Friday, July 29, 2011

Part Two, Chapter Eight - Real Horrorshow, Hubbard

Gris returns to Spiteos with the stuff Heller wanted, to find... oh, this part.

He's at Hisst's office, watching the "freak parade" with his boss. See, there was this talented "cellologist" (I can find no definition of this term, so either Hubbard invented an alien medical discipline or didn't bother to check a dictionary) named Dr. Crobe, who worked for the Section for Special Adaptations modifying workers to better survive on high-gravity worlds or breathe underwater. But in his spare time Crobe put his talent for "cellular modification" to more twisted purposes, which earned him a death sentence before the Apparatus spirited him away.

Now he works for them, turning prisoners into circus freaks for sale on the black market. I guess on a world without recreational pharmaceuticals people need all the entertainment they can get, eh? So Gris gets to queasily watch Crobe's handiwork while Hisst barely pays attention. A man who goes about on all fours with feet where his hands should be is just the start:

Here was a woman with her breasts where her buttocks should have been; there was a being whose legs had been interchanged with his arms; then came a female with two heads; following was a thing covered wholly with hair but in half a dozen colors; and then came a monster with eyes in the place of his privates.

And this is all followed up with six children on a cart, "cellularly joined together so they made a ring, twisted up into pornographic positions." The rich imagination of L. Ron Hubbard, ladies and gentlemen.

Aside from the fact that it's vaguely horrifying that the person who thought up this stuff is considered a messianic figure by a surprising number of people, this brings up something troubling about fiction in general. These twisted involuntary alterations are being used to make the point that the Apparatus is Evil, yes? The problem is, though the audience is intended to revile these imaginary characters for their sick imaginations, said characters' actions were decided by an author sitting at a typewriter. A person sat down and carefully thought about the most horrifying and offensive things he could do to the human form. It's just that instead of grabbing a knife afterward he picked up a pen.

It's one of those uncomfortable "meta" moments where you have to come to terms with the fact that our favorite authors share imaginations with monsters like the Baron Harkonnen or AM or any number of demons and Lovecraftian horrors. There's no atrocity we can attribute to our fictional creations that we can't conceive of ourselves (which is a bit of a tautology, isn't it?).

Anyway, aside from the freakshow there's some exposition going on, as well as the introduction of a new character. Lombar Hisst listens to Gris' report and hands over an insignia bumping him up three pay grades. Gris goes on to mention that Heller's spent the past hours answering mail from his fans, family and friends, which meant Apparatus forgers were up all night properly censoring the correspondence. He complains once again that Heller has no grasp of espionage.

This is interrupted by jugglers and acrobats. Aside from the vulture-like Dr. Crobe, the Apparatus also employs the Countess Krak, a former teacher convicted of programming a bunch of children to be perfect thieves - when the scheme was uncovered the kiddies were executed (ah, Voltarian justice) while the Countess was quietly handed over to the Apparatus. She's known for being able to train anything, beast or person, into doing her bidding. The Countess just so happens to be a beautiful, stone-cold, dominatrix type ("she was standing there in thigh-high black boots, a shabby coat and little else, twitching a long electric whip"), but be warned that she has a decidedly violent reaction to sexual harassment.

The Countess will spend one or two chapters being interesting before she's ruined.

After the fire-spitters and back-flippers and jugglers trained by the Countess are done, Hisst reiterates the importance of Mission Earth. He shows images of the worlds of the Confederacy, ranting about how power and authority are nearly within the Apparatus' grasp.

Soltan, you weren't raised in the slums. You don't know what a dream of power can be. You don't understand the true necessity of wiping out the riffraff from the ghettos, purifying the blood of planets, sweeping away the weak.

So our Lombar Hisst is a success story, huh? Someone who clawed his way up from the gutter with a dream of... gaining absolute power over his fellow man and cleansing the undesirable elements from society. Huh. Nothing about making sure nobody else has to live in such squalor, not even a vow to turn the tables on the oppressed and send them to the ghettos. Just from poverty to ethnic cleansing.

These Emperors do not know what to do with their power. It takes ambition! Yes! And merciless execution of plans. They diddle with their wars,

Was that on purpose, L. Ron, or did you just use a word without checking what its various definitions were?

they do nothing about their own homes! Even when they conquer a planet they do not know what to do with the riffraff in the population!

But it's not like this "riffraff" is holding Voltar back from conquering planets aplenty, is it? For that matter, why isn't the Apparatus doing some "cleanup" of its own? It's not like they lack for murderers or funding, and they could probably blackmail the government into ignoring some quiet ethnic cleansing. They've got whole army divisions and a good place for a death camp.

Just sayin'.

Hisst finishes with a rousing "We use evil to fight and sweep away evil! And we can and will prevail!" Prevail over what, exactly? And won't using evil to sweep away another group of evil still leave you with the evil that did the sweeping? And is this still a satire of the CIA? 'cause I don't think our own spooks were that keen on ethnic cleansing, at least not stateside. Maybe I'm just misinformed. Maybe J. Edgar Hoover wanted to burn down slums and fight miscegenation violently. Wikipedia says he was mostly about hunting Commies and other political dissidents, but what do they know?

Anyway, we shouldn't examine Hisst's motives too closely since the book admits he's insane. After his rant he gives orders - Gris must ensure there is no Imperial (isn't Voltar a Confederacy?) interference on Earth, since all the Apparatus' plans hinge on it. The Countess Krak needs to teach Heller some Earth languages, but not a lick of espionage. And Dr. Crobe needs to get Heller "fixed up," but with "no tricks! No fancy eyes that see through walls! No fingers that become pistols! No telepathic brain receivers! Just an average job!"

The chapter and Part ends with Hisst dismissing his underlings, and turning towards the chest where he keeps his contraband Royal robes. Perhaps this is a subtle reference to J. Edgar Hoover's alleged crossdressing? Though that may be too clever for this type of book.

Back to Chapter Seven

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Part Two, Chapter Seven - Jettero Heller Has a Sweeter Crib Than You

With an escort of still-surly Fleet officers, Gris arrives as the hotel that Heller lives in. The combat engineer's room turns out to be on the top floor, and while Gris was expecting a tiny dorm room, Heller gets a full three-room suite, lavishly decorated and even featuring a garden terrace with a spectacular view of the nearby mountains.

Gris goes numb at the sight of all the stuff in the room: improvised furniture made from starship armor plates or fighter seats, memorabilia and knickknacks from dozens of worlds, banners on the walls and luxurious rugs on the floor, all "harmonized together with beautiful taste."

Where was this appreciation for interior decorating in Battlefield Earth? What happened to Hubbard in the intervening years to make him so keen on clean uniforms and tastefully-arranged furniture? If I remember right, one of the last things he did before dying was spend boatloads of money to design and build a sprawling mansion (that never got used), so maybe he just caught the bug.

Now I've read a few awful fanfics, and I've noticed that a lot of authors waste words describing how awesome their oh-so-special characters' clothing and living quarters are, so that their story becomes a form of escapism for themselves rather than their readers. Credit where it's due, Hubbard isn't quite stooping to that level. Describing Heller's awesome pad has the side effects of showing Gris' thought processes, and also to reinforce just how awesome and amazing and dreamy Jettero Heller is.

Gris' first response to such a display of wealth and taste is that obviously Heller has some extralegal sources of income to afford all of this. But then one of his escorts tells him that the three-hundred-man crew of a battleship got together and set this suite up for Heller after he singlehandedly penetrated enemy lines to save their ship after it crashed in hostile territory. The Fleet guys announce that they'll do the packing, giving Gris time to inspect Heller's dress uniform.

The Voltar military has a weird way of displaying citations - officers' uniforms are affixed with metallic braid (Heller's is gold, of course), and if I'm reading this right you can flip said braid back to reveal a list of awards and achievements. Heller has so much on his that his chest is mostly gold, and Gris reads about his various feats of heroism - building a bridge under enemy fire, mining a fortress, rescuing a derelict ship, and so on. When the Apparatus agent sees a star medallion awarded to those who've undertaken numerous volunteer missions, he assumes Heller is a glory hound, but one of the Fleet boys tell him that Heller has a bunch of other medals he's too modest to display.

There's also a wall of 3-D photographs of Heller's family, including his gorgeous sci-fi-TV-equivalent starlet sister. Gris is about to consider Heller a publicity freak until he notes that all of the photos that include him are focused on Heller's friends and family, or in one case his prize spaceship, the Chun-chu, which he broke an interplanetary speed record in. Gris is forced to conclude that he won't have an easy time finding Jettero Heller's vices.

By this point the Fleet boys are finished packing on "Jet's" behalf, and Gris heads to the lobby. Just as he's about to leave he's stopped by one of the biggest officers, who promises that if anything happens to their beloved Jettero Heller, they'll take Gris into orbit and shove him out an airlock. "And in seconds you will be a pale, pink, mist!" And then the two hundred or so onlooking Fleet officers shout "Right!" in unison, while I reach for a glass of wine to wash down all this cheesiness.

