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.

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