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"A nebula of c**p"
on 19 March 2016
One thing that people assume about movies adapted from books is that the book is always better, despite the many classic movies adapted from mediocre and/or forgotten novels. When it comes to a legendary disaster like "Battlefield: Earth," you naturally assume that the original bestselling book must have been much, much better.
No. No, it's not.
L. Ron Hubbard's legendary magnum opus is -- no hyperbole -- one of the worst things ever committed to paper that didn't advocate genocide. His characters are flat, his writing grotesquely amateurish despite fifty years of professional authorship, the villains are reflections of his personal biases (EVIL SHRINKS!), and the story drags on about six hundred pages longer than it ever needs to. This is a book that could be used to torture enemy librarians until they agreed to give up whatever information you wanted.
The story takes place in the year 3000, a thousand years after weird bony-faced aliens known as the Psychlos invaded the Earth and wiped out most of humanity. Yes, they're named "Psychlos." That tells you the level of writing we're dealing with. The few remaining humans on Earth are eking out a miserable existence in a radioactive wasteland, including our alleged hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler. Yes, that is his name. Including the middle part.
But when he ventures into a vast "village" a few days from his home, he's apprehended by the hilariously villainous Terl, the Psychlo security chief, who is scheming to capture humans to mine gold for him -- and who quickly captures Jonnie as the first. But he underestimates our brave studly noble heroic blonde hero's ingenuity, and Jonnie begins gathering human "miners" as part of his plan to not only save the human race, but destroy the Psychlos forever. This is helped by the fact that all the Psychlos are backstabbing morons who are always drunk.
You'd think the plot would stop there. You would, wouldn't you? Nope, it keeps going for another six hundred pages.
Instead Jonnie becomes the most celebrated hero on a newly-united Earth (which regains much of its lost technological and medical prowess in about a month), but has to contest with an Evil Handicapped Person who hates him for... some reason. Also, a race of alien bankers are planning to repossess the Earth (not kidding), and there's a whole subplot about brain implants created by an evil cabal of evil psychiatrists that control people and turn the into sadists. Remember: L. Ron Hubbard.
I think this may be the single worst book I've ever read, and I've read some real stinkers -- abysmal vampire romances, Victorian melodramas, halfwitted high fantasies, ponderously pretentious slice-of-life drivel. But I have never read a book that failed in literally every single character, scenario, plot point, concept and rule of writing. Not a single, solitary thing about this book is good. EVERYTHING in "Battlefield Earth" is just a sea of reeking, seething sewage in every direction, with no relief except the final page.
I ground through this cinder-block sized book with an ever-increasing sense of despair about what was happening in its pages. The first four hundred pages are mostly devoted to a torturously slow mining mining operation, mingled with bureaucratic meddling and Terl's dead-end schemes against other Psychlos. But just when the book seems like it should be wrapping up... it's not even half over. It feels like Hubbard was determined to make this book the size of "Lord of the Rings," and nothing would deter him. So he piles on one new subplot after another, like manure being shoveled into a ditch -- none of them properly interlock, they just sort of spring into existence so Jonnie has a new enemy to nobly stare down or shoot.
This book would be a hard read even if it were written brilliantly. Unfortunately, Hubbard's writing is almost comically bad. His attempts at political intrigue are absolute torture because the people involved are blithering morons, his action scenes are a list of bloodlessly-described events ("It had taken too long. The leading one was almost upon him. Fangs!"), and his dialogue is the stuff of parody ("I am sure you know these myths since they are religious and you appear to be a properly, politely, religious man").
And of course, there's the racism. Hubbard unironically depicts all nationalities by their stereotypes (Scots have kilts and claymores, the Swiss make good knives, etc), and when he gets to Africa, he depicts the locals as dirty, ugly, barbaric, sexually-deviant, child-molesting cannibals... while Jonnie and his girlfriend are physically perfect blondes. Interpret that as you will. Oh, and the only handicapped person in the whole world is evil, AND named "Brown."
As the final indignity, Hubbard writes his characters with just enough dimension and depth that you can fold them into origami. Jonnie himself is held up as a naked Gary Stu -- a noble, intelligent, free-thinking natural leader who can instantly inspire hundreds to follow him into suicidal slavery, who every right-thinking person worships, and who can cow everyone with a single stare. They put him on CURRENCY. Never mind that he's an arrogant bully who ends up committing genocide, and never gives us a reason to like him. The other characters are either flat (his Barbie-doll love interest, Chrissie), offensively dumb (Terl) or ludicrous (a post-apocalyptic Nazi... no, really, he worships Hitler).
This is the worst kind of 1950s sci-fi pulp, except it was written in 1982... you know, when greats like Arthur C. Clarke, Douglas Adams, Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, Alan Dean Foster were presenting us with great, groundbreaking sci-fi. It may take place in the year 3000, but it feels like it takes a thousand years of radioactive deprivation to get there.