Friday, January 29, 2016

If I Were You - Part 3 - A Body-Thief in the Morning

One paragraph break later and we're with Hermann Schmidt as he starts his day, getting dressed with boots "polished into black mirrors; his stock had been starched into armor plate; his waistcoat had been brushed until it resembled newly shed blood."  I'm not entirely sure how brushing fabric brightens its color or how an overcoat looks like a bleeding wound, but I've never worked in the circus.

Thus dressed, the ringmaster goes forth, earning respectful bows from everyone he passes "from razorback to high traps," respect he returns with "lofty nods which held a certain amount of doubt, as though he was not quite sure they existed."  I'm not quite sure how exhibiting signs of suffering from hallucinations or delusions helps you look grand and impressive, but again, I've never worked in the circus.

It's actually unclear where Schmidt's success comes from - one paragraph notes that with his great stature, no one can look at him and not feel confident in his ability to run the circus, while the next has Schmidt reflecting that of course he's competent and important because he comes from a long line of ringmasters and knows the circus "from bale ring to stakes."  Maybe there's more to life than experiencing it from an above-average altitude, or maybe one's attitude is influenced by outside forces.  Or maybe such musings are wasted on a story involving a magical midget.

Schmidt sits down for his breakfast steak, the most important steak of the day, but is interrupted when Mrs. Johnson takes the opposite seat at his table, forcing him to stifle a shudder.  See, Schmidt is not only the circus' ringmaster, he's also a bit of a performer himself, and like the worst of circus folk is scamming people.  He's engaged to the old crone as part of some scheme, but keeps finding excuses to postpone their wedding - for example, he laments that the circus is running at a loss, and vows "I promise I shall never marry you until I can prove my full worth."  Then he goes to write up the circus' finances, where he makes "the art of the show's slip artists seem pale," and since Wikipedia and Wiktionary don't know what a "slip artist" is, I'm guessing he's cooking the books and embezzling money. 

At least our "hero" won't be stealing the body of an innocent victim, eh?  Instead the story will be the more familiar scenario of bad guys versus assholes who are presented as heroes.

It's not enough that Schmidt is stringing an old hag along, he's also two-timing her.  He's interrupted in his financial flimflamery by a knock at the door, and in comes a beautiful blonde (what a surprise, Hubbard) named Betty.  She's flustered and desperate, he's smiling but not with any positive emotions, and they talk for a good three pages.

The gist of it is this - Betty, a high-wire girl, is trying to back out of Schmidt's "wild plan" for her to divorce her husband Gordon the lion tamer, marry Schmidt, and run off and be rich and famous and whatever.  She and Gordon went through some tough spots after he lost all his money, turned to drink, and grew so abusive he drove Betty into Schmidt's arms.  But now the couple have patched things up, and Betty has become a star act, so she refuses to betray her husband again.  Schmidt pulls the ol' "I picked you both out of the mud and taught you everything you know" card and threatens to fire Betty and her husband, which would surely cause him to drink and beat her again until they were both dead.

"But he loves me, Hermann! What's past is past! It's useless to think of running away with you and divorcing him. Crazy!"

"And yet if you don't," said Hermann, smiling, "you'll very much wish you had."

The strain of holding out so long against his will at last broke her own. She began to weep quietly and forlornly, and when at last he cupped her face in his hands and said, "Of course you'll go with me, won't you?" she could only nod a weary assent.

Huh, this is the same guy who was forced to hire the Professor after the old bat gave him the evil eye?  ...Also, it's kind of odd that nobody in the circus is reacting to the Professor's death except Tom and Maizie.  There's no talk of an oppressive cloud suddenly lifting, everyone's spirits being higher, a possible obstacle to Schmidt's schemes being removed, or any of that.  It's like the story wouldn't be any different if Tom had just found those evil spellbooks at a yard sale one day.

Anyway, Betty eventually leaves, and Schmidt steps out of his wagon once more, "An aloof demigod, secure in his realm, proud of his abilities and cunning," etc.  But as he does so, he's watched by Little Tom Little, who can barely breathe in his excitement.

The little fella cracks a little whip to get Schmidt's attention, the ringmaster looks down and is affronted by the very presence of the other man, their eyes meet, and... it's exactly as underwhelming as it was last chapter.  To a watching razorback - yes, that's the focal point the narration is working from - Little Tom is apparently muttering to himself while Schmidt stares, until the ringmaster's face goes blank.  Then Schmidt seems to recover, looks down and takes a "delighted inventory of his dress," while Little Tom Little suddenly looks horrified.  And then Schmidt strides off, while Tom makes as if to follow before noticing the watching pig and slinking into the shadows.

Underwhelming and weird.  If I suddenly found myself in a body a fraction the size of the one I'm used to, I'd probably scream a bit.  Heck, if I suddenly found myself in a body several times the size of the one I'm used to, I'd probably scream some too, even if I planned it.  But if these two made a fuss about their body swap the story wouldn't unfold in just the right way, I reckon.

Back to Part 2 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

If I Were You - Part 2 - Spirits Out Of Bond

A break in the paragraphs, and we get a sentence that allows us to guess the rest of the story's plot.

If I have to be a midget another minute," cried Little Tom Little, "I'll - I'll use a stretcher on myself!"

No, the omitted opening quotation mark isn't a mistake on my part, it's either a typo or a byproduct of the paperback starting a new section with a larger-than-usual capital letter.  But yes, we have here a fellow with body image problems, who has now been given magical spellbooks.  So he's going to find some way to alter the body he's in, and since the novella's title is If I Were You, this will probably involve swapping bodies with someone.  And since this power was bestowed upon him as a dying wizard's final act of vengeance, either these body swaps will end badly or with Tom learning an important lessons about being happy with the skinvelope you're enveloped by.

So we don't really need to read the rest of the story, since we have a good idea now of how it will end.  So... how about The Force Awakens?  I loved it, though with some big reservations.  I can understand why it played it safe and did a retread of A New Hope, but it desperately needed to slow down for a moment and talk about why every one of the original trilogy's characters are in exactly the same situation they were in decades ago.  Leia's still a rebel general even though the Republic has been reestablished, Han is still a roguish smuggler even though he's a hero of the Rebellion, and unless we are to pretend that Return of the Jedi never happened it's vital to explain why everyone's back where they started.  Maybe cut out that pointless action sequence aboard Han's freighter with the CGI monster chase and have some exposition beyond the opening crawl.

And the battles were a real step back from even the prequel trilogy.  No capital ship-on-capital ship action, and I'm pretty sure more fighters were involved in the original Death Star run than the attack on Starkiller Base.  And

Okay, okay, focus on the story in the post title.

Tom is standing on his stage in his tent, complaining about the body God gave him, the jerk, while a distant announcer describes how the great Gordon will now be handling twenty lions and twenty tigers all at once.  This makes Tom flinch, because he hates big cats, especially after a loose lion almost killed him in Kansas City.  Given the tiger on the cover, I do believe we can identify this as foreshadowing.

With him is fellow performer Maizie... Corny?  Anyway, she's an inch taller than Tom and doesn't like these rants since they put her down by association.  She tries to reassure him that "it's better to be the best midget star in the world than a failure as a big person," but Tom is hearing none of it - he'd rather be a ditch-digger who can look his fellow man in the eye than someone gawked at by patrons who find him "cute" or "darling."  But what he wants to be is the circus ringmaster, and vows that someday soon, that's exactly who he'll be.

This makes Maizie nervous, and she asks if he's been reading "those books" again.  She alone suspects that the Professor's deathbed repentance wasn't genuine and remembers the evil looks that guy gave Tom.  "There's such a thing as vengeance after death, Tommy!", she warns him.

Naturally, our hero doesn't listen, and with another paragraph break, we cut to

Late that night Maizie lay wide awake and apparently sound asleep in the dark of the stateroom berth, fearfully watching Tommy, king of the midget showmen - who did not want his crown - sitting gnomelike at the dressing table, surrounded by a litter of cracked and weighty tomes whose parchment pages were like mummies' skin in the gloom. The book he was studying was so unwieldy that he had propped it with greasepaint cans to save his arms.

Eh, I appreciate the effort, but when I think of mummified skin I think of tissue that's shrunken and leathery, not exactly book page material.

It's all Maizie can do not to cry - she's known Tom for years and has long admired his great spirit and skill with words.  She's also privy to his deepest secrets, and has seen him alone in his tent, cracking a whip at imaginary animals.  Now here he is, reading a copy of the Necronomicon left behind by "a vulture of bad omen, a cadaver without a coffin, a man whose eyes gleamed at the tidings of misfortune."  Much better, Hubbard.

Tom notices Maizie's not sleeping, but when he asks if something's wrong, Maizie, seeing how "abstracted" he was... not so good, Hubbard.  Anyway, she lies and he goes back to flip through forbidden scrollery, before Tom suddenly declares that "tomorrow I'll be ringmaster of this show!"  She asks how this will happen, and Tom explains that the tome he's studying talks about the transmigration of the soul, spirits leaving a dying body to enter a new one, that sort of thing.  And wow, it looks like the Professor even marked these pages specifically as relevant to Tom's interests.  He must have been a good guy all along, huh?

"Oh, Tommy," she whispered.  "Are you sure it won't mean-"

But Tommy's excited voice swept on and his thirty inches of height seemed to double themselves already.  "It says if the transmigration of the soul can be effected after death, it is logical to conclude that it can be done in life.  It says the only vital, thinking portion of man is his soul energy, and that it can be projected from one body to another.  Maizie, think what this means!"

Grand theft body, that's what.  Tom is thrilled, and rants about how you'd be able to leave your past mistakes behind and get a grand new start in a spiffy new body.  And the actual mechanics for this?  Literally "All you have to do is miss a few meals, say breakfast and lunch, and then begin your concentration upon the object into which you desire to transfer."  Yep.  Starvation and staring, that's all it takes to project your spiritual essence and dislodge someone's soul from their body, taking it over for yourself.  Then their soul would have to occupy your former body, "or else die."