Gris panics and flees to his car, and notices that his driver is still soaking from behind tossed in a fountain. As they drive off, the other Apparatus guy asks how their cover was so easily blown.

I didn't answer. Because we're shabby, I thought. Because we're dishonest. Because we're just crooked thugs and never should be permitted to go near decent people. Because we stink. It had been a very trying day.

Such withering satire. But I can't help but wonder - if people can so easily deduce that these weasely, smelly, unfashionable scum are part of the Apparatus, how the hell can they accomplish any of their covert missions? Shouldn't spies be able to blend in or appear honest and trustworthy?

This is the paradox of Hubbard villains. They're supposed to pose a serious threat to his (superhuman) hero, but he hates them so much that he can't help but present them as sloppy, stupid, and dysfunctional. It's like trying to be thrilled when Hercules is tossed into a pit with a cross-eyed, toothless, narcoleptic tiger.

The chapter ends as Gris glumly reminds himself that it's impossible to leave the Apparatus while alive, so his fate is tied to that of Mission Earth. Meanwhile I'm running the numbers, and assuming my atrophied math skills are still functioning, I estimate that I'm doing five roughly six-page chapters per week, which means it'll take me 20.5 weeks to finish The Invaders Plan, and if the rest of the "dekalogy" is a similar length I'll have spent 205 weeks, or 1,435 days, or 3.93 years blogging about Mission Earth.

(edit from the future: started on 6/29/11, wrapped up on 7/9/14, so I overestimated a bit)

So I almost feel sorry for Gris. Then I remember what he does later, and I just feel sorry for myself instead.

Back to Chapter Six

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Part Two, Chapter Six - Insert Admiral Ackbar Joke Here

Gris returns to the officers' club to pick up Heller's kit, and the narration informs us that "it was a trap!"

The place is mostly empty save for a janitor and one guy at the desk. When Gris tells the latter why he's here, the man perks up while the janitor vanishes. Gris laments that he must not have been thinking clearly to recognize the stalling tactic when the desk jockey takes his time retrieving paperwork for Gris to fill out. Gris eventually hears breathing behind him and sees three men fresh from a pool looming over him, while the janitor keeps rounding up more Fleet personnel.

There's a tepid little action scene as Gris fights a "valiant strategic withdrawal," which involves him scampering away from a crowd of burly spacemen, flinging cash registers and potted plants and whatever else he can get his hands on. He's eventually cornered and subjected to a circle of officers putting the boot in. One demands to know where Heller is but knocks Gris out before he has a chance to answer.

Gris comes to thanks to a splash of cold water. Once again someone yells "Where is Heller?" but decides to slug the Apparatus agent in the stomach before he can answer. After an indeterminate amount of beatings a voice calls for order, and a more senior officer takes charge. He puts Gris in a chair (with enough force to knock him out again) and once again makes inquiries concerning the location and status of one Jettero Heller. The Fleet knows he's missing and that a bunch of black lorries - suddenly Hubbard is English - were spotted leaving the stadium parking lot shortly after Heller was supposed to have left it.

The Apparatus agent is both amazed that his interrogators are so eager to tell him what they know, and relieved that they know nothing of Spiteos (though Heller has somehow heard about its rock formations and has a rough idea of where it is...). He tries to pass himself off as a simple messenger, and when that fails he claims that Heller was needed by the Grand Council for a top-secret mission. Gris suggests that his Fleet captors take a look at the orders in his case, and they're disgusted when they find them to be legit. So they release him so he can get on with getting Heller's stuff. Aaaaand that's that. Gris gets his ass kicked repeatedly, but eventually gets on with what he was doing.

So... what was the point of his chapter? Why did this need to happen before Gris got Heller's gear? For that matter, why does the act of getting Heller's gear deserve to happen "on-screen" instead of between chapters?

To answer the fist two questions, I posit that Hubbard likes to have Gris get beat up. Gris embodies a bunch of things Hubbard despises nearly as much as psychology (hold that thought), so naturally the author ensures that bad things happen to him. I'd complain, were Gris were in the least way sympathetic - these beatings he's receiving? Think of them as pre-preemptive karma for the stuff he'll do later. Also, the fact that the Fleet is rallying around Heller just reinforces how popular and beloved the book's hero is, in case reader's weren't swooning over him yet. Love Jettero Heller, dammit! He's perfect and awesome and you will worship his greatness!

As for the second question, I think the next chapter will answer it for me. You see, going to get Heller's stuff gives Gris a chance to visit his room...

Back to Chapter Five

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Part Two, Chapter Five - A Fleet of Office Buildings

I overlooked something in the previous chapter - when Gris tells Heller about Mission Earth he makes sure to play it up as a humanitarian mission rather than a prelude to invasion. That's because as a mere Fleet officer, Heller wouldn't know about the Invasion Timetables. So the commands passed down from long-dead ancestors ordering Voltar to conquer planets aren't public knowledge, it's basically a conspiracy, which makes it even less sensible.

The whole premise is stupid enough as it is, but at least if the whole society believed in the ineffability of the Invasion Timetables, peer pressure could keep the government following them no matter how little sense it made. Now I'm left wondering why, if only a comparatively small number of people are in on it, they continue to follow the plan... and if this is more of Hubbard's "satire." Did he think George Washington left a secret guide to world conquest that the U.S. government has followed ever since? Just what the hell is going on?

I guess Hubbard's won this round. Now I want to keep reading this lousy series in hope that there are answers to these questions that won't make me slam my head into my desk. It's a fool's hope, but I cling to it.

As for this chapter, Gris is off to get transfer orders so Heller will go along with Mission Earth. Now last book I made a big deal about how the Psychlos' civilization was built around mining, to the extent that their mass transit was patterned after minecarts. So guess what the Fleet's office buildings look like?

I am sure you have noticed that the first impression a visitor gets of the Fleet Administration Complex in Government City is that he has just encountered an actual fleet in outer space. When somebody said "buildings" the architects must have thought "ships." It is most annoying: there they are, spotted around ten square miles of otherwise barren land, like ten thousand huge, silver ships. They're even in formation! They say the officers and clerks even wear spaceboots! And not a shrub or tree to be seen anywhere!

Few things - one: how the hell do you mistake a collection of structures in the middle of a wasteland for a fleet in the black depths of space? Two: ten thousand buildings in a ten square mile patch of land? Three: purposefully designing the buildings to reflect the occupation of their inhabitants is both silly and flies in the face of everything I've noticed about government-funded offices. Four: wouldn't it be easier, if you had to have buildings that looked like spaceships, to bring in a bunch of actual decommissioned ships and convert them to offices? Five: why doesn't the Fleet have an orbital administrative complex, with only a small local office to act as a go-between between it and ground-pounders?

Gris doesn't like the base for other reasons, such as how it takes two hours to get anywhere because of all the security checkpoints. He eventually finds a personnel officer "in a cubicle that looked for all the world like a storeroom on a battleship." The officer is able to deduce that Gris is part of the "drunks" despite his lack of an Apparatus uniform, and Gris wonders at this until he glances down. "I saw no grease spots, no food stains, no old blood. But I also saw no style, no flair. No pride! Shabby!"

I'm still wondering where this "shabby = evil" concept came from. Though I hate to invoke Godwin, the Nazis were pretty snappy dressers, right? And in Star Wars the evil Empire were the ones with the sharp officer uniforms, immaculate white armor, and antiseptic interiors. But here Hubbard is once again using a lack of style to indicate a group's moral depravity.

Anyway, Gris says he's after transfer orders for Jettero Heller, which gets the clerk to reminisce for a moment about the athletic skills of the book's star, and then an attempt at bureaucratic stalling is averted by Gris' orders from the Grand Council. The clerk isn't happy when the clearance turns out to be legit, and complains that it's not right for a Fleet combat engineer to resign and enter the service of the Exterior Division - and since Gris doesn't have Heller's resignation from his previous service, he can't authorize the transfer.

Gris channels Terl and considers finding or making up something to blackmail the clerk with, but instead asks what he would do to resolve the situation. The Fleet clerk hits buttons and prints out a very brief set of orders putting Heller on "independent duty on his own cognizance terminating on his own cognizance." Gris is awed both by how open-ended the orders are, and also at the fact that he just achieved something through entirely legal means.

It felt odd to have done a straight, legal piece of work, no twists. The honest world is a strange place for a member of the Apparatus. It leaves one feeling confused. Unfamiliar territory!

Satire? Possibly. Subtle? Certainly not. The chapter ends with the clerk wishing Heller luck in his new mission (while mentioning that his Academy track record still stands), and Gris realizing that he could effectively erase Heller from official records with these new orders. Then he's off to pick up Heller's stuff from his old quarters.

Back to Chapter Four

Monday, July 25, 2011

Part Two, Chapter Four - Jettero Heller is Better Than You

Heller demands to take a look at the "alleged documents," but thinks they look legit - which annoys an experienced intelligence operative like Gris, as he knows how easily such papers could be forged. Gris runs through what Mission Earth will entail, and explains that he will be in charge of keeping Heller safe. The combat engineer is still a little sore about that whole kidnapping thing, and is even bright enough to notice that the date on the orders means that they were issued before he "passed" the test to lead Mission Earth. But he's willing to put the past behind him if Gris can get Fleet authorization for the mission, which our villain protagonist agrees to.

