Earlier this year, Simon & Schuster let me narrate and engineer my own audiobook, The Day It Finally Happens: Alien Contact, Dinosaur Parks, Immortal Humans — and Other Possible Phenomena (available now wherever fine audiobooks are sold/downloaded, and also available in ink-and-paper form). First-time authors, I’m told, don’t usually take any interest whatsoever in their audiobooks, but as an audiobook fanatic, I was less than thrilled about the narrators my publisher presented to me.
They were qualified voice actors, but they wouldn’t have imbued the recording with the personality the book demanded (mine). My book is a little hard to pin down. It’s genreless — not quite fiction, and not quite nonfiction, and neither entirely serious, nor meant to be overtly comedic. Nonfiction narrators sounded too professorial to me, and comedy narrators sounded too wacky. As a fan, I knew the version of my book I would want to listen to, and I didn’t see it materializing.
When the audiobook machine is operating efficiently, most audiobook production consists of a lone, overqualified actor thanklessly reciting an author’s words into a microphone over the course of a few days in order to earn a four-figure check. At worst, the actor is perhaps a little miscast, but they’re the lowest bidder, and they have their own equipment. Glaring incongruities are rare — no one in their right mind would hire, say, Gilbert Gottfried to read a history book about Jim Crow — but you might hear nonfiction narrated to sound a bit too much like a Michael Bay movie trailer, or a staid, literary work with way too much Marvel-movie-ish sass in the dialogue delivery.
The audio folks at Simon & Schuster were nice about the whole thing, and they were open to me reading it, but alas, they told me, there wasn’t enough money to rent me a studio. Good news, I told them, I have recording equipment. After some back and forth, and some audio samples, and some discussions of file types and sampling rates, they relented and said I could do it. I’d proven myself qualified, or maybe they just didn’t want to argue with me anymore. Either way, I had won, and I began research on how to make the best audiobook ever.
I was in this mode when I stumbled upon an extraordinary number of user reviews informing me that in 2016, L. Ron Hubbard’s 1982 novel Battlefield Earth was adapted into the best audiobook ever. Initially I read this on Reddit, so I thought it was a fluke. Then I checked the reviews on Audible, and a not insignificant number of people praised it for having the “best audiobook production I’ve ever listened to.” I had my suspicions about these reviewers being shills, but I found reviewers who made it clear that they were connoisseurs like me, which gave them authority. “World War Z and the Alien books were great productions with full casts, but Battlefield Earth was another level. Full orchestra and effects too, all really well done,” one of them wrote.
Still, all this praise did not compute. I knew that upon its release, Battlefield Earth had not been well-received. At 1,050 pages, it’s a giant doorstop of a book, and given that it was the author’s first work of fiction in three decades, the goofy, old-fashioned yarn that it spun was, to put it mildly, out of style. Star Wars had just gone dark with The Empire Strikes Back, and in the book world, Battlefield Earth’s contemporaries included Octavia Butler’s Kindred just before it, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer shortly after. It was also at the center of a scandal upon its release. Bookstore employees noticed that Scientologists had been buying up mass quantities of the book, allegedly in order to keep a promise to the publisher that it was a guaranteed bestseller. Also, L. Ron Hubbard teamed up with his friend and fellow Scientologist, the legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea, to create some sort of jazz opera called Space Jazz to soundtrack the book, which is just weird.
The novel was also the source material for the eponymous 2000 John Travolta movie, which was rumored to have been made as part of some sort of convoluted scam by a celebrity dry cleaner, and went on to become a classic of the so-bad-it’s-good genre.
And yet, in 2016, not only did a group of audio wizards transform Battlefield Earth into a collection of sound waves that justified their punishing 47.5 hour runtime — longer than the audiobooks of Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses — but they created something of actual merit. It’s an audiobook treatment so loving, so thorough, and so expensive that nothing before or since can touch it in terms of quality.
“They wanted to do something really over the top,” Battlefield Earth audiobook director Jim Meskimen told me. The “they” he was referring to is the management at Galaxy Press, a Scientology-affiliated publishing house that exclusively publishes Hubbard’s fiction, which he churned out prodigiously when he was alive (“I was what they called a high-production writer,” Hubbard wrote in the autobiographical prologue to Battlefield Earth). Profits from Galaxy Press go toward Applied Scholastics, a program that creates Scientology-friendly K-12 school curriculum.
Meskimen is a Scientologist, and has worked on audio projects for Galaxy Press for many years, including voice acting and directing work on audio versions of Hubbard’s short stories. He also has a moderately famous face because he’s a world-class impressionist and comedian. You might have even seen him on TV and in viral videos (also, his mom was on Happy Days). He is also a massive fan of Battlefield Earth. “I had read it first in the ’80s, and I would read it every year or so, or maybe every couple of years,” he told me.
