Friday, December 2, 2016

Mission Update

It's been two weeks since the last post, so as you probably might have guessed, this blog is going to go quiet for a while.  At this point I don't think there's much left to say about Hubbard... or at least about his writings, there's still books to be written on what was wrong with the man and how much harm he did.  But for now, I'm out of material, and don't think anything else from Hubbard's bibliography is going to tell us anything we haven't learned by now.  On the upside, this means we end our exploration of the writings of L. Ron Hubbard on a definite high note.

I'm not sure how long this quiet will last and what I'll be sporking in the future.  I'd probably have to break out of my Hubbard rut and move on to other authors, as scandalous as that thought may be.  If things change, I'll certainly make a note that things are moving again.

Until then, thank you very much for reading!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Hubbard's Finest Hour

We've examined a lot of dead trees in this blog, from the horrors of Mission Earth to the myopic morality of Ole Doc Methuselah, from the mediocrity of Buckskin Brigades to the flashes of competence in Fear and Slaves of Sleep.  We've looked at L. Ron Hubbard's very first novel and his very last work, and sampled his offerings from the Golden Age of Pulp Fiction.  And it's safe to say that Typewriter in the Sky is Hubbard's best story, something marked not just by an absence of flaws, but also with actual strengths and achievements.

Which means Hubbard peaked in 1940, sadly.

Typewriter in the Sky works because it takes something that's been done to death - the bog-standard pulp pirate story - and turns it on its head, lets us look at it from new perspectives.  We get glimpses of the writing process behind such stories during those chapters where Hackett is arguing with his editor, or discussing the writing process with a fellow author.  More significantly, within the narrative we're viewing it from the perspective of someone designated the story's villain, and so get see what it's like to have to play defense while the hero is out there somewhere preparing to ruin everything, how it feels to try to thwart someone the universe seems to be bending over backwards to help win.  It's everything Mission Earth wasn't because Mike is actually trying to oppose Bristol, and more importantly isn't a disgusting piece of brainless garbage like Soltan Gris - instead our antagonist is a likeable, normal guy who was forced to play a role by forces beyond his control and tries to do as much good as he can in a bad situation.

In the process, we get an atypical look at a typical pulp story protagonist.  It's hard to find anything heroic about Bristol - he's a pirate driven by rage and vengeance, with as much depth to him as a bloodstain on a sidewalk, someone who wins against impossible odds because the universe revolves around him.  In any other Hubbard story he'd be presented as a hero, but since this tale follows Mike de Wolf, we get a less biased account and so see just how frankly unpleasant all the Bristols and Yellow Hairs and whatnot really are.  By which I mean here Hubbard is actually acknowledging that the "hero" is a scowling murder machine wrapped in a thick layer of plot armor.

And even though we and Mike both know that Bristol is more or less fated to win, what would be boring if the story was following Bristol instead becomes exciting because we're instead following Mike.  Because we like Mike, and we want him to somehow prevail.  We see him fight to change the course of the plot and even succeed here and there, only for his victories to be cruelly snatched away with the sound of tearing paper.  So not only is there some real tension since there's no guarantee that the main character will survive, much less win, the fact that Mike is all but fated to lose means there's a sense of tragedy as the story enters the final chapters.

It's not quite a classical Greek tragedy where a fundamentally flawed figure like Oedipus or Jason is being set up for a fall by the gods as punishment for their hubris, since again Mike is basically a nice guy stuck playing a villain.  And it's not quite as bleak as the old Norse waiting for Ragnarok while knowing that even the gods were fated to die, since there is at least a sliver of hope that Hackett might change his mind and give Mike some measure of victory.  But it's a grim and fatalistic mood that makes Mike's initial success against the pirate fleet in the story's climax all the more satisfying, and his subsequent loss all the harder.

Contrast this again to Mission Earth, where none of us believed it when Gris "won" at any point, his defeat was both inevitable and too long in coming, and the only reason we rooted for Heller was because he was merely obnoxious instead of a sex offender.

Typewriter does have its problems, of course.  The way Mike ended up in a story is a bit silly, and the mechanics of how time progresses and events unfold within the story and while its author is writing it are a bit wonky, though these are hardly crippling defects.  More troubling are the moral questions raised by an author's ability to create and subsequently destroy whole worlds full of characters that Mike swears are real, which implies that any third-rate writer is unknowingly both a god and a mass murderer.  Which isn't to say that Hackett doesn't revel in the almost-divine power he wields as a creator of fiction... and I bet you could work those sentiments, even if they aren't expressed by Hubbard's actual author avatar René Lafayette, into an examination of the mindset of someone who later founded a cult tax dodge perfectly legitimate religion.

At any rate, Hubbard probably did this to give more weight to the events happening within "Blood and Loot," so we treated the character deaths as gravely as we did those in less metafictional stories.  But this does run the risk of instead distracting the reader with worries that maybe authors should stop writing fiction altogether to save the lives of all those temporary but real beings they're killing for the sake of drama.  Or killing and re-killing in the case of poor Captain Fernando... which actually undermines Hubbard's point that these deaths are meaningful if they can be so easily rewritten.

