Credit where it's due, Jettero Heller at least passes the Plinkett test - and if you don't know what I'm talking about, do yourself a favor and go watch an hour-long vivisection of The Phantom Menace.
Back? Good. Like I was saying, we at least have a notion of Heller's character. He's supremely self-assured and even-tempered, and it takes something like a threat to his loved ones or psychology/PR to really shake him up or piss him off. He never worries about the future but always has something to pull out of his ass to solve whatever trouble he lands in. He's charming and witty, or meant to be, and gets along superbly with anyone who isn't a bad guy. Yes, Heller's not at all like those guys from Episode I... which means that at the end of their careers, L. Ron Hubbard came out better at building characters than George Lucas. Wow.
Here's the trick, though: am I talking about Heller before or after his trip to Earth?
Mission Earth ought to have been a pretty life-changing experience for him, even if Heller was already a veteran space commando. He was forced to live in a primitive society where evil drug-pushing psychologists taught everyone that they were soulless homosexuals, a man's life could be destroyed by whatever lies were printed on a sheet of paper, and the government was controlled by a dilapidated codger obsessed with watching his secretaries pee. Then Heller came home and found that the same sickness has spread to his own civilization, and uncovered the rotting foulness at the heart of his government. He nearly lost his fiancee and dear sister, mmmwhatchusay. Yet the only real differences between Jettero Heller in the dungeons of Spiteos in Book One and the Duke of Manco in his mansion in Book Ten are in terms of glory and wealth.
Another thing to consider is what we know about Heller. We can see he's a good fighter and pilot from the books' action scenes. We know he doesn't worry too much because Krak kept pestering him until he explained that if space commandos worried about every potential danger they'd never stop, those daring rascals. We know that he's charming and witty through his interactions with other characters.
What we don't know is much about how Heller thinks or feels. Sure, we see him decrying the soulless teachings of Earth in Book Two, or giving Izzy that lecture about Life the Universe and Everything in Book Three - but we don't have any sense of Heller's spirituality, his own views of the soul, any of that. We can see that Heller is respectful towards Royalty through his interactions with Royalty, but not what he really thinks of his sovereigns beyond that they need to be rescued and restored to power.
In Book Nine there's that big chapter where Heller and Prince Mortiiy are having their meeting on a snowy mountain, where Heller is trying to recruit a rebel prince to overthrow the government of his homeworld. Does Heller have any doubts about this violent malcontent coming to power? Does he have any guilty questions about the feasibility of the monarchy if this is the type of person who could inherit the throne? Lingering senses of treason? If so, we don't see them - the chapter is nothing but a shouted conversation in the wind and cold, where the narration only describes what the actors do and say, not what goes on within their heads.
Or in other words, even when Heller's the focus of the narration, even when he's our viewpoint character, even when Gris isn't the one relaying Heller's actions to us thanks to that bugging equipment, we rarely if ever see Heller's point of view. Jettero Heller is a long list of achievements and actions with some human-like traits, but is otherwise a flat, static character.
Now, this is not necessarily a crippling flaw. Sometimes you don't need well-rounded characters who develop over the course of the story. I can't tell you much about Indiana Jones other than that he hates Nazis, kicks a lot of ass, and is good at improvisation. And he's afraid of snakes. Looks after kids. Doesn't get spooked by dead chaps. Thinks your country's ancient treasures belong in his museum. Has issues with his dad. Nice hat. Not hugely religious, but can start to come around to the importance of stuff like the Holy Grail. Somehow has tenure. And - okay, look, Indiana Jones may have a little more depth than Jettero Heller, but he's just about as static, and remains largely defined by his actions, not thoughts or feelings.
But Indiana Jones is the star of action-adventures, a tomb raider who swings over chasms, outruns the angry natives, has fistfights in dangerous environments, and so forth. Indy's a throwback to all those pulp serials and whatnot I'm too young to remember, and works really well as the star of the story he's in.
The problem is that Heller is also a throwback to those pulp serials, 'cause evidently that's all Hubbard knows how to do, except he's not in a pulp action-adventure. He's in Mission Earth, which wants to be a funny sexy satire with cerebral spy drama and sharp political commentary. When Heller's in his element, which is to say behind a wheel or flying a spaceship, he's just the sort of stuntman the story needs, a popcorn flick hero who can make the big explosions happen and fly off into the sunset while the credits play.
Unfortunately, that's only a very small portion of Mission Earth. For the story's spy stuff, or the political commentary, Heller is woefully miscast - imagine Matt Damon strutting through the Bourne movies with an obnoxiously smarmy expression, never breaking a sweat as he defeats his foes and overcomes obstacles with laughable ease, all with nary a sign of inner turmoil or self-doubt*. Heck, I wouldn't put Heller in the cheesier Bond flicks.
I think at some level Hubbard knew this, which is why Heller disappears for such long stretches of the story, despite the books' back covers treating him as the central character. I have to ask, though - if your story is an examination of planet Earth through alien eyes, but you never get around to putting the "camera" "behind" those alien eyes, what's the point?
* I haven't sat through any of the Bourne movies, so if Matt Damon actually does this in them, please disregard this comparison and substitute a better one.
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