Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Staring into the Abyss: My brush with L. Ron Hubbard's MISSION EARTH

Long ago, in the early 1990s, I was given a long piece of coursework for English Lit. at school: we had to compare and contrast two works of the same genre. Naturally, I chose science fiction. Being a bit of a speed-reader, doing the sane thing and just contrasting two books would have taken about a week, so I decided to be a bit more ambitious and went for two series of books: Isaac Asimov's six-volume Foundation series (the seventh and last was out but I hadn't read it), which I'd just read for fun anyway, and another series which I'd just started reading after randomly finding the first book in a library. That book was called The Invaders Plan and was the first volume in a 'dekalogy' (the writer's term) called Mission Earth. Its author was one L. Ron Hubbard.


As a result, I had committed myself to what remains one of the most harrowing literary experiences of my life: approximately four thousand pages of some of the worst writing in any genre I've ever read. And I've read Kevin J. Anderson.

To backtrack, L. Ron Hubbard had originally been a somewhat-successful author of SF and horror novels, novellas and short stories back in the Golden Age of science fiction. Then, famously, he'd hit upon the idea of inventing a new religion, Scientology, complete with a detailed and coherent, if completely bizarre, mythology. He was catapulted to immense wealth and had no need to write any more.

In the late 1970s Hubbard seems to have apparently decided that he wanted some literary acclaim as well (perhaps fearing that Scientology would be the only thing in his obituary). He wrote Battlefield Earth, about aliens invading and occupying the Earth for a thousand years, reducing humanity to the Stone Age, before they were driven off by nuke-armed cavemen flying fighter jets. The book became an immense success, despite its total lack of readability, and seems to have encouraged Hubbard to write a much bigger story: Mission Earth. This was written as a looooong single novel, but divided into ten volumes by the publishers (the publishing house owned by Scientology), possibly out of artistic respect for the author's vision of the story, but probably because it meant they made more money. The first novel, The Invaders Plan, was published in October 1985 and the following nine appeared at regular intervals until the last book was published in September 1987. That Hubbard wrote such a huge story in just three years seems implausible, leading to accusations of ghostwriting, but some former Scientologists and editors have backed up the idea that he did write the whole thing, though his editor did move some material round and write a new introduction and ending to each volume to make them stand alone better.

Mission Earth's plot is somewhat straightforward: the Voltar Empire has decided to add Earth to its expanding sphere of influence. The invasion is not scheduled for another century, but the Empire discovers that the people of Earth are experimenting with more and more powerful nuclear weapons, and the Cold War between the USA and the USSR (the story is set in a contemporary period, so mid-1980s Earth) is in danger of going hot. Since Earth will make a vital supply depot on the Empire's invasion route, they decide they must prevent Earth's self-destruction by sending an engineer, Jettero Heller, to investigate and if possible defuse the situation.

Unfortunately, the Empire's intelligence-gathering organisation, the CIA (the Coordinated Information Apparatus), has been running various illegal and underhanded operations on Earth for generations, most notably importing illegal drugs back to Voltar as an attempt to unseat the ruling government in favour of the CIA's director, Lombar Hisst. Panicking that these plans are about to be unmasked by the unknowing Heller, Hisst assigns one of his best agents, Soltan Gris, to undermine and disrupt Heller's plans no matter the cost.

This is where Mission Earth briefly - very briefly - threatens to get interesting. The bulk of the story - the first seven and a half volumes - are told from Gris's POV, that of the villain. Using a CIA base near Ankara, Turkey and posing as a fellow agent sent to help Heller, Gris attempts to stop Heller's plan from succeeding, either by sabotaging his operations or by trying to kill him directly. Effectively the story is a long farce as Gris's attempts to defeat Heller repeatedly blow up in his face, with Heller's plan sailing on serenely with him continuing to believe that Gris is a good guy. Eventually Heller realises that Earth should be spared invasion and encourages the development of new sources of power and renewable energy, earning the enmity of the powerful Rockecenter family (Hubbard was, perhaps, not the subtlest of satirists), who, it is revealed, control Earth's sources of oil and are unhappy with Heller's attempts to give free energy to the whole planet (by creating a black hole in orbit and tapping the energy of its singularity). To this end the Rockecenters assign a public relations genius to destroy Heller's reputation, a plan which nearly succeeds until Heller, aided somewhat randomly by the Mafia, turns the tables and successfully rescues the Earth from oblivion. He also discovers that Gris is his true enemy and has him incarcerated. The last two volumes are set back on Voltar as Heller attempts to stop Hisst's plan from conquering the Empire coming to pass.