But again, these flaws don't ruin the story.  Instead Typewriter in the Sky's biggest issue is where it falls in Hubbard's bibliography.  It's a story based around a fresh idea that deconstructs several industry standards and features engaging characters and an interesting plot - and it comes smack in the middle of Hubbard's pulp fiction phase.  Final Blackout came out just a few months before it, "The Slaver" and "Space Can" were published just two years later.  And as I've said, this story does everything right with the "villain as main character" conceit that Mission Earth did wrong, yet was written first.

And that's the big question this book raises - how can Hubbard write it and immediately go back to churning out schlock?

Typewriter in the Sky proves he can be creative, even groundbreaking, if you buy the hype in the book's blurbs and introduction.  The chapters with Hackett and Mike's commentary show that Hubbard is in fact aware of how formulaic and predictable these sorts of pulp stories are, and the book as a whole shows he can shake up that formula and do something interesting with it.  So why didn't he do more stories like this, metafictional pieces that skewer and deconstruct a literary genre even while having fun with it?  And more importantly, why didn't he learn from this experience?

Well, I guess he learned some things from it.  "The Last Drop" was a weird little story, "The Great Secret" was pretty far removed from the old formula.  The Ole Doc Methuselah stories were... formulaic in a different way, at least, even if the main character was an ass.  But none of these subsequent offerings were exactly good literature, and then came Masters of Sleep to herald the kind of author Hubbard was becoming.  So Hubbard's brush with good literature in Typewriter in the Sky at best changed the ways his other books sucked, and he forgot some of its most important lessons by the end of his career when he unleashed Mission Earth on an audience that probably didn't deserve it.

I can't offer much of an explanation for this, only speculation.  Maybe he just didn't see the flaws in his later stories and assumed he had grown out of his pre-Typewriter shortcomings.  Maybe he liked simple tales with simple heroes who always defeated simple villains more than he did writing about writing itself.  Maybe someone else wrote Typewriter and Hubbard hid the body somewhere in the Mojave.  Maybe it didn't sell enough for him to think doing more works like it was worthwhile.

So we can only wonder what could've been, what Hubbard's career would have been like if Typewriter in the Sky had been a launching point instead of a momentarily flare of brilliance, what kind of satirical takes on popular entertainment he might have penned instead of the "satire" of Mission Earth.  He probably wouldn't have been as prolific, but he also might have been known as someone who stood out from his peers and did things differently instead of being another example from the Golden Age of Pulp Literature.  Maybe the critical thinking skills he developed through this sort of work may have changed some of his opinions and behavior in his later life.

It's tragic, really.  Without Typewriter in the Sky, Hubbard's just an uninspired writer who got a little better, then considerably worse, over the course of his career.  With it - and taking into account parts of Fear and Slaves of Sleep - we can see him as someone who could have been so much more, who might have been a decent, even great writer.  All the ingredients were there, he clearly knew what he was doing wrong and how he could do things better, but...

Well, we've seen what he did instead.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen - At the End of All Things

It's hard to say when the battle ended, given the sun's unsteady progress through the sky, but when we rejoin Mike it's close to midnight.  He's managed to drag himself out of the sea and up the hill overlooking Nombre de Dios.  The town itself lays in "smoldering ruins" after being ruthlessly sacked by the murderous pirates, and in the process of slipping past it, Mike figured out why the coastal defenses switched sides - "Bristol had landed a force to take them from the fortified rear while the Spanish fleet was sucked into the trap from the sea."  Have to say, that sounds like what a Hubbard Protagonist would do in this sort of situation.

So everything's gone horribly wrong, what should have been a no-brainer victory has instead turned into a crushing, catastrophic defeat... and I guess Mike just lost a naval battle too.  Anyway, Mike figures he's off-script now, he can't hear the typewriter clacking above him.  I'm not sure about that, though - the typewriter seemed to approve of him going into the water at the end of the last chapter, and while the narration claims that Mike crawled onto the shore "only because of his own endeavor," well...  I guess it depends on how bad a writer you think Hackett is, if he's the sort to end the final encounter between the hero and villain in an anticlimax where the bad guy falls overboard without so much as crossing swords with the hero, or if he's the slightly less bad sort of writer who would do that just to have the villain reappear one last time in a "shocking" end-of-book twist before being defeated for good and in a more satisfying manner.

As far as Mike can tell the story is over - which isn't to say that the pirates aren't busy sacking the town and debauching themselves.   More to the point, the minor characters Mike's been living with for the past months are all dead, and he's lost the affections of the Lady Marion after all the progress he made with her was so cruelly retconned.  But he's still alive, he's still got his sword, and he still has all the skills that made him an effective antagonist, so Mike's headed towards his villa to pay its new owner a visit.

Now, we might question this, ask why Mike is persisting, maybe speculate that he's been consumed by the role he fell into.  But what else can he do in this sort of situation?  Electricity won't be invented for another couple of centuries, the same with indoor plumbing.  He's stuck in this crappy pirate story, so he might as well play his part to the very end.  Plus by now he has a very legitimate reason to hate Bristol.

There's a sentry out front, sprawled on the ground drunk, so Mike helps himself to a pistol and kicks the manor's door in.  This quite ruins Bristol and Lady Marion's romantic candlelit dinner, as you might imagine, and they both shoot to their feet in astonishment.

"Gog's wounds!  Who's this?"

