Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Non-Update Update and an Interesting Link

Mission Spork will be taking the rest of the week off to celebrate an act of heartwarming charity that was betrayed a thousand times over, and then I'll have to decide what to do next.  I still have a few more Hubbard "classic" pulp stories to consider, so we may explore his attempts at a spy thriller (or rather early attempt) and whatever "If I Were You" is.  From the cover art it looks set in a circus, and I'm not sure how to classify such a story.

A question looms over all this like an erupting volcano: whither Dianetics?  Thus far I've been skirting the topic of Scientology, or maybe I should say mocking it when I recognize its influence on Hubbard's fiction (or vice versa) rather than tackling it directly.  Doing so would seem to be the logical next step, but on the other hand, I'm not sure how I could "spork" it since it's not really literature.  It'd be like critiquing a self-help book, or grading some undergrad's half-assed attempt at a thesis.

Additionally - well, it's been done.  Tony Ortega and Vance Woodward have completed a 25-part series, Blogging Dianetics, and you can probably guess what they wrote about during it.  From what I've read, it seems pretty informative and hits Dianetics' highlights (who knew constipation during pregnancy could seed a developing mind with negative thoughts?) while also providing a good perspective on all the crazy, since Mr. Woodward is an ex-Scientologist turned lawyer and writer.  I'm not sure what I could add.

But maybe something will occur to me when I have the time to go through the whole series in-depth.  At any rate, busy couple of days, then back to pondering the next step, and then I should have something next week.  Until then, enjoy the annual turkey genocide.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

And Yet I'm Still Disappointed

So ends Under the Black Ensign.  Though I guess it would be Under the Union Jack if there was another chapter added to it, right?

It wasn't bad, or at least bad like Hubbard's other works were.  Its flaws aren't rooted in the author's psychological issues or ignorance, and the tale isn't trying to be something it isn't.  There's no fundamental problem that causes the story to collapse or alienates the reader.  But it's not very good, either.

The characters are all flat, from the square-jawed and rugged Bristol to the flabby and cowardly governor to Bryce the flamboyant pirate.  Lady Jane doesn't do anything but look pretty, fall for the hero, and get kidnapped - alright, I guess pulling a plot contrivance out of her purse for the grand finale might count for something, but other than that she serves little purpose in the story.  Nobody undergoes any real character development, and after spending a few chapters railing against the injustices of the colonial system, Bristol unhesitatingly accepts a job offer by the people whose abuses drove him to piracy in the first place.

This might be more forgivable if the rest of the story made up for these deficiencies, but nope.  For what is supposed to be a swashbuckling adventure, surprisingly little buckles were swashed.  I think the longest fight is the half-page duel between Bristol and Ricardo back in Chapter Three, and the action scenes are given pretty sparse descriptions: "The guy slashed his sword.  A pistol thundered.  Another guy fell down."  I'm not asking that when two characters come to blows the author spend several pages describing every thrust and parry, but it'd be nice if he showed some interest when his characters are placed in mortal danger.

And if you're looking for escapism, to lose yourself in a pirate fantasy, this story doesn't does a good job of telling you how it feels to be a seadog.  When Bristol's up in the Terror's rigging at the start of the book, the author describes what the main character can see from there and that the Caribbean is nice and blue that morning.  Nothing about the cool breeze brushing past Bristol's ears, the creaks and groans of the tower of rope and timber he's settled upon, the teetering sway the mast as the vessel rolls and climbs and slides over the waves.  We get no sense of the daily routine that comes when serving at sea, what it's like to lead a band of outlaws, how you justify killing other people to take their stuff, what's it like to walk back into civilization after spending weeks living outside the law.

It almost reads like a summary of someone else's pirate story.  Which is a weird thing to say on a blog that summarizes and critiques other people's writing, I'll admit.

So if stuff like Mission Earth and Ole Doc Methuselah failed because their foundations were rotten, this story is underwhelming because the author made a rather uninspired hovel out of the timber and nails provided.  It's just not very exciting or interesting, a tale that meets the basic requirements of storytelling but doesn't try to do more.  It's hard to see why churning out something like this gave Hubbard a reputation as a master storyteller, or why stuff like Under the Black Ensign constituted a golden age of popular literature.

Maybe the silver age was really underwhelming.

There's one thing Under the Black Ensign does do well - you will pick up some nautical terminology.  From mizzentops to marlinespikes to foretops to pieces of seven, this story will send you flipping forward to the book's glossary with an annoyed sigh as you try to figure out what the hell the author is talking about.  And I have to say, it's a little strange to read something in which Hubbard displays an understanding of his subject matter.  Guy should've stuck with pirate stories instead of trying to do sci-fi, that's for sure.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 8 - The Last Hurrah of Pirate Captain Bristol

A busy fourteen pages before we wrap up the story.

Bristol enters Nevis' harbor aboard the Terror, towing the Falcon, so that unless someone looks close enough to notice the not-whiteness of its crew, people should mistake him for a victorious British ship with a captured pirate vessel.  It helps that it's foggy and early enough that nobody has to fly the "morning colors" or announce themselves, it's the time of day that you just sail into port all quiet and inconspicuous.  I guess that's a thing?  It would be a suspiciously convenient protocol to make up, this "we just woke up and aren't paying close attention" hour.

The pirates make it all the way next to the anchored man-o'-war before the sun burns off the fog, someone gets a good look at the Terror's crew and shouts the alarm.  That Black Ensign goes up, broadsides are exchanged, and Bristol soon realizes that Ewell deceived him - there are enough men at Charlestown to operate Bryce's captured vessel after all.  If only our hero had waterboarded the lieutenant, then he would've gotten more reliable intelligence.

Now, here's the trouble with constantly reminding us of the ethnicity of Bristol's sailors.

Bristol ran his ship in close to her. His port guns were ready to let drive. His black gunners held their matches in steady hands, blowing on the hemp to keep the fire going.

"Fire!" cried Bristol.

Three rows of black snouts leaped out of sight, replaced instantly by a slashing horizontal column of smoke.

It reads like Bristol's crew just let out an almighty sneeze at the enemy.

Anyway, boats shoot at each other and the man-o'-war limps away, not to run, but to block Bristol's exit from the harbor.  And it's at this point that our hero realizes that he may be boned - he's outnumbered and now trapped in a hostile port.  His only hope is to rush Charlestown's palace and try to seize the governor, thereby winning the match and forcing the other team to concede.  But of course there's too many bad guys, such a feat would be impossible, etc.

Without nary a "it must be chanced," Bristol gives his men the order to beach the Terror and storm the harbor.  He won't be doing this unopposed, however, there are hostiles preparing barricades and readying themselves to resist him.  And oddly enough,

Bristol saw with surprise that most of these men were black.  Was it possible that the planters had sent forth their slaves to do their fighting for them?  Did Sir Charles think the English regulars too good to risk their necks?  Disgust welled up in Bristol - disgust for a feudal system that had come down from the medieval days, when men were mere beasts of burden.

He's not racist, guys.  Though this does make the ensuing brief paragraph of combat a bit confusing, as the narrator has to distinguish between "The blacks" diving into the water after Bristol and the "black from shore" he stabs while rushing into Charlestown.

With that minor speedbump overcome, Bristol runs towards a building which he "took it to be an arsenal," which means it's actually something else.  Swords are swung, musket balls are fired, and the reader is left to do the heavy lifting for this exciting pirate action scene.  The important thing is that Bristol hears someone calling to him and discovers Bryce beating on a barred door - he's not in an arsenal, but the prison!