I have a feeling this will lead to a drawn-out, ultimately unnecessary ordeal, but can't remember for sure. There's a lot of pointless chapters in this book, and they all sort of blur together after a while.

We get a Heller Moment as Gris takes him through a guard barracks in the process of checking Heller out of custody. Gris is shocked when the big burly brute Heller tossed around earlier stands up and salutes the man who easily thrashed him. Heller flashes him a casual smile, and the scarred hulk grins back, while Gris' mind struggles to come to grips with the notion of Apparatus personnel showing respect or being friendly.

Gris procures one set of quarters used by Apparatus officers in Spiteos' upper levels for Heller, while quietly ordering a full platoon of Apparatus troops to make sure Heller doesn't run off. There's a mildly homoerotic moment when Heller steps into the "wall tub" to shower off the prison stench, while Gris hangs around to chat. The Apparatus agent asks why Heller didn't make a run for it the minute he got a hold of Gris' gun back in the cell, but Heller laughs - "a very pleasant, easy laugh" - and says that he knew he couldn't make it past all the security of Spiteos.

This leads to the chapter's second Heller Moment, as Gris boggles at how Heller could possibly deduce where he was, especially given the top-secret nature of the Apparatus' headquarters. Heller explains that his watch "runs on twenty-six different time bands as well as Universal Absolute Time," which (somehow) allowed him to somehow detect Palace City's time lag, leading him to estimate where he was from the lack of landmarks this precise distance from the timewarped capital of the Voltarian Confederacy. The second clue was the black basalt Spiteos is made of, which he could identify thanks to his elementary geology knowledge, the nigh-supernatural ability to notice the stone's granularity in a dark cell without the use of sophisticated microscope, and a superior memory that kept track of which rock formations had a sixteen degree dip and two hundred and fourteen degree strike.

This all depresses Gris, not just because a rather big secret is out, but because Heller is so casually letting him know how he figured it all out instead of keeping the knowledge hidden to aid his escape. A spy like Gris just can't understand it.

He'd never make a special agent. Not in a million, million years. I was not going to have trouble making him fail. I was going to have trouble keeping him afloat long enough not to drag me down. Spying takes an instinct. Oh my, he didn't have it! This wasn't going to be a failed mission. This was going to be a total catastrophe!

Is it me, or is the writing here just bad? My inner editor is writhing.

Back to Chapter Three

Friday, July 22, 2011

Part Two, Chapter Three - In Which a Watch is an Excuse for a Slightly-Exciting Action Scene

Gris shows off the official documents from the Grand Council backing Mission Earth, all the while assuring Heller that only the very best agents would be considered for it. In response, Heller asks for his watch. So Gris summons the guard, who turns out to be a "wreck" of a cripple, and therefore presumably the most badass person in the prison for being able to survive the depredations of his coworkers despite a limp.

Heller finally gets his electrified shackles off (is it me or does constantly electrocuting a prisoner for days at a time sound counterintuitive if you want to keep him alive?) as the guard hands over some food and drink of dubious quality, but not Heller's possessions. The grunt claims he's off-duty now, so Gris has to summon another guard, a huge man covered with scars. Gris has to promise payment to get the brute to cooperate, and I once again wonder how it is that the Apparatus hasn't self-destructed yet.

Scarface returns with a fresh wound for his troubles and Heller's clothes, but no watch. Gris sends him off again while Heller cleans himself up a bit, and when the thuggish guard returns he finally has the prisoner's timepiece. But he objects to Gris' ten-credit note, claiming that he spent sixty just to get the watch back, and attacks.

Gris is able to deflect the guard before he makes it to Heller, but when the Apparatus agent tries to use his "blaststick," Heller sends the weapon spinning away. Then the book's hero, despite four days of mistreatment and malnutrition, uses his awesome kung-fu abilities to send the guard flying against the wall to land in an unconscious heap. And then, just to underscore how wonderful Jettero Heller is, he gets Gris to cough up seventy credits and wakes up the guard he just KO'd to repay him for the trouble of getting the watch back. The chapter ends with a now timepiece-possessing Heller wanting to take a closer look at the Mission Earth documents.

So what was the point of any of this? Why did untying a prisoner and getting him his clothes have to become a four-page ordeal?

Hubbard has two goals with this book - to underscore the villainy of the Apparatus and by extension the CIA they're a "satire" of, as well as show us how amazing his hero is, who I suspect is a bit of a self-insert or at least a form of wish-fulfillment. So an action that would normally take a sentence or two - in this case unshackling a prisoner - gets expanded into an ultimately unnecessary sequence to get across details that a better author could much more naturally work into the narrative.

And that's the central theme of The Invaders Plan in a nutshell - unnecessary distractions from the main plot. Sequences of Gris being sneaky and Heller being messianic that a movie adaptation would cut in a heartbeat. Padding and filler to reestablish character traits over and over again.

Back to Chapter Two

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Part Two, Chapter Two - This is Only a Test

Hisst leads Gris into the hellish depths of Spiteos, taking "the tubes" down to level -501 to visit and hopefully recruit the captive Jettero Heller. Gris takes a trip to the armory beforehand and picks up a "blaststick" as a precaution against attacking prisoners or the former criminals the Apparatus uses as guards. I guess since this is "satire" we're not allowed to question how an organization whose personnel prey upon each other in such a manner is expected to maintain an elaborate conspiracy, let alone function for an extended amount of time. Hubbard might have wondered the same thing about the real CIA.

These lower levels of the Apparatus' secret prison are full of moldy wire cages containing twisted figures, the results of sadistic surgeries conducted in laboratories closer to the surface. Now I'd love to say this bit of satire is the result of the author's paranoia, but unfortunately it has a basis in fact - the CIA has a pretty disgusting history of medical experiments beginning during the Cold War. But in fairness, the real-life CIA was more interested in truth serums and the most efficient torture techniques than in taking apart and reassembling people into horrifying new shapes. Hubbard's version of it is more about evil for evil's sake than gathering data through unethical and inhumane means. We'll get the full horrorshow later.

When they reach Jettero's cell, they find him down to his sport pants, caked with blood from his unhealed stab-wound, and bound with electrified handcuffs to a stone slab. There's no indication that he's been given any food and water over the past four days, yet Heller remains cool and composed despite it all because he's Hubbard's wish-fulfillment character. He dryly remarks that the "drunks" have arrived at last, and Gris takes a moment to explain the insult - the Apparatus' official insignia is a truncheon with its grip pointed skyward, which the Fleet interprets as a bottle. I have no idea if this is a reference to real-life CIA slang.

Lombar Hisst announces that Heller is going through some particularly vigorous qualification tests rather than being illegally detained, then tells Gris to finish up the deception and scurries off. An off-balance Gris begins by asking how Heller knew that the orderly was a fake.   Heller's quiet for a moment, then responds by asking how a fellow Academy graduate (he can tell by Gris' accent) ended up in the Apparatus.

Gris' reaction is rather strange - he surges with rage, infuriated by Heller's arrogance in pitying him. His "wits had been dispersed in all directions" by this simple question, and then there's the cliched "who was the prisoner here?" line. I guess it's like Silence of the Lambs when Hannibal Lector gives that ruthlessly insightful analysis of his jailer... except all Heller asked was "what sad route brought you to the 'drunks?'" So it's the abridged version of the Hannibal Lecture.

Gris doesn't answer Heller's astonishingly effective inquiry, and instead presses his earlier question, insisting it's a test of Heller's perception and reaction. Heller explains that not only were the bogus courier's belt and spats being worn wrong, but he also caught the bulge of the concealed knife behind his neck. But mostly it was the smell - apparently Fleet personnel who don't bathe or exercise good hygiene run the risk of being killed by their crewmates over cases of bad B.O.  And as well all know, those dastardly criminals in the CIA are a slovenly, malodorous lot.

Heller is convinced that he's flunked this "test" because he didn't smell the ozone from Hisst's electrified whip, but Gris assures him to the contrary. Then he asks why the dashing athlete threw the match prior to his capture, to which Heller replies that his opponent's girlfriend was in the audience and he didn't want to embarrass him in front of her. Gris quite rightfully points out that lobbing easy catches at the other player was just another way to humiliate him, but Heller waves that off by insisting that him stepping out of bounds was a suitable distraction. Gris doesn't buy it because compassion is a fatal weakness, while I don't buy it because no matter how he did it Heller was shaming his foe by so obviously forfeiting. But in the end Gris exclaims that Heller has passed the imaginary test "with all tubes blasting!"

And so begins the wacky hijinks as a seasoned intelligence operative attempts to manage an honorable man lacking any sort of guile and deceit for an all-important undercover mission that's secretly supposed to fail.