"I'm Mike de Wolf.  The fellow you call Miguel St. Raoul de Lobo.  Can it be," he added with sarcasm which had become habitual, "that I am not welcome in my own house?"

"Damme!" said Bristol.  "Ye're a ghost!"

"No, m'lad," said Mike.  "It's you that are a ghost!"

Meh.  See what you're going for, Mike, but you'll have to do better than 'no, you!' to impress me.

Lady Marion was white as she looked from Mike to Bristol.

"But ye're dead!" said Bristol.  "With my own eyes I saw it!"

No, you saw him fall into the water and assumed he was dead... interesting, Bristol is the story-within-a-story's hero, but he's acting about as intelligent as a typical Hubbard Villain.

"You've got the same eyes now," said Mike.


"But why - have you come back?" said Bristol.

"To kill you," said Mike.

It had no great effect upon Bristol.  He had led a charmed life for so long that he was afraid of nothing.  He reached towards his rapier which lay on the arms of a chair beside the wall.

You can just imagine how this would read if it was following Bristol's point of view, how it would say that he was utterly fearless and confident and inspired to fight for his beloved and yadda yadda.  It's refreshing for Hubbard to admit that this hero has no reason to be afraid because this world goes out of the way to make him win.

Mike's first instinct is to just shoot Bristol then and there.  Mike may be the very best character to appear in any Hubbard story.  But though he "ached" to do the smart and straightforward thing, he also doesn't want to upset the Lady Marion, so even though he's exhausted and not in shape for a duel, he says he doesn't want to fight before a woman and invites Bristol onto the front porch to murder each other like civilized people.

So the protagonist and antagonist step outside for the final battle.  But first, Mike, "humanly prey to jealousy," asks how glad Marion was to see Bristol again, and surmises that he asked her to marry him.

"So I did," said Bristol.

"And she accepted," said Mike, "and then, amid a very touching scene, she said she could see you marching in triumph through the streets of London with your name on every lip and that at last she had found a man brave enough to command her humbleness and that she would be content to spend the remainder of her life worshipping you.  And then she kissed you."

"Of course," said Bristol.  "But - how did you know?"

"There's a lot I know."

Ah, so close, Mike.  At this point you might as well tell Bristol the truth, that he's the designated hero of a shallow and poorly-written adventure story whose every success is due to contrivance and the mandates of a dull and predictable plot.  Then when he's having an existential crisis you can shoot him in the face.

It's set up to be a standard swordfight, with the oddity that Bristol first removes his boots, "the better to grip the floor with his feet."  They make their last boasts about killing the other, Bristol shouts "Guard!" and lunges, the rapiers clash...

Well, this music is certainly appropriate.  It even fits the scene in this book, too.

Mike shakes from the impact of Bristol's attack before realizing it's not just him, the whole world is violently quaking.  Lightning splits the sky, thunder roars so loudly that it "seemed capable of tearing Mike apart."  And in a terrible crash the front porch collapses upon Bristol the buccaneer and that nameless and incompetent door guard.

Huh.  Almost an anticlimactic as "de Lobo" getting offed by falling overboard.

There's no time to exult in this unearned victory, Mike hears cries of distress and sees Marion at the door trying to force her way past the debris.  He drags her out and tells her to come along, and even though Mike's still the villain as far as she knows, she's weeping in terror and complies.  They can't make any progress, though, between the torrential rains and violent earthquakes they can't even stay upright.  The best the two can do is cling to each other.

A terrified Marion asks what's going on, and Mike insists that it's nothing but an earthquake and a storm.  But let's stop to think about this - this weather probably isn't part of the book's ending, right?  The typewriter stopped, and this isn't the sort of story-within-a-story where the triumphant final battle is followed by a sudden natural disaster that kills the protagonist.  So my guess is that this cataclysm is the result of either Mike trying to change things too far... or this is just what happens to a literary universe after the author types The End and sends the manuscript off to the editor.  Which is kind of depressing.

At any rate, I think it should be more than a storm and earthquake, something incredible and apocalyptic - the seas draining away, the stars falling from the sky, the horizon being swallowed by a void that grows swiftly and terrifyingly closer.  Or maybe something less disastrous but no less final, like an unnatural stillness when everything in the concluded narrative comes to an eternal stop.

But that might be too much for Hubbard, and we should really just be happy that the story we've had is so not-awful.  Mike reveals that Bristol is dead but that he didn't kill him, then has to ask an important question.

"Yes.  Marion, look at me.  Have you no memory of loving me?  Have you no thought of all the months we were together?  You were happy with me-"

"Mike!  Hold me!  Hold me, Mike!  I'm frightened!"

He held her close to him.

I guess that's a 'yes, unless she remembers how 'Miguel' introduced himself when he made his entrance minutes ago.  So hurray, in literally the last moments of this world, Mike got his girl back.  Just in time for a tree to topple directly towards them, prompting him to try to shield her body with his own.  But then with one last earthquake the tree vanishes, the storm around them vanishes, and finally Marion vanishes.

And then, in the next and final chapter, Mike is lying on a street while a cab driver asks if he's alright and needs a ride home.  Mike pushes himself upright and steadies himself against a streetlamp and insists he's fine, notices from the cab's license plate that it's the same year he remembers before ending up in a pulp novel, and when he asks the cabbie he's relieved the hear he's in "N'Yawk."  So Mike decides to walk on home.