Bristol gets some keys to release Bryce, who of course is in fighting shape after enduring days of imprisonment by the cruel British.  Even better, there's three hundred other prisoners caged with him, who are all equally willing and able to fight.  And the good luck continues when the heroes find crates of sabers confiscated from the Spanish, all stored conveniently in the colony's prison.  Sure is a good thing that Bristol inexplicably abandoned his plan to grab the governor and went for a gated building he could "hold out" in, huh?

So the British batter into the arsenal that Bristol's pirates have seized, only to just as quickly be routed by the feeble and malnourished prisoners swinging greasy swords just out of their packaging.  Bristol has everyone follow him up the hill to the palace, and nobody reacts when a cannon mounted over the place's gates "carved a straight line" through the mob of pirates.  They've got good morale, I'll give them that.

Bristol has a pair of his "blacks" throw him onto the wall next to the gun crew, heralding a rain of buccaneers that seizes the fortifications.  The cannon is predictably captured and spun around to blast open the palace gates, and... huh, it doesn't look like there's any real defenders besides that gun crew and a "crew at the gate."  No snipers firing from the palace itself, no bodyguards putting up a barricade in the entrance hall.  Hmm.

With such paltry resistance, Bristol only takes Bryce "and a few of the blacks" with him to confront the book's villain.  Sir Charles Stukely is astonishingly still sitting at his desk, dressed in a fancy blue coat.  When Bristol wittily asks why the governor didn't invite him to the wedding, Stukely gulps and comes close to correcting this oversight before realizing that he's being messed with.  And I have to say, when the bad guy is this pathetic, the protagonist starts to feel less like a hero and more like a bully.

Yeah, it's supposed to be karma or whatever when Bristol declares his intent to give the governor a hundred lashes of the cat-o'-nine-tails, making the other man shriek "But it's death!" and then wail that he'll do anything Bristol demands after the first strike - even though Sir Charles is so fat that "the lash could not have hurt him."  Well, I'm inferring this since the narration doesn't mention Bristol purposefully swinging gently when the thing "cracked down upon the cringing Sir Charles."  Point is, it may be karmic, but it doesn't feel heroic.  Particularly when the author spends such efforts making Bristol a noble pirate in contrast with the "civilized" people he fights against.

No sooner does Sir Charles fold like a bag of pudding than a side door opens to admit Lady Jane Campbell, wearing a billowing white satin gown.  She recognizes and rushes at Bristol, and it's weird, but they don't actually hug.  There's evidence that they hugged, when the orchids of her corsage are crushed, except the sequences goes as follows: she runs at him and cries out his name, Bristol "held her away from him," and then he notices the crushed flowers.  See, no contact.  Or maybe it was too racy to explicitly describe a hug between a man and a woman in 1936.

Let's spend the last two and a half pages talking and writing.  Lady Jane declares that Bristol needs to see some papers she has, ones she used her influence as lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England to send for, and which she was trying to pick up at Charlotte Amalie before getting kidnapped.  They're a letter from King Charles II issuing a royal decree pardoning Captain Thomas Bristol and making him a Commodore in the Royal Navy.  Neat.

Bristol takes a moment to digest this, then forces Sir Charles to write up a letter to His Majesty explaining how he (Sir Charles) hereby resigns his position as governor of Nevis in favor of a restorative holiday to Jamaica, and is giving the new Commodore Bristol temporary control of the island.  Bristol also promises to give Bryce a privateering commission to work against the Spanish in the Pacific, and then he figures that if Lady Jane came to Nevis to marry its Lord High Governor, maybe she still feels up to it.  She agrees, Bristol laughs, and then orders Bryce to "Send those pirates of yours and my crew into the barracks to clean themselves up.  And spread the news through the town and the fort, and to the waiting man-o'-war, that the Lord High Governor invites them all to his wedding."

And that's the end of the story.  Captain Bristol has gone from a condemned sailor to a pirate to a military governor in charge of the very men he just finished fighting against.  Bryce's crimes have been forgiven so long as he promises to kill the right people from now on.  And a bunch of pirates, sailors and townspeople who had recently been doing their best to murder each other are now expected to wash up and behave themselves at a wedding.  I hope they can put out the fires and clean up the bodies before the ceremony, it's awfully unlucky for a bride to trip on a corpse on her way up the aisle.

I guess like how pulps are good literature only if you don't think about them too much, this is a happy ending if you don't try to figure out how everyone's expected to deal with each other the next day.

Back to Part 7

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 7 - Dishonorable British Sailors

There's a lot of ways to defuse any dramatic tension that your story might be generating.  A couple of chapters ago L. Ron Hubbard showed us how just by naming a chapter "Bristol Finds a Ship" you can neutralize any excitement caused by marooning a character, and in this chapter, "Black Ensign Against Red and White," you can similarly take all the thrills out of a naval confrontation by explaining in the third paragraph how "The Falcon was more than a match for the man-o'-war."  Truly, he was a literary pioneer.

So Bristol's sailing to Nevis, and going slow 'cause it's against the wind, and then there's this English man-o'-war in his way.  He knows he can defeat it easily (see above), he just doesn't see the point of fighting - there's nothing worth taking from the warship, and he'd rather get on to Nevis and try to smuggle Lady Jane out of Charlestown with a minimum of fuss.  Our hero is even willing to forgo teaching Sir Charles "a lesson" if it means getting his second officer back.  Though if Bristol has any deeper motivations for recovering "Jim," they aren't shared with the reader.

Anyway, this ship is in the way, it's sending up the signal flags for "come alongside," and Bristol recognizes it as the Terror - a ship last seen under the command of the pirate Captain Bryce, if you'll remember.  So Bristol decides to have a little chat with the enemy to gather some intelligence.  He's no fool, though, he has his "black gunners" readying weapons on the deck and the "black gun captains" standing by with torches to fire a broadside.  And Hubbard, it's been established that Bristol's crew is African.  You don't have to remind us every single time you refer to them.

When the two boats are close enough to yell at each other, good ole Lt. Ewell demands Bristol's surrender, and says that Bryce is being held prisoner at Charlestown.  This upsets Bristol, not so much because his rescuer now needs rescue himself, but because it means there will probably be additional ships to fight at Nevis.  He ignores Ewell's promise of clemency and says he'll give the other ship ten minutes to back off before he fires the broadsides.

But then, Captain Mannville makes a dramatic gesture, and the Terror's gun crews put matches to their weapons.  Wow, the 'civilized' navy guys are more dishonorable than the 'savage' pirates, etc.  Bristol's able to give his own men the order to fire before the Terror's cannons discharge, and then there's a brief action scene.

The man-o'-war's broadside was deafening.  A cloud of bitter smoke shot out, covering up the Falcon.  Iron smashed into the pirate's hull.  Splinters geysered, as deadly as bullets.

The Falcon's own guns exploded as one.  The rail was high and the hail of twenty-eight-pound shot ripped great holes in the man-o'-war's rigging, made havoc of the decks.  Bristol saw his helmsmen go down and snatched at the spinning spokes.  The Falcon, shrouded in the greasy powder fog, lunged for the Britisher's sail.

Wait, Bristol's helmsman went down during his ship's broadside, not during the Terror's attack?

To make a short story shorter, Bristol sends his borders over, then follows and runs along the Terror's rail "like a tightrope walker," slashing with his rapier all the way.  And there's another way to neuter tension, have your hero do something ridiculous like this.  Bristol dodges Mannville's pistols, menaces the captain, and convinces him to surrender.  The score: eight dead pirates, ten dead Britons.

