Monday, December 21, 2015

Space Can - Part 4 - The Ship Who Laughed

I'm still not entirely sure what Lieutenant Carter is doing here, or why he has to do it, or why specifically he has to do it rather than some expendable redshirt.  Sure, the narration insists "this was a job that Lieutenant Carter could not relegate to anyone," but you might think that a captain would be more useful leading a desperate assault against an enemy vessel than doing what Carter is about to.

See, Carter is going back aboard the Menace.  And he's getting all emotional about it.

He faltered for an instant on the threshold of the burning Menace.  It was not the heat which repelled him so much as the unwillingness to see again this dying little vessel which had been, until such a short time ago, a well-ordered, shipshape example of what a United States Navy destroyer should be.  Here, for two years, he had gone through the routines, the problems and the alternating bursts of good and bad news which had marked this campaign.  He had been one with an alive, sensitive creature of steel and chromium and flame, and to enter her now was like walking upon the corpse of one's friend.  He had a feeling that she should be left alone, as she was, to die, still facing the enemy.

The belated attempt to build a close connection between the captain and his ship will be explained by the end of the story.

Now, it should be noted that the Menace is still on fire.  Carter moves quickly through the flames to finish this "hideous job," but even so he's nearly knocked out when a shell explodes in a nearby gun room.  Just breathing is difficult because his suit's air supply is getting superheated and scorches his lungs with each gasp, and the ship is getting so hot that his shoes stick to the rungs of a ladder as he moves to another deck.  Man, if only there was a way to quickly extinguish the fires by dumping out the stuff they need to burn.

There was no resemblance to the trim little Menace in this twisted, blackened mess through which he drove himself.  He tried to think there was not.  He knew there was.

Let me know when you make up your mind, sheesh.

Carter reaches the engine room, or more specifically the ship's well-armored generators, which I guess are positioned right next to the engines.  Which if you'll recall are right next to the after bridge.  Which it turns out is right next to the ship's oxygen tanks, because Carter worries that they'll soon explode from the heat.  Which means that all these critical systems are crammed in the same part of the ship, meaning one lucky hit will cripple if not annihilate the destroyer.

Also, remember the thing about the auxiliary bridge being a hatch away from the engine rooms.

The current objective is for Carter to destroy the ship's generators, which are "treble-protected batteries which made a boarding possible after a ship was in ruins," because clearly the ability to engage in close combat is the most important thing to protect.  He can't flip a lever or anything to shut off the generators, and he certainly can't push a button on the Menace's main bridge to turn them off.  No, Carter gets out a grenade - I can't help but think that those low-yield explosives would have been very useful during that assault on the enemy boat - and pulls off plates from the layers of armor protecting the generators.  He fumbles with the pin but manages to prime the explosive, drops it among the generators, and then stumbles through the fire and the flames, popping through the hole connecting the two destroyers just as the grenade goes off.  Wait, no, the narration says Carter is blown off his feet by "another exploding charge," and there's no indication of when or if the grenade itself popping.

At any rate, the end result is that when Carter recovers, there's no smoke or even air in the Saturnian destroyer's gun room, and there's no sign of the Menace through the hole in the hull, only open space.  Without powered grapnels, the enemy destroyer's working weapon batteries were able to knock the Menace off her.  And Carter needed to make this happen, because...

Hmm.  Well, the author doesn't outright tell us why his character did what he just did, so let's put our thinking caps on.  Was Carter worried that the Menace would go critical and explode, irreparably damaging the ship his men were trying to capture and leaving them boned?  Or was this a ploy to drain the Saturnian ship's atmosphere, and the best way he could think to do that was disengage the Menace from the Saturnian's hull?  Was this a failsafe to keep the enemy from capturing the Menace in case the boarders were defeated?  Boy, this speculation sure is more interesting than just knowing what the hell's going on!

Through the "phones," Carter learns from an ensign that the Earthlings have managed to disintegrate their way through the bulkheads protecting the enemy's auxiliary bridge, losing only three men in the process.  Carter gives the command to "Open their compartments!", an idea which "flooded in upon" the ensign, much how like the words I convey to you through this blog then slosh around inside your skull.  Someone cuts at the last bulkhead with his "jet" ...maybe those "jet pistol"s and "disintegrators" are interchangeable?  Like they both shoot fires that are intense enough to carve through thick slabs of metal?

However it works, the jet-sintegrator pops a hole in the wall of the enemy auxiliary bridge, provoking a great gust of escaping air and loose doodads.  When the Earthlings force their way inside they find corpses "bloated, even exploded, into no semblance of humanity or Saturnity," and a lot of "frozen" switches and consoles.  I don't think they're literally frozen, as there's mention of more of them winking out as the humans watch and a viewpoint character speculating that someone on the enemy ship's main bridge is "thinking fast," cutting off the invaders' access to the ship's systems.  But then someone grabs the "auxiliary voice tube caps," yanks them open, and...

So, like, ever seen an old Looney Tunes or something set on a boat Back in the Day?  When there's no radio or anything, and instead the crew communicates by shouting into a network of metal pipes that go through the ship, conveying their voices through echoes or whatever?  Being a cartoon, you could expect the ends of those tubes to move like a mouth when a character's voice was coming through them, and you could get Toon Physics moments where Yosemite Sam or whoever shot bullets into them, and the rounds would fly and swerve through the pipe system to come out and blast Daffy on the other end or whatever.

I bring this up because I'm pretty sure that's exactly what just happened - there was a metal pipe linking two sections of a space ship so orders could be shouted between them, and a character just fired a dozen shots from his gun into it, in an attempt to kill everybody on the other end.  In a setting where, it must be noted, we've already seen people communicate through wireless helmet "phones."

Well, this act of Toon Physics does in the Saturnian ship pretty good.  There's a "hurricane" of air escaping from the main bridge through the voice tubes, and this somehow kills the ship's master control panel so that the auxiliary bridge gets control of everything.  The humans promptly open all the ship's compartments, sucking the life from them because, again, these Saturnian types are too arrogant or stupid to wear space suits.  And all that's left to do is for Carter to give the order to "Proceed carefully through the vessel and clean out anyone left in her."

Kinda makes you wonder why they even needed to board the ship, and why they couldn't crawl around the hull with their disintegrators and punch holes in it to drain it of oxygen.  Or whatever atmosphere the Saturnians use, if they're supposed to be aliens instead of pointy-headed humans.

