Monday, October 14, 2013

Intermission - So Which Disaster was the One in the Title?

I don't like any of these books, but I will say that I have less enmity for Disaster than the others.

Stuff happens in Disaster, a ton of stuff.  Heller flies around waving his magic wand to fix all the world's problems, killing only a hundred million people.  The Afyon base finally turns on Gris.  The heroes briefly return to Voltar, learn the state of the Confederacy, rescue the emperor, and flee back to Earth, where Heller gets to deal with the fallout of his actions at the beginning of the book.  There are not-explosions, shootouts, dramatic confrontations, with a notable lack of interminable boat trips or statutory rape.

More than that, a lot of long-dangling subplots finally come to a head.  The mystery of Utanc is revealed.  Heller's ties with the Corleone crime family pay off.  Mary Schmeck is not only remembered, but Heller's experiences with her even manage to save someone's life.  The story is tightening up, getting ready for the Third Act - figuratively speaking, of course, trying to fit Mission Earth into a three-act structure works about as well as putting a pineapple in a cake mold.

And none of this saves the book.

The reason Disaster is action-packed and full of significant developments is because the other books weren't.  Voyage of Vengeance's climax was truncated so the reveal of Heller's survival and Raht's defection could happen at the start of this one, because Hubbard wanted each book to end with a cliffhanger.  Similarly, Villainy Victorious - well, we'll see shortly.  I'd suggest that the base defection, Heller's energy revolution, the heroes' discovery of Hisst's coup, and the whole war sequence at the end were the result of Hubbard growing weary of Mission Earth and rushing to finish it, and that may indeed be the case.  But even if it wasn't, it's hard to see how things could have happened differently.  With Mission Earth supposedly completed, it's quite natural for Heller and Krak to go home, where they'll of course notice what the Apparatus has been up to.  Rockecenter's reaction to Heller's inventions are also obvious and timely.

So I think Hubbard wrote himself into a corner of sorts.  He'd set up all these plotlines over the last seven books, and when one was resolved the rest went off in sequence.  While it's certainly an improvement over the vast amounts of nothing that happened in Voyage of Vengeance, an overabundance of action is nearly as much of a pacing problem as excessive inaction.  None of these books stand on their own as functional stories, leaving Disaster as a parade of explosions and gunfire, without room for any niceties like character development.

Another problem concerns the subplots that I praised Disaster for wrapping up.  I already mentioned how the Corleone-Narcotici mob war was kicked off so Heller could bypass a couple of policemen, which is staggeringly stupid, but at least confined to a couple of chapters in this one book.  Utanc had been going on since Book Two.  We wasted countless - as in "I'm not going to go back and count," any number greater than 0 is too many - chapters watching Gris "order" her, pamper her, fall in and out of her good graces, and so forth.  And for what?  Well, Utanc draining Gris' funds prompted him to seek an alternative source of income, meaning he resolved to make Rockecenter rehire him by stopping Heller - or in other words, the author invented a subplot to make the book's villain actively oppose the book's hero.  That's about it.

Sure, Utanc turned out to be a KGB spy, but astonishingly enough it looks like a terrestrial power discovering an alien base had absolutely no effect on the book's plot, even before Heller annihilated Russia.  Maybe it'll come up later to raise the grim specter of a Code Break, but that would be redundant due to all the fantastical technology Heller's been throwing around.  It looks like Utanc's main reason for existing was to allow the reader to laugh at Gris for getting beejays from a man in a dress.

Heller's affiliation with the Corleones isn't much better.  He fell in with the mob shortly after arriving on Earth, helped kill some people, threw pasta in a guy's face, became the adopted son of its leader, before being cast out after said leader read a newspaper, but what about this association helped move the plot forward?  He got a valuable lackey in the form of Bang-Bang, who served as a sniper during that wholly unnecessary demo derby car race to promote Heller's new carburetor which got built anyway so what the hell, and Bang-Bang went to ROTC in Heller's place so Heller ended up an officer in the army which allowed him to keep the Army from apprehending the Corleones during the gang war at the end of this book so Heller could get past a couple of policemen.

