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.

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