Wait, the soul would die?  It can't have an existence independent of a meatsack?  So there's no life after death after all, unless souls are constantly flowing into new(ly-born?) bodies, except the numbers for that don't stack up, and we'd have to determine where all the new souls are coming from to inhabit the increasing number of people in the world.

"Tommy... this is dangerous!"  But she could not say more, for the possibilities of this terrible idea were overwhelming.

"And it's so easy!  It says here that man becomes everything he senses, even for the briefest of instants.  If you look at a hero in a story, you are, for the duration of that story, the hero.  You take on his mannerisms and his way of speech.  But because he is just the hero of a story he cannot return that concentration.  

Just goes to show that Hubbard had... unique ideas about metaphysics even early in his literary career.

It says that all men, when talking to other men, are too watchful of the other's words and actions and too conscious of self to achieve this feat.  But if one refuses to be aware of the possible menace to the self from the other ego, then it is simple to completely assimilate the other person and to project oneself into the other."

I don't think "assimilate" and "swap bodies with" mean quite the same thing.

Tom hasn't eaten since lunch, he's pumped, and he plays the "do you love me?" card to get Maizie to cooperate... and fails.  She tries to protest but is hit with a strange chill and floating sensation, and after a second attempt, suddenly Maizie's wearing a tie and belt and sees Tom in the mirror, while Maizie looks astonished by her dress and long blonde curls.

They stared at each other, then, silent and numb with awe.  When minutes had passed, Tommy laughed shakily.  "You see - it works."

"But... but Tommy... how are we doing to get back?"

But he was triumphant now and growing bolder.  "Why should we?" he teased.

Just goes to show that Hubbard's heroes were dicks to their love interests even early in his literary career.

Tom reverses the swap, Maizie throws herself at his feet and tries to beg him to give up black magic, but Tom is thrilled that the spell worked.  Oh wait, there are magic words involved after all, "the right words to think" as you stare at someone with an empty stomach.  Anyway, he vows that he'll never look another person in the shin again, and tomorrow he'll be the ringmaster.

So tune in next time, when a halfling with several new levels of wizard has a rematch with a Prussian half-ogre.

Back to Part 1 

Monday, January 25, 2016

If I Were You - Part 1 - An Unexpected Parting

I'll admit, I was a little worried after finishing the last story.  Hubbard's at his "best" when writing sci-fi, but the other story collections I have look to be more mundane adventure or spy stories, so I wasn't sure they'd stack up.  Then I picked up If I Were You, a book which once again contains more than the novella advertised on the cover.

Fittingly, it was a dark and blustery night when the Professor died.  The summer storm had come yelling in from a scorching afternoon to tear at canvas and yank out stakes and stab bright fury at the big top.  The rain bucketed down with a shock of coldness and then settled to a ceaseless cannonading which, after seven hours, had turned the lot into a swamp so tenacious that not even the rubber mules could budge the wagons.  Banners wept from their staffs; lot lice shivered in scant cover; somewhere a big cat, excited by the tropical aspect of the storm, moaned and paced in his cage.

In case you can't tell by the tiger and the guy with the whip, this story is set in a circus.  And that certainly takes the edge off the old 'dark and stormy night' cliche, doesn't it?

And although a waxen yellowness was already upon his face and his skin was falling away from his bones, the Professor managed an evil smile.  He was waiting, hanging on and waiting.  For he had sent half an hour since for Little Tom Little, king of the midgets.  And as he waited, his thoughts roamed over the past, the better to savor what he was about to do.

You can imagine the slowly creeping smile on my face when I realized that this story's lead was going to be rather different from Hubbard's typical heroes.  I mean, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler and Jettero Heller and Kree Lorin are all rather generic protagonists noteworthy mainly for their questionable heroism and the sheer amount of stupidity that surrounds them.  And here we are, starting with a little person.

So this Professor guy, he's nothing but sinister, "the gypsy camp's bird of bad omen."  Tall and stick-thin, with dark eyes and matted hair, messy clothes, hands fit for strangling someone, he's one of those people you can't help but assume is evil.  He just showed up out of nowhere to become the circus' "mitt reader" (I'm assuming that's a palm reader) over the objections of the group's boss lady because its ringmaster caved in after being hit by the "eerie command" in the Professor's gaze.   Always annoying when you have to hire someone because they put the whammy on your assistant manager, isn't it?

His real name isn't given, but the circus folk call him the Professor, and the guy's stage name is "Yogi Matto."  Which I don't think is all that menacing, but maybe yogi was a more ominous title in 1940.  Them crazy Indians, what with the snake charming and climbing up disappearing ropes and all that.

Anyway, the Professor is the sort of fortune teller who always forecasts doom and makes customers freak out, costing the circus business.  But he's also, worrying enough, always right in his dire predictions, such as tonight's storm and even his imminent death.  He speaks Chinese and Turkish and "the Hindu's tongue" (that would be Hindi, Hubbard), and has a trunk full of ancient tomes of eldritch lore, so he's clearly some manner of evil wizard, but nobody's been able to burn him at the stake yet because of his scary gaze.

But there's one man able to look this sinister sorcerer in the eye, someone who even dares to openly mock him.  And that man is the thirty-inch-tall Little Tom Little, the circus' mimic who takes the edge off the Professor's performances by imitating his voice and mannerisms to deliver his own horrible prophecies, allowing the audience to laugh the tension off.  So it was that a sinister fortuneteller began a feud with the king of the midgets, which is not a sentence I expected to find myself writing when I started this blog.

But he was dying now.  And he was glad to die, secure in the knowledge of the glories which awaited him elsewhere.  In dying he would find himself at last.  But he could not forget Little Tom Little.  No!  He would remember Little Tom Little with a legacy.  He had already made out the paper.

Little Tom Little, in his "tiny poncho," steps into the Professor's (train?) "car," unsure why he alone in the entire circus has been summoned to the man's deathbed.  The Professor claims that he's always respected Tom for his bravery... would it be bad taste to make reference to the surprising courage of hobbits?  Too late, I can already hear the soundtrack.

Our hero isn't sure what to make of this message of goodwill from an old enemy.

"It's not courage," he protested, trying to say something decent to a dying man.  "You just imagined-"

"No, I did not imagine.  Men slink away from me for a peculiar reason, Little Tom.  They slink from me because I impel them.  Yes, that is the truth.  I force them away.  I want nothing to do with men, for I loathe all mankind.  I impelled them, Little Tom Little.  Long before now you must have realized that I command strange and subtle arts beyond the understanding of these foolish and material slaves of their own desires."

So the Professor is an actual wizard commanding unnatural powers of foresight, and he hates people, so he decided the best use of his time was to become a small-time circus performer expected to interact with customers on a regular basis.  'kay.  At least he's not following the desires of those material slaves.

The wizard goes on to explain that because Tom was unaffected by his juju, the fellow must unconsciously be able to resist and therefore command "all phases of the black arts."  Tom is very surprised to hear this, as any of us would be.  But for this reason, and the aforementioned respect the Professor has for him, he's leaving Tom with his collection of tomes containing "the black lore of the ancient peoples of the East."  With them, Tom will be able to master the dark powers of yoga, acupuncture, and origami.

This obviously proves the Professor is Tom's friend, right?  No ulterior motives or anything like that.  After making assurances to this effect, the Professor asks Tom to leave to he can get on with dying, and our hero stumbles out of the tent.  He's so off-balance from all this, in fact, that Tom proceeds to enter the wrong car, the one belonging to ringmaster Hermann Schmidt.  Now, Schmidt is an angry Prussian giant with little patience for interruptions when he's counting out money... wait, Prussia?  The German states united into the German Empire in 1871.  I guess it's possible for someone to hang on to their Prussian identity seventy years later... assuming this story actually takes place when it was published, there's no way to tell-

Anyway, Schmidt flies into a Teutonic rage, rants about little spies and Tom being a "tenth of a human being," picks him up, carries him out the door, and drops Tom eight feet from the car to the rain-sodden ground.

Dimly he saw Schmidt up on the car platform, much as a drowning sailor might have seen the Colossus of Rhodes.  Little Tom dazedly pried himself out of the mud.  His shoulder was full of lightning and he could barely support even his meager weight upon his twisted ankle.  In him a rage was kindled, to run along like a dot of fire eating the length of a fuse.  A fuse which was to burn for weeks ere it reached the dynamite.

Maybe this doesn't take place in 1940, or else they'd be talking about plungers and detonation cord instead of more primitive explosives.

So there's our premise: an evil wizard "gifts" a little person with some magic books, a little person with a chip on his shoulder.  I haven't read ahead much farther from this point, and I'm quite curious as to where Hubbard plans on taking us.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Slaver - Part 3 - One Out of Nine Hundred Ain't Bad

Lorin pokes a nearby captive who hasn't done anything worth mentioning since the start of the story, and when pressed the other man grunts that the baddies took Dana "a while ago" before sliding back into apathetic despair.  Our hero doesn't berate this unhelpful informant, however, which is good because it'd be awfully hypocritical considering how much time Lorin has spent moping.  Instead Lorin pulls on his chains with all his strength, feels them shift, and succeeds in working out a kink in the restraints, utterly failing to break free.

If at first you don't succeed, try it again while screaming your lungs out.  Several other captives, "glad to break the silence of this place," join Lorin in howling like monkeys and rattling their chains, until a door opens and some guards come out to tell them to knock it off.  In Lurgese.  Which only Lorin, "taught against some day of victory the tongue of the conqueror," can understand, but they don't know that until he starts yelling back in the same language.  Stupid, but not too different from a tourist in another country repeating what he says loudly and slowly in hopes that another person will suddenly understand English.

Lorin does not shut up, but dares the guards to come over and make him, insults their mommas, and then demands that they shoot him because he knows he has the "spacard" and would rather die now than later.  They shoot him, the end.

