Monday, January 31, 2011

"Pure" Science Fiction

Back in the book's introduction, when Hubbard wasn't dropping names or boasting that he was one of those gifted authors who "could write about real people," he spent a lot of time complaining about the genre of science fiction's lack of respect, as "few people understand the role science fiction has played in the lives of Earth's whole population."

He insisted that Battlefield Earth was "pure" sci-fi. Not fantasy; he was rather adamant about that. In fantasy, "a guy has no sword in his hand; bang, there's a magic sword in his hand," while Battlefield Earth has a guy who's an ignorant savage, but with a learning machine that transmits pure knowledge via light hitting his skin - bang, he knows trigonometry. Totally different.

Nitpicking aside, to Hubbard, science fiction helped advance civilization:

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 lab saying, "I wonder whether I could make that dream come true in the world of real science."

Compelling words. Maybe he wants to take credit for the future invention of a teleporter? Never mind that the term has been around since the '30s and was popularized by Star Trek in the 60's.

So in Hubbard's mind, Battlefield Earth is sci-fi because it encourages science to step forward and invent the devices he made up for his story, and because it lacks the magic and spirituality (and "easiness") of fantasy. Fair enough. But Hubbard had a very... particular view of the world, what with psychologists who were serial rapists and murderers, and a list of personal accomplishments at odds with public record and others' recollections. So I want to take a closer look at these ideas about science fiction, whether they make any sense, and where Battlefield Earth fits in to it all.

The basic thing to distinguish science fiction is, obviously enough, the presence of science which does not exist at the time of its writing, i.e. fictional science. A book with a gun that shoots bullets is fiction; a book with a gun that shoots lasers is science fiction. But there's more to it than that - the way the fictional science is treated is important too.

On one extreme there's "hard" science fiction, where the science isn't just a plot device, but something the author takes pains to explain in a way that is logical and plausible. An example would be Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (aside from the stuff with the monolith or giant glowing space baby, anyway), what with gravity supplied by centrifugal-or-centripetal-I-always-get-them-mixed-up force and a noiseless vacuum. In these sort of books the actual story can take a back seat to the author describing the technology of the future, and if the author isn't careful they end up writing a technical treatise instead of a narrative.

On the opposite extreme is "soft" sci-fi, where little effort is made to explain how the technology works because it's more important as a story element than as a thought experiment. Star Wars is the obvious example: blaster weapons, artificial gravity, deflector shields, TIE fighters screaming in space, with only a cursory attempt made in supplementary materials to describe how it all functions. Star Wars could just as easily as been a fantasy story, except George Lucas wanted to recreate those scenes from WWII dogfights so he went with spaceships and laser swords instead of dragons and flaming swords.

But in either case, I'm not sure how much you can credit the fiction with advancing science. In the introduction, Hubbard makes a very lame example:

...a man writes a story about some metal that, when twiddled, beats an egg, but no such tool has ever before existed in fact. He has now written science fiction. Somebody else, a week or a hundred years later, reads the story and says "Well, well. Maybe it could be done." And makes an eggbeater. But whether or not it was possible that twiddling two pieces of metal would beat eggs, or whether or not anybody ever did it afterward, the man still has written science fiction.

Yes, but how much is the author actually contributing?

If the story featuring a proto-eggbeater is "soft" sci-fi, then the device probably isn't the focus, and the author doesn't have any meaningful suggestions about how to build it. All he's done is float the idea of scrambled eggs, and regardless of whether you classify his story as fantasy or sci-fi, he’s not done much to see his eggbeater made reality.

But if the story is "hard" sci-fi, there's two possibilities: either the author himself is a scientist with the knowledge and skill to basically design the eggbeater on paper, or he's keeping in touch with smart guys on the cutting edge of egg-thrashing technology. In either case the science fiction is at best a byproduct of the developing science, not the motive force behind it.

And it’s really egotistical to imply that inventors have to be inspired by science fiction to make things in the first place. A guy writes a story about an imaginary egg-beating engine – so what? Is he the only person to have this idea? What if the guy who makes the actual eggbeater never read the story? The Wright Brothers were more inspired by experimental gliders than any stories about hypothetical flying machines, as far as I know.

So I’m not convinced of the relationship between sci-fi and human progress, but what else is the genre good for? Well, in the intro Hubbard liked to mention Robert A. Heinlein, a man who’s considered one of the giants of the genre. Hubbard credits him with drumming up support for the space program, which isn’t much of a stretch – Destination Moon gets a lot of praise for its realistic and plausible portrayal of the space program, which got Americans excited about the idea (if for no other reason than to beat those damned Commies to the punch).

But Heinlein did more than “hard” sci-fi, he told stories. Weird stories, involving immortality and time travel and alien contact. The guy had a thing for temporal paradoxes and incest. Heinlein could do a story like Starship Troopers, regarded as both a good look at war-time government and a thinly-veiled Cold War analogy, but also “All You Zombies,” about a time-traveling hermaphrodite who learns he/she is his/her own mother, father and child. While I can’t be sure if Heinlein was intending to herald a new era of brain-breaking time-traveling shenanigans, I doubt that’s what he was going for. He just wanted to tell an interesting story, and he chose to do it through sci-fi.