Bristol goes back to trying to wring information out of his opponents, and Ewell explains that Bryce was ambushed at Martinico a few weeks ago by a full squadron of British vessels, and is now awaiting execution.  When he badmouths the pirate, Bristol reminds him

"Watch your tongue!" said Bristol curtly.  "Those blacks know you fired out of turn.  They'd like nothing better than to string you up by your thumbs and beat you with that cat-o'-nine over there."

Ewell sagged, incredulous.  "But... but you wouldn't!  You're not a barbarian, you're a gentleman!  What of the white prestige!"

In addition to inventing new ways to make an adventure story as excitement-free as possible, Hubbard wrote a whole book on subtlety.  It was three feet wide, weighed seventy pounds, and had glow-in-the-dark ink.

His patience wearing thin, Bristol demands specifics about Charlestown's defenses, and learns that there's only one man-o'-war anchored there that's operational - Bryce's "ships" (I guess he had more than the one he took the Terror with hidden away somewhere) can't be manned because they're short on sailors.  While admitting this, Ewell glances at both Captain Mannville and a nearby cat-o'-nine tails, thus implying that the bad guys' pointless brutality is, as usual for a Hubbard story, undermining their ability to oppose the good guys.  But Ewell rallies and boasts that the settlement is defended by a battery of big thousand-pound cannons that our hero will surely be unable to defeat.

"Ah, well," said Bristol, "it must be chanced.  Amara!  Get these prisoners under the hatch."

C'mon, man, at least pretend that there's a chance you'll lose.  But that might generate excitement over what could happen next chapter, and we can't have that, can we? 

Back to Chapter 6

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 6 - Stingy Danish Merchants

Well, I suppose last chapter had enough intense piracy action to last us a good while.  So let's hit the fast-forward button and recap Captain Bristol's exciting adventures on the Caribbean.

The Spanish ship, rechristened the Falcon, had earned herself a reputation.  She was a fleet ghost across the trade lanes, to be feared and shunned - not because of excessive brutality, but because of the terrible calmness with which her attacks were planned and carried to completion.

Yeeaaah.  At least Hubbard's not trying to convince us that Bristol is some sort of tactical genius.  And I guess a bunch of chill pirates who casually capture your boat would stand out from the excitement of normal outlaw attacks.

Anyway, now it's July, and if we knew what time of year it was in Chapter 1 this would mean something.  The Falcon is towing a French ship that dropped its flag after the first broadside, and I'd say that this could be an early reference to the stereotype of "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," except this story was published a few years before World War II, so there's probably no malice behind the French ship's quick surrender.

Bristol's still sore about the capture, though, since all the French vessel had in its cargo hold was "cocoa, cotton and indigo."  You know, some trade goods and luxuries that inspired the great seafaring empires to establish their off-shore colonies in the first place.  What possible value could those have?

They're headed towards the port city of Charlotte Amalie, a Danish holding... wait, Denmark was in the Caribbean?  Dammit, I hate it when I have to admit that I learned something from a Hubbard story.  A bunch of "bumboats" sail up to the approaching unscrupulous sailors, and the fruit-selling "blacks" on them are surprised that "the rail should be lined by men of their own race," especially dark-skinned fellows whose stylish bandannas and shiny belt buckles mark them as freemen.  Meanwhile on deck, it's up to "Jim" to explain that Bristol should sell their captured cargo to the Danes, "and though they won't give you a twentieth the value, it's better than nothing."  Miserable Danish misers.

Oh, and Lady Jane wants to go to shore for a bit, partly to stretch her legs after an indeterminate time at sea, and partly because... well, she wants to go shopping.  Lady pirates are still ladies, am I right, fellas?  Bristol only agrees if she takes along some "husky lads" and makes sure her powder is dry, and off she goes, eyes a-sparkling and bags clinking with gold she's been hoarding "for just a spree."

Or in other words, we're in a standard adventure story and the only female character has just wandered off-screen, out from under the protagonist's supervision.  

Two local men including a cargo broker named Jersen come up to haggle over Bristol's haul, and the process has two awkward moments - when Bristol nonchalantly gestures at all the cutlasses his men are carrying when discussing his confidence that he'll get a fair deal, and when Jersen makes the mistake of suggesting that Bristol have his slaves transfer the cargo.

Bristol looked surprised.  "My slaves?"

"Why... why, yes," the Dane replied, certain that he had somehow made an error, but not quite certain just what error it had been.  "These men about your deck."

"You mean my crew," replied Bristol, an undercurrent of anger in his voice.  "These men are free men, not slaves.  I don't happen to be of your stamp, gentlemen.  When I take lives I use a rapier, not the whipping post and starvation, and yet I am a pirate, while you and your brothers are supposed to be civilized beings."

Yeah, yeah, and the Indians were "savages" when it was the United States that was conquering them, and the people of Blito-P3 consider the Voltarians "aliens" when it's they who have the bizarre and nonsensical society.

Bristol explains that his "men" - finally - are serving under him voluntarily, and once they get bored of piracy will be free to go back to Africa "with money enough to buy and sell their rulers."  Jersen gets to gape that Bristol considers them as his equals, Bristol gets to quip that he does so "more than a naval captain consider his men as equals," and Hubbard's not racist, see?  Right there in the story.  Just ignore how often the narration refers to someone as "the black" while leaving off "man" or "person," thus defining a character solely by their race, and only if that race happens to have a lot of melanin.

As evening nears, the cargo gets transferred off the captured French ship, and Bristol realizes that "Jim" is still missing.  Interestingly, when he asks his quartermaster, the man replies that he has not seen "him," and Amara only refers to the missing officer as "Mister Campbell."   So I guess Bristol's the only one who knows that Jim is a crossdresser after all?  Or maybe it's an open secret and everyone else is playing along.  The illustrations that came with my edition give Lady Jane a stylish bobbed haircut and friggin' lipstick, so I don't see how she expects to fool anyone.

Anyway, Bristol and Amara and some others head ashore as a search party, and march along the shadowy, lantern-lit streets, Bristol marching at the front of a squad of "powerful blacks" that cows anyone in their way.  They eventually find one of the Sennarians who had accompanied Lady Jane, sprawled dead in an alley with a bloody cutlass.  Bristol's immediate response is to declare that he'll bombard the town to rubble, and it's Amara who gets to point out that if "Mister Campbell" is being held hostage somewhere, that might not be a good idea.  So instead Bristol gets to make a dramatic entrance at the local tavern and demand that someone return his second officer to him before he levels the city.

An official steps forward and respectfully explains that there was an English ship docked that afternoon, and it left them a proclamation from Lord High Governor Sir Charles Stukely of Nevis, promising a bounty of two hundred pounds gold for the head of Captain Thomas Bristol, and an equal amount for the pirate's second officer if delivered alive.  Dramatic musical sting!

This news, oddly enough, makes Bristol relax.  "Terrible calmness," I guess.  He laughs "as sharp as the ring of a cutlass on steel," and asks if any of the tavern's patrons want to try to collect the bounty on him, but they all politely decline.  So Bristol and Amara and the rest return to the Falcon to set sail for Nevis and the climax.

I guess this story might be fair for its day.  Like its main character insisted that he was equal to the black men under his command, even if the author has a habit of using demeaning language when referring to them.  And the female character and implied love interest got to dress up and play pirate before she was captured by the villain.  Progressive for the 1930's, right?

