It’s hard to write anything about the novel Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 without mentioning it’s infamous author, L. Ron Hubbard, or the universally panned 2000 film version starring John Travolta. While most people know Hubbard as the founder of Scientology or the author of the self-help book Dianetics, he actually got his start as a highly prolific writer of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Adventure novels. Out of the over 500 novels and short stories he wrote during this time, Battlefield Earth is by far his most famous work – and for good reason. Stunningly imaginative, adventure-packed, and sweeping in its scope (if a bit clunky and ridiculous at times), it packs so much into its 1,000+ pages that there really isn’t a dull moment throughout. Sure, the writing isn’t Shakespeare, the characters are pretty one-dimensional, and scientific inaccuracies abound. But if you can get past all the baggage that this book carries with it, and the stylistic limitations of its author, you’ll find a surprisingly satisfying and compulsively readable bit of Science Fiction.
Set around the year 3000 (duh!), the novel opens on an Earth almost devoid of humans. Having been conquered by an evil race of aliens known as Psychlos almost a thousand years before and mined for its minerals ever since, the only humans left are spread out in small pockets throughout the globe. Our hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, lives in a small struggling mountain community (that we eventually learn is in the Rocky Mountains just outside of Denver) secluded from the nearby mining operations of the Psychlo “Monsters.” After leaving his village in search of food and to explore the surrounding areas he is captured by a Psychlo named Terl who holds him captive and eventually forces him to help mine gold deposits from the mountains. Having come from a parallel universe with different elements, the Psychlos use “breathe-gas” masks to survive on Earth – the elements of which explode when in contact with radioactive elements like uranium. Since many of the richest gold deposits in the mountains are surrounded by uranium, Terl needs humans to do the mining for him.
Eventually Jonnie learns the Psychlo language and agrees to help Terl extract the gold, all the while trying to learn as much as he can about the invaders in order to eventually overthrow them. Needing more man power, Terl agrees to let Jonnie travel to another human encampment (this time in Scotland) to recruit more humans for the job. Jonnie, along with a group of 80+ Scots spend the next few months helping Terl extract the gold while secretly learning about Psychlo technology and getting their hands on enough weapons to overpower the monsters and take back Earth. In addition to taking over the Denver mining rig and killing all the Psychlos, they also manage to send an atomic bomb back to the Psychlo home planet through a teleportation device that the Psychlos use to ship things back and forth to Earth.
Still uncertain as to whether the bombs wiped out the Psychlos – preventing a counterattack from the home planet – Jonnie and the Scots set out to bring the people of Earth back together to destroy the rest of the Psychlo mining installations and once more rule their planet. Much of the book details the bringing together of the various tribes of people spread out in remote places around the globe, and the struggle to unite themselves to prepare in case they are attacked again. And when a new threat finally does materialize in the skies over Earth, well, you’ll just have to read it to find out for yourself.
Hubbard’s writing definitely has the feel of early pulp adventure novels. His hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, is a rugged blonde warrior with a heart of gold, nerves of steel, and a surprising mind for mathematics. His heroic deeds and constant brushes with death are exciting and suspenseful, and the David vs. Goliath struggle that Hubbard sets up is straight out of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. And while you could certainly take aim at Hubbard’s flaws as a writer, I found that the imaginative leaps and ingenious plotting more than made up for them. So if you think you can put the strangeness of Scientology and the ineptitude of John Travolta aside for a while, I think you’ll enjoy Battlefield Earth as much as I did.