Now consider The Time Machine. Certainly “soft” sci-fi, since as best as I can remember the closest we got to an explanation as to how the titular device worked was something about crystals. And in the century since H. G. Wells wrote the story we still haven’t cracked time travel. But it’s considered a classic, even though the science itself is relatively unimportant, because it tells an interesting story that ponders about the far future, takes a look at the perils of social stratification, and attempts to subvert our schoolchildren into becoming socialists, which is why we must burn every copy of the book in our schools. The Invisible Man? Again, soft science that justifies the premise, which is an exploration of racial identity and Marxism and whatnot. In both cases the stories would work just as well as fantasy, and have value for the thoughts they provoke rather than the science they discuss.

But now consider The Lord of the Rings, with its message of simple courage and appreciation for nature. Consider To Kill A Mockingbird, a powerful condemnation of racism. Consider Harry Potter, a series about the power of friendship that got a generation of TV and internet junkies to read again.

Hubbard was only half-right – yes, science fiction can change things, but fiction period can change things. Whether a work is fantasy, science fiction, horror, whatever – a well-written book can change the way people think, transmit a new idea, and alter the course of human history.

So why was Hubbard trying to claim sci-fi was something special and respectable? Hard to say, but it might have something to do with his history as a paid-by-the-word pulp writer. Maybe he felt he had to make up for that. Maybe he needed to convince himself that his work was accomplishing more than a half-hour’s diversion and a paycheck.

But now that I’ve spent a few pages musing over the significance and purpose of science fiction, where does Battlefield Earth fit into all this?

Well, it’s easily classified as “soft” sci-fi. There’s blast rifles and spaceships and teleporters, but little attempt is made to explain how they function. We’re told the Psychlos’ technology lets them swap two chunks of space-time, but never how a box of circuitry and dials is able to tear reality a new one. This is to say nothing of the magical learning machines that transmit math lessons via a beam of light that hits your arm and somehow travels up through the nerves in your skin to your brain. And, of course, none of these ideas are exactly new. Laser guns, teleporters, instant knowledge, all of it had been done well before this book’s 1982 publication date.

Battlefield Earth doesn’t have any big, world-changing ideas to share. It’s a standard “overthrow the evil aliens” plot at heart, and the closest it comes to making a statement is with complaints about taxation and the author’s hatred and paranoid towards psychologists. There were some opportunities to ask questions and offer thoughtful contemplation – why everyone so readily accepts Jonnie's leadership, why people would add him to their pantheons without ever meeting him, why the catrists would turn their race into bloodthirsty monsters, or what’s wrong with the other aliens that forces humanity to be the ones to save the universe – but Hubbard never asks those questions.

The book doesn’t do much for science, it doesn’t provoke thought, but does it at least tell an interesting story? I think I’ve spent a lot of time arguing the answer to that is a resounding “no.” When I took a look at the cover art over a year ago, I wondered if the dated chrome style of the spaceships was meant to evoke a Flash Gordon feel. If that was the goal, the book certainly didn’t live up to cover – there’s no fast-and-furious action here, no larger-than-life heroes to be found. The action scenes are few and far between, and forgone conclusions when they occur. Jonnie is boringly unstoppable and almost devoid of personality, and the rest of the cast amounts to little more than cardboard cut-outs. The only pulpy element is Terl, who has a self-aware evilness to him that prevents you from taking him seriously.

It’s just a mess. Battlefield Earth is a swashbuckling adventure with no buckling of swashes. It’s a scientifically-minded story that includes economics and medicine, and gets them woefully wrong. It’s a book about “real” people without personality. It doesn’t inspire us to change the world or better mankind, it’s boring and stupid.

But I will say this – Hubbard was right, it’s science fiction. The science is often flat-out wrong and the fiction is terrible, but the technological devices in the story don’t exist yet. So at least we know where to shelve it, even if there’s little reason to read it. And who knows, maybe sometime in the future, when someone invents a teleporter, she'll mention that it works a lot more sensibly than the ones in an obscure little turkey called Battlefield Earth.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Problems With Structure

One of the most obvious issues with Battlefield Earth is how big it is. The hardcover edition I've got clocks in at 1,083 pages, as mentioned in this blog's tagline. According to the bathroom scale this comes in at a whopping "Err" pounds.

This is not to say that a long novel is necessarily something to be avoided. Lord of the Rings, for example, told a story so huge that wartime rationing necessitated it being broken into three books. But then again, LotR is the total opposite of Battlefield Earth - though Tolkien's tale was told across three volumes, it was a single story centered around a quest to get rid of a piece of jewelry. It was rather slow to start, got sidetracked in places, and had a surprise extra ending (or two), but there was a clear structure to the plot.