Back to Chapter 5

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 5 - Our Pirate Hero Finally Steals a Boat

Time passes.  The Dutchman finally sinks four days after beaching itself on the shoal, and it takes another week for "the blacks" to recover from their ordeal enough to work.  But once they're hale and hearty again, "these blacks" work hard, hollowing out logs salvaged from the ship to make simple canoes, which when outfitted with Pacific-style outriggers under Bristol's direction, can be used as attack craft.  The Dutchman's sails are converted into a village of tents for everyone, and midshipman "Jim Campbell" gets her own quarters.

But for the first few days, she was reluctant to go far from her tent.  There was something terrifying about these blacks, an undercurrent of bitterness which she felt rather than saw.  But as she became used to seeing them and she saw that they had nothing but reverence for her, she grew bolder and went about with Bristol.  

Oddly enough, I can't tell whether or not any of the Sennarians have figured out Jane's gender.  They never interact with her 'on-screen,' and Amara only talks to Bristol.  Oh wait, Bristol calls her "my lady" in front of Amara at the end of the chapter.  Guess these gentlemen are well-behaved former galley slaves.  Or maybe they didn't find out until then, and Hubbard left out Amara's bug-eyed exclamation of "He's a whaaaa?"

At night, when she lay alone in her tent listening to the incessant thunder of the surf, she was sometimes afraid of the power which had been thrown into Bristol's hands.  He was tempered steel, physically and mentally, like a long Toledo blade.  Into his eyes had come a light which was exciting, but far from reassuring.  It was the clear, heady look of one who sees far beyond the horizon.

Ah, our hero is both the rebellious type and a visionary.  Suh-woon.

"The blacks" don't bother to try to hide themselves from any passing ships, and Bristol is hoping that someone will be stupid enough to come up and attack them.  This doesn't happen, but one afternoon an indeterminate amount of time later, a lookout spots a Spanish ship on the horizon, slowly sailing home.  Two hours later it's dusk, the ship is close to Bristol's island, and it's time to attack.

Now, the title of this chapter is "Bristol and His Crew Use Strategy."  And here I think we fall prey to the same problem underlining most if not all of Hubbard's work - he's not an expert on anything he writes about.  He can't convincingly write a super-scientist hero because the author doesn't understand science, he can't write a revolutionary doctor because the author doesn't know much about medicine, and so forth.  In this case, the brilliant strategy Bristol comes up with to capture the Spanish vessel is to, drumroll please, launch a night raid.  They'll never see that coming.  Because it's dark.

The poor Spaniards aren't expecting a bunch of attack canoes to launch from one of the islands they passed around sunset, and are oblivious as "Black hands" throw lines up to their vessel and "Black bodies" climb aboard.  Someone fires a pistol, another person shouts "Filibusteros!"  And I'll admit that I had to look this up in case Hubbard pulled a particularly funny translation fail, but it turns out the word "filibuster" is derived from a Spanish term (in turn picked up from the Dutch vrijbuiter) specifically describing 17th century Caribbean pirates preying on ships sailing to and from Spain's New World colonies.  So credit where it's due, Hubbard did his homework for once.  He never bothered to learn how radiation works, but he was willing to go the distance and use a more precise word than "piratas!" for this pulp story.

The actual battle for the ship lasts less than half a page.

Sailors tumbled out of the hatches.  An officer leaped from the rear cabin, pistols in hand.  He stood there, paralyzed by the sight that met his gaze.  A solid avalanche of black was sweeping down upon him.  He fired. A sword hacked him down.  The avalanche passed over his body and swept across the deck.

Note that the Sennarians disdained firearms when it came to selecting weapons, and all of the these towering warriors are swinging away with cutlasses.  It's not like muskets are doing the Spanish any good, and when Bristol drags a man out of the ship's cabins and demands his surrender, the captain (en EspaƱol) begs our hero not to kill him and says the ship is his.  And that's it, the cowering Spaniards are all herded together on the forecastle, "the blacks" are victorious and grinning at each other.  Three Sennarians died in the assault, no word on the Spanish casualties.

Bristol orders the dropped weapons be collected, then offers the Spanish a trade - they can have the canoes and the nearby island base and its supplies, while Bristol and his crew take the ship.  The captain was expecting to be executed, and can only stammer his praise of our hero's gallantry before being kicked off the boat.  And that's it.  Our hero has successfully stolen a ship, by which I mean a bunch of other fellas did the lifting while he made some dramatic demands in a fancy white shirt.

"Amara," said Bristol, leaning against the rail, "that was an excellent job.  Aboard this ship you'll probably find plenty of clothing and a full larder, as the Spaniard must have restocked before putting to sea.

"But if they didn't, and we just gave our prisoners all our old supplies before checking to see if we could have any replacements, boy is my face gonna be red."

Tell your men to find themselves what they want, and appoint me a watch to handle the sails until morning."

Amara saluted.  "Very good, Captain sir."

Bristol turned to Lady Jane.  "And I guess this makes full-fledged buccaneers out of us, my lady.  That first shot nicked me, thanks to this white shirt.  Let's go aft and tie it up."

As far as I can tell, this is not a euphemism for shtupping.  I mean, I've only skimmed the next chapter, but I can't find anything to suggest that our hero and the only female character in the story have surrendered to narrative convention and gotten together.  Maybe you couldn't be too obvious with that sort of thing in 1935.

Back to Chapter 4

Monday, November 9, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 4 - Racial Dynamics of the 17th Century

Any dramatic tension last chapter might have generated by promising to maroon our hero is immediately nullified by the very title of this chapter, "Bristol Finds a Ship."  Not that any of us should have been overly-concerned that the protagonist would bite it in Chapter Four, but still.

There's environmental symbolism with a "dying sun" in the background as the Terror sails to the passage separating the Nevis and St. Kitts islands from the Virgin Islands, and I guess some other symbolism as Bristol puts on a black "sea cape" (it's a cape, but you wear it on the sea) for what could be his final voyage.  Ricardo's corpse is dumped overboard so casually that you might wonder why it's worth marooning a skilled navigator over his murder.  The still-nameless quartermaster chats with Bristol a bit, and mentions that they may as well stick to the course he already plotted.  Bristol urges him to tell Bryce the truth when they meet him, again making me wonder whether they could at least keep Bristol prisoner for a day and let the boss decide what his punishment should be for defending himself from a mutineer.

But whatever, let's maroon the hero for a chapter.  A longboat is launched, and Bristol is actually the one giving the oarsmen the order to row him out to an island.  The boat hits the sand, Bristol steps off with "the rifle, the bottle of water and the bag of shot" ...wait, why a rifle and not a pistol?  A bit trickier to mercy kill yourself with a longarm than a handgun.  Anyway, he doesn't even look back as the boat departs, 'cause he's a tough guy like that.

Bristol spends the remainder of the daylight walking a circuit of his new home and reflecting on his situation.

He knew what would happen to him.  Although ships passed this point regularly, he would never dare signal them.  They would understand only too well that he was a marooned pirate.  And if a ship did take him off, he would be promptly hanged from a yardarm.

When his water gave out, that would be the end.

Hey, don't give up, maybe you could fashion a desalinization plant out of coconuts or something.  But yeah, Bristol's screwed.  His only hope would be if another pirate ship came by and picked him up, except ever since the British cracked down on Port Royal and other outlaw havens, most pirates these days have moved on to the Pacific.  And of course there's the fact that Bristol has broken two of the pirate's most important precepts, and "the law of the pirate was inflexible."  Because when you think of a bunch of rogue sailors stealing property and murdering anyone who resists, you know they're a law-abiding people.