No, of course the guards aren't that competent.  They almost shoot him, but they get a look at the slave's "unnatural brilliance of eye and the grayness of the cheeks" and decide to bring in a (drunk) doctor to check on Lorin instead.  Our hero had been hoping to lure his captors within striking distance of his chains, but instead they actually take him out of the hold and escort him into the vessel's small, stinky infirmary to see if he really does have "spacard," evidently some sort of space illness "which had swept more than one ship into aimless orbits in space."

The author at least admits that a better-run ship would have checked for and possibly inoculated against "spacard" at the start of the voyage, an important lesson that he completely failed to remember when he wrote the Ole Doc Methuselah stories five years later.  I mean, losing an entire cargo of slaves to a pathogen is one thing, but accidentally bringing a plague to your homeworld would just be terrible for business.

Anyway, three guards bring Lorin into the infirmary, the doctor tells them to get him down on the table for an examination, and though the goons are leery of potentially getting the "spacard," which does not sound any less ridiculous after typing it out four times, they get in close to manhandle our hero.  At which point said hero promptly lays into them with the chains wrapped around his wrists.  Cue a non-Hubbard action sequence.

A gun came up and the wielder's face turned into a red spatter.  The medico squealed and then fell, his hands plucking at his head in lessening strength.  The third sailor would have run had he been between Kree and the door.  He was not.  His gun was smashed from his hand.  The horror of the slave's appearance and the death which had struck the others numbed the remaining man's mind.  He thought about his gun, but not soon enough.  The chain caught him against the bulkhead, and for two or three seconds he stood there.

Remarkable, isn't it?  The protagonist just killed four bad guys, all in a single paragraph, and without a single exclamation point.  There were no incredible acrobatics or anything involved in the struggle, just the brute force of metal bashing in heads.  Excuse me, three bad guys are dead, the last is still struggling on the floor, propping himself up on an elbow, and now Lorin's coming over and - well, now he's four for four.  Not bad for someone who spent the last indeterminate time period chained up and ill from his wounds.

With all his opponents down, Lorin proceeds to loot the bodies, grabbing all the guards' pistols and strapping the spares to his waist.  It's not like one man can use four pistols at once, right?  Then he takes a drink from a convenient flagon of water and eats some "condensed food" he finds stored in the infirmary... ewww.  I mean, if we're optimistic and assume that it is food and not a can of medical waste, would you really want to eat anything found in a drunken, sloppy doctor's work area?  

Following this questionable decision, Lorin decides that he really needs to take one of the guard's jackets and caps, and also takes a razor and some soap because he's getting pretty fuzzy.  I guess if he happens upon a mirror and sink during his desperate escape from servitude, he'll take a moment to clean himself up.  Priorities and all that.

Escape sequence start.  Lorin moves into a long and open corridor, spies a ladder leading up and a guard at the top facing the other way.  Sneak attack pistol-whip to the back of the head followed by a finishing strike, then he struggles to stuff the body behind a hatch and out of sight, but the bad guy is just too big and a boot sticks out.  Our hero does his best and moves on to the next level.

Now, this is all taking place in the Gaffgon, a slave galleon big enough to carry hundreds of people, but still able to land on and take off from a planet without any problems.  But as we see when Lorin explores the new part of the ship, it also has a boat deck for all the "spaceboats."  Not skiffs or atmospheric craft to assist in a slave raid, we saw all the slavers operating on foot, and these things aren't simple escape pods either.  Oh, and the spaceboats are all stored in "bulges which jutted into the ship to preserve its streamline," because aerodynamics are so important for this wallowing space barge.

It's a good thing Lorin was taught the language of his enemies and the rudiments of space flight, because he's able to break into one boat, look over its control panel, and conclude that he can probably fly it.  But it's not time to escape just yet, there's still a damsel in distress to un-stress.  Lorin passes through a dormitory and another slave hold before finding a ladder to the bridge.  But just as he peeks into the top deck, alarm "gongs" begin to sound - someone noticed that boot sticking out from behind a bulkhead, or found that the doctor's stash had been raided.

As Lorin watches, a bleeding Captain Shapadin bursts from his cabin, demanding to know what's going on and ordering someone to stand guard over "that hellcat!"  As Voris rushes to check out the Number 3 hold and a bridge officer returns to his "tubes" ...really?  Going back to the tubes?  Even after we started with a nice, sensible viewscreen?  I'm not mad, Hubbard, I'm just disappointed.

The tubes prove distracting enough that Lorin is able to creep into the captain's cabin undetected, where he finds a bruised but unbowed Dana backed against a table, holding her dress together with one hand.

And then she saw Kree and recognized him.  Her body started and her face flooded with incredulity.  And then a mist swam before her eyes and she stumbled toward him.

It's amazing how a male protagonist is able to suck away any sort of agency from a female character in a story like this.  Dana was doing fine up until now, she was snarking about a stupid prince even after she got captured, she was defiant when Lorin was moping, she was even holding off the slaver captain while Lorin was eating powdered dingbat and stealing a razor.  But now that the story's hero is here, she doesn't have to do anything.  Lorin takes her by the hand, says "Come on!" and drags her behind as they escape.  He doesn't even give her a spare pistol.

A sailor steps into the cabin, and immediately gets shot between the eyes.  Lorin runs into the bridge, shoots the officer on watch before he can react, and then uses "flame cartridges" to smash up the vessel's engine and fire controls.  Dana contributes by screaming "Look out!" so Lorin can dodge a... well, I'm not sure.  We've mentioned flame cartridges, but these weapons don't spurt fire on people like a flamethrower, Lorin's victims have all been "shot."  Presumably they're some sort of energy weapon like your standard sci-fi blaster, except in a moment a near-miss will kick up a chunk of metal, which suggests a solid projectile.

Anyway, Lorin dodges the "shot" and blasts another mook before resuming the exciting escape.  Except it's so exciting that he takes a wrong turn and drags Dana to the wrong side of the boat deck.  He hasn't inspected any of these ships here or picked out which one he intends to escape on, and rather than wasting time by checking if any are spaceworthy, it's much better to spend time blundering through rooms to reach the other side of the ship.  They cut through a pantry and dislodge some servant who runs off screaming before our hero can murder him, and then reach a little armory of sorts with two riot guns left behind.  But Lorin isn't familiar with these weapons and doesn't know if he can reload them, so he sticks with the pistols on his belt.  Dana of course shows no interest in acquiring a weapon to defend herself with - why does she need one with this hero around?

Through that door is the starboard boating deck with that one dingy Lorin looked over, its hatch still open and waiting.  But we can't let this story end without a Boss Fight, so Voris Shapadin and a squad of nameless henchmen pick that moment to stumble upon the escapees.  Lorin stuffs Dana into cover before getting into a firefight, and there's an attempt at drama from our hero's limited ammunition - he's down to his last gun, which has ten shots remaining.  And I'm not going to try to go back and figure out how many flame-bullets these things had and how many Lorin's fired over the course of the story.  Ten shots?  Sounds good, author.

Since this is a standard action story with a standard action hero, the battle's outcome is never in doubt.  Lorin and Dana are able to carefully make their way to the boat's hatch, step by step, as "Cartridge by cartridge" Lorin picks off foes.  The last bullet, of course, goes into Captain Shapadin's... well, he's hit and goes down, don't sweat the specifics, or decide for yourself where the flame-bullet went.  The villain is slain, hurrah.

The heroes duck into the spaceboat, Lorin pounds the "jet buttons," the outer doors open and suddenly the little craft is accelerating so fast that it blinds the escapees.  A few moments later Lorin reduces speed and starts working out how to use the "jet helm," then looks around.  The Gaffgon is gone, but one star in the void is bigger than all the others, and our hero can see a planet orbiting it.

Kree became aware of the girl beside him.  Her wonderously blue eyes were fixed upon him as though she were hypnotized.

And then, as though she herself had only begun to believe it, she said "You... I... escaped!"

It's not actually stated whether this nearby planet is Earth, though.  If it is, this raises some questions about exactly how much time has passed on the slave ship, how fast it was going, and how the hell it hoped to make the trip between the Sol System and wherever Lurga is without everyone aboard dying of old age, to say nothing of running out of air.  If it isn't, this raises the amusing possibility of our heroes triumphantly landing on what turns out to be Lurga itself.

He was getting his equilibrium back now.  He grinned at her.  She dropped her glance in humility and leaned a little closer to him.

"I... I'm sorry for what-"

"Sorry?" said Kree.  "Sorry for what?"

Good question.  Dana's comments towards him in the cargo hold weren't exactly pleasant, but it's hard to blame her for laughing at the thought of some stuck-up feudal lord having to share a lowly fate with a humble peasant.  And she already earned good karma from tending to his wounds.

"But you... are a... a very brave and-"  She looked at him mistily.

"Brave?  Why," said Kree with an offhand wave of his arm, "why, of course I'm brave.  I am Kree Lorin.  Kree Lorin of Falcon's Nest."

And a dumbass.

Lorin manages to dupe some even stupider guards into putting him in a position where he can escape, then he subdues them, frees himself, and grabs a handful of guns.  Then he stuffs his extra weapons down his pants and goes all Bruce Willis on the rest of the bad guys.

There were three hundred other people in that cargo hold.  One of at least three cargo holds.  Potentially about a thousand other slaves, other people, were on that ship.  And it didn't occur to our hero to free any of them, hand them his extra weapons, lead a proper uprising.  For the slavers to hold out against those odds they'd have to be well-armed, organized, and have a solid amount of manpower, none of which we saw as one twerp was able to blast through whatever resistance the Lurgese put up.  But instead Lorin was concerned solely with saving himself and that hot chick who hates him, and didn't spare another thought for anyone else sitting in chains in the bowels of the ship.

And not only did he fail to free anyone else, Lorin smashed the ship's controls.  Disabled its weapons, so that even if the slaves managed to free themselves, they'd be helpless against another vessel.  Disabled its engine controls, so even if the slaves took over the Gaffgon, they could only fly along its current course until they all expired in the void or smashed into something.  Their only hope would be if anyone had the mechanical skill to fix a spaceship and knowledge of how to operate a Lurgese vessel, which as we've seen is something rare and restricted to nobles like Lorin.

