Friday, May 30, 2014

Hubbard the Reformer

Sometimes it's enough for a satirist to simply point out society's flaws.  Racism, sexism, religious intolerance, income inequality, the quality of airline food, all are enduring problems that a single writer would be hard-pressed to solve by him- or herself.  But if these issues have been present for so long that we have lost sight of them, or are treating them as constants rather than variables, then highlighting them can be in itself a service.

Others want to do more, however, and have thoughts about how to solve these problems.  So in Hubbard's story, the alien protagonists are not just out to identify what's wrong with Earth (or specifically, New York City and the surrounding parts of the East Coast), they have a plan to deal with them, so that our planet will thrive and prosper and be fit for conquest rather than extermination.  Mission Earth is therefore not only a collection of witty and hilarious observations on the follies of modern living, but a guidebook to putting our culture back on track.

In theory.  In practice, hey, it's Hubbard.

Even aside from the fact that this "guidebook" gets bogged down in pointless sideplots, rape and underage sex, the first problem is that there's two sets of prescriptions in it, one for Earth, and one for Voltar.  Now I've tried to make a point about how Hubbard is blind to the similarities between the rotten Earth described in his story and the sublime Voltar he lays out for us, but let's ignore that for a second and assume the two planets really started out completely different.  By the end of the tale, both worlds have been infected by the same twisted ideologies, yet the heroes come up with a different checklist to follow for each.

This makes sense to some extent, as the aliens were originally concerned with Earth's environmental issues, which Voltar did not share.  While psychology, psychiatry and PR are introduced to Voltar in Book Nine, in Book Ten the Grand Council (or mainly Heller) is able to come up with a series of proclamations to fix the damage Earth had done to Voltarian civilization.  These corrosive ideas had only taken hold among a small subset of the population, and they were still able to identify and quarantine the vectors for this cultural contagion before it could spread any further.  Earth, in contrast, had been host to psychology and PR for close to a century.  There's no handful of ringleaders to be exiled to an arctic work camp humane asylum, but a worldwide profession perpetuating such practices, so different steps would be needed to cure it. 

But Hubbard doesn't give us any.  Heller shows up, fixes Earth's environmental problems by making us dependent on alien technology we can neither produce nor repair, and despite having absolute power over the planet thanks to deposing and replacing Rockecenter, he doesn't do anything about psychology or psychiatry, and the most he does about PR is to get it off his back while leaving everyone else fair game.

This is odd for a book supposedly meant to help us, Earth, not the fictional planet Voltar.  We need a solution to our psychology-psychiatry-PR problem, or so Hubbard insists, and while the author writes at length about how awful these practices are, and how they're ruining society, the only instructions we have are for the wrong planet.  In fact, by the end of the book everyone seems to write Earth off as a lost cause, a fundamentally insane world where you could print a book like Mission Earth without any additional harm done (self-referential humor?  self-depreciation?).  The heroes settle for correcting Voltar and leading it into a new golden age, while Earth remains rotten culturally, but clean environmentally.

Maybe Hubbard's getting meta, satirizing the concept of satire itself.  "Oh, you want some witty observations that identify and offer solutions to problems?  Here's a bunch of solutions you can't use.  And here's some rape scenes instead of wit."  Deep stuff, bro.

Let's take a more detailed look at Hubbard's problems with Earth, his solutions, and whether they're feasible.

Psychology/Psychiatry - This/these are of course the root of all evil.  The teachings of Sigmund Freud reduce everyone to sex-obsessed perverts who engage in pedophilia, necrophilia, bestiality, or even - oh, horrors! - homosexual relations.  The entire profession is little more than an excuse for "doctors" to murder people in cruel and inventive ways, and possibly rape them before or after the act.  They don't even have the benefit of ignorance, like the folks who invented the lobotomy; modern psychologists know that their treatments don't work, and know that people really do have souls, but are bent on mutilating their patients and convincing the survivors they are soulless sex fiends, because...  Anyway, the solution for Voltar is to ban the professions and appoint a Royal censor to make sure nobody ever speaks of them again.  Earth, as previously mentioned, is just boned.