As the sun sets behind Nevis, Bristol's thoughts turn to poor "Jim," who surely is in for a life of suckage even if Sir Charles buys whatever story she spins about her absence these past few months.  But no sooner does he think this than Bristol hears another boat land on his island.  He readies his gun and demands that the newcomer stay back, but it turns out to be none other than Lady Jane!  Yes, instead of rowing to Nevis, she decided to shadow the Terror and come to rescue Bristol under cover of darkness.

And she says "I hope you're not angry."  I don't know why.  It just seems to be something a lot of female characters in these type of stories say when they come to the rescue of a male hero.  Maybe they're feeling bad for threatening their masculinity or implying that the guy can't rescue himself.  Anyway, no, Bristol isn't mad, but he's not exactly overjoyed either - they now have Lady Jane's "jolly boat" and can go anywhere in the Caribbean, but Nevis is not an option, both because of who runs it and the fact that their ship can't sail into the wind.  Port Royal is similarly closed, and none of the Dutch holdings in the area would be welcoming either.  So they decide to...

Well, they decide nothing, instead Bristol spreads out some canvas from Lady Jane's boat to serve as a blanket to sleep on, and chivalrously takes watch.  He argues against a fire, since it would just alert any ships of the law that they're marooned pirates - between the jolly boat and lack of wreckage, they couldn't pass themselves off as shipwreck survivors.  So he spends the night "lost in thought" as Lady Jane sleeps, though we're not told what Bristol was thinking about.  He doesn't have a plan or anything ready the next morning, he just eats the smoked beef she cooks up.  Maybe he spent all night regretting never getting a parrot after turning pirate.

So our hero and his probable love interest (even if no hanky-panky has transpired yet) are stuck.  They have a boat, yes, but no good options on where to go in it.  So it's up to the author to bail them out of this mess.

No sooner does Bristol finish his breakfast than he spots a sail, kicks out the fire, and takes Lady Jane to the sparse shelter of the island's trees.  Bracing himself with his "sea boots" ...you know, I thought that, since this wasn't a sci-fi story, we'd avoid stuff like this.  No "space boots" or "blast rods" or anything like that.  But no, we get "sea cape"s and "sea boots" instead.

Anyway, the ship is a scruffy Dutch bark that Bristol surmises to be a slave ship, or a "blackbirder."  It's pursued by a British man-o'-war out to protect Great Britain's monopoly on human trafficking in the Caribbean, which leads to two pages describing how the man-o'-war closes to wreck the Dutchman's masts and rigging with a broadside, leading the spiteful slave trader to beach his ship on a nearby shoal.  The slave-trading crew escapes to their longships and rows off to the west, and the man-o'-war loiters for another half hour before deciding its not worth trying to salvage the bark and leaving.

Well.  Wasn't that convenient?

So Bristol and Lady Jane take the jolly boat over to the misery ship, figuring that if nothing else they could scavenge supplies from it.  They board it and find it even less reputable than the British navy vessel Bristol used to work on.

Bristol wrinkled his nose.  "Whew!  Slavers aren't exactly perfume chests, are they?"

Lady Jane swallowed hard, a resolute look in her eyes.  "But what bout the slaves?  They're still 'tween decks."

Let it be recorded that Lady Jane was the first to think of the slave ship's human cargo, but also that neither she nor Bristol gave the slaves any thought until they were actually within smelling distance of them.

Bristol prepares himself for the "gagging sights" that await him, and also gives Lady Jane his pistols and sets up one of the deck guns to cover the hatch, in case things go wrong with his rescue attempt.  Then he goes belowdecks, encountering a "more than sickening" stench and "a low mutter, like that of animals surprised in a den."  And we're off to a great start, aren't we?

Three hundred slaves are crammed together in the darkness, manacled and chained to the deck, though only half of them still live.  Bristol asks if anyone speaks English, and - conveniently - someone does, and is able to pass on Bristol's warning that he's here to rescue them, but will shoot if anyone rushes at him.  This person also immediately calls Bristol "master."  Sigh.

So the slaves, probably Nubians by their height and build, are freed and stagger up to get some fresh air.  The "blacks" or "slaves" - the narration is never so kind as to call them 'men' - help themselves to some scummy water and hardtack from the ship's stores, and the fellow who speaks English approaches Bristol.  He introduces himself as... well, it's another page before he's actually asked what his name is, Lady Jane and Bristol are more curious about how he speaks their language.

Anyway, the man's name is Amara, he's got a stylish saber scar down the side of his face, and he led the rest of these men in service of the King of Sennar (modern day Sudan) before a dispute over pay led to them being sold to the Turks as galley slaves off Tunisia.  And then they were captured by the Spaniards, and then sold to the Dutch.  Eeesh.

Bristol thrust his thumbs into his scarlet sash.  He placed his feet wide apart and studied the Nubian's face.  "Look you, Amara.  If I release you to one of these islands, you will be taken and sold again, to labor and die under the blazing sun."

Amara bowed his head, eyes to the planking.  "You freed us, Captain sir, it... it is not fitting that you free us only to see us die."

Really, Hubbard?

Well, that's how it happens.  The slaves aren't so much freed as they come under new management.  Amara recognizes his place in the order of things and is ready to serve this great white protagonist.  I mean, it just wouldn't do for a bunch of slaves to be freed by some hero, thank him for his kind deeds, and just go off to do their own thing, would it?

Amara does point out that "Captain sir" doesn't... oh for fu... once again, people are willing to follow a Hubbard Protagonist before they even learn his name.  'cause Bristol never takes a moment to introduce himself, he just gives orders.  Though I guess it really isn't 'once again' since this is like his first published book...

Anyway, Amara points out that his "captain sir" doesn't actually possess a ship, since the Dutchman is slowly sinking.  But Bristol confidently states that he'll have himself a boat soon enough, and orders his new crew to strip the bark of anything useful and get the longboat fully manned.  "God knows, your men should certainly know how to row."

"Your men," corrected Amara, beginning to smile.


Amara bowed and turned to the men in the waist.  He began to bark orders.  Dull, listless eyes turned up to him.  Life began to flicker there, life and hope and the will to do....

Yeah, it's not being released from their chains and brought to the fresh air and given food and water that revitalizes these people.  It's the fact that a white guy is giving them orders.

But hey, should we really have expected otherwise?  We've seen Hubbard's casual racism in his last works, so there's no reason to expect that his first stuff is going to be any better.

Back to Chapter 3

Friday, November 6, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 3 - The Ups and Downs of a Life of Piracy

Chapter 3 and we already have a "the days went swiftly" montage as Bristol adjusts to his new life as a pirate.  And what a wonderful life it is!

There are so many recruits that there's more than enough sailors to not only repair the Terror's battle damage, but keep the ship running in top condition and its decks scrubbed "whiter and cleaner than they ever had been in service of the King."  There are none of the "cruel orgies"... um... that Bristol had heard about, instead the crew is for the most part peaceful and disciplined without any need for a cat-o'-nine-tails, and any disputes are settled by a quartermaster and jury of impartial sailors, or in worst cases regulated duels on land.  They even can expect compensation from a company fund for any injuries sustained or limbs lost in the line of duty, something those so-called navies of the supposedly civilized empires never even considered.

Yes, "buccaneering was the sailor's dream of Valhalla."  Because when you think of peaceful sailors with progressive health insurance policies, the immediate comparison is to the old Norse afterlife of eternal bloodshed and rowdy feasting.