Back to Chapter One

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Part Two, Chapter One - (Series) Title Drop

One day later Soltan Gris is back in Spiteos, preparing to enter Lombar Hisst's office. Here we get a description of the Apparatus' headquarters: it's a crumbling ruin situated in the middle of the Great Desert, an ancient fortress of black basalt built by the planet's previous, pre-metal civilization. Close by is Camp Endurance, a dump of a military training base informally known as "Camp Kill," which mostly serves to excuse the level of traffic and supplies heading to and from Spiteos. None of the "recruits" sent there survive, and the Apparatus is instead staffed by former criminals - because really, who would you rather have working for you, disciplined soldiers or murderous psychopaths?

There's more Hubbard Science as Gris explains that there's a rumor that the ruins are still irradiated from the invasion, reinforced by "cunningly installed detector reply screens: when planetary surveillance beams hit them, they absorbed the incoming energy and sent back the wavelengths of radiation contamination." I won't bother to argue with this, but I must wonder why, if everyone else believes the ruins are radioactive, they decided to built a military camp right next door.

Like an evil Tootsie Roll Pop, the dark heart of Spiteos is hidden beneath this innocuous exterior. A mile underneath the ruins are the secret prisons of the Coordinated Information Apparatus, where political prisoners suffer in appalling conditions. Though Gris mentions a joke that "political prisoner" mostly means "someone who got in the Apparatus' way." He once asked his boss why he doesn't just execute them, but Hisst replied that they might be useful later, and can act as hostages to manipulate their relatives.

Gris narrates that you can almost feel the agonized prisoners through the rock beneath you. His next observation after mentioning this is that "It was hot." Try this sometime - go to a place of abject human misery, like an abandoned insane asylum or a slowly starving third world village, and eloquently describe the suffering that surrounds you, followed shortly by an inane comment about the weather. If you do it right you can get listeners to face fault.

Hisst's secretary rings Gris inside, and our viewpoint character enters an office filled with looted artwork and furniture and opulence of all types, but all poorly arranged to that they looked shabby. "It was a 'gift' Lombar had," the narrator dryly remarks, while I'm left wondering just how much of a neat freak Hubbard was to have such a disdainful opinion of "shabbiness," and why it goes hand-in-hand with cartoonish supervillainy in his mind.

Hisst is in front of a mirror, admiring the way he looks wearing a Royal cape (which a common man is forbidden to wear on pain of death), before he gets down to business. He offers Gris something called a "chank-pop," a recurring Voltarian refreshment. As best as I can puzzle it out, they're capsules containing pleasing scents - you pop the top off and take a refreshing explosion of coolness to the face, perking you up. So in other words, an unlit scented candle.

Hisst warmly congratulates Gris and relieves him from his post as Chief of Section 451, which immediately terrifies the man. Hisst goes on to assure him that the report that got through to the Great Council wasn't his fault (which terrifies Gris), and that his new position could see him rise high in the Apparatus hierarchy (which terrifies Gris). Yes, Gris is immediately appointed as the handler of the agent to be sent to Earth.

The Apparatus head goes back to preening in front of the mirror, claiming that he meant for the report to go through so he could have near-unlimited funding (it's amazing how far you can stretch three million credits under the right conditions), as well total control over traffic to and from Earth. After he offers Gris another of those chank-pops, Hisst drops his next bombshell - that special agent to go covertly improve Earth's environment will be none other than Jettero Heller!

The Council trusts this Heller, but he has no training as a spy, which is perfect for Hisst's designs. You see (third chank-pop offered and accepted):

"Mission Earth," said Lombar, "must be designed and run to fail."

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a title!

I didn't get it.

"The last thing we want," said Lombar, "is an Earth invaded by and conquered by the present Voltarian government. We have our own plans of conquest for that planet. You know that and I know that. Ours will take place a long time before the official invasion. We are not the least bit interested in Blito-P3 having clean air. There are lots of planets. Blito-P3 has other uses and those uses will be made of it long before any oceans flood. For that matter, who the Devils cares about air?"

Gris notes that Hisst hails from the world of Staphotten, a low-oxygen planet. Meanwhile I'm noting Hubbard's unwieldy and inelegant prose, and wondering at the inconsistent application of "Earth" and "Blito-P3" in regard to our planet's name. Though I guess "Mission Blito-P3" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Maybe they should have came up with something like "Operation Helping Hand" or "Stealthy Gardener."

Anyway, Heller is the ideal agent for Mission Earth because he has no espionage training, so Gris will be able to forge his reports and sabotage his progress. Meanwhile, Hisst can continue with his still-unrevealed ambitions regarding Earth. It's the perfect plan! Why, it could only go wrong if Heller turns out to be a super-intelligent, charismatic hero able to run circles around his skulking handler, his inherent goodness burning through the Apparatus' webs of deception as he almost accidentally turns their evil scheme on its head.

But what are the odds of that happening?

Back to Part One, Chapter Eight

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Part One, Chapter Eight - Eco-Friendly Espionage

I was wondering if I was being too hard on Hubbard, if maybe scientists during the 1980s were legitimately concerned that the planet might be running out of oxygen, but I can find nothing to suggest that anyone else took the issue seriously. Then again, this is the guy who thinks you can wash radiation away with enough water.

So everyone in the Grand Council is quaking at the prospect of the sacred Invasion Timetables being disrupted by those stupid Earthlings flooding and/or burning their planet before it can be conquered, while Gris expects that the Apparatus is about to get crushed for their role in keeping this information from coming out sooner. But Hisst prompts Endow to ask if the combat engineer who'd made the report to the crown had anything else to add besides atmospheric readings.

Captain Roke relays the scout's notes that Earth's satellite network is mostly broadcasting entertainment programs, and isn't geared towards detecting approaches from outer space - I guess NASA and whatnot was just screwing around during the 80s instead of keeping an eye on the skies. The combat engineer (it's Jettero Heller) also remarked what a nice planet we had, and it was a shame we aren't taking better care of it. Since Earth doesn't contain any space-time anomalies, I'll have to agree.

Hisst whispers into his blackmailed puppet's ear and gets Endow to make a speech lamenting how awful these reconnaissance findings are and how much damage they could do to the various government sections, which gets all the other chief bureaucrats in a tizzy imagining the extra work coming their way. Someone proposes invading Earth early, but the Voltar military is undermanned thanks to that rebellious Prince Mortiiy (foreshadowing!) while the fleet hasn't made up losses from its recent campaigns.  Plus, we might get spooked at the sight of aliens and use our nukes to "blow the remaining oxygen cover off [our] planet."  The head diplomat suggests a peace mission and technological aid to help clean up our planet, so we can survive long enough for them to backstab us during the scheduled invasion. I guess some sort of mutual exchange treaty or cultural assimilation is out of the question, then.

But then Hisst-through-Endow suggests that a covert solution might be best. The Exterior Division could sneak an agent onto Earth and leak technological data that would help reduce pollution, all without anyone realizing aliens were involved. Though this would be a long-term project run by the Exterior Division without much in the way of oversight, it would only cost three million credits or so. This is such a paltry sum that no other department head considers it an attempt at graft, so therefore the plan must be legit. They agree, and Gris sags in relief. "I didn't at all anticipate, when we left that glittering hall, that within twenty-four hours I would be in a pit of blackest despair."

He's in despair a lot. In contrast, we're done with Part One, so I'm in fairly good spirits.

Back to Chapter Seven

Monday, July 18, 2011

Part One, Chapter Seven - Imperialist Alien Environmentalists

This Viceregal Chiarman of the Crown, who will be referred to simply as "Crown" for most of this chapter, gives his report. He gets everyone's attention by warning that the matter he will soon speak of threatens to disrupt the Invasion Timetable that was divinely ordained by the Ancestors, something unprecedented in all of Voltar's undefined years of history. The matter is so dire that His Majesty, Cling the Lofty himself, has ordered that the Council deal with it.

No, we don't learn much else about this Invasion Timetable over the rest of this 615-page book.

Crown gives the chair to the King's Own Astrographer, a Captain Roke, who explains that they were taking a look at a planet called "Earth" by its inhabitants, a "humanoid planet" like "Planet Manco" and "Planet Flisten." I have to stop here for a moment to boggle at the term "humanoid planet," which would suggest a celestial body shaped like a human, why Voltar doesn't qualify as one despite being inhabited by beings that can easily pass for Earthlings, and why it's "Planet Blank" instead of just "Blank."

Anyway, Earth's not Voltar's next target, but we're strategically situated as a future supply base for the invasion of "this" galaxy, and once Voltar scouts noticed that we were firing nukes at each other, the aliens started to monitor us more closely. But the Captain-Astrographer complains that the cadets' reports didn't do a good job of describing the situation on Earth, which Hisst and Gris know is due to the Apparatus editing said reports. So the Crown unwittingly bypassed the Apparatus entirely by sending its own survey under a certain combat engineer, which is why Gris never caught the resulting document.

The aliens aren't pleased with the data. "The present inhabitants are wrecking the planet! Even if they don't blow it up first, they will have rendered it useless and uninhabitable long before the invasion called for on our Timetable!" And this is what convinced me to power through Mission Earth - the thought of L. Ron Hubbard trying to deliver an environmental message.

