Friday, May 23, 2014

Hubbard the Satirist

One of Mission Earth's selling points, I suppose, is that it's simultaneously a bloated tale of implausible science fiction as well as a work of satire.  The introduction to the first book certainly makes this point, and consists of an essay on this history and nature of such literature.  This is one of the things that drew my interest to Mission Earth in the first place, as I was curious about what differences there would be between this lump of dead tree and the anti-psychologist ranting in Battlefield Earth

According to Wikipedia, which Hubbard could never have predicted would render his ghostwritten introduction completely redundant, there's two basic categories of satire, divided not by subject but by tone.  First there's Horatian satire, which can be summed up as silly, but somewhat gentle, like the Simpsons.  It tends to be self-deprecatory and can be as much about telling a funny story as it as a way of nudging people towards improvement.  Contrasted to this is Juvenalian satire; harsh, sarcastic, outraged, like The Daily Show.  There's also a third category, Menippean satire, with the structure of a novel, fragmented narrative, and multiple viewpoints, like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I cannot with any confidence guess which category Mission Earth falls into.

The chief problem is that of tone.  Just think back to The Invaders Plan: we've got a paramilitary intelligence agency murderin' and torturin' and mutiliatin' with impunity, and then we have the "well the birds liked it!" scene at the Artists' Club.  There's the farcical "where the hells is Lombar?!" bit with Gris stalling Heller by blindly signing papers, unaware that his boss has already left safely, while a couple of chapters earlier Gris murdered a guy by pulling his guts out through a chest wound.  In one part Gris wryly observes how wacky the medical profession is, what with med students earning their degrees by doing their superiors' work, then trying to work off their debt while competing against thousands of their fellow graduates.  A bit later Gris cackles about how the psychologists' use of lobotomies is the perfect solution to so many problems.  In one chapter he throws a sex slave into a cell full of prisoners, in another he hallucinates about Bugs Bunny.

Are we supposed to be laughing or cringing, Hubbard?  Is this a very black comedy, or are we not meant to take all this rape and murder seriously?  I can understand the need for "comic relief," but the extreme variation in the story's tone can cause severe Mood Whiplash.  It's why there weren't, to my knowledge, any slapstick scenes in Schindler's List

The introduction is no help - it seems to like the Menippean style best as one of its earliest examples, Lucian's True History, is also an astoundingly old work of science fiction.  It also credits satire with helping pave the way for modern science fiction like Gulliver's Travels, which was simultaneously vehicles for social criticism.  So it's tempting to label Mission Earth a Menippean satire, since it is a huge-ass novel, has multiple viewpoint characters, and a narrative that is less than completely linear.  But The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy can deftly weave together multiple viewpoints within a single chapter for the sake of comedy, to elaborate a bit more on the setting, or both, while Mission Earth spends seven and a half books with Gris, gives us an interlude with Monte, switches to Heller, gives us another book's worth of Madison, and then bounces from Heller to Lombar to Madison to Monte as needed in the finale.  Hitchhiker's narrative is fragmented because time travel and weirder stuff is going on, Mission Earth is fragmented because of the limitations of its point-of-view characters, an awkward framing device in the form of Monte Pennwell, and plot problems.

It occurs to me that trying to figure out what brand of satire Mission Earth belongs to is like trying to decide which hospital ward to assign a patient with third-degree burns, missing limbs, cancer, and syphilis.  Maybe we should pull back a bit and ask an easier question - does Mission Earth count as satire in the first place?

It wants to be satire, it's certainly got caricatures in it.  There's Delbert John Rockecenter, a thinly-veiled take on the oil tycoon (and philanthropist) John Davison Rockefeller.  There's... Lombar Hisst could be a stand-in for J. Edgar Hoover, I g- no, no, Hoover's already mentioned by name.  And J. Warbler Madman is a parody of... well.  Maybe it's a general caricature, a non-specific "things suck" kind of satire?  There's your stock Corrupt Politicians, run-of-the-mill Mob Bosses, dime-a-dozen Quack Doctors, and so on, a parade of flat characters you've seen a million times.  And how about the "music" kids are listening to these days?  Bunch of screaming and sex, am I right?

