Looking beyond the cover—and the baggage—of Battlefield Earth 

Looking beyond the cover—and the baggage—of Battlefield Earth 

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys. YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros. Countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and videogames whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look back at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

Recently I sat down and read the science-fiction novel Battlefield Earth for the first time since I was a kid.

Two days into it, I tore the cover off.

I didn’t commit this act of vandalism out of excitement or frustration or anger. I did it out of embarrassment. I mean, come on. Look at that cover: It depicts the book’s main character, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, as a mannequin-like barbarian standing bowlegged on what appears to be a giant lump of dried cat shit. (As we’ll see later, it may indeed be cat shit.) He’s dressed and bearded like Brad Pitt, if Brad Pitt were a contestant on Survivor. His abdominal muscles seem cripplingly deformed. In each hand he holds a laser pistol. Limply, and without looking where he’s aiming—after all, he has to balance on a giant lump of cat shit—he’s firing those lasers in random directions.

Who is he hitting? Why is he shooting? For an answer to these burning questions, you need only read the book. (By the way, in case you missed it: Yes, the protagonist’s middle name is “Goodboy.” As in “good guy.” Just making sure that subtext didn’t get buried in the litter box.)

The most embarrassing part of Battlefield Earth’s cover, however, isn’t the lousy artwork, the ridiculous good guy, or even the cat shit. It’s the words printed along the bottom: “L. Ron Hubbard.”

The name of the late author aside, Battlefield Earth has its own cross to bear—namely, the 2000 film adaptation that’s rightly considered one of the worst films of all time. But the author brings extra baggage. As the founder of the cult-like, science-fiction-ish religion Scientology, Hubbard is a messiah to some, a madman to others. (Or, in the case of outspoken apostates like Bent Corydon, he’s a bit of both—hence Corydon’s tell-all book about his former leader, which is titled, um, L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah Or Madman?) Drop Hubbard’s name almost anywhere, and it’s apt to evoke either worshipful awe or twinges of creepiness.

Thirty years ago, though, I wasn’t embarrassed to carry around my copy of Battlefield Earth. Not one bit. I was proud of it.

Battlefield Earth was published in 1982, when I was 10. In spite of Hubbard’s revisionist history—a tactic he stretched to mind-bending extremes while writing the scriptures of Scientology—he was not one of the preeminent science-fiction writers of his time. Or of any time. He was a glorified hack, and most of that glorification was self-cultivated. Granted, he began writing in the ’30s during the Golden Age Of Science Fiction, which is known more for its pioneering ideas than its enduring literature. It was an era of pulp, of lurid aliens and alluring damsels, of square-jawed heroes and square-ass morality. Hubbard’s own pulpy output had almost entirely dried up by the ’70s, when he started working on his opus, Battlefield Earth. It was a decade of radical evolution and innovation within science fiction. But instead of trying to keep up with the genre’s newfound subtlety and sophistication, Hubbard whipped out the pulp and doubled down. Make that quadrupled down.

I didn’t know any of this backstory in 1983, when my 11-year-old self first read Battlefield Earth. I’d never heard Hubbard’s name. I was already an SF and fantasy fan, though one whose tastes ran toward the typical authors any budding geek in the early ’80s liked: Roger Zelazny, Piers Anthony, Anne McCaffrey, Fred Saberhagen, Terry Brooks, John Varley, and J.R.R. Tolkien, to name a few. To be fair, the covers of their books were generally no better than the cover of Battlefield Earth. In fact, it fit right in. Glancing at it in the bookstore one day, I saw little to differentiate Battlefield Earth from all the other books on the SF shelf—good and bad—that I devoured like candy bars back then.

Then I picked it up. Holy crap. It was the mother of all candy bars.

To say Battlefield Earth is fat is like saying Hubbard is a mild exaggerator. The book is obese. Bloated. Brobdingnagian. At almost 1,100 pages, it possesses the heft of a brick. The trend in science fiction in the ’80s was toward trilogies or open-ended series. Battlefield Earth could have easily, and much more sensibly, been split into four books. Marketing hurdles aside, the spines of mass-market paperbacks can barely carry that much weight. Hubbard wanted to make a statement, in spite of the potential for career suicide. To hear Hubbard tell it in his own lengthy introduction to Battlefield Earth, it was a bold, brave move on his part.

