Monday, June 20, 2016

Final Blackout - The Final Countdown

Man, I love it when bands are nice enough to put their music on YouTube so I don't have to worry about a fan's upload of it getting taken down.

First, an announcement - I think my latest shipment of Hubbard novels will be my last.  Mission Spork will continue, but I think there's only so much we can learn from these stories.  I'd say we've covered a lot of ground, from Hubbard's early pulps and novels to his later novels that were pretty pulpy.  We've seen how his craft evolved, or more accurately how it didn't, apart from him working more and more of his delusions and conspiracy theories into it.  Adding more entries to our dataset at this point isn't going to improve the... y'know, that number you're supposed to look for, and if it's a certain value you can say it's a pretty accurate equation?  I'm sorry, it's been a couple of years since Quantitative Research and I was never interested in math and computers.

Anyway, I was a bit more deliberate when picking up Hubbard books this time, and actually sought out specific titles rather than just seeing what was available at the local used bookstore.  One sounds like it might actually be interesting, and not "wow what's wrong with this guy?" interesting, but a story that gets meta and starts playing with the conventions of fiction.  I'll save that for last, since it sounds like the best candidate so far for "the good Hubbard story."  The one I'll be doing after this one will hopefully make up for the critical lack of psychology in the past few Hubbard stories, and I hear but cannot yet confirm that it actively promotes Dianetics.  And as for the one I'm looking at now, well, I was curious.  There were promotions for it in the back of Mission Earth volumes and other books, and I was interested in how Hubbard would handle the premise as advertised.  The answer turned out to be "as well as usual."

So, let's take a look at Final Blackout, duh-nuh-na-nuh, duh-nuh-na-nuh-nuh.

This is a story of post-atomic warfare, an exploration of what conflict could be like after the end of civilization as we know it, and the tale of one man's struggle to rebuild society.  The blurbs on its back cover say it's "compelling... riveting... Hubbard's best" (Publisher's Weekly), "as perfect a piece of science fiction as has ever been written" (Robert Heinlein), and "A chilling and lucid picture of the effects of incessant warfare" (The Kirkus Reviews).

I was hoping it'd be like Fallout.  It wasn't.

The first oddity we encounter after opening the cover is the book's dedication, "To the men and officers with whom I served in World War II, first phase, 1941-1945."  This had to have been added in later editions, because this story was first published in 1940, in the April, May and June volumes of Astounding Science Fiction, while Hubbard only joined the Navy in July 1941.  So it's a little weird to dedicate a story that was already in print before you met a group of people, to those people.

Then there's an introduction by Algis Budrys, who the Publisher is nice enough to describe in a note as the/a coordinator for Hubbard's Writers of The Future Contest, as well as a columnist for the Chicago Sunday Times book reviews.  Budrys claims we're holding "an extraordinary novel featuring an extraordinary hero," a story that builds a "carefully developed, totally authentic portrait" of its main character.  We're promised not only a rousing adventure, but a tale that displays its "expertise in military tactics, its confident grasp of strategy and, beyond that, of the chicaneries behind making war in search of political power," a sophisticated vision of the future that wouldn't be equaled until Orwell's 1984 came out in 1949.  A book with a "haunting quality," a work of speculative fiction that we should all be thankful didn't completely predict the future.

The thing to take away from all this is that we can't trust the Chicago Sunday Times' book review section.

Finally, we reach a preface written by Hubbard in 1948, a preface that Budrys describes as "pointedly ironic," and which I would call smugly self-congratulatory.  Or maybe "humblebragging" is the better word for it.  Hubbard reminds us that the great battles of World War II were still in the future when he wrote the story, much like how the action depicted in it "will not take place for many years yet to come and it is, therefore, still a story of the future though some of the 'future' it embraced (about one-fifth) has already transpired," which is an unwieldy and unenjoyable sentence.

And then he talks about the story's reception, the controversy surrounding it, how communists called it pro-fascist and fascists called it pro-communist, how poems "(some of them very good)" have been written about or dedicated to its main character, how the author has been both praised and hanged in effigy "(and it is a matter of record that the last at least was successfully accomplished)," how Britain refused to publish the story there but Boston had no problem because "there is nothing but innocent slaughter in it and no sign of rape," and so on.  He also off-handedly theorizes that "the anti-FINAL BLACKOUTISTS" were probably communists, "whatever those are."  Hubbard does admit that his story "probably is not the worst tale ever written," but he "cannot bring myself to believe that FINAL BLACKOUT, as so many polls and such insist, is one of the ten greatest stories in its field ever written."

Yet when I check Wikipedia, there's no indication that Final Blackout had any negative reaction, and whoever wrote the article only cited sources calling the story one of Hubbard's best or prophetic.  Nothing about any hanged effigies or British publishers refusing to touch the story.  And I guess that makes sense - after all, this story debuted in 1940, when people had much bigger things to worry about, like the worsening situation in Europe and the Pacific.

But back to this possibly-nonexistent controversy: Hubbard spends a good page and a half trying to explain what about Final Blackout offended some people.  He says that its "very young" author thought that politicians were wholly incompetent belligerents and that the armies of the world were run by general staffs whose strategies would lead their nations into ruin, leaving junior officers to actually wage war.  And as a final heresy,

FINAL BLACKOUT dealt rather summarily - and very harshly, for the author was inexperienced in international affairs - that the anarchy of nations was an unhealthy arrangement maintained by the greed of a few for the privileges of a few and that the "common people" (which is to say those uncommon people who wish only to be let go about their affairs of getting enough to eat and begetting their next generation) would be knocked flat, silly and completely out of existence by these brand-new "defensive" weapons which would, of course, be turned only against soldiers.  Bombs, atomics, germs and, in short, science, it maintained, were being used unhealthily and that, soon enough, a person here and there who was no party to the front line sortie was liable to get injured or dusty; it also spoke of populations being affected boomerang fashion by weapons devised for their own governments to use.

It's hard to believe that in all those words there's only two sentences.  But yeah, Hubbard was soooo naive back when he wrote this in 1939 and assumed the worst about everyone, but now in 1948 he's "gained enough experience to see the error of his judgment" and knows that all those politicians and pompous generals have made the world "the best of all possible worlds."  And Final Blackout is "just a story.  And as the past few years proved, it cannot possibly happen."  Wink.

Man, it's annoying when the author turns on the sarcasm before you can.  Like what am I supposed to do here, just roll my eyes?

But again, this book is strangely backwards.  Hubbard eventually dedicated it to people he served with after he wrote it, and in the book itself takes a strong stance against high-ranking civilian and military leadership in favor of down-to-earth junior officers, but adopted this position before formally serving in the military.  I mean, he'd been in the National Guard and Marines Reserve nearly a decade before writing this story, but it's still unclear where this sentiment came from.  Other books he'd read?  Stories from old veteran soldiers?  So Hubbard built this view of how the military worked, actually entered the military, and came out of it with no changes.  Because all the I'm-much-wiser-now sarcasm aside, this looks awfully similar to how he described politicians and militaries and international conflict at the end of his life in Mission Earth.

I will agree with Hubbard on some things, though: I don't believe Final Blackout belongs on a list of the top ten best works in its field (whatever that may be), but I'll also say it's not the worst book ever written, you could make a much better argument that Mission Earth has earned that title.  Final Blackout is still pretty bad, though, because...

Well, you'll see soon enough. 

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