In 1963, while a prisoner at the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island in Washington state, Charles Manson heard other prisoners enthuse about two books: Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and L. Ron Hubbard’s self-help guide Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950). Heinlein’s novel told the story of a Mars-born messiah who preaches a doctrine of free love, leading to the creation of a religion whose followers are bound together by ritualistic water-sharing and intensive empathy (called “grokking”). Hubbard’s purportedly non-fiction book described a therapeutic technique for clearing away self-destructive mental habits. It would later serve as the basis of Hubbard’s religion, Scientology.
Manson was barely literate, so he probably didn’t delve too deeply into either of these texts. But he was gifted at absorbing information in conversation, and by talking to other prisoners he gleaned enough from both books to synthesize a new theology. His encounter with the writings of Heinlein and Hubbard was a pivotal event in his life. Until then, he had been a petty criminal and drifter who spent his life in and out of jail. But when Manson was released from McNeil Island in 1967, he was a new figure: a charismatic street preacher who gathered a flock of followers among the hippies of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.
Manson won them with a doctrine of communal bonding: They would be a family and share in all things, including love. Manson’s made-up religion was a cut-and-paste invention that borrowed from many sources. As The New York Times notes, Manson’s philosophy was “an idiosyncratic mix of Scientology, hippie anti-authoritarianism, Beatles lyrics, the Book of Revelation, and the writings of Hitler.” But the sci-fi component was pronounced. Stranger in a Strange Land provided the Manson family with its rituals (water-sharing ceremonies), terminology (“grokking”), and promise of transcendence (Manson’s followers hoped that, like the hero of Heinlein’s novel, they would gain mystical powers). The dream of mind triumphing over matter was also the sales pitch of Dianetics.
The Manson family, of course, had a twisted definition of love, which they wanted to keep for themselves. For the outside world, they wanted a violent race war, which would end with them ruling over the survivors. Towards that end, the Manson family went on a killing spree in August 1969 that left nine dead and earned them a notorious place in history. While the police were trying to solve these murders, one of Manson’s followers, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who would try to assassinate Gerald Ford in 1975, made a series of desperate phone calls to Heinlein, hoping the novelist could protect her and her friends from the police.
Manson went to jail, and remained there until his death on Sunday at a hospital in California’s Kern County. Amidst an ongoing assessment of his historical relevance—the Manson family killings have been popularized, by Joan Didion and others, as the death knell of the 1960s—it is worth revisiting how two books, steeped in utopian ambitions, played a role in a country’s unraveling. It was hardly an accident that Manson borrowed heavily from both Heinlein and Hubbard. No two writers better illustrate the tendency of science fiction to generate cults.
Heinlein and and Hubbard first met in 1939 and immediately hit it off. To his wife Leslyn, Heinlein described Hubbard as “our kind of people in every possible way.” (The friendship between the two men is described in William Patterson’s two-volume biography of Heinlein). They were both prolific pulp writers, contributing heavily to Astounding Science-Fiction, which was revolutionizing the field under the editorship of John W. Campbell. Astounding’s major claim to fame was that it specialized in “hard science fiction,” which was rigorously based on extrapolations from actual science. This claim was a bit self-serving since Campbell always had a taste for pseudo-science, but it’s undeniable that Heinlein’s own work, grounded in his education as an engineer, brought a new level of plausibility to the genre.
Heinlein was in an open marriage with Leslyn, a poet and script editor. He had a habit of encouraging his close male buddies to take Leslyn as a lover. As Hubbard would later marvel, Heinlein “almost forced me to sleep with his wife.” Sharing his wife’s body was a form of male bonding for Heinlein, and it served as a precursor to the communal orgies that he imagined in Stranger in a Strange Land, which helped the members of his imaginary religion form group solidarity.
Hubbard and the Heinlein also shared an interest in the supernatural. Together with their friend Jack Parson, a rocket scientist, they investigated the teachings of the occultist Aleister Crowley and tried their hand at black magic.
Hubbard may have suffered from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder following World War II. (He served in the Navy, and later made up stories of his wartime adventures; in reality, military records show that Hubbard’s wartime service was “substandard.”) His attempts to create a new science of the mind, culminating in the publication of Dianetics, can be understood as an attempt to self-medicate. The first article about Dianetics appeared in the March 1950 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. Campbell was an early enthusiast, crediting Dianetics with helping him cure his chronic sinusitis. (The cure was psychosomatic and temporary.) Many science fiction writers in Campbell’s orbit, notably A.E. van Vogt, Katherine MacLean, and James Blish, got caught up in the Dianetics craze.