Only it wasn’t. By that point, Hubbard had amassed a huge, unquestioning tribe of guaranteed customers: the Church Of Scientology. Formed in 1962 as an outgrowth of his 1950 self-help book Dianetics, the Church was already causing controversy by the time Battlefield Earth came out. That controversy only increased when, as Corydon writes in Messiah Or Madman?, higher-ups in the church were part of a vast scheme to inflate the sales of Battlefield Earth—both to get it on the bestseller list and to secure a movie deal. The novel isn’t canonical, though, so it’s hardly much of a gateway to Scientology. It’s easy to read on its own terms—assuming you have a week of your life to devote to it.

I was certainly never aware of any stigma when I, 11-year-old wimp that I was, excitedly hauled home my fresh copy of Battlefield Earth—which I think outweighed me by about eight pounds—and started reading it. I took it with me everywhere. To school. To my relatives’ houses. To the park, because I was sick like that. It was a perverse badge of honor to be seen burying my nose in such a massive book, or so I believed when I read Battlefield Earth not once, but twice, before I turned 14. I was just that kind of kid. While my peers were trying to score with boys or girls or pompoms or footballs, I prided myself on enduring Bible-length pulp novels and Dungeons & Dragons all-nighters.

Only it didn’t really feel like an endurance test. I don’t remember much about my initial impressions of the book, except that I liked it. What can I say? I was a kid, and that’s pretty much the maturity level it’s written at. Battlefield Earth was in no way marketed toward young adults, but I have yet to meet anyone who touched the thing past the age of consent. When you’re 11, though, it’s just chockfull of great shit: a Luke Skywalker-esque hero, giggle-worthy sex, and a vision of a post-apocalyptic Year 3000 that resonated with those who grew up during the nuke-fearing Cold War. Hubbard being his usual unsubtle self, it even had actual nukes.

It also had giant alien cats.

The Psychlos are a sinister, feline race that has been occupying Earth for a millennium; this is one of those ideas that can only work in a book. As wretched as the Battlefield Earth movie wound up being, what chance did it have with such material? Was there any way John Travolta could be decked out as a 9-foot-tall Psychlo without looking like an understudy from Cats auditioning for a Kiss cover band? Was there any way the film—or the book that inspired it—could have avoided spawning a thousand lousy cat-shit jokes?

As I reread Battlefield Earth, it was tough to scrub those woebegone movie stills from my mind. When Jonnie makes his appearance in the second chapter (of 248, for real), I couldn’t help but imagine the film’s star, Barry Pepper, with his braided hair and “I’m firing my agent” grimace. Survivor Brad Pitt would have been preferable. 

When I was finally able to move past my mental images of Forest Whitaker dressed as a Klingon lesbian, I was shocked by something: I was actually enjoying this godforsaken book. Part of it was the fact that when I read the original, I hadn’t yet moved to Colorado—and Battlefield Earth is set in the ruins of Denver. Now that I’ve actually lived in Denver for 25 years, it’s hilarious to revisit Hubbard’s vision of my adopted hometown following centuries of decay and alien occupation. It’s a definite bonus when the book reveals that the modern-day evangelical stronghold of Colorado Springs was long ago demolished. In particular, the scene where Jonnie explores the Denver Public Library—where my girlfriend happens to work—is fun mostly because it’s totally inaccurate. I’m assuming Hubbard visited Denver to research the book’s setting about as often as he visited the planet Psychlo. (Yes, Hubbard’s alien race shares the name of its planet. You know, kind of like how humans are known as Earths.)

Hubbard had an ulterior motive for naming his aliens Psychlos. As Tom Cruise has so enthusiastically informed the world at large, Scientology warns against the horrors of the practice of psychology, which surely has nothing to do with the fact that psychologists will be the first to tell you that blindly following Scientology is fucking insane. In Battlefield Earth, Psychlos are devious, manipulative, and enslaving—just like shrinks, but definitely not like L. Ron Hubbard. The correlation between Psychlos and psychologists is one of the few Scientologist dog-whistles [cat joke redacted] I was able to find in my rereading of Battlefield Earth. That is, besides the book’s weird preoccupation with the intricacies of intergalactic finance—which, seeing as how Scientology is based on purchasing successive levels of spiritual enlightenment, isn’t really that odd, I guess.