Now, the problem with deciding one thing is the cause of all of society's problems is that any evidence of those problems without that cause sort of completely undermines your argument.  Hubbard really shot himself in the foot by diving into the sordid underbelly of Voltar instead of presenting it as an obnoxiously perfect utopia.  Voltar has nymphomania, pedophilia, bestiality, and gays even when Gris is the only one who follows the false faith of psychiatry.  Dr. Crobe creates flesh freaks before he's converted to Freudism, and the Apparatus is filled with violent murderers and rapists who have no knowledge of Earth.

A related assertion, that psychology is able to convince people they are rotten animals who don't have souls, is similarly puzzling.  Why knowledge of the subconscious or brain chemistry inevitably leads to atheism is an unanswered question - in our world it's biology that catches flak for undermining religion, by suggesting that humans evolved into their current form as a result of natural processes instead of being created as the good book says.  Similarly, it seems that atheists are incapable of adhering to a moral code without the assistance of religion, and therefore form rampaging mobs of rapists.  So anyone who is cruel to his fellow man is by definition an atheist/psychiatrist?  Nobody who believes in the soul ever did anything bad to someone else?

Even a cursory knowledge of human history shows that this is not the case, and that psychology (as a science, rather than a philosophy) is relatively recent, while man's inhumanity to man is as old as the species.  In fact, since psychology's debut we've gotten as humane as we've ever been, allowing women to vote and starting to treat them as equals, considering other races to be more than animals, putting an end to colonialism and allowing self-determination, and so on.  It would be a mistake to attribute this progress to psychology, but if nothing else the historical record shows that despite Freud et al's best efforts, psychology has been powerless to stop things from getting better.

The annoying thing is that the author tries to present an ideal form of mental health with his arctic asylum work camps, where inmates are kept in good physical condition and otherwise ignored until they decide to be sane, but doesn't offer much to fill psychology's spiritual void.  I've complained since Book One that the author keeps mentioning wood spirits and Manco Devils without actually building a mythology or religion out of them.  He insists that people have souls after all, but doesn't have anything to say about them other than that psychology is evil for declaring otherwise; at most there's that bizarre talk at the start of Book Two about Life and Time and stuff.  Maybe we need to buy Hubbard's other books to learn more about our souls?

Drugs - Drugs are bad, m'kay?  They make people sick, get them addicted, and eventually kill them.  They're used to finance some really bad people who do really bad things.  Don't do drugs, that'd be bad.

More specifically, drugs are pushed by pharmaceutical companies, who are not nearly rich enough from selling overpriced medicines, to help bolster psychology, which offers clients a way to solve their mental problems without medication.  Drugs are all that separates heroic, murderous mobsters from villainous, murderous mobsters, and how insane intelligence directors can take over the government without fumbling with a hypno-helmet.  But the solution to this problem is simple: legalize it.  Without a state-backed monopoly the drug companies will wither, profit margins will drop, and drugs will just fade away.  In this case, despite how entrenched drugs are in Earth society, and how recently they came to Voltar, the same strategy fixes both situations.

The author seems to have some misconceptions about the concept of supply and demand, but that shouldn't surprise us, as the author has misconceptions about everything else.  People are not going to stop wanting drugs just because sellers aren't making as much money off them, and drug providers are not going to give up on a widened, legal market simply because they're not making as much per sale as they were during the days of the black market.  Folks will continue to want a way to chemically alter their state of consciousness and escape/enhance their dreary lives, and other people will make it their business to keep them supplied.  Economics will find a way.  The upside of legalizing drugs is not that it keeps people from doing them, but that it reduces the crimes associated with an illegal substance, gives the state a little more tax revenue, and allows law enforcement to focus on crimes that involve people doing things to each other rather than to themselves.