At this point you might be tempted to wonder how Mike wound up back in the world he's originally from without the benefits of an electrical short in a bathroom, and why he ended up on a street instead of his point of departure.  Don't.

Mike thinks as he walks, about how glad he is to be back, how he'll have another try at joining the Philharmonic, and of course he'll see all his author friends again like LaFayette and Winchester and Hackett.  Mike almost considers telling Hackett about his ordeal in an attempt to prevent anything like it from happening again, but decides against it - not because he's afraid of being sent to an asylum, I guess Hubbard hasn't developed his proper hate-on for psychiatry yet, but because it would cause "Hackett's already gigantic opinion of himself" to "probably expand beyond endurable limits," since the guy always likes to prattle on about "the powers of an author."

No mention of warning Hackett that every time he writes a story, he's creating living, breathing people who bleed and die horribly as the plot demands, and once the story is over they're all consumed by a catastrophic storm and earthquake before disappearing into nothingness.  Huh.

Mike tries to keep his thoughts clear of a certain subject, but can't avoid it forever, and has to face the fact that "He had lost her," and will never see her again.  It's a thought so horrible that he has to stop and lean against a wall for a moment, until an uncaring policeman orders him to move along.  It's a moment, I think, that would be more effective if Mike referred to "her" by her actual name.

So he walks along, bitter and angry with the world he just left and the world he's back in, and the cruelties of fate.

Ah, yes.  The fate.  It was his luck to meet somebody in a story and then return without her.  It was his luck.  But you couldn't expect the breaks all the time.  You couldn't ask luck to run your way forever.  He had had her for a little while, in a land ruled by a typewriter in the clouds.  And now he was out of that and there was no type-

And now, the punchline.

Abruptly Mike de Wolf stopped.  His jaw slacked a trifle and his hand went up to his mouth to cover it.  His eyes were fixed upon the fleecy clouds which scurried across the moon.

Up there--


In a dirty bathrobe?

At first I thought Hubbard was implying that capital-G God is another slob writing the sad story of our world in his pajamas, but the intention is probably that Mike has somehow realized that he's escaped one story but is still just a character in another, and is looking up at L. Ron himself from the business end of a typewriter.

And since that's the end of Mike's story, presumably this version of N'Yawk and everyone in it are then swallowed up in a hellish storm before being consigned to the darkness beyond the last page of the book.

Good night, everybody!

Back to Chapter Twelve

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Twelve - Gang Aft Agley

I never thought I'd prefer to immerse myself in an L. Ron Hubbard story instead of checking the news, but here we are.

Dawn cracked like the firing of a pistol and there was the sun, just up over the eastern horizon, a great scarlet ball which sent ribbons of flame quivering across the zenith.  The sea was smooth and though this hour in these waters should have had no wind, there was wind, about twenty miles of it, quite sufficient to send prows knifing and foaming.  But no ships were moving.

This is the unnatural stillness that comes from the author not quite understanding how ships work instead of the unnatural stillness that comes because the author hasn't started typing yet, it looks like.  Mike is still able to act normally, and takes a moment to size up the opposition through a telescope.  The pirate fleet is outnumbered two-to-one, especially since the Spanish fleet has somehow jumped from twenty to fifty ships since Mike led it out of port.  Another oddity is that it looks like Bristol's using the Fleetfoot as his flagship, the very vessel Mike stole when he escaped St. Kitts, but at this point Mike is so jaded that he doesn't give this a second thought.  And of course all the pirate ships are "rigged square without a lateen showing on any stick," which... are words that presumably mean something to someone who knows more about sailing than I do.  I actually miss that glossary at the end of Masters of Sleep, unreliable as it was.

In the space of a paragraph break the ships suddenly start moving, and as the fleets close, Mike orders a serpentine (a light cannon, I learned this from Medieval II Total War) to fire to gauge the range.  This is followed by a shot from a basilisk that brings down the foremast of the enemy flagship, and so Mike gives the command to fire at will.  Signal flags are hoisted, the Spanish ships start taking potshots that the privateers can't answer, and then the enemy is in range for a broadside.

"Fire!" said Mike.

On fifty ships battery captains loped from fore bulkhead to aft, chopping down a hand as each gun was passed.  If they had all been fired at once, the gunwales would not have stood the strain.  And so their flame and fury lasted down the length of the vessel for half a minute, lasting over the fleet for nearly three minutes and hiding all the gilt and all the flags completely in a fog.

And so the battle begins, which is to say that the Spanish give the English pirates a bruising that the sea dogs can't answer.  But there's something to note during all of this - Mike isn't doing much thinking or reflection now, he's just giving orders in between descriptions of the action.  I'm not sure whether Hubbard is doing this out of habit or to make a point about how Mike's character is determining his actions, but it's a bit strange to go from Mike spending big paragraphs noticing all the weirdness in the situation to just saying lines of dialogue.

Mike gives the order to "Wear ship," turning away from the enemy and traveling inside the clouds of your own gunsmoke while you reload, so when you turn back and come into full view you'll be ready to fire again.  He cycles through this tactic again and again, but eventually the enemy gets in range of their own weapons and begins to fire back.  Mike paces about giving his men orders, deafened from the roar of cannons and mostly blind from smoke, but despite these distractions he still has time to notice that even though the fighting has gone on for an hour, the sun hasn't moved in the sky.

