Operation Clambake

L. Ron Hubbard's science fiction
Relic of the golden age

The Economist

The author of Battlefield Earth (Quadrant Books, L8.95) intrigues more than the book. Mr L. Ron Hubbard invented the cult called Scientology, upon which was founded a hugely successful church, which at the last count claimed 200,000 adherents in Britain and millions elsewhere. He, however, is no longer associated with the Church of Scientology and has long been in Howard Hughes-like seclusion.

Before turning his hand to religion, he wrote 101 science-fiction novels. By his own admission, he was one of the great writers of the golden age of space romance and was recruited to the trade by John W. Campbell Jr, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. Campbell is generally acknowledged as the founding father and chief inspiration of this golden age, which Mr Hubbard dates roughly from his own introduction to the genre (1938) to about the time he quit it, in 1950. (Kingsley Amis, the pioneer of science-fiction criticism, dates it from 1949 to 1962, which puts Mr Hubbard beyond the pale.) He returns now with this massive tome and invites comparison with the best.

He lists the writers of his golden age on the dedication page--84 in all, not including himself, but mentioning, among others, Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and John Wyndham. Does he belong in this company? Two of his dedicatees, A. E. van Vogt and Robert Heinlein, think he does. Regrettably, though, ''Battlefield Earth'' is an unsubtle saga, atrociously written, windy and out of control.

The hero, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, begins his adventures as an illiterate hunter in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Spy drones patrol the skies, but none of his tribe knows their significance. It is the year 3000 and the earth has for a millennium been held by an alien race, the Psychlos, who are interested only in its mineral wealth. The gas they breathe explodes on contact with even traces of uranium and, for this reason, they keep clear of the mountains, where the last remaining 35,000 humans skulk in fear.

The Psychlos are large, furry psychopaths, who control, by means of technologies stolen from other races, all 16 known universes. The key to their supremacy lies in their knowledge of teleportation, their conditioned ferocity and their command of a coded mathematics, founded awkwardly on the base 11, which gives even Jonnie a severe headache when he comes to grips with it.

Jonnie is captures by Terl, the chief Psychlo villain, who wishes to train humans to mine where Psychlos cannot go, but becomes so rapidly the master of their technology that he is able to wipe them out by page 596, leaving him with only a further 223 pages to deal with the several other interstellar predatory races who now take an interest in this bemused planet. Jonnie is assisted in his conquests by Chinese, by the remnants of the Red Army, by Tibetan lamas and most notably by Scottish highlanders, whom L. Ron Hubbard has drawn apparently from a viewing of some old movie version of ''Rob Roy''.

Some human villains also appear in the form of the Brigantes. These are inhabitants of the Congo, millennial descendants of mercenaries sent to topple the Zaire government, given to cannibalism and vile sexual practices and still awaiting rescue by the United Nations. 2025,3,12025,3,1 This is one of the author's jokes, others being derived from his views on politics and economics. Science fiction, says he, ought to include such sciences as sociology and economics. There is even a ponderous joke about Keynes, of whom Mr Hubbard does not approve.

What is missing is the most elementary shred of characterisation. The good guys are all selfless and courageous and the bad guys uniformly sadistic. The plot clanks along like a giant, lumbering engine and Mr Hubbard is most at home (tiresomely so)--in laboured description of mechanical processes. Perhaps this secretive man was an engineer before he was an author. He writes like one.

Of his own history he lets slip a little in his introduction, which is of value. In it he makes large claims for the writers of that golden age of his. During and after the war, he knew ''the boys who built the bomb, who were beginning to get the feel of rockets''. The golden age, he writes, ''gathered enough public interest and readership to help push man into space''.

''Battlefield Earth'', on the other hand, is unlikely to persuade the United States government to invest more heavily in space travel. The Psychlos, it seems, first came here in response to that probe Nasa sent out, giving other creatures directions how to get here should they wish to pay earthlings a visit. That is Mr Hubbard's best joke. It comes, unfortunately, on page three.