PR - Oh vile perversion of proper journalism!  To invent outrageous crimes for the sake of sales, to pin them on innocent men for the sake of headlines!  To try people in the papers rather than a court of law!  To harass private citizens in search of a scoop!  Luckily all Voltar has to do to put an end to this is ban the practice, and appoint a Royal Censor to stamp out any resurgence of improper reporting.  This office can protect individuals from any snide insinuations, disingenuous assertions, or tabloid journalism, but of course will never be used to suppress the truth or cover up misdeeds.  Earth is once again beyond help on this front, or rather PR ceases to be a problem once it stops upsetting the protagonists.

This is one of the few things in Mission Earth that feels halfway relevant these days, though not so much because of spurious accusations of bigamy sweeping the media.  We live in a world of rival 24/7 news networks rushing to be the first to the scoop, and sometimes facts can get left in the dust.  More than that, we saw ten years ago how the entanglement of government and the media can distort reality and lead us into wars, not to mention give the enemy information about troop positions when Geraldo Rivera sketches maps in the sand.

Unfortunately, Hubbard couldn't foresee the rise of the internet and alternative news sources, which now makes it quite difficult for one sinister news agency to have total control of the media, or for lies to go unchallenged.  Though this makes appointing an official censor to purge bad ideas from society harder than ever, I'd argue that the benefits outweigh the downsides, and would count the difficulty of censorship as one of those benefits.

So, halfway real problem, wholly unrealistic solution that no longer applies to the current situation.

Intelligence - The Apparatus' appropriation of Earth intelligence practices was morally repugnant.  Recruiting criminals right out of prisons to use as agents, and unleashing these criminals on your own population, how barbaric!  Voltar is able to fix this problem by forbidding any such "foreign intelligence techniques" from being used... on the Voltar Confederacy.  Though the Apparatus is irredeemably evil for using Earth's intelligence techniques, the Voltarian military branches' own intelligence services use quite similar methods.  As Heller privately admits, the real crime of the Apparatus/Earth intelligence services was using their skills to suppress their own citizens rather than foreign enemies.

This is another shockingly relevant moment from a thirty-year-old book written by a space case.  Today we grapple with the question of how much the government should be spying on us or our overseas allies, and how far agencies should be able to go if they think lives are at stake.  Some feel torture, indefinite detainment, or assassination-by-drone are justifiable tools in the war on terror, while others are more concerned with living under a government prepared to do all that to combat perceived threats to itself.  The author's answer seems to be "go nuts, just on the other guy," which is great news for me - I fall into the opposite camp, so now I can tell my opponents that they're agreeing with L. Ron Hubbard.

This doesn't quite solve the problem of an intelligence service recruiting criminals to use against its population, but that's okay because as the Apparatus shows, the kind of violent criminals that end up in jail aren't exactly special agent material.  At every stage of its conspiracy the Apparatus was constantly hampered by the petty corruption, pathological need to do evil, and incompetence of its forces.  Which at least explains why Earth intelligence services, or rather the successful ones, have refrained from making similar mistakes.  The world would be a better place if all the bad guys worked through minions as lazy and stupid as Soltan Gris.

"isms" - Oh, you don't remember this one?  It's okay, it's only mentioned once or twice, like while Heller is watching the frenzied mobs of the Confederacy scream their hatred of the planet Earth in song.  "The clutter of isms and hates could all be solved if they just realized that only a handful of men were using them for personal exploitation: their political creeds were just nonsense and lies manufactured for the benefit of the few, while pretending that they answered the demands of the many."  Yes, racism, sexism, sectarianism, jingoism, materialism, all were invented by powerful elites to control the masses.  Politics is similarly a lie, any form of government is controlled by those same elites, and if we simply realized this, banded together, and disposed of those psychologists elites, we might have a chance at putting society back on track.