Endow the Apparatus sockpuppet attempts to question these claims, but Roke has a fifteen foot chart with statistics and figures on it, and the Astrographer has personally verified all the projections and conclusions. He rattles off facts: our ocean's oxygen level has gone down 14% in the past century, excessive sulfur content in the atmosphere is leading to global warming (I think listing Hubbard as a global warming activist would actually hinder environmentalists), and our magnetic poles are wandering... huh. I'm pretty sure that last one's not our fault, or even all that dangerous.

"What it means," said Captain Roke, putting his hands on the dais table and leaning toward them, "is a double threat to that planet. One: they are burning up their atmosphere oxygen at a rate that will cease to support life long before the planned date of our Invasion Timetable."

Alright Wikipedia, let's check this... "Human activities, including the burning of 7 billion tonnes of fossil fuels each year have had very little effect on the amount of free oxygen in the atmosphere." Well that's reassuring. A Google search brought me to this PopSci article that explains that "even if we were to burn another 1,000 billion tons of fossil fuels, we would only decrease the oxygen in our atmosphere to 20.88 percent,” but warns that "the effects that action would have on the environment—more particulate pollution, hotter temperatures—would be far worse than oxygen depletion." Not quite as reassuring.

As for Roke's other point:

"Two: the planet has glacial polar caps and the increase of surface temperature, combined with wandering polar caps, could melt these and cover the bulk of their continental areas with water, making the planet almost useless."

I'm somewhat confused by these "wandering" polar caps. So what, is the "cold" part of the Arctic going to migrate into mainland Canada, letting the ice at the top of the world melt? What the hell does magnetism have to do with temperature?

As for the Waterworld scenario: HowStuffWorks has an article addressing rising sea levels, and I found a 2005 paper that, though dismissive of the idea that humans are behind this "global warming," at least humors everyone and runs a worst-case scenario. The author concludes that if all the ice melts we'd see some changed coastlines (eventually, because humans could never alter the environment within a few short decades), but we might see a net gain in habitable land - though he warns that desertification and whatnot might not make all this land as habitable as we'd like. In any event, a second Great Flood is not gonna happen, unless you happen to live in the Netherlands or the Carolinas.

In conclusion, Hubbard is about as good a scientist as he is a storyteller.

So all the Council members are dismayed, and Gris in particular is worried sick about how everything "was going to recoil on Section 451 - me - like a firebomb," which is an odd alternative to "blow up in our faces." Gris can see no way out, none at all, as the chapter ends, which ensures that next chapter a way out will be found.

Back to Chapter Six

Friday, July 15, 2011

Part One, Chapter Six - Black Holes Do Not Work That Way

So three days later it's time for the Grand Council meeting, and Soltan Gris, Lombar Hisst, and two Apparatus clerks head off for the capital with a new character, Endow, the Lord of the Exterior. Endow's a short, fat, slobbering geezer who flirts with senility and has a notorious appetite for "pretty young men." Word of warning - these books are just a tad homophobic.

Anyway, Endow originally got his post through an act of nepotism, but is now propped up by Hisst and controlled through blackmail photos of his liaisons and pictures of scary executions. He also has a nurse follow him around to wipe the drool from his jowls. A footnote from last chapter assures us that this character's name has been changed, and also denies that an Apparatus ever existed under the Exterior Division.

Our crew of villain protagonists sets off for Voltar's capital city, Palace City, known for its gilded architecture and "circular buildings, its circular parks, its circular walls, everything seven times as big as life." Tip for tourists - try to avoid using its inconveniently oversized, circular restrooms. Gris mentions that the settlement was built on the ruins of the capital city of the race that previously ruled this planet, before the Voltarians invaded, a rare bit of background information that will play no role in the story.

But that's not all there is to say about Palace City.

Undoubtedly it was a wise and clever thing, but early Voltar engineers moved a very small, nuclear black hole into the mountain behind Palace City as a power source and defense mechanism. This is fine: it gives Palace City an unlimited supply of thermonuclear power to run its vast complex of machines and devices.

I'll say this in Hubbard's favor - he gets you into science. You read a book of his and come across something like this, say "that can't possibly be right," and go off to Wikipedia and Google to do research.

I can't find any mention of "nuclear" black holes, but given Hubbard's chronic misunderstanding of all things radioactive this shouldn't come as a surprise. Now, black holes are infamous for not emitting anything - quite the opposite in fact - but there's something called Hawking Radiation that might be emitted from the little varmints, though it's much to weak to be used as a power source.

On the other hand, the accretion disc that forms around a black hole as matter is pulled towards its event horizon and superheated by the gravitational and rotational forces, that's a bit more energetic. But from what I read the energy emitted, though the most efficient form of matter-to-energy conversion, comes out as x-rays, which are not to my knowledge terribly useful as a power source. I think Hubbard's under the impression that the radiation emitted in nuclear reactors is what powers them, rather than the heat from the reaction.

In any case, black holes aren't "free" energy because you'd still have to pump stuff into that accretion disc to be converted to energy - maybe he's thinking of theoretical "white holes?" Also, if your society is advanced enough to move a black hole to where you want it, you obviously aren't having trouble generating enough power.

But wait, there's more!

For defense, the usefulness cannot be overstated: space-time distortion takes the whole of Palace City thirteen minutes into the future and any invader would find no target, nothing whatever to shoot at.

That's not how event horizons work. An outside observer watching a clock approach one would see it tick slower and slower, turn a shade of red, and gradually dim and fade away as it passed the point of no return. A black hole doesn't just shift you forward or backward x minutes just by being near it. As for such a timeshift's practicality as a defensive measure, that's stupid too - so what, if I shot a nuke towards the capital, the nuke wouldn't be shifted forward thirteen minutes to detonate, it just gets sucked into limbo? There's no "past" capital that exists for me to interact with? Since it always exists in the "future," there's just a bare patch of earth where the city should be?

Also note that despite this timeshift, people are able to travel to and from the city just fine.  Well okay, not "just fine," Gris mentions that near the "time barrier" surrounding the capital "accidents had happened with outgoing traffic, suddenly shifted down in time, hitting head-on with incoming flight traffic moving up in time at the entrances." But anyway, black hole = two-way time portal. I bet Voltar doesn't have a stock market or lottery any more.

And there's more.

All this may make things very defense-safe but even a small black hole, when it finally expands, can blow up with a violence that levels mountains. They say it takes them a billion years or more before they finally go "bang" and that the one at Palace City is perfectly safe and has a long time to run yet. But how do they know how old it already was when they installed it? And if it's so safe, why did they build Palace City so far away from centers of population? I don't know how the Emperor stands it, frankly.

Black holes don't explode. That's their key characteristic, they're so dense that nothing gets out. They've collapsed under their own mind-crushing gravity. The closest thing they come to exploding is the aforementioned Hawking Radiation, which might cause them - in a timespan beyond the projected life of the universe, if what I've read is right - to slowly, eventually evaporate. Not detonate.

At least the rest of the chapter is straightforward. Gris and Hisst and Endow and everyone make it through the disorienting time barrier insanity, and land in a circular landing pad and climb spiral staircases to reach the circular Great Hall where there's a big-ass circular conference table. Endow takes his seat with his nurse and Hisst sitting behind him, and Gris lurks next to the clerks. He notices how shabby the Apparatus personnel looks next to all the gilded and diamond-studded crap in the room, and expect this observation to be repeated ad nauseam throughout the book. Apparently Hubbard was a big fan of looking sharp.

There's a fanfare and the council members get down to business, and despite Gris being sick with worry the first issue on the agenda is a tax revolt on the planet Kyle. Yes, Kyle. Then the Propaganda, Diplomacy, and Army Divisions get in a squabble over who's to blame for protracted invasion of planet Cliteus, and next there's rumors of a revolt in the Calabar system being fostered by Prince Mortiiy, which the Domestic Police Division blames on the Division of Education's poor choice of teachers.

And here we get a hint that the Apparatus might actually do something other than blackmail, as Gris notes how the Police have assured the Council that the negligent teachers in question have been executed, but not how they intend on dealing with this rogue prince. Apparently there's quite a rivalry between the Apparatus criminals and the "bluebottles," and the not-CIA gets some secret missions to pick up the police's slack. So they're a redundant government agency because nobody's competent enough to reform Voltar's Police Division.

And then Hisst nudges Endow in the back in a "this is it" manner as the Viceregal Chairman of the Crown rises to speak. Sounds like a good place for a chapter cliffhanger.

Back to Chapter Five

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Part One, Chapter Five - The Abduction of Jettero Heller

We're suddenly back outside, where an Apparatus agent disguised as a Fleet orderly is exiting the stadium followed by a smiling and shirtless Jettero Heller. Despite the packed arena from last chapter, there is no mention of anyone else in the area. No spectators are streaming from the stadium, no camera crews are jockeying for position for the best shots of the star athletes, no fans are mobbing the players for an autograph. It could be that Heller decided to wait a few hours for everyone else to go home before following the "messenger" out, except it's mentioned that he's still sweaty from the game he just forfeited. So everyone else just ceased to exist except for Heller and the Apparatus mob.

