Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Salvaging Mission Earth

Let's pretend you're an editor working for a respectable publisher that at least wants to make a show of backing quality literature, rather than a purely mercenary vanity press.  And that after receiving your draft of Mission Earth and wading through the foot-high manuscript, your first impulse wasn't to impale the thing on a silvered spike, sprinkle some holy water on it, and leave it on the sidewalk to shrivel and burn in the purifying light of dawn.  Against all odds, you went through Mission Earth and decided "with a bit of- with a lot of work, this could be a mediocre story."  Where do you start?

One of the... well, I've used the term "fundamental problem" a lot, but Mission Earth's fundamental problem is really its author.  But one of its core problems is that the story is trying to be so many things at once - a spy drama, an action thriller, a romance, a horror story, a musical, a silly satire - that it cancels itself out and becomes an unholy mess.  Even if written by the best author on the planet, a tale that contains both Gris tripping on a skateboard for slapstick and Gris torture/rape sessions, or Heller smearing a police chief's face with spaghetti sauce and Heller killing Eastern Europe, is not going to work very well.

So the first step, and one that will inform the rest of your editing, would be to get the author to pick  which story to tell, maybe limiting the book to blending one or two genres at most, rather than failing to use all of them at once.  If the aim is a James Bond-ish spy thriller, focus on the espionage, the gadgets, the daring escapes, the dames - not Teenie, or accidental genocide, or Crobe's flesh freaks, or anything "funny" unless you liked the really campy Roger Moore movies.  If the objective is a whimsical, Douglas Adams-style satire of Earth's follies, keep the stupid character names, absurd Madison stories, bureaucratic madness, and godawful music, but cut the sex, bland action scenes, death and torture sessions.  If the author thinks it's most important to warn people of the evils of psychology, keep the lobotomies, the psychiatrists turning people gay, the Nazi conspiracy, and lose the silly bits that distract from that message.

Now this last point may remind us that parts of Mission Earth's underlying message are... ah, have not aged well.  Nevertheless, this doesn't necessarily make the book beyond salvation.  There are plenty of people today who consider homosexuality a mental illness, or who think medical professions are conspiring to milk money from their patients, while the likes of Glenn Beck have built careers out of accusing their political enemies of being Nazis.  And just because a book has an inflammatory message based on the author's paranoia and ignorance doesn't mean that it can't have a functional story.

So, back to the chopping block.  Having gotten the author to narrow his focus, allowing us to cut out the elements from other genres that were getting in the way, we keep cutting to trim the plot down.  For example, if we put the Apparatus base somewhere in the States near the pharmaceutical plants they're so reliant on, by my calculations we could trim a full 500 pages from this bloated story.  No "Sultan Bey" nonsense, no Turkish wrestlers, no plot-irrelevant visits to Istanbul, and no Utanc.  I'm sure the author could find a way to justify the Apparatus base's new location with some technology that renders it undetectable to even the most advanced nation on the planet, and this might even make these aliens a little more respectable - why, they can hide in plain sight, coming and going as they please right under the nose of the world's superpower!  It also adds an element of real danger to those pointless Code Break concerns, since it'd be easier for the local authorities to trace Heller to the secret base, and make it so Heller's absorbo-coat getting scratched during his battles with the Assassin Pilots might have some real consequences.

Similarly, pretty much all of the Gris material that doesn't involve Heller or Krak should go in the trash, simply because so much of it served to merely give Gris an excuse to go from Turkey to New York or vice versa.  The Fortune of Fear, Gris' interactions with Candy and Pinch, their only impact on the story was to get Gris to change location - it's really a testament to Hubbard's writing ability that he can waste so many chapters just making his characters move.  Cutting these prodding (as opposed to plodding) subplots would make strides toward presenting Gris as a credible threat, rather than someone who can spend a third of a book struggling to think of a way to stop the good guys.  Of course, this clashes with Gris' role as the embodiment of everything the author hates and disdains about intelligence personnel, so it'd be a hard sell; all evidence suggests that Hubbard isn't a guy who will pass on the chance to spew vitriol just to make a functional story.

