Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Éminence Gris

In a sense, Soltan Gris has the opposite problem of Jettero Heller.

It's quite easy to describe Gris, as not only is the figurative camera hovering near him for the majority of Mission Earth, unlike Heller the author lets us know what Gris is thinking.  We are shown his appreciation for and faith in psychology, as well as his paradoxical awareness that the discipline exists only to abuse people.  We know that Gris finds it odd when Heller declines to take advantage of a perfectly good rape opportunity, and is generally befuddled by Heller's honor code and basic human decency.  We've seen how Gris hatches and executes his plans, i.e. he sincerely hopes that a particular outcome will occur based on his misconceptions about others' behavior, and then watches in increasing bafflement as that does not happen.  He's cowardly, deceptive, greedy, lazy, and pretty stupid. 

This makes Gris the best developed character in Mission Earth, but I can't say with confidence whether he undergoes any character development.  There are those chapters where Gris ends with a dramatic "____ WAS INSANE!" revelation, but he keeps following Lombar and Rockecenter's orders instead of trying to escape the sinking ship with all the other rats.  Whenever he tries to psychoanalyze someone else he always fails, and as mentioned previously he's aware that psychiatry doesn't really work, but he never loses faith in it.  He only ditches the Apparatus when his boss tries to kill him, and doesn't so much repent of his wicked deeds as he does confess them in an attempt to get a mercifully quick death.  There doesn't seem to be any difference between the Soltan Gris who was first assigned to Mission Earth and the one who wrote about his experiences in a prison cell, other than in personal fortune and circumstance.

Again, this doesn't in itself ruin the book, since not every cast member can be both well-developed and have a character arc.  It'd be nice if a main cast member did, but that may be expecting too much from this author.  The bigger issue is that Gris, like Heller, is miscast for the role he serves in the story.

Telling a story from the perspective of a bad guy can be a refreshing change of pace.  Rather than watching yet another CSI team solve a murder, we can watch that Dexter guy plan and execute some, and not feel guilty because he picks on worse guys.  After spending so many hours blowing away TIE Fighters from the cockpit of your X-Wing, popping in a new game that gives you the chance to do the reverse is quite refreshing, not to mention challenging.  So a spy story told from the perspective of the guy trying to stop James Bond or whoever from saving the day ought to be interesting.  We could see what it's like to build and maintain a criminal empire, the process that goes into designing death traps, or how it feels when your evil mistress is seduced by and defects to the good guy.

Unfortunately, Gris is no Blofeld.  Hell, he's not even a Dr. Evil.  Lombar Hisst is the one who built and runs the criminal empire, Gris is just a mid-ranking bureaucrat within it.  We see him plot and scheme, and while Gris has the odd success of blowing up an electronics store to cover his tracks or smuggling a load of gold to Earth for his personal use, it's quickly and achingly clear that Gris stands no chance of stopping Heller, and not just because Heller has the power of plot on his side.  Gris is an incompetent bad guy who struggles to get his henchmen to do what he wants, constantly shoots himself in the foot with rash and badly-thought-out decisions, spends long sections of the story struggling to find "INSPIRATION!" for what to do next, and spends even longer parts of the book utterly ignoring the guy he's supposed to be stopping.

Having seen the same thing with Terl in Battlefield Earth, my working hypothesis is that Hubbard suffers from a condition that I've heard Ayn Rand struggles with as well: the author knows what is right and what is wrong, and is so fervent in his conviction, and considers this righteous path so obvious, that anyone who deviates from it is therefore an idiot.  After all, how could you believe that Freud was right and everything in life is about sex, or that newspapers are earnestly informing the masses with unbiased information, if you weren't a drooling imbecile?  And since the author's heroes embody the Right Path, and the villains oppose them, the villains must therefore be incredibly stupid.  This leads to a problem when we're expected to believe that people who shouldn't be able to make breakfast without burning their house down have nevertheless managed to engineer a vast government conspiracy.

The result is that we're saddled with an exceptionally stupid narrator for much of the book, and get to watch our viewpoint character fail again and again, in many cases without his target having to be so much as aware of his schemes.  Again, I maintain that there is no such thing as a totally worthless premise, and this sort of situation could work with a cartoon or slapstick comedy.  If Gris were a cartoon cat and Heller a mouse, we could get something that at least ought to keep a preschooler distracted for five minutes.  But Tom & Jerry cartoons usually don't feature sadomasochistic torture sessions, rape or murder.

That's the thing, Gris isn't so much about being the villain as he is about being villainous.  I've already rambled about how Gris doesn't qualify as the main bad guy of Mission Earth, and just mentioned that he doesn't spend all that much time actively opposing Heller.  But he does do a lot of very bad things - immediately upon arriving on Earth he terrorizes his villa staff, then he orders a sex slave.  Gris smuggles in gold to make himself rich so he can make some frivolous purchases, and literally wastes a month in the back seat of his limousine with what he thinks are paid whores.  And then there's that wonderful vengeful rape sequence in New York that ends with Gris spending chapter after chapter deprogramming lesbians with his penis.  Heller's sort of doing stuff in the background, but the story is very much about Gris having a lot of dubiously consensual sex.

