Saturday, October 31, 2009

Part 1, Chapter 1 - What It Means!

"Man," said Terl, "is an endangered species."

The hairy paws of the Chamco brothers hung suspended above the broad keys of the laser-bash game. The cliffs of Char's eyebones drew down over his yellow orbs as he looked up in mystery. Even the steward, who had been padding quietly about picking up her saucepans, lumbered to a halt and stared.

Terl could not have produced a more profound effect had he thrown a meat-girl naked into the middle of the room.

Here we go, the first paragraphs of Part 1, Chapter 1 of Battlefield Earth. I guess it works well as an introduction to the story, as it sets up the premise and brings up questions that the reader will search for answers to... but it also has some worrying signs of what's to come.

They tell us that not only is mankind near extinction, but that the characters we're seeing here aren't men. Terl's name is the first we encounter, so we know that he's probably a major character. We learn that whatever these creatures discussing mankind's status are, they have "hairy paws," yellow eyes, and cliff-like eyebones... which can apparently move to shield their eyes? A jaw-like, organic visor of some sort? Points for creativity, at least.

We also learn that these creatures have a strange approach to titles, and refer to females practitioners of a certain occupation as "steward" rather than "stewardess." And though they are barbaric enough to conceive of a notion such as "meat-girl," they also understand what an endangered species is. They probably use it to keep track of how well the extermination is going.

As an aside, Battlefield Earth's original title was Man the Endangered Species.

The setting is the Intergalactic Mining Company employee recreation hall, a dome-like structure on "the earth." Since "the earth" has a single moon and the title is Battlefield Earth, we can assume that this is a taking place on the Earth, and that this book was insufficiently edited.

This Terl fellow is reading a book, and is pleased at the attention his proclamation got, as he's bored with his ten-year tour of duty on this "gods-abandoned mining camp, way out here on the edge of a minor galaxy." Guess they really are intergalactic miners. No doubt we'll be hearing more about these creatures' religious beliefs later, right? Obviously they're polytheistic, but we're just scratching the surface of what is obviously a complex and well-developed... I shouldn't get your hopes up.

A footnote from "the translator" explains that "time, distance and weight have all been translated in all cases throughout this book to old Earth time, distance and weight systems for the sake of uniformity and to prevent confusion in hte various systems employed by the Psychlos."

Huh, I wonder if they converted into metric or English measurements? Also, Psychlos?!

Char, presumably one of these "Psychlos," asks Terl "what in the name of diseased crap are you reading?" An odd choice of words. If I were building up an alien race (these guys are aliens by the way, sorry to spoil the surprise), I might try to make up my own swears, like, idunno, "Mrifk!" Or an oath like "by Grabtharr's Hammer!" Something to spice things up, build a mythos, really emphasize that the speaker comes from a different background. But I guess "diseased crap" says a lot about its speaker too - they're unpleasant and unimaginative, except when it comes to speculating on what could make sewage even less appealing.

Terl doesn't like Char's tone, since Char's just a manager, while Terl is chief of minesite security. But he explains that he was reading from Volume 250,369 of General Report of Geological Minesites, a huge book "printed on material that made it almost weightless," (styrofoam?) "particularly on a low-gravity planet such as Earth, a triumph of design and manufacture that did not cut heavily into the payloads of freighters."

These facts are problematic. While the sheer size of the volume number impresses upon the reader just how huge the Psychlo holdings are, you have to wonder - the Milky Way is just one galaxy out of billions, with somewhere between two to four hundred billion stars in it, with who knows how many planets. And even if not all of these planets were worth mining, would 250,000 volumes of mining reports be enough to document all of them? Especially if this is a truly intergalactic mining consortium. I guess either the Psychlo came from a really small galaxy, or else started mining ours before using up everything in their home corner of the universe. Or maybe the print is really small.

And why a book? You're got space flight, and an intergalactic mining operation, but no computers? This uneven application of technology is a problem throughout the story, as we'll see once we get to the plot proper. Moving along.