Carter prepares to use the captured destroyer's communicator to report his victory, absently reflecting how "Washington's onetime predilection for trading partners was not without benefit, for this communicator panel might have borne the stamp of Bell Radiophone for its similarity."  Ah, so even hundreds of years in the future, America will keep supplying technology and goods to people who end up fighting us with it.  Oh America, you just never learn, do you? 

Our hero tries to feel happy about his history-making heroic victory, but dwells on the cost of that victory.

He was thinking now of the Menace.

What, you think he was getting torn up over all those dead redshirts?  Those loyal junior officers?  Please.

In the letdown which had followed the battle, he knew he would think of her more and more.  Proud, arrogant little space can, smashed by the insensate hates of a space war, drifting a derelict, a battered sacrifice to her pride, a dead cold thing lost in the immensity, to be shunned by all vessels who sighted her as a navigational risk.

Can't salvage her or anything.  No, this here is a "victory but there was no victory."  Carter has trouble seeing the control panels clearly, and can only hear the reports of his surviving men with his "official mind, but they went no deeper."  He had such a close bond with that little space can, as seen over the final quarter of this story.  He may never recover now that it's completely, irreversibly dead.

But then something jolts the captured destroyer, and Carter decides to go back to the gun room they first captured to peer through the hole in the hull, rather than using his helmet radio to ask the sentry stationed there what's going on.  Carter has a problem with delegating, you may have noticed.

Could it be?

For the hole was no longer empty!  Had he dreamed that he got the Menace away from there?  Had it been possible that she would not have herself abandoned?

"Would not have herself..." ugh, word better, Hubbard.

But yeah, the Menace is back, scorched and crumpled but still under power, gently nudging the captured destroyer.  A spacesuited figure hops out to greet Carter, and turns out to be Ensign Gates, who explains that fire cut off some conduits on the after bridge, but once they had their spacesuits on they got things under control, and all the fires went out when the ship farted out its atmosphere.  So the Menace is in decent shape, actually.

Yeah, remember when Carter went down to the engine rooms, which are right next to the auxiliary bridge?  Guess he didn't notice any of this while he was down there.  And him using a grenade to explode the ship's generators didn't have any adverse effects on the auxiliary bridge crew.  Just imagine how awkward it would be if a badly-wounded Gates reported how, just when they had everything under control, one of the generators blew for some reason and took out half the survivors.

So hooray, the space can survived, and the only losses the good guys took were those destroyed convoy ships and nameless redshirts.  Carter gets all misty-eyed and has Gates "take charge of the repair parties as soon as we get air back into these ships."  Hopefully this involves opening a new can of oxygen instead of getting a hose and sucking up all the atmosphere that got released into this cube of space.

Gently, the little Menace nudged her battered nose against the hull of her conquered enemy as though to remind the Saturnian that a ship, even when shot half to hell, should never be considered in any light save that of a dangerous adversary.

You have to wonder why the Saturnians just let the mangled Menace close with them instead of getting out of its way.  Even if they couldn't conceive of someone trying a boarding action, they should at least have been wary of a ramming attempt.  But whatever, the bad guys were undone by their hubris or something.

For an instant Carter was startled into a belief that the Menace was laughing, and then he saw that the sound issued from his phones and was sourced aloft where Gates and Wayton were gladly greeting each other.  It amused him to think that his ship could laugh, for the fact was most ridiculous.  Or was it? - he asked himself suddenly.  Or was it?

I think poor Lieutenant Carter needs some R&R, maybe a psychiatric evaluation, if he's wondering whether his "space can" is laughing at him.

So that's the story.  Naval combat in the future is awfully similar to naval combat in the past, complete with voice tubes relaying orders through the ship and shells for the ship's cannon.  There's some nods to physics and actual science in things like maneuvering the spaceships through the void, while the question of how these people are walking upright in their boats instead of floating remains unaddressed.  Some nonexistant technology like disintegrator rays is anticipated, more realistic advances like guided missiles or automated starship systems are overlooked.  And there's no context for this space battle, no character development, and a bare minimum of characterization to begin with.

Simple and unsophisticated escapism, in other words.  This stuff won't change the world or inspire incredible scientific breakthroughs, but it'll kill a couple minutes in a waiting room.  And look at all the stuff Hubbard didn't include - no fascist overtones, no casual racism, no paranoid delusions.  "Space Can" is a mediocre and forgettable bit of science fiction, and therefore easily in the top percentile of Hubbard's work.

Still not sure why a sleek destroyer with a crew of dozens of space marines gets called a "space can," though.

Back to Part 3

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Space Can - Part 3 - CQC In Not-Zero-G

Assault Phase, baby.  No, wait, going through my old Battlefleet Gothic rulebook it looks like we're in the Boarding Action subsection of the End Phase.  Which isn't as exciting to say, I'm afraid.

The crew of the Menace gets spacesuited up, though the author makes sure to show how disciplined and determined everyone is by mentioning how the quartermaster, "strangling and sweating at the helm," refused to let go and put on his suit until someone came to relieve him.  You might think it strange that a quartermaster is controlling the ship instead of a helmsman, but it turns out that the rank of quartermaster has a diverse set of duties that vary from navy to navy, and in the Royal Navy for example they're expected to drive the sea-car.  But not in the US Navy, those quartermasters among other things train the actual helmsman.  So either the information on Wikipedia has evolved since World War II, Hubbard wasn't paying much attention during his naval career, or else the author's affection for British customs and culture extended beyond calling trucks lorries.  The important thing is that the Menace doesn't have an autopilot.

The fires are hot enough to be felt through spacesuits, and the smoke is killing the air quality, but everyone holds out on sealing their helmets and using their own oxygen supply until the very last second.  Although the "helmet phones" theoretically allow everyone to communicate normally, there's still a period of quiet once the headgear is donned.

There was something ominous and horrible in this silence for every man on the ship, for each was affected alike in the connection of the silence to a sudden surge of loneliness.  For perhaps three minutes there was irregularity in the smoothness of the execution of duties, and then the first shock of quiet wore away and men began to talk to each other on the individual battery frequencies, began to swear anew, began to revile and damn this enemy who was destroying the sleek little Menace.

Another idea I like - the brief shock of donning a sound-muffling spacesuit, like diving underwater in the process of bailing out of a sinking ship - expressed in a sub-optimal manner.  Makes you wonder what Hubbard could have amounted to if he had a decent editor and was willing to listen to criticism.  Instead of, you know.  The everything that made Hubbard so Hubbard.

The helmsquartermanmaster sets the Menace on an intercept course with the enemy destroyer, and takes care to add some irregular swerves and jumps to sell the illusion that the space can is even more heavily-damaged than it is.  The Saturnian ship is so overconfident that it doesn't try to move out of the way, and continues to pound the Menace as it closes, chewing off its nose to "within twenty feet of the bridge" and knocking out its engines so it's forced to steer by the recoil of its few functional guns.  So that's why they're cannons instead of recoilless energy weapons or self-propelled missiles.

But despite the damage it's taking, the Menace makes it to grapnel range, and suddenly the Saturnian destroyer finds itself in a bit of a bind.

With a shuddering stab which tightened and held, the invisible claws of the Menace fastened upon the Saturnian and sucked them together with a swiftness which could only end in a numbing crash.

It's not quite explained how the ships are stuck together.  There's talk of grapnels, little anchors you throw to snag other vessels, but no mention of them firing or the chains or cables or whatever tightening to hold the enemy ship in place.  The "invisible" remark suggests a magnetic field is being generated, but that would require power, and you'd think with the damage the Menace is sustaining it would lose some of those magno-grapnels.

However it happens, "adhesion" is achieved, and, well, turns out there are death rays after all, they just don't use them except for these very specific and desperate circumstances.  A boarding party starts using "disintegrators" to gnaw through the enemy destroyer's metal skin "as though that hull consisted of cheese."  Unfortunately by cutting through this cheesy simile, the scene's dramatic atmosphere gets sucked out of resulting breach, and the gravity of the situation flickers and dies.

There's no party like a boarding party, and there's no better accessories for one than your machete and "jet pistol."  I'm going to assume that the latter is some sort of energy weapon and not something squirting water or concentrated streams of air at the enemy, though I guess the later options might be effective if the Saturnians are aliens with weaknesses to oxygen and hydrogen.  Heh, if they're fighting the aliens from Signs the boarding party should be armed with water balloons.

Carter gives the order "Borders away!" and joins the attack, surging through the "ragged hole of emptiness" leading into the other vessel, rushing headlong into the flames spitting back at the boarders from the defenders' "viciously wielded jets."  Still curious why the main guns fire shells when these armed forces have got energy weapons down enough to make them pistol-sized.  Also curious about the gravity situation - there's no moment of disorientation when Carter and his men pass from the artificial gravity of their own ship through the gap between the vessels and then have to adjust to the enemy ship's set-up.  No mention of it appearing that the enemy are shooting back at them from the walls or ceiling, or of Carter's boarders suddenly feeling stronger in a low-G environment or buckling over the high-G's of the Saturnian vessel.  Everything's nice and convenient and just how it would be if these boats were floating in water.  Except for the space suits.

The mess in which he found himself cut at him, shot at him, grabbed at him, and Carter, spinning around and around and firing a space clear

That is, he cleared a space, not that he shot a clear designed for use in outer space.  Can't be too careful in a story with space torpedoes.

yelled defiantly but incoherently at them.

Bear in mind that he's wearing a space suit during all this, so the overall effect has to be similar to when the guy in the car next to you on the interstate is ranting at you for not signalling your turn.

While Carter and his men have suits on, eventually he notices that the mob of Saturnians "had been too contemptuous to don spacesuits," since they make working the guns difficult and besides, who would be stupid enough to try a boarding action when they're outnumbered three-to-one?  Oh, and if you're curious what the Saturnians look like up close, all the author has to say about them is that they have "curiously pointed heads."  So they might be aliens, or, well, you know.  Maybe Saturn was settled by one of the lesser races, one whose cranial structure clearly marks them as inferior to square-jawed white guys.  Seriously, there's a picture in my book of the boarding party, and it looks like a bunch of Clark Kent clones in fishbowl helmets.

The Saturnians fall back in the face of the Earthlings' assault, no doubt to try to draw the invaders into kill zones.  The humans take their time in pursuing, and finish off the survivors and stragglers with cold steel.  None try to surrender, and no quarter is given to the xeno or abhuman scum.  But in the middle of the butchery, a torrent of... something.  Something happens so that the forward rank of the invaders is "swept back" by defensive fire.  It's probably just literally fire, since there's no talk of anyone getting carved into sizzling chunks by searing red lasers, but a brief mention of spacesuits "giving way to the heat" on the previous page.  Flame weapons, in a situation where you really don't want to burn through a lot of oxygen or start an out-of-control fire.  Those stupid Saturnians, amirite?

One of the interchangeable secondary characters is driven "insane for an instant in the belief that his captain had been killed" during the attack, but when Carter pops up he stops screaming and instantly halts, awaiting his commander's directive.  Our heroic lieutenant calmly orders the boarders to take cover, then "Try to filter up into the ship through those hatches.  But don't press them closely and don't risk your men."  Because when you're invading a hostile ship whose crew outnumbers you three-to-one, your first thought is gonna be 'let's split up, gang,' right?

The ensign only salutes and intones aye-aye, and does not wonder at all why Carter then goes through the crowd and back onto the Menace - "he had received his orders and he would carry them out to the last word and with his last breath."  It's kind of strange that Hubbard didn't anticipate any automated participants in space combat, since his characters are for the most part coldly professional and unthinkingly obedient robots themselves.  Unless they get in combat, then they scream like a troop of baboons.  Maybe we should add speakers to our drones and make them shriek like eagles as they descend upon whoever's al-Qaeda's #2 this week, add some psychological weapons to our killing machines.

Carter's underling in turn orders another underling to carve through a section of the gun room they're in so they can bypass the enemy as they, the fewer than fifteen survivors of the Menace, try to capture a ship of at least fifty.  But if you were hoping to see more combat, I'm sorry to say that you're out of luck, there's no more real fighting to be had.  Not that it was terribly exciting to begin with.

At any rate, we'll hopefully finish up this space battle next time.

Back to Part 2

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Space Can - Part 2 - Damn the Space Torpedoes and Full Speed Ahead

You can start up whatever sci-fi battle music suits your fancy for this, but it's probably not worth the trouble.

The Menace leaped as the steering jets slammed her into her new course, as though she was unwilling to even countenance a thing which sought to avoid battle.

"Countenance" and "a thing" look kinda weird right next to each other like that.  Like using 'obviate' and 'ain't' in the same sentence.

The screens of the enemy showed the action without much lag, and an instant later, the Saturn vessel was killing her speed on her old course and blasting into a new one which would again intercept the Menace.

Good, hate it when enemy ships teleport around as you're trying to hit them.  If you don't got a good connection why bother joining the server, am I right?  Let someone with latency under a hundred get in.

The POV hops around for a little bit.  Ensign Wayton is grudgingly admitting to himself that the enemy destroyer is being handled well to intercept them so quickly, and then begins breathing quickly "as though to supercharge his body with oxygen and hurl himself rather than flame projectiles at the enemy."  Lieutenant Carter is getting dangerously mellow, sinking back in his captain's chair with "a vague look in his eyes and a relaxed expression about his mouth" as he looks over all the meters and readouts on the bridge to decide what to do.  And since Hubbard was secretly a dragon, of course those meters and screens "gave the small bridge the appearance of being set in diamonds and gold."

Gaudy as they may be, the meters at least have good news - all guns are prepped for combat, all "tubes" (I can only hope these are thrusters) are firing, the air pressure is even throughout the ship because I guess it'd be bad if it wasn't, and the "new tanks broached to give the men more energy and courage."  Oxygen's like food, see, you ration it out and give out bigger helpings of it if you think you'll be exerting yourself.

Meanwhile Ensign Gates is on the "after bridge," where he's got a nearly-as-good screen of the action and can look through a hatch and see the crew around the "Burmingham jet of the starboard engine," but not into the port engine room oddly enough.  Guess it's an off-center auxiliary bridge.  Also, Gates has a subordinate of his own, "a heavyset sailor from Iowa, who still bore, after twenty years in space, the stamp of his state upon him."  I had to put the story aside for a moment and ponder this - what is the author talking about?  What about a person lets you look at them and immediately determine that they hail from the dark heart of Iowa?  Broad shoulders, a sunburn?  The way they smile, how they stand at attention?  Why are we told more about the homeland of this nameless quartermaster than the 'main' characters' backgrounds?

We'll never know.  The "port ninety-nines" open up, and the battle is on.

Time stood still and two vicious dots of ferocity slashed at each other in an immense black cube of vacuum.  Shells burst like tiny flowers when they missed, or flashed like yellow charges of electricity when they struck.  The Menace became filled with acridity.  Somewhere in her a man was screaming an insane battle cry, and elsewhere blue dots of profanity hung thickly around guns and tubes and stoke ports.

Yep, shells.  There are torpedoes, the Menace will fire some in a bit, but the destroyer's main weapons would seem to be cannon rather than the more conventional ray guns.  Which isn't to say that - well, you'll see.  At any rate, no guided missiles.  How would that even work, anyway, stick a little crew on a small, explosive-filled rocket?  Don't be absurd.

We learn why the compartments mentioned last time are a thing when Compartment 21 gets a hole blown in it and first 16, then 6 are filled with flame - all are promptly sealed before their conditions spread to the rest of the ship.  This at least makes sense, and I think forms a core component of FTL's gameplay.  Another thing that makes sense is that the ship's auxiliary bridge is located in the "exact center of the ship" (but still not within sight of the port engine room?), where it will be harder to knock out with a lucky cannonball.  Of course, this means that the main bridge is elsewhere and less protected, even though there was no mention of a window or anything when Carter was looking out at the enemy at the start of the story.  Might as well just have one bridge in the ship's center that's as heavily-protected as possible, but... well, you'll see.

Anyway, the Menace is taking damage, enough for a blazing gunner to crash down a ladder before an emergency team wraps him in a blanket... well, rest assured it's a space-age, fire-retardant blanket.  But the ship is also dealing damage, and another interchangeable crewman keeps calling out "Hulled her!" when the shells hit home.  Something happens to produce a string of hits, so that Ensign Gates "believed" that the enemy took a critical hit to the "steering jets."  He's able to "believe" this even after reading his instrument panel, so I guess the Menace's sensors aren't able to tell him much or confirm his hypothesis.

At any rate, the crippled enemy destroyer is stuck on a straight course going right by the three remaining US convoy ships.  The narration assumes that it's spitefully trying to finish off the helpless freighters before the Menace destroys it, but it's not made clear exactly what happens - "Just as the Menace flashed by a halted supply vessel, it bloomed into a sphere of scarlet death, the ammunition and highly explosive fuel igniting all at once."  Since there's no explicit mention of the damaged Saturnian destroyer shooting at it, for all we know some previous damage finally went critical, or maybe a stray shot from the Menace hit a friendly target.

Lieutenant Carter gazed calmly at the fleeing enemy, but the calmness was an official sort of thing, for there was sorrow for the supply ships and anger for the Saturnian snarled into a lump behind his gray eyes.

Yep, the captain got so mad it gave him brain cancer... hey, wait a minute, Hubbard started using the proper adjective all of a sudden.  Huh.  Well it looks like it's a "Saturn vessel" when he's referring to the boat and a "Saturnian" when referring to its commander.

Each time the Menace got a salvo home the captain twitched forward and a concentration of muscles above his mouth made him grin a split second at a time.

This is phrased prosily and poorly, but I actually like this little scene: a coldly furious captain gaining a feral grin by degrees with each hit his crew lands on the hated enemy.

In the end, one final solid blow makes the Saturnian ship fold up "like a smashed tin can."  Hip-hip, hooray.  Lieutenant Carter congratulates Ensign Wayton, now sporting "glowing eyes and battle-reddened cheeks," but there's no time to soak in their victory, the second enemy destroyer is still out there...

Hey, why did the enemy come at them one at a time?  Why couldn't they gang up on the Menace and take it out quickly and cleanly, then go back to slaughtering the last of the hapless convoy?

Must've underestimated our little space can.  The Menace, bloodied but "bristling and sure of herself," takes up a new course and powers towards the remaining Saturnian destroyer.

