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


  1. Is this the most incomprehensible story hubbard ever wrote? I've forgotten most of the stuff that happened in the 2nd and 4th fifths of Battlefield Earth, so that could compete for his most ironically forgettable book, and Mission Earth... well, everything that happened in that is too unforgettable, and in all the wrong ways.

    H.P. Lovecraft's Randolph Carter, this Captain Carter is not. We don't know why they're fighting, and the Saturnians get no imaginative description to salvage this. The attention to vessels over characters is like if at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry cried over the destruction of Hogwarts castle and spared no thought for the wizards that were killed.

    That bit with the ship laughing at the end reminds me of the ending of Bungie's Marathon, when the very last line is "Durandal (the ship's AI) was laughing." It's kind of uncomfortable when Hubbard's books remind me of things that are good, but I remember he died before any of that good stuff was created so he technically did it first. Hmm... maybe that's his hidden talent?

    1. I just laughed at the association of Hubbard as a writer and the word "talent."