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" ...wow.  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.


1 comment:

  1. Hubbard really is some kind of anti-lovecraft. I'm hating hubbard's wastefully vague writing style. Do you have a clear picture in your head of what this planet looks like without making it up with your own imagination? The monster is a thing with... claws... okay? It's only when you said slow and slothful that I got a picture of a prehistoric giant sloth in my head. Are the blues just blue humans? This kind of feels like he's just cribbing off some African safari he might have been on, if the last story was about his naval experience.

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