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

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