On the surface this is a fairly random but not entirely valueless story. Old-school, yes, but with some potential for exploring themes about nuclear self-destruction, the problem of dwindling energy supplies and the corruption of power, whilst having the main villain as the central POV character for 75% of its length is an unusual and potentially fascinating move.

Hubbard, of course, doesn't actually fulfil any of this potential. Instead, the series mounts a sustained, shock-and-awe assault on the reader's intelligence, taste and suspension of disbelief that is awesome to behold (though thoroughly unpleasant to experience). With Battlefield Earth, by virtue of its far-future setting, Hubbard was unable to really do much in the way of satire or commentary on modern American values. With Mission Earth, mostly set in contemporary New York City (with occasional jaunts to Turkey and other locations), he was able to let rip with both barrels. As a result, we get lengthy digressions on how rock music turns people into effeminate gays, how lesbians are just frigid women in need of 'real men' to show them who's boss (in a stomach-churning sequence, Gris imprisons two lesbians, tortures them with a cheese grater and chili powder, and they end up falling passionately in love with him), how drugs are the root of all evil and how most foreigners are shifty criminals who are not to be trusted. Whilst Hubbard doesn't mention Scientology directly, he goes on at some length about the evils of psychology and psychiatry, one of the pillars of that belief system. Ironically, he does give immense credence to the power of public relations and image-building, and how people can believe the most self-evidently delusional tripe if it's sold the right way.

So, the series is effectively a very basic, pulpy old-school SF adventure decked out with more torture porn, homophobia, sexism and racism that you can shake a stick at. It was greeted with full-blown disbelief from both the general SF and literary communities, though bizarrely a few people (like Orson Scott Card, who really should have known better) did give it good reviews. The series also managed to briefly damage the credibility of the Hugo Awards, when Scientology block-voting got the second volume, Black Genesis, onto the shortlist for Best Novel in 1987. This was the same year as William Gibson's Count Zero and Bob Shaw's The Ragged Astronauts, genuine classics of the genre. At Worldcon that year (fortunately held in the UK, preventing too many hardcore Scientologists from attending and voting) tensions ran high as a number of SF novelists and fans alike were heard muttering darkly about the quality and integrity of the books. For their part the few attending Scientologists, mourning Hubbard's death a year earlier, were taking any slight against the book as an assault on Hubbard's memory, leading to at least one alleged bar-room heated argument over the matter.

Eventually, Orson Scott Card made up for his earlier error of judgement by going ahead and winning for Speaker for the Dead, restoring sanity to the world.

At 14 Mission Earth was a bit of an eye-opener, I can tell you, and in retrospect I perhaps should have given up after the fourth or fifth book (when the rape scenes were kicking in with full force), but a sense of honesty propelled me through reading the whole series. When I handed in my 2,000-word essay it talked about the challenges of writing a long SF series and what ideas could be handled in the medium, but it could generally be summed up as one sentence:

"Foundation was better."

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

great stuff Wert. I am always fascinated with school essay type writings about the genre. I can't believe you read all of that for a paper at age 14. My sophomore year of college I picked Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus as my novel to write about and I still struggled with finishing it on time and it is only 250 pages.

Anonymous said...

I had to laugh, because Battlefield Earth was the only book I put back without reading the whole thing.

My friend and I had the notion of reading our way through the high school library science fiction section and we did. Except for That One Book, so bad, I couldn't read it.

Much later, alas, I came to read 'Aye! Pedrito!" one of the stupidest things I have ever read. Hubbard smirks his way through the book while insulting the reader's intelligence with his gawdawful plot and what passes as "humor."

I only read that because I had to review it.

Foundation WAS better!

franti said...

I've never been masochistic enough to try L. Ron Hubbard, but I've always been curious, if only for the ridiculous novelty.

I HAVE however read Kevin J Anderson. r, at least, Hidden Empire, the first book in his something-or-other series. It had a fascinating premise, but the writing was so poorly focused and the book itself so boring that I had to force myself to finish the first book, and I abandoned the series.

chris upton said...

Worse even than George Lucas and Chris Claremont's Willow sequel?
Hard to say as I never got past the first few page's of that or anything by Hubbard.

Anonymous said...

Learn more about the famous writer at www.xenu.net or www.whyweprotest.net
He really deserves your attention.

jamie said...

That was great to read, and I have profound pity for your fourteen year old self. It must have been horrible to dredge up all those memories!

The only connection I've had to L. Ron Hubbard was watching Battlefield Earth (by accident I swear) and walking away feeling vaguely confused about the whole thing. Which I suppose is the best result you can hope for.

On the other hand I still need to read the Foundation series, ho hum.

The Dude said...

It's a shame that the series doesn't fall in the "so bad it's good" category, like the Battlefield: Earth movie does.