And then he breaks character to have a little freakout.  One minute Mike is playing his role as the almirante, the next a round of chain shot comes scything through the air and turns poor Captain Fernando "into two chunks and his feet were still stepped back to brace as shoulders and head were squashed against the helm, spattering the quartermasters."

You know what, I'm disappointed Fernando didn't die repeatedly over the course of the book in increasingly outlandish ways as Hackett rewrote the story again and again.  But I guess one revision was the most we could expect from the guy.

Anyway, this surprisingly sudden and violent death is enough to make Mike queasy and take in the mangled wreckage and bodies on the ship's deck, the screams of the wounded and dying, the blood running into the scuppers, whatever those are, I think they're like gutters for boats?  He tries to remind himself that this is all in the hands of one Horace Hackett, but that doesn't steady his nerves, so instead he focuses on the immediate cause of his trouble - Bristol the pirate.  And that does it, the power of his hatred for his designated enemy lets Mike embrace his role, angrily giving the orders to continue the fight.  Maybe this is something you have to do if you've been dropped into a pulp novel.  Maybe this is something soldiers have to do to get through a battle outside of pulp novels.

Mike has his vessel savage Bristol's flagship, crossing its T and circling around to give it a vicious broadside that reduces it to a floating ruin.  The other Spanish ships imitate the maneuver, and soon the two lines of warships have moved past each other.  Mike's down twenty ships, and gives orders for some of his vessels to rescue survivors before the wrecks finish sinking, and then it's time to turn around and pursue the English pirates and trap them between the Spanish fleet and the guns of Nombre de Dios.

And I'm not complaining much, am I?  I've grumbled about the author's use of naval terminology he doesn't define for us, but there's nothing fundamentally wrong with this chapter.  It's a decent enough naval battle that doesn't get totally bogged down in nautical jargon, and unlike the climaxes of every other Hubbard story that comes to mind, it's actually... I'm not sure if it's exciting, but it's certainly more interesting than watching Heller fight a bad guy.  Because we don't know what's going to happen, we know that Mike is seemingly fated to lose as per literary convention, but we've also seen him try to defy this fate, so the outcome is still up in the air.  And we're rooting for this character, he's likeable, and an underdog, instead of the typical Hubbard protagonist who only has disadvantages to make his inevitable victory all the more incredible.

Mike himself has to suppress a surge of optimism as everything goes according to plan, because he knows "There was decidedly something very spooky about this action.  He was winning it!"  And it's not just because Hackett has forgotten the sun so it's still just over the horizon and turning the sea red in some accidental symbolism.

And then, suddenly, the sun leaped up the sky and in the blink of an eye was at the zenith!

The sailing-master didn't think that was odd, either.

When Mike pointed out to Trombo that there were nearly as many English ships left in action as there had been at the beginning, even though half the English fleet had been sunk, Trombo shrugged and muttered something about the will of God.

Again, this is cute if you don't think about it and try to work out whether Hackett is belatedly mentioning the sun's position or actually going back and rewriting this chapter, which would raise questions of how Mike was able to experience these sudden revisions to the world around him.

So the mysteriously not-battered English are sailing right into the town's coastal defenses, the Spanish are chasing them, the nameless Spanish sailors are all enjoying themselves and convinced that they're herding their enemies to their doom, while Mike is still feeling like something is wrong but holding out hope that "maybe Horace had a stroke."

And that's the scary thing about hope, isn't it?  You cling to it when things seem bad, or even when things seem good and you're frightened that the unthinkable might happen anyway.  But when that hope gets snatched away from you, when your worst fears are realized, when you watch that light dwindle and get snuffed out, the darkness that comes in its place is even deeper and bleaker.

The fleeing privateers finally get in range of Nombre de Dios' cannons, but the guns don't fire.  Mike bellows orders and gives signal flags to no effect, so he instead tells his fleet to continue the pursuit.  And then the guns fire, upon the Spanish fleet.  The Spaniards are so stunned that they spend a moment floating there getting shot to pieces, and when they finally try to act the wind suddenly picks up and keeps them from fleeing out of range.  Suddenly the privateers are attacking again, blasting the Spanish at close range before boarding the surviving ships.  In all of a page, the battle is turned on its head, and Mike is face-to-face with his nemesis, the dread pirate Bristol.

Mike stood amid the ruins of his quarterdeck and toppled mizzen and beheld the devil swoop upon him.  This, then, was the end.  This was the part where Bristol ran him through for a dirty spick and fed his corpse to the sharks.  And this was not cardboard scenery or puppet men.  Pain and death were real!

But can be reversed based on the author's whims, remember.  So there's that.

It's hardly a climactic confrontation, there's no exchange of dialogue, no fat paragraph about Mike's thoughts or fancy swordplay.  Again, we can't be sure whether this is indicative of Hackett writing an anticlimax in-story, Hubbard writing an anticlimax on purpose, or Hubbard writing an anticlimax out of habit.  Let's go with the middle option, though, because Mike is actively defying narrative convention.

He doesn't draw his rapier, since he knows that will only get him killed.  Instead he leaps behind a serpentine left pointing along the deck by a now-dead crew, meaning the cannon is now aimed directly at Bristol.  Mike picks up the linstock (torch?), lights the weapon, it fires-

Bristol was wreathed in smoke, untouched even by powder sparks.

