Friday, April 29, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter I - Not to be Confused with the Pizza Place

We start our story off with a rocket blasting off.

Alan Corday stopped, momentarily blinded by the flash of a Mars-bound liner getting free from Earth.  For an instant the skeletal racks had flashed red against the ink of sky.  The rack that had been used now pulsated as it cooled.  Corday did not like to be blinded here in this place, even for a moment.  He wiped a tired hand against his blouse, carefully reassuring himself that his papers and wallet were still in place.

Well, I say rocket, but the wording of our opening paragraph is a bit ambiguous.  The "racks," which I'm assuming are the superstructure supporting a rocket ship as it stands on its tail on the launch pad, are what flash and glow, but there's no mention of a searing spear of fire stabbing into the sky as the snarling spaceship tears itself free of Earth's gravity.  Maybe these "racks" are some sort of magnetic accelerator that shoot vessels into space like a railgun.  And the passengers and cargo somehow don't get squashed in the firing process.

Also, "blouse."  Technically correct, in that the word can be traced back to 19th century France where it referred to a lower-class worker's smock, but not quite accurate for our modern world.

But where is Corday, and why is he worried about his wallet?

To the north glowed New Chicago, a broad humming city.  Beneath its five stages were its hungry, its sick and its lame.  Civilization was mushroomed up from a mire; the columns were pretty, the fountains in the rich gardens played many hues, cafes winked their invitations to the rich - and under it all was the beggar's whine; a shrill, lost note but steady enough to some day bring these towers in wreck.

It's not quite Neo Chicago or anything, but I suppose it'll do.  Unfortunately with the talk of "stages" and "columns" I'm having a hard time not visualizing it as one of those tiered wedding cakes.

And as for our hero,

To an engineer-surveyor of the tenth class, New Chicago was a grave in which he could bury all his years of school and field work for a pittance and eventually wander out of life as poor as he had entered it.  People were polite to an engineer tenth because of his education and breeding, but they were distant because they realized a man in need of a job must be poor.

An expertly-trained aristocratic engineer, where have we heard that one before?  Also, there's a smidgen of foreshadowing here.

Corday is visiting the crappy parts of Chicago Nova because his family's gone bankrupt and he needs a job.  Or more specifically, he wants to marry a plot device named Chica, but her father refuses to let them wed unless Corday can get his own business started in five years.  The good news is that the latest duke of Mars is just handing out the spacebux to fund his latest public works project, and an engineer tenth would be in high demand.  The bad news is that Corday is too poor to afford the trip, and none of the four spaceships he's looked at already were willing to take someone without two thousand spacebux up front.  They're especially confused that one of them fancy gentleman-engineers can't "Sell a couple of polo ponies and go cabin" to make ends meet.

And once again Hubbard is going with a Feudal Future.  This trope isn't so bad when you see it in the Dune books or Warhammer 40,000 game since they take place thousands of years from now, but this story's taking place on Earth, in the near-er future.  So it's a bit bothersome to think that the good ol' US of A is on its way to a society of hereditary titles, as opposed to our current system of political dynasties and do-nothing heirs to corporate fortunes.

At any rate, here's Corday feeling somewhat conspicuous in his white silk jacket, jumping at a black cat darting out of an alleyway as he travels along the trash-strewn streets of "the officers' neighborhood."  But then he hears something, a melody: "Strange, eerie notes, haunting and terrible, were being plucked from an ancient piano - slow music, simple and yet complex."  Entranced, the engineer is drawn to a "cheap glass building," and I immediately get distracted.  The whole building's made of glass, is that right?  And yet Corday evidently can't see through its walls, because he's surprised at the number of people he finds inside the tavern once he steps inside.  Maybe in the near-future, opaque glass is a cheaper building material than wood or something.

Anyhoo, the place is a dive, with a bloody, snoring drunk slumped outside, a stinking blue haze filling the air inside, and a buttload of people crowded around the musician.  But Corday notices "they were not listening.  They were waiting and they were afraid."  Might have something to do with the fellow playing the battered old piano.

He was a strange young man.  In this bluish light his face looked too sharp, too white, too handsome.  There were strange qualities mingled in that face, raptness uppermost now.  A helmet and spaceman's gloves lay nearly [sic] on the piano top.  A shirt and trousers, startlingly white, gave no clue to any age - but certainly they did not belong to this century.  And about the young man's waist was a wide belt of gold metal from which hung a weapon Alan had never seen before.  And the room waited, hushed.

I'm assuming that "nearly" is meant to be "neatly," or possibly "nearby."  I'm also assuming that the gold metal is gold.  And while I appreciate the notion of a throwback classic "spaceman" appearing in what is itself an old sci-fi story, what I'd appreciate even more is an explanation as to how Corday knows this guy's uniform is from a bygone era, and what contemporary spacemen look like in our story.

The hands strayed for the final notes and then hung in memory of the melody dying away now in the strings. Then the young man stood and Alan saw that he was not young. Gradually the reverie left his face, gradually other expressions began to combine in it. The man was nearing fifty and his eyes were hard. His mouth was cynical and his whole thin face was cruel. But he was handsome to the point of beauty, handsome and diamond hard.

I think it's safe to assume that any homoerotic undertones are accidental here.

The bar's owner, entranced, calls the piano player "Your worship" and asks "may we serve again," and the musician smiles - "if it was a smile" - before telling a burly old man to get the liquor flowing.  Said old burly man speaks in a soft voice that nevertheless gets the place a-shaking, "Fill up and drink to Captain Jocelyn!  Jocelyn and the Hound of Heaven."  And then, worryingly, the old man burly grabs and knocks out someone who tries to make it to the door.