Sounds almost Marxist, really, and identical to the "every problem is the fault of one bad thing" message about psychology/psychiatry.  Likewise, the whole argument is invalidated by the Manco-Antimanco hatred seen in the Confederacy, the objectification of women by both the Apparatus and other Voltarians, and the hypocritical disdain Lombar and Gris have of "riffraff."  Probably the only reason we don't see any religious divisions on Voltar is that religion itself is kept extremely vague. 

The odd thing is how this criticism doesn't mesh with the rest of the story's take on Earth.  Humans sound basically good, and all their negative qualities were introduced by psychologists Nazis corrupt elites.  Taking those bad guys out should set society back on track, as easily as Voltar was able to shake off the Earth Flu.  But no, Heller and the rest of the Voltarians are only able to shrug, turn their backs on our planet, and declare the whole world fundamentally insane, beyond redemption.   Even when they're more or less in absolute control of it, well-positioned to remove those elites and let humanity's inner goodness shine once more.

Maybe we're supposed to want to prove Heller wrong?  Kill some scapegoats and declare ourselves free of bigotry and division?  Shall we start with the landowners, or the guys wearing glasses?

Government - Another understated point.  Voltar is of course perfect because it's got the sort of monarchy that Jettero Heller can guide from beside the throne, while Earth is corrupt and insane and so on.  The author doesn't spend a lot of time comparing different styles of government, which is odd because he has his heroes completely alter how Earth is run by the end of the story.  Izzy, the anarcho-corporate-feudalist, literally buys every country on the planet and converts them into corporations.  His reasoning has nothing to do with responsiveness or representation or anything, rather he's calculated that corporations spend 80% of their resources dealing with government regulations, so if the government was abolished, everyone would be 80% richer!  Which is all that people want, right?  Heller just kind of goes along with this for whatever reason, and doesn't even bother to justify it with "it sure would be easier to get things done if my corporation was the legal government of this planet."

I think I pointed out when this first came up in Book Two how odd it was for Hubbard to favor a corporation taking over the country, rather than a religious movement doing the same.  Especially if that religious movement has gone through a lot of effort to try and convince people that it is a religious movement and not a corporation.

This whole point is a little less random if you remember parts of Battlefield Earth, where Jonnie had similar thoughts about government.  When he heard about the concept of taxes, he was annoyed that governments would have to take money from citizens instead of being able to make money themselves.  Again, the hero was unconcerned with a government being by the people, for the people, or any of that - it's all about cash.  Ironically, the happy ending in that book came about when Jonnie was able to convince warmongering aliens to embrace insipid consumerism, while in this book Heller shakes his head at how Earth's materialist culture "was fixated on material possessions" so that "a can of soup was equated on their communication lines--measured by volume of minutes--far, far more important than a man's soul."  Maybe Battlefield Earth's consumerism was better because the people all believed in souls, because they were free of psychology?

It's also odd that both books come across as so pro-business when their antagonists are an interdimensional alien imperialist mining corporation, and an oil monopoly with control of several adjacent business sectors, respectively.  I guess it's because the heroes end up forming their own corporations to defeat their foes and take over the world (in a good way).  And this leads me to my next point, concerning the means through which Hubbard has his characters make their reforms.  It's related to his thoughts about intelligence operations, as well as the fact that "one man rules the entire rotten system" isn't on Hubbard's list of things wrong with Earth.

Let's look back at Rockecenter.  He is, if not the Big Bad of the Earth story, at least one of the Biggest Bads.  Arguably he's just a puppet of that jilted psychologist lady with the mobile home, but the fact remains that Rockecenter is in de facto control of the whole planet, using his monopoly over the oil supply and the pharmaceutical industry, as well as his ties to the media, to bend elected governments to his will and crush anyone who opposes him.  For most of the Earth stuff (that involves Heller instead of Gris' sexual escapades), Rockecenter is portrayed as the focal point of a vast, sinister conspiracy able to turn all the world against our heroes, the figurative head of the octopus with its tentacles in everything, an analogy that Hubbard takes all the fun out of by explicitly naming the corporation Octopus Oil.

