Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
March 1983 (vol. 64; pp. 32-37)
Battlefield Earth, L.Ron Hubbard, St. Martin's, $24.
But we do, indeed, live in a culture dedicated to the ideal of brow-sweat and the furrowed brow, and so the closed story is the better story, if we are to have stories at all. Scince most SF writers, critics and editors are now persons with sufficient academic experience of the best opinion on the best literature, we are moving from the open romanticism of the "Golden Age" amateur writers, taking a course toward the closed realism of contemporary writing. In the course of doing so we educating readers to respond to closed writing as the better writing, and incidentally educating writers in what the better mode is considered to be. Some of those writers are not buding novices. Some of them are from the "Golden Age," reaching out to where they are told the body of new readers is located, attempting, perhaps sadly, to accept that the old readers are gone.
L.Ron Hubbard in his bones knows better. Hubbard always had good bones; he was far more popular - in some cases, wildly popular - than contemporary views of the Golden Age will tell you. He didn't know much science, his engineering was little odd, and he never stopped for rewrite, but there was a time - say, in 1940 - when if you had asked people who the outstanding Golden Age writer would be in the hindsight of 1983, you would have gotten just as many bets on Hubbard as you would have on Heinlein. Some days, A.E. van Vogt would have run a close third, and hardly anybody else would have shown a comparable following.
Isaac Asimov was known only to few. Arthur C. Clarke was five years away, and, altough many very good writers were working in the field, there were only three who could arouse'em the way Heinlein, Hubbard and van Vogt could. This mean, incidentally, that well over 50 per cent of the enthusiasm was for stories any good scholar could tell you weren't typical of the Golden Age. (Unfortunately, there are few excellent scholars, as you may have noticed me saying once or twice before.)
Now, what Hubbard says about the Golden Age is open to question, just as what Hubbard has ever said about anything has tended so serve the needs of the moment, he being above all things an instintual and superlative salesman. His list of Golden Age authors as contained in the dedication to Battlefield Earth is clearly inaccurate; all those people may have been friends or aquaintances, but not all of them made the Golden Age.
Some were its victims, others were indifferent to it (his "C.A. Smith" is, presumably, Clark Ashton Smith), and still others, like Margaret St. Clair, ("Idris Seabright" in F&SF's formative years), Poul Anderson and James Blish, hit their stride in the 1950s, not the 1930s or '40s. I think a functionary put that list together, going by the chronology in a reference book, and Hubbard signed his name to it; surely it is not drawn by memory. As for memory, his version of his relationship to John Campbell, and Campbell's to science fiction, is so much at variance with contemporary received wisdom that, even though it is at variance, it lacks verisimilitude and will need some careful independent checking. I don't say it's wrong. I do say it's at serious variance and, if wrong, is particularly likely to muddy the waters in a way that will complicate the truth almost inextricably. So it needs objective corroboration.
But none of that has much to do with the story. Hubbard, in the same Foreword where he seems to be denying Don A. Stuart pre-existed him, mentions that this new novel is his present to his friends, in celebration of his fifty years as a pro author. He also says that it's pure science fiction, I think as an exercise in selling the proposition that it's not selling Scientology. I don't know what pure science fiction is; I'm pretty sure there is no Scientology in Battlefield Earth and no attempt to sell it, and it's curious to see Hubbard so sensitive in the subject. Finally, he says he had to study the patterns of contemporary SF in order to feel comfortable in writing Battlefield Earth. This may be, but if so it is true in a particular way different from its face value.
Hubbard says he wrote - and presumably writes - "people stories." He goes to some lengths to proffer this as his major writing talent, and he apparently believes it. But is this true? Is there, in the work of L. Ron Hubbard or in the work of any other Golden Age author of stature, a character of the sort that is Hamlet's sort, or Captain Ahab's? I'm not talking about factors created by speaking through a shorter trumpet than Bill Shakespeare's or some other literary giant's. I'm talking about characters who, unlike Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan, or Hubbard's own Lieutenant in Final Blackout, are not superbly detailed caricatures but are, rather, persons meshed in a destiny made for them. That is, people like you and me, as distinguished from people we might like to be. Not necessarily towering figures like our prime examples, but figures whom we know exhaustively by the end of the story, as distinguished from those we know from their first appearance. Figures, in the end, who may tower, but, unlike the principal "people" in an opera story, have the capacity not to.
The hero of an open story tries to present the appearance of having a destiny tailored just for him, mind you. Hubbard's Johnny Goodboy Tyler is no exception. Johnny, one of the few surviving human beings, lives in a tiny colony of degenerated humans up in the mountains where the invaders don't bother going. Surrounded by sloth, barbarity, physical weakness and ignorance, only Johnny Goodboy Tyler is bright, curious, energetic and willing to learn. This is because as a child he instinctively refused to carry water from the radioactive well.
The invaders - huge, shambling things - gassed Earth long ago and have been mining its resources ever since. Were they to be destroyed, somehow, by the 40,000 surviving humans led by Johnny Tyler, they would immediately be replaced as Earth's owners by any one of the scores of races out in the known universes. So Johnny Goodboy Tyler alone can, and must, defeat the entirety of all Creation, in order to set Earth free. Which is to say make Earth safely dominant over all those lesser breeds. This takes over 800 pages, but it does get done.
The book cries out for editing on every level. It contains spellings like "sulpher" and "niter," (and for that matter, "sulphur," which is just as wrong, sulfur not being a Greek name); it contains sentences like: "You, Thor, collect every man here we had with us at lode and a lot of Chinese."; it has a massive strip-up error beginning on Page 426 that transposes the end and beginning of a scene; it refers to an "armor-proofed" helmet, and it contains the embarrassing sub-plot about Bittie McLoed. It allows Hubbard to in effect say that only those who are courteous and industrious in seeing to the greater glory of this world's Johnny Goodboys are "decent" people worth his time in saving them. It is, in other words, an appalling job of presentation, viewed either as a $24 book or as en event in the life of L. Ron Hubbard and the SF community, and scince it is both it is doubly appalling. St. Martin's has failed its clientele, and Hubbard's funtionaries - surely Hubbard had the right to review the typeset text - have failed him.
But none of this is to say it isn't the vehicle for a rather good, fast-paced, often fascinating SF adventure yarn. That story is buried in a text that is 200 pages too long for it, but it is there.
And the striking thing about it is that there is no trace of any attempt to "modernize." Rather, there are many places - the relationship between Johnny and his sweetheart, for instance - that any other writer would have done differently under the circumstances, but where Hubbard sticks resolutely to the peculiar intersexual mores of 1938.
I think that what he noticed when he studied our supposedly advanced literature was that it hardly represents any particular basic change at all; with a little grin of satisfaction, he realized he could just go ahead and write as is for ASF (as if L.Ron Hubbard were the proprietor and editor) and to hell with it.
[ASF= Astounding Science Fiction]
* skipped the introduction, which is not related to L.Ron Hubbard and Battlefield Earth.