Thursday, December 30, 2010

Battlefield Earth

L. Ron Hubbard
Bridge Publications, 1982 (my copy is from 1991)
Size: Epic (my copy has 1050 pages)
Theme: Futuristic alien invasion
Narrative: Third-person
Main character: Jonnie Goodboy Tyler
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

Battlefield Earth is one of the best sci-fi novels I have ever read. Despite the fact that I ordered and read it after having seen some very mixed reviews (some very negative), and that I had already watched the movie (acclaimed as one of the worst blunders in sci-fi movie history), I enjoyed it very much. It should be said that one of the critical factors that made me want to read it was in fact the movie, which was very bad in several aspects, but which clearly had an interesting fundamental plot that I immediately hoped – and trusted – would be handled differently in the book. At the time I should also mention I did not know about Hubbard’s  Scientology, and thus read it (and continue being) unhindered of prejudice against the author.

The book follows Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, one of the relatively few humans still living on Earth, who have regressed to life in villages, hunting and fishing, with no modern technology at all. These small communities of humans are preyed upon as animals by the Psychlos, a race of aliens who invaded and conquered Earth. They use humans only for manual labor, namely mining. Generically, they regard humans as extremely low intelligent beings, incapable of even operating equipment. However, a particular Psychlo believes humans could be taught their language and how to perform much more complex tasks, and plans to employ them in order to implement his personal plans for attaining power by secretly mining gold (an incredibly rare mineral throughout the universe). Jonnie is the human first targeted, but he starts playing a double game: appearing to help the Psychlos, while attempting to set up a revolt to bring them down.

I found this a very good, straightforward, light, sci-fi adventure, also touching the potential of human spirit, and an excellent value for the massive size of the book. Unfortunately, the plot is full of holes and technical inaccuracies, such as functional electronics after 1000 years of decay, monumental stupidity on the part of the Psychlos (for an advanced race) in thoroughly searching Earth for minerals, and also how easily Jonnie bluffs in dealing with alien species. It is also full of clich├ęs and several two-dimensional characters. However, the length of the book allows considerable depth to the plot and to the key characters, and enables deploying several sub-plots within the main story. There are two main sub-plots: the first dealing with the possibility of a human revolt against their captors, and the second, on a much wider galactic scale, involving more alien races, spaceships, and interstellar teleportation. This is definitely the case of a book being immensely better than the movie; out of curiosity, the movie only portraits about half the plot, and even that very superficially and with considerable adaptations. Even though I would strongly recommend this novel to any sci-fi fan, in my opinion it is not as good as other fantastic space operas, such as the Dune saga, the Hyperion series, or the Night’s Dawn trilogy.

Spoilers (warning: the following text contains information that may hamper/ruin how much you enjoy the book):
There are two sets of spoilers to look at. First, Jonnie manages to overthrow the Psychlo control over Earth, as the tricks the aliens into thinking his group of kidnapped humans are mining when they are in fact training for guerilla action against the alien invaders. They achieve this by hiding several high destruction devices (similar to atomic bombs but on a planetary scale) inside a cargo to be sent to the Psychlo home world. However, after they get back control of Earth, they have to contend with several alien species interested in taking over Earth. Eventually, Jonnie manages to gain the upper hand on all these species through unbelievably smart negotiation (isn’t it great that alien species never played poker or heard of bluffing?), and actually sets up the stage for a benevolent galactic empire, while he skips off unselfishly to live the quiet life we would now expect from his character.

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