The Rockecenter Conspiracy is very much a bad thing, but as it turns out, it's not to much the "conspiracy that controls the world" angle that the author disagrees with as it is the bloke in charge of it.  When Rockecenter gets blown off the road and ends up floating face-down in a river, our hero merely uses the bogus legal documents so helpfully supplied by his Voltarian enemies to take over the whole operation, keeping the legitimate Rockecenter bastard around as a patsy.  Hell, he even keeps Mr. Bury, Rockecenter's equivalent to Darth Vader, if the Dark Lord of the Sith was a fussy little lawyer with a reptile fetish and nothing remotely cool about him.

Does Heller then break up the monopoly and free the markets?  Release the cartel's stranglehold on politics?  Nope!  Instead Heller merges the Rockecenter conspiracy with his own energy company, brings in Izzy the corporate feudalist, and takes over the world.  Because whether it comes to twisting the law, undermining the government, bribery, coercion, mind rape via hypno-helmet, or violence, the key difference between the good guys of Mission Earth and its bad guys is not their methods, but who is using them.

The Rockecenter machine is not evil because it's a monopolistic conspiracy, it's evil because Rockecenter is the one in charge of it, and he likes psychology instead of Heller's vague, undefined religion.  The Apparatus is not evil for using Earth intelligence methods, it's evil because it used those methods on its fellow Voltarians rather than anyone else in the galaxy.  When Gris burns down buildings in Istanbul to cover his tracks he's being a bad guy, when Heller blows up buildings in New York to deal with federal pursuers he's being a good guy.  Lombar gunning down palace staff as he flees, or starting a civil war, are villainous acts; Prince Mortiiy gunning down palace staff as he flees, or starting a civil war, are not held against him when he's considered for Emperor.

The most you could say is that Heller never raped anyone, or pushed drugs (though he did legalize them).  But other than that, whether someone is good and evil comes down to what creed they follow, not their deeds as they follow it.

Related is a disturbing undercurrent in Mission Earth, a decidedly authoritarian one.  Voltar, the "good planet," is a monarchy run by an imperial dynasty with the help of hereditary lords.  It's a benevolent monarchy, of course, managed by wise men who were bred to be superior leaders - please ignore the fact that the Voltarian monarchy passes from a decrepit old drug addict to a belligerent, murderous oaf, and that the nobles are just as prone to politicking, incompetence and corruption as elected government officials.  Anything with the prefix "Noble" or "Royal" is in a class above the rest of society, subject to special privileges and different laws.  Indeed, the great crime of Lombar Hisst is for wanting to take the throne despite his common birth, and Earth is viewed as a bizarre place if its denizens are occasionally able to succeed at such plots.

This obsession with nobility and bloodlines runs though the book's "good" characters.  Heller is not just a naval officer, he's a Royal officer, and therefore of impeccable honor and unmatched ability.  Krak can't be just another Apparatus dreg, but a disgraced Countess who is restored to her full title and estates by the end of the book.  Then there's that obnoxious Prince Caucalsia myth that implies Earth was settled by alien separatists, which ends with Babe Corleone being declared his descendent and therefore "queen."  Some people are just inherently better than everyone else, and they just so happen to fall into the "good guy" camp.

I'm almost cynical enough to wonder if this is a marketing ploy.  The key conceit of Scientology is that alien souls are responsible for all your problems and can be exorcised with enough money, right?  So maybe this suggests that those same readings might reveal that you're host to the soul of King B!!tzllz of Ikki-ikki.  Whenever you're feeling sad or unfulfilled, just remember that you've got the spirit of an undying alien monarch lodged in your sinus cavity.  You're not just special because you belong to an elite movement that knows how the universe really works, you're super special because in a past life you wore some shiny minerals on your head.

