book-reviews

Battlefield Earth

by L. Ron Hubbard

Rating: ★★★

In some ways, Battlefield Earth does something I've always wanted to see in an invasion story -- it makes Earth an utterly conquered planet, and then charts out a path of rejuvenation for humanity, starting with the primitive remaining tribes and Terl, a scheming member of the conquering Psychlo race with a lofty personal ambition. In other ways, though, the story stops working at least halfway through.

The initial chapters of the book are fairly good at grabbing your interest. There's something interesting in any post-apocalyptic world, where the survivors wander and wonder at the wreckage of our modern civilisation, getting things right and wrong in equal measure. Similarly, the early interactions between Jonnie and Terl carry something of a first-contact novel's intrigue in them, as the two grow to understand each other. Soon after, things start to move a little faster, and little details start to grate. The Psychlo population's detachment from Jonnie, while admirably alien, serves most of all to allow Terl's plans to gain momentum. Generally, it seems that Hubbard is pushing Jonnie along, improving his chances and situation beyond what feels suitable for the situation.

These niggles can be forgiven throughout the first half of the book, largely due to the presence of Terl. The security chief serves as a foil to Jonnie and the humans he gathers, providing a concrete threat. When he departs, the sense of danger goes with him, and the optimistic upward trajectory of mankind seems almost assured -- there seems little danger that the threats they face from then on will turn out to be as fatal as is foreshadowed.

There are two large blunders in the book. The first is where a key plot point -- Jonnie going in search of live Psychlos -- makes absolutely no sense. The author seems to have conveniently forgotten the existing reserve of Psychlos surrendered to the humans after their attack on the American base, only to remember them again at a later point. This confusion is never explained. The second is the elongated nature of the story. Hubbard notes in a preface that he just kept writing as long as it seemed entertaining, but as a reader it seems that much of the later half of the book is rather dull. The hero is established as all but untouchable, mankind victorious, the new threats feel shipped-in. I'm usually in favour of allowing an author to sink in to a story, but in this case it does not feel worth it.

Entertaining enough as an adventure and counter-invasion story, with some admirably alien aliens (though this is muted by a later discovery indicating their nature is artificial) Battlefield Earth could easily do well for the younger science fiction reader, but the optimistic tone starts to make it less enjoyable than it could have been, especially as the halfway mark is approached.