These men were not the scum of the ports or the sweepings of the sea.  They were average seamen who had tired of the filth and abuse suffered in the merchant fleets and the navies.  They wanted nothing more than a comfortable life, money to spend, brandy to drink, and a prospect of sometime being able to become planters or merchantmen in their own right.

They owed their fearsome reputation, for the most part, to cowardly captains who had defended their own valor by besmirching the behavior of the buccaneer, giving that as a reason for struck colors.

Phew!  For a moment I thought I would be expecting to root for some sort of gritty anti-hero, but it turns out the pirates were the good guys all along!  They're even cleaner than the Royal Navy, and if that doesn't prove they're alright, nothing does.  These guys aren't bowing to any upper-class sea captain or toiling away for employers who don't respect them, they're go-getters willing to buck convention to improve themselves, motivated entrepreneurs taking control of their lives and striking back against an oppressive political and economic system.

The fact that pirates by definition attack other people and steal their stuff seems strangely under-emphasized, though.

Whatever, Bristol feels like "a gentleman once again," and got the Lord High Governor's quarters and a pick of the loot, so he's wearing a wide-brimmed hat and pair of silver-mounted pistol that probably used to belong to a Spaniard.  While he's not the Terror's new captain, as navigator he's still pretty important, and I guess Ricardo didn't want what were probably the nicest quarters on the ship.

Jim the midshipman is hanging out with Bristol in his room, and our hero ponders why a young officer-to-be from the British Navy ended up with a crew of pirates, before deciding that the "lad was handsome enough, had a low, pleasant voice, and was certainly well educated."  He's got such big blue eyes, "frank and steady," and hair so yellow that it "made the eyes seem all the bluer," and just seems to naturally get along with Bristol... um...

Anyway, Bristol and Jim are talking about tomorrow's rendezvous with Captain Bryce off Martinico, and the latter mentions that Bryce is the only one able to control the "pistol-proof" Ricardo.  Jim also warns Bristol that Ricardo has been spreading rumors among the rest of the crew that Bristol is a "dainty little thing," because Ricardo resents "the fact that you wash your ears."  Bristol reminds the midshipman that bad-mouthing a guy in the cabin next door may be a bad idea, Jim is like 'what's he gonna do, open the door and lumber in?' and immediately the door opens and Ricardo lumbers in.  

When Bristol asks Ricardo "What's under your hatch?"  Um... anyway, the captain explains that he and the rest of the crew have been talking, see, and they're tired of doing Bryce's bidding when they're sure that one day he'll run off with all the loot.  So he wants Bristol to be their navigator as they start an independent operation.

But Bristol is loyal to the guy who a chapter ago saved his life, and refuses to cooperate.  So Ricardo draws a pistol, and we get an action scene.  But not an official Hubbard Action Scene, he's using paragraphs instead of a barrage of exclamations.

Before Bristol could gather himself, Jim's small boot lashed out and cracked against Ricardo's knuckles.  Ricardo bellowed with rage.  His open hand swooped down.  The palm cracked loudly against Jim's cheek.  Crumpling up, Jim slid into the far corner of the cabin.  The jaunty cap fell off and the yellow hair streamed down on either side of the handsome face.  The mark of the blow was as red as blood on the white cheek.

It's also not a Hubbard Action Sequence because it isn't the bad guy who's getting his ass handed to him.  Or her ass, in this case.

Faces were peering in through the door, but Bristol gave them no heed.  Both he and Ricardo were staring at Jim.  Something about the way the hair fluffed out, something about the way the jacket lay against the throat-

"My God," cried Bristol, "she's a girl!"

Or an elf.  But since this isn't a fantasy novel, yeah, you're probably right.

While Bristol is distracted by the relief that he doesn't harbor latent homosexual tendencies after all, Ricardo is still on the ball, and swings his pistol around for a shot at Bristol.  Our hero draws his rapier and lunges, Ricardo parries with his bare hand but bleeds for it, only for Bristol to bury his blade in the rogue captain's chest.  Ricardo foams a bit of blood before expiring on the floor.

Unfortunately, this all happened with the cabin door open and the rest of the crew watching, so the quartermaster steps forward, asks Bristol to surrender his weapons, and places him under arrest for killing Ricardo and "harboring a woman in disguise aboard this ship."  Wimmen are bad luck at sea, of course, though I never understood this nautical convention - you'd think that a group of men spending months away from shore might be eager for some female companionship.  Or maybe sailors are wise enough to anticipate the sort of conflict that might arise from a pack of fellas romantically pursuing a small number of ladies in a confined space, and decided that the best recourse would be to do without women entirely.  And maybe engage in some situational homosexuality.

Anyway, the other sailors leave - guess Bristol's under house arrest - and when "Jim" wakes up, Bristol explains that she's going to be dropped off shortly while Bristol will be either executed or marooned.  And being a delicate female, "Jim" immediately starts crying that she's being abandoned after months of service and they're about to "kill the only man I ever respected."

It's at this point that Bristol asks who exactly "Jim" is, and it turns out she's really Lady Jane Campbell, former lady-in-waiting to the Queen of England and Sir Charles' wife-to-be!  Very economical, Hubbard - there was exactly one female previously mentioned in the story, so that's who Jim is.  Yes, when Lady Jane was being carried from England to Nevis, Captain Bryce attacked, and Jane decided to dress herself up in a midshipman's uniform to protect herself, since she knew her "fate at the hands of the crew wouldn't be so good."

Now wait a minute, Hubbard.  I thought these pirates were jolly, disciplined sailors who respected and looked out for each other.  But you just showed that a bunch of them were traitorous mutineers, and implied that they would have mistreated a woman prisoner.  My simple, pulp-loving mind is confused.

Anyway, Jane was quite happy to be Jim and Bryce was willing to train her (it's unclear whether he knew she was female or not).  See, she would have only been marrying Sir Charles because her king commanded her, she'd met the man before and was not at all impressed "with his manly conduct."  But now it's all gone wrong - the still-nameless quartermaster returns and informs them that they're just off Nevis, and a boat and allotment of gold are waiting for Jane.  The other sailors nod politely as she passes, since they don't actually dislike her, just the fact that she's a woman aboard their boat.  And off she rows, calling goodbye to Bristol, who salutes as they part ways.

As for Bristol, he's due to be marooned somewhere in the Anegada Passage, as the Terror continues to regroup with Captain Bryce.  And that's where we end the chapter.

Wait a minute, if the rest of the crew doesn't mistreat Jane as she's dropped off, was she ever in any danger to begin with?  And they're still going to meet up with Captain Bryce even though Ricardo talked them around into abandoning their former captain?  So the mutiny is over?  Then why is Ricardo getting killed - after drawing first - a bad thing?  At best you could say that they're ignoring the fact that they saw Bristol's surprised reaction to Jane's gender so they can get rid of them, but they don't really have a motive for that, so-

Ah, screw it.  We can't tell a pirate story without someone getting marooned.  Now pretend to be worried how our hero is going to get out of this predicament even though there's still fifty pages left in the story.

Back to Chapter 2

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 2 - Welcome Aboard

Remember that ship Bristol spotted early last chapter, but didn't say anything about?  Well, in that moment between the cat-o'-nine-tails hissing back in preparation to strike and it actually connecting with Bristol's back, someone else spots that boat, yells "Sail ho!", and everyone instantly forgets about the flogging.  A lucky break, that.

Men leaped to the rail.  The haze of light cast up by the sun on water momentarily blinded them.  And then they saw the ship.  It was sailing against the morning sun, full-rigged, tall-masted, gilded sterncastle sparkling.  It was a bark of about sixty guns.  Against the light, its sails looked black.