Battlefield Earth, in marked contrast, is multiple stories crammed into the same book. I ask you this: where is BE's climax? Is it the fight to take the minesite? The destruction of the gas drone? The defeat of the last Psychlos on Earth? When Terl's teleporter goes kerblooey? Or when the Pax Jonnie is shoved down the galaxies' throats? If I were to try to graph the story, which I won't because I'm too lazy to learn how to create informative charts for the sake of a blog post, it'd look like a vampire's lower jawline - two big spikes bracketing a bunch of little nubs.

The "main" story of Battlefield Earth, the one that the movie adaptation focused on, is the liberation of Earth. This takes place over 14 Parts and 451 pages. There's a simple goal the heroes are working toward- teleport some bombs to the Psychlo homeworld and rally the remnants of humanity to overthrow their alien overlords... well, alien neighbors really, there wasn't enough contact between the species to call it an occupation. But I digress.

And so does Hubbard! For the first two Parts things move along just fine - we're introduced to our hero and villain (for better and for worse), we get the premise, and we see the conflict begin between a captive Jonnie and a drunken - er, scheming Terl. Jonnie gets the magical teaching machine and starts putting together a plan to strike back at the aliens, learning what he can about his enemy while Terl trains him for labor.

And then we hit delays. Terl's demonstration is sabotaged by a coworker for the lulz, so we get a couple of chapters of Terl scheming and blackmailing. Then we have to watch Terl scheme and blackmail his boss to approve the plan. While you could argue that this is necessary to show that Terl likes to scheme and blackmail, it delays the plot and slows the novel's pace to a crawl. If you have to show Terl gathering leverage, just do it once! The movie wisely cut the sabotaged demonstration entirely, because it is redundant at best and filler at worst.

So around page 200 we get to Scotland and Jonnie convinces hundreds of strangers to become his army, and things start moving again. We get the Preparing For War sequence where the heroes start training and gathering weapons, but then we're hit with a double whammy - the Hunt for Uranium, which takes over fifty pages, and The Lode. Because when you think of a sci-fi epic, you're looking forward to reading chapters about mining. I guess you could try to spin it as Extreme! Mining because it's taking place in a dangerous canyon, but since the gold's only purpose is as bait in a trap, how much time do you need to spend describing how it was extracted from a cliff?

There's a brief action sequence in Part 8 when the heroes raid the minesite, but aside from random bear attacks and the capture of Jonnie at the end of Part 1, the story is basicaly three hundred pages of Terl being "clever" while Jonnie and the humans run around looking for gold/weapons/uranium. But finally, in Part 12, on page 369, does Jonnie prime the coffin-bombs and the attack on the minesite begins. Three hundred pages of preparation and buildup... and the battle for Earth takes place mainly offscreen, mentioned in a chapter or two. We get one chapter of Dunneldeen strafing a minesite in Cornwall, and there's a confusing dogfight between Terl and Jonnie, but Part 13 and 14 are mostly about Jonnie getting on and shutting down the gas drone. It's the story's climax, which I guess is meant to be an exciting game of cat and mouse, but manages to drag on as Jonnie keeps passing out and fumbling with a wrench and that stowaway Psychlo spazzes out. Then Jonnie falls in the ocean and is rescued.

So the Psychlos are soundly pantsed, but humanity faces a struggle to rebuild and prepare for a possible counterattack, while their hero recovers from injuries sustained in the brief and anticlimactic liberation of Earth. A good place to stop, isn't it? You've got an ending, but plenty of sequel hooks for the next novel. The movie, awful as it was, had the wisdom to call it a day at this point.

But Hubbard keeps going.

Part 15 opens with Jonnie recovering from his injuries, and then... what's the main plot, here? Terl scheming, again? The pathetic Brown Limper trying to become Hitler? Jonnie and friends trying to learn Psychlo math? The "best planned raid in history," the Psychlos' last and wholly unsuccessful attempt at posing a meaningful threat? The securing of the Kariba base? And then the Gray Man and a bunch of other aliens show up and... hover overhead for a few chapters, before launching an unsuccessful raid or two.

It'd be nice if it was like Empire Strikes Back and the plot threads all came together for a climax (and if there were only two plot threads to begin with), but nope. Brown Limper pops in and out of focus, the Psychlos go down like chumps, then Terl blows up the Brigantes, and it's generally a mess. I spent a good part of last year reading through these chapters and I'm at a loss how to put things in a chronology.

Now around the production of the Battlefield Earth movie, before it turned out to be an overpriced catastrophe, there were plans for a Battlefield Earth TV series (animated, if memory serves). That's what I think these middle chapters would work best as, a bunch of minor threats to be dealt with over a short arc, or maybe as the plot of an hour-long episode. Instead they're all thrown together in a jumble until Jonnie can sort them out one after the other. Like Hubbard had a lot of ideas but wasn't sure which one to focus on, and decided to not choose at all.

None of the villains are impressive - Terl's more deluded than ever and outsmarted at every turn, Brown Limper's a wanna-be dictator who is marginalized swiftly and holds power only over his Brigante goons, and the Psychlos are little more than big, explosive targets for the unstoppable heroes. An abstract concept like math is a longer-lasting obstacle than any of these dubious menaces. As a standalone work these chapters would be lackluster, but as the follow-up to a campaign to liberate the planet -unsatisfying as it may have been - they're extremely lackluster.