There is of course still more to cut.  I almost wrote an entry on "Hubbard the Temporally Displaced," wondering whether the author's exile from his homeland is to blame for some of the odder elements in Mission Earth - the Prohibition-era mobsters, the old Hollywood stars, Madison's obsessions with Wild West outlaws.  Regardless of whether Hubbard was writing what he remembered about a distant America, reverting to his childhood in his dying years, or simply never developed past that childhood, none of those things belong in the story.  If the bad guy already leads a vast conspiracy with full control of both businesses and governments, adding the mafia as additional antagonists is redundant, and as written Heller's mobster allies were just as unnecessary.  Utanc's interest in actors from the '30s isn't so much a clue that she's not what she claims as it is confusing.  The best you can say about Madison's storytelling is that it could maybe show how silly those PR hacks are, and how stupid everyone is for believing them, except that undermines the profession as a threat.

And then we move on to superfluous cast members.  Mortie the cab driver and Heller's vintage taxi, cut.  Miss Boomp and the Atlantic City sequence, cut.  The Widow Tayl, cut.  Flick and Cun and Twa, cut, cut, cut.  Miss Simmons, cut.  Monte Pennwell, cut that whole confusing framing device and the associated late-addition cast members...

Come to think of it, maybe we should've started from scratch rather than listing all the things to be cut out?  Focus on what elements to use, and the rewrites needed to make a working story, rather than trimming all the layers of fat from this beached whale of a tale?

Right, let's start over.  By which I mean I'm gonna imitate Hubbard and power on ahead in a new direction instead of going back and rewriting or revising anything.

Book One: Title to be Determined.

The starting book's main goal is to set up the story's premise and establish Voltar and Mission Earth, but there's a lot of important things the author forgot to do the first time around that really need fixing.  We need a reason to give a simile about Voltar, to be horrified when psychology and psychiatry perverts the planet.  We need to see its good side rather than following Gris through the slums and prisons and Apparatus bases, to get a real sense of what makes it an enlightened society besides the lack of psychology.  We need to have a reason to like Heller beyond what's on his resume, to come to know and appreciate him as a person instead of a military career.  And we need to cut hundreds of pages of Gris doing office work and trying to prepare for Mission Earth almost by himself - yes, the author should show us how those evil Apparatus guys function, but we don't need to spend a whole book on just that, and leaving Gris to find a doctor and supplies and so forth just highlights how badly-run the organization is.

This is also the point that we, the editor(s), and the author have to make some big decisions.  What's Gris' role in the story?  If we cut the "confession" and Monte as framing devices, we have no need to stick with Gris as the story's (initial) sole narrator, and therefore less need to bug Heller and Krak so Gris can narrate their actions, which would have the handy side effect of forcing Gris to be more active in his surveillance and opposition to them than watching the HellerVision.  Maybe we could have the book's point-of-view character be its hero rather than one of its villains, to heighten the contrast between Heller's usual tactics and the dark world of treachery and spying he finds himself in, and to let us sympathize with him more.  Hell, maybe we could conceal the Apparatus' true aims regarding Mission Earth, as well as Gris' specific orders, until Book Two or later, so that it comes as a legitimate plot twist to the reader rather than a surprise to a character only.

Another big change to consider would be removing the hypnohelmets from the story.  They're problematic for so many reasons, from questions of why the bad guys need to use drugs to control the Confederacy when they have a device that literally controls peoples' minds, to questions of why these things are used so sparingly, to moral issues of why it's okay for the protagonists to use these things if psychology is evil for raping minds in a less direct way.  Though this would force Krak and Heller to work a little bit harder on Earth, this would cut a lengthy subplot concerning Gris' mind problems, and give Krak a reason to come along with Heller on the first trip to Earth: to keep an eye on him if Gris is still dangerous.  Really, Krak's absence for the first few books only served to draw things out even further, and the only tension regarding her arrival was whether she'd murder her boyfriend over a misunderstanding about his lodgings in a whorehouse.  Did I mention we should cut the Gracious Palms and the prostitutes?  Well, we're totally cutting that with the rest of the mafia garbage.

