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.

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