Telepathically, Lieutenant Carter was aware of his enemy's abrupt distaste for combat with him, now that the Saturnian had been blasted from the action, but there was nothing in the action of the second vessel to indicate dislike, for it turned now away from the supply vessel it had intended to spear, and streaked in a wide bank to bring her into a broadside parallel with the Menace.

Urgh, too many commas.  And seriously, "telepathically?"  That's worse than "believing" that an enemy ship had taken a bad blow when you're staring at a sensor screen.  Or "computator" as the case may be.

The Menace opens up with its six port guns, jerking back and forth as the recoil from the battery knocks it one ways and the "adjusters" fire to compensate, the sort of problem you don't get from lasers or missiles, just sayin'.  The Saturnian destroyer does a sicknasty sideways power slide as it closes and opens fire, because hey, it's space and that's physics.  And the ship has a "flame wake" that trails into "white powdery smoke, curved and feathered," because... it apparently has to fire its engines the whole time... even though it's space, and that's physics... well, Hubbard wanted some kind of wake, alright?  He like ships.

This battle goes a lot worse for the scrappy lil' space can.  Compartments 26 through 30 are quickly knocked off the bridge's boards, and the starboard magazine goes up in flames that start spreading into adjacent areas.  The Menace fires three "space torpedoes" ...sigh.  Well, maybe it's justified, maybe we shouldn't get these missiles confused with the "sea torpedoes" the destroyer carries on the oft-chance it needs to drop something into the water from orbit to sink a tugboat.

Anyway, the Menace fires space torpedoes and rolls to bring its undamaged guns to bear on the enemy.  One space torpedo hits the enemy right in the aft, taking out the "stern balance jets" that keep the destroyer from tipping over I guess, but its main engines are still working.  The Menace, meanwhile, has lost three more compartments, and worse its air supply is no longer safe to breathe.  We're not told the specifics, so I've decided that someone in Compartment 17 had tacos for lunch.

Captain-Lieutenant Carter gives the order to don spacesuits into the "annunciator," just before the Menace takes a big wallop and the light representing the auxiliary bridge goes dark on the monitor board.  Carter is sufficiently rattled for there to be "the smallest hint of concern" when he tries to raise the after bridge crew.  And if you can remember the name of the ensign commanding the reserve bridge, well done!  You're a better reader than I.

Another interchangeable ensign is white with alarm as he looks to his commander for reassurance and orders.

Lieutenant Carter did not look at his executive officer.  In a flat, official voice he said, "Grapple the enemy."

Aww yeah, no party like a boarding party!  And this isn't some desperate, back-against-the-wall strategy Carter pulled out from under his chair, as we'll see next time the Menace is designed for such close combat.  But as I said, next time.

Back to Part 1 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Space Can - Part 1 - The Little Spaceship That Might

Everybody suit up, it's time to blam now, we're gonna take it into high orbit.  Welcome to the "Space Can," do your best to feign interest in the "Space Can," alright?

This story is an attempt to depict space combat, and was written in 1942, before the Apollo program, Sputnik, or even the V2 rocket.  No rich characterization, ingenious plot twists or profound lessons are to be found here, instead the author will try to thrill us with a battle the likes of which we've never seen before.  Which I suppose is still true, even seventy years later.

That kind of blunts some of the criticism we can direct towards this work.  We shouldn't be surprised, given Hubbard's background and previous writings, that this tale of a spaceship draws heavily from more conventional naval experiences, and given the author's numerous failings we shouldn't be surprised when he botches the physics of outer space.  But we can't say this story is completely wrong because we still don't know what a space battle looks like, since we've never had a real one.  Numerous creators have taken a crack at portraying space combat in books or onscreen, but until we combine advanced transportation methods with humanity's darkest impulses, spaceship battles will remain speculative fiction.

Still, it's a good bet that they probably won't look like this.

Lancing through space, slammed along by a half million horses, the United States destroyer Menace anxiously sought the convoy which had been wailing to all the Universe for aid but now was still, still with an ominous quiet which could mean only its defeat.

Or they're flying through a tunnel and have no reception.

First of all, don't bring horsepower into a story about spaceships.  I'm not saying you should describe your thrusters' potential in kilonewtons, but the juxtaposition of an ancient, organic transportation system with something so futuristic is just distracting, especially in the first sentence of the story.

Second, United States Navy destroyers are named after naval heroes, not negative concepts like "menace."  Usually navy vessels in general are named after people or places, and in the rare cases they're named after traits, they're positive traits, like the hospital ship Mercy or the minesweeper Dextrous.  The only exceptions were for ammunition ships, which were given names like Nitro or Pyro, 'cause explosions.  This seems like an odd thing for the great commodore to forget, especially since it looks like Hubbard wrote this story while he was enlisted in the Navy.

Or maybe this future space destroyer is named after the great naval hero Clarence Timothy Menace, who heroically destroyed two enemy stealth ships hiding in that magnetic anomaly off Ceres in 2143.

Third, again with the Universe.  What, the galaxy isn't big enough for you?  When a boat in the Caribbean breaks down, is it broadcasting its distress signal to the whole planet?

She was only one, the Menace, and "they" would be more than one,

"They" are our vague enemy.  Their motivations, to say nothing of the background for this conflict, are never explained.  Hell, it's never made clear whether they're even human.  Guess it isn't really important, but it'd still be nice to know.

but the little space can charged ahead, knowing well that she was a pebble from the mighty slingshot of the embattled fleet, a pebble where there should have been a shower of stones.

Remember what I said about horses?  Apply this to weapons, too.  Don't compare a fleet of spaceships to a rubber band.  And then don't muddle the metaphor by implying that the slingshot should be firing a whole barrage of stones like some primitive shotgun.

Gracefully vicious, 

Or viciously graceful.

a bundle of frail ferocity, a wasp of space designed for and consecrated to the kill, the Menace flamed pugnaciously onward; she had her orders, she would carry them out to the last ounce of her fuel, the last charge in her guns and the last man within her complex and multiple compartments.

And the last Coke in her fridge.

She carried the Stars and Stripes upon her side, gold lace upon her bridge

There are other things you can use to decorate something, Hubbard.

and infinite courage in her heart, for upon her belligerent little nose rested the full tradition of four-hundred-odd years of Navy, a tradition which took no dares, struck no colors and counted no odds.