Although I have to wonder if it's worse than Crossroads of Twilight. There weren't any rape scenes there, but I did feel like my mind had been raped after reading it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for taking one for the team! (although I wouldn't have read anything by Hubbard anyway :D)

Anonymous said...

You clearly had much more interesting English Lit. essays than I did Wert. Other than various Shakespeare plays the most interesting thing I got to essay was Roald Dahl's sex farce My Uncle Oswald. I'd have killed to have been allowed to do a bit of sci-fi, even Ron L. Hubbard..... ok maybe that's going to far.

Elfy said...

Excellent post! Extremely amusing and only confirmed what I've always thought about Hubbard's writing. Reading through all that rubbish, you really did take one for the team.

Anonymous said...

"Foundation was better."

LOL...this made me chuckle...Of course it was.

seanmay said...

Interesting stuff. I'd heard it was hackery and had no intention of ever reading it, but it was good to get a synopsis of the story and its evident manifold flaws. I liked the swipe at Kevin J Anderson, too!

Another reason not to buy a copy of Mission Earth or any L Ron Hubbard book is that profits from sales go to the Church of Scientology.

Anonymous said...

There's also a quite lengthy overview of the series here: http://www.modemac.com/cgi-bin/wiki.pl/Mission_Earth
...that you guys might want to check out.

Alex said...

Interesting. I did something similar but more fantasy based- a relative comparison of the magic systems in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Discworld (and for some reason) the 1st Dragon Lance trilogy. 2nd or third year of secondary school, in the old money if I remember rightly.

Anonymous said...

I had heard that Hubbard's health was waning towards the middle of the series so he rushed through the rest to complete it before he died.

From what my father has said, the series started off well enough, but gradually became unreadable, the characters becoming completely unbeliebable as well as the writing significantly deteriorating.

Anonymous said...

Im sure if this series was written by anyone but Ronny, then Adam would now actually get the joke instead of still taking it seriously.

It is a sci-fi take on trash pup novel, a satricial and cartoony series of potshots at all the established control structures.

I only read the first 4 novels and found the analogies to real life power structures very amusing. I did hear that the later books were becoming poor in quality.

Adam also says

"Ironically, he does give immense credence to the power of public relations and image-building, and how people can believe the most self-evidently delusional tripe if it's sold the right way."

Adam is trying to make a cheap point here about $cientoligies method of converting, instead of being honest about the books intention behind the theme. The book used these themes to show the propaganda and force feeding of information that the governments can achieve with public relations.

Again, a conclusion a reviewer would have come to if it wasn't written by a $cientologist.

Alex said...

Love how anyone critical of Scientology has posted anonymously :)

Marc said...

FWIW, Hubbard's first novel, Buckskin Brigades, is pretty good. It's a Mountain Man novel set in the Canadian west around 1803, and written in 1936. I used to read a lot of similar books by guys like Terry C. Johnston (RIP), Earl Murray (again, RIP), Win Blevins and Richard S. Wheeler.

I read Buckskin Brigades in the Jameson Books edition (edited by Blevins), so my money didn't go to Hubbard's organization, FWIW. I don't expect too many people visiting this site to care about novels that deal with the adventures of Native Americans/Canadians and fur traders in the Rocky Mountains, but if you do, the above-mentioned authors provide plenty of good reading.

AetherVagrant said...

Hah. This makes me more determined to acquire and finally finish this series. In grade school I read the first few books, but eventually gave up on being able to find all ten at local used bookstores. Even at that age it was so ridiculously over-the-top I thought Hubbard was intentionally lampooning the "and then suddenlu..." approach of the hollywood film machine. Many things that I took for satyrical were apparentlu intended quite seriously, (the converse was true as well.

------- said...

I actually really liked this series. I didn't go into it thinking about writing style or anything other than holy shit, this is LONG. I don't even remember from where or whom I got the first book.What I do remember is that I read the whole series in a week.

Despite it being L. Ron Hubbard, I actually enjoyed this series, but of course, I was not looking for anything other than fun.

Anonymous said...

I've only read a little of Hubbard. l was in my early teens, and I enjoyed final blackout, and fear. Here is where my memory fades, I read battlefield earth, and the first few mission earth novels; and I don't remember why I stopped. I think it's newness rubbed off, and I thought it got repetative--and perhaps a little more grotesque. I came away still thinking it was readable; but there was so much more our there for me to explore, and couldn't spare any more time on a single author.

By the way, Asimov was my favorite Sci-Fi author; as well as some lesser lites--Wein Baum, Williamson, E E "Doc" Smith, Hamilton, Sheckley, Niel R Jones, Van Vogt, Brown, Russell, Lienster; even Pratchett