To give credit where credit is due, Battlefield Earth is a relatively swift read. At 1,100 pages, it has to be, or readers will lose circulation in their fingers. Something else surprised me: In spite of all the baggage and flaws, it’s still enjoyable. The plot is pretty basic; the greed of a shortsighted (yet surprisingly sympathetic) Psychlo named Terl comes to a head after he lifts Jonnie out of backwoods savagery and makes him an assistant in an illicit moneymaking scheme. The racket? Gold prospecting. Let it be known that Hubbard leaves no nugget of cliché unturned. 

Where Terl winds up being somewhat relatable, Jonnie actually becomes loveable. Not that his character makes any sense whatsoever; raised in the wild, he’s an expression of the Chosen One archetype that bulldozes over Hubbard’s meager attempts at turning him into a human being. His character is problematic because he’s meant to represent not just the hope, but the most redemptive qualities, of humanity. Also problematic: Hubbard’s need to imbue Jonnie with an uncanny expertise in anything he can get his hands on, up to and including alien technology.

Jonnie, it turns out, is a barbarian savant. As such, he’s played to the pulpy hilt. Not that it takes much brainpower to outwit Terl; in the end, Goodboy overcomes the bad guys (and, spoiler, saves the world) via the most absurd lapse in logic imaginable. A War Of The Worlds-class deus ex machina—not to mention a Trojan Horse-like switcheroo—seals the downfall of a thousand-year empire at the hands of Jonnie’s scrappy guerillas. Although I have to admit, with the hindsight of debacles like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s kind of prescient. Not that Hubbard needs anyone else calling him a prophet.

One thing that helps Hubbard’s medicine go down is his prose style. Light, spry, clean, slightly humorous, and utterly unencumbered of anything remotely resembling literary aspiration, his sentences zing by like laser-fire. In short, it’s a hoot. In an age where fellow long-winded fantasists like the admittedly superior George R.R. Martin are trafficking in heavy themes, deep angst, and dizzying complexity, Battlefield Earth is a bracing shot of seltzer (albeit a 10-gallon one).

It’s almost enough to divert attention away from some of the book’s unsettling implications. For instance: When the scheming, gold-grubbing Terl enlists Jonnie and his “man-animals” to help with his plans, it’s hard to avoid seeing it as Hubbard poking sadistically at his own church. After all, isn’t that exactly what Hubbard did with Scientologists? Was he, in a roundabout way, venting his contempt for his own sheeplike congregation, even while forcing them to shell out money for the book (and push it on others)?

In many ways, Battlefield Earth resembles the work of a contemporary of Hubbard’s, someone who also suffuses her writing with cardboard characters, black-and-white morality, a stunted fixation on romantic adventure, and a megalomaniacal desire to turn her fictitious belief system into a real-world cult: Ayn Rand. Sadly, both succeeded. Maybe it’s no accident that I became infatuated with Rand’s novels as a teenager, a few years after reading Battlefield Earth. It’s easy to dismiss this kind of broad, sweeping fiction, with its straw men and stock villains and reductive views of humanity. But when you’re an adolescent, it’s comforting—even empowering—to stumble across such a pat, sharply defined way of compartmentalizing reality. Granted, some people never grow out of it, and we’re left with the Tom Cruises and Paul Ryans of the world.

Of the two, I’m a little less worried about the Tom Cruises. Which is why, in spite of all the horrible things Scientology does to both its followers and those who dare defect from the Church (soon to be semi-fictionalized in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master), I still have fond memories of Battlefield Earth. My rereading of the book wasn’t half as bad as I thought it would be. That in no way means that it wasn’t terrible.

The bad associations just keep coming, though: In a 2007 interview, which has been making the rounds again lately, Mitt Romney proclaimed that Battlefield Earth is his favorite novel. I’m not going to try drawing parallels between the outlandish tenets of Scientology and Romney’s Mormon faith, because really, all organized religions are equally bizarre to a godless commie like me.

Not that I’m a total atheist. Science fiction is more or less my religion. As such, I cut the genre more slack than I probably should—Battlefield Earth included. That doesn’t mean I’m eager to be seen in public reading it. To be honest, I feel a little guilty about having defaced my copy; books have always been sacred objects to me. But there was an additional benefit to tearing off the cover of Battlefield Earth: It made the goddamn thing that much skinnier.