Oh hey, next we hear an alien swear: "Rughr." Or maybe that was a burp. Char estimates the book is two or three hundred "Earth-years" old, so I guess the translator adjusted this from "Psychlo-years," but left the belch-burp stand.

Those Chamco brothers look up from their game, which apparently involves shooting live mayflies in an "air-box" (geez, get a Wii or something), and Terl announces that a recon drone only spotted thirty-five men in a nearby valley, when old books state that there used to be hundreds. And furthermore, there used to be thousands of humans on Earth!

Char makes a reference to one time, on Arcturus IV... and I'm annoyed again as the translator puts everything in human terms. You missed an opportunity there, Hubbard - you could have called the planet Teegeeack and saved the big reveal for later. Oh my god, the Psychlo mining camp was Earth all along! Wow! Of course, you would've had to use a better title than Battlefield Earth, but still...

Apparently the Intergalactic Mining Company had a culture and ethnology department just over a hundred years ago, before it was disbanded due to being a moronic thing for a mining company to have. I'm kind of with the bad guys (spoilers lol!) on this one.

And then we hit the word "breathe-gas," and inwardly, I groan. Get used to this word. I don't remember if Hubbard ever explains what mixture of elements the Psychlos breathe, but I do remember him insisting on using "breathe-gas" to describe it. And this awkward, annoying terminology is the least stupid thing about the gas in question.

Char chews out Terl for trying to scam up a "nonscheduled vacation" or an excuse for a hunting expedition. He then describes humanity in Psychlo terms - we only come up to their beltline, we hardly have any hair except on our heads, we're all a "dirty white color," so fragile that we break apart when a Psychlo tries to pick us up, and we're so weak we'd "strain our guts out" trying to lift a saucepan of kerbango - hey, another alien word! But why isn't it italicized?

In summary, we can deduce that Psychlos are twice our size, hairy, and super-strong. I keep getting mental images of Wookiees, but they're fighting with the idiotic Psychlo design from the film of the book and losing. John Travolta as a Conehead with dreadlocks and limb extensions? Priceless.

Char finishes his speech with a burp, which I guess means that rughr was more than an expulsion of air. One of the Chamco brothers then complains about how nasty this "oxygen-nitrogen stuff" humans breathe is, and how green everything here is. Apparently he pines for the purple of home.

Char asks Terl, "You ain't really going hunting for a man, are you?" which makes me snicker inappropriately. Today's sales pitch - it's like "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," only gay!

Terl insists that there was something to mankind, and that they had flying machines and boats and even shot things into space. Char wonders if another race couldn't have done that, but Terl describes how the Psychlos found "the earth." They found a probe bearing a picture that gave full directions back to our planet (d'oh!), and the material the picture was made of (gold-anodized aluminum) was "rare everywhere and worth a clanking fortune."

"Clanking?" This haphazard approach to alien vocabulary frakking annoys me. And I guess the statement about gold's rareness is somewhat accurate, at least according to my lazy attempt at research. But on further thought, those are ratios for Earth - wouldn't other planets have different amounts of gold? And why would it be equally valuable to every alien race? I mean, we just like it because it's shiny. Surely alien aesthetics would be different. It's not like it's a particularly useful metal - it's malleable and a decent conductor, but... y'know, let's just keep going, this chapter's almost over.

Anyway, "Intergalactic paid the Psychlo government" (which apparently doesn't have a name like Parliament or Congress or Diet) "sixty trillion Galactic credits" (again with "credits" as sci-fi currency) "for the directions and the concession. One gas barrage and we're in business."

Guess they did a bit of research before dumping a load of nasty, poisonous oxygen on us. Char's response to the story is "ump." Since rughr wasn't a burp, I guess ump was more than a fart. Well, Terl is set to capture a human, and Char calls him a crazy as a "nebula of crap," which is a vivid but disgusting concept. Apparently there is deadly uranium in them thar hills, though it's dangerous for a more idiotic reason than you'd expect, but that's for later.