Thrice-damned plot armor!

I'm not sure how it happens, but the very next line, Mike's in the water, getting swept away - oh, he grabbed a spar at some point?  While firing the gun.  Whatever.  Our hero's last, desperate attempt to defeat his enemy has failed, and the chapter ends with him in sea, his fleet in shambles, his men slain, his plans ruined, and his last chance at revenge foiled.  "And in his battered ears rang the English cheer which meant victory, and the whir of a contented typewriter in the sky."

Ugh, and the worst part is, since the typewriter is still clacking away, even Mike's survival is all according to the plot.  Tune in next time when we try to figure out just what happened to make everything go so wrong and wrap up this story.

Back to Chapter Eleven

Monday, November 7, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Eleven - But the Future Refused to Change

Back in the story... or, the story being written in the story we're reading... Mike has spent three days desperately putting together defenses to save Nombre de Dios from pirates.  Cannons have been salvaged from the wreck of the Josef y Maria, hundreds of slaves have sweated putting together fortifications along the shore, and while "sudden reinforcements of one character or another had magically appeared," Mike sourly tells the governor that at best they'll be able to make things "uncomfortable" for Bristol's sea dogs.

The governor doesn't like this pessimism, and tells Mike to go home and get some rest.  Our hero starts trudging along the path out of town, when-

And then it happened!

There was a ripping sound somewhere high overhead.  The whole coast trembled!  There was a repetition of splashes in the harbor and a shaking roar along the beach!  All went dark!

Mike was no longer on the path; he was on the quarterdeck of the Josef y Maria!

Yes, as if a switch had been turned, as if an eye had been blinked, as if some phantom force in the universe had made a move eons beyond our comprehension, suddenly, everything's changed.  The shore battery Mike (well, slave labor) spent days putting together is gone, but the fort on the north side of the channel is now twice as large and has a twin on the south side, the town itself is larger and more boisterous, and the harbor is filled with Spanish ships.  There's a full moon in the sky even though Mike last saw it in its last quarter, and the late Captain Fernando steps forward to inform the almirante that a fleet of pirates has been sighted just a few leagues away.

Or in other words, Hackett tore up the last few chapters and did those rewrites his editor wanted.

It's a neat idea, but it just raises more and more nagging questions the more you think about it, specifically about how time works in this situation.  If Mike had to live through all those months the almirante spent preparing his forces, why didn't he suddenly have to relive everything his character went though to get to this new scenario?  If Mike was taking months to go through the book's timeline while Hackett was churning this crap out in a few days, wouldn't Hackett be able to go back and change the book's ending before Mike reached it?  And if Mike is aware of his character's past even if he hasn't necessarily lived it, how would he remember the original way things went instead of getting partially-rewritten himself?

I almost want to try to chart this out in MS Paint, but it's probably not worth it.  Just a book, I should really just relax.  Or rather get back to fretting about the election while not sweating the metaphysical and metafictional details of a century-old story.

Fernando's miraculous reappearance is accompanied by the rattling of a typewriter in the heavens, so Mike is stuck saying his character's dialogue where he swears that in the morning "those English dogs will be shark bait" like a true villain.  Worse, when Father Mercy shows up, Mike agrees to his request that any captives be given over to the rack, along with Bristol, "if there's anything left" of him by the time the almirante is through with him.

"The English girl," said Father Mercy.  "What about her now?"

"The Lady Marion," said Mike, angry at being a puppet but helpless, "is my particular own - if I can tame her."

Father Mercy grinned evilly and drifted away.

And it's only then that the typewriter fades and Mike is able to lean against a railing, fretting about what he's said and what must have changed.  He doesn't give a Psychlo's eleventh finger about the dead men and ruined ships rising from the depths or the moon changing - though Mike does ask Captain Fernando about them.  The officer insists he's seen things like the moon changing shape and considers it "The will of God," and as far as Fernando knows the fleet has been there all along.

No, what's got Mike really worried is what these retcons mean for his relationship with Lady Marion.  He goes home to check on her and finds her under guard, and when Mike steps inside,

Tall and regal, her face wreathed with disdain, she faced him.  "Well, now, Sir Admiral!  You did not expect Bristol to come, and yet come he has!  And he'll pick your rotten bones before night."

"Aye, so even you think he's a vulture!" said Mike.  He had tried to stop that, but now again he was aware of the clicking sound on high.

"Now go to your defeat!" said the Lady Marion.  "My curse shall follow you!"

Yep, she's gotten retconned too.  Mike's efforts to win Marion over, the happy months they spent together, the blossoming relationship between a fictional character and someone who had an electrical accident in his friend's bathroom, it's all been torn out, wadded up and thrown in the trash.  Mike's not a hero antagonist anymore, he's an evil cliche who kidnapped the hero's girlfriend in vain hopes of making her his bride.

I think this is the first time in a Hubbard story that a character has really lost something and I've felt sorry for them because of it.  Mike's trying to make a difference, trying to turn his life around, trying to make his own way in the world, but forces beyond his control are foiling his every effort to change things, and worse, trapping him under the label of a villain.  It's more effective than those times that Heller or Yellow Hair or Yellow Heller or whoever think they've lost their shallow female love interests because we know they're going to turn up safe and sound by the end of the story, while in Mike's case, he's pretty much doomed.

