Friday, February 25, 2011

Ways to Salvage Battlefield Earth

Battlefield Earth is not a good book, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks a good premise. There’s always a market for an alien invasion story, and Hubbard puts a twist on this old favorite by being set a thousand years after the war. There’s some real potential here, buried like a Rolex in a pile of manure.

The biggest issue would be how the Psychlos are presented. The book is plagued by the discrepancy between what we are told about them and what we are shown, so the author would need to pick a scenario.

The first would be that the Psychlos are exactly as sadistic and irredeemably evil as Hubbard insists they are. Instead of ring toss at the Psychlo rec hall, we’d have performance torture sessions. Jonnie, as an experienced outdoorsman, should immediately know something is very wrong the first time he’s taken to the Psychlo compound and notices the complete lack of animal life. We should see vacationing Psychlos going out on man-hunting expeditions. Jonnie should be horrified at the stories of other humans, whose tribes have endured such raids for a thousand years, assuming his own tribe hasn't experienced this for itself.

The second option would be a little more thought-provoking – have the Psychlos as regular guys doing a job, who just happen to be occupying another species’ home planet. Jonnie would be struck by the common ground between him and a Psychlo like Ker, and struggle with the ethics of waging war on an occupier who played no part in the invasion of Earth and who isn’t actively oppressing him now. Jonnie would have to decide how to deal with the Psychlo miners, if he can try to recruit them or if he’s justified in killing them.

Another problem would be the state of humanity. Battlefield Earth is confusing because there’s so much regression amongst the human tribes despite so little reason for it. There’s no ongoing genocide campaign, only the occasional off-screen hunting expedition. And yet the humans remain near extinction and are at a medieval tech level at best, despite a hundred years to rebuild.

So we need to be shown why this is, and see the Psychlo raids that make long-term settlement impossible. Have a dedicated Psychlo security force monitoring the planet via satellite and surveillance drone, sending strike teams to flatten any large collections of campfires. Show us the Psychlos’ attempt at destroying history by torching every last library on Earth in order to slow the humans’ progress. Then have Jonnie visit the humans’ greatest treasure, a hidden city where the surviving records of civilization and science are meticulously preserved and reproduced – that could be the “underground university” the Scots mention and never elaborate on.

All that would make the setting a little easier to swallow, and from there the adjustments are relatively minor. The whole “exploding breathe-gas” thing needs to go because it turns the big, hulking monsters into big, hulking targets If each Psychlo is a struggle to bring down, it becomes a lot more plausible how a small population of civilian miners are able to hold onto an entire planet. Terl’s gold-smuggling scheme is similarly contrived and unnecessary – just have Jonnie sneak his bombs into an ore shipment. Instead of making a fortune illegally obtaining gold, Terl could be aiming for a promotion by coming up with a way to save the company money while boosting productivity through slave labor. And the catrists' mind-control scheme could similarly be tossed overboard, as it's mostly an expression of the author's derangement rather than a central part of the story.

A tricky bit would be rewriting the rules regarding teleportation, since they basically exist to justify the very particular sequence of steps Jonnie takes to save the day. The whole “one portal per planet” rule needs to go, since as I’ve ranted it means that the Psychlo empire, as run from the capital, simply shouldn’t function, and makes the threat of a Psychlo counter-attack a non-issue since they can only arrive during a very specific window. Problem is, if you do that then there’s no reason the Psychlos wouldn’t counter-attack the minute they realized that Earth was in revolt. Kinda a logical Catch-22 – maybe Jonnie has to invent some sort of teleportation jammer? It would cut Earth off from the Psychlo Empire, though at the cost of rendering the captured alien technology useless. Assuming the stupid “teleportation motors” were kept.

So yeah, needs more fleshing-out, but there’s definitely potential there. Obviously you stop the book after the liberation of Earth, and the middle section needs a chainsaw taken to it, but somewhere in Battlefield Earth is a decent story waiting to be told. Just a shame that its author had a bloated ego and an inexplicable hatred of mental health practitioners.

Good grief, I almost want to take a crack at a Battlefield Earth fan fic now. Maybe I’m the crazy one.

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