But other than the fact that it's set on Earth, at a time contemporary with or adjacent to its publication date, what about Mission Earth is different from Battlefield Earth's bits about the Psychlos and Catrists?  Battlefield Earth credits psychology for the Psychlos' transformation into an evil empire, but the Catrists never appear "on-screen," only in a few chapters providing background information long after the Psychlos have ceased to be a threat.  Mission Earth blatantly and repeatedly blames psychology for all of Earth's problems.  So it's more satirical to abandon subtlety and allegory?  Or is Mission Earth a satire because it also contains "funny" bits alongside the author's rants about the mental health profession?  Maybe that's what separates Mission Earth from the likes of the Unabomber Manifesto, it tries to be informative and entertaining.

Wait, maybe not.  If the point of satire is to use humor, regardless of whether it's gentle or harsh, to ridicule society's issues, Mission Earth's funny bits ought to be connected to its social commentary.  Except the books' "humor" tends to be slapstick, focused on hurting Gris, or uncomfortable.  We've had Gris tripping on skateboards, Heller humiliating a police chief by smearing spaghetti on his face, Twoey's love of pigs, and ugly French women.  But when the great psychiatry-PR-oil triumvirate of evil is shown in the story, it doesn't seem to be (intentionally) humorous.  You might take stuff like Rockecenter spying on his female employee's bathroom visits to see if they're pregnant as toilet humor, har har, but I read it as a sign of his insanity not meant to entertain (or God forbid, titillate).

One could argue that the bad guys' evil is exaggerated for humorous effect, and this is what makes the story satire.  The problem with this is that there's no indication that Hubbard thinks he is exaggerating.

For example, psycholochiatrists in Mission Earth like to get people committed to insane asylums for little reason, have sex with their patients either as part of their "treatment" plan or by convincing them to be sluts, and are quick to kill people with electroshock or lobotomies.  A dark satire of real-life psychology, right?  But in a confidential memo from 1966 (I found on Wikiquote), Hubbard states

A psychiatrist today has the power to (1) take a fancy to a woman (2) lead her to take wild treatment as a joke (3) drug and shock her to temporary insanity (4) incarnate [sic] her (5) use her sexually (6) sterilize her to prevent conception (7) kill her by a brain operation to prevent disclosure. And all with no fear of reprisal. Yet it is rape and murder…

Or how about the revelation that Nazis are apparently behind everything, and pushed psychology as a way to eliminate undesirables and wipe out foes they couldn't crush on the battlefield?  Surely that's a satire of Godwin's Law or something?  As it turns out, Hubbard believed in something called the "Tenyaka Memorial," not to be confused with the Tanaka Memorial, and he blamed attacks on Scientology as "the work of a Nazi network operating through drug companies, banks and the psychiatric profession, and aimed at conquering the world."  Boy does that sound familiar.

If Mission Earth is a satire, it's an unbelievably shallow one.  It's like if I believed Mexican Jew-lizards were secretly ruling the world, and made repeated documented statements to that effect, and then wrote a book about spies who fight Zionist reptiles in Guadalajara.  With gratuitous, thoroughly uncomfortable sex scenes.

Then what makes good satire?

Allow me to sing my praises of Sir Terry Pratchett once more.  His Discworld series is noteworthy not just for the wit and wordplay, or the memorable characters, but how the setting it used to jest at contemporary events in a fantastic setting, while the setting itself feels legitimate.  It's a send-up of a genre that's also used to tell stories that reflect our own world.  It's got a lot of things going for it, well-crafted elements that stand in sharp contrast to Mission Earth.

Discworld is, famously, a fantasy universe that works.  Granted, there are some strange rules governing it and supernatural entities meddling with it - the Theory of Narrative Causality is a known force that all but guarantees a third son will succeed at a quest his two elder brothers failed at, and the Grim Reaper is a major recurring character -  but it's a setting that can stand on its own even when its author isn't using it to slyly poke fun at something.  It's fantastic but comprehensible, and often recognizable.

Voltar does not work.  It suffers the same problem as the Psychlo Empire did in Battlefield Earth - the Apparatus is so bleak, vicious, cruel, and thunderously stupid that its existence beggars belief.  Even outside this conspiracy, the place is a nightmare - a corrupt authoritarian government, quack physicians who are preferable to the deranged doctors reassembling patients into horrifying shapes, a mindlessly expansionist military with a taste for animal husbandry, a gossiping press that prints what their masters want them to rather than perform any sort of journalistic oversight, debt courts that execute people passing counterfeit bills, and on and on and on.

It's almost a comically grimdark exaggeration along the lines of Warhammer 40,000's setting, except Voltar isn't the object of Hubbard's "satire" in these books, Earth is.  Indeed, he seems to think Voltar to be far superior to Earth society, and its only negative aspects were imported from Earth.  Of course, Hubbard's portrayal of Earth is remarkably similar to how I just described Voltar, which effectively means he's satirizing something by comparing it to a mirror.