So Mike is utterly "Desolated" by this development, but only for a moment.  Then he gets angry, furious that all his efforts were undone just for the benefit of "Bristol, a damned puppet!"

"Damn you!" said Mike, shaking his fist at the sky.  "I'll show you!  Do you hear me?  I'll knock your fair-haired son of a witch into the briny and then we'll see what you'll do about it!  I'm going to win!"

All Mike can do now is embrace his role as the story's villain and do his best to kill Bristol in hopes of somehow winning Marion back afterwards.  So he goes back to his flagship, assembles his officers, and lays out the battle plan - break up, encircle and savage Bristol's armada so that the remnants are forced into the teeth of Nombre de Dios' gun batteries.

It's a good plan, I suppose.  But it's a plan devised by someone a story has decided is the villain, for the final battle against who the story has declared a hero.  That's probably why Mike is "resolute," but not "glowing with confidence" like his officers at the end of the chapter - like us, he knows this isn't going to end in his favor.

Back to Chapter Ten

Friday, November 4, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Ten - Nobody Likes How Things Are Going

Our villain protagonist has a patient, unexciting plan to endure the hero antagonist's attacks until he's finally forced to attack the protagonist's fortified position, a fight even the hero would be hard-pressed to win.  Unfortunately, this wouldn't be terribly exciting whether you were watching the hero or the villain - either the antagonist sits around for months, or the protagonist runs out of raids to run and is forced into a losing battle.

So, one night Mike gets to host Captain Fernando, the governor of Nombre de Dios, and the governor of Panama at "a gala dinner, entirely too gay to foreshadow disaster."  After all the other guests are sent away, the governor of Panama announces that he has news.  Mike says the same, is allowed to go first, and explains how he plans to leave the next treasure fleet lightly-guarded to entice Bristol to attack, before bringing up a reserve and catching the pirate against Nombre de Dios' defenses.  "This plan is based on my knowledge of the psychology of - of Bristol."  Guess Mike is a bad guy after all.

Unfortunately, the governor's news trumps - ugh, my migraine - Mike's.  Orders just came in that relieve Mike of his command, so Fernando is now in charge of the Spanish forces in the New World, and he and the other contrary bigwigs thinks Mike's plan "is a strategy which looks very slim."  Mike gives them a glare and storms out before they can get any more words in.

One paragraph break and we're "Much later that night" in Mike's room with Marion, presumably after she's helped him burn off some frustration.  Though if that was indeed the case, they went right to it instead of discussing what had gotten Mike so agitated, since it's only now - or, "much later" - that Mike explains he's lost his command.  When she realizes she's to blame for his problems she bursts into tears while he tries to lie no, it's not her fault.

"Oh, yes," she wept.

"Have you no thought of what might happen to you?" said Mike.

Evidently she had not yet considered that, but she looked up at him proudly.

"You would not let them touch me."

"No," said Mike.  "No, of course not."

Huh.  Maybe I'm projecting here, but it almost seems like Mike was annoyed that his love interest was so fawning and flat that she could only see the latest plot developments in how they affected him.  Okay, I'm almost certainly projecting here.

At any rate, the next morning Father Mercy comes to visit, only to find Mike's mansion barricaded and a warning shot waiting for any demands for entry.  You'd think this showdown between a high-ranking priest and a disgraced admiral would go further, but nothing happens for the next five days, until a battered wreck of a ship limps into Nombre de Dios' harbor.  Mike leaves his home for this, and gets to meet a mortally-wounded Fernando, who reveals that the Spanish fleet was annihilated by the English pirates, leaving only this ruined flagship and thirty men alive.  Fernando begs Mike's forgiveness, and our hero grants it, along with wishes that "whatever place you go to have a kinder god than this."

Mike turned aside as they bore the captain away.  No typewriter in the sky here.  Nothing but real, agonizing death.  Those streaks down from the scuppers of the Josef y Maria, real blood had made those.

Well, it all seems very real, but just wait until next chapter.

Having left the shelter of his manor, Mike is soon accosted by Father Mercy and some "church troops" trying to arrest him, only for the town's governor to intervene with his own forces.  When the padre complains that Mike is an "infidel," the governor counters that they'd be mad to throw out the only man who can hope to defend the town now, and puts Mike in full command of the remaining Spanish forces.  Mike's disinterested and depressed, but does suggest that they salvage the guns from the sinking flagship and fortify the beach to hold off a landing, and also send runners to Panama for reinforcements, though they'll probably be too late.

Our hero's only hope is that, since he's been able to change the plot of the story a bit, with some effort he could change it further.  And then... we cut to Horace Hackett in his publisher's office, talking through "Blood and Loot."

Jules Montcalm does not like what he's hearing, and another author, one René LaFayette... really, Hubbard?  Your own pen name?  Well, R. L. Not-Hubbard doesn't like it either, and Montcalm accuses Hackett of trying to sell a scene that even the writer thinks sucks.  The editor concludes that the whole battle is too easy, with Bristol tearing through the Spanish fleet and then overcoming a few puny shore batteries, and Hackett admits that okay, it's a bit weak.  Then the editor asks,

"Well, your strong man in this story is this Spanish admiral and where was he?"