And I suppose this is also the point where the editor delicately makes sure the author wants to go ahead with a potentially inflammatory plot.  Maybe suggest that the Earth villain be something other than an increasingly-dated stand-in for Rockefeller, or that homosexuality might be something people are born with rather than the result of a Nazi-Freudian conspiracy, that psychologists might not want to kill their patients with lobotomies, etc.  On the other hand, if we cut that stuff out, what would the plot be?  Just drugs?  Can we come up with a better reason for the Apparatus to need Earth than a bunch of chemicals it stubbornly refuses to product locally?

Argh, I want to save the patient but he just keeps vomiting up organs.

Book Two: So What's Up With This Earth Place?

Assuming we can get through the first book's rewrites and edits without declaring it a loss or becoming alcoholics, it's time for our first look at Earth, or rather Earth from an alien perspective, and more specifically the United States from an alien perspective, because with all due respect Turkey was just a useless distraction in the original draft.  How this happens is going to depend a lot on what genre we got the author to go with.  A silly, satirical Mission Earth is going to focus on Earth's weirder cultural practices and compare its dysfunctional society to enlightened Voltar, while Mission Earth the spy drama would do better to play up the government's ability to observe and interfere with citizens' lives, creating an atmosphere of danger and paranoia.  Mission Earth: A Cautionary Tale is going to be pretty gross and disturbing, a horror tale of blood and bone shards on the floor of an operating theater, and patients reduced to drooling vegetables strapped to wheelchairs.

This is also the point where we debut the Earth villains, the Rockecenter machine or whatever, which is as important as properly establishing Voltar and the bad guys there.  We need to be shown how Rockecenter controls the world and just how formidable an obstacle he will be, as opposed to having the hero told all this by random people in between bouts of thwarting the bad guy's attempts to stop him.  And how this all falls out is going to depend on the Apparatus and Gris' orders regarding Heller.  The original plan of Lombar trying to kill Heller with an inflammatory cover identity doesn't work very well, in that it brings Heller into contact with Rockecenter's number two almost immediately, in a conflict that Heller handily wins.  We shouldn't rush into this sort of confrontation, should we?

Maybe Lombar could be a bit more subtle, giving Heller an identity with virtually no resources with the excuse that it's the only way to be inconspicuous - perhaps that of Jerome Terrace Wister, a poor country boy trying to get into a big city university.  The same result as Heller's deal with Bury, in other words, but without undermining the threat of Rockecenter.  And hey, this doesn't mean that Heller can't end up as "Rockecenter Jr." in the end, but this would force him to do some actual spy stuff to build/steal that identity instead of being handed it at the beginning of the story.

Books Three and Four: Insert Plot Here

Now we just need to fill the space between the series' introduction and conclusion with a bunch of conflict, which would get started in the previous book, of course.  Heller and Krak run around on Earth undercover, figuring out how it works and how they can save our planet from ourselves.  Gris monitors and "helps" them in ways that keep them from progressing too quickly, only to try and kill them when his superiors tell him the time is right.  Cut off from their home planet, Heller and Krak have to use what resources they've cultivated on an alien world to survive.  But thanks to their ingenuity, courage, and advanced technology, they're able to turn the tables... somehow.

Problem is that the original draft of Mission Earth is heavily reliant on two things, the heroes being able to pull a Solve The Current Problem device out of their bums as needed, and the villains being insultingly stupid.  If we want to tell a story in which the global conspiracy is actually good at controlling the world, it gets harder to believe that one naval officer new at this whole "spy" thing and a psychotic bitch are going to be capable of overthrowing them, and those damned hypnohelmets start to look tempting.

