The Unwilling Hero
by L. Ron Hubbard

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

as by Rene LaFayette

Startling Stories, July 1949

June 2011

Why go to space?

"The Unwilling Hero" is the fourth of seven science-fiction stories written by L. Ron Hubbard (under the pseudonym Rene Lafayette) in his Conquest of Space series. It's among his last SF to appear before the advent of Dianetics in May 1950. It's a minor work, although written with Hubbard's charm and still quite readable, but in a way it has more interest now than when it was new.

The opening sets the theme:

Tens of thousands of years ago, Earth and Earthmen had no concept of the stars nor the destiny of mankind. Difficult as it may be to believe, the tiny planet ... looked upon space travel and conquest as a sort of novelty, a thing to read about in the Sunday Feature Section, a stunt without any great meaning or scope.

The average Earthman thought such voyages vaguely interesting but of no personal concern to himself. Expeditions, he believed, went out to help astronomers and check their guesses, to collect new animals for the zoo or provide heroes for parades up Fifth Avenue,

Given this background, the plot involves a newspaper reporter sent out to find an interstellar explorer lost for years, a two-man search expedition promoted as a heroic deed by his news-magnate boss, and an effective publicity stunt for the latter's newspapers.

So why more interesting now? When I was a teenager and young man and first read and re-read stories like this of Hubbard's, like Robert Heinlein's "Requiem" (1939) and its prequel "The Man Who Sold the Moon" (1950), I assumed that such hoop-la and trickery could be fictional fun but in our real world was absolutely unnecessary. The importance of space travel to the future of humanity was obvious. As it still is, to me. Exploration, learning, colonization, industrialization, vast resources for a vast future — it's all out there, waiting.

What I could not anticipate was that after the successful Gemini and Apollo programs, America would lose interest, at least institutional motivation, in manned space travel. Is it a failure of nerve or of imagination?

Hubbard's newspaperman, seeking an adventurous pilot, visits the Explorer's Club:

The quiet interior was massive and dusty, filled with old flags, strange trophies, faded photographs and ghosts. He stood looking at the appalling corona of Vega and the plaque for the dead of the Apollo Expedition and the various grim and dreadful reminders of the fatality of space ...

For decades now since our Apollos went to the Moon, we've only crept up to near Earth orbit, and lately even that has become too much for NASA. Only wonderful remote-control robots carry our banner on Mars, only camera-pointing rockets go onward.

Isn't it odd when science-fiction ideas have permeated the popular mind in a manner that Hubbard and Heinlein only could dream of, that our institutional will to achieve has been so blunted? Perhaps, as visionaries and practical ex-Navy officers, they realized that our future necessity was not so obvious as it seemed to them and their optimistic readers, and thus an artfully deliberate mythos might be required.


© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson

Quotations as in the 1949 original.

"space exploration" —
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