But Terl, ah, Terl has a plan! He's started rumors and set things up so no one will question when he "begun to put into motion the personal plans that would make him wealthy and powerful and, almost as important, dig him out of this accursed planet." The man-things - and oh boy, another hyphenated word, how doubleplusgood - are the key. And then he falls asleep "gloating over how clever he was."

And that's it for the first chapter. Only four pages and it took this much time and energy to get through. I'm on page 7 of 1083.

What have I gotten myself into...

Back to the Introduction

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Introduction

Recently there came a period when I had little to do. This was novel in a life so crammed with busy years, and I decided to amuse myself by writing a novel that was pure science fiction.

So begins L. Ron Hubbard's introduction to this weighty text. I must admit that I rarely read book introductions, but I figure making an exception for this case might help explain "why." Not "why" anything in particular, just "why."

What does that first little paragraph tell us? There's a reference to L. Ron's full and eventful life which comes across as slightly smug, unless my reaction is compromised by my prejudices against the author. There's the information that this story was written to amuse the author, which I can respect - after all, I don't write for a particular target audience, I write for fun. I guess this would imply that Hubbard's other stories were "work" then.

L. Ron goes on to explain that between the '30s and '50s he became a professional writer "not simply because it was my job, but because I wanted to finance more serious researches," and we all know how that ended. There's a dig at FDR, and L. Ron's assertion that during this time you were either very successful or homeless. And then we get to the major theme of the intro, which is the lack of respect afforded sci-fi authors, the vital role they play in society, and the nature of the genre itself.

The author complains that the phrase "he was a science fiction writer" is often used as a slur, a common sentiment among authors who fall victim to the "Sci-fi Ghetto," the unfortunate tendency for fantasy or science fiction stories to be shunned in favor of more "mainstream" or "serious" work, like light romantic comedies or police procedural dramas. He goes on to recall his early career as a writer, and talks a great deal about Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell Jr., whom he credits with helping make science-fiction respectable enough for Star Wars to succeed, and who "played no small part in driving this society into the space age." A strong, though not entirely unreasonable, claim. Hubbard also mentions how he and a friend were called on because "we could write about real people," a claim that you should keep in mind for later.

Eventually, L. Ron gets to his understanding of sci-fi itself:

Science fiction does not come after the face of a scientific discovery or development. It is the herald of possibility. It is the plea that someone should work on the future. Yet it is not prophecy. It is the dream that precedes the dawn when the inventor or scientist awakens and goes to his books or his lab saying, "I wonder whether I could make that dream come true in the world of real science."

Rather grand, innit? He cites authors Lucian, Kepler (who apparently wrote a story about space flight), Shelley, Poe, Verne, and Wells as coming up with stories that would inspire others to make important scientific breakthroughs, the essence of science fiction. Which I guess is plausible, though it's obvious that not every achievement mankind has made has had a book written about it beforehand, and that some inventors were fully capable of creating their own ideas, thank you very much.

And unfortunately, this majestic definition of pure science fiction precedes a book where the antagonists are called Psychlos and... bah, I'm getting ahead of myself. Just keep this statement in mind as we continue, and wonder just what kind of scientific breakthroughs this story could possibly inspire.

After this, L. Ron describes fantasy, saying that it isn't defined simply by the application of one's imagination, or by containing mythological or supernatural elements. It's... well, he goes back to sci-fi before really defining fantasy. I think the main difference between the two, in his eyes, is that sci-fi has to be plausible, and has a noble mission to drive mankind forward, while fantasy is just easy. "Writing science fiction demands care on the part of the author; writing fantasy is as easy as strolling in the park. (In fantasy, a guy has no sword in his hand; bang, there's a magic sword in his hand.)" He objects most strongly to a tendency to group sci-fi and fantasy together, since they are so obviously different.

I'm not sure. The Time Machine was a novel concept, but wasn't based in much scientific fact (if I recall, the machine's power source was "crystals" of some sort). It's a classic story, and led to a lot of time travel stories, but no scientific applications have emerged from it yet. It may use Science! to transport its main character through time, but the end result is about the same as if the titular device was powered by magic. On the flipside, some fantasy settings have quite detailed and strict rules governing their use of magic, turning its study and application into a science itself. My point is that there's a good deal of overlap between stories featuring lasers and stories featuring magic missiles, and that a well-written fantasy novel can be just as inspiring as a sci-fi story (and will almost certainly be more inspiring then this book).