So I guess around Part 25, page 800 or so, we're into the final sequence of Battlefield Earth, centering on the alien coalition threatening Earth and Jonnie's plans to deal with them by mastering Psychlo teleportation technology. Except cracking Psychlo math and building their own console was one of the plot points for the middle section, so... I'm not sure how to diagram this. We get a climax, at least, when Jonnie and the bankers sell of hundreds of planets they've never set foot on and our hero threatens a holocaust on any alien who steps out of line. And then some sort of time-delayed climax from hundreds of pages earlier, when we finally learn what happened when Jonnie sent those bombs through the teleporter.

But who's the villain for these chapters? Terl's dead, Brown Limper's dead, and our major antagonists are some Tolneps we just met and who - what a surprise - are outsmarted or beaten down whenever they try to be threatening. And what were their names again? Snowl was the ambassador, I think, and the journalist was... on that's right, Arsebogger. Wow, must've forgotten that in self-defense.

And as for the chapters' content, it's divided between aliens dying in droves while Hubbard insists that humanity's survival hangs in the balance, and diplomats or bankers talking. When the Scottish pilots can down dozens of enemy ships all by themselves, and after all the one-sided engagements against the Psychlos, Battlefield Earth's battle scenes lose any sense of drama or meaning. They actually become less interesting than debates over the definition of piracy or a courtroom scene.

Then, once Jonnie saves the day again, we are treated to a protracted ending that shows how fantastically wealthy and venerated he's become, while Hubbard belatedly tidies up a dangling plot thread, shoehorns in some Psychlo backstory that would have been useful before the race had gone extinct, and waives Jonnie of any consequences for an act of genocide. There's the hackneyed "chooses the life of a simple outdoorsman" ending combined with the "he'll be back again someday" myth, and the book is finally over.

...Well, that was a refreshing trip down memory lane. What was the point I was making again? Ah, yes: this book is a mess. Like I said, Lord of the Rings was one plot told over three books, Battlefield Earth is three or more storylines crammed into a brick of a book. They share a setting, cast, and chronology, but it's more like reading an omnibus than it is an individual story.

The logical thing to do would be to chop this monster up into standalone volumes and make Battlefield Earth a proper series. Except this would be a disaster. Call it a hunch, but I doubt that after reading the first "book" of BE many people would be rushing back to the bookstore to read about the continuing adventures of Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. And just how would you manage the convoluted middle section? Would anyone who enjoyed the comparatively better Book 1 find anything in Book 2 to make them want to buy Book 3?

L. Ron Hubbard has a reputation for craziness, but my guess is that even he could see that if Battlefield Earth was published as a series, there'd be a steep dropoff in sales for Book 2 on. But he had this huge, rambling (I am aware of the irony) manuscript sitting on his desk, not making any money. The solution, of course, would be to package it as "A Saga of the Year 3000," all 1083 pages of it. Get the consumer to pay for all of it, even if they give up a third of the way through it.

Of course, this raises the question of why Hubbard's other sci-fi adventure Mission Earth was published as a series and Battlefield Earth wasn't, though I guess ME is much too long to cram into one book... and I have the foreboding feeling that I'll be examining Mission Earth in greater detail someday.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Problems With Psychlos

Ah, the Psychlos. The "oh God, is he really being that blatant with the allusion to psychology?" Psychlos. The scourge of worlds, the overlords of universes, the bad guys of Battlefield Earth. And there's so much stupid about them.

I've already covered their bizarre biology as it came up in the book, but let's recap. These things respire something called "breathe-gas," which as we learned reacts explosively to uranium - or possibly radiation, since the terms might be synonymous in Hubbard's mind. Their eyelids and lips are "eye-bones" and "mouth-bones" respectively, and it could be interpreted that their hair is bone as well. Their skull is in fact mostly bone, with the brain smushed down against the spine like an afterthought. Their heart lies low in the torso near the belt buckle, and there is no mention of a protective boney structure covering it. They have an extra finger on their right paws, bringing their grand total of claws to eleven, not counting toes. And, in one was probably meant to be a symbolic gesture but instead makes the author appear an absolute idiot, they are supposedly viruses which have managed to form cells, organs, and a method of sexual reproduction, all in utter defiance of the very definition of a virus.

They're twice our height and strong enough to carry a horse under each arm, which combined with all the bones and whatnot would make them a lethal enemy to face in combat. Except it doesn't. Jonnie mops the floor with them in hand-to-hand, and their spectacular weakness to radiation makes them explode from one irradiated bullet. Even with the Psychlos' advanced technology, the battles at the minesites or in Africa go overwhelmingly in the humans' favor with kill ratios of at least fifty to one. Their supposedly invincible war machines prove susceptible to centuries-old bazookas or getting flipped by a mortar.