And this leads to an obvious question - why?

The purpose of the Gris sections can't be to tell the story of a spy drama from the other side, because Gris barely does that - he does sneaky spy stuff, but only intermittently opposes Heller, and a lot of this "sexy" garbage is completely unrelated to the main plot.  So is Hubbard writing it for our benefit?  Does he think that when we pick up a book with "hilariously satirical look of society" on the back cover, we want to read about a guy raping women?  And what does that say about his impression of us, if we're expected to enjoy looking through the perspective of a villainous idiot?

Or is Hubbard writing it for his own amusement?  He could've written the book as the Journal of Jettero Heller, after all, keeping it first-person for the hero's perspective and third person for the villain.  He could've had Heller uncover Gris' actions after the fact and be horrified at the number of women he brutalized, rather than letting us watch Gris exult that his next victim is also a virgin, for the moment.  But instead he spent most of the series writing from Gris' perspective as he performed his loathsome crimes, and kept arranging things so that his viewpoint bad guy got have a lot of sex.  Hell, of all the villains Gris is the only one who escapes justice, as he ends up punished, or perhaps "punished," with a lifetime as someone's sex toy, while all the others are killed off in various stupid ways. 

Hubbard certainly seemed to have more enthusiasm for the Gris portions of Mission Earth - compare those chapters, with an internal monologue and pointlessly rich descriptions, to the dry, mechanical portions focusing on Heller while he performs his action scenes.  Now, maybe Hubbard was tired after writing seven books from Gris' point of view, or maybe he couldn't get as much from a third-person perspective.  But consider that even when Gris was taken out of the story, rather than switching his primary focus to Heller, Hubbard continued to follow around bad guys like Madison as they fell in and out of Sexy Times.

If you're at all familiar with Hubbard's official biographies and what kind of persona he and his devotees try to construct for us, it's readily apparent that Jettero Heller represents the sort of hero Hubbard wants us to root for, and probably what he imagines himself to be.  Heller is a daring and decorated naval officer, an ace pilot, a fearless explorer, an impeccable interior decorator, an incorruptible good guy who cuts through webs of deception with his own decency, and so forth.  And Hubbard can't write the guy half as well as he can Gris.

If you're at all familiar with Hubbard's unofficial biographies, or even if you've simply gone through his Wikipedia article to read about his crimes and controversies, it's readily apparent that Soltan Gris represents the sort of person Hubbard despises, yet bears an uncanny resemblance to.  Gris is paranoid, scheming, vengeful, corrupt, self-serving, greedy, cruel, abusive, manipulative, perverse, and pretty misinformed about the things he rants about.  I'm reminded of Punch magazine's review of Battlefield Earth, which noted how the book's author displayed an "excellent understanding of evil impulses, particularly deviousness, which helps with the plot, and [he] is well-enough aware of his weaknesses not to dwell upon frailties like love, generosity, compassion."

Gris is the initial "star" of Mission Earth, the author's inadvertent avatar, the one character Hubbard makes an effort to flesh out, and the one he can write the best.  Yet Gris is still awful, his sections drag down the plot, and nothing about him can salvage the story.  So if you can't accomplish anything with the character you most identify with and most enjoy writing about, what does that say about you as an author?

Back to Who is Jettero Heller?


  1. Are you going to give your take on Countess Krak?

  2. Or Teenie!

    Though, seeing how Hubby spent the latter part of his life being waited on day and night by his own personal harem of teenage girls in short skirts and hotpants, the implications sorta seems too obvious to warrant any deeper analysis.

  3. I feel for Gris. He is definitely the most sympathetic character in the series. Not in the sense that his character or actions warrant anything but loathing, but because he was created to be nothing but a dummy for Hubby to spew all his bile and hatred onto.

    I mean, all "antagonists" in the series shared the same role, but Gris did it moreso than any other.

  4. Jettero Heller represents the sort of hero Hubbard wants us to root for, and probably what he imagines himself to be. Heller is a daring and decorated naval officer, an ace pilot, a fearless explorer, an impeccable interior decorator, an incorruptible good guy who cuts through webs of deception with his own decency, and so forth.

    As irony would have it, I tried to leave a comment to this effect on the previous entry, but my connection fizzled and I have no idea if it went through. (I may have said this previously, but I'd have to go through your archives to be sure, and that'd mean dredging up more detailed memories of the drekalogy than I really want.) The specific example I cited was the race-car stuff: I figured out why it was in there when I read, in an excerpt from one Hubbard bio or another, that Hubbard once claimed he'd been the top race-car driver in three successive lifetimes, breaking his previous records with each go-round until he realized that was what he was doing and decided to try something new next incarnation. Jesus whack me with a stick if I'm making this up.