Thursday, October 8, 2015

Ole Doc Methuselah - Pulp "Hero"

The odd thing about Hubbard is that, terrible as his writing is, it still encourages you to read.  I've mentioned before that his attempts to put the "science" in sci-fi are so inept that the reader is almost obligated to go learn how things actually work, and at the end of the Ole Doc Methuselah collection, I feel a need to dig up some contemporary pulp sci-fi.  Like, I want to reassure myself that it was possible to tell an entertaining, positive story in those old magazines.  That all those classic heroes weren't as bad as Ole Doc Methuselah.

The idea of some group of supermen roaming around righting wrongs isn't anything new - heck, the Knights of the Round Table probably count - and better authors than Hubbard were writing yarns along those lines before Ole Doc got dragged into his first adventure in 1947.  E. E. "Doc" Smith's first Lensmen stories debuted over a decade earlier, around the time Doc Savage was having his own adventures.  As I said, these are still on my "need to read" list, so I can't tell you much about them that you couldn't find out on your own by reading the Wikipedia summaries.  As I understand it, Doc Savage has the mind of a Renaissance Man in a star athlete's body, someone in the peak of physical condition with the training to act as a detective, inventor, physician, and explorer.  The Lensmen are the result of an alien breeding program, genetically-predisposed to be natural leaders and the heart of a Galactic Patrol, protecting interplanetary civilization with the help of Lenses that give them incredible psychic powers.

Ole Doc Methuselah probably has more in common personally with the former than the latter, though his Soldiers of Light are (theoretically) similar to the Galactic Patrol.  These stories also share some values dissonance as well - Hubbard's stuff is almost casually racist what with those Mongolians in "Her Majesty's Aberration," Doc Savage reformed criminals by getting them brain surgery to fix their undesirable tendencies, and the Lensmen are basically a positive example of eugenics.  I'd say that the works are all sexist to some extent, but the truth is probably more complicated - they were written in more a patriarchal society than the one we live in, but Doc Savage had a cousin who could fight as well as his other companions, and the Lensmen were eventually joined by a Lenswoman who dispelled the belief that ladies couldn't use a Lens because they lacked a killer instinct.  Meanwhile in the Ole Doc stories, the only woman in a position of authority is a mad queen besieged in her prison-palace, who clings to power thanks to some hostages in her basement.  Women are mostly damsels to be rescued or wooed, or simply absent.

The biggest and most important difference between Hubbard's Ole Doc stories and these other pulp superheroes - from what I've been able to learn about them - is what the good guys do with their power.  Doc Savage sounds like an Indiana Jones type, exploring distant lands, fighting empowered villains, busting crimes... well, maybe he has more in common with the Shadow.  Oh hey, same publishers.  Anyway, not every person rolls well enough during character creation to be a Doc Savage, and even his half-dozen recurring super-partners eventually fall by the wayside, so he's really a singular fellow.  But he's got this oath, see.

"Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do. Let me do right to all, and wrong no man."

So while not everybody can be on Doc Savage's level, he's still obligated to look out for them.  Now, I can't find any creed for the Lensmen, but I know that while they're super-elite agents able to accomplish incredible things by themselves and granted the authority to requisition whatever they need to finish their mission., they don't work alone.  The Galactic Patrol they lead is an enormous organization, and has a millions-strong recruitment pool when it comes to selecting new Lensmen.  And the technology they wield, apart from their lens, is the product of humanity at large, not a few super-scientists.

The Soldiers of Light, though?  They're a weird mix between the others, like if Doc Savage and his buddies came up with the first Lenses, but kept them for themselves.  And then when other humans developed their own Lenses and started fighting with the things, Doc Savage and the Fabulous Five (and cousin Pat) stepped in, declared themselves the Galactic Patrol... and confiscated not only every other Lens in existence, but turned back the clock so that all the other scientists in the galaxy would be unable to make them.  And then went around quashing anyone who made motions in that direction.

Doc Savage is one man trying to make the world better as best he can.  The Lensmen are the defenders of Civilization, waging a colossal struggle against an opposing, villainous empire.  The Soldiers of Light are an elite (i.e. laughably small) organization that supposedly patrols multiple galaxies, concerned only with the biggest problems.  If someone's using the medical technology they've claimed a monopoly on, or a plague threatens to spread between galaxies, the Soldiers of Light will step in; otherwise, it's your problem.  And so under their rule, the galaxy slides into barbarism, full of petty tyrants and monarchs and generalissimos, where an alleged empire fails to keep law and order, and democracy and human rights are forgotten concepts.