The question with the Psychlos is not how a bunch of Air Force cadets in Colorado could hold out for hours against the invading aliens, but why the rest of the world's military did so poorly. Yes, there was a gas attack, but apparently nobody made it to the fallout shelters or had a gas mask handy or bothered to make a phone call to a neighboring country to warn them about the gas drone lumbering their way. And I'm just going to mention once how achingly stupid it is for the gas drone to fly through a nuke unharmed but have its door hinges blown off by weapons fire from Jonnie's fighter.

I think Hubbard was wanting us to be impressed that Jonnie and the other humans could succeed against such a strong and dangerous alien species, but the ease with which they do so really undermines their accomplishment. Downing a Psychlo is about as impressive as watching a Star Wars character cut down Stormtroopers or those stupid Battle Droids by the dozen.

But that's just one aspect of what's wrong with them.

Consider the Psychlo Empire. The Psychlo civilization, as mentioned before, has a mining fetish. Cities are built like minesites. Public transportation looks like minecarts. They invade planets to mine them for metals which they sell or process to finance the next invasion to acquire more metals. Their very numerals are based on mining. They have no art, no literature, just an interest in digging and smelting. The Psychlos are one-dimensional, and their choice of dimension is an odd one.

That's just the Psychlo culture, though; what's really stupid is how the Psychlo Empire operates. They've built it around their teleportation technology, which they rely on nearly to the exclusion of all other forms of interstellar transportation. This would make perfect sense, since after all instantaneous travel is preferable to spending months on a space ship, if it weren't for the limitations of teleportation - the key one being you can't teleport near a location already undergoing a teleport. Limit one per planet, in effect.

So knowing this, the Psychlos come up with a plan. They'll use their homeworld and capital of Psychlo as the hub for the empire's teleportation network. It will only run one teleport at a time, and to avoid mishap it will run on a strict schedule, with each world in its vast empire only having a few hours per year to make contact with the homeworld, to exchange news and material and personnel.

How the hell would that work?

It abides by Hubbard's baffling and plot-convenient rules for teleportation, but is woefully ignorant of the kind of infrastructure required to run an elementary school, to say nothing of a city government, nation, or heavens forbid an interdimensional empire. The Earth outpost has three hours or so to get a year's supply of food and breathe-gas transferred, while sending off a years' worth of mined ore and exchanging workers and correspondence. If some disaster strikes the colony's food supply and they run dangerously low, or sickness plagues the workers, or a rival alien race attacks, they get to wait a whole year until they can send a message for help. If someone like the Tolneps took over a Psychlo world, the first the Psychlo capital would know about it would be when a stack of rocks didn't appear on the teleportation platform as scheduled. What would they do then? Send an inspector, or a note asking questions, and expect an answer the following year?

And speaking of years, the Psychlo and Earth calenders conveniently match up. Which means that, assuming 365 days in a year and an approximately three-hour window to make contact, the Psychlo capital would only be able to link up with 2,920 of its 200,000 planets. So some worlds were out of contact for more than a year at a time. And, of course, this leaves no room for military campaigns.

Empires don't run that way. Especially supposedly paranoid and dictatorial empires like the Psychlos', who are worried about its secrets being stolen or its population getting out of control. This also makes Jonnie's worries about an imminent Psychlo counterattack extremely pointless. They'd only have one chance to do so, for a few hours, at a predictable time. If they're dumb enough to pop in on the platform, you could just irradiate it and watch them explode.

And then there are the catrists, those charlatan mind-doctors who secretly run Psychlo society, are responsible for all their evil, and we only learn about in the last couple of pages of Battlefield Earth, long after they're dead. I'll do the whole Scientology angle later (though not much needs to be said, really, Hubbard's not being subtle here). The main thing is: they wanted to implant a safeguard to preserve the secret of teleportation, check. And they wanted to program their population to be happy workers, check. But something went wrong with the wiring and it turned all the Psychlos evil. And they put in the implants anyway.

Why? Why don't you, I dunno, fix the design so it brings about the desired result? Even if the catrists were utter morons and did the implants to everyone without testing or a control group, why would you continue to use them on subsequent generations? And if you're restricting the secrets of teleportation to "trusted" and "brilliant" individuals like Terl anyway, do you really need to implant every single citizen?

The answer is obvious, as Hubbard meant it to be: the catrists are Pure Evil, malicious for the sake of malice, causing misery even without the promise of personal gain. They want their people to be bloodthirsty and stupidly aggressive, rather than placid and happy. I can only assume it fits in with the "we're all nothing but animals" philosophy Ker mentioned the catrists pushing - the catrists are simply using mind control to ensure that society lives down to their expectations. Sort of like altruists using mass hypnosis to force people to help each other and cooperate, or Flat-Earthists using a superweapon to reshape the Earth into a rectangle. Stupidity combined with supervillainy. Stupervillainy.

