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

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