Monday, 26 June 2017

I read it so you don’t have to: Black Genesis

In the 64-year history of the Hugo Awards, about 300 novels have been on the shortlist. Not all of them have been great, and some have been risible. But there is no book other than Black Genesis whose inclusion is as contemptible.
The cover might offer
a clue as to some of the
racial attitudes within.
(Image via

Black Genesis by L. Ron Hubbard made it onto the Hugo Shortlist in 1987 under dubious circumstances. According to those who were involved in Conspiracy '87 (where the awards were handed out), a majority of the book’s nominating ballots were photocopies and were submitted by people who had no prior involvement with Worldcon, and who did not turn up in person for the event. 

But even if the tactics were questionable, and even if it was an unworthy book, the rules are the rules, so its nomination stands. Mr. Hubbard is immortalized as a Hugo-nominated author.

If there had to be a major push to get Hubbard a posthumous nomination, it beggars belief that Black Genesis would be the vehicle through which they chose to do so.

Not His Best Book

Hubbard was once capable of writing an engaging, entertaining fast-paced action novel. To The Stars shows his basic competence as a writer of adventure stories. Final Blackout is actually pretty good, despite fascistic themes. Battlefield Earth is silly, but surprisingly fun.
Hubbard was capable of
writing, even if some of
his books were fascistic.
(Image via

Few of these works would have necessarily warranted a Hugo nomination, but none of them would have been an insult to the nomination process. The same cannot be said about Black Genesis.  

To fully appreciate the scope of Black Genesis’ failings, one has to experience it as the second part in the 10-part Mission Earth series. The first volume (The Invaders Plan) sets up antihero protagonist Soltan Gris as the sidekick to a noble, incorruptible übermench Jettero Heller, as they are sent to Earth to prevent humanity from wiping itself out so that 50 years from now the Voltarian Empire they serve can conquer the planet.

Unbeknownst to Heller, Gris is part of the Voltarian secret police, and for arcane and labyrinthine reasons he is trying to undermine Heller.

That first (615-page) book consists of nothing but these two characters planning and outfitting their mission. Hugo-nominated novel Black Genesis starts with the pair of them arriving on Earth and beginning to set their respective schemes in motion.

Unpleasant Antihero

Gris is one of the most deeply unpleasant protagonists in all of science fiction. This is clearly intentional, since Hubbard is ham-handed in his efforts to make Gris seem like a jerk. But the intentionality does nothing to mitigate how little fun it is to read Gris’ whinging internal narrative.

L. Ron Hubbard composed a soundtrack
to the 10-volume Mission Earth series.
The official album, performed by
Edgar Winter can be listened to here.
(Image via 
Given the author’s well-known aversion to psychiatry, it will not astonish anyone that one of the primary antagonists of the book is a psychiatrist, and given his dislike of government, the depiction of the Voltarian Empire’s bureaucracy as hopelessly inept seems inevitable.

What is more surprising is the deep-seated racism, the simmering sexism, and virulent anti-gay attitudes on display. Some of this is framed as ‘satire’ or ‘social commentary.’ But if it is either of these things, it does not work.

Beyond Hubbard’s deeply unpleasant political beliefs are the underlying structural issues that undermine this bloated novel.

Often the middle part of a trilogy fails to advance the overall plot because the dénouement has to wait until the concluding book. In the case of this 10-volume series, it’s clear by the second book that nothing significant will happen until several more tomes are complete.  

Contrived and Meandering

If you like Black Genesis, there are nine
more volumes for you to read. 
So Gris and Heller spend this book (and the next) in a series of contrived happenstances that exist only as mild annoyances and opportunities for Hubbard to proselytize. The plot meanders and wanders from one example of how awful, incompetent and venal Gris is to the next, without actually advancing the character’s supposed long-term goals.

It is deeply unfortunate that this book was on the Hugo shortlist, both on a moral and on an artistic level. That being said, it does put into perspective the relative quality some other lesser nominees, and makes us appreciate their merits.

Black Genesis placed sixth out of five nominees in 1987, losing to Orson Scott Card’s Speaker For The Dead, and finishing behind ‘no award.’ It was a deserved loss.

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