Except - and here's the biggest problem with the Psychlos, the one that makes the book fall apart - the Psychlos aren't all that evil. We're told that the implants make them bloodthirsty, and that they have an addiction to causing pain and suffering. There's that incident with the captive Scotsmen the Psychlos tortured to death (in the process of evacuating, because they are idiots), and the Scots relate how they can't raid close to the Psychlo base, lest they be captured. There's corporate screwing over, and that one Psychlo whose name I forget sabotaged Terl's demonstration for the lulz. And wives can be purchased, so they're misogynist too, though nice enough to let females work as secretaries.

And that's it. When we see the Psychlos at the mine site off-duty, they're getting drunk or playing ring toss. In the very first chapter Char wonders why anyone would go through the trouble of hunting humans. We don't see the Psychlos flying out to find the ragged remnants of humanity and strafe them from a plane - not on company time, they aren't! When we see the Psychlo workers, they're not wondering when they'll be able to rip something to shreds, they're worried about pay cuts and downsizing. None of the Psychlo captives make suicidal attacks on their captors to sate their bloodlust, or tear each other apart in a frenzy of aggression. We don't see gladiatorial arenas on the Psychlo homeworld, or hear of the slave ships crammed with helpless sentient creatures for the Psychlo population to torture to death in the privacy of their own homes. They're pretty normal for twelve foot, explosive behemoths.

And Jonnie kills them. By the dozen, personally, and by the billion, indirectly and a little accidentally. He kills miners defending themselves against a sudden attack by creatures they had never heard of, or didn't know were sentient. He kills unemployed Psychlos trying to make a living on their overcrowded and economically-stratified homeworld. He kills Psychlo females who live in a society where wives can be purchased. He kills Psychlo children who haven't been implanted with the catrists' control units yet. In Jonnie's effort to subject planet Psychlo's teleportation nexus to a dozen or so planet-buster nukes, he sets off a chain reaction that ends in genocide, with the only surviving Psychlos all sterile workers. And he is lauded for it.

This is a race supposedly under mind control, remember? An empire ruled by a shadowy oligarchy, right? But there is no lamenting that more Psychlos could be freed, or that Jonnie could have somehow defeated the catrists to liberate the aliens. Instead the Psychlo Empire is equivalent to the Psychlos as individuals - since they are part of the machine that invaded Jonnie's planet a thousand years ago, they are fair game. The Psychlo Empire invades planets, so the Psychlo species must die.

Tolkien struggled with this. His Orcs were brutal and nasty creatures that ended up treated, to drop a link to TV Tropes, as Always Chaotic Evil and therefore perfectly okay for the protagonists to kill. But this clashed with Tolkien's beliefs of goodness and redemption, and he could never really justify why it was okay to slaughter orcs by the hundreds. He did better with the human tribes who ended up allying with the bad guys, and explained that they were largely misguided or lured by false promises or simply bullied into compliance. There's a lovely bit where Sam (in the books, Faramir in the movies) looks upon a dead soldier and wonders if he was truly evil, and what drove him to march from his home to die in a strange land.

Jonnie doesn't wonder, and Hubbard doesn't struggle. He expects us to feel elated when we learn of the utter destruction of a species who had the misfortune of living under a dictatorship, as if anyone would break out the champagne if a meteorite flattened North Korea. To Hubbard, the Psychlos are pure evil worthy only of extermination and it doesn't seem to occur to him that anyone would think otherwise. And that's pretty frightening, especially if you read Battlefield Earth as a Scientologist statement.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Problems With Jonnie

Terl is a lame villain, no big revelation there. What about the hero, then?

Jonnie's problems start the chapter he's introduced in. From the moment we meet Jonnie, we're given no reason to like him: he's sullen and angry, bullies a family member with cold stares, and ignores his girlfriend on his way to browbeat the village into doing what he wants. Now granted, this is right after his father's death and lack of a funeral, so you can excuse Jonnie's behavior due to stress (even though it doesn't change much afterward). But it's still a terrible first impression. We could have been shown him before his father's death to get a better look at what a normal, happy Jonnie is like, so the sulkiness would be meaningful and we could tell when he's recovered from it. Instead we meet a jerk, and then he becomes a stoic adventurer, and then he's an angry captive, and then he's an angrier resistance leader.

In the moments Jonnie isn't being angry or a bully, he's... well, hard to describe. Despite being the book's main character, there isn't a whole lot to Jonnie. Sure, he does plenty of stuff and has a staggering list of abilities and accomplishments - ace pilot, dedicated outdoorsman, unbeatable warrior, and so forth - but he has little in the way of personality. He's not a charming rogue, a wide-eyed idealist, a taciturn intellectual, or anything like that. He just spends the book doing things, going places, and killing.

We can infer some things about Jonnie from his actions, at least. He obviously hates Psychlos, and doesn't like any aliens meddling in human affairs. He finds those Brigantes disgusting and contemplates strafing their village without any exceptions for women or children. Jonnie has trouble with the idea of noncombatants in general, and doesn't lose any sleep over the uncounted Psychlo women or children he killed. Nor does he see anything wrong with joking about killing prisoners to let off some steam - or rather he is incensed when Psychlos torture a captive to death, but will laugh at the thought of doing the same to his Psychlo prisoners of war.

