows with a knack for invention use it to try to get rich and bilk fat-cats. It’s easier to forgive the entrepreneurial underdog for their slightly-less-that-above-the-boards methods to get ahead and pursue their dreams.

16 Comments
  • deuce says:

    Hubbard was a perfectly proficient pulp author. He had the knack. A pity he had to go out and sully his own rep with Dianetical shananigans.

    Even then, his “Writers of the Future” thing turned up some good writers (and commissioned several new paintings from Frazetta back in the day; always a good thing). His legacy is definitely not black or white.

    • Mark McSherry says:

      WW II happened to Hubbard. William Patterson gets into this in his two volume biography of Heinlein.

      And a reader of Anthony Boucher’s novel ROCKET TO THE MORGUE (1942) can get a sense of the charm of the pre-War Hubbard.

      From Infogalactic’s entry for ROCKET TO THE MORGUE:

      ‘Boucher was the friend and mentor of many science fiction writers of that era, and a member of the Mañana Literary Society. The dedication to the first edition reads, “For The Mañana Literary Society and in particular for Robert Heinlein and Cleve Cartmill.” Rocket to the Morgue is something of a roman à clef about the Southern California science fiction scene of the time. Many characters are thinly-veiled versions of personalities such as Robert A. Heinlein (“Austin Carter”), L. Ron Hubbard (“D. Vance Wimpole”), then-literary agent Julius Schwartz (“M. Halstead Phynn”) and rocket scientist/occultist/fan Jack Parsons (“Hugo Chantrelle”); or recognizable composites of two writers (“Matt Duncan” – Cleve Cartmill and Henry Kuttner; “Joe Henderson” – Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton). Some writers’ actual pseudonyms appear as minor characters, most prominently “Don Stuart, editor of Surprising” (John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction); but also “Anson Macdonald”, “Lyle Monroe” (both Heinlein pseudonyms)… and Anthony Boucher (whose real name was William Anthony Parker White)! The science fiction culture is portrayed in a familiar manner, complete with references to Denvention, the 1941 World Science Fiction Convention in Denver, and the appearance of a quintessential science fiction fan, one Arthur Waring, member of a science fiction society and publisher of a science fiction fanzine, whose sophisticated language and scientific knowledge displayed in a fan letter have impressed Detective Marshall, but who when interviewed turns out to be a pre-adolescent: “[a]n infant with pink and downy cheeks”‘.

      • Carrington Dixon says:

        To clarify, Rocket To the Morgue was originally published under WAPW’s mystery-pseudonym, H. H. Holmes; so, it was not readily apparent to the original readers that he had written himself into the book.

      • Nathan says:

        I didn’t realize that the fan convention novel was quite that old.

  • Borgen Takkor says:

    I have read “Under the Black Ensign”, which was written somewhere in the 30s, and that was a perfect pirate tale. I do not know what went wrong with that guy…

  • Jim H says:

    L Ron Hubbard apparently went on holiday with Aleister Crowley…

    And sucked Scientology out of his thumb sometime soon after.

  • Hubbard was a very solid second-tier pulp writer, and judging by the number of times his stories were featured on the covers, the readers of the time liked his work quite a bit. I’ve read a number of his pulp yarns and enjoyed all of them.

  • Mark McSherry says:

    Hubbard gets even better with his 1950 February/March ASTOUNDING serial, TO THE STARS. A tragedy that opens with the line: “Space is deep, Man is small and Time is his relentless enemy.”

    It was published in paperback as RETURN TO TOMORROW. Easton Press did a hard-bound deluxe edition in 1995.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    I was working as an asst. manager for Encore Books in the late 80’s and one of our regulars said that he had been part of Fletcher Pratt’s writing circle back in the 40’s. Dianetics was one of our most popular books, and seeing people buy it seemed to set this old gentlemen off. He said that Hubbard could charm the scales off a snake, but he owed everyone money and nobody trusted him.

    What the heck happened to Hubbard in WW2?

  • Mark McSherry says:

    Mid 1945, “Hubbard had…been hospitalized on the East Coast with an ulcer and other war-related complaints, but now he was in Southern California on temporary duty…”

    So, for a time after the War (with the housing shortage in California), Hubbard stayed with Robert and Leslyn Heinlein.

    “Hubbard was not doing too well, either; he was jumpy, nervous, and unstable—everyone had noticed it. He had a tendency to fly off on obsessions that were not always very firmly grounded. He had become a “high maintenance” friend, and it took hours of working with him to keep on an even keel—a situational problem, Heinlein was sure, and one he would recover from in time. The war had been hard on a lot of people—though comparisons with blinded and disabled veterans of the fighting always made him feel small. Hubbard was in the “wounded veteran” category and deserved all the patience Heinlein could muster.