But on the other hand, do Heller and Krak really need to overthrow Rockecenter?  That wasn't in their mission statement, after all, they're supposed to be fixing Earth's environmental problems so that the planet survives long enough to be conquered.  And hell, it's not like the heroes fix Earth's conspiracy/psychology/PR problems in the original draft either.  All they have to do is get those new carburetors and power plants on the market, either defeating or evading the oil cartel's efforts to stop an alternative fuel source, or striking an unholy alliance with Rockecenter so they are the ones to sell the goods.  Surely even Rockecenter can realize that he can't make money on a dead world, or see the value in forcing everyone to buy his new engine types?  Well, not as he's initially written, but maybe we could give him a brain.

We could also have some conflict within the good guys, echoing the extremely brief breakup between Krak and Heller.  But instead of Krak deciding to believe what she read in an alien press and refusing to discuss it with her love, perhaps something the original manuscript played for laughs could be used for drama?  Rather than a sitcom-y "did you have anything to do with this?" response from Heller after someone's been hypnohelmet'd, what if Heller discovered and was horrified by the lengths Krak was willing to go through to complete the mission?  What if he turned away from her, and not over some imagined actions?  What if he had to compromise his values not just to complete his mission, but to be with the woman he thought he loved?  Just some food for thought.

Book Five: Didn't We Just Do This?

And now the exciting conclusion.  Heller and Krak have completed their mission on Earth, but discovered that the Apparatus may be a bunch of traitors, and return home to find the Confederacy in the grips of Lombar's highly derivative coup.  Fortunately our heroes just got back from operating against a similar conspiracy, and this one has only taken root recently, and they have more allies on this particular planet.  So this sequence should feel more like the Scouring of the Shire than the War of the Ring, is what I'm saying.  And maybe instead of being shown Voltar's corruption in one book and then the heroes discovering Voltar's corruption in the next, we can cut the first part so the reader and the protagonists learn things at the same time.  If we don't spoil it beforehand, Voltar's fall to psychology and PR could be as shocking to us as it is to Heller and Krak, who only had suspicions of some Apparatus plot, not a cultural revolution.

With Teenie deservedly and enthusiastically cut from the story, a fate Madison could easily share, we need to decide how Earth's societal sickness was transmitted to Voltar.  Crobe would probably serve this role well, and indeed is one of the prime vectors in the original story, but here's an idea - what about Gris?  Instead of sitting out the end of the story in a prison cell, Gris, who is already an advocate of psychology, could be recalled by Lombar to help him take over the Confederacy.  Suddenly the bad guy who's been opposing the heroes since the start of the story gets to play a real role in its end.

And maybe instead of trying to control the Grand Council through drugs, the Apparatus' original plan could be to use Earth's practices of PR/psychology/psychiatry to take over.  Lombar already decided to imitate the KGB and CIA for his own gain, so why not go for the whole shebang?  Maybe the Apparatus base on Earth isn't a supply source, but a surveillance center, diligently observing and studying how our planet functions so that the Apparatus can duplicate it on Voltar when they've mastered these black arts themselves.  This might justify Madison's existence as an expert, or "expert," on PR abducted specifically to aid and instruct the Apparatus.  Teenie can just stay in the trashcan, though.

How exactly this yarn concludes will depend on what type of story we decide we're helping the author tell (call it a 60-40 split at this point), but hopefully we can avoid a repeat of the "quick action scenes, long conference, followed by an even longer denouement" formula Hubbard seems to fall into.  But there you have it, a general set of objectives for the story to accomplish.

As for how the rewritten books would go in more detail, well, that again depends on the genre...