Does a satirical setting need to "work?"  It helps if it does.  If you're trying to nudge society down a certain path, it's beneficial to prove that you know where this new road goes, and why it's superior to the alternative.  Or if you're working through something like the Discworld, which is impossible for us to imitate fully, the fact that you're able to construct a functional society helps prove that you know what makes a society function, and therefore have an eye to spot problems and dysfunctions.  Even if you're writing something like Swift's "A Modest Proposal," and don't really intend people to follow your advice (in this case to solve the problem of the poor by eating them), you need to display an understanding of the flawed society - Swift both used popular arguments and rhetoric of the day to support his "solution," and "scoffed" at more practical alternatives than cannibalism.

Another trait of successful satire is for the work to be applicable, relevant, even if you're working through an indirect allegory.  The Discworld, as mentioned before, is notably different from the world we live in, yet the stories set on it have parallels to so much of our own history.  The Omnian Quisition in Small Gods is obviously based on the Spanish Inquisition, but you can see elements of many fundamentalist religions in it, and the story's core theme, that of a repressive church eclipsing the god it supposedly worships, can be applied just about anywhere.  The background conflict of Jingo is a dispute over a suddenly-appearing island similar to the one over Graham Island, but works equally well as a parable for the Falklands Conflict, the First Gulf War, or even realist politics in general, which "force" nations to go to war over territory neither particularly needs, but can't afford to let the other have lest it give their potential rival an advantage in some future conflict.  The Truth has shades of the Watergate scandal, but the points it makes about journalism are hardly limited to the Nixon Administration.  Discworld dwarfs play up the stock stunties of fantasy literature, but have a notably Jewish flavor to them, as well as elements of conservative Islam.  And so on and so forth.

How can we apply Mission Earth?  Oddly enough, I'd say it's simultaneously too general and too specific.  The story's core message, that Nazi psychologist drug-pushing oil magnates are ruining the world and need to be stopped, is about as relevant as my cautionary tale about Mexican Jew-lizards.  The main figure being satirized, Rockefeller/Rockecenter, had been dead for forty-odd years by the time the book was published.  The stuff we can recognize as elements from the world we live in, the corrupt politicians and sensationalist reporters and the like, aren't native to any particular setting.  Partisan presses and yellow journalism are older than respectable reporting, and crooked senators are as old as representative politics.  The sad thing is that very rarely, the story does have a borderline satirical moment or two, like that instance when Gris reflects on the medical field., but Mission Earth's potential wry social commentary is always buried under the author's rants about psychology.  Or the rape.  Or the underage sex.

A fundamental problem with Mission Earth as a work of satire is that the author doesn't live on the same planet as the rest of us.  Hubbard is trying to satirize American society, except there was nothing remotely normal about his life at the time he was writing the book.  This is the man who spent years sailing around the world in order to flee his legal problems, booted from country to country once the locals got tired of him.  He's a man who spent his final few years in the States in hiding, a man with a network of sycophants and cronies who viewed him as a messianic figure.  This is not the clearest lens through which to view our society to begin with, but then we throw in Hubbard's delusions about Nazis and psychiatry that end up forming the plot of his story.  So at best, Hubbard can make general statements like "boy, modern music sure sucks" and "politicians are in the pockets of corporate interests," satirical observations that were as true when he was a boy as they were when he wrote Mission Earth, and are issues that his story neither focuses on or resolves by the end of the book.

A third key aspect of satire is that it's funny or entertaining, either in a silly Horatian way or a caustic Juvenalian manner.  I think this blog has argued that Mission Earth is only funny by accident, and entertaining in a manner similar to a train wreck.

So to wrap up this meandering ramble, is Mission Earth a satire?  About as much as it's a decent science-fiction tale, or love story, or spy drama.

Back to Hubbard the Scientist

1 comment:

  1. And J. Warbler Madman is a parody of... well. Maybe it's a general caricature, a non-specific "things suck" kind of satire?

    I missed mentioning this the first time out; it's a reference to the Madison Avenue ad agency J. Walter Thompson (emphasis added), just as FFBO is a reference to real-world ad agency Batton, Barton, Durstine and Osborne. So, referring to things that were important in pop culture when he formed his picture of it, but that had fallen off most people's radar by the time he was extruding the drekalogy.