    “In December 1945…Hubbard gave up his space chez Heinlein and moved in with Jack Parsons. …Jack Parsons rented out rooms in the large house in Pasadena he had inherited, seeking odd and eccentric characters of all kinds. This suited Hubbard’s needs, and he moved in. Parsons had assumed leadership of the Los Angeles chapter of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and he gave weekly presentations of the “Gnostic Mass” in the attic of his house…”

    Patterson Jr., William H.. Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1: Learning Curve 1907-1948 Kindle Edition.

  • Mark McSherry says:

    In August 1946, Leslyn Heinlein wrote to Catherine and Sprague de Camp-

    “Ron is a very sad case of post-war breakdown. The details are too complex and too personal to be bruited about by letter. Suffice it to say that although Bob and I feel as if the Hubbard we knew had been possessed by some entity out of one of the more horrid Unknown Worlds stories, we do not feel that Polly (Hubbard’s recently divorced wife) has helped the situation one bit. Ron is a very volatile personality—when he was around us he was a very different person from what he has become under the influence of his latest Man-Eating Tigress.”

    But Sprague de Camp wrote back: “I don’t think he’s a case of post-war breakdown at all…I think he always was that way, but when he wanted to make a good impression or get something out of somebody he put on a first-class charm act. What the war did was to wear him down to the point where he no longer bothers to put on the act.

    “I saw the other side of his character before the war and decided then that he was not to be trusted. You told me that you’d heard of his fascist leanings and were agreeably surprised to learn that he wasn’t that way at all, but was a fine upstanding liberal. But I’d heard him give quasi-fascist harangues on the slimy iniquity of all politicians, and remembered the similar sentiments in Final Blackout. How do you know he was putting on an act for me, and revealing his true nature for you, and not the other way round? Because he wanted to conciliate the Heinleins whom he knew to have strong political convictions? Personally, however, I doubt if such an opportunist can have firm political convictions, fascist or otherwise.”

    Patterson Jr., William H.. Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1: Learning Curve 1907-1948. Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      “…quasi-fascist harangues on the slimy iniquity of all politicians…”?

      Sounds perfectly reasonable to me… 🙂

      Not that LSdC was necessarily wrong about the rest of it.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Thanks for responding, Mr. McSherry.

  • Mark McSherry says:

    During the War, the Heinleins were living in Philadelphia and both working at the Navy Yard:

    “Early in the fall of 1944, Heinlein started a science-fiction think tank among his colleagues scattered around the Atlantic northeast—Campbell and his assistant, L. Jerome Stanton, from New York, and Stanton’s roommate, Theodore Sturgeon; George O. Smith and L. Ron Hubbard came with that group, too, by train every weekend, to the Heinleins’ apartment…

    “There were, however, certain inconveniences associated with the project: there were no hotel accommodations available in wartime Philadelphia, and nearly everyone needed to stay overnight. Some slept on the floor in the Heinleins’ hallway; others slept overnight with Henry Sang.

    “This gave the Heinleins a chance to become better acquainted with L. Ron Hubbard, and they found him a fascinating person. He was in Princeton in September 1944, and Campbell roped him in for the think tank. Both the Heinleins found him very compatible, though Sprague de Camp and Jack Williamson were both suspicious of him. Heinlein was fascinated by Hubbard’s larger-than-life quality—and by the number of wounds he had already taken in his country’s service.”

    ————

    Patterson’s footnote after the above last sentence:

    “Heinlein’s impression of Hubbard’s war service, derived largely from contemporaneous conversations among his circle, is given in the introduction to Godbody:

    ‘The first weekend Sturgeon was there he slept on the hall rug, a choice spot, while both L. Ron Hubbard and George O. Smith were in the overflow who had to walk down the street. In retrospect that seems like a wrong decision; Hubbard should not have been asked to walk, as both of his feet had been broken (drumhead-type injury) when his last ship was bombed. Ron had had a busy war—sunk four times and wounded again and again—and at that time was on limited duty at Princeton, attending military governor’s school.’

    “Russell Miller’s BARE-FACED MESSIAH, the first debunking biography of Hubbard, was issued in 1987, the same year this statement was written, though according to Virginia Heinlein, Robert never saw it. Miller gives a great deal of information about Hubbard’s war service, presumably from official sources (Miller was a journalist), but its detail is not sufficient to confirm Heinlein’s impression.”

    ————

    Patterson Jr., William H.. Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1: Learning Curve 1907-1948. Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.

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