Literary daybook, Jan. 24

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 24, 2003 9:00AM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 24, 1954, the twins are photographed with Mamie Eisenhower.
-- "I Know This Much Is True" (1998)
By Wally Lamb

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1986 L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology and bestselling sci-fi writer, "discarded the body he had used in his lifetime." Before the Scientology incarnation, Hubbard had a 20-year career writing pulp magazine stories -- adventure, crime, westerns, and then mostly science fiction. In 1982, after decades of church work -- much of it the labor of dodging the FBI, CIA, IRS and reporters -- Hubbard returned to his muse with "Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000." If the numbers are to be believed, it became one of the greatest science-fiction hits of all time -- 6.6 million copies sold says the Battlefield Web site, and third on the Modern Library's Readers' Poll List of 20th century novels (a list with Ayn Rand holding top spot, she and Hubbard holding seven of the top 10 spots). Here, from the very beginning of the saga, is what hooked so many:

"'Man,' said Terl, 'is an endangered species.'
The hairy paws of the Chamco brothers hung suspended above the broad keys of the laser-bash game. The cliffs of Char's eyebones drew down over his yellow orbs as he looked up in mystery. Even the steward, who had been padding quietly about picking up her saucepans, lumbered to a halt and stared.
Terl could not have produced a more profound effect had he thrown a meat-girl naked into the middle of the room ...
In an even more professional voice, already deep and roaring enough, Terl repeated his thought, 'Man is an endangered species.'
Char glowered at him. 'What in the name of diseased crap are you reading?'"

If not the Hubbardites but the apostates and investigative reporters are to be believed, "Battlefield Earth" was a required purchase, and another church scam. If Hubbard himself is to be believed in his introductory essay, the world would have received his thousand-page epic back in the '40s had he not been too busy "studying the branches of man's past knowledge at that time to see whether he had ever come up with anything valid." He had done "some pioneer work in rockets and gasses," was "in rather steady association with the new era of scientists, the boys who built the bomb," and therefore well-placed to be "one of the crew of writers that helped start man to the stars."

Not that "Battlefield Earth" is Hubbard at his most stellar; according to the church Web sites, his greatest accomplishment is the 10-book Mission Earth series, a work that believer-critics find reminiscent of both "the later Henry James" and "the later Charles Dickens," and such "a biting commentary on exactly who is doing what on today's earth" that it is "repeatedly drawing comparisons to the works of Jonathan Swift." Presumably the later Jonathan Swift; possibly that section in "Gulliver's Travels" wherein the mad scientists of Lagado endeavor, among other things, to reconstitute food from excrement.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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