But other than that, good job, Kree Lorin, you rescued the girl and can now return to your kingdom or whatever Falcon's Nest is.  Except it's just been depopulated by alien slavers, so there goes your economic support and manpower in case of war, thus breaking your feudal power base.  All this is assuming the nearby planet is Earth, and the "spaceboat" can get there a lot faster than the Gaffgon can get away from it, because there can't be much air on that thing.  And did you take the time to pack any food or water?

Well, he did pack that razor.  At least he'll be a clean-shaven corpse.

Back to Part Two

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Slaver - Part 2 - The Slave

Let's meet our hero, or I suppose re-meet, because we've already seen him battered to unconsciousness.

Deep in the reeking hold of the Gaffgon, where darkness and misery and stench caught in the throat to strangle, Kree Lorin of Falcon's Nest came slowly to his senses and struggled to rise.  But chains clanked to jeer his effort and pulled him down again.  Stupidly he felt for his knife, then fumbled on the floor about him for his gun.  The loss of the two served to speed returning sensibility.

I'd say Kree Lorin is a step up from Ginger Cranston, but Falcon's Nest?  Wasn't that the name of Hitler's retreat?  No, excuse me, that was Eagle's Nest, totally different.  Definitely nothing to raise an eyebrow over, no matter how many blond heroes the author writes about, or how racist he may seem, or how authoritarian his heroes' methods are.

Lorin looks around, and is just able to make out "two tiers of captives" in the slave ship's hold.  Evidently all hundred and fifty captives were shoved in the same vast chamber, which is lit by a whopping three light bulbs - wait, hold on.  Two pages ago it was a line of 150 people being herded onto the Gaffgon, now it's

Here were at least three hundred human beings reduced to the last depths of degradation and despair, reduced even below the point of whimpering, as though they recognized already the finality of their fate, as though they knew that only two-thirds of them would reach Lurga alive and that half of those who remained would sweat out their lives in the factories and on the fields of that planet in the first two years of their captivity.

Guess the Lurgans picked up some other prisoners when we weren't looking.

So we've got a rehash of that wonderful chapter of human history, the Atlantic slave trade, complete with a big chunk of the prisoners dying en route to their new lives of servitude, just with the outrageous role reversal of honkies in the cargo hold.  And like "The Great Secret" it's a story idea that falls apart when you transplant it to a sci-fi setting.  Flying between worlds is a bit more complicated and expensive than floating a wooden construct across an ocean, you need to make sure you've got not just enough food and water to keep your crew and cargo alive, but also air and fuel.  So given the increased initial investment in an interplanetary slave raid, wouldn't it make sense to try to maximize your return by keeping as many future slaves alive as possible?

Also, why do the Lurgans need manual labor on their homeworld?  The Atlantic slave trade was about supplying workers for cash crops in the European empires' overseas colonies, they had plenty of peasants and lower-class workers to do manual labor back home.  Yeah, you had to pay them wages, but you didn't have to pay for housing and food, either, and they were less likely to strangle you in your sleep with their manacles.  So is there some catastrophic manpower shortage in this empire powerful enough to oppress other civilizations in this way?  And where's the automation?  Right now humanity hasn't gone further than the moon in our spaceships, and we're already worried about robots taking all the assembly-line jobs.  Unless these captives are all highly-skilled technicians, what can they do in an advanced, spacefaring empire that couldn't be accomplished with cheap, obedient machines?

Maybe I'm giving these guys too much credit.  Maybe it's another case of a civilization skipping key Industrial Age techs as they rush for a Space Race victory.

Anyway, Lorin spends about a page in absolute denial, imagining himself coming home to the family stronghold with the partridges he bagged in hand, a "lackey" taking off his spurs as Lorin tells his father about his hunt, and then there'd be the big celebration for his 21st birthday.  He's too upper class to be a slave, dammit!  And he's not just an aristocrat, he's a trained warrior!

He, Kree Lorin, was a soldier!  His father had fought in those last devastating wars.  He himself had been trained to the rifle and grenade.  And in anticipation of yet other battles and revolts, he had been made to study the tongue of the Lurga Empire, the structure of spaceships, the rudiments of that vast complexity which was military and mechanical science in the year of the Defeat Thirty-nine.

He has, in other words, all the knowledge and skills that will justify his successful escape at the end of the story.

Once Earth had had its fleets to scourge the blackness of outer space.  Once Earth had been a proud mistress of great empire, not a vassal planet led willfully into decay by the conquerors.  He, Kree Lorin, had been brought up a soldier against the day of revolt-

Man, why's everyone got to be out to build themselves an empire?  What's wrong with a democratic federation of worlds or an interplanetary confederation of equals?  You really need to belong to a state that can subjugate others in order for you to feel good about yourself?  Looking at you, Putin's Russia.

Oh, and I guess the raid took place on planet Earth, reduced to a pre-Industrial feudal society after a devastating defeat at the hands of an alien empire.  Well, I say alien, but the slavers aren't even referred to as Lurgans, that name is conjecture on my part.  Instead the narration just refers to them as "sailors" or "guards," and there's no description of them that makes them sound different from humans (or any description at all, really).  The illustration accompanying this story depicts Captain Voris as a fat guy with a heavy beard and hairy arms, the same size and shape as the line of prisoners passing before him.  "Voris Shapadin" doesn't sound any less human than "Kree Lorin," his rank was "feldcapal" which sounds like a mangling of the British rank of "field corporal," so for all we know the Lurgans or Lurgese or whatever come from a former human colony that has risen up to turn the tables on its former imperial master.

Man, this is the Saturnian situation from "Space Can" all over again, except these guys don't even have pointy heads.  And I'm once again more interested in the backstory and implications of this conflict than whatever the protagonist is doing in the story.

Lorin's monologuing is cut off by choking despair, but before he can wallow in self-pity for too long, an amused voice recognizes him as Kree Lorin, and laughs that he's now in the hold of a slave ship.  It's the defiant girl from the start of the story, and as Lorin stares at her,

He knew her now.  The peasant girl of Palmerton.  The peasant girl he had seized off the dusty road, lifting her saddle-high to attempt a kiss upon her lovely mouth.  His own cheek stung for an instant in memory.

Oh goodie, one of those aristocrats.  Man, why can't society ever slide back into feudalism while still retaining some degree of gender equality, or at least a modicum of respect for women?

Yes, this was she, Dana of Palmerton, whom he had afterward tried to bring to Falcon's Nest by bribing her slut of a mother.  Dana of Palmerton, who would rather live in a corncrib a free woman than a pampered slavey in mighty Falcon's Nest!

Wow.  Imagine that.  Someone not liking the idea of being a slave.

Dana can't stop laughing - as a lowly commoner she was "made for a slave," but being in chains next to Kree Lorin, "the young hawk of Falcon's Nest," is just too delicious.  And the only reason Lorin doesn't strike her is because he's still too tired and beaten to muster the effort.

I'll give this to Hubbard - he is a pro at making the reader hate his characters.  We've only been with Lorin for three pages, and I already don't care whether he lives or dies, and would be entirely satisfied with him getting sucked out a hull breach.

Dana at least is gracious enough to come to his side when Lorin slumps in defeat, and uses some precious water from her cup and a rag torn from her dress to clean his injuries.  Granted, she keeps a "detached disdain" during her ministrations, but Lorin puts up with it because of how much better his wounds feel.  He doesn't actually thank her or anything, but not hitting her probably counts as a good deed, right?  We have to work our way up to baseline human decency, here.

Lorin takes some more shocks, first when he feels the ship lift off and take flight, then again when he realizes something.

He, Kree Lorin of Falcon's Nest, had been accustomed to obedience from the people of the province.  Just how or why he had never bothered to reason.  He had not questioned his right until now that he was robbed of it.  She, Dana of Palmerton, had a better command of the situation than he.  She was therefore higher, somehow, than he.  She, suddenly, was the superior being.

Ah, see, it's not just an "dramatic escape from slavery" narrative, it's also a "haughty aristocrat learns to respect his inferiors" sort of dealie.  Action and character development, who could ask for more?

Our hero tries to reassure himself by repeating "I'm Kree Lorin, from Falcon's Nest," but the words seem meaningless even to him, and so we pass into a misery-based timeskip.

Air was too precious to be changed.  Water was too scarce to be wasted.

So all the slaves died of oxygen deprivation?  That seems to go against the captain's objective of selling them for a profit, but whatever.

And capsule food, a thing to which these people were not used, accelerated their enfeeblement.

I do believe this is the only time in a Hubbard story that I've seen him mention 'condensed' future food like The Jetsons' food pills.

Such stress pressed down their perceptions, and they might have been a week in space or a year for all they could recall.  At first they had sometimes talked, sometimes there had been at attempt at song.  But now no talk and certainly no song could be found in them.

The bad guy Voris makes an appearance to pick out the eight prisoners who are dying and need to be chucked before they waste any more air.  Our hero Lorin is too depressed to react, though the scrappy Dana at least throws a pannikin at a guard (ooh, real hoity-toity way of saying 'cup,' Hubbard).  Instead Lorin reflects on his family's arrangement with the peasants of Falcon's Nest, how they forced tribute from them in exchange for promises of protection, an arrangement that hardly endeared his family to their subjects.  And now he's left a life without filth and suffering for an existence as a slave, and so on, and so forth.

The only interruption from the monotony of the voyage is when the bad guys search all the prisoners for knives, after finding one on a dying captive... wow, really?  Didn't do that at the very start?  Didn't run your slaves through a metal detector?  Typical Hubbard villains.  Well, when they do that, Dana strikes out at the sailor pawing her, which makes Captain Voris laugh, but also pay her special attention.

And so it is that the next time Lorin comes out of his funk, he realizes that things have changed.  His wounds don't hurt, it's like he's thinking clearly for the first time in ages, and he finds that the chains and shackles next to him are empty.

Yep, it's not just an "escape from slavery" story, or a "proud noble learns humility" story, Lorin also needs to hurry to save his love interest (i.e. the only female in the story) from an "I have you now, my pretty" situation.

