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.

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