Reviews: Battlefield Earth

A Golden Age tale: hardware, ideas, baddies and can-do cut-out heros.

Battlefield Earth is an exuberant Golden Age tale written decades out of its time. This is the wrong place to find believable heros, hard science, or grounded politics, but it's the right place for old-style problem-solving action adventure.

From the confines of a stinking cage, the protagonist swears to take down a occupying Galactic empire. The realisation of his dream, inch by painful inch, is an epic story arc. It has an expansive spirit, rather out of step with 80's Sci-Fi trends.

When an alien force takes over the Earth we normally dwell on their aircraft and shocktroops. This book lives behind the scenes, with the Psychlos long after the invasion. Startlingly, we find that The Empire is Walmart, as seen through the eyes of a Dilbert strip. The unstoppable corporate warmachine is also a dark comedy of bureaucratic dysfunction.

There is a special horror in the mass economy of death and destruction. Any vehicle, gun or weapon, it's all out of a factory and Hubbard will always give us the part number. Earth is not special; the occupation of Earth is a single, unregarded, Starbucks franchise.

Terl, the Psychlo security chief, is a memorable Villain Protagonist. He is treated with unusual (worrying) sympathy. He is viciously cruel and pathetically insecure, but as the underdog in the world of the Psychlos his gutsy, if warped, striving to better his condition strikes a sad harmony with the hero's efforts.

Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics notes that visually simple cartoon characters allow for audience identification. At best, the human hero Jonnie is one of these, an everyman. At worst, you may gag on the saccharine.

Battlefield Earth desperately needed an editor. The main story gives out half-way through without a clear finale. It's a slog to get through the 1000+ pages though there is a worthwhile second climax. The book explores some enjoyably baroque corners along the way: the paranoid details of Psychlo technology and mathematics leave DRM in the dust.

General critical opinion of Battlefield Earth is very poor; possibly too harsh for what is a simplistic western. It is a pulp fiction dream of a simpler time, when a man could grab some tools, stake out a patch of land and make things happen. Give it a chance, especially if you don't have to buy it.

Should You Read It? Good Question...

Battlefield Earth is a wretched piece of literature, a rambling tale of an invincible hero, the plot device he is in love with, unimpressive villains, and a world-shaking conflict the outcome of which is never in doubt. It is hundreds of pages too long, lacks any sense of excitement, and doesn't hide its prejudices well. It is clearly garbage, but that is not Battlefield Earth's biggest problem.

The biggest obstacle to enjoying Battlefield Earth is that it is almost exactly between So Bad It's Good and So Bad It's Horrible.

Parts of it are charmingly awful: the way the author's racism shines through in the form of national stereotypes or certain characters, the ever-present paranoia about psychologists messing with our brains, the ham-handed attempts at political commentary, the way the main character grows in Sueishness almost to the point of parody but is nonetheless played completely straight. But these redeeming moments can be few and far between, surrounded by vast stretches of mind-numbing tedium.

A reader may have to force him- or herself through certain sections not because they are bad, but because they are un-entertaingly bad. Jonny suffers a head injury while hijacking a drone bomber - can he disable it before it unloads its deadly cargo of toxins? Of course he will, there's hundreds of pages left. You just have to suffer through a couple of chapters until he does. Uh oh, now Jonny has to master Psychlo mathematics to figure out this teleporter - how many pages will it take for the plot to move forward this time? And while the concept of having to learn math to save the world may sound hilariously stupid, it's a lot less fun than it sounds, and turns out to be just regular stupid.

Getting any enjoyment out of Battlefield Earth largely depends on the reader's willpower and tolerance for pain. With the right mindset, parts of the book are narmfully hilarious, but to experience these nuggets of fun you'll have to endure entire chapters that are the literary equivalent of Styrofoam peanuts. If you're willing to put some effort into it, Battlefield Earth can be rewarding, but otherwise you may want to take our word for how bad it is.

If this piques your curiosity and you do buy it, get it used. No sense rewarding Them for publishing it.