At least it's a Hubbard character trying to prevent a rape this time.

Back to Part One

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Slaver - Part 1 - All Your Cornfield Is Belong to Us

These will be the only six pages of the story that actually focus on the titular slaver.  Since the majority of the tale is about the adventures of one of said slaver's human cargo, I can't help but wonder whether it would have been better to call it "The Slave."

Voris Shapadin heard the shot and lurched back in his chair in surprise, staring at the port and holding the leg of a chicken halfway between table and beard.

Here's why you have to be careful when choosing words.  We all know a "chicken leg" to be a common term to describe a piece of cooked poultry.  "Leg of a chicken" ought to be an equivalent term, but the fact nobody puts that on a restaurant menu means that there's an element of doubt over whether what this guy is eating was ever cooked.  It's the difference between someone eating a steak and someone chewing on a hunk of bovine muscles.

Somewhere in the Gaffgon footbeats pounded toward a gun. The insect-stained face of the intership communicator panel lit and the scarred visage of the navigator flickered there.

"Party returning to the ship, sir."

No idea what "insect-stained" means, whether the crewman is some sort of bug creature, he's having an allergic reaction to some space bug, or some space bug has sprayed him with juices.  But I'm thrilled that these guys are using little TV screens to talk to each other instead of yelling into tubes that will carry their echoing voice through the ship.  Evdently Hubbard's understanding of spaceship design evolved after he wrote "Space Can" a couple of-

Wait, this came out in June 1942, a month before "Space Can" was published?  Huh.  I guess "Space Can" was "hard" sci-fi, an attempt to envision realistic space combat (that was hit-and-miss), whereas "The Slaver" is a pretty run-of-the-mill adventure story in a sci-fi setting.  Or maybe one's near-future and the other's supposed to be science fantasy.  Whatever.

Voris yanked the napkin from his fat neck and snatched up the rusty helmet he wore in preference to a peaked cap.  The helmet had ray burns on it and the strap was rotted half through with sweat; it made Voris feel important because it was an officer's field helmet and he had never been higher than a feldcapl in the Outer War.  When he stood up, bits of food rolled off his lap, bouncing from bulge to bulge and finally to the decayed spring carpet.

Whaddya know, a villain who happens to be an overweight slob.  Do you think this trope is less common these days because readers are more sophisticated and don't judge characters on outward appearances, or because writers don't want to upset potential audiences during America's obesity crisis?

Voris is handed a gunbelt by a "fever-flattened servant"(?) and climbs the "treacherously greasy ladder" to the bridge and joins some crewmen in looking out the "half-open dodger."  And this is a bit absurd.  A dodger is the canopy that keeps the weather and spray off the guy at the wheel of a boat, a compromise between the need for the helmsman to see where he's going and a desire not to get soggy.  A spaceship should not need one, because any civilization able to build a voidworthy vessel should have a better way for the pilot to steer than putting him on the top of the boat.

It's weird - going from this to "Space Can," Hubbard took a step forward when he put the Menace's bridge in the ship's well-protected interior, then stumbled backward by including those shouting tubes in a setting with suit-to-suit radios.

The optimistic take is that Hubbard is using the wrong word again, and the characters are really gathered around an airlock or something.  But this only begs the question of why the ship's main entrance is right next to the bridge, especially if that ship plans on taking on and unloading cargo that may not want to be aboard it.

The author spends a full paragraph describing how the navigator looks and what kind of sweater and jacket he's wearing, which is a wasted effort because as far as I can tell the guy disappears from the story after our POV switches in a few pages.  And yet this unnecessary detail doesn't clear up the mystery of the "insect-stained" description of the navigator, either - we're told the guy is disfigured from a nasty burn that left one eye an empty socket, but I don't know where the insects come into play.  Maybe "insect" is space slang for ship fires or flame-shooting weapons?

Anyway, bug-face and Voris and a quartermaster who does not warrant a half-page description all try to figure out what's going on.  The Gaffgon, "a dreary pile of corrosion," has landed in the middle of a cornfield on the pastoral world of... um.  Well, the main thing about this planet is that Voris hates it because of how different it is from the "craggy peaks and ice rivers" of his homeworld of Lurga, but it is a good place to raid due to how little resistance the natives can muster.

Except now there's gunshots that don't sound like any of the traders' firearms.  As Voris and the others watch, a "small being" carrying a "black object" comes running out of the shrubs and into the cornrows, pursued closely by a squad of slavers that breaks up and surrounds their victim.  Yet the being's attitude (which Voris can pick up on from the ship) is that of "frenzied defiance," and he jabs that thing at one slaver to unleash a "stab of thunder" that launches his victim backwards.

This is weird.  The slavers have guns, they know what firearms are.  The natives, we'll later learn, also have rifles.  There shouldn't be any confusion over what this guy is using to defend himself unless it's some sort of weapon more advanced than the ones Voris is familiar with, but the technology discrepancy seems to be in favor of the slavers, not their victims.  If this is some sort of weird lightning-shooting artifact, the story doesn't explain it, and when the POV switches to the guy using it he only refers to it as a "gun."  So the conclusion that makes the most sense is that this is some bog-standard lead-slinger being fired, but the author chose such flowery language to describe it that it comes across as a more fantastic weapon than it actually is, even when everyone in the story should be able to identify it as something mundane.

Anyway.  Voris yells at the capture team to just shoot the guy, but the morons decide to rush in with rifle butts and subdue him by mobbing him, losing another man in the charge.  This is a bad deal to start with, since a single slave is only worth "twenty weights," and things only get worse when the party brings their captive in and Voris gets a look at him.

The captive was young, and though he was bloodied by the gun butts, he was seen to be of regular features.  His body was slender, which was not a good sign, for he would not be ableto stand up under a great deal of hard labor.  He was blond.  He was an aristocrat.  He was, Voris decided immediately, no good whatever.

He was, in other words, a Hubbard Protagonist.  Blond, handsome, young, upper-class, and fully capable of fighting his way through a ship full of slavers to reclaim his freedom.  Oops, spoilers.

Voris is so annoyed he can't even find words to chew out his stupid flunkies, orders them into the ship with a jerk of his head, and doesn't feel better after kicking the unconscious captive around a bit.  Then it's time to herd the other prisoners in, a line of 150 captives chosen for their strength or suggested skill as craftsmen, if male, and "form and face" if female.  Lurga pays well for good-looking humans, you see.  The sad parade has to step over the unconscious protagonist still sprawled out on the floor at the top of the gangway, and only one blue-eyed woman is willful enough to glare at Voris as she's led aboard - though she also seems to recognize the beaten-down protagonist too.  This will probably be important later.

This display of negative emotions actually puts Voris in a good mood, enough so that he's only slightly annoyed when the spotting agent comes by to request his fee.  And then, without so much as a break in the paragraphs, our story switches focus away from the slaver to follow this significant slave, which is where we'll pick up next time.

Random note - the Gaffgon cooked that cornfield it landed in with its "retarding blasts" (don't laugh).  See, "her propulsion was accomplished" - good grief Hubbard - "with the old vent principle, and the small jets which made her look like a scaled monster had also made her filthy with farillium soot."  From this detail, we know Hubbard is capable of technobabble, it just isn't as interesting as when he tries to explain his doodads.  Or as funny.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Beast - Part 4 - The Most Dangerous Game

You know, I can't help but feel like this setup is at least a little like Predator.  And this led me to imagine some hypothetical adaptation of "The Beast" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which would mean that an iconic, heavily-accented action movie star would have the role of "Ginger Cranston" on his filmography.  That would be an interesting world to live in.

Armed and mentally prepared for the ultimate battle, Cranston steps out of his tent to find that the village chief has stopped rolling around in the mud, and left the unopened bottle of whatever sitting in the muck.  This may have been meant to chastise the Earthling for offering the bottle in the first place, but Cranston doesn't feel chastised, or indeed much of anything.

For perhaps an hour, even a day, nothing could touch him, neither sadness nor triumph.  He was still within himself, waiting for a thing he knew would come, a thing much greater than shame or sorrow.  He had chosen his death, for he had found it to be within his realm of choice and having chosen it he was dead.  It mattered little what happened now.  It mattered much that da juju would end.  But it did not matter emotionally.  It was a clear concern, undiluted by self.

This is one of those paragraphs that looks impressive when you skim it and falls apart when you examine it closely.  "He had chosen his death," so "having chosen it he was dead."  Masterful.

Cranston leaves the village, marching "quietly" through the muck and up a hill, where he knows he'll be highly visible against Venus' murky skies.  There he waits for a time, looking down on the thick jungle surrounding him.  While studying the forest canopy, he suddenly realizes "for the first time that gray was not the color there as he had always supposed but drab green, rust red, dark blue and smoky yellow.  It was a little thing to notice but it seemed important."  And that's understandable, it's not uncommon for all those strikingly different colors to form a sort of gray blur that can only be properly discerned when one has accepted the inevitability of death.

Eventually the sun goes down and darkness descends upon the alien jungle, and Cranston marches into the forest proper, occasionally stopping to adjust his clothing or smoke his pipe.  He's not bothering to hide his tracks, and he doesn't care that he's passing under low-hanging branches.  If you haven't figured it out yet, Cranston wants to be found - "he was within the role of the hunted, not that of the hunter."  Though I suppose you could argue that using yourself as bait to try to lure your quarry out of hiding is just another form of hunting, but semantics.

So one minute Cranston's sitting there smoking, his gun leaning against a nearby tree, and the next

It happened suddenly, silently, efficiently.  The vine-woven net dropped soundlessly over his head, slithered to his feet, and then with swift ferocity, yanked tight and brought him with a crash into the mud!

There was a scurrying about him as though something leaped up and down, darted back and forth to swiftly study the situation so as to require a minimum of effort in the final kill.

Which is kind of undermined by the amount of spastic hopping about going on before that final kill.

