Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter IX - New New Chicago

In this chapter, we set aside Hubbard's entertaining misunderstanding of science to see what grim course he thinks the future might take, which is just as interesting.  Just don't expect any of this to have a lasting impact on the story beyond influencing whether Corday will take Jocelyn up on his offer of another cruise.

Corday's cabbie is real excited to have a passenger from a ship like the Hound, the likes of which he's never seen before, and is surprised when Corday explains that it's no mere Martian freighter but a ship back from the long passage.

The cabbie gave a start, looked back through his rear window and then put on a little more speed.  "Why doesn't somebody tell a feller these things?

I don't know much about modern port protocol, so I'm not sure if there's a way for people to look up where a given ship is in from and what it's next destination will be without interacting with the captain.  This is probably a moot point, though, since in Hubbard's stories spaceships don't seem to even need clearance to land.  Just plop down on the tarmac and then get in an argument with the port authority over whether your potentially plagued passengers can disembark.

I was right there when she landed expectin' a good, all-night cruise around the fireworks dispensaries with a thirsty convoy.  Whew!  Glad you tipped me, bub.

Aww, dammit.  This is what happens when you don't fill the void of a character with even a cursory description - there's nothing stopping my mind from deciding that the cabdriver is now everyone's favorite short, clawed mutant.

Them babies are man-hungry."  He suddenly turned back to Alan.  "Meanin' no offense, you understand.  I didn't mean-"

"I'm through with her," said Alan happily.  "And I know what you mean."

So hey, why can't Alan go right to the authorities and report that he was held prisoner for weeks, his time, after being more or less kidnapped?  Why doesn't anyone recognize the Hound from previous incidents, and why wasn't there a nice policeman knocking on the port, asking to see Captain Jocelyn?  Or has the statute of limitations not been updated for relativistic space travel?

We get a partial answer to some of these questions, and surprisingly it isn't "because the plot requires it."  The cabbie talks about how the last time one of these deep passage ships landed, there was a ring of police standing "ten deep tryin' to keep her from leavin'.  But no use."  Not trying to apprehend the captain, mind you, but standing around a landed spaceship in hopes that this would somehow prevent it from taking off.  But the problem, besides the police force's evident stupidity, is that "a police department can hardly stay in power long enough to catch the same ship again."

Corday's a bit slow on the uptake, and insists that he hasn't been gone long as the conversation moves on to what "guzzle emporium" they're headed to.  It's only when the cabbie reminisces about how "old New Chi has been runnin' wide-open and fully-soused" after they "got that church out of power" that our hero finally asks for an update on what's happened in his hometown over his long voyage.

So we get about two pages of exposition, punctuated by Corday being confused and the cabdriver saying "bub."  No "snikt"s though.

Once upon a time in the land of New Chicago, the "whites" - presumably this is a political faction instead of an ethnic group - "fixed up a church to keep down the 'common people'" following a war in which the "Beggar's Guild," a slang term for the "People's Party," did most of the fighting and dying.  Though the whites' church wasn't really a church church, but an organization that used "jawnotics," or perhaps hypnotics, to preach at people "over the air," presumably the radio.  The People's Party had a church too, "The Fission - no, the Electrician - shucks, some church or other," but all their priests literally got burned.  Anyway, someone named Conners led a revolution against the whites and set up the Christian Church, and now someone named Justinius Murphy leads the Republicanites, and now things are mostly peaceful.  Though "once in a while somebody will denounce somebody as a white and there will be a fine hoorah and a firing party and free beer."

Sounds vaguely like Russia during the lead-up to the communist takeover, in other words.  The mention of hypnotics suggests that those sinister psychologists might have been involved, but we can't be sure - Hubbard doesn't state as such, and this story seems to have been written before he was really frothing about the clear and present danger of the world psychiatric Nazi conspiracy.

Corday is a mite bewildered by all this, and his cabbie suddenly worries that he might not be carrying a proper republican (little R, not the GOP), and orders Corday out.  Corday remembers that he is a lordly aristocrat and decides he won't be "brawling with menials," tries to pay his fare, then quadruples his starting offer when he sees the contempt on the cabbie's face.  And now he notices that his cash is weird - the bills are printed differently, and the coinage is "iron money with a glowing center."

So that answers a question from last chapter - yes, Corday got paid in local currency.  Now we just have to wonder how Jocelyn was able to get a money lender so quickly and where Corday got his coins, since Jocelyn distinctly paid him in dollar bills last chapter.  If they were part of his winnings from Dr. Strange, surely he'd have noticed what the coins looked like, right?

Anyway, since Corday tipped so generously, or is "playin' the grand duke" as the cabbie puts it, the driver advises him, like Jocelyn did last chapter, to get rid of that white coat, and also to tear off the eagle-and-compass badge of an engineer, tenth class from Corday's collar tab.  Because "Who do you suppose took over the world?"  Dramatic sting, I suppose.

The driver... drives off, presumably to fight alongside several superhero teams simultaneously and hog the spotlight.  Corday spends a moment stunned by the knowledge that "time had passed," that the cabbie only knew about this stuff thanks to history books.  But he still doesn't know how much time has passed because Hubbard won't let Corday check a newspaper for the day's date, or just out and ask his driver what year it is.  We still need to be good and shocked by the twist in the next chapter, after all.

After a paragraph break, Corday resolves to walk home, and is troubled by the "unfamiliar buildings which stood beside familiarly named streets," but takes heart when he passes a park bench carved with the message "A.C. lvs C.M.," a relic of his and Miss Cerita "Chica" Montgraine's second date.  He decides that his Chica might be a little older, maybe even a bit gray-haired, but that doesn't matter, love conquers all, etc.  "And it took an older woman to properly understand a man," as Queen said.  Good ole "Fat, globulous Queen.  She was right, too."  But he's still haunted by Einstein, by those equations about Mass and Velocity and the Constant.  Spooooky physics, oooooo.

The rest of the chapter isn't as interesting as the cabbie's history lesson, I'm afraid.  Corday eventually finds his old home when he recognizes the garden wall, but when he tries to push his way through the gate he discovers "a strange sort of hothouse without any glass or lights or vats for liquid food," which a man explains is "a paper box factory."  I don't know either.  The guy explains that this is most certainly not the Sir Alton Corday residence and directs our hero to a nearby deacon who may know where the Cordays went to, and off our hero goes in search for answers.

He felt a little dazed.  Deceleration, he told himself.  Being three or four gravities for days made a man feel funny for a while.

Or, you know, snap your bones under your own weight, tear your muscles from the effort of merely sitting up, strain your heart as it struggles to pump blood around in such an environment, and generally just kill you horribly.  Also, way to tell us about this high-G deceleration sequence last chapter during our approach to Earth, Hubbard.

Corday continues on through muddy, broken streets to find a run-down church that looks like it's been through a fire, but a wizened old deacon answers the door and bobs his head, "bob, bob," every time he talks.  Corday asks about his family crypt, but the registers are moldy if they're not burned, and don't even ask about electronic data storage.  There's also a weird moment where a lantern-bearing man comes up to lecture the deacon for illegally selling Corday a candle, forcing Corday to shell out again to a "dues paid member of the light guild."  But this is the intentional sort of weird that shows how strange life has become over Corday's absence, not the result of the author's idiosyncrasies, so it works.  In the end, the deacon remembers that they've been pulling out headstones to fill a hole out front, and after a half hour of digging Corday uncovers a fragment of a slab inscribed with "-ay."

And Corday must be a skilled surveyor-engineer indeed, because he seems to know that this stone can only be from his family tomb, and not that of the Murrays or Grays or anyone.  So after digging a bit more in search of another fragment, he abruptly stops.  The light bearer offers to round up a crew and get the whole street dug up.

And then Alan saw them.  He saw the mud and the ragged light bearer and the cloaked deacon and the street.  He saw the church as it had been and now the church as it was.

He straightened.  "Thank you," he said.  "It won't be necessary.  If you wish to accompany me, I will pay your hire."  He turned with precision and paid the deacon who bob-bobbed thankfully.  He indicated the way he would go to the light bearer.

And he turned his steps from the broken slab marked "ay."

Got the strangest urge to play XCOM now.

So that's our first chapter back on Earth, and the dramatic reveal of the changes that have taken place since Chapter I.  It just doesn't work.

The principal problem is that we never got a good feel for New Chicago at the story's start, beyond some vague remarks about aristocratic engineers.  So not only do we lack a conception of Old New Chicago to compare this New New Chicago to, Old New Chicago itself felt pretty weird in relation to our own time.  Thus the changes don't hit home for the reader nearly as hard as they do for Corday, assuming we can even tell what's changed since as I mentioned we barely spent any time in his hometown before flying off in the Hound.

The city is also strangely empty - there's no mention of other foot traffic, or vehicles on the roads, or anything like that.  New Chicago is inhabited only by Corday, his driver, that "paper box factory" owner, and a deacon.  Nobody pointed at Corday's white jacket - there's no indication that he ever removed it despite being warned about it twice now - and Corday doesn't get to boggle at the strange fashions of his fellow New Chicagoans.  He's not impressed by the new model hover cars, or the not-hover cars as the case may be.  There's not even a bit where he notices that his favorite movie is now in its third reboot.  It's just Corday jumping from scene to scene.  Heck, it's hard to simply tell what time of day it is beyond a mention that it's "early" enough for the deacon to promptly answer Corday's knock.

And of course the unstated conclusion that Corday's family is dead doesn't hit very hard since we never got to meet his ailing father or loving mother.  Which is going to take away some of the impact when we are finally introduced to Chica in the next chapter.

Back to Chapter VIII

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