Even as they stared at it, a roll of bunting went up the truck and burst.  Its identity was unmistakable.  A grinning skull against an ebon field.

Okay, wait.  The Terror is bringing the Lord High Governor back, presumably from England, to the island of Nevis, so they're going west or southwest.  The pirate ship isn't sailing into the sun, but "against" it, so that its rear is visible.  This would mean that it's traveling parallel to the Terror... and Bristol last chapter saw it to the south of them... wait, if it's against the sun to the east, how could it be alongside the westward-headed Terror

The Lieutenant Ewell tries to earn that promotion to Captain Obvious by crying "A pirate!"  For his part, Captain Mannville emulates his puffed-up superiors by getting offended that some scurvy seadog would dare show his colors to a British warship, and orders the attack.  The narration mentions the ocean spray leaping, "glistening like pearls," as the Terror changes course, though it doesn't spell out that the ship is basically doing a U-turn..  And in all the bustle, Bristol looks down at the abandoned cat-o'-nine-tails, laying on the deck "like a den of snakes," and kicks it further away.

We get about two pages of straight narration describing the warship's pursuit and preparation for combat, and I have to say, even if the term is historically accurate, you probably shouldn't use "powder monkeys" to refer to crewmen bringing gunpowder to the ship's weapons, it just detracts from the tension.  During it all, Hubbard through Bristol decides to become a historical commentator, musing that only a decade ago the Terror would probably have "dipped its own colors and continued smoothly upon its way" instead of engaging the pirate, since at the time such privateers had been preying on the rival Spanish Empire.  But now this poor scalawag has been driven out of Port Royal by a "suddenly righteous" government, and all the great powers of the sea have united against their former pirate proxies.  It's really society's fault that pirates turned out the way they did, see, and since the nations of the world are such hypocrites it'll be okay when Bristol goes pirate himself.

So the Terror closes with the pirate ship, which is moving away from them, but not fleeing all that quickly.  So was it headed east or northeast the whole - screw it.  About the time the narration (but not any crew members) wonders if the pirate is up to something, the buccaneer turns into the wind and suddenly slows.  The Terror doesn't react in time to use its sea brakes and shoots forward, and thus "presented an oblique to the pirate broadside."  The British man-o'-war is pounded by twenty cannons, taking heavy damage to the mast, sails and rigging, but by the time it can fire its own guns in response, it's "slipped sideways to the bark" and the cannons hit nothing but ocean.

I wish I had some graphical skill to try to work this out with imagery, but as best as I can figure: the Terror was following behind the pirate ship, which suddenly slowed, forcing the Terror to break off at a slight angle to avoid rear-ending the other boat.  The pirate ship was ready for this and took a shot as the Terror passed, and by the time the Terror was able to return fire, the target wasn't alongside them anymore.

How did the British Empire come to rule the seas, again?  Are the Spanish and French absolutely hopeless sailors?

We're told that it will take half an hour to reload the cannons thus fired, which I have trouble believing, but obviously Hubbard knows something I don't.  So the Terror's captain has no choice but to try to get in a broadside with its unfired port guns, but before he gets the chance, the pirates close and board in "an avalanche of furious color."  The 'battle' lasts for all of two paragraphs and consists of the British sailors either dying or throwing down their weapons and begging for quarter.

I'm now wondering how the British managed to cross the seas.

Through the wraiths of powder smoke came a gigantic figure, like the devil himself was striding through the fumes of brimstone.  On his head was a plumed hat and about his shoulders there swirled a red cloak.  A naked rapier, dripping scarlet, was held in his bejeweled hand.

But no parrot?

Captain Nicehat has his men crowd the prisoners together and demands which of them is in charge.  Captain Mannville steps forward to give his surrender, but the pirate captain has some men search the ship's quarters until they drag out the Lord High Governor, who drops to his knees and begs for mercy.  The pirate captain is dubious that the king would pay any sort of ransom for the quivering pansy and turns his back.  And Bristol, who has been tied to the mast the whole time, laughs.  This makes the pirates suddenly notice him, because I guess you wouldn't expect a ship to go into battle with a guy tied to the mainmast, and so you have trouble believing it even if you see it.

A young midshipman, smooth of face, probably--or so thought Bristol--about fifteen, came close to him.  The midshipman's sword quickly severed the ropes that bound him.  Bristol rubbed his arms.

Pirate chick.  I haven't read ahead, but I'm calling it.  After all, we need a woman around to keep any main character on a ship full of men from coming down with a case of the Gay.

The pirate captain asks what the H, the midshipman responds in a "singularly gentle" voice (pirate chick) that Bristol obviously was about to be flogged, and indirectly introduces the pirates' leader as Captain Bryce.  Bristol explains that he was about to be punished for trying to kill Sir Charles with a marlinespike - and this is a good use of a technical truth, I approve of it.  He introduces himself as the former first mate of the Randolph, and wouldn't you know it, but Captain Bryce happens to have need for a skilled navigator, since he's trying to expand his franchise into a proper fleet.

Across Bristol's mind flashed the hardships he had suffered as a British sailor. Scurvy, bad food, gunshot, indifferent medical attention, no shore leave, no pay.

"Sign on?" said Bristol. "Why, of course I'll sign on!"

See, as a pirate, he'll still run the risk of scurvy, and be forced to put up with bad food, and has an increased chance of getting shot since he's throwing in his lot with a bunch of lawless murderers, who probably don't have a good health plan either.  But hey, he'll get a share of the booty, and a chance to spend it on more booty.

So the now-pirate Bristol will stay on the Terror, and is introduced to his new captain, the barrel-chested, long-armed, bearded, scarred Ricardo: "Well get along.  I'm what they call pistol-proof, in case we don't."  Oh, and the "slender midshipman" (pirate chick) named "Jim" will also be on board, as Bryce's agent and presumably Bristol's love interest.  And that's about it, all the other British sailors are put on the boats and set free.

"And you," cried Sir Charles, catching sight of Bristol, and feeling secure in his boat, "I'll see you swing from my Execution Dock the next time we meet!"

"I wish you luck!" cried Bristol.

Oh good, our hero gets to keep his Chapter One nemesis, presumably for a later, more satisfying, final showdown.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Chapter 1 - We're on a Boat

What can we accomplish in six pages?  For that matter, what can we do in a few sentences?

The marlinespike was inoffensive enough.  In capable hands it might possibly have laid a man out.  But Tom Bristol had shown few signs of wanting to lay anyone out, and if he had, it was certain that he would not have used a short piece of wood to that purpose.  And yet the marlinespike was to be Tom Bristol's passport to piracy.

So let's see - the very second word is an obscure and archaic nautical term that the reader will have to look up in a footnote or glossary, not a great start.  We've got a good action hero name for our main character, Tom Bristol, up there with Jack London, Alvin York, or Melvin Gloucestershire.  We establish that he's not normally a violent sort, but that he's not careless when he decides to use violence, and ultimately will become a pirate.  Not too shabby.

He was working in the crosstress of the mizzentop, hanging on with his toes far above a restless deck, using the spike to splice a length of line which had parted in the storm just past.

Aaaand that's how you negate any points earned from a decent opening, with another trip to the glossary.  Did Hubbard expect his audience to know this terminology off the top of their head, or was he trying to show off?