Cranston tries to draw his pistol but can't move the right arm, so he clamps down a panicked scream, pulls out his belt knife, and starts sawing at the vines entrapping him.  He's only half freed before the Beast attacks, assaulting him first with its "foul animal smell" and then with those bayonet-like claws that rip through his jacket and into Cranston's flank.  Oddly enough, this doesn't break through our hero's ribcage and collapse his lung, so maybe they're really short, blunt bayonet-like claws.

Despite his scratches, Cranston's able to jab back with his knife and "felt it saw vainly into the thing."  I would not use the verb 'saw,' which implies a back-and-forth motion, to describe a blade going into something meaty once before said meaty something jerks back with a "scream," taking the knife with it.  Nor would I describe the attack with the adverb "vainly" when it clearly did something to the target.

Cranston's able to use this opportunity to scramble to his feet, only for the Beast to strike him "like a battering ram with force enough to smash in his ribs."  Again, he's able to breathe and such after this terrible attack, so his ribs clearly remain unsmashed.  But I guess comparing an attack to a blow from a siege engine is more exciting than talking about a shove that caused light bruising.

On his knees, Cranston finally draws his pistol, but the Beast kicks it out of his grasp.  But in doing so...

A cold piece of metal banged Cranston in the mouth and he snatched hungrily for the haft of his flesh-imbedded knife. Slippery as his fingers were, he retained it, drew it forth. He kicked out with his feet and then drove the keen steel deep into the body of the thing!

First, "flesh-imbedded?"  Word better, Hubbard.  Second, the first time I read this sequence, I interpreted it as Cranston kicking the knife even deeper into the Beast.  Might prefer that to what actually happened.

However the attack went, it's enough to do in Cranston's enemy - the Beast shudders, weakly claws the air, and then falls to make a "threshing, rattling sound" as it expires.  Cranston recovers his gun and moves over to the motionless shape in the mud, then pulls out a "torch" to shine a beam of light - wait, you had a flashlight this whole time?  Then why'd you need Ambu's lantern?  Why were you reliant on native torchbearers for light during that ambush at the beginning of the story?

Bleh.  Anyway, Cranston finally gets a good look at this thing, this Beast, this devil, da juju.  And now we learn why Cranston wasn't allowed to properly see his nemesis at any point before this, because Hubbard isn't just doing a safari story on an alien planet.

Maybe you suspected it earlier.  Sure, Hubbard never quite described what was attacking Cranston before, almost like he was setting up a dramatic reveal for later, but then again he made no effort to describe what the native Venusians looked like beyond them being blue and shorter than Cranston.  But the presence of a crashed spaceship probably deserved more than a paragraph mentioning that it existed, which the characters in the story almost deliberately do not dwell upon.  And then there was the nature of the "Beast" itself, a surprisingly intelligent ambush predator able to build deadfalls and snares, a creature that even knew when another hunter would stop when it detected a trap.  An animal with courage, cunning, and above all, the ability to reason.  A "devil" unlike any of Venus' native wildlife, but which had been on the planet since at least Cranston's arrival.

Ginger knelt and unfastened the straps of the frayed, worn, leatherlike suit that clothed the corpse and laboriously turned it over.  Metal-tipped space gloves clicked as the arms flopped against each other.  There was an almost illegible trace of lettering on the back, fouled with mud and blood, torn in spots.  "SP---E SHII----" it said, before a gouge tore out the ship's name.  Below, "Spacepo-----Lowry, U----A."

It stank with dried and rotted blood and meat of long-gone kills, and the unwashed body of its occupant.

We can only pray the Beast removed its spacesuit when it had to take a dump.

But yeah, bam!  The monster was Man all along!  Hope you were wearing a helmet before your mind got blown so hard it shot up out the top of your skull, or else there's gray matter all over your ceiling.  And that's hard to get out with standard household cleaners.

Ginger turned it back and looked again at the face.  Identification was hopeless.  The disastrous landing had gouged and torn the face half away; there was a deep dent in the forehead where the skull had been broken inward, and an angry, seamed and cross-seamed welt told of slow healing without the slightest rudiments of attention.

Well that's oddly uplifting.  We might have had a psychotic Scooby-Doo scenario with some lunatic dressing up like a monster so he could hunt some blues, but it was severe head trauma that made a monster out of this poor fellow.  Or rather very specific head trauma that wiped out his morals but kept whatever parts of the brain help you set traps, turning some civilian freighter crewman into "A ruthless, pure animal - with all the cunning of human intelligence still left in the damaged brain."

I'd like to point out that H. P. Lovecraft did something like this in 1918, though he first wrote "The Beast in the Cave" as early as 1904, and in his case it wasn't brain damage but isolation that turned a man into a monster.  From this we might describe Lovecraft as the more pessimistic author, someone who felt that people could descend into savagery and barbarism simply by being exposed to horrors or deprived of wholesome influence, while Hubbard would be an optimist who thought it took something drastic to turn someone into a psycho.  But having read Mission Earth, I don't think this would be accurate at all.

Let's wrap this up.  Cranston, having identified his attacker at last, simply stands up and walks back to the village, leaving the body for some natives to bring back later.  He's not sick with horror after coming face-to-face with this beast that was once a man, or disgusted that he had to kill a human being in self-defense.  Nah, he's good.

Ginger swung along the trail in the long, easy strides of a huntsman of standing.  There were bruises, and certain scratches that twinged a bit, but that sort of damage was of no importance.  The great thing was - a thing Ginger now scarcely realized - that he had recaptured that quite intangible reality that had been stolen from him.

"Certain scratches," huh?  Those would be from the wounds caused by those "sabers this thing had for claws," those talons "like a set of bayonets" which turned out to be nothing more than metal-tipped (space-)gloves.  Way to undermine your hero's accomplishment by making him a baby who exaggerates scratches into stabbing wounds, Hubbard.

But that's "The Beast," a tale about 'man versus nature' that turns out to be 'man versus man,' with a 'man versus himself' angle that gets resolved when that man kills something.  Parts of it are almost competently written, most of it is not.  The story doesn't do anything we haven't seen done before by better authors, and the most interesting thing about it is the background for the setting, which of course the story does not address.

Hubbard at his best, sadly.

Back to Part 3

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Beast - Part 3 - Fun Times on Venus

And now for the long build-up to the final, dramatic confrontation between man and... some sort of squishy clawed thing?

The giant trees stood an infinity into the sky, tops lost in the gray dark of swirling vapors.  Great tendrils of fog crept ghostily, low past the trunks, to blot with their evil odor of sulphur and rot what visibility the faint light might have permitted.  It was an atmosphere in which men unconsciously speak in whispers and look cautiously around each bend before venturing farther along the trail.

It's enough to make you wonder what about the planet made humans want to conquer it.  A bunch of sweltering jungles with stupid wildlife and stinky fog?  Ugh, the blues can keep it.

A bunch of native beaters spot da juju's tracks about two klicks out from the village, and "they added to it the usual blue exaggeration" that the beast was certainly wounded from the savage asskicking it inflicted upon the Great White Hunter the other day.  So Cranston gets the join the party and hopefully find and put the thing down once and for all.

The expedition sets out, passing by a crashed "space liner" that the villagers have been looting for scrap metal, a site that the author curiously spends little time describing, and which Cranston similarly shows little interest in.  The narration explains that the wrecked ship is "to be avoided since its dryness offered refuge to snakes."  Snakes, guys.  Let's keep our distance.

Cranston is still sick and shaken from his ordeal, scarred physically and mentally, and not at all acting like the confident generic big game hunter he should be.

His back was cringing away from the thing it had experienced and as the minutes went the feeling increased.  At each or any instant he expected to have upon him once again the shock of attack, from behind, fraught with agony and terror.  He tried to sweep it from him.  He tried to reassure himself by inspecting low-hanging limbs under which they passed; but the memory was there.  He told himself that if it did happen he would not scream.  He would whirl and begin to shoot.  He would smash the thing against a tree trunk and shatter it with flame and copper.

I guess flame guns use copper cartridges?  Also, just how badly is Cranston wounded, herr author?  There's not so much as a break in the paragraphs between Cranston going to bed with the lights on and the description of the foggy jungles, so we can only assume that it's the day after the attack.  We're told that the wounds "burned," but they don't seem to be hampering our hero's ability to move, and he's not quietly sweating with the agony that every breath of air brings to his battered ribs.  Saber-claws or not, that Beast didn't seem to do more than scratch the guy.

Ambu's worried about his boss, and comes over even though he's unsure how to comfort this big slab of vanilla, and can only make small talk over how hot it is.  But then some of the other Venusians call out that they've found tracks in the mud in the middle of a clearing: two claw marks, two footprints, and two claw marks again.  Cranston judges their depth and reasons that the monster can't weigh more than three hundred pounds.  But something about the whole thing is off.

A prickle of knowing went up the back of Ginger's spine. These tracks were perfect. They had been placed in a spot where they would retain their impressions. And from here they led away into the trees; but to this place they did not exist.

Clever devil, isn't it?  Also, what part of the spine is the back, the part facing outside a person or the part inside with the squishy bits?

Cranston orders some of the natives to "Get on the track of it," and I'm wondering why they need this guy.  It's the blues who keep finding the juju's footprints and are now the ones working out which way it went, while Cranston just follows his guides.  So I can't help but feel that all the Great White Hunter brings to the party is his gun.  Maybe we could cut out the middleman and send the Venusians some weapons to defend themselves with - oh that's right, hostilities only ended a few decades ago.  Wouldn't want to arm our colonial subjects, would we?

Bleh.  Our hero has to really exert himself to keep up with the natives, and all the while he's brooding.

He told himself that the fever made him this way, but he had had fever before.  Deep within he knew that the beast had a thing which belonged to Ginger, a thing which Ginger had never imagined would be stolen.  And until he met that beast and killed that beast, he would not recover his own.

I Want My Courage Back, by Ginger Cranston.  He does take some comfort that there's no low-hanging branches over this part of the jungle, the trees are thin enough for light to come through, and the ground is solid if concealed by "masses of rot."  But just when Cranston is starting to feel better about the situation, there's a "swishing, swooping sound and a scream from Ambu!"

The poor bastard stepped in "a cunningly manufactured sling, not unlike a rabbit snare," and was yanked thirty feet up to smash his brains out against a tree trunk.  Rest in peace, buddy; you had meaningful conversation with the protagonist for a page or two before getting offed halfway through the story.  Cranston stares up at his henchman's body for a few moments before ordering him cut down "in a controlled voice," and then the sad little procession gets to return to the village in defeat, toting a corpse.

Now it's made clear that time is passing, that Cranston's face is growing more lined and hollow-eyed with each day, as he's able to feign less confidence when giving commands.  Seven members of his hunting party are killed as we fast forward through the story, until one morning Cranston wakes up to find that the remaining five have fled.  Worse, the villagers have lost all faith in the "great white hunter," and when Cranston orders the chief to provide him with trackers, the Venusian makes a big deal about inspecting a pegunt rooting through the muck, or a nearby tree.

"I said trackers!" said Ginger Cranston.

The chief scratched himself and began to sidle away, still without meeting the eyes of the white man.

Ginger struck out and the chief crumpled into a muddy, moaning pile.

"TRACKERS!" said Ginger.

The chief turned his face into the slime and whimpered.

The only good news is that Cranston has enough decency to be ashamed of himself after his outburst and returns to his tent.  He realizes he's weeping, he can hear the chief in the mud still wailing, he doesn't recognize the person in the mirror and would smash it if he didn't feel so dreadfully tired, etc.  He does work up enough energy to go back outside, apologize to the little chieftain and leave a bottle of an undefined liquid in the mud next to the Venusian, and then Cranston returns to his tent to stare at his muddy boots. At least until he freaks out at the slithering sound of his tent flap being moved by the wind.

And then Cranston goes all Hamlet on us for over a page.

He was nauseated and for seconds the feeling of claws digging into his back would not abate.  He struggled with his pent sanity, sought nervously for the key of control which, more and more, was ever beyond the reach of mental fingers.  

Though I don't remember Shakespeare writing about "mental fingers."

The scream died unvoiced, the gun slipped to the bunk and lay there with its muzzle like a fixed, accusing eye.  Hypnotically, Ginger Cranston looked at that muzzle.  It threw a twenty-millimeter slug and would tear half a head from a Mamodon bull; the bullet came out when the trigger was pressed, came out with a roar of savage flame, came out with oblivion as its command.  Limply Ginger regarded it.  He knew very little about death, he a hunter who should have known so much.

And yes, this stuff I'm quoting is all one big rambling paragraph.

Was death a quiet and untroubled sleep which went on forever or was death a passing to another existence?  Would the wings of death carry something that was really Ginger Cranston out of this compound, away from these trees, this fog, this constant rain, this... this beast?  

At the very least it might end this story a few pages early.

Cranston spends another half page contemplating suicide, wondering whether "Death was a final conclusion - or was it a beginning?" and having a sort of out-of-body experience as he dispassionately examines his life.  When he finally snaps out of it, our hero has come to a decision, and buckles on his "flame pistol," grabs a knife, puts on his swamp mask, picks up his gun and loads a fresh magazine.

Yep, we're going devil hunting.  Which is certainly more dramatic and dignified than juju hunting.  Tune in next time for the final battle between man and vague, slimy juju-beast.

...You know, I don't think Cranston has so much as spared a thought for Ambu since the guy bought it.  And reading ahead, the name doesn't appear at any point in the remainder of the story.  Nice to know the loyal Venusian's death had such an impact on our hero.  Hell, it's not even clear whether Ambu was counted among the seven dead members of Cranston's hunting party, if he was set apart from those nameless extras.

Back to Part 2

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Beast - Part 2 - The Baddest of Jujus

Hope you enjoyed those three pages of action and excitement, because there's not any more of that until the end of the story.  Now Hubbard's gonna build dread or drama or something for the next dozen pages.

So those blue-skinned aliens whose proper name isn't important enough for our narrator to relay haul Cranston's bushwhacked ass to their village, and... oh?  Huh.  Well, Cranston fell asleep at some point.  I know, I know, last we saw he was lying on the riverbank, "trying to find strength enough to scan the space around him in search of the beast," but he evidently nodded off without the author bothering to tell us.  Anyway, he wakes up in a dramatic fashion.  Or rather his awakening is described in a dramatic fashion.

Ginger Cranston woke slowly into the oppressive odor of a blue village from the tangled terror of his dreams.  The heated ink of the Venusian night eddied through his tent, clung clammily to his face, smothered the native fires which burned across the clearing.  Ginger Cranston woke into a new sensation, a feeling of loss, and for a little while could not bring organization into thought.  It was hard for him to bring back the successive shocks which had placed him here, helpless in this bed, and he began to know things which had never occurred to him that it would be important to know.

"Organization into thought," sheesh.

As he organizes his thoughts, or thoughts his organizes, Cranston reflects that he'd always been a brave man, one of the hunters hired by an unspecified government to clear out the Venusian wildlife threatening settlements and crops.  Granted, he can't have been too brave because said wildlife consists of "many-tonned brutes," all "ponderous and stupid," so he's pretty much the equivalent of those "hunters" who nearly eradicated the bison back when the West was being settled.  But the important thing is that Cranston's feeling fear for the first time in a while.  Getting ambushed from behind twice in one night and mauled like that has left him physically battered and emotionally scarred.

He had lost his courage.

In its place was a sick nausea.

Better that than an angry rage, or a sad sorrow.

When you're feeling down, when you've never been so defeated, when your courage and confidence have been replaced with dread and doubt, there's no better remedy than to yell for your favorite colonial subject.

"Ambu!" he yelled.

A Venusian of wary step and worried eyes slunk into the tent.  Ambu had done his bungling best with these wounds, hurling the offer of help back into the teeth of the village doctor - a person who preferred a ghost rattle to a bottle of iodine.  Ambu was of uncertain age, uncertain bearing.  He was half in and half out of two worlds - that of the whites in Yorkville on the coast, that of the blues in the somber depths of this continent.  He believed in ghosts.  But he knew that iodine prevented infection.  He belonged to a white, had been indifferently schooled by the whites.  But he was a blue.

I do take some comfort that while once again an unsuspecting civilization has fallen victim to the Curse of the White Men, at least it isn't a case of some people of color inflicting the same misfortune they suffered upon someone else.

So here's Ambu, the only Venusian with anything close to characterization.  Don't expect him to play a big part in the story, though, he's just here to be a spokesman for the superstitious savages.  Otherwise, who would Cranston talk to?  None of the other blues have names, and the Beast doesn't seem one for conversation.

Ambu's wary of the strange relief in Cranston's eyes when he brings a lantern into the tent, but when asked tells his... I'm going to go with "boss" instead of taking the author at his word and assuming Ambu is a slave.  Anyway, Ambu knows who's to blame for the attack.

"Devils," said Ambu.

"Nonsense," said Ginger in careful carelessness.

Dammit, I actually like that "careful carelessness" bit.  It's those rare nuggets of potential that make Hubbard's many failings all the more lamentable.

Ambu repeats his assertion that the ambush was the work of some devil, because the lead trackers in the procession fell into a trap, a pit of sharpened stakes camouflaged by a flimsy roof of mud and branches.  Both he and Cranston know the blues don't have a tradition of building such traps, and also that "There have been no hostile blues for thirty years or more."  I hope that means some of the Venusians stood up to the invading honkies, even if they weren't successful in staving off subjugation.  Cranston, the seasoned hunter that he is, misidentifies this pit trap as a "deadfall trap," which are simple traps like a rock or tree trunk propped up by a stick that falls on their victims if that stick gets dislodged.  But he's had a rough day, so let's cut him a bit of slack.

Ambu certainly does - Cranston asks for "a drink," and the Venusian knows enough about great white hunters to understand that Cranston is asking for alcohol, even though the guy only hits the hard stuff during social calls and bouts of illness.

"Very cold tonight," said Ambu, sweating.

"Very cold," said Ginger, drinking quickly.

There, again, did you see it?  A fleeting glimpse of competence, something that describes a relationship between characters without using a cumbersome paragraph filled with delusions of eloquence.

While drinking some liquid courage, Cranston reflects that Venus doesn't have smaller, faster predators like lynxes or leopards, just big, lumbering oafs whose biggest threat is their clumsiness.  Ambu points out that this monster knew when "Lord Ginger" would halt, and was waiting in a tree directly over that spot, so the ambush couldn't be the work of one of Venus' simple native creatures.

"No beast," said Ambu with rare conviction for him.  "Probably devil.  No doubt devil.  Forest devil.  Drink again, Lord Ginger?"

I guess it's nice to know that Mission Earth wasn't the start of Hubbard's "woods ___" approach to mythology.

This devil is in fact the same juju that Cranston was asked to come hunt, and no sooner does Ambu explain this than a new, "tired and hopeless voice" calls at the tent flap.  Despite his weariness and over Ambu's protests, Cranston allows what turns out to be a village chief to come in and meet with him.  The unenthusiastic greeting and response that follows either shows how emotionally exhausted the participants are, or indicates just how long the Venusian natives have been oppressed by a bunch of pale fellows with superior weapons.

"Greetings to the white lord," said the chief tiredly.  "He lives and the village Tohyvo is happy that he lives.  The white hunter is great and his fame is mighty.  He comes and all things flee in horror before him.  The blues beat

Mother of crap they don't even use their own name for themselves.  They're just a people defined by their skin tone being inferior to people of another skin tone.

their heads against the earth in submission and hide their eyes before the dazzling brilliance of the mighty lord."  He sighed and sat upon an ammunition box.

"Greetings to the star of his people," said Ginger mechanically.  "His name carries the storms of his wrath across the jungle and his power is as the raging torrent.  A flash of his glance is the lightning across the storm."  He took a cup of liquor from Ambu and handed it to the dispirited, sodden little chief.

