Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter IV, part I - The Return of Captain Malcolm

Let's talk a bit about Captain Malcolm.  This character showed up in Chapter I to get the plot moving by recalling Lefty to the British field HQ, but he hasn't otherwise played a major role in the story.  If anything, Hubbard's been under-utilizing the guy.  He had his moments in Chapter I where he served as a foil to our protagonist, allowing Hubbard to develop Lefty's tactics and outlook by contrasting them against Malcolm's by-the-book approach.  But then Malcolm faded into the background, missing out the interactions between Lefty and the Russians in Chapter II, then barely being present at all when Lefty invaded a neutral village in Chapter III.

This is made all the more baffling because these are definitely situations where Malcolm should have said something.  He should have been outraged at Lefty's treatment of the "enemy," serving as the patriotic and belligerent desk officer to contrast against Lefty as an experienced and more sympathetic field officer.  Malcolm's reaction to Lefty occupying the hidden village last chapter would have told us a lot about how the British army operates these days, whether such aggression towards civilians is normal or not.  We also could have learned something about post-apocalyptic politics based on whether or not Malcolm thought Lefty should work with the French Duke - as it is, we don't know anything about England's relationship with France when the War of Books went down.

If nothing else, Malcolm should have had some reaction to the rescued British soldiers, since he was the one who got all excited about them belonging to Dixon's regiment.  But nothing came from it.  We never learned who Dixon was, or why Malcolm and Lefty got interested after learning some of his soldiers were around.  After the other British men were freed, Malcolm didn't go meet with them, he went to bed.

I think even Hubbard realized he hadn't been getting the most out of this character, and true to form, the author couldn't be bothered to go and rewrite anything, he just decided to have Malcolm belatedly react to what happened in the first part of the book... wait, this was originally published in a serialized format.  Guess how lazy the author is being depends on whether the first installment of the story ended after Chapter III.

Anyway, Chapter IV starts off with Malcolm being grumpy with the lieutenant.  He's exasperated that Lefty is moving his men in "arcs and angles" toward the headquarters, climbing over ridges and dodging opportunistic sniper fire as they spend days on a journey that Malcolm was able to complete in just 48 hours.

The captain doesn't see the point of all this circuitous hiking, and thinks to himself that "It would be very different when he had this command."  Da duh duhn.  Yes, Malcolm is coveting our protagonist's position, and intends to take Lefty's place after our hero is relieved of duty at the field HQ.

Whether Lefty can sense this ill intent is unclear, but he does pick up that Malcolm is cranky and asks what's the matter.  Rather than complaining about the journey, Malcolm decides to complain about Lefty's treatment of the villagers last chapter.  He would have shot Mayor Baguette because "Dixon was our friend," and when Lefty states that they couldn't know for certain that the villagers were the ones who killed Dixon, Malcolm counters that "I never knew you needed evidence to execute a man."  Not sure if Malcolm is being a bad guy or just cynical.

Lefty counters that he did in fact "execute" Mayor Baguette, even though the guy waved them goodbye the next day - the lieutenant had this men arm the rescued British soldiers, see, so... well, I guess they'll execute the guy later?  Or giving some former slaves 2nd Amendment rights is just as good as executing the person who enslaved them, in Lefty's mind.

But whatever, Lefty says what's done is done, there was no point in ruining the atmosphere in the hut by shooting someone once the slaves were freed and given a share in the village's leadership, and said village has now "passed under a military regime" of sorts and will be all the better now that those soldiers are more than draft animals.  Military dictatorships usually turn out well, right? 

Malcolm, being a bad guy, just doesn't get it.  He gives Lefty some uneasy looks and feels sympathetic towards Mayor Baguette, "forgetting completely that he had trapped soldiers and enslaved them."  Even after getting worked up that said soldiers belonged to a former friend's unit.  That's how a Hubbard Villain's mind works, they will do whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to have them oppose the Hubbard Hero until their inevitable destruction.

But speaking of belated reactions, Malcolm chooses this moment to point out that Lefty was respectful toward the Russian leader but scornful towards the village leader, further evidence of our hero's strange values and inconsistencies.  Lefty actually hadn't noticed this, and spends his lunch thinking in silence on the matter before giving Malcolm a little speech.

At last, he spoke.  "I suppose it was because I felt that way.  Maybe there are so few of the officers' corps left that we have a feeling we ought to preserve ourselves.  Maybe it's because all officers have been taught the necessity of exalting their rank and being as above that of the civilians.  Civilians started all this mess anyway, didn't they?  Bungling statesmanship, trade mongering, their 'let the soldier do the dirty work' philosophy, these things started it.  The Russian was a fellow craftsman.  But the leader of that village commune-  Bah!  A stupid blunderer, raised up from filth by guile, a peasant without polish or courage-  The thought revolts me."  He was silent for a while, staring out at the painted slopes.  And then: "There are so few of us left."

Sounds almost like military Marxism.  The bourgeoisie, or in this case civilians, have spent all of history oppressing, abusing and exploiting the noble proletariat, or in this case soldiers.  The jarheads of the world need to realize that they have more in common with each other than the people giving them orders, rise up against their uncaring masters, and take control of the government, ushering in a golden age of peace and equality and yadda yadda.

Malcolm, a little awed now by the quiet sadness he had drawn forth, could not venture to carry it forward.  He had been dwelling, in the main, upon this circuitous marching and had not quite the courage to speak boldly in criticism of a commander in the field.

He just spent two pages discussing why he disagrees with Lefty's actions, but suddenly the author insists that Malcolm is too timid to criticize the guy.

Well, that's enough of character building, let's get back to wandering around post-apocalyptic Europe.  Fourth Brigade crosses through a ruined industrial sector, a place that was "splattered into atoms" in the initial phases of the war, but periodically rebuilt to some extent in order to continue coal mining.  No, it's not still radioactive, that would be inconvenient.

Water tanks leaned crazily - great blobs of rust against the sky.  Buildings were heaps of rubble, overgrown with creeping vines and brown weeds.  Within a few years the place would be swallowed except for the few battered walls which made ragged patterns against the hazy dusk.  Fused glass crunched under foot and twisted chunks of metal attested the violence of thermite bombs and shells.

The place isn't quite abandoned, though.  Weasel's scouts find a gibbet made of railroad ties bearing four hanged corpses, "their necks drawn to twice their length," as well as the sign "SOLDIERS!  MOVE ON!"  Sergeant Pollard identifies the corpses as British (the monocles and top hats are a dead giveaway), Weasel says he can hear people moving down some nearby mine entrances, and then,

A bullet smashed into the truck11 of a car

If you ever write a story, and you include footnotes to define some obscure terms, don't do what Hubbard does here.  We have a tense moment punctuated by a gunshot, and then the narrative is immediately interrupted because Hubbard wanted the bullet to hit a rail car's "truck," so we have to stop reading, glance down, read the footnote that a truck is "A frame that swivels, with two or more pairs of wheels, for supporting the front end of a locomotive or each end of a railroad car," and then roll our eyes at the author's attempt to show off his vocabulary and wonder why he couldn't just say the bullet hit a railroad car instead of presuming that we were intensely worried where the bullet hit that railroad car.

and went yowling away like a broken banjo string.

Also, try not to associate an action scene with banjos.

"I think," said the lieutenant, "that this is a very good place to spend the night.  Gian!  Guns front into action!"

Worthless stuff, those guns.

Wait, did I say this was an action scene?  Because instead there's a paragraph break, and then we cut to two days later, with Malcolm fuming over the lieutenant, how years of war on the continent have turned Lefty from "a somewhat quiet, cheerful lad with only a hint of the devil in his eyes" into "a steel blade which might stab anywhere."

Oh, were you hoping to see how our military genius protagonist pacified the hostile group in the coal mines?  Too bad, Malcolm just spends a sentence remembering how "they had been terribly knocked about in the short fight," but "had calmed into quiet obedience as soon as the lieutenant confronted them with his orders."  And there was a raid on a fort that we're also skipping over, other than an assurance that "the noncom in charge had almost licked the lieutenant's boots!"  And there was also a fight to take a hill riddled with caves in which only a single man had died, "and that a carrier."

It's not a case of the author getting bored of writing action scenes, I believe - there's plenty of shooting and shouting in the rest of the story.  So I'm not entirely sure why he needed to have these incidents happen off-camera, so to speak.  Did he think it'd be better for us to hear that the lieutenant was gathering supplies and adding to his forces on the way back to HQ, rather than having him already be well-equipped from previous foraging at the story's start and then immediately go to the base, artillery in tow?

Anyway, back to Malcolm.  He's jealous that Lefty has been "successful in his campaigning - too successful to be safe," and can't understand how he could be willingly marching back to the field headquarters to be relieved of command.  He also sneers at the intense loyalty the soldiers who for their commander, and vows that when he takes over Fourth Brigade, he'll put all those "stupid brutes" in their proper place.  And other bad guy stuff.

This brigade was all wrong.  Their haversacks were stuffed.  Forty impressed carriers were lugging the guns and the carts of provisions.  It was glutting itself from the best in the countryside, poor as that best was, but it was also marching and fighting like people possessed.  What was the sense of that when a two-day march would take them across the looted soil which stood like a band around G.H.Q.?  What use did the lieutenant have for all this loot?

Gee.  I wonder why an officer with an anti-authoritarian streak and a low opinion of his superiors would want to stock up on firepower and supplies before reporting to said superiors.

The interlude ends with Malcolm feeling like he's got a real feud going with Lefty, and thanks to Malcolm's close relationship with the guy in charge of the field headquarters, it's "a quarrel which would very soon be settled."  Which is as good a cliffhanger to end this section on as any, I suppose.  Next time we'll reach the headquarters and start the settling process.

Back to Chapter III, part II

No comments:

Post a Comment