Battlefield Earth

“I really look forward to getting back home where you can walk around without a suit or mask, where the gravity gives you something to push against, where everything is a beautiful purple and there’s not one bit of this green stuff. My papa used to tell me that if I wasn’t a good Psychlo and if I didn’t say sir-sir-sir to the right people, I’d wind up at a butt end of nowhere like this. He was right.”

Jonnie is a human who lives in the mountains, but his small community isn’t doing so well — there are more deaths than births. He decides to go exploring to see if there’s a better place to live. He gets captured and imprisoned by Terl — whom Jonnie sees as a monster and eventually discovers is a Psychlo. While imprisoned he uses a device to learn the Psychlo language, mining techniques, and history. One important thing that Jonnie discovers is that Psychlos are vulnerable to uranium.

Terl is a Psychlo in charge of security for their mining operations on Earth. He hates it on Earth — for one thing, Psychlos can’t breathe the air — and hatches a scheme to get himself home, and ridiculously wealthy at the same time. A key part of Terl’s plan is to force Jonnie and other humans (Terl considers them animals) to mine some gold he’s found.

Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard was published in 1982. In addition to being a science fiction author, Hubbard was also the founder of Scientology. There’s some controversy about the bestselling status of this book, which you can read about here, but I decided to check it out for myself.

It’s 1000 years in the future. Humans were virtually wiped out by Psychlos, who have been a dominant force in the universe for tens of thousands of years. Terl intends to kill the humans, sneak the gold home, and live fabulously wealthy. Jonnie intends to send nuclear bombs to the Psychlo home planet, kill Terl, and make Earth safe for humans to reclaim.

It’s pretty much the ultimate underdog story — a group of post-apocalyptic humans goes up against the most successful aliens in the universe.

Terl repeatedly underestimates Jonnie even though he’s given plenty of evidence that Jonnie’s very intelligent. On the other hand, Terl has some reason to be arrogant — Psychlos always win. Terl isn’t an uninteresting villain, though — he’s always trying to get leverage on everyone so that he can get what he wants.

Why is it that after an apocalypse women always go back to being second class citizens?

Could there be an entire race of beings who are cruel with no word for “cruel” in their language? I don’t believe so.

The book doesn’t have great prose like Ray Bradbury or great speculation like Robert J. Sawyer — but the story is interesting enough to keep you reading. It would have made a very good 350-page book — and there was a particular spot around there where it could have reasonably ended. But it overstays its welcome — the book is more than 1000 pages long. If I’m going to read a 1000-page book it has to be something extraordinary —  like James Clavell’s Shogun or Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour.

Battlefield Earth was written late in Hubbard’s career — I might read one of his earlier books one of these days.

This entry was posted on Saturday, August 11th, 2012 at 4:02 pm and is filed under Reviews of books. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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