Friday, March 21, 2014

Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard

Lots of people are down on L. Ron Hubbard, and it is easy to see why.  The psychological theories and religion he made up seem like an even more transparent scam than the psychological theories and religions most people believe in.  The extravagant praise of his followers is also a little off putting, and there are probably people who find his politics objectionable (as I recall, his Mission Earth series was a broad and merciless satire of almost every aspect of modern American life.)

Still, I read the first half of Battlefield Earth and the first half of Mission Earth when they were new, when I was in my teens, and thought they were fun.  Not good enough for me to read all 1,000 pages or whatever it was of either, but good enough to read 500 pages or so of each.  And so when people say Hubbard is horrible I am apt to defend him, arguing that he is not horrible, just mediocre.

In his introduction to Angry Candy, Harlan Ellison praises Hubbard's writing and lists some books of Hubbard's he enjoyed, including Final Blackout and To The Stars.  I managed to get my hands on library copies of these two books, and first read 1940's Final Blackout in its 1989 edition, which includes an introduction by Algis Budrys.  

Published before American entry in World War II, Final Blackout is set in a Western Europe in which the war has lasted for decades and civilization has been almost totally destroyed.  Aircraft and even artillery have ceased operation because there is no longer any industrial base to maintain or supply them.  War and the resulting plagues have destabilized all governments and revolutions and coups break out regularly in London, Berlin, and Moscow; as the book starts Communists are in power in England while Czarists have thrown over the Bolsheviks and are in charge in Russia.  Disease and biological warfare agents have destroyed most agricultural crops and depopulated most of the world, and the British Isles are under a strict quarantine; the British Army units on the Continent are forbidden to return home.

The protagonist of the novel is the unnamed "Lieutenant," a British Army officer.  Casualties have been so heavy and replacements so few that he commands an entire brigade, but his brigade consists of less than 200 men, and is an amalgam of soldiers from many Allied nations: Britain, Poland, France, etc.  There is very little communication between governments and their small depleted armies, and these armies have mostly ceased pursuing large strategic objectives and now cross the ruined countryside on foot seeking enough food to survive while avoiding the most radioactive and plague-ridden spots.  The Lieutenant is skilled in tactics and a talented leader, and has managed to keep his men alive and well fed and they admire, even worship, him.

The plot of the book consists mostly of the Lieutenant and his men traveling around, meeting and outwitting one foe after another.  The Lieutenant succeeds because he is smarter and more experienced than his opponents, tricking them, out thinking them, out maneuvering them.  Hubbard's writing style isn't great, merely acceptable.  Hubbard doesn't achieve much in the way of tone and doesn't evoke much emotion.  You don't get too involved with the characters, and the story progresses pretty methodically, without much tension or excitement; because the battles are resolved via trickery there isn't much in the way of blood and guts thrills.

Cover of edition I read
The politics of the book are largely what you might expect.  The men and officers who fight on the front lines have contempt for the politicians back in England and the staff officers and rear echelon troops stationed in an impregnable fortress (General Headquarters) in the rear, close to the Channel.  The Lieutenant has no patience for Communists or Socialists, and refuses to follow political orders from Communist Party officials (like the order to set up workers' councils among his soldiers.)  When his superiors try to take away his command and disperse his brigade among their own units, the Lieutenant turns the tables on them, stealing their best troops and then returning to England to overthrow the Communist Party and make himself ruler of England's population, which is now less than one million.

It is pretty common for people to be against socialism, and to be skeptical of politicians and high level military officials.  Where Hubbard's politics are unusual and remarkable is not in what he opposes, but what he advocates.  Rather than arguing in favor of some creed or system in opposition to socialism, like democracy and/or free enterprise, Hubbard expresses opposition to all creeds and systems.  Final Blackout seems to be romanticizing personal rule based on a mutual devotion between a charismatic leader and a grateful public, as well as the simple life he envisages was led by people in pre-industrial society.  

Once in charge of England and Wales, the Lieutenant rebuilds society in a feudal form, with an honest aristocracy committed to the welfare of the common people.  There are no elections or judges or anything like that - the lieutenant resolves issues on the fly, he's a sort of benevolent dictator.  There is no money or banking, either.

After a few years of this utopian situation a super high tech submarine/aircraft carrier arrives from the United States.  The USA, which participated less and suffered less from the war, has recovered from the plagues and now its Socialist Party government is looking for some place to send its surplus population and production.  The Americans are hoping to make a colony out of England, and expect the English will welcome all their high technology.

The Lieutenant thinks that it was modern machinery and overpopulation which led to war in the first place, by causing unemployment and reliance on the welfare state, and so he has no interest in American equipment, supplies or settlers.  The English, who lack any aircraft or antiaircraft weapons, are at the mercy of the Americans, so the Lieutenant sacrifices himself in one final trick, a bid to preserve the low-population low-tech kingdom he has built and which he feels is the ideal society.

Final Blackout is an acceptable entertainment, and the setting is interesting, but there is nothing special about its style or plot or ideas to make it stand out.  (It is very strange to read the introductory matter in this edition which compares Hubbard and Final Blackout favorably to H. G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, George Orwell, Robert Heinlein, A. E. Van Vogt and Isaac Asimov, all of whom have distinctive styles and ideas.)  Final Blackout is not offensively bad, just mediocre, like Battlefield Earth and Mission Earth, and thankfully, unlike those colossal 1980s books, Final Blackout is quite short.

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