Operation Clambake

From Analog (Science-Fiction magazine)
February 1983.

'Battlefield Earth'

Review by Tom Easton.

"Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard To get her poor dog a bone.
But when she got there, the cupboard was bare, And so the poor dog got none."

Is Easton losing his mind? Analog is for science fiction, not nursery rhymes! So true. But I'm perfectly sane, thank you. It's just that I couldn't resist, since I want to open my column this month with a Hubbard whose cupboard is in fact *very* bare.

The Hubbard is L. Ron. Remember him? The Golden Age writer who invented Dianetics and Scientology and got filthy rich? That's him. Now he's celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his birth as a writer with an 800-page novel of "pure" SF, and he sucked St. Martin's into publishing it. It's _Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000_, and it's a real stinker.

Why do I bother to tell you, then? Well, I do have the feeling I haven't been mean enough lately. That's because few books deserve the full treatment of finger-pinched nose and loud noises of disgust. They may not be real good, but their authors try and they don't usually fall flat on their faces. The editors keep the worst ones from ever reaching us.

Hubbard barely tried, fell flat, and I invite you to share a chorus of "pee-yew." The problem may lie in Hubbard's egocentric (or even egomaniacal) conviction that as a messiah or god-on-Earth he can do no wrong. "Pure" SF is what *he* says it is. Certainly the book's long introduction supports this interpretation, for there Hubbard says such things as, "To handle [my] fantasy material, Campbell introduced another magazine, Unknown." From what else I've read, I doubt that Hubbard was Unknown's raison d'Ítre.

Why do I bother . . . ? Hubbard is a N*A*M*E. He glitters with the gilt of yesteryear. Some of you will buy the book on that count alone. He's notorious, thanks to his religion. Some of you--and plenty of Scientologists--will buy the book for that reason. St. Martin's will make a bundle. But St. Martin's editors fell down on the job of protecting their customers from bilgewater, and I feel obligated to warn off any of you who will listen.

The story is a massive, save-the-universes (16--count 'em--16), wish-fulfillment fantasy wholly populated by the most one-dimensional of cardboard characters. The hero is Johnnie Goodboy Tyler. The alien villains are the Psychlos. (Others too have role-specific names.) Everyone looks his part--Tyler is noble and heroic, the Psychlos bestial, the cosmic bankers little grey men. No one plays more than a single note, over and over again. The characters are cartoons, and even so they are less believable than the ones in the funny papers. They are perfect examples of what novice writers should avoid.

The story is set a millennium hence, long after Earth has been depopulated by a world-wide gas attack. The Psychlos did it so that they could gut the planet with mines. Only a few humans survive in isolated enclaves, descended to savagery. Tyler is one such savage, but he is driven by a noble curiosity and dissatisfaction with the status quo to leave his Colorado village and seek a wider life. Caught by a Psychlo with delusions of grandeur, he is educated with a telepathic machine, becomes civilized, contacts other humans, plots, and destroys the Psychlos lock, stock, and barrel, throughout the universes. He then manages to save the universes from the economic chaos that removing their Psychlo rules has caused.

Sheeesh!

It's a story with scope, sweep, and grandeur. Human underdog conquers all, in the best Astounding tradition. Action galore, with gonads forgotten. Blood and thunder and mighty deeds. Gee, whiz! Is that what the Golden Age was all about? Gimme more!

Hokay, as Algis Budrys would say. It's good stuff for juveniles (no gonads, remember?). The Golden Age would have loved it. So why do I want to dump all over it? Why does it give me a pain in last July's column lead?

For all the action, it plods and slogs, often lost in minutia. For all the sensawunda, it's as unlikely as a one-legged horse. And the thinking is sloppy, too.

Let me show you what I mean. On p. 187, Hubbard writes of over-revving alien motors which, he has already told us, don't "rev" at all, ever; they're "continuous teleporters." Worse yet, the motors are presumably at rest with respect to the entire universe. When on, they move and hold position by continually adjusting their location coordinates. Momentum remains zero. Yet, when the motors are turned off, motor and vehicle just sit there. There is no conflict of momenta of the sort you would see if you set a motionless brick in front of a speeding car or jet.

Maybe Hubbard just doesn't understand basic reality. On p. 294 he has his hero leap from a "plane" at hypersonic speed, unprotected--and he doesn't get smashed by the air.

More sweepingly, there's the Psychlos' excuse for raping Earth. They want metals, so they mine. But we know (don't we?) that mining is easier and cheaper on small moons and asteroids, especially when you can't breathe a planet's air. And speaking of air, the Psychlos' "breathe-gas" detonates when exposed to radiation. So okay, they come from another universe, where the elements and chemistry are different from ours. But what about cosmic rays? Background radiation?

Most fundamentally of all, there's that "kill-gas" the Psychlos used to wipe out most of humanity. Hubbard reveals some hundreds of pages into the story that there's a simple defense against it: all you need to do is breathe through a filter of salt. In that case, the gas can be no poison for Earthly animals, whose body fluids are just chock full of sodium chloride. As soon as the gas entered the body, it would be neutralized.

Enough. Battlefield Earth is a crock. The only way you could possibly enjoy it is as a satire of the Golden Age, whose weaknesses it bloats to elephantiasis. Unfortunately, I doubt very much that Hubbard meant it that way. Judging by his introduction, he meant it quite seriously as the epitome of SF: what the stuff should be at its best.

If he were right, we might as well switch to mainlining tetraethyl lead. It would be more fun, and the mind-rot would be no worse.

[Come on Tom, tell us what you *really* think!]

Ron of that ilk.