L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

02 May 2007 Blog Home : May 2007 : Permalink

Me and Mitt Romney

For some reason Mitt Romney told someone that his favourite book is "Battlefield Earth" and this is causing a certain amount of disbelief / hilarity. Now I understand that part of the problem is, as usual, the coverup, but let's go back to the initial statement.

When asked his favorite novel in an interview shown yesterday on the Fox News Channel, Mitt Romney pointed to “Battlefield Earth,” a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. That book was turned into a film by John Travolta, a Scientologist.

A spokesman said later it was one of Mr. Romney’s favorite novels.
“I’m not in favor of his religion by any means,” Mr. Romney, a Mormon, said. “But he wrote a book called ‘Battlefield Earth’ that was a very fun science-fiction book.” Asked about his favorite book, Mr. Romney cited the Bible.

The perceived problem is that Battlefield Earth was written by L Ron Hubbard - the founder of Scientology - and is therefore, apparently, beyond the pale. Well bang goes my presidential ambitions them since I have a well thumbed copy of Battlefield Earth - a copy which I bought over 20 years ago and which I still reread from time to time because I enjoy it.

Battlefield Earth is not a serious work of literature. It isn't meant to be. In his introduction* His Elronness says explicitly that he wrote the book because he liked the idea of rip-roaring escapism. The book isn't perfect, personally I think the book should have been split into two or three separate books because there are two obvious moments where a break could have been made and it has a few continuity style errors that gripe, but it is far from the worst SF book I've ever read and far more enjoyable than most of the acceptable, primarily non-fiction, works that appear on Romney's Facebook (screenshot for the unregistered). I think Huck Finn is probably better, although I've reread Battlefield Earth more times than Mr Twain's classic, but the rest of the works listed would probably make great bedside reading for insomniacs but I can't otherwise see their attraction once you've read them once.

So why the animus against Battlefield Earth? Obviously the problem is that Scientology aspect, which is stupid. I took the book on an exchange/homestay trip to Germany as a teenager and learned about scientology and Mr Hubbard because some kind German gentleman wanted to explain to me how evil the Elronners are when he saw me reading it. It seems to me that he falls into the same category as these more recent critics, people who judge the book based on their preconceptions of the author; I have read a number of accounts of the litigiousness and basic nastiness of the Scientology cult but I'm damned if I see what that has to do with the book. The book barely touches on religion, and to the extent that secret cults get involved they are the baddies who hoodwink the enire Psychlo race into getting some stuff in their heads that makes them crazy, not something that is a rousing defense on whacky pseudosientific beliefs. In other words if Battlefield Earth is a subtle recruitment tool for the Scientology it's a very subtle one.

Perhaps the feeling is that one should not read works by authors with whom on deisagrees on politics/religion. This is, to put it bluntly, silly. It seems to be a belief that most often manifests itself on the lefty side of the political spectrum where, as a result, people ignore great writers such as Kipling because he is perceived to be an Imperial apologist, but it is also visible on the right. It's their loss of course because good authors are able to separate their own political feelings from those of their characters or the events they portray, but that doesn't seem to stop otherwise rational people from limiting their choice of reading material in this way.

So what about the book? The Wikipedia plot summary that Ann Althouse links to is accurate but misses the point. As Ms Althouse says:

Romney is quoted as saying it's "a very fun science-fiction book," but mining, banking, coffins... Hard to tell from that summary what the fun is (unless it's the sheer childishness of it all).

As it happens the story is a classic coming of age adventure story. The hero defeats the villains, gets the girl and almost everyone lives happily ever after. It addresses almost no serious topics and the "science" in it ranges from poor to laughably wrong so to that extent it is childish, but it is far from alone in that - Harry Potter, to pick a book totally not at random, is much the same and we don't denigrate people for liking HP. In fact in its simplistic way it may have a few messages that have relevance in today's world such as the ineffectiveness of international bodies, the power of bankers and the way that power vacuums get filled. So while I'd not read it looking for a message I don't think it is quite mindless escapism and I definitely agree with Mr. Romney that it is a "a very fun science-fiction book".

* The introductory essay is fascinating for lots of reasons and the part of it to do with plot and characterization could stand to be read by everyone in the book trade who wonders why angst-filled plotless so-called novels don't sell. It also has an excellent division of SF and Fantasy summarised as: "science fiction, to be credible, has to be based on some degree of plausibility, fantasy gives you no limits at all." I cannot say I totally agree, as some of the fantasy of the last few years is definitely based on some sort of semi-scientific plausibility, but I think his basic point is correct.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin