Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Final Blackout - The Lieutenant - That's All You're Getting

Our first chapter does not get a number like all the others in the book, it is simply "The Lieutenant," an introduction to our main character.

He was born in an air-raid shelter - and his first wail was drowned by the shriek of bombs, the thunder of falling walls and the coughing chatter of machine guns raking the sky.

And presumably his first stinky went unnoticed because of all the corpses in the vicinity relaxing their sphincters in death.

He was taught in a countryside where A was for Antiaircraft and V was for Victory.  He knew that Vickers Wellington bombers had flown non-stop clear to China.  But nobody thought to tell him about a man who had sailed a carrack as far in the opposite direction - a chap called Columbus.

Poor Leif Erikson... you know, I wonder how things would've turned out if the Vinland colony had lasted and the Norse really made a go of settling in North America.  We could've seen Columbus' fleet get intercepted by some longships full of irate Scandinavians.

War-shattered officers had taught him the arts of battle on the relief maps of Rugby.  Limping sergeants had made him expert with rifle and pistol, light and heavy artillery.  And although he could not conjugate a single Latin verb, he was graduated as wholly educated at fourteen and commissioned the same year.

But we're also told that he didn't make it to the front until four years later, as a subaltern.  Guess he was commissioned and then sent off to school some more?  Or given some posting in- you know what, it doesn't matter and I'm not really interested.

Our protagonist for this story is a pretty singular fellow, both because he's unique and also because all his family is dead - daddy died defending Kiel, mommy died of grief/starvation in the ruins of London, uncle "rode a flamer" in Hamburg... I'm guessing that means the uncle fell victim to a flamethrower, unless England has militant anti-sodomy laws in this dystopian future.

Also, I should probably mention something this book does that other Hubbard novels haven't.  Hubbard, as usual, likes to show off by dropping technical jargon in the middle of the story to trip up the reader, such as "caisson" (ammo cart), "mole" (sea wall) and "P.C." (post command).  But instead of a key at the start of a glossary at the end, this book features footnotes.  So you still have to stop, sigh, and look Hubbard's latest "look at my military knowledge!" vocabulary word up, but you don't have to look as far.  Nice of him.

Back to our super-special hero.  By the age of twenty-three he was leading a brigade, and managed to keep surviving when his comrades snapped and wandered out to find a friendly bullet, or lost their minds and begged him to end their suffering.  Yep, he obligingly shot these lesser officers, holstered his gun, and took over their commands.  Despite living his life surrounded by the horrors of war, our hero kept calm and carried on.

He was a soldier and his trade was death, and he had seen too much to be greatly impressed with anything.  Outwardly he was much like half a million others of his rank; inwardly there was a difference.  He had found out, while commanding ack-acks3 in England, that nerves were more deadly than bullets, and so he had early denied the existence of his own, substituting a careless cheerfulness which went strangely with the somber gloom which overhung the graveyard of Europe.  If he had nerves, he kept them to himself.  And what battles he fought within himself to keep them down must forever go unsung.

3. ack-ack: Slang.  An antiaircraft gun or its fire.

He's fearless, in other words, flippant and chipper in the face of danger.  And as it so happens, he's also blond, blue(-grey)-eyed and handsome, and in great physical condition even amidst all the famine and plague.  How... familiar.

So between this guy, Yellow Hair, Ole Doc Methuselah, Jonnie Goodboy Tyler, and Jettero Heller, can we say that Hubbard had a type?

Aside from describing the titular character, "The Lieutenant" develops our setting's backstory.  The "War of Books - or the War of Creeds, or the War Which Ended War or World Wars two, three, four and five" has/have been going on for all our protagonist's life, so peace is a foreign concept for him, like the current generation of Iraqis.  He's seen England's government change seven times until it now has a pseudo-communist regime, while Germany has managed nine revolutions in eighteen years and Russia has a czar again.  But the conflict has continued even though the leaders who sparked it have been killed or ousted, like how Russia kept stubbornly fighting in World War I even after its revolution... wait. 

The fighting has been so bad and gone on for so long that the belligerents' ability to wage war has regressed - it's been three years since an airplane has flown, artillery has gone silent after running out of shells, and tanks are now only found as rusting hulks.  Hell, our protagonist's radio hasn't worked for four years for want of replacement parts.  And on top of the destruction of modern industry, three hundred million civilians and thirty million soldiers have perished in this conflict, a plague of insects (rumored to have been introduced by Russia) has caused a famine, and an untreatable disease called "soldier's sickness" has ended international trade and left England's expeditionary force stranded on continental Europe thanks to its government's quarantine of the British Isles.

But nobody's sued for peace or anything.  Despite these catastrophic losses, despite the crippled state of their armies, the great powers just keep attacking each other even harder each time someone suffers another revolution.  If this seems unreasonable, blame the nukes.

Just as the problem of manufacture had unequalized the periods of bombing, so had this served to prolong this war that the brief orgy of atomics, murderously wild, if utterly indecisive, had spread such hatreds that the lingering sparks of decency had vanished from the world.  War, as in the days of old, had become a thing of hate and loot, for how else was a machine-tooled country to get machines and tools which it could no longer generate within itself.

No question mark for the rhetorical question.  But yeah, these aren't the atomic weapons we're familiar with that can reduce a city to miles of tangled, melted rubble and contaminate the environment for decades to come, doomsday weapons that if used in sufficient numbers could lead to human extinction.  These are Command & Conquer nukes that can blow up power plants and wipe out a cluster of units, but can't flatten an enemy base by themselves, much less take out a Construction Yard in a single hit.  Friggin' overpriced letdowns.  For $2500 I could just buy a bunch of tanks and get the job done.

Anyway, our hero managed to survive through all of this, and his commanders keep sending messengers with orders to keep fighting, as well as assurances that it doesn't matter that there's no factories to make shells anymore because artillery was overrated anyway.  Heck, he was even happy when the planes stopped flying, because "What had planes done but attack objectives they could not hold."  No question mark, again.  Our hero's only disappointment was that, despite all the revolutions, the governments of the world never "collapse[d] together and put and end to this."  So he keeps fighting a "War of Creeds" that no longer apply to the current conflict, because it's all he knows.

Our narrator says that "From the records that remain of him, it is difficult to get an accurate description" of our hero.  His enemies liked to depict him with an unnerving grin he wore even when killing, while his supporters insist he never took pleasure in bloodshed even though his contemporaries "paid no attention to strategic conquests if they were not attended by many thousands of deaths."  The only picture of him was (badly) done after his death by one of his soldiers, which was only enough to get his basic physical characteristics, and we will never know if he did the things he did out of love for his country or just for the amusement of solving a problem.

And you might be wondering at this point why I keep calling this guy "our hero" or "our protagonist" or "this guy" instead of an actual moniker.  And that's because,

These things, just as his name, are not known.  He was the lieutenant.  But whether he was madman and sadist or gentleman and patriot - this must be solved by another.

Yeah, Hubbard never names him, he is only "the lieutenant."  Just... well, it's not really worth getting angry over, especially when Hubbard has written, and done, much more offensive stuff.  I'll just wonder why he thought this was clever or whatever, and what it adds to the story.  Guess he's trying to build an air of mystery about this figure who might be a devil or might be a saint, and we'll have to read the story to know for sure, except it's pretty clear right off the bat that this Hubbard story's characters will be as nuanced as usual, so the lieutenant is a good guy and all who oppose him are bad.

As it is, this lack of a name just makes me want to supply one.  Like Reginald.  Or Yancy.  Or how about Jethuselah Goodhair Teller?

Also, why is he still "the lieutenant" if he commands a brigade?  Does "the brigadier" just not sound as cool?

Back to the Intro

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