(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 21.)
Let me open by saying that this post is not going to bash Scientology. In fact, Scientology-bashing makes me a little uncomfortable. Sure, I've read a thing or two about Scientology. Its financial dealings always seemed a little suspect to me. So does its profound distrust of psychology, despite using a kind of talk therapy as one of the backbones of its faith. Yes, I've even read the Wikipedia entry on Xenu, and sure, it seems pretty ridiculous to me. But when it comes to judging a religion based on the rational plausibility of its central tenets I don't know too many faiths that pass the test and, to my eyes at least, the hardcore anti-Scientology contingent usually matches the Scientology faithful in creepiness. More importantly, I just don't feel comfortable condemning something I can't really talk about authoritatively, and I don't think Internet rumor, an old Rolling Stone article, and a few stray pamphlets where I read about how Scientology allowed one of its faithful to will traffic lights in her favor counts as any kind of authority. But I can tell you this: L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout sucks. And not just a little. Credit where it's due: Released in 1940, Hubbard's novel imagined a world undone by a nuclear apocalypse years before Hiroshima. Set in a Europe devastated by the War Of Books (or, as Hubbard explains, "The War Of Creeds, or the War Which Ended War or World Wars Two, Three, Four and Five") it depicts a place where civilization has shredded and the population reduced to a fraction of its former number. Through this world stalk military units that, more often than not, have lost touch with any kind of government. It's not a bad piece of post-apocalyptic imagining but Hubbard doesn't have the strength to fill it out beyond its bare description. He does have some ideas about how it might be fixed. Focusing on a British brigade controlled by a man known only as "the lieutenant," Hubbard emphasizes old-fashioned values like teamwork and hard labor, as dictated by a competent commander. (A note: The book pointedly never capitalizes the words "the lieutenant," except a couple of times when it does.) Here's all you need to know about the lieutenant and his brigade: They're utterly loyal to him and he's always right. They run into enemy units: he's unerring in his decisions. They run into French peasants who captured and abused soldiers: he's absolutely right to choose harsh discipline to deal with them. They run into corrupt superior officers: the lieutenant is correct in his insubordination. Did I mention that the British government has gone commie? Well, it has, and eventually the lieutenant and his men find a way to take it over. After some tough skirmishes they make their way into London. Even the most economical writer would have a hard time passing up a setpiece at this point. Here are men who haven't seen their homeland in years returning to find it devastated by war. Here's Hubbard's description:
With sweeps and sails and current, but all in the heaviest of silence, the flotilla sped through the night, downstream to London. Past hamlet and bar, point and ruined castle they swept on their way.
Try to hold back the tears. Hubbard does, however, have plenty of room for battle descriptions, most of which just die on the page, or at least they do for me. It might be a matter of taste, but whether it's Hubbard talking about the lieutenant and his men or Pierre Barbet talking about The Napoleons Of Eridanus my eyes tend to glaze over once the talk turns to tactics and armaments. Writers might as well be describing how to underwrite a mortgage. I'm lost. But my biggest problem with Final Blackout isn't this. It's the way Hubbard introduces some complex ideas and then reduces them to a boys' adventure tale. I know he was writing pulp and pulp had its target audience among the rough-and-tumble literate. But he was writing here as the world had already slid into a war he didn't see ending any time soon and the best solution he could imagine was an idealized strongman who could make the world right through absolute control and inspiring blind obedience. I'm beginning to think this Hubbard guy maybe didn't have all the answers.
Next: The Million Cities by J.T. McIntosh
Then: Smith Of Wooton Major & Farmer Giles Of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien