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.

1 comment:

  1. "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." I think the insect-stained adjective is describing the screen of the communicator panel, not the character Voris or the guy on the other end. So it's splattered with dead bugs, eww. But thinking harder, the opening gave me the imagery that this was about a redneck yokel in a lawn chair eating fried chicken on another planet, so splattered bugs made sense to me, but this is in a spaceship? How did insects even get in there? Why would an alien be eating chicken? They thought the animal was so good they appropriated the common human meal? Or is this a human from another colonized planet enslaving other humans?