Also, keep that last part - "bang, there's a magic sword in his hand" - in mind once we get to the learning machines and teleporters.

There's a bit about World War II, how the guys who made The Bomb were avid sci-fi enthusiasts, and how he and Robert Heinlein and other sci-fi authors got together to work out how to get people more interested in the space race than fighting over Earth. Which I guess is neat. I never knew there was a shadowy cabal of novelists who dictated the destiny of nations. And finally, the introduction starts to wind down, and L. Ron gets back to talking about the book instead of the genre.

To show that science fiction is not science fiction because of a particular kind of plot, this novel contains practically every type of story there is - detective, spy, adventure, western, love, air war, you name it. All except fantasy; there is none of that. The term "science" also includes economics and sociology and medicine where these are related to material things. So they're in here, too.

Yeeeaaah... So Hubbard doesn't like a world of mixed genres and is out to write "pure" sci-fi, but throws in elements from western novellas and (what he thinks of as) romance and detective stories. Interesting. I'm also curious about what a "medicine" story would be like. I guess he's making sure that this story is nice and "plausible," but it's hard to imagine "this book contains economics!" to be a good selling point.

L. Ron also admits that for this book, he hasn't cut anything, and decided instead to "just roll her as she rolled, so long as the pace kept up." I wish I'd read this intro the first time through, because this little sentence explains so much. As a novel written purely for the entertainment of its author, its likely Battlefield Earth only saw editing for spelling errors and typos (not that Hubbard made such mistakes, of course), and certainly not over matters of pacing and length. Which explains why this rambling narrative climaxes a third of the way through and then spitefully refuses to end until page 1083.

The introduction concludes with this:

And as an old pro I assure you that it is pure science fiction. No fantasy. Right on the rails of the genre. Science is for people. And so is science fiction.

Stand by.
Blast off!

...Wow. He wrote this in 1980. He is old-school. I can't remember the last time I heard the line "blast off" played straight.

So, to summarize this intro, cutting out all the personal anecdotes and rant about the power of sci-fi writers: this is a respectable story of pure science fiction, about real people and speculative science, with no lazy fantasy cop-outs and a realistic setting.

Now let's get started on a story containing Psychlos, flat characters, idiot plots, teleportation, moral dissonance, and barely-hidden Scientologist themes.

Back to the Cover

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Cover

Okay, so let's take a look at this bad boy.

That's the cover of the hardback edition I ended up with, dominated by Chuck Norris and an unhealthy shade of yellow-green. Our hero - for who else could this ripped, laser-toting barbarian be? - stands before a ruined city, bravely blazing away as unidentified vehicles scream through the sky above him. Behind him, another human is being shot in the back by one of a trio of... things. They look like guys in hazmat suits and gasmasks, and they are looming over two other humans - captives? Collaborators? Slaves? On the back cover we see a flight of spaceships who seem to be shooting at the ruined buildings on the front cover. They soar over two opaque domes in front of smokestacks that suggest a modern mining facility.

There's also reviews.

A terrific story.
- Robert A. Heinlein

The story may very well inspire terror, yes.

P[words obscured by Euclid Public Library barcode sticker]00 words written by a sup[text obscured]ge of Science Fiction... wonderful adventure... great characters... a masterpiece.
- A.E. van Vogt.

Technically, "masterpiece" means "greatest work of an artist's career." I haven't checked out L. Ron's other novels, so for all I know this is sadly the case.

This has everything: suspense, pathos, politics, war, humor, diplomacy and intergalactic finance.
- Publishers Weekly.

Note that they didn't say it did any of those well.

The pace starts fast and never lets up.
- Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Relative to the latter half of the book, yes, the pace does indeed start fast. And no, there is no relief at any point. Except the last page.