Pretty violent imagery for the head of a people who don't use pit traps.  Chief No Name Given explains that the juju who sucker-punched Cranston has killed all his best warriors and stolen women and children from the village, descending from the trees and disappearing into the darkness.  This monster uses pit traps in some ambushes, but at other times leaps upon its victims from behind and tears them to pieces, or even steals their spears and knives to use against them.  Cranston tries to assure Chief Notimportant that the next time he meets the beast it will be the one to fall, but the alien's polite agreement doesn't match his despairing demeanor, and he leaves the tent.

Ambu motions towards Cranston's "radiophone" and suggests calling Yorkville for backup, and though he comes close to agreeing, Cranston ultimately refuses as a point of pride, looking "at the radio case like a desert-stranded man might gaze thirstily at a cup of water before he did the incredible thing of pouring it out on the ground."  I guess what the author is saying here is that Cranston is suicidally stupid.

The hunter smiles at Ambu and confidently says all he needs is a good night's sleep, but briefly panics when it looks like the alien is about to take the light out with him - "leave the lantern there, Ambu.  I... I have some notes to take."

So the rest of the story will follow Cranston trying to get his groove back before his rematch with the Beast.  I'm more interested in the story Hubbard indirectly alludes to but doesn't explore.

See, this is pretty much a safari tale with sci-fi trappings, and since those stories always have native guides and porters following Sir Nigel Killington the Third as he adds more unsuspecting animals to the endangered species list, "The Beast" has a bunch of unsophisticated blue aliens around to fill that role, as Hubbard's way of putting a sci-fi twist on things.  But oh, the questions this situation raises!

Why are humans colonizing Venus?  We're never told about any resources or exotic crops or whatever that drew Earth's interest, so presumably we're there for living space, implying that Earth is finally full and places like Siberia and Canada have been completely settled.  Maybe the idea of humans not colonizing a habitable planet is simply unthinkable.

Why are humans subjugating the native Venusians?  I'm fairly sure there were critics of colonialism and empire-building even when this story was penned, so this narrative either suggests that such critics were ultimately ignored, or we decided that imperialism was only evil when done against other humans.  But what was the need, if humans seem to be sticking the coastal cities for the moment?  Why didn't anyone stick up for the natives and give them diplomatic recognition, let them introduce themselves without figuratively kowtowing before Mighty Whitey?

Why does it take a white male lead to deal with Venus' predator problems?  Why aren't the people who have lived with these creatures for all their lives any good at keeping their populations under control?  Why aren't Venusians receiving bounties for their help in playing pest control?  Or do they object to such wholesale slaughter just to make things easier for the invaders?

And here's the big one, what are the odds that an alien civilization uses the same word for supernatural behavior that used in West African religions?  Is it a mind-boggling case of parallel evolution?  Did some traditional Nigerians make it to Venus and passed on their religious beliefs, or at least gave the natives some loan words?  Or was the story's author such a hack that he thought he could get away with this?

We could be reading an account of the colonization of another world, where the mistakes from a dark period of human history are repeated again on a new set of victims.  Alas, instead we have to feign interest in whether Ginger Cranston will work up the nerve to zap a monster with his ray gun.

Back to Part 1

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Beast - Part 1 - Mud-Wrestling on Another Planet

Let's start the new year with a safari, of sorts.

"The Great Secret" was Hubbard's attempt to blow our minds with an ironic morality lesson recovered from a lost civilization, an archaeologist's parable clumsily transplanted to outer space.  "Space Can" was Hubbard's attempt to imagine the future of space combat, which turned out surprisingly similar to contemporary naval combat.  And now here's "The Beast," a story where the hunter becomes the hunted in a dark and godless wilderness, with the catch is that the story takes place on another planet. 

The crash and the scream which reverberated through the stinking gloom of the Venusian night brought Ginger Cranston to a startled halt upon the trail, held there for an instant by the swirl of panicked blues which made up the safari of the white hunter.

Yeah, we're on Venus.  Specifically Old Venus, a world of lush jungles under hazy skies, not Real Venus, which is frequently compared to Hell in terms of hospitality and terrain.  In fairness, this story was first published in October 1942, a decade or two before we learned about Venus' smothering acidic atmosphere and superheated surface conditions.  I mean, for Hubbard to have known what another planet was really like, he'd have to have been some kind of psychic supergenius able to project his mind to explore the cosmos and unlock the secrets of the universe.

You may also notice some good ol' fashioned race dynamics in play here, with a Great White Hunter surrounded by a bunch of colored primitives.  We'll get more into this later.  Also, a Ginger Cranston sounds like something I wouldn't order at a bar.

Something had happened to the head of the line, something sudden, inexplicable in this foggy blackness.

Should've switched to infrared.  Or what, you're hunting something on an alien world and you didn't bring along your helmet with multiple vision modes?  Don't tell me you left behind your cloaking device, shoulder-mounted plasmacaster, and self-destruct system too!

Ginger Cranston did not long remain motionless, for the blues had dumped their packages and had vanished, leaving the narrow trail, which wandered aimlessly through the giant trees, clear of men.

Or blues.

He took one step forward, gun balanced at ready in the crook of his arm, and then the thing happened to him which would make his life a nightmare.

 L. Ron Hubbard wrote a story about him.

What follows is not a proper Hubbard Action Sequence, this story evidently dates from when the author could write in paragraphs, and didn't end every sentence with an exclamation point.  But something tackles... er, the narration goes with "Ginger," but I think I'll call him Cranston.  Anyway, something hits our protagonist with "a fury and a savageness" that sends him sprawling onto the Venusian mud, then this attacker proceeds to "claw and rake and beat at him with a singleness of intent which would have no ending short of death."  I haven't gotten into many fights, so I haven't developed the fine martial senses that would let me know when someone is only trying to beat me half to death, or is just lightly stabbing me.

Again, it's dark, and those cowardly blues have all dropped their torches, so Cranston can't get a good look at what's trying to maul him.  The most he can tell is that it's covered in some sort of slimy fur that makes it hard to grapple with, and its stench is so horrendous that Cranston can smell it through the filters of his "swamp mask."  Why he needs such a mask isn't really explained, and he tears it off without suffocating or anything, so Venus has a human-friendly atmosphere in this story.  Maybe its swamps are stinky?  I refuse to believe that the mask is to protect against alien illnesses, because Hubbard had Ole Doc Methuselah spontaneously picnicking on strange planets with nary a care in the world, and that story came several years after this one.

Also, Hubbard describes this beast as being armed with claws like "sabers," not sabres, so maybe this was written before he picked up an affection for lorries and other Britishisms.  I noticed this because my first impulse was to go with sabre, and then I had to stop and reflect on how often I'd complained about Hubbard not calling a truck a truck, that bloody sod.

Cranston is able to kick the monster off him, then scrabbles for his gun in the mud, fails to find it, and then rips off that swamp mask like I said he would, though I'm not sure why that's the logical next step after failing to find a weapon.  It was dark with the mask on, and it's still dark with the mask off, so it doesn't seem to help much.  All he can do is listen to the monster's "snarling grunts" as it prepares for another lunge.

Something in the unexpectedness of the attack, something in the ferocity of this beast, shook Ginger's courage, a courage which was a byword where hunters gathered.  For a moment he could think of nothing but trying to escape this death which would again be upon him in an instant.

Yeah, I can appreciate that you're trying to hype this killing machine as death incarnate, Hubbard, but it doesn't really work to suggest that someone can be attacked by certain death more than once.  A bit of an oxymoron, you know?

He whirled and fumbled his way through the trees.  If he could find some place where he could make a stand, if he could grasp a precious instant to get out and unclasp his knife-

Then this story would be over twenty pages early.

Cranston abruptly notices the sound of roaring water, and since he "knew this continent better than to go so far off a trail"  A whole continent so similar in terrain that you can make such an impressive blanket statement.  Anyway, he knows that he can't go any farther, so he resolves to make a stand, drawing his knife and gathering "his courage about him like armor."  Even though he still can't see anything but the vague shape of trees, Cranston can sense his attacker lurking just two yards away, so if he's careful, maybe he could

It struck.  It struck him from behind with a strength which brought them crashing into the mud and branches.  One cruel paw was crooked to feel out with its sabers the eyes of its victim, the others scored Ginger's back and side.

Cranston's prepared enough to bring a swamp mask, but not any body armor?  Well, later we're learn that Venus' predators tend to be slothful and clumsy and not really a threat, so this isn't as big an oversight as it might seem.

As it is, Cranston is left "Rolling in red agony, strong beyond any past strength," which is a cumbersome way to say that the adrenaline surge is kicking in.  He tries to slam his attacker between himself and a tree, but only succeeds in falling over a cliff into a raging river, which at least has the upside of separating him from his attacker.  Venus' waters are described as a "thick syrup" (roaring, fast-moving syrup?) that gags Cranston when he plunges deep into them, then "seared his throat."  We might wonder that this is some liquid methane or whatever, something exotic and alien, but since there's no lasting effects from this immersion and the author doesn't point anything out, it's probably safe to assume this is just water.  Syrupy Venusian swamp water, but water nonetheless.

Cranston loses any sense of what's up or down, but luckily a friendly whirlpool, after it slams him into a rock, ejects him from the water - it literally "flung him out."  He's able to crawl out of the (really fierce!) "stream" and then lies along the shore, stunned, aching, deaf from the roaring waters, feebly failing to muster the energy to even lift his head and look out in case his attacker comes to finish him off.

For two hours.

Look, it was really traumatic, alright?  And that Venusian syrup water is gross.

Two hours later the frightened blues, grouped in a hollow ring for security, found the white hunter by the river and placed him in a sling.  One of the trackers nervously examined a nearby track and then cried, "Da juju!  Da juju!"  Hastily the carriers lifted the sling and bore its inert burden back to the trail and along it to the village which had been Ginger Cranston's goal.

Hoo boy.  We'll get into that "juju" next time.  Still, awfully nice of those cowardly, inferior (blue-)colored folk to come back for their great white hunter.  And nice of that juju-monster to not eat any of them.