Sunday, February 24, 2008

L. Ron Hubbard

Battlefield Earth
by L. Ron Hubbard
Recommended Age: 12+

The movie based on this book, starring John Travolta and Forest Whitaker, will go down in history as one of the greatest big-budget bombs in the history of Hollywood. And the author... well, if I want to avoid a serious lawsuit, I'd better say no more. So it may come as a surprise that Battlefield Earth is really a fun book to read. I know. I've read it two or three times. I can't speak for anything else by Hubbard, because I haven't ready any of it (and, for theological reasons, I don't plan to). But I recommend this book, even for those of you who (like me) don't really care for "hard science fiction."

This "Saga of the Year 3000" originated in 1982, when it won scads of awards and sold zillions of copies and was translated into dozens of languages, etc. And deservedly so. And the reason I think Harry Potter fans might enjoy it is that it's a big book that really keeps the pages turning, it shares a lot of the same themes, and it has a similar tone of cheerful, optimistic, rip-roaring adventure. It's good clean family fun that dabbles in interesting other-world cultures and has a hero who is just about too good to be true.

The story opens about 1000 years after the present day. What is left of mankind has been driven into harsh, out-of-the-way places, where some of them live a stone-age lifestyle. The reason is that, way back in our present day, a ruthless mining company from another planet staked a claim on earth's natural resources, exterminated most of the population with nerve gas, and began digging up everything of mineral value and shipping it back to their home planet.

Now the 14-foot-tall, bony, "breathe-gas" breathing, kerbango-chomping Psychlos control the whole planet, except for areas whose radioactivity causes breathe-gas to explode. Which, by the way, is the only advantage air-breathing races, like mankind, has over the brutal, greedy, and technologically advanced Psychlos. But the radioactive parts are none too good for humans, either, so something has to give.

It all begins when a studly orphan from a Rocky Mountain village rides his horse down to the plains to hunt big game. Johnny Goodboy Tyler has heard tales of the monsters who wiped out most of mankind back in the dim days of ancient history, but he has never seen one of them. Well, he sees one now - a conniving mining-compound security chief named Terl, who captures Johnny and trains him like a pet. Indeed, Terl never thinks of Johnny as much more than a fairly trainable animal, which becomes his downfall.

For Terl is planning to use Johnny to mine gold out of the mountains - where, because of radioactive uranium deposits, the Psychlos themselves cannot go - and thus make Terl's personal fortune. But Johnny, meanwhile, is learning more than Terl realizes, and soon knows enough to be really dangerous. By a combination of luck, bald-faced daring, supreme effort, and astounding cleverness, Johnny becomes master of the situation in a way that is simply fantastic to read. He learns to manipulate Terl, lead men, speak alien tongues, use alien equipment, and juggle a multitude of complicating factors until all the pieces of his brilliant plan are in place... and then, in one of the riskiest gambits you'll have ever read, he commits.

The result is a tremendous victory over the Psychlos, against simply astronomical odds. That's as far as the movie goes, but that's only half of the book. For even with the Psychlos out of the picture, Earth isn't quite saved yet. You might say that the "booby traps" left behind by a thousand years of Psychlo control are worse than Psychlo control itself. For one thing, it turns out that earth has a mortgage on it, and now that they have it back, Johnny and his people have to pay for it. For another thing, every aggressive and greedy alien within starship range wants a piece of earth, and they have big guns and fast ships. If saving earth from the Psychlos took nerves of steel, luck and cleverness and persuasion (and sacrifice), saving earth from what comes after the Psychlos will take even more of the same!

All of which is simply breathtakingly exciting to read, full of suspense and action and brilliant ideas and top-shelf heroism, as well as the exotic imagery of a half-dozen alien races and the interesting ways Johnny triumphs over each of them. Take it from someone who is bored to tears by most science fiction. It took me over a year to read Chapterhouse: Dune - I can't explain why I even bothered, except that I wanted to read the whole Dune series (the original six novels by Frank Herbert, that is), even though each book was twice as boring as the one before it. And when the fourth book in the series was the most boring thing I had ever read, that tells you something about the sixth. And something about the name L. Ron Hubbard suggested that a thick sci-fi book by him might be yawn-yankingly similar to Dune. It isn't! It was excitingly different, and it did not appear to have a religious agenda. In a foreword, Hubbard says that he wrote the book to amuse himself with a work of pure science fiction, and he considered it a justifiable break from his "serious subjects."

So, if you distrust science fiction (or Hubbard in particular) because so much of it has a sort of religious agenda, you can read this book without concern, and enjoy it the same way Hubbard did - simply on its own terms. Which are spectacular terms indeed. And if you find science fiction irritatingly technical, silly, or dull, you may still enjoy this book, because it is none of those things. It is simply a great adventure, that almost brings "sci fi" around to the sort of "fantasy" quest that lovers of Harry Potter, Tolkien, Lewis, and classic adventure stories can relate to. Sci-fi hater that I am, my thumbs-up goes to Battlefield Earth (the book).

2 comments:

6foot3 said...

The sad thing about your post is that you reveal your lack of intelligence and insight, to claim L.Ron Hubburd's work is good is one thing but to ignore his crimes and the fact he started a dangerous cult that extorts people of their life savings is also ignorant. Hitler was a good writer but lets not give him any credit because he was a lunatic, a madman and a stain on human history. L.R.H. falls into that same category. Go back to school and then re read Frank's work. And while you do that, find out more about your hero L.Ron and learn about how he has ruined the lives of thousands of people all for a heavy profit. Also consider that nearly all science fiction critics agree that L.R.H is a mediocre writer at best. Most consider him a hack and a mentally deranged individual.

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Robbie F. said...

That's what I call an "overreaction." (A) I never said LRH was "my hero." (B) I don't read LRH's books as a rule; "Battlefield: Earth" was the exception. (C) Irrespective of how other writers regard LRH's body of work, I thought this was an entertaining & spiritually harmless book. (D) My review expresses nothing but my opinion of this particular book. (E) Writing for a non-sectarian site, I could only say so much about LRH's religion, but within those limits I think I adequately distanced myself from it. (F) See my reviews of Philip Pullman, Terry Goodkind, Michael Stackpole, and Michael Gruber. I regularly and carefully draw a distinction between evaluating books as literature and responding to their spirituality. I don't think anyone reading these reviews can be mistaken as to whether or not I am promoting their spirituality.