On the more positive side, I guess Jonnie cares for his fellow villagers, given his attempts to make them move to a less irradiated area. And every now and then he remembers to worry about his love interest. And he's humble enough to shy away from the fame he earns over the book. And he's nice to his horse. But that's all just the bare minimum of motivation, since otherwise Jonnie would be acting at random. Beyond that, there's not much of anything. Still more than Chrissie, at least, but Chirk is probably better-developed than Chrissie.

That's another thing - character development. Jonnie doesn't change. He's the same bland hero from the book's beginning to the end. Sure, he learns a lot about the universe and how to fly a spaceship, but there's no arc of Jonnie coming to terms with the burden of leadership, no meaningful struggle with the needs of humanity as a whole versus his desire to go home to his village, no culture shock from learning about alien civilizations. Jonnie travels all over the world, but has no comparative mental journey. He is a man who can blow up a planet and emerge unchanged.

But all of this does nothing to hurt Jonnie's popularity (at least in-story). Strangers are willing to follow him before they even learn his name, and there was that nauseating moment when he was elevated to demigod status by some tribes. You can tell who the bad guys are because they're the only people who dislike Jonnie or dare to go against him. To Hubbard, Jonnie is the embodiment of all that is right in the universe - and if this statement disturbs you, good, you're paying attention.

Now there's a concept I've thrown around before, that of the "Mary Sue" or her male counterpart "Marty/Gary Stu," which I should probably explain further. The term comes from fanfiction and is used to describe obnoxiously perfect characters, the ones who warp canon around them, tend to be princesses and/or half-elves, make the entire cast fall in love with them, and bear a striking resemblance to the idealized version of the 14-year-old girl writing the story. While Jonnie lacks paragraph-long descriptions of his lavish wardrobe or exotic eyes that change color with his mood, he does share some of the Common Mary Sue Traits:
  • No personality
  • Able to convince an entire Scottish village to do his bidding before they even ask him his name
  • Perfect physical condition, able to beat a bear to death without injury, even though his home village is blighted by radiation sickness and mutation
  • Elevated into pantheons by cultures who have never met him, attains a messianic status in multiple alien civilizations
  • Prince of Scotland (by blood transfusion)
  • Becomes wealthier than God
  • Blows up an entire species, but nobody blames him for it or considers it a bad thing, even the last survivors of said species
  • Allegedly, his portrayal on the cover of early editions of Battlefield Earth bore an uncanny resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard.
Now, it's not unusual for character in a story to achieve these things - defeat the bad guy, earn fame and fortune, marry the princess, and so forth. So is Jonnie a Gary Stu? I'd argue yes. As mentioned before, Jonnie's ability to earn others' slavish devotion is simply unbelievable, and things like the good-God-I-hope-Robert-was-joking-about-the-prince-part blood transfusion are just excessive. It feels less like Jonnie is being rewarded for his heroic deeds of genocide and thuggery and more like Hubbard is heaping praise and treasure on his character so we can properly appreciate how awesome Jonnie is.

And that's another thing - Jonnie has no flaws. Or rather, no flaws that are presented as such, save for those not-really-flaws like "he doesn't know when to quit" or "even if it's impossible he'll keep trying until he beats it." His decisions are always right, and his failures are due to sabotage or insurmountable obstacles rather than his personal failings. He's so good at everything he does that there's no drama when he gets in a fight or is presented with a challenge, just a wait until he achieves his inevitable victory.

Consider Luke Skywalker. When we first meet him, he's a whiny farmboy, but we can sympathize with him wanting to get out and see the world and make something of himself. He makes mistakes and rash decisions that almost get him and others killed, but he learns from them. The new powers he discovers are almost secondary to his personal growth. And I'll also point out that even though he learns that his sister is a princess, neither George Lucas or any expanded universe writer I've encountered has dwelt on the fact that Luke is technically a prince.

Consider Harry Potter. He starts out embodying a child's wish fulfillment, the understandable desire to be told that your mundane, unpleasant existence is illusory and that you're really someone supernatural, special. But his story is really about growing up, about facing your fears and taking on responsibility, even if you don't think you're ready for it. Harry makes mistakes - terrible mistakes that get his loved ones killed - but matures enough to surpass them and succeed, with a little help from his friends.

Jonnie starts out physically perfect and angry, and I guess we're supposed to empathize with him like we would a rebellious teenager, though really he's right (of course) and his fellow villagers are idiots. His story isn't about growing or changing because Jonnie's pretty much perfect already, though he does get taught how to fly a plane and do math by magical science. He has some struggles and setbacks, but they're always due to outside forces beyond his control, and he eventually outsmarts them or blows them up anyway. And he's heaped with praise and titles and treasure in case none of the explosions leave us suitably awed.

That's Battlefield Earth in a nutshell, really: some guy going around blowing up aliens and bullying the universe until it better suits him, and we get to watch.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Problems With Terl, and Other Villains

Since Terl is the first character introduced in Battlefield Earth, it's only fair to start with him. Though where to start with him is difficult to determine. I've already ranted about how stupid he is, and how as villains go he's pretty pathetic (in an entirely non-sympathetic way).