It's like the author is intent on using the longest, most convoluted means of getting from Point A to B, inventing detours and taking us on scenic routes to look at things he finds appealing but have nothing to do with where we're trying to go.  Heller could've attached a zipline to another skyscraper and gotten his friends out of the Empire State Building that way.  Heller could've used his disintegrator ray to cut a hole in the floor above his offices and had Izzy and Bang-Bang and Twoey take the elevator out the front door.  He could've used that paralysis beam or whatever he used to knock out the Coast Guard a book or two ago.  He could've had that damned cat make a distraction.  But instead, the author decided that a half-dozen schmucks was an obstacle that could only be overcome by a mob war.  Because mobsters are awesome, right?  Let's throw a bunch of them into a book about alien espionage and social commentary!

Another "one step forward, two steps back" development in Disaster is the end of Gris' role as narrator.  Though a potentially interesting conceit, it was always sabotaged by two factors: the lengths the author had to go to keep Gris in the dark about certain developments despite the lengths previously gone to in order for Gris to monitor Heller from the comfort of his couch, and the fact that Gris is such a lousy villain.  He's wasted as a villainous viewpoint character because it takes an extraordinary effort to get him to act like a villain, and he's terrible at it.

So after a brief interlude with a prat named Monty, the book adopts a standard third person omniscient narrator, so that at long last the narrative is freed from the emptiness between Gris' ears, allowing us a potential glimpse of what goes on in Heller's head... and the author doesn't take advantage of it.  He's content with describing Heller's actions and dialogue, but our book's hero remains as closed to us as he was through Gris' eyes.  A particularly annoying element is removed from the book, but nothing replaces it, and the void continues to hurt the story.

Finally, there's the matter of Russia.  I wouldn't call it the story's Throw-Away Country, the Soviet Union's obliteration is a huge deal and has a lasting impact on the plot - just not on the character who killed it.  But the incident remains disturbing for showing the author's limited imagination, which is ironic for somehow who wrote a foreword praising sci-fi for moving society forward.  Hubbard apparently couldn't conceive of any way to end the Cold War without wiping out the other side.  He simultaneously acknowledges how horrifying the millions of resulting deaths would be, while having everyone talk about how the world is better off for their loss, how nobody's sad to see them go, how the whole holocaust proves that there really is a God.  Heller gets to dodge responsibility for all the deaths since it was that nasty other pilot's fault for getting in the way, but he also gets a bit of the credit for saving the world, if accidentally.

And really, Russia's just part of a trend.  As I mentioned last time, this book's heroes tend to solve their problems through violence, physical or mental, either killing those that oppose them or overwriting their minds.  There's rare occasions when a former foe like Raht gets recruited for the cause, but that's never Heller or Krak's first resort, is it?  Heller didn't make any effort to persuade Raht to join him, the guy defected on his own.  The only reason the guys in the Afyon base survived to defect was because Gris accidentally triggered Heller's explosives early, forcing him to use a non-lethal back-up plan.

I guess that's the lesson of Mission Earth - this horrible world is so broken that the only way to save it is to destroy it.  Wipe out Russia to end the Cold War.  Mind-control opposing witnesses and threaten their lawyers if they ever go against you again.  Cheat and then destroy the global economic system.  Create a fake energy crisis to drive oil stock down so you can buy control of every company for cheap.  Hand over a city to a criminal organization so the police stop getting in your way.  Blackmail the most powerful man in the world with murder if he doesn't agree to your demands.  All so the wretched planet survives long enough to become part of an alien empire.

So remind me again why we're supposed to be cheering for Krak and Heller?  What's the substantive difference between all this and what the Apparatus is doing?  Is using a hypno-helmet to get control over others any better than getting them hooked drugs only you can provide?

At least Disaster wasn't boring.  It was loud and stupid and taught us a bad lesson, but it wasn't boring.  We'll see how Villainy Victorious stacks up.

Back to Part Seventy, Chapters Six and Seven 

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