Which explains the suicidal aggression that will be displayed in this story.  Also, we've got a weird impression of the "space can" by this point - the Menace is simultaneously something sleek and vicious, like a wasp, but it's also small and scrappy, dare I say cute? 

She should have been a flotilla in this lonely cube of space,

Yeah, the local stretch of void is repeatedly referred to as a cube in this story.  I don't know either, maybe it was just a thing Hubbard was going through at the time.  I guess a cube is just as good a way to interpret the infinite majesty of the cosmos as a sphere.  Or maybe he meant 'quadrant' but screwed up.

but with the fleet embattled off Saturn, no flotilla could be spared.

This is still throwing me - the conflict seems confined to the Sol system, but Hubbard still likes to ramp up the scale all the way to the Universe when it comes to things like distress signals.

She had done other jobs, hard ones, in this long war.  There was faith in her, too much perhaps, and so she was here alone, raking the black with her detectors,

I think I remember the ships in Under the Black Ensign raking the blue at various points, but can't quote a specific instance and don't want to flip through the whole book looking for one.  So I can't say with confidence that Hubbard is recycling his wordplay here, I just have a hunch he is.

bristling with impatience to engage the enemy, be he cruiser or battleship or just another destroyer; she was a terrier who had no eye for the size of her rats.

I feel that the absence of carriers from this list of spaceship classes should be remarked upon.  Then again, this was published only a month after the Battle of Midway, so maybe the importance of those ships hadn't sunk in yet.

Our main character is Lieutenant Carter, introduced with a hand on the shoulder of Ensign Wayton, in a platonic way thank you very much.  He's staring at the bridge's "detector" and the bad news it bears.  The convoy they're trying to rescue is displayed as "colorless spots, unmoving, without order."  And there's our first physics boo-boo, the notion that a dead spaceship will just stop instead of rightfully continuing on whatever speed and heading it had been going before its engines died.  Second boo-boo comes right after when the narration describes how that "detector" is also picking up - "gruesomely" indicating, I should say - freighters that are cooling as their air supply escapes hull breaches.  The bigger problem spaceship have is managing all the heat they generate, not keeping everything from icing over.  When you're more or less flying around in a thermos, and you've got warm bodies on board and a lot of equipment running, things get hot.

We're also told that the death toll of this attack is probably going to be bad, because space ships aren't normally supplied with a lot of space suits, "unless they were crack ships like the Menace."  See, if you kept space suits around, you might lose crew members every time you made port!  Because I guess these ships are crewed by shanghaied sailors who would be all too happy to, I dunno, hop out the door and drift over to Deimos if the ship passed Mars.  And there's no way for the captain to lock the airlock.  That'd be terribly unsafe, see.

As Carter watches, one spot on that "detector" turns violet to indicate that it is now approaching the Menace, and a petty officer who has a name but why bother turns an "analoscope" on the red dot.  Yes, "analoscope," one letter away from unlocking the secrets found between Saturn and Neptune.  Yes, the dot changed from violet to red between descriptions of it.  Yes, the officer is using his instrument to scan a dot displayed on another instrument, like using a microscope to examine something on the TV.

Good grief, we're not even on the third page of the story yet and there's twenty-one in total.  I'm not getting this done in one post.

The petty officer shuffles "plates" with the spectrum readings of all known navy vessels, until he finds a match and confirms that the red dot is a "Saturn destroyer, sir."  Much like how Hubbard was fighting Japan submarines or Mexico sand.  Also, isn't it kind of weird that the US Navy is up against an entire hostile planet?  You'd expect some sort of Terran coalition to form against a threat like that.

More also, isn't is strange that these bad guys are from a gas giant?  If they're aliens, this begs the question of, you know, how they managed to find enough metals to construct a spaceship in the first place.  And if they're a separatist human colony, we have to wonder why they chose to settle there instead of Mars or something. Well, I guess they could be from Titan.  But how'd they get the resources to build a fleet of warships able to contend with the United States Navy for such a long time?  Is someone else supplying them?  Is the US engaged in a proxy war with some rival interplanetary power?  Or was there a sort of mass defection to the Saturnian cause, which could lead us to question the righteousness of the United States for opposing them?

I'm having more fun inventing background for this story than reading it.

Lieutenant Carter shook himself into the fighting machine he was trained to be.

Just in case you were confusing this guy with some sort of well-rounded character.  And on the subject of fighting machines, where are the robots?

The situation was a plain one, a simple one.  The convoy had been set upon by a raiding fleet the existence of which had not been suspected.  Bravely the train's escorts had flashed into battle and had fought their ships to the last pound of air; that they had not done badly was indicated by the fact that only two Saturn vessels remained in action; that the entire escort was dead was plain in the silence of the battle communicator; that the supply ships were paralyzed and already half destroyed was to be found in the garble which spewed and gibbered from the all-channel speaker.

If this looks like a horribly unwieldy, run-on sentence, just remember that there was a war on and periods were being rationed.

Everyone is matter-of-fact and unexcited when a crewman reports another Saturnian vessel approaching.  Captain Carter... okay, no, he's a lieutenant, but he's in command of the ship and alternatively referred to as "the captain."  Anyway, he presses the Battle Stations button, which apparently works by clamping down on lines running through the vessel rather than by sending an electronic signal to sound an alarm.  It'll be another thirty minutes before they're in range of each other, but Carter needs only seconds to come up with a battle plan.  He can sense from "across black space the eagerness of hope in it that he would attack it and disregard the second ship," and wow that's an awful sentence.  Anyway, it's obvious that the approaching destroyer is trying to keep the Menace from interfering while the second enemy ship continues to kill what's left of the convoy. 

Carter also "abruptly" understands that someone in Intelligence did a big boo-boo, not just in sending his lone ship to deal with a threat that would require a proper task force, but in letting these raiders hit a fuel convoy in the first place.  Which... yeah, Carter already mentioned all that in the paragraph I quoted above.  Way to understand what you already know, Carter.

Anyway, that's our tense scenario - one lone destroyer against two ships its equal, defending a vital convoy from an insidious threat no one saw coming.  And to put icing on the cake, Carter knows the "state of his own bunkers" ...he means fuel tanks.  But yeah, he doesn't have enough gas to get back to Earth!  He'll be lucky to make it to Jupiter before his ship just coasts to a stop!