Campbell eventually became disillusioned with Dianetics, but moved on to becoming an advocate for other forms of pseudo-science, including the Dean Drive (a perpetual motion machine), the Hieronymus machine (which supposedly amplified telekinesis and other psi powers), racial determinism, and the firm conviction that smoking doesn’t cause cancer. In truth, the hidden thematic concern of “hard science fiction” was alway mystical transcendence, of imagining how the promise of religion could be fulfilled by technology in the space age. Time and again, Campbell’s writers, not just Heinlein and Hubbard but also Frank Herbert of Dune fame, conjured up technological paths to transcendence.
Unlike Campbell, Heinlein kept clear of Dianetics. But Heinlein was nonetheless fascinated by the way his old friend Hubbard had created a pseudo-science that eventually became the religion of Scientology. This planted the seeds for an idea: What if someone created a religion like Scientology that actually worked—that did give people transcendent mental power, such as mind-reading and levitation? The result of this thought experiment was Stranger in a Strange Land, which remains Heinlein’s most famous novel. One of the heroes of the novel, Jubal Harshaw, a polymathic pulp writer who is very successful in seducing women, is clearly an idealized version of Hubbard.
Heinlein meant Stranger in a Stranger Land to be a jape, a satire on religion. While Hubbard had turned science fiction into a religion, Heinlein was trying to turn religion into science fiction. But many readers took it all too seriously. In March of 1969 at a film festival in Rio, Heinlein met a charming actress named Sharon Tate. A few months later, she was murdered by a cult that took inspiration from Heinlein’s novel.
No literary genre has been so fertile at generating religions as science fiction. Heinlein’s work was the springboard for many competing sects, and he called himself “a preacher with no church.” Rare among the many intellectual gurus whose fame mushroomed in the 1960s, Heinlein was a beacon for all kinds of people: hippies and hawks, libertarians and authoritarians.
The Manson family weren’t the only ones who looked to Stranger in a Strange Land for guidance. In Missouri in 1962, Westminster College students Tim Zell and Lance Christie formed a “water-brotherhood” vowing to live by the polygamous ideals of Heinlein’s novel. By 1968, the original water-brotherhood expanded into the Church of All Worlds, recognized as a religion by the IRS two years later. The Church of All Worlds remains a flourishing concern, having acquired many neo-pagan encrustations over the years, including Celtic Shamanism and Wiccan lore. But it is still devoted to Heinlein’s core creed.
Heinlein had many followers in the military, largely on the basis of Starship Troopers (1959), a full-throttled defense of the martial spirit as essential for human survival both on earth and in space. Heinlein’s speculations about the future of war, in both his non-fiction and fiction, had a direct influence on American military policy. A 1945 memo Heinlein wrote arguing for a naval rocket program circulated widely in the Pentagon and was apparently discussed by Harry Truman in a cabinet meeting. The lobbyist who pushed for Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense program was influenced by Heinlein and got him to give the program his imprimatur.
Libertarians, including those of an anti-war disposition, also regarded Heinlein as a cultural hero. Milton Friedman praised Heinlein’s 1966 novel The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, which chronicled an anti-statist rebellion on a lunar colony, as a “wonderful” book. Friedman commended Heinlein for popularizing the slogan TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch), which Heinline picked up from his fellow science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle. Friedman’s son David, a self-described anarcho-capitalist, would go further: In 1971 the younger Friedman gave a speech at Harvard with a large medallion engraved with a dollar sign and TANSTAAF.
Heinlein’s ability to excite cultic faith among all sorts of groups speaks to the power of science fiction as a literature of ideas, especially during utopian moments like the 1960s, when the future feels open. Heinlein’s book was not alone in gaining a cult following, it was joined by J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, Herbert’s Dune, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Each of these books spoke to a desire for an alternative reality, just as older social norms were breaking down.
As vile and sociopathic as he was, Charles Manson did have a gift for absorbing the zeitgeist, which is one reason he held such a powerful sway over the cultural imagination. Manson picked up Stranger in a Strange Land in the same spirit that he learned to strum a guitar and offer exegeses on Beatles lyrics. It was a way for him to ride the wave of cultural change. Manson remained infamous all these decades not just because he inspired mass murder, but also because he did so by manipulating some of our most powerful myths.