Just off the top of my head, some of Terl's low points include:
  • Nearly killing his captive by forgetting that the native lifeforms respire air, not breathe-gas
  • Neglecting and injuring the creature his big scheme hinges upon
  • Never bothering to learn his slaves' language, thus allowing them to plot against him even while he's present
  • Accepting that two creatures have psychic powers, even though said powers didn't help them avoid the traps that captured them
  • Taking hostages, then nearly letting them die through neglect
  • Setting his automated surveillance for regular inspections rather than constant surveillance or random inspections
  • Painfully unsubtle hints that he plans on double-crossing his "workers"
  • Taunting a corpse with self-incriminating statements
  • An inexplicable obsession with the idea of smuggling gold through fake coffin lids

And so on. Point is, Terl is hard to take seriously as a diabolical mastermind, and both his greed and stupidity keep allowing the protagonists to succeed.

Of course, to a large extent this is intentional. As early as Part One, Chapter One, Char tells him "you got your appointment because you are clever. That's right, clever. Not intelligent. Clever." This is also where Char expresses amazement that anyone would want to go out and hunt humans, directly contradicting the whole "evil bloodthirsty Psychlos hunting humans for sport" angle introduced later, but never mind. The point is, Terl is never meant to be as cunning as he thinks he is, and his ego surpassing his ability is his flaw.

Which is all well and good, I suppose, since characters need flaws to keep them believable (see: Jonnie), and there's the whole "evil sowing the seeds of its own destruction" thing. But Terl takes it to extremes, and most of his accomplishments come despite his best efforts (or completely out of nowhere, like how he cracks Numph's code). And like so many other things in Battlefield Earth, it's Terl's stupidity that allows the heroes to succeed more than the protagonists' own acts would allow. Terl undermines the heroes' accomplishments by inadvertently aiding them and devalues them because an idiot like him manages to be an obstacle to their success.

He's not a very good bad guy, when it comes down to it. Terl's a second or third tier antagonist like Jabba the Hutt or one of the named orc captains from Lord of the Rings. And yet, he's the closest thing Battlefield Earth has to a main villain. Because who else would it be?

Normally a story has a Big Bad, the incarnation and personification of whatever forces are opposing the hero. LotR had Sauron, Star Wars had Darth Vader and later the Emperor, Super Mario Bros. has Bowser/Koopa, and so on. These guys cast their shadow across the entire plot, and their defeat is usually a satisfying part of the climax.

Terl does not loom over Battlefield Earth's story. He's a major player for the first quarter of it, but he's dead halfway through. And he isn't the personification of those evil Psychlos, because he (one of the catrists' chosen, entrusted with the secrets of teleportation) is trying to swindle the Psychlos too. He's on his own side.

So who is the main bad guy(s)? Brown Limper, the jealous, power-hungry cripple? He's a pathetic imitation of dictators past and easily out-maneuvered by the heroes; the closest he comes to relevance is a few chapters in the middle. One of The Gray Men? They're only clearly antagonists towards the story's end, and never villains. One of the Tolneps, Arsebogger or Snowl or that captain whose name I can't be bothered to look up? Probably not. The Psychlo emperor? Never named, much less appearing in the story. The catrists? Jonnie only learns about them loooong after blowing them all up.

We can't even really say the Psychlo Empire is the force Jonnie is struggling against, since it never appears in the story aside from background exposition and a brief chapter set on the capital world. It'd be more accurate to say that Jonnie's opposing any hostile aliens rather than any specific character.

That is, if you view Battlefield Earth as a single story. However, if you break it into episodes, things work a little better - Terl is quite clearly the baddie of the "Jonnie in Chains" and "Liberation of Earth" arcs, while Snowl is the villain of the "Conference of Kariba" episode. Which I guess I'll have to explore further when I examine the story structure of Battlefield Earth.

This has been rambling a bit, so I'll try to wrap things up with: Terl is an idiot and not a very good villain, but Battlefield Earth doesn't have a consistent nemesis for Jonnie, so he's the closest thing to it. Which is sad.

Monday, January 3, 2011

It's Not Over Yet

Just because I'm done going through Battlefield Earth doesn't mean this blog is over.

I've covered each chapter, summarizing them, quoting them, and complaining about them. Now it's time for the next step, to try and put everything together. I've often said that the book sucks, but I intend to take a closer look at why it sucks, so that we might learn from Hubbard's mistakes, thereby giving his book a greater value than as simply an object of derision.

My plans is to focus on the two main characters, Jonnie and Terl, as well as the Psychlos in general, as well as the book's pacing. I'll ruminate over whether this is "pure" sci-fi, pulp-era Flash Gordon sci-fi, or what. And I'll consider Battlefield Earth as a Scientologist piece, just to address the elephant in the room that pops up whenever one mentions L. Ron Hubbard.

So hey, could be interesting.