Back on track - Heller accomplishes his mission on Earth not through a superior argument or consensus, but by brute force and deceit.  He slips in alien technology to solve our energy problem, and finances his alternative power supply by cheating the stock market with his time-sight.  He uses a false identity and the strategic application of deadly force to usurp control of the world conspiracy, and uses it to bend the planet's governments to his will.  He crushes rival companies through financial chicanery and a bogus controversy over irradiated oil - we're not even given figures for the lives lost or the economic damage done by his artificial energy crisis.  To get past five police officers blocking a door, Heller helps a criminal syndicate take New York's government hostage and seize control of the city.  He solves the Cold War by forcing the UN to ban nuclear war, and by murdering millions of Russians.  And through all this, Heller is assisted by the lovely Countess Krak, who uses a mind-control helmet to overwrite people's personalities and program them to do as she bids.

There is no debate, no reasoning with anyone - or at least not from the "good guys."  On one side you have an enlightened civilization that knows the Life controls Time controls Space somethings Energy and then there's Matter, and on the other are a bunch of apes who think Freud is right and everything's about sex and humans have neither souls nor morality.  Some especially stupid Voltarians may fall prey to Earth's depraved teachings, but we never see anyone tainted by psychology redeemed and brought back to enlightenment - the only good Earthlings are the rare few who don't buy into psychology in the first place, and those are for the most part mobsters, branded outlaws by the evil governments and businesses who oppose them.

No, wait, there were some humans who flipped from pro- to anti-psychology: Miss Candy and Miss Pinch, after Gris raped them straight and turned them against Psychiatric Birth Control.  Um.  I don't think we're meant to read too much into that.

My point is, if satire is supposed to convince us that the author's viewpoint is right, it's a little unsettling that nobody in the story attempts to do the same.  We're repeatedly told that psychology is bogus, but we're also repeatedly shown that there is no use arguing with those who follow psychology, and the only way to get anything done is through coercion, violent or otherwise.  You don't even need consensus to bring about these reforms, just get a few active individuals in key positions of power and have them force everyone else to align to their views.  A bit of a mixed message for a mass-market paperback.

In fact, you could read Mission Earth as an attempt by an underground movement to justify its overthrow of society.  Oh, it wouldn't be a violent revolution, it'd just have the reformers infiltrating the government to take control of everything, and maybe they'd have to utilize the tactics of those evil intelligence agencies to get rid of certain obstacles.  And the group would end up ignoring the input of the rest of the populace, purging society of the things they disagreed with, and installing themselves as permanent unelected overseers to make sure there's no backsliding into bad habits.  But see, it's the only way, 'cause everybody else is beyond reasoning with, and they'll be better off in the end.

I can only wonder about the target audience, then.  If only a small elite (not to be confused with the evil elites who control society) can see things as they truly are, and the rest of the schmucks are clueless, corrupted by the bad guys, and unable to be redeemed, why even satirize to them?  Who's the author trying to convince?  Or is this book meant for his followers, a parable to give them courage as they work to change their world in a way that is earning them increasing scrutiny and condemnation?  Couldn't he have just written them a letter?

Well, I guess you can't really charge people five bucks for an office memo, nor does that get you on the bestsellers list one last time before you're off to do some out-of-body research.

Back to Hubbard the Satirist


  1. I'm loving all these in-depth posts! By the way, are you ever planning to update the Obnoxious Personae? It seems to have been written before Monte appears in the story, for example.

    Also, I'd be interested in seeing a one-entry summary of the entire series. The books seem like a strange jumble of mostly-unrelated episodes and I really have no idea what the important parts of the "story" were (if any). The most space was often given to things that weren't very important and were never mentioned again. When you boil it down, is there really a plot, or just a bunch of things that happened?

    1. The characters page overhaul is still on my to-do list, I'm thinking about removing spoilery stuff and organizing it alphabetically rather than by affiliation, for ease of use. I should probably add some plot-relevant pieces of Voltarian space magic, too.

      As for summing up the entire story, I've got a post in progress tracking how many pages the author spent on the books' plots and subplots. It's slow going, since I have to basically flip through and skim each book all over again, but I intend to finish it soon - hopefully by the end of the week.