If you like the kind of fast, unrelenting Raiders of the Lost Ark action, then this is the book for you. It's a real page turner.
- Rocky Mountain News.

Slight against one of the greatest adventure movies of all time aside, the last part of that is pretty accurate. I was eager to turn the pages and get to the ending too.

Tight plotting, furious action, and have at 'em entertainment.
- Kirkus Review.


Let's take another look at our hero now.

Beneath a face framed by the rugged beard of a frontiersman are chiseled abs, hulking pectorals, and an unhealthily bulging vein running from his shoulder to his right forearm like an implanted cable. Eschewing a shirt, our hero wears simple buckskin leggings and moccasins, as well as a red mantle of some sort over his shoulders. Two gunbelts encircle his waist, in addition to the belt holding his pants up. I think that's a bit much, but Tetsuya Nomura would ridicule our hero for only wearing three belts, so to each his own. Now, those strange cylinders on his gunbelts can't be bullets, since those are clearly laser pistols. Obviously they're some sort of ammunition canister. Four thin cuts slice across his chest, but our hero seems to be ignoring them and the wounds aren't bleeding - old scars? I bet the book with have an exciting story about how he got them!

Notice the guns: our hero is dual-wielding laser pistols, and firing both of them. At different targets. Without aiming either. The left pistol is shooting almost at a right angle to his body, firing downward off the cover. The right pistol is held in an extremely awkward grip and is shooting off to his right, but his eyes are gazing straight at the reader. So either our hero is so incredibly awesome that he can target enemies independently of his eyes, or else he's just screwing around. Meanwhile, those three aliens are butchering his fellow humans while he stands oblivious on a hill, firing wildly at nothing in particular.

The aesthetics here are also interesting: the guns are smooth and flowing, while the spaceships are shiny and sleek, mostly torpedo-like hulls and delicate wings. The word for today is zeerust.

Zeerust: the particular kind of datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic.
- The Meaning of Liff

Now this is significant - Battlefield Earth came out in 1982, five years after Star Wars popularized the concept of a Used Future and helped set the trend for sci-fi that came after it. By presenting a cover that favors the "classic" style of Raygun Gothic, the book is evoking the kind of pulp fiction featuring lantern-jawed heroes battling over-the-top villains that you rarely see in "modern" science fiction. Back then, men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. In other words, the style suggests Buck Rogers instead of Blade Runner, so we can expect little moral ambiguity, but lots of flashy action and a good ol' fashioned showdown between good and evil.

Whether or not this style of space opera will be maintained in the story remains to be seen. By you. I've read it already and know the answer, but I'm not telling.

As a final note, the cover proudly tells us that the book's a New York Times bestseller. There's an interesting reason for that.

Back to the Premise

The Premise

I'm a huge fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The series had quite an impact during my formative years - my snarkiness, my idiosyncratic sense of humor, my critical eye, all are things I can attribute at least in part to a puppet show from Minnesota.

I'm not the only one, either: with the success of MST3K, a whole genre of "riffing" was launched. Whether it be the "sporking" of bad fanfics or novels, or downloadable commentary for DVDs, the internet is awash with heroes combating mediocre and insultingly stupid entertainment with sarcasm and devastating criticism.

And now... well, I thought it could be my turn.

I picked up a copy (used) of Battlefield Earth a few years ago and ended up slogging through it out of sheer bile fascination. Then, a few months ago, I started blogging. And with a little corner of the internet to call my own, the thought occurred to me - I could be riffing, too.

A cursory Google search surprised me with the lack of sites picking apart L. Ron Hubbard's sci-fi classic (for a given value of "classic"), and the next step seemed obvious. So here it is, a blog devoted to sporking, riffing, and/or MSTing Battlefield Earth the novel. Sorry about the unimaginative name.

This is mainly a pet project of mine, a pleasant diversion from my slightly more serious blog, and an experiment of sorts. Which topic do I prefer to offer commentary on? How far can I get in the book before I'm confronted with a frivolous lawsuit? We shall see.