The next few brief paragraphs set the scene: the calm blue waters of the Caribbean with the mountains of St. Kitts visible to the west.  Bristol is aboard the HMS Terror, a heavily-armed man-o'-war ferrying the Lord High Governor of Nevis to his island so he can marry a Lady Jane Campbell, as Governors and Ladies do.  As for himself, Bristol has "a certain hunted look flickering in his eyes - the look of a caged leopard angrily pacing behind bars."  Also, he saw sails to the south, but Bristol's not on lookout, so he doesn't see any reason to call out.  Besides, with so much traffic on the Caribbean these days, why the alarm?  It's not like he's in a pirate story or anything.

While Bristol is justifying this dereliction of duty and silently mocking the Governor's paunch, that marlinespike, being a short wooden cone used to tie together or untangle rope, slips from where Bristol had stuck it between two lines and plummets down before he can catch it, right towards the Governor.  It hits the deck next to the guy, the Governor screams shrilly, Lieutenant Ewell (Evil?) yells for Bristol to get down this instant, and our hero knows he's screwed.

"You blackguard!  You insolent whelp!" shouted the governor.  "Trying to murder me?  'Od's wounds, what have you to say for yourself?"

"My marline-" Bristol began, his voice quite steady.

"Shut up!" cried the governor.  "It's attempted murder, that's what it is!  Attempted murder!  You're in the pay of France to kill me.  I see how it is now.  I see how it is."

We're now on page three of the story, and the author is already taking care to make the authority figures as unlikable as possible, so we won't feel too bad when our hero goes rogue.  We've got a skittish, overreacting governor, the arrogant Captain Mannvile (Vile mann?), and a bunch of others whose faces are "fat and red with soft living" with merciless eyes.  This ship's officers aren't particularly cruel compared to others,

But this was 1680, and the tide of lust for empire had swung high in the great nations of the world.  Human life was nothing.  Compassion was almost forgotten.  Britain was setting herself to rule the seas, and Spain was setting the example for bestiality.

Um... well.  Technically correct as a way to describe bestial behavior, but you still may want to choose another word, o master of literature.

The governor, whose name is Sir Charles Stukely (stu... stupidly?  stupid pukely?), decides that a good flogging is the way to instill discipline, and the captain agrees that Bristol shall receive a hundred lashes.  Even our hero has to grab the rail to steady himself after receiving this death sentence, but the governor is enthusiastic - "Perhaps that will teach the fool to respect the persons of his betters.  That murderously thrown belaying pin might have snuffed out my life!"

Now, as we all know, a marlinespike is hardly the same as a belaying pin, and contempt for his supposed superiors gives Bristol the strength to look the governor in the eye, correct him on his mistake, and add "had I known that it would fall, I am certain that I would have pitched it more accurately."  The governor goes purple and inflates with flabby rage at being called "sirrah," and so Captain Mannville adds another hundred lashes to Bristol's sentence.  He's doubly dead now.

With nothing left to lose, Bristol chews all these idiots out, daring them to shoot their pistols and ranting at being press-ganging even when he was already serving aboard the Randolph out of Maryland.  Ah, so he's a proto-American hero, a working-class guy up against a corrupt and arrogant bourgeois that would kill him for no good reason.  So it's okay when he goes pirate later in the story, see?

With one last note that Bristol is so damn manly that Captain Mannville is having trouble looking him in the eye, all the bad guys grab and tie him up, readying Bristol for his fatal flogging.  The quartermaster produces the cat-o'-nine-tails, a collection of lashes enhanced with brass wire and lead pellets, "responsible for more deaths than scurvy or gunshot," right.  The captain steps back, the governor steps forward with eyes that are "brittle hard, like polished agate..."

The lash went back with a swift, singing sound.  Bristol clenched his teeth and shut his eyes, expecting the white-hot flash of pain.

And the chapter ends.  Huh.  Certainly a better cliffhanger than all those "I've got you now, Countess Krak!"

All things considered, not too bad.  This is a very efficient chapter, which establishes everything we need to know to start the story in a few pages and puts it all into motion.  Yes, all the cast members are flat as cardboard cutouts and the story thus far is nothing we haven't seen before, but we can't complain that the food is salty and greasy if we pulled into a McDonald's.  If I were living during the Great Depression and couldn't afford a proper novel, this would not be a totally disagreeable way to kill a couple of minutes before getting back to my miserable existence.

Back to the Intro 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Under the Black Ensign - Lowered Expectations

Hubbard's attempts to write sci-fi were undermined by his ignorance of science.  His attempt to write historical fiction fell apart when he tried to rewrite history to suit his story.  His attempt at satire floundered because he was out of touch with reality.  And his attempts to write serious epic literature failed because as an author he never grew out of the pulps.

So let's set the bar lower.  Throw him a softball.  Grab his legs and lift him so he can do a pull-up.

Under the Black Ensign is actually the earliest work listed on Wikipedia's bibliography of Hubbard's works, and was first published in the August, 1935 issue of Five Novels Monthly.  It's set in 1680, so there's no science for him to screw up, and we already know that this isn't a serious historical work because it starts on the HMS Terror, described as a "five hundred tons, seventy cannon" vessel even though the first Terror was a four-gun bomb vessel launched in 1696.  Also, there's no foreword about finally telling the real story of those victimized, misunderstood Caribbean buccaneers, or claiming that this is supposed to be a witty work of satire.

So in other words, all Hubbard has to do for the next 84 pages is tell a simple, escapist tale about pirates.  Since as I said he never developed the ability to write a story that wasn't pulp fiction, surely the man is in his element, right?

Now I said there's no self-congratulating foreword like the ones in Buckskin Brigades or Battlefield Earth, but that doesn't mean there isn't a foreword.  My edition of Under the Black Ensign is prefaced by just over four pages praising the golden age of pulp fiction, written by one Kevin J. Anderson.  Who Anderson is to you probably depends on what fandoms you're into - if you read the Star Wars expanded universe, he's the guy most (in)famous for the Jedi Academy Trilogy, the books with the dangerously cheesy Sun Crusher superweapon-spaceship and the incompetent Admiral Daala.  If you're into Dune, he helped Brian Herbert write a prequel series to the classic novels, which Penny Arcade famously compared to necrophilia.  And I think he did a book inspired by War of the Worlds about the time the live-action move came out a couple years ago?  My point is, he feels like an appropriate guy to sing the praises of L. Ron Hubbard.

The actual foreword's not much to write home (or blog) about: Anderson defines what the pulps were, cheap literature "for people who liked to read," with thrills and adventure and villains and a focus on storytelling over fancy prose.  Thing is, Anderson lists H. P. Lovecraft first on his list of pulp authors, and if you're ever read Lovecraft's stuff you know the guy could be as prosy as Cthulhu is a squamous, cylopean horror from the Stygian, non-Euclidian depths of space and time.  Anderson also thinks that Hubbard "really began to shine" when he turned from gangster and cowboy stories to science fiction, while I've argued exactly the opposite.  But again, this feels appropriate for Anderson.

Anyway, Anderson wraps up by assuring us that Under the Black Ensign and Hubbard's other Golden Age stories will "return you to a time when fiction was good clean entertainment and the most fun a kid could have on a rainy afternoon or the best thing an adult could enjoy after a long day at work."  As opposed to Hubbard's final work of fiction, or even some of Anderson's Dune stuff, which I would not call "clean" or recommend for young or impressionable readers.  But we're supposed to "Pick up a volume, and remember what reading is supposed to be all about.  Remember curling up with a great story."  Which I notice doesn't actually assure us that what we're reading is necessarily a great story.

At any rate, tune in tomorrow for some classic entertainment, or something that will make us think of classic entertainment.  Hopefully not in the same way that certain chapters of Mission Earth make the reader go to his or her Happy Place until they're over.