"I dunno," said Horace.  "You got to understand that sometimes, when you're writing, a story just takes care of itself."

This raises all sorts of questions.  Like how could Hackett, the story's author, not know what is happening in it?  Did all the intrigue at Nombre de Dios happen without any of his input?  Did he not notice that the almirante wasn't leading the attack against Bristol's pirate armada?  And if part of his pitch for the story was that it had a really interesting villain, why did Hackett let said villain slip out of sight?

Well, Montcalm wants a proper showdown between Bristol and this admiral, and it has to take place at sea because "This is a sea story, not a land story."  Hackett complains that a final duel on the quarterdeck has been done to death, but Montcalm points out that it works, and orders the author to give him a proper swordfight by Monday or else "I'll - I'll let Tritewell illustrate it!"

We end with Hackett grumbling about having to tear up and throw out perfectly good copy, only for LaFayette to remark that he's lucky Montcalm isn't scrapping the whole stupid book.

When he passed René LaFayette he muttered, "And after all the drink I've bought you."

René grinned.

Normally Hubbard doesn't take such a direct approach when it comes to tormenting his creations.  At least Gris never had to deal with an author avatar calling him names and insulting his decisions... unless Heller counts.  Yeah, he might.

Back to Chapter Nine

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Nine - The Waiting Game

So after a seventeen-page behemoth of a chapter, now we get four-and-a-half pages of Chapter Nine.  My guess is that Hubbard wanted Mike and Marion getting all kissyface to end a chapter and thought that tacking on this bit after a paragraph break would underscore the drama or romance or whatever, but there's no way of knowing.

We fast forward through a month and learn that Mike has been getting nothing but bad news - Bristol's pirates have massacred everyone in the fortress of Santa Ysabel, Terra Nueva has been burned to the ground and its inhabitants eaten by cannibalistic natives, and Father Mercy is outraged that the English are murdering Catholic priests and "exalting their blasphemous Protestant creed!"  All the while, Mike's scouts can find no sign of the pirates, only the aftermath of their vicious attacks.

Everyone's urging Mike to take action and deal with Bristol once and for all, but he coolly and calmly rebuffs them.  When Nombre de Dios' governor demands that el almirante sally forth to wipe out the pirates, Mike points out that the minute he does so, the local Indian spies will let Bristol know that it's a perfect time to strike, so he'll wait until he knows for certain where the enemy is before he leaves his headquarters, thank you very much.  When Fernando reports that the English are offering a bounty for Spanish heads delivered by their Indian allies, Mike deduces that it's a lie, and if he doesn't give Bristol any easy targets, his pirates will run out of gold and be forced to attack him here.  And as for Father Mercy's complaints about dead priests, Mike's response is to knock him to his knees, point his rapier at the padre's throat, and suggest that he go back to church to "Pray for the souls of the people killed by the buccaneers and add a prayer for yourself, thanking your God that He put me in between the buccaneer fleet and the shore here at Nombre de Dios."

It helps of course the Mike knows Bristol's real objective is to reclaim the Lady Marion.  And so he waits patiently for a month... another month?  Same month?  Well, after news of attacks continues to come in, I suppose Mike loses his patience and gives a letter to a suspected native spy, a message asking Bristol to "Kindly fall upon Nombre de Dios so that we can have done with you," with a P.S. that "The Lady Marion wishes to send her love." for that little extra 'up yours.'  Within "a few weeks" he gets an answer from Bristol, advising that his men are coming for Lady Marion and she ought to pack her bags.

Isn't it nice when people can be civilized and work out where and when they're going to kill each other?  It certainly saves time running search-and-destroy missions.

So while Mike waits for the final confrontation with Bristol, he has a candlelit dinner with Marion where he voices his hope that Bristol lives up to his reputation, "Or perhaps that the god in the case is witty enough to see the import behind this."  She's uncomfortable with his talk about God, and she also calls him Mike.  Hmm.  So is she doing that because our hero has told his literary lover his real (nick)name, or is it because Hackett is subconsciously equating Miguel de Lobo with his real-life friend?  Or is it both?

"Shall I order your bags packed, my dear?" said Mike.

"That little horse you gave me today is a darling," said the Lady Marion.

And so the matter stood.

She... didn't actually answer the question, Mike.

So that's our mini-chapter, Mike sitting around, stoically taking losses, waiting for the inevitable showdown with his nemesis.  Have to say, this story delivers where Mission Earth didn't - we're finally seeing what it's like to be a (designated) villain while the (designated) hero closes in on you, whittling away at your "evil" empire before assaulting your "sinister" lair.  And unlike the main character of that garbage, Mike is sympathetic and more competent than even the story requires him to be, thanks to his knowledge that he's in a story, and he knows who's writing it.

See what happens when you admit that an antagonist doesn't have to be an irredeemable moron for him to oppose the protagonist, Hubbard?  Ugh, this actually makes Mission Earth even worse because now we know that Hubbard was capable of doing things right, but still gave us Soltan Gris instead of expanding on what he started here.

Unfortunately, it sounds like all of Mike's efforts will be for naught.

And so Mike won a little more time - which proved his own undoing.

And now the POV is getting temporally displaced rather than drifting behind the eyes of the other characters.  Somebody nail that thing down.

Back to Chapter Eight