Before Corday can so much as have a thought, he's spotted by the young old man, and ordered to have a seat while the burly old man starts roaring - "Two more rounds and then we'll open the books for your names.  Right ones or wrong ones, but by Jupe you better sign!"

I'm a little disappointed that our hero can't spot what's going on here.

The old young man is indeed Captain Jocelyn, but ignores Corday's offered hand, which drives him to a silent rage.  Instead he offers a Corday a drink, and instead of answering the engineer's question about whether the Hound of Heaven is going to Mars, he then commands Corday to drink.  Corday does so - "there was something in Jocelyn's being which reached out and entangled Alan's will."  Please continue to ignore any homosexual undertones.

Jocelyn ignores Corday's offered resume, doesn't seem too impressed when he's told he's looking at a trained engineer-surveyor, and we he learns Corday is only twenty-six, he declares him a child and a fool to be out on the "flats" this late at night.  Corday explains he's here because of a "private matter," Jocelyn immediately realizes a girl is involved and suggests Corday was indiscreet, and Corday loses his temper and angrily explains his backstory.  Then Jocelyn loses his temper when Corday talks about getting married, and our protagonist gets knocked to the sawdust.

Huh.  This setting has Mars-bound spaceships but sawdust is still the go-to way of dealing with messes on a bar floor.  That's kind of disappointing.

Well, Corday isn't one to be knocked on his ass with impunity, and bounces back to grab for Jocelyn's throat, only for some men to come up behind him with knives.  Jocelyn again calls Corday a "young fool" and orders him to get a drink and go home - "his hand shook as he poured the liquor, which spilled over to become a black pool on the ringed table."  But the thugs don't let go, and the burly old burly notices that they've got a vaunted tenth class engineer who would make a fine addition to their crew.  Jocelyn coldly states that Corday isn't going, but the old burly old is strangely enamored with this engineer-surveyor.

"Well, I'm blessed if I know what that is," said the burly one, "but it do sound like he might be taught one end of a celestolade from 'tother.  Built nice, too.  You'll like the Flea Circus, youngun."

"I said he wasn't going!" snapped Jocelyn.

"Shucks, skipper. You'n me, watch on watch while these logheads ride in comfort and security and here's a fine second mate-"

Okay, these homosexual undertones might be intentional.  Also, I'm a bit confused - wasn't Jocelyn just introduced as the captain?  So why can't he seem to give these people orders?  Why-

"I'll sign if you're going to Mars," said Alan.

Jocelyn looked at him in deep contempt.

"Mars, why sure.  Sign to Mars.  Gow-eater, take your slimy paws off that youngun and get the articles."

Well, there's mistake number... I'm going to say three, for the good Mr. Corday.  First mistake was not leaving the bar immediately upon seeing the mesmerized look of Jocelyn's audience, second mistake was pushing the captain's angry button.  The fourth mistake will come shortly.

Jocelyn exits by draining his glass, grabbing some girl whose "dreamy and veiled" eyes are nonetheless locked on Corday, and exiting with her to go clothes shopping.  And I guess while Jocelyn was doing that, Corday must have signed the paperwork, because he looks down to see his name on it.  Though I suppose someone might have signed it for him, after hearing him say his name once while introducing himself to Jocelyn, in a rowdy bar shaking from the shouts of the burly old guy.

At any rate, it's only after his name is on the paper that Corday notices that the Hound of Heaven is "Outward Bound for Alpha Centauri, Betelgeuse and Other Ports of Call."  And this would be mistake number four.

"Now, now," said the burly one, "you'll get to Mars some day."

"You can't hold me!" shouted Alan.  "You can't do it!  You're on the long passage!"

Unfortunately they can hold him, even when Corday desperately tries to squirm and thrash free.  But the big guy, shortly after introducing himself as Bucko Hale, gives our hero a well-aimed blow, and then wraps a belt around Corday's torso.

"No need to attrac' a patrol," said Bucko.  "Now the rest of you boys step up and sign and we'll have a merry time.  Wine, women and billions, me boys, and a nice, long look at history-"

Yeah.  Our hero's been shanghaied.  If you skim through the Wikipedia article, you'll learn that this practice was caused by a demand for unskilled labor on sailboats, exacerbated by stuff like the California Gold Rush luring sailors to dry land, and was more or less stamped out by the early 20th century thanks to a combination of legislation and technology changing how ships were run.  But I guess Hubbard likes his throwbacks to old pirate stories and whatnot, so here we are, with a shanghaiing in the space age.

Taking place in a city with a sprawling slum area full of people desperate for work.  But despite this, the Hound of Heaven's officers resort to captivating a bunch of bargoers with music and beer to get them to sign, and then they kidnap someone who isn't actually qualified for the position they want him in.

Guess the story wouldn't work if the hero wanted to take that long voyage.  We need to have some drama over whether or not he'll get home in time to marry that girl, after all.

Back to the Intro


  1. I know this is far from the only sci-fi novel to have no faster than light travel, yet far flung places to ship to, but I'm always confused as to how that would work.

    You send a colony to a world ten years away. You won't know for twenty years if they actually make it. (And that's assuming they send a ship back right away to report.) Do you start sending resupply ships right away (one a year, or whatever), banking on them having made it? Any disaster that happens you won't know about for ten years, and, from their point of view, no relief will come for twenty.

    Okay, Alpha Centauri is apparently closer than that, at 4.37 light years away (according to wikipedia), but you're still looking at a nearly nine year turn around on anything. And Betelgeuse? Wikipedia tells me it's 640 light years away. How would this possibly work? I can believe in unsupported colonies, but not in regular space travel.

  2. (Granted, I'm not trying to take time dilation into consideration because I don't know enough to. But if a light year is the distance that light travels in a year, and you're going at light speed or below, I don't see how you can arrive faster than light would.)