Mission Earth the silly story

Jettero Heller is an ordinary officer in the Voltar Confederacy's space fleets, nothing remarkable, but without any major faults.  After doing some routine surveys, he inadvertently kicks off the plot by passing on some files directly rather than properly routing them, so that the Grand Council suddenly notices a planet the Apparatus has been keeping secret.  Heller is therefore roped into a secret mission to rescue that planet from its pollution problems, even though he knows nothing of intelligence work or climatology.  "Aiding" him is a diverse cast of quirky characters: Soltan Gris, an Apparatus agent who seems to take his espionage work very seriously without being much good at it, Prahd Bittlestiffender, a talented young scientist who's easily distracted by young females, and the terrifying Krak, a ruthless Apparatus enforcer who is nonetheless smitten with Heller.

The group lands on Earth, discovering an incredibly bizarre civilization.  The local governments ramp up fears of a cold war to excuse their security measures and domestic spying, while at the same time psychologists and psychiatrists try to convince everyone to abandon their sexual inhibitions, advertising firms promise happiness if consumers only buy the right products, and the media spins elaborate tales with no grounding in reality, so that nobody is on the same page, much less reading the text in the same direction.  Heller struggles to keep Prahd on task developing the technology that will save the planet, only to earn the ire of energy companies who won't tolerate any competition.  Our hero manages to antagonize just about every group on the planet, surviving thanks to the skills of Krak, who has inexplicably transferred her loyalty from the Apparatus to the protagonist.  Ultimately, Heller's actions end up turning all these forces against each other, destabilizing the situation enough for the inherent contradictions and fallacies to cause Earth's society to collapse - but in the chaos he's at least able to unload the advanced carburetors and power plants that will keep the planet inhabitable for another hundred years.

During his hijinks, Heller discovers that Gris and other Apparatus personnel have been building close ties with Earth's intelligence agencies and other power blocs, and he and Krak return to Voltar in time to catch the tail-end of an attempted revolution.  Prahd and some of his colleagues have already become psychologists, Gris imagines himself to be a spymaster and kingmaker, and the Apparatus is trying to use Voltar's media to convince everyone they've already taken over.  Fortunately, the rest of the Confederacy is mostly bemused by all of this, and thanks to Heller's report on just how badly things work on Earth, the revolution is put down with a minimum of fuss and violence.

No rape, no statutory rape, no torture sessions, and a minimum of murder and bloodshed.  Just a bunch of people being stupid on one planet, and a bunch of people on another recognizing that stupidity.

Mission Earth the spy drama

Fleet Intelligence officer Jettero Heller is a veteran soldier used to intercepting and decrypting signals and operating behind enemy lines, until one day a coded transmission turns out to be coming from his own planet in the Voltarian Confederacy.  Almost immediately he's arrested by an intelligence service he doesn't recognize and spends some time in a secret prison, only to be just as suddenly brought to a hangar and told he's taking part in a special mission.  Heller has unwittingly exposed the existence of a planet that the Coordinated Information Apparatus has been keeping secret from the the Confederacy for some time, and the rest of the government wants him to do a full report on it.

So off Heller goes, given a half-hearted crash course in advanced espionage by his handler Soltan Gris, and partnered with a cold, sociopathic woman named Krak.  He and Krak are given a cover identity and plopped down in the United States, with Gris overseeing them remotely through mysterious means.  Heller quickly finds himself on a world much like the one he entered when the Apparatus abducted him, a society ruled by paranoia and state terror, a twisted inversion of his own career as an intelligence officer - rather than working against the enemy, these aliens persecute themselves, even "rehabilitating" citizens through lobotomies and brainwashing.  It's hard to determine who is in charge of this planet, as backroom deals between politicians and tycoons blurs the line between government and business, and the world's media is obviously committed to obfuscating the issue.

Just when Heller thinks he's coming to terms with the situation, Gris shows his true colors in an attempt on his life, and Heller is only saved when his Krak defects to his side, having fallen for him and grown tired of the Apparatus' culture of treachery.  She reveals the true purpose of Mission Earth, how long the Apparatus has been cribbing spy methods from Earth, and the plans they have for the Confederacy.  Not only contending with Apparatus assassins but also Earth's intelligence services, and even a local journalist named Madison who comes dangerously close to uncovering the truth about Heller and Krak, our heroes just manage to complete their mission and sneak home.