Once the fake courier and Heller are clear of the doors, Hisst sidles over to block it so that nobody inside can see what's about to happen outside. There's no mention of this casting a shadow out onto the walkway leading from the stadium, so we can conclude that its exterior is both well-lit while also retaining enough pools of blackness for espionage specialists to hide in.

I should really stop nitpicking, this is relatively minor stuff compared to what happens later.

Gris immediately starts to worry because the fake courier is walking all wrong for a seasoned spaceman, "not sidling along with the easy float that stamps the people of the Fleet." Yes, if you spend enough time in low-gravity conditions you can float around back planetside, apparently. Also, the seasoned intelligence operative is wearing his badge upside down. And even Gris - wherever he's narrating from - is able to detect rustles in the bushes and the click of a weapon's bolt being drawn.

These are elite agents of a feared, covert branch of Voltar's government, mind you. Our very dangerous and totally threatening villains. An alien SS that owes its very existence to fear and subterfuge.

Well, just as Gris wonders if Heller was able to hear that too, our hero explodes into action, knocking the faux messenger to the ground. The agent shows us how Knife Section gets its name by quickly drawing a ten-inch dagger from the back of his neck, which seems like a terrible place to try to conceal a weapon. Heller disarms his foe with a bone-breaking kick to the hand, but then five more Apparatus thugs jump out of the bushes with electrified whips.

Is it me, or does an electrified whip sound like a terrible idea for a weapon? You'd do better with a cattle prod, much less likely to zap yourself or the guy next to you.

The zappy whips entangle Heller's arms and legs, which would be the end of a lesser man, but dammit if Heller isn't so awesome that he's able to wriggle around to face the door despite it all. It's only after Hisst stabs him in the shoulder with a "deadly" paralyzing dagger that Heller goes down. Then the Apparatus guys quickly wrap him in a black blanket and hustle him away from the scene. There was not a single witness.

So Heller is sent for the Apparatus fortress of Spiteos, bound for an electrified wire cage in its deepest depths with no outside contact, so that for all intents and purposes he doesn't exist. Meanwhile Gris takes a ride in Lombar Hisst's undoubtedly extremely stealthy tank, and listens to his boss berate him a little more for screwing up so that this all had to happen. They set off for the rest of the night's business - tracking down the original of a certain report.

Except they can't find it. For the next three days and nights the Apparatus agents are breaking into government buildings, rummaging through files, and changing in and out of various disguises, all to no avail. In the end Hisst is forced to conclude that the document was sent straight to the Grand Council or possibly the Emperor himself. So he assigns Gris to go to the next council meeting, while Hisst readies the proper blackmail photos concerning the Lord of the Exterior.

It's only then that Gris musters up the courage to ask his boss what the hell is going on. Hisst rants that Gris let a Patrol Service report concerning world Blito-P3 aka "Earth" get through, which could convince the council that the Invasion Timetable is upset, which will in turn screw up the Coordinated Information Apparatus' own secret timetables for its schemes.

So there's our basic plot - the Apparatus has an interest in Earth it wants to keep secret from the rest of the Voltar government. I can assure you, their sinister plan is as underwhelming as it is stupid.

Back to Chapter Four

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Part One, Chapter Four - Space Dodgeball

The more I think about this operation, the more it confuses me. Why did the Apparatus need a whole convoy's worth of men and a squad from its "Death Battalion" if all it needed to do to complete the objective was send a fake deployment order? Heck, why did they need a fake order in the first place? If it was the KGB asking to talk to the crew of a ship, wouldn't the Soviet navy be pretty quick to hand the men over? What kind of authority does the Apparatus have over other government branches? Why did they need to sneak into the base to begin with?

Anyway, Hisst and his minions, including our narrator Gris, arrive at the officers' club by light of the second moon. Gris notes that his boss has a talent for finding darkness as Hisst finds a place to hide all the trucks, and the criminal scum of the not-CIA move in on their quarry, Jettero Heller.

Now this officers' club isn't a nice lounge or a country club or anything, this is a sprawling complex including bars and housing and a freakin' sports stadium that's situated in a mountain valley, able to seat forty thousand. The Apparatus dregs - now there's thirty of them - get into position around the main arena exit, in hopes that their prey will be nice enough not to take a side door out. Then Hisst and Gris go into the crowded stadium full of cheering fans watching a game of bullet ball.

I wonder if anyone's written a paper about the depiction of alien entertainment in speculative fiction, 'cause that could be an interesting topic. The problem of course is that you'd have to be a really creative writer to come up with a whole alien sport out of nowhere, so most writers just put a weird spin on a more familiar pastime. Like Star Trek's multi-level chess, or the games of ring-toss played by the sinister, bloodthirsty Psychlos of Battlefield Earth.

Well, here we get dodgeball with bullets. Two teams of four to six players confined to ten foot circles on the ground fifty feet from each other. Players have a bag of forty-two three-inch-diameter balls and hurl their projectiles at each others' upper torsos at speeds of 75 to 125 Earth miles per hour (for reference, a site I found listed the top recorded speed of a baseball at 104.8 mph). Civilian games use soft balls, while the manly men of big leagues use hard bullets able to break bones and possibly kill someone if you hit 'em in the head. The Fleet variant is played shirtless, just for extra stupid points.

The game being watched by Gris is almost over, down to two against one. The lone player catches his opponents' simultaneously-thrown bullets one in each hand, and since there's no mention of any sort of gloves we can assume that these aliens' fingerbones are tougher than their skulls. When one of his foes throws another bullet, the lone player, who is of course Jettero Heller, is able to loose one of his own bullets and quickly catch the thrown projectile with the same hand, while his counterattack knocks one enemy eight feet out of his circle.

Lombar Hisst is seething with bitter, jealous hatred towards this Heller feller, and Gris takes a moment to ogle the book's hero as he plays:

He was a tall, very good-looking fellow, extremely well built. Everything about him was bright, full of life. He was dancing back and forth on his toes, laughing at the dilemma of his remaining opponent who now had very few bullets left and was ducking and dodging even though nothing was being thrown at him.

"Want to give up?" shouted Jettero. "We can just toss in our bags and call it a draw."

His opponent responds with a shot at Heller's skull, which only makes our hero laugh before winding up with his left hand in an attempt to handicap himself. Bored, he tosses a few easily-caught bullets which the angry opponent doesn't even attempt to capture. The underdog furiously lobs five balls at once, only for Heller to effortlessly dodge them. Out of ammo and facing certain defeat, Heller's opponent steps forward to the edge of his circle and stands still, chest bared, manfully accepting his loss and letting his superior opponent end the match.  So Heller throws the game by deliberately stepping outside of his own circle.

I think this is intended to be an act of magnanimity, rather than a way to utterly humiliate a clearly inferior opponent and render his "victory" a hollow mockery. Sort of like how the rest of Heller's behavior is supposed to be charming rather than make him come across as an arrogant bastard.  But man, I really wish the underdog could've been the story's hero rather than Heller.

The crowd goes wild and swamps the playing field, the other player laughs with relief at his "victory" and gives Heller a big ol' hug, and Lombar Hisst seethes from the sidelines. Soltan Gris wonders, quite reasonably, how the hell they're supposed to kidnap someone so incredibly popular. The answer will have to wait until next chapter.

Back to Chapter Three

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Part One, Chapter Three - Eye of the Lepertige

And so the bizarro alien counterpart to our own CIA mobilizes for a covert mission, sneaking through the night in a military convoy led by their commander's personal tank... yeah. Actually, the chapter cut takes us from the heavily-armed caravan rolling out to a squad of Apparatus infantry sneaking about on foot, so it's up to the reader to figure out how they managed to slip into a Fleet patrol base.

Hisst, Gris, and fifteen soldiers from the 2nd Death Battalion are Solid Snaking their way along, dodging patrols and searchlights as they creep through the dark base, examining the rows of empty spaceships sitting out in the open for saboteurs or inclement weather to wreck havoc on. I guess in Hubbard's mind anything able to travel in space is proof against rust and dirt, so you can just leave it out on the tarmac indefinitely.

Gris' boss proves to be an old pro at stealth, what with how he mutters the numbers on the spaceships to himself as he searches for a specific vessel. We also get our first mention of the "lepertige" when Gris compares Hisst's eyesight to one, and it's basically going to be the only alien animal Hubbard can come up with for this book. I can only assume that it shares its habitat with wolfyotes and preys upon deeralope.

Hisst eventually finds what he's looking for, a ship that made a recent trip to Earth. He has one of his underlings from the so-called "Knife Section" dress up like a Fleet courier and sends him off to deliver a forged message. Ten minutes later a Fleet crew hurries out, mans their ship, and takes off. Hisst happily comments that the crew will be "safe" at Spiteos within an hour, while their ship will be found "burned to a crisp" in the desert, thereby arousing suspicion when investigators find the crash site totally bereft of remains.