Everywhere through the ship men were strapping themselves at their posts or donning the heavy padding which would protect them against violent course changes which would throw the complement around like dice in a cup.

Makes you wonder why they don't wear such protective gear at all times, in case of sudden emergency maneuvers.  Or, since there's never any indication of anyone floating, why whatever system provides artificial gravity for the crew can't also compensate for the ship's maneuvers.

"Aloft ten, right rudder nineteen," said the captain.

And how does a rudder work in space?  Eh, maybe it's like the "etheric rudders" in the Star Wars books that simulates the effect of a rudder - swinging a spaceship's nose left or right - without going so far as to trying to press against the void of space with a piece of wood or metal.

So there, threat identified, heading set, and ready for battle.  Tune in next time when the Space Can fights two enemy cans to protect some oil cans.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Great Secret - Not Great, Not a Secret

First, I wanna complain about the deceptive advertising.

No, I'm not mad about Miss Not-Appearing-in-this-Story on the cover.  But since "The Great Secret" is also on the novella's front, and the back consists solely of an excerpt from the story, you might expect that like Under the Black Ensign you're in for a good sixty pages or so of... well, a great secret of some sort.  But nope!  Checking the inside flaps of the book jacket will reveal that the paperback "also includes the science fiction stories 'Space Can,' 'The Beast' and 'The Slaver,'" so the work on the cover is only part of the collection.  And then if you check the table of contents you'll see that said work is only fifteen pages long.  And then if you flip through a few pages, you'll learn that "The Great Secret" is really only thirteen pages long because two of the pages included in the table of contents' count are blank or merely repeat the title.

So you can imagine how "great" this secret can be if it takes just over a dozen pages to talk about it.  And then you actually read the story and learn the disappointing truth.

Sweeping clouds shadowed the tawny plain, and far off in the east the plumes of night spread gently, mournfully, burying the corpse of the Livian day.  Fanner Marston, a tattered speck upon a ridge, looked eastward, looked to the glory he sought and beheld it.

Got here a passage rich in words and poor in sense.  "Burying the corpse" of the day, fine, but comparing nightfall to "plumes" just doesn't work - plumes are things like geysers (or feathers), and night doesn't come in spurts of darkness (or feathers?).  If someone is looking to see something and immediately beholds it, you might as well just say they beheld it to begin with.  Also, the name Fanner is a bit on the distractingly silly side, and I'd also like to point out that we're never told the proper name for this world, only its descriptor.  Might be the planet Livi, Livia, Liv, who knows, who cares.

Throat and tongue swollen with thirst, green eyes blazing now with new ecstasy, he knew he had it. He would gain it, would realize that heady height upon which he had elected to stand. Before him lay the Great Secret! The Secret which had made a dead race rule the Universe!

But which wasn't great enough to keep them alive, evidently.

And that Secret would be his, Fanner Marston's, and Fanner Marston would be the ruler, the new ruler, the arbiter of destiny for all the Universe!

Get used to that sentence, variations of it are repeated over and over the next dozen pages.  It's either representative of the character's obsession with attaining ultimate cosmic power, or a sign that the author was padding out the story, such as it is, into something long enough to submit to a magazine.  You be the judge.

So this Fanner guy has spent weeks crossing broken plains scorched by binary suns and scaling this world's blue mountains, but now he's reached his destination: "Parva, dead, beautiful city of the ancients, city of the blessed, city of knowledge and power."  Yes, Fanner's eyes are dull and his lips are cracked from thirst, and his canteens are empty.  Yes, his "monocycle" is broken along with all the other vehicles in his caravan, and twenty miles of rough terrain lie between him and his destination.  And yes, all of Fanner's forty companions have died from disease, thirst or infighting - though this really just saves him the trouble of killing them himself so they won't steal the Great Secret from him.  But none of it matters, his destination is in sight and soon its power will be his.

He had won.  They had told him that he could not; the legends said it was not possible for any mortal man to win.  But the spell of the ancients was broken, their books were open, their riches lay for the taking.  Parva was there!  Parva was his!

We can't examine this story's premise too closely.

Liv-whatever is another planet, so Fanner and his dead crew had to travel there by spaceship.  Unless said spaceship was completely windowless and had no visual sensors, they had to look down from orbit and pick a landing spot.  So they could have held their horses, searched for and found Parva from above, and landed right on its doorstep, but instead they decided to put down several mountain ranges and deserts away from their destination.  Unless that "plumes of night" bit wasn't a botched metaphor and there's heavy atmospheric interference in this area, but that wouldn't jive with the 'scorching desert' setting given to us.

Then there's just a bunch of unanswered questions, like who "they" are in the above 'I'll show them, I'll show them all!' rant, and what exactly Fanner "won" to find Parva's location.  Or how Parva was lost when its people once ruled the universe.  Or how a people who once ruled the universe could keep a Great Secret contained to a single location.

I guess this is a sci-fi take on the old idea of a dauntless explorer uncovering the secrets of a lost city in a jungle or desert somewhere, except when you add the technology to make that story sci-fi, it gets a lot harder to justify such a premise.

Anyway, Fanner cackles unpleasantly and begins the final stretch of his journey, ignoring his thirst and the sharp rocks he treads upon, buoyed by thoughts of what he'll do with that Great Secret.

Fanner Marston would bring in a new era, a day when spaceships no longer had to land in seas to save themselves from being shattered,

My remark about their spaceships not having any way of looking at the ground seems less jokey now.

when men would be hampered no longer in combating the atmospheres of many now uninhabitable planets.

Huh.  So what, pollution is ruining our offworld colonies?  Or are we falling prey to galactic climate change?  And if you can create a sealed, livable environment for a spaceship, why is that an insurmountable problem?

The wealth of the Universe would be his for the taking, the entire race of mankind would bow to his command like vassals.  For there, glittering in the sunset, was Parva - Parva, the city of the Great Secret.

Must be a hell of a secret, if it covers everything from rocket science to climatology to Making Friends and Influencing People.  'cause it's not like the first two alone would make all of humanity bow before you, we didn't choose Robert Goddard to be our eternal ruler or anything just because he made the first liquid-fueled rocket.

As Fanner stumbles along, we get a sparse page of exposition about his backstory - he started out a "slavey" in a pirate camp, then became a small-time thief in the Universe's big cities, until he picked up the legend of Parva from somewhere and grew convinced he would be the one to find it.

