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.

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