This makes Gris, seasoned Apparatus agent as he is, a bit nervous since "the kidnapping of a Royal Fleet crew and wanton destruction of an expensive long-range star patrol craft was a bit wide even for that lawless organization." Lombar Hisst, meanwhile, is pleased with the night's work so far and is eagerly looking forward to hitting the officers' lounge and abducting "that (bleep), (bleep), (bleep) Jettero Heller!"

This is a short chapter, and I'd merge it with the next one if Chapter Four weren't twice as big as this one. That's because it's the chapter that introduces Jettero Heller, and Hubbard needs to spend a lot of time telling us why we should worship the guy.

Oddly enough, intelligence services having tanks isn't unheard of. Organizations that are intended to monitor other branches of their governments sometimes have an actual parallel military to defend against or instigate coups as needed. My professors said that the KGB deployed tanks during the last days of the USSR, though Wikipedia isn't helping me validate that any. But it makes sense in totalitarian states with a desire to preserve ideological purity against forces from within and without - if the state's army decided to stop following the glorious Communist/Islamic/Flying Spaghetti Monster Revolution, you'd need an equally-powerful group to counter it. And that's why Iran has both a formal Army and the Revolutionary Guard.

But this Coordinated Information Apparatus packing a tank for its leader or having "Death Battalions" is a little less plausible. There's no indication that Voltar's government is concerned with enforcing a specific ideology, and if they were they obviously don't entrust the Apparatus to do it, or else they'd be sending their best and brightest to run it instead of their rejects and criminals. In fact the Apparatus' actual function seems a bit vague - the Fleet is the one running intelligence missions to other planets, and Gris told us the Apparatus was mainly concerned with stockpiling police reports for their blackmail value. So the not-CIA uses its power to blackmail the government into allowing it to continue to blackmail the government.

This isn't even the most pressing problem with the Apparatus, but we'll get to that later.

Go back to Chapter Two

Monday, July 11, 2011

Part One, Chapter Two - Gris and Hisst

Soltan Gris' tale begins on the eve of a two-day imperial holiday, just as he's about to leave for a hunting trip in the Great Desert with some friends of his. But before he can order his driver to take off, he's confronted by a near-manic guard who tells him he's to be brought before Chief Executive Lombar Hisst immediately.

There was always a certain terror connected with a summons from Lombar Hisst. Unchallenged tyrant of the Coordinated Information Apparatus, answerable only to the Lord of the Exterior and the Grand Council itself - and answering to them hardly at all - Lombar Hisst ruled an empire of his own. A flick of his finger, an almost imperceptible nod of his head and people vanished or died.

Now you may remember that this is a book of "satire," and perhaps you've noticed that the initials of this alien Coordinated Information Apparatus are the same as those of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Call it a hunch, but I don't think that's a coincidence. As for Hisst, though, I'm not sure who he's supposed to be, whether he's an allusion to a specific Director of the CIA that earned Hubbard's enmity by investigating Scientology, or some sort of composite character. That's the danger of satire, of course - it easily becomes dated, so unless you know exactly who or what is being lampooned it just comes across as confusing.

Anyway, while he's on his way to see his boss, Gris struggles to think of a reason for the summons, and takes a moment to reflect on his past. He explains how he graduated at the bottom of his class in the Royal Military College and was deemed unfit for a Fleet position, tried Spy School but didn't do well there either, and finally was recruited by the Apparatus.

This satire of the CIA, "the lowest service of the Empire," collects duplicate copies of billions of documents from the empire's military and civilian police. These it uses to blackmail government officials into funding and authorizing its activities, as well as to recruit from the worst criminals, murderers, and other scum. This would imply that Gris had quite a record before he joined the Apparatus, but this is not directly confirmed - though given his later actions, if he wasn't a cold-blooded murderer before he joined he picked up the knack quickly.

The exposition continues as Gris explains that he was eventually promoted to Section Chief of Unit 451, concerned with a region of space containing the star dubbed Blito and its inhabitable world Blito-P3, and picked up the local languages of English, Turkish and Italian. He also mentions that the "Ancestors" who bequeathed the "Timetable" marked Blito-P3 as a future invasion target for the empire, and here you may expect him to say "As you know" and explain to readers the ridiculous notion of a galactic empire that operates on a static invasion plan drawn up by long-dead strategists independent of the changing internal and external conditions over the intervening centuries.

He does not. The Timetable is mentioned a few other times this book, but never flat-out explained. This won't be the first time this happens, either. There's a fair number of dangling plot threads introduced in The Invaders Plan that never come to fruition within it, and the author hopes you'll keep track of them when they're finally followed up on several books later.

Eventually Gris arrives in Hisst's office, which shows obvious signs of a temper tantrum even though at best of times it resembles a "wild animal's den." Hisst himself is a physically huge man who likes to greet people with a "stinger," a foot-and-a-half of whip with an electrified tip. When he sees Gris he throws a wad of paper at him, roars "Now you've done it!" and demands to know why he didn't stop something from happening as he retrieves the paper to grind into Gris' face. Then he grabs his underling, summons the Apparatus Guard Regiment, hops into his personal tank, and leads the 2nd Death Battalion off into the night, Gris in tow.

Which I guess is a good place to end a chapter. Personally I would have filled this one with exposition and important background information, and moved the meeting with Hisst to kick off the next chapter, but then again I'm not a "master storyteller."

Back to Chapter One

Friday, July 8, 2011

Part One, Chapter One - The Confession of Soltan Gris

The first chapter of The Invaders Plan is a letter to the judiciary of Voltar's royal courts, written by one "Soltan Gris, Grade XI, General Services Officer, late Secondary Executive of the Coordinated Information Apparatus, Exterior Division of the Voltar Confederacy (Long Live His Majesty Cling the Lofty and all 110 Planets of the Voltar Dominion)." He hopes to earn some leniency for his numerous and heinous crimes against the state ("I am a menace to the Realm and Your Lordship was very wise to have me locked up promptly") with a lengthy confession detailing his misdeeds, which takes the form of the Mission Earth narrative.

Unlike Battlefield Earth, which was told in a third-person viewpoint that hopped around from character to character as needed, Mission Earth is a first-person story centered around this Soltan Gris. This is not to say that Gris is our hero - quite the contrary, in fact.  Gris admits that someone named Jettero Heller is the proper hero of his tale, and that he himself is its villain. Though he adds that it's the Gods' and/or Fate's fault that he did what he did, and "I cannot help it if villainy comes naturally to me," which I think is a dig at evolutionary science or something on the author's part. And yes, this will be another novel in which Hubbard makes occasional mention of gods and other supernatural figures without going into any detail about them, with the exception of a sun god that he at least gives a name, if memory serves.

Next, Gris reveals the existence of a place called Spiteos, the Coordinated Intelligence Apparatus' secret prison thought long-abandoned by the rest of the Voltarian government, and that Heller had been confined within it before the government issued its orders concerning the planet Earth. Then he goes on to talk about how Heller is a combat engineer of the Fleet, defined as "one who assists and prepares the way for any and all contacts, peaceful or warlike, and serves his respective service in engineering and combat-related matters."

Which is a strange concept, "serves his respective service" aside. Is a combat engineer an ambassador, an infiltrator, a soldier, or a scientist? The correct answer is that Jettero Heller can do whatever he damn well pleases because he's just that good. Think of "combat engineer" as a synonym for a Hubbardian hero - someone who is brilliant, handsome, daring, popular, strong, and basically the best at whatever task he sets out to do. Imagine Battlefield Earth's Jonnie Goodboy Tyler with the benefits of actual military training and a proper education and you'll have an idea of how obnoxious Jettero Heller is going to be.

As a combat engineer, Heller had been assigned to scout nearby inhabited worlds and take orbital photos and atmospheric samples, and one such world he visited was our very own Earth. The mission went smoothly and undetected, Heller and his crew returned home, and a log of his journey was filed, with a copy being sent to the Coordinated Information Apparatus as per routine. And then, Gris rants, everything went horribly wrong.
One report. One single, stupid, errant scouting report of a single, stupid planet and I end up in prison confessing my crimes.
Of course, it didn't all happen that quickly or that simply. What did happen is the horrifying tale of MISSION EARTH.
I remember when it all began.

He remembers it like it happened yesterday... yesterday... yesterday...

Go back to the stuff between the cover and this chapter

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Between the Cover and Chapter One

Past The Invaders Plan's cover you immediately hit a page of blurbs, including comments by authors like Arthur C. Clarke and A.E. van Vogt. I like Clarke's quote in particular: "I am amazed, and indeed, overwhelmed by his energy," which could be read either way and carefully avoids mention of the writing's quality. Meanwhile, van Vogt calls it a "wonderful story," though I like how he specifies that it's written "with style and verve rivalling [sic, emphasis added] great literature."

