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.

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