There, men said, lay the most advanced science of the Universe, sealed up in a strangely constructed city, covered with the dust of eons.

"Strangely constructed" is right - there's an illustration in my version, and Parva's main building looks like a combination tombstone and fire hydrant, with two arms jutting out from either side supporting what look to be several giant pancakes.

It had been seen from afar by this one; it had been reported by a man gone mad with thirst; it had crept down the centuries in the literature of space.

So presumably Liv-whatever is inhabited.  And people have spotted Parva before.  But nobody else has managed to fly over and take a peek at its Great Secret yet.  Huh.

One and all agreed that Parva and Parva alone contained the sum total of knowledge gathered by that vanished race, one which had been so far advanced that ethereal communication with the planets had been possible,


that its spaceships could land on ground.

Parachutes, landing gear and runways?

That civilization had used atomic power,

Nuclear fission?

not radioactive fuel.

Oh.  Fusion, then.  Yeah, I guess that's a big deal.

Its men had been able to clothe themselves against the rigors of the many uninhabitable planets.

Space suits?

A lot of these 'wonders of the ancients' sound a lot like things a spacefaring civilization would have to come up with to get into space in the first place.

And then Parva alone remained of all that great culture and Parva itself had died.  But within it there must be the Great Secret.

And before you ask, no, the big twist isn't that Parva is someplace on Earth and Fanner's contemporaries have forgotten their heritage, Earth is mentioned on the next page.

Of the Great Secret, men understood very little save that which had been expressed in a short formula.  But with that formula a man might master all.

Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start.

It's such a potent formula, such a Great Secret, that Fanner knows that all he has to do is stagger his way into Parva and he'll be fine.  He's dying of thirst and out in the middle of nowhere with no way of traveling but a pair of battered boots, but no worries, the Great Secret will fix that.  Yeah, that formula will certainly let him nip all the way back to Earth in time for his victory parade.

And he could nearly taste the liquors - fantastically expensive and satisfying - which he would drink, and feel the warm flesh of the women who would love him, would love the master of the Universe.  And he would tell men to go hither and thither; he would move great armies and fleets, he would cause vast conquests, and kings would bow before his brilliance and his might.  For all of eternity he would be remembered.  The Great Secret would be his.

And so on.  For four pages Fanner struggles forward, gashing himself on rocks as he marches through the night, then roasting under the double suns after dawn, all while holding on to his vision of "Women, liquor, power!"  He passes out for a short time, then resorts to crawling, moving as quickly as he can to reach his destination before the local windstorms kick up and start hurling stones the size of baseballs.  Nice to know America's favorite pre-football pastime survives to this stupid future.

Finally, he reaches the city, and Fanner is initially concerned when what looked like a silver river from a distance turns out to be the rim of a giant glass dome over the Parva... which was not included in the illustration I mentioned earlier, oddly enough.  Guess it was so clear as to be invisible.  He finds and opens a portal in the dome to enter the legendary city, and discovers the place refreshingly cool thanks to some artistry of the ancients, but all its pools and waterways are long since empty.  Which sucks, but whatever, right?  Surely that formula, that Great Secret, can make water gush from a stone like Poseidon's trident!

Fanner walks along a street of silver as he searches for the mythic golden plaque... I mean, it could be worse, this could be El Space Dorado and the city itself could be made of gold or something.  He finally reaches it in a room that is undoubtedly awe-inspiring and spectacular to behold, the architectural embodiment of all the great accomplishments of this vanished people, though all we're told about it is that you go through four arches to enter it, the chains holding up the plaque are also gold, and the wall is smooth and white. 

Now, it just so happens that Fanner has a dictionary to translate the ancients' language, and don't even ask.  Just don't.

He sank to the floor, gazing at the inscription in ecstasy.  His dreams flooded back upon him, revitalizing him.  He was not a broken and torn wretch cowering there, nearly dead with thirst and exhaustion, he was Fanner Marston at whose beck would come all those things for which he craved.

And then he realizes he forgot his reading glasses, noooooo!

I think I'd like that twist more than what we're given.  Fanner is so intent on his work that he translates the plaque without really reading the words until he's finished.  Then he finally sits back and takes them in... and rereads them... and rereads them once more.

The Great Secret that had made this civilization great...

If thou, O Man, would rule the worlds, the All,
First learn thou, the folly of matter and the material lusts.

What a... what a tweest, I guess.

First off, it's not a formula, though I suppose some things get corrupted when they pass into legend.  And this sort of allegedly-profound philosophical axiom would hardly help a culture become rulers of the universe - though maybe that was another inaccurate part of the legend, or else the ancients cheerfully ignored their own purported virtues as they carved out a great empire, which we've seen plenty of times in our own history.

And what the hell does "the folly of matter" mean?  Matter is, like, stuff.  You can say it's folly to pursue material pleasures at the cost of virtue or whatever, but saying that rocks and trees and Mark Zuckerberg are inherently silly is a tad nonsensical.  Especially if you go on to build advanced spaceships and spacesuits and climate-proof domes to demonstrate your mastery of this folly.

Another question is why this qualifies as a "secret."  Alright, maybe this nugget of wisdom is too profound for most cultures to come up with, but why would you keep it a secret?  If material lusts and foolish matter keep people from realizing their potential, you'd probably want to spread the word, evangelize, introduce others to your superior philosophy.  You'd make this wisdom so widely-available and well-known that it could never be forgotten.  At the very least you'd put it on bumper stickers.

Though maybe this goes along with the intense irony of L. Ron Hubbard delivering this particular anti-materialistic aesop.  Maybe the ancient Pavrans had to invest thousands of dollars and go through rigorous spiritual tests before they were deemed ready to receive the Great Secret about the folly of material lusts.

But that's the story - a Twilight Zone twist ending preceded by twelve pages of padding, a story that would work better if it was some ancient explorer searching for the 'treasure' of Iram of the Pillars or something.  Like I said, it doesn't work so well when you bring space travel into it, or when you hype the Great Secret as something that would allow you to master the galaxy with improved spaceships and spacesuits.  But given all the L. Ron Hubbard stories already covered on this blog, we shouldn't be surprised that the author chose the wrong tool for the job.