After a black-and-white repeat of the cover art there's another page of blurbs, this one featuring Orson Scott Card's assurance that the book is "Ironic, exciting, romantic and hilarious," which is sad coming from the guy who wrote Ender's Game. Then we get a two-page spread of a "Voltar Governmental Cities Map." It's mostly shaded areas denoting city districts between a coastline, mountains, and the desert beyond. The names are pretty unimaginative - Government City, Green Mountains, The Great Desert, Western Ocean, Port City, Commercial City, Joy City - with the exception of the slums of Ardaucus and the Pausch Hills, which at least show a modicum of effort.

Next comes a list of "Among the Many Classic Works by L. Ron Hubbard," then a title page, then a list of all the books in the Mission Earth series, then another title page. After the copyright and printing info we get a note from L. Ron dedicating the book

To YOU, the millions of science fiction fans and general public who welcomed me back to the world of fiction so warmly, and to the critics and media who so pleasantly applauded the novel "Battlefield Earth." It's great working for you!

Now I wonder if Mission Earth was avoidable, like if Battlefield Earth hadn't made the bestseller lists or somehow found critics willing to praise it, Hubbard could have decided to retire from writing for good.

After that is the Author's Introduction, which according to Mission Earth's editor was ghostwritten by him on Hubbard's behalf, so I won't spend much time on it. There's a lot of names dropped from both early sci-fi as well as Greek and Roman playwrights, but what stands out to me is a bit at the beginning: "[Battlefield Earth] was fun to write and if the best-seller lists were any indication, people found it fun to read."

As I mentioned earlier and in my other blog, Battlefield Earth's bestseller status was the result of some shady practices by Scientologists, who bought copies in bulk and repeatedly to ensure that the book was a commercial success in an effort to promote Dianetics through the awesome power of corporate synergy. The perennial question, of course, is how large a role if any did Hubbard play in this. From what little research I've done it sounds like he spent his later years balancing leading his followers from hiding with maintaining plausible deniability for their actions, so I can't really speculate. Either he was aware of the book-buying scheme and this comment about his last book selling well is a smug boast, or else he was a man separated from the world not only by his paranoid delusions, but also by the lies of his sycophantic followers.

After a third page bearing the book's title, there's the Voltarian Censor's Foreword. Lord Invay, Royal Historian and chairman of the Board of Censors, assures us that there is no such planet as Blito-P3 aka "Earth" on any of the charts of the 110-planet-strong Voltar Confederacy. The censor admits that while some Voltarian historical figures appear in the upcoming story, the planet Earth and everyone on it are entirely fictional. Special mention is made of a fellow named Rockecenter who allegedly controlled all of the imaginary planet's fuel and finance, with the remark that "no planet would be stupid enough to let itself be run by such a person." Satire!

The standard Hubbard obsession returns once more when the censor goes on to explain that the subjects of psychology and psychiatry are the author's invention, and "to assert that these had a whole planet in its grip is of course beyond even the license of fiction." Satire!

We're also reminded that there is no such thing as "drugs" and that "no population would ever permit itself to be enclosed in the grip of such an obvious effort to enslave them." Sati... hang on, that's a little more problematic. Not the whole "controlling citizens through mind-altering vices" theory, but the notion that these Voltarians, the galactic overlords of over a hundred worlds, have never encountered a substance that got them high, drunk, or even caffeinated. Or, if we go with "drugs" in a pharmaceutical sense, these Voltarians are millennia behind us in the field of medicine.

The censor wraps up with an explanation that this book is intended to show how silly some Voltarians' beliefs in UFOs are, and hopes that it will help put a stop to "the Earthmen are coming" clubs (complete with buttons). The passage concludes with "On the authority of every highly placed official in the land I can assure you utterly and finally, THERE IS NO PLANET EARTH! And that is final!"

After that fit of redundancy, we get the Voltarian Translator's Preface by "54 Charlee Nine, the Robotbrain in the Translatophone" who... you know, I just realized that I can't tell you if Mission Earth is as bad, better or worse than Battlefield Earth in terms of made-up compound words. After reading about breathe-gas for a thousand pages, I'm not sure that sort of thing even registers anymore. That's kind of scary.

Anyway, Charlee the Robotbrain talks about the difficulty of translating Voltarian terms such as glagged (blood leaving the brain due to spaceship acceleration) and the difficulty of confusing English sayings like "get ripped off" with "going on a tear." Supposedly our puny Earth language (presumably English) only has 1/1000th of Voltar's common-use words and a fifth of the vowels and consonants. Since this will have no noticeable impact on the narrative, I can only assume that a lot of these alien words or sounds are redundant.

Measurements are discussed, and will all be presented in familiar Earth units, of course - or rather English units, not metric, because "the computer says this system was invented in a country called France and that that country stinks." The issue of time is raised and a Universal Absolute standard is mentioned, which is kind of mind-blowing - how the hell would you pull that off? What would be basis for your units of measurements, and how could you express them in a way that was valid anywhere in existence?

Then we get to censorship. The "vocoscriber" used to write this book was part of the Machine Purity League, which preserves robotbrain's circuits by bleeping out curse words. There's gonna be a lot of "(bleep)" in this book, and I can't understand why. Hubbard sort of censored himself in Battlefield Earth, alternating between "-------" and Psychlo euphemisms such as "crunching," but given that the book contained genocide, death by mutilation, war, implied offscreen child rape, the destruction of entire planets, cannibalism, and other such quality entertainment, I cannot for the life of me comprehend why Hubbard thought rude language would be considered the offensive part. It's like bleeping out the cursewords in Saving Private Ryan but letting the rest of the movie air unedited on basic cable.

Ugh, just had a horrible thought - Robert Vaughn Young, the book's uncredited editor, mentioned that Hubbard wanted the author's note "to be 'scholarly' - with a bibliography - with the idea that it would be used and cited in schools." Did he intend for children to read this book? Christ on a moped.

And with the translator's preface done with, the book proper begins. Next chapter we see the framing device intended to tie together the ten volumes of this ill-fated "dekalogy.

Back to the cover

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Cover

So, Mission Earth part one: The Invaders Plan. Right off the bat I knew this was going to be rough. Not The Invaders' Plan, a scheme hatched by a cabal of aggressors, nor is it The Invader's Plan, an assault devised by a single foe. It's The Invaders Plan, no apostrophe. I was convinced this was a typo on the weathered old copy I'd purchased, but nope, that's how it appears everywhere else too. Only after I finished the book did I realize the true meaning of the title, but that will come much later. 615 mind-numbing pages later, to be precise.

The cover art is pretty generic, as you can see. There's a bronze casting of a human hand, upraised and grasping a small globe of planet Earth. We can tell the owner of the hand is evil because he's wearing a spiked bracelet. In the background is a squadron of aircraft or spaceships in a triangle formation, and the ships themselves are so small as to be featureless white triangles. The sky shades from indigo at the top through magenta to red at the bottom. And that's it. So, points for simplicity and for accurately reflecting the oh-so-vivid detail contained within.

The back cover synopsis is as follows:


A new style of Science Fiction epic, rooted in the clandestine worlds of intelligence, drug smuggling and crime. With all the classic suspense elements of the fast-paced spy/mystery thriller. Exotically spiced with a liberal dash of humor and a hint of sex.


The asterisk leads to a footnote explaining that a "dekalogy" is "a group of 10 novels." Yes, Hubbard apparently had a thing for making up words, and I'm sure a psychologist could reach a lot of conclusions about a person striving to control the world through the power of names. Yes, just about every time the not-word "dekalogy" shows up there's a footnote defining it, in case readers can't reach their own conclusions about the misuse of the "deca-" prefix. No, I've never seen anyone else use the term to refer to a series of ten books. Also note how it's the "biggest" sci-fi "dekalogy" ever written, not "greatest" or "best" or anything like that. So out of a field in which only Mission Earth competes, the best they could say about it was that Hubbard wasted a lot of paper and ink printing it.

As for the "new style" claim, it's a bit baffling after reading Battlefield Earth. Terl in particular and the Psychlos in general had a thing for intrigue, off-the-record fund-raising, murder, and mind-altering substances. And it's not like Hubbard was the only one blending genres like that - Frank Herbert's Dune immediately comes to mind for containing as much scheming and politicking as it did action on alien worlds. Hubbard probably envisioned Mission Earth as a hybrid secret agent thriller with sci-fi elements, since the protagonist (certainly not "hero") works for an alien intelligence service, but that aside it isn't drastically different from his last work.

What is new is terrifying: the promises of humor and sex. I won't say that Hubbard is never funny, but that he's rarely intentionally funny. I will admit that a few things in this book made me smile, in particular one minor "character," but for the most part Hubbard's attempts at humor are about as successful as his attempts at romance. As for the sex, I'll say that it's both blessedly non-explicit while still being more than I wanted to read. At least in this book. I've heard disturbing reports about future volumes.

And aside from that there's nothing but notifications that Scientologists cooked the books to make the series a bestseller, and five quotes gushing about how wonderful the story is. I can't even twist their words into being more accurate, it just sounds like they're describing a totally different book. Just keep in mind that this is supposed to be "a delicious read" and a "fantastic adventure" once we start the story proper.

Next entry I'll crack this bad boy open and work through the fluff between the cover and chapter one.

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