Robert Fulford's column about Battlefield Earth

(The National Post, May 9, 2000)

There's something vaguely comic in the fact that the man who founded the Church of Scientology spent much of his life writing science fiction pulp. That's fortunate, because Scientology needs all the laughs it can get. It's a grim business, as anyone knows who has encountered one of its deadlier-than-thou spokespersons. They believe passionately that, unlike all other institutions in the world, Scientology should never be criticized.

It's therefore a peculiar sort of critic who sets out to discuss, two decades after its first appearance, Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000, by L. Ron Hubbard (1911-86). A cult classic in the most literal sense of the term, this is the basis of the film that's been made by an eminent Scientologist, John Travolta, for release this week. But it's not the book you might expect from someone like Hubbard, who was quoted to the effect that he had often been reincarnated and was really 74 trillion years old.

It's a boyish story, with many boyish pleasures, and it's frequently funny, often on purpose. One elaborate comic scene focuses on an alien bureaucrat's profound fear that if you let a human being -- "a man-animal" -- into your office, he'll probably urinate on the floor. I expected a lot of talk about orgs and cyborgs, but Hubbard uses plain and serviceable prose.

Battlefield Earth depicts the building and destruction of empires; when Hubbard wrote it he was himself well established as an empire-builder, having constructed the world organization of Scientology around his theories of personal empowerment and a primitive version of psychotherapy.

He wrote the novel's introduction in October, 1980, at a time when he was keeping his whereabouts secret, for reasons that were also secret. Discussing his career, he recalled earlier and more tranquil times, when he was "a high-production writer" for Astounding Science Fiction magazine. He noted that Battlefield Earth (1,050 pages in the paperback edition) "may be the biggest SF novel ever in terms of length." Ungrateful readers may wish he had not gone to so much trouble, and it's unlikely (as Samuel Johnson said of Paradise Lost) that anyone would wish it to be longer.

It seems that sometime around the year 2000 an army from the planet Psychlo invaded Earth, killed off most earthlings, and gave the mineral rights to the Intergalactic Mining Corporation. Humanity has now been reduced to isolated tribes who have forgotten just about all that humanity ever knew. The masters of the Earth, called Psychlos, are big, hairy critters, maybe nine feet tall, with claws instead of hands. Their blood is green and their fur begins turning blue as they age. They have names like Nipe, Zafin and Zzt. They can't breathe the air on Earth and have to wear masks or stay in air-conditioned buildings.

Their society has reached the stage of extreme bureaucratic development: Psychlos make a fetish of filling out the proper forms without leaving blank spaces. They are corrupt enough to have officials with numbered accounts in banks back home. They have perfected teleportation, but it's not quite as romantic as the beam-me-up business on Star Trek. Psychlos use it extensively for moving vast quantities of minerals from planet to planet.

They don't like anything about Earth: All that greenery nauseates them (purple is their favourite colour), and a bright blue sky with drifting white clouds is their idea of ugly. Homesick, they turn for consolation to an intoxicating, sometimes stupefying liquid called kerbango, which they heat in saucepans.

A Psychlo in charge of a whole planet, a truly senior official, is addressed, more or less like John Ralston Saul, as Your Planetship. In their language, an appropriate sentence might be, "May I offer you some kerbango, Your Planetship?"

Hubbard uses the most familiar science fiction convention, which is both a convenience and a limitation: He makes the characters, including the aliens, closely resemble folks we know. They are complacent, envious, greedy, proud, lonesome, fearful, etc. Pride blinds them, just as it blinds us. All this makes storytelling relatively easy, and makes readers feel at home immediately, but it implies that sentient creatures, even in distant galaxies, can operate only within the same emotional and intellectual range as the humans who happen to be alive now, a rather limited view of the universe's possibilities.

Hubbard's humans are equally predictable. The written record of humanity implies that in certain ways personality has changed in the last 1,000 years, but when Hubbard goes to work, change stops dead. A millennium passes, civilizations rise and fall, but in Battlefield Earth the human hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, and his girlfriend, Chrissie, are painfully familiar. (She's concerned that he won't commit himself. He wants to see the world, unencumbered, before settling down.)

Jonnie decides to revolt against his alien masters. He's up against a Psychlo named Terl (the Travolta part), who is brighter than most Psychlos but not as bright as he imagines. His smugness even in failure helps make him a good comic villain.

Battlefield Earth often echoes Planet of the Apes, the film Franklin Schaffner made in 1968 from Pierre Boulle's novel. As in Planet of the Apes, the non-human rulers try to enslave the man-animals, meanwhile insisting that these creatures lack the ability to think.

Many of Hubbard's best scenes appear to be inspired by the final sequence in Planet of the Apes, where the Charlton Heston character finds the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand. Hubbard's hero, Jonnie, comes upon ancient artifacts, which he can't understand at all and the reader has to figure out. Walking around ruined Denver, he enters a building filled with stacks of objects he can't identity; we have to infer that he's found a crumbling library. Toward the end of Battlefield Earth, people exploring our moon find tire tracks and footprints, plus a chewing gum wrapper, left by what we know (but they don't) was the 1969 landing party from NASA.

In the universe Hubbard depicts, literacy remains a problem, but publishing is organized on an impressively intergalactic basis. One popular book, The Jonnie Goodboy Tyler I Knew, comes with three-dimensional motion pictures on some of the pages and sells 250 billion copies in its first printing, translated into 98,000 languages. Say what you like about Hubbard: In writerly dreams of royalties, as in everything else, he never hesitated to think big thoughts.

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