Just imagine if a bunch of Western physicians, with their advanced training and medical equipment, came to a destitute Third World nation to do some humanitarian work.  They see a local warlord lobbing anthrax around, use their skills to treat and contain the disease, confiscate all the specimens the bad guys were using... and then shut down all the local clinics and hospitals, so that no one would be able to use anthrax again.  And then they patrol the country, ignoring subsequent cholera and Ebola outbreaks as they monitor for biological weapons.  And if another warlord comes along and starts a devastating conflict, so long as he uses conventional weapons, they consider the matter "political" and none of their concern.

We wouldn't call those doctors good guys.  And that's why I consider Ole Doc Methuselah a protagonist, not a hero.

Oh, he ends up saving the day, but look back over the stories.  "Ole Doc Methuselah," he's doing some fishing when a hot girl blunders into him and draws him into some land speculation scheme.  "Her Majesty's Aberration," Ole Doc stops for gas and blunders into a civil war.  "The Expensive Slaves," he's asked "IF CONVENIENT" to check on an unidentified disease and pick up "A FLASK OF MIZAR MUSK IF YOU STOP."  "The Great Air Monopoly," another holiday interrupted by a hot chick.  "Plague," the first time he hears about and responds to a medical emergency on his own.  "A Sound Investment," he solves the mystery of a strange disease outbreak only because it's on the same planet as some estates he's securing for the Universal Medical Society.  "Old Mother Methuselah," he investigates a problem only because it's on a planet with potential fishing holes, and even then he only gets involved when he's attacked by the crisis' perpetrators.

Other stories have wandering "knight errant" types who go from town to town, their sense of justice and heroism compelling them to fight evil and move on once it's vanquished.  There are drifters who aren't looking for trouble but come to stand up to it when pushed.  And then there's Ole Doc, who when presented with a problem will roll his eyes and tell someone else to deal with it, then have his slave fetch the fishing gear. 

But that's still not the worst part about this whole "Soldiers of Light" thing.

The Universal Medical Society's gimmick is that they have decided that they're the only group responsible enough to handle advanced medical technology.  They've got the knowledge, skills and gadgets that ordinary physicians lack.  The problem is... well, the root problem is that Hubbard's not a doctor.  He can't describe the advanced surgeries these super-doctors perform, the best he can do is describe the magical doodads Ole Doc uses to bring people back from the brink of death or restore them to the beauty of their youth.  But having your science hero wave a pharmacy ray rod at problems until they go away isn't terribly compelling, so Hubbard tried to think of medical mysteries to solve that would keep the reader's interest until the reveal at the end of the story.

But as I said, Hubbard isn't a doctor, he only knows the bare basics, like there's a gland called the thyroid and it's important.  Which means that Ole Doc therefore can only demonstrate knowledge of the bare basics.  Which means that the other characters in the story cannot.  Which means that the Universal Medical Society is not just keeping potentially dangerous medical science out of the hands of others, it is going further, creating a universe in which people don't know to check for radiation on alien worlds, don't know how to contain (much less treat) a plague, confuse an allergic reaction with poisonous gases drifting down from outer space, can't perform plastic surgery, and so forth.

Heroes are supposed to solve problems that nobody else can, not take efforts to ensure that others can't help themselves.  And then ignore most of the new problems resulting from those efforts because they aren't quite big enough.  The only reason we can't call the UMS a villainous organization is because they presumably solve more problems than they create... well, no, we can't say that.  Alright, they presumably save more lives than their policies indirectly kill or their agents can't be bothered to save.  Taking care of a plague that could have threatened an entire galaxy earns a lot of karma, right?  Even if the only reason the plague was an issue was because everyone else is too dumb to quarantine a diseased ship.  But surely saving galactic civilization from its own stupidity makes up for all those slaves that go unfreed, all those disease outbreaks that normal physicians can't cure but which aren't big enough to register on the UMS radar, yes?

The funny thing is, there's only six hundred Soldiers of Light, and they patrol multiple galaxies, so you think each individual would have an enormous work load.  Except Ole Doc rarely seems busy.  He's in full-on crisis mode for "Plague," but the rest of the time he's more or less on vacation or having a leisurely, aimless cruise through space.  Compare him to a real doctor, who gets to put in long hours during work days, more hours spent doing charts afterwards, and who may still be on call during the weekend, and... well, you might start to ask, if Ole Doc's got all this free time, why not help out more instead of taking another fishing expedition?  But then, this "Soldier of Light" hasn't made an oath like Doc Savage.  He isn't honor-bound to protect civilization like a Lensman, he's sworn to protect medical science from lesser people.

So yeah, I think I need to visit my friendly local used bookstore and try to find some sci-fi from the 30's or 40's that doesn't make me want to equate "pulp" with "crap."  Wonder if the Lensmen stuff would be worth reviewing in blog posts?  I'm not sure I could call it "sporking" since it can't be as bad as Hubbard's material... hmm.  Getting ahead of myself: first step, get the book, second step, read it, then decide if I'd like to write about it.

And it's not like there aren't any other Hubbard works to properly skewer.    

No comments:

Post a Comment