The novel itself isn’t deep, but it’s fast-paced and eventful. Without any Scientology baggage, it would probably rank somewhere in the middle on the list of ambitious sci-fi stories — somewhere between William Shatner’s TekWar novels and TV’s Babylon 5, maybe. But as an audiobook, it turns into a rich and rewarding experience in which 65 actors give every character a unique voice. Where other audiobooks are content to goose your emotions at a few choice moments with occasional sounds and a smattering of music, Battlefield Earth is a complete two-day movie for your ears.
According to Jim Meskimen, Galaxy didn’t want a repeat of the earlier Battlefield Earth audiobook. There was an abridged, undramatized audiobook of Battlefield Earth floating around somewhere, which fits on just six audio cassettes and is narrated by Roddy McDowall, a.k.a., Cornelius from the original Planet of the Apes (appropriately enough, for reasons I’ll get to in a second). “I love that performance,” Meskimen told me, but as for the abridgement, “They did a crappy job,” he said. “They just left out massive chunks of the story.”
In fact, most of the fun books on tape were abridged back then. They were a novelty product, to be used as the basis for a middle school book report at great peril. On some level, it felt like dramatized audiobooks were for dum-dums. That’s all different today. Audiobook creators have what veteran audiobook narrator, producer, and director Paula Parker calls “a nice strong piece of the publishing pie now.” They’re on the verge of being a billion-dollar industry, achieving 25 percent year-on-year growth since 2017.
Alongside that prestige, consumers have demanded higher quality products, said Parker, who recently directed the extremely classy full cast recording of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. “I’ve done this for nearly 25 years,” Parker said. “Back in the day, mostly it was abridgments until the listenership [demanded], ‘No more abridgments! No more! I want to hear every word!’”
By 2016, Galaxy had honed its audiobook chops adapting Hubbard’s other fiction, and for Battlefield Earth, the publisher decided to go all-out. “It wasn’t that money was no object or anything like that,” Meskimen told me. “But at the same time, everybody [involved] had the understanding that [Galaxy] wanted this to be really special.” According to Meskimen, Battlefield Earth was recorded at the luxurious, Scientology-owned Mad Hatter studios located in Silver Lake. “It was Chick Corea’s old recording studio, so it was quite nice,” he told me. The Battlefield Earth cast included sci-fi narrator extraordinaire Stefan Rudnicki, as well as Nancy Cartwright, who you might recognize as the voice of Bart Simpson, and Michael Gough, a.k.a. the guy who plays Shrek in the Shrek video games; Meskimen, a vocal chameleon, fills in many of the smaller roles himself. Meals were provided for the actors, as well as “the best coffee of their lives.” [Emphasis Meskimen’s]. There were six to 10 people in the recording studio at any given time, he said, and he worked an average of 12 hours a day. It took nine months to record the whole thing.
The Battlefield Earth audiobook, with its full cast, its foley work, and its hours and hours of original music, is the fulfillment of something audiobook superfans have imagined might eventually come along, but which never quite happened. It would be wrong to say it has all the bells and whistles. Better to say it has none of the sacrifices. It’s a proof of concept for a type of blockbuster audio storytelling that didn’t exist before, and a template for future producers and directors to use as a guide — but only if they’ll actually acquire and listen to, well, Battlefield Earth.
I’m not saying the Battlefield Earth audiobook is a sui generis work, however. Multi-hour full-cast audio dramas are nothing new. In 1978, before it was ever a book, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a series of BBC radio plays with full casts. And in the ’80s, NPR made the Star Wars movies into a series of audio dramas. These were all available in pricey boxed sets when I was a kid, and were known as “books on tape,” even though the term wasn’t quite accurate.
When it comes to recordings like these, there’s always the sticky matter of whether the book on tape was actually the book to begin with, or if it was an adaptation — a sort of altered radio drama with the same name as the book. You don’t have to change much to arguably damage the audiobook’s status as an authentic rendering of the book.
The best illustration of this dilemma, the audiobook director Paula Parker explained, is something called “assignation,” the term which refers to phrases like, “she said.” In a dramatized recording like the BBC’s legendary Lord of the Rings radio play, the narrator disappears during dialogue scenes, and it becomes more like an audio drama. To be an audio-book, the narrator constantly has to pipe in during dialogue. “That’s a nightmare to edit, as you can imagine,” she said.
Battlefield Earth’s assignations float in and out without ever causing confusion or dissonance, making it both a true reading of the book and a true dramatized recording at the same time. But this means Meskimen had to find ingenious workarounds, such as mixing in necessary snippets of narrated dialogue in ways that signal clearly that they’re not what Hubbard wrote. So for instance, the narrator might read the sentence “Jonnie told her it was fine,” and underneath the narrator’s voice, the actor who plays Jonnie will say “it’s fine,” low in the mix. The drama is unbroken, but neither is the integrity of the book.
Other sections of the book fix common problems that never fail to fit awkwardly into audiobooks. For instance, if the book refers to original music — like, say, a spontaneous celebratory dance tune played by a squadron of bagpipes (yes really) — you get that in your ears, instead of either A) nothing, or B) some chintzy synth music composed in five minutes by an audiobook producer. Even more impressive: in most audiobooks if a singer sings a song, all you get is a narrator reading the lyrics. If Battlefield Earth calls for a pop song, Meskimen and crew recorded the damn pop song.
Discerning listeners might question whether or not Battlefield Earth uses sound effects perfectly. For instance, speaking for myself, when the narration calls for a kiss, I don’t especially want to hear a kiss. Same goes for food in someone’s mouth, which is plentiful in Battlefield Earth. But none of these downsides even come close to the problems of the notoriously weird sound mix for Stephen King’s Insomnia. And there are undeniable strokes of brilliance in Battlefield Earth’s effects work as well, like when characters shift their weight around a room, and their presence is both heard and felt. This sort of thing matters in Battlefield Earth, because much of the time the characters in a scene are normal-sized humans talking to half-ton space aliens — and one never forgets this while listening. The bellow of massive alien vocal cords helps sell the contrast as well.
I must now tell you what Battlefield Earth is actually about, and I’ll make it quick. It’s a little like the world’s longest Saturday matinee movie from the ’60s. To be more specific, it’s like a very very long version of Planet of the Apes. Just like in Planet of the Apes, humans at the start of Battlefield Earth have been reduced to a primitive state, wear loincloths, and live out in the wild, but instead of apes, humanity has been dethroned by invading aliens called Psychlos who have turned Earth into a minor mining colony in a vast empire. The protagonist is a human named (I’m sorry) Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, and he’s very much like the Charlton Heston character in Planet of the Apes. Jonnie seeks to save humanity by leading a prolonged war against the Psychlos, who are repeatedly shocked that a measly human is capable of using things like tools, or language, or eventually, nuclear bombs, just like in Planet of the Apes. As you may have guessed, my hypothesis is that L. Ron Hubbard got the idea for Battlefield Earth from the Planet of the Apes movies, with a large helping of Dune toward the end, as the titular battle takes on interplanetary dimensions.
But the departures from its (probable) source material are where Battlefield Earth excels. The world-building is pretty in-depth, involving more alien invaders than just the Pscyhlos. Also, a long section toward the beginning of the book about Jonnie’s rapid transformation from caveman, to hi-tech gold prospector, to supersoldier is the point where the book really comes alive. But it’s the Psychlos that make the whole thing fun, particularly the main Psychlo, Terl, an extremely entertaining riff on B-movie villains.
Battlefield Earth’s Terl is a giant, evil monster who believes himself to be a cunning master manipulator in the mold of Vladimir Harkonnen from Dune, but whose plans are, always and without exception, self-evidently stupid and destined to fail catastrophically (think Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski, but with fur). Terl never learns from his mistakes, and, since he equates paranoia and sadism with wisdom and guile, he never once questions his skills as a tactician, and always believes his failures are the fault of others. Whether L. Ron Hubbard intended the villain of his book to be read this way is, sadly, a secret he took with him to the grave.
The book also has many of the sketchy social and political implications of most mid-20th century science fiction (It’s from the ’80s, but it’s very much stuck in the ’50s and ’60s). And it proselytizes a tiny bit, because Hubbard apparently couldn’t help himself — it’s pretty much spelled out that Pychlos are named after psychologists, and L. Ron Hubbard’s antipathy toward mainstream psychotherapy plays a role in the story. You’d think that a person imaginative and ambitious enough to invent their own religion and then take time away from running that religion to write a thousand-page science fiction opus would have taken pains to ensure that their book reflected that same imagination and ambition, but it seems that Hubbard could only make a thinly veiled version of what he really believed.
If you only compare the release of Battlefield Earth the audiobook to the scandals and laughter that greeted the release of Battlefield Earth the novel and Battlefield Earth the movie, it’s been a resounding success, but that’s not saying much. It won an award at the Audies (the audiobook Oscars) for its marketing, but Galaxy’s marketing message didn’t find its way to my receptive ears until about 18 months after the release — and as an audiobook fan with an interest in science fiction, I’m sort of the target audience.
“It’s not that it's gone unnoticed,” Meskimen told me of the audiobook. “If they have to drive long distances, truckers listen to this.” Success in the audiobook world is different from movies, or even regular books. The Audie Awards aren’t televised, or — and this is somewhat puzzling — available as an Audible download. The only audiobook marketing tools I’m cognizant of are the recommendation engines at Amazon and Audible.com. To my knowledge those are literally the only ways, apart from word of mouth, to find out about new audiobooks.
But Meskimen says he wanted to make the audiobook memorable, not to make a big immediate impact, but for the long haul. “This is for the next 50 years,” he said. “This is for people who are going to pick it up in whatever form of technology it’s available in in the future, and they’ll be able to experience this.”
“It’s there waiting for people,” Meskimen said.