But their victory is short-lived, as Heller and Krak realize the full extent of the conspiracy now gripping the Confederacy, which has turned their Voltarian allies into obstacles.  Eventually Heller is able to contact trustworthy men in the army and central government and have Krak spill the beans on the Apparatus' actions, but though they attempt to purge Voltar of these dark influences, Lombar and Gris are able to escape, and there's no telling how many Apparatus holdouts are still secreted within the Confederacy.  The story ends on a mixed note, with Heller victorious but uncertain of the future.  

Mission Earth the cautionary tale

Jettero Heller is a deeply spiritual Fleet medic assigned to a survey ship that accidentally finds out about a world the Coordinated Information Apparatus has been keeping hidden from the rest of the Confederacy.  After they return home and log their report, one of Heller's friends from Fleet warns that his crewmates have disappeared over the past few days, and to be on guard.  Immediately afterward, Heller is unexpectedly reassigned to a mission on planet Earth as a base physician supporting the agents infiltrating this alien world.

He joins the cold and chaste Krak and a troubled young intelligence officer named Gris on the planet he had previously surveyed, and quickly discovers that something is terribly wrong.  Discipline at the Apparatus outpost is almost nonexistent, and for supposed intelligence officers, everyone is willing to risk security breaches in dalliances with the local population in order to sate their base desires - assuming they aren't preying on each other.  It turns out the local anti-religion, something called "psychology," has crept into the outpost and convinced people that they're soulless slaves to their sex drives.  Heller eventually leaves the base to learn more, and finds to his horror that the whole planet is this way, that this godless cult has managed to take root in the highest echelons of power to transform a whole society into lawless hedonists.

What's worse is when Heller sees his companions fall victim to these teachings, and Gris becomes convinced that all of his personal problems or career issues are the result of childhood trauma and the lack of sex, driving him to rape.  Heller and Krak try to confront these heresies at their source, only to be institutionalized and subjected to horrific "treatments."  Heller barely escapes being lobotomized, and rescues Krak only to find her transformed into a raving nymphomaniac completely unlike the woman he was falling in love with.  He nevertheless manages to escape with her back to Voltar, but discovers that in his absence, the cult of psychology has started to spread among the ruling elite of the Confederacy.

Before he can warn his friends in the military, Heller is captured again by Voltarian psychologists, who explain the true purpose of his mission: to see whether someone like him would embrace or reject psychiatry.  His captors conclude that Heller is to stubborn for enlightenment, and the book ends with him being carted off for a transorbital lobotomy.  The reader immediately writes a letter to his or her congressperson urging them to pass laws against these quack mental health physicians.

In Conclusion...

...this probably only scratches the surface of what would need to happen before you made Mission Earth a worthwhile read on its own merits.  Then again, for the last three months this blog has been cataloging all the things wrong with this story, so if you invert it all, you could get a full to-do list of ways to fix it. 

If nothing else, this post and the last one should have made clear that Mission Earth at the very least has a lot of material in it for a better author to do more with.  Probably not all at once, though.


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3 comments:

  1. Are you forgetting something? What about the cat? Mister Calico is my favorite character! He must have an important role to play in this story!

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    1. I think Mr. C is best suited for the Disney version of Mission Earth, as the loyal but silently snarky sidekick for the Princess Krak. He can still beat up those nasty gangsters, and caterwaul along with her when she sings. Yes, they'd have to rewrite some of the songs, but I think it'd be worth it to see Krak among the other Disney Princesses. Whom she would try to murder in a jealous rage.

      I mean, if they're trying to add more diversity to the Princess line-up, it's about time they had a sociopath represented, right?

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  2. You should write one of these. It'd be cool if there was a version of Mission Earth that wasn't horrible.

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