Thursday, July 7, 2016

Final Blackout - Chapter VIII - How to Take Over a Country

So who's the bad guy of this story?  It's not a question you expect to be asking in Chapter VIII of X, but since the story is almost over, maybe we ought to figure out who its antagonist is.

Is is Malcolm, the stupid officer who showed up to issue Lefty his recall order, displayed the differences between staff officers and field officers, and arrogantly assumed he'd be able to take over our hero's command?  Probably not, since Malcolm got his head blown apart halfway through the book.  Is it General Victor, the exiled traitor who issued that recall order and wanted to steal Fourth Brigade to carve out his own petty kingdom?  Doubtful, we only met him one chapter before defeating him and moving on.  Is it this Comrade Hogarthy guy we're about to go after?  You'd think so, but we only heard about him two chapters ago, and he hasn't had an impact on the plot beyond being the face of Britain's communist government, which we haven't been given any reason to dislike beyond, y'know, them being dirty commies.

Well, maybe it doesn't matter who the specific villain is.  Maybe the lieutenant's heroic struggle is against a flawed and destructive system rather than an individual.  It's not like we can blame one guy for post-apocalyptic Europe.

Anyway, let's save Britain or whatever.  Once again, Fourth Fleet spends the night quietly sailing upriver, and has to burn one boat after it runs aground beyond rescue, but the next day they're a good distance from London.  They exchange fire with some forces near Richmond guarding a tidal lock, which is too valuable to risk damaging with artillery, so Tou-tou does this and Carstone does that and whoever Chipper is does something, and Hubbard doesn't even list casualties.  It's just a paragraph saying how Fourth Brigade kicked lots of ass and won another fight.  Thrilling.

The fleet passes through the lock and then destroys it, then drops anchors and waits as the rainy day continues.  Some more communists show up and get driven back, and the fleet continues around the riverbend toward Kingston.  The forces on the riverbank get the bright idea to cut the invaders off and rush on ahead, get dug in with barricades, requisition boats from the local farmers, and since the rain stops as darkness falls, they think "the stage was set for an ideal battle in their favor."  At seven that night they unload everything "into the black and churned the river expanse before Twickenham where the fleet had anchored."  The bad guys are so incompetent that they actually shoot at their own boats in the process of engaging the enemy - or rather, the river where they assume the enemy is.  Because once they get close enough to properly investigate, they find

The flotilla was gone!

It had not passed Teddington pound lock.

It had not made the shore.

They abandoned their leaky vessels in favor of firmer land and hastily began to rake the countryside and shores for any sign of the Fourth Brigade.

They found none.

This is just sad.

There's not even any mention of fog or anything to properly hide the flotilla from sight, it's just dark, and evidently the muzzle flashes from all those rifles or artillery pieces, explosions from shells or grenades, none of that briefly lit up the battlefield to reveal that the commies were shooting at an empty stretch of river.  And none of the soldiers had a flashlight or flare or a candle on their helmet that would reveal that their target isn't there.  Once again, Lefty has succeeded not due to his tactical genius, but because of the stupidity of his adversaries.

Fourth Brigade of course turned around and headed back downriver at full speed towards London, and reach the capital just before dawn.  The artillery boats take up positions both up- and downriver of the Tower of London, and of course they outrange whatever cannons are waiting for them.  Lefty takes 360 men ashore with him, and once the sun is up, the final battle begins.

First Swinburne engages the Tower garrison like he did two nights previous, and even though it's a repeat of that skirmish, "it was a startled garrison which tumbled from their bunks," not a blooded and wary garrison on guard after a recent battle with a hostile force.  The majority of the defenders are obliging enough to chase off these raiders until they're fully a mile from the tower, at which point the artillery ships open up on the fortress gates.  The outer portal goes down "as though Gian had counted its bolts and measured its thickness with exactness, he wasted not one shot too many upon it," then the rest of the fort is bombarded.  The lieutenant leads his forces inside, picking off the few resisters who try to shoot at them and throwing grenades through windows and doorways.  Lefty personally throws the sack of grenade that opens the door to the Outer Keep, and aside from a few casualties from snipers or a surprise machine gun, Fourth Brigade captures the Tower without much fuss, in all of twenty-three minutes.

Astoundingly, it's not an action sequence, the actual taking of the keep is just as dry and unexciting as all the other "action" of the past couple of chapters.  We're told who moved where and that they might have thrown grenades at some point, but not what it felt like to charge into that ancient keep, how the racket and clamor of machine guns firing outside its walls gave way to a sudden resentful silence as Lefty forced his way into that citadel with such an ominous history, how each gunshot and scream within its halls and chambers mixed with the echoes of past prisoners, how the gunsmoke and stench of blood combined with the dust and stone to create a suffocating miasma, or even how Lefty allowed himself a moment of vanity to exult that he's captured England's most famous castle.  For example.

But anyway, Lefty has captured the enemy headquarters.  Hooray.  Unfortunately Hogarthy's not there, an aide explains that he was leading the force that chased Fourth Fleet up the river, but Lefty's not upset and helps himself to some of the dictator's personal booze.  He more or less lets the garrison's sally force, which surrendered after the guns started bombarding the tower, run off and rejoin Hogarthy's host out to the west, then all the stuff in the boats is unloaded and settled into the Tower with the rest of the Brigade.  Everyone gets to take a rest, save for the scouts who go watch for signs of the enemy.  Lefty plays some more Solitaire.

And then there's a paragraph break, and the narration changes to something lofty and historical.

What happened to Hogarthy is history.  How he floundered eastward through the mud, in haste to contact the invaders before they could repair the gates and walls and so entrench themselves.  How he camped at dusk some three miles from Tower Hill, well aware that his troops, fagged out from days of stumbling along the river bank, must have rest.

I guess this is why Lefty didn't just take the Tower the two nights ago?  He wanted the other troops to be really tired, instead of just tired.  And he knew that the enemy was stupid enough to try to keep pace with him instead of sending word upriver and cutting him off.  'cause remember, we've only ever seen the shore forces assemble after Lefty's boats showed up, he hasn't come across a bunch of baddies in a prepared position, waiting for him.

The sortie which sucked Hogarthy out of that camp before he could even get his troops fed was led by Carstair, who battled back through the dusk to Tower Hill with every evidence of panicked flight.

It always helps when the bad guys have no sense of pattern recognition.

Hmm, maybe Lefty needed the bad guys to come at him from the west instead of the east, because he picks out this perfect spot to engage Hogarthy's forces in, a clear area just ripe for mortar fire surrounded by big buildings machine guns can set up in.  Naturally, Hogarthy leads his men right into it, falls under vicious fire, and his men "were so exhausted that they cared not whether they stayed, or died, or fled."  And then Lefty is able to lead a force to circle around them and attack from the direction they're trying to flee.

But like I said, there's never any outright explanation for why Lefty took the Tower in this chapter instead of a previous one.  So either the reader gets to feel clever after puzzling it out for themselves, or else they're stuck wondering at the hero's random and fickle approach to strategy.  It's kind of surprising that Hubbard, who usually has no problems insulting his reader's intelligence, is content to let the reader due all the heavy lifting in this instance.

Hogarthy was dug out of a swamp two days later and dragged into the Tower by an exuberant Bulger.

Why is the food guy the one who finds the communist leader and not one of the proper scouts?  Did he smell Hogarthy?  Does he sound like potatoes?

The town, however, had already paid its homage to the Lieutenant and the countryside all about was anxiously sending food to make peace with this fox of a conqueror.

It's either send this jerk food or wait for him to smoke out your homes and steal it, sadly.

"I've got Hogarthy below," said the excited Bulger.  "All the people we met said it was him!"

"Good," said the Lieutenant, glancing up from a pile of documents.  "Shoot him."

"Yessir," replied Bulger, speeding away.

And now we know for certain that Hogarthy can't be the book's bad guy - because he never actually meets the book's "good" guy.  He's just rather anticlimactically executed after leading his forces into ruin, with not even a show trial to pretend that the rule of law is still important.

But, uh, that's that.  The lieutenant has captured the Tower of London, thus securing his control over the entirety of England with less than four hundred soldiers.  The communist leader, who must be evil, has been murdered, and now Lefty can restore freedom and democracy to-

Oh, looks like he's setting up a junta.  Excuse me, "soldier government."  This should end well.

Back to Chapter VII

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