Thursday, July 14, 2016

Final Blackout - Turning Out the Lights

So now that the shock and horror, or whatever, of losing our beloved main character has worn off, what can we say about Final Blackout?  Other than "what was the final blackout?" or something like that.

Instead of building an essay from the ground up, I think I'll let the back of the book guide my thoughts.  So let's take it from the top.

FINAL BLACKOUT
A chilling future war novel by
L. RON HUBBARD

"Future war?"  Hardly.  Post-apocalyptic, maybe, but there's nothing really futuristic about any of the combat in this story, aside from maybe that bullet-proof cape Lefty wears, which real-world militaries never got around to creating for some reason or another.  The fighting is very much still rooted in World War I, with rifles and gas masks and artillery, and squad support weapons are the only automatic weapons around.  Though the Great War also had tanks and planes, which are only present as rusting wreckage by the time of the story, so if anything warfare has regressed to something out of the Napoleonic era.  I'm still surprised there weren't any cavalry charges or regular use of mounted scouts and messengers.  Lefty prefers eating horses to riding them, I guess.

A vivid action-packed tale of a man born and bred for war. You will remember "the Lieutenant" long after reading this gripping story of leadership and valor.

Well, parts of the book were vivid, those sections I highlighted where Hubbard did a decent job of describing the ruins left by war, and I guess there was a lot of fighting in the story, which counts as action.  But was it "gripping?"  No.  See, when your main character is a tactical genius who handily wins every battle (save his heroic sacrifice, obviously), it's not terribly interesting to read about those victories.  Time after time we see Lefty out-think his (stupid) opponents, time after time Hubbard drubs us over the head with how Fourth Brigade are real soldiers and hardened survivors and so forth, and time after time we're treated to battle reports in which the good guys wipe out forces that outnumber them many times over while taking only a handful of losses in response, nameless casualties that didn't impact the brigade's performance in any way.  And since there's no real threat posed by the bad guys, it's hard to find the "valor" in the fight against them, even without considering how Lefty overthrows his home government to set up a fascist regime.  Excuse me, "soldier government."

As for Lefty's leadership, well, Hubbard seems to have gotten it into his head that the best kind of officer makes his men as well-supplied as possible, which is the main thing that sets Lefty apart from the bad guys, so by that metric yes, he is a great leader.  He seems to get along well with his men, which is to say that they have a fanatical devotion to him... but since we start the story with Lefty already having led Fourth Brigade through war-torn Europe for several years, we don't see how this relationship developed.  When Lefty takes on new soldiers, they just instantly adore him.  When he takes over England, everyone instantly adores him.  It's either incredible leadership or some sort of mind control.

Will we remember "the Lieutenant" for the rest of our meaningless lives?  What is there to remember?

Not his military genius, Lefty's not particularly clever.  He wins his first on-page battle by sneaking behind the enemy via a hidden tunnel and taking advantage of the fact that they didn't post enough sentries watching their rear.  He conquers a subterranean village by blocking its chimneys until it surrendered, taking advantage of the only access point to the buried structures.  He did absolutely nothing to capture the British field HQ besides take credit for his men's success.  His campaign in England proper was won due to having artillery ("worthless stuff") that outranged and outperformed the opposition's, and his enemy's incompetence - their willingness to try to chase down boats on foot, their lack of any lighting that would allow them to see Lefty's fleet move at night, and their eagerness to follow a feigned retreat into a killzone.

And apart from this tactical skill, what is there to say about Lefty?  He's distinct from lesser leaders in that he doesn't want to throw away his men uselessly, I suppose.  He has a disdain for anyone higher in the military hierarchy than him, and for anyone outside of that hierarchy like civilians.  He doesn't like "creeds" but doesn't believe in anything himself.  He plays solitaire to pass stressful moments.  Grins in un-funny situations.

Not a lot of depth for a main character, in other words.  I think the most memorable thing about him is that Hubbard never gave him a proper name, and I suppose that's something when compared to the author's other action heroes.  Pop quiz, was Tom Bristol the protagonist of Spy Killer, Under the Black Ensign, "Space Can," or "The Beast?"  But from now on when I mention the Lieutenant at least you'll know who I'm talking about.

I'm skeptical that anyone would have their imaginations captured by this character to the point that they wrote poems in his honor, but if I've learned nothing else in my life it's that people will find ways to disappoint me.

"...compelling... riveting... Hubbard's best..."
Publisher's Weekly

I think I just made my point about how uninteresting this book is.  We never really bond with any of its characters, there's nothing at stake when they're put in danger, and we never get a good look at the cruelty or incompetence of the communist government so there's no triumph when Lefty takes over.  And while the book may lack some of the fundamental problems of Hubbard's later works - he's not yet working his conspiracy theories into the plot, for a start - I wouldn't call it better than Fear, and I think the book I'm sporking next is a better candidate for Hubbard's magnum opus.  Or at least the first part is.  Or at least the first part of the first part is.  And it still has plenty of problems.  But we'll get into that in a week or so.

"FINAL BLACKOUT is as perfect a piece of science fiction as has ever been written."
Robert Heinlein

Is this a polite way of saying it's average?  Don't tempt me to put Starship Troopers up here, Heinlein, or your weirder stuff, you kinky bugger.

"...a gritty imaginative tale of survival and heroic leadership that is a
chilling prophecy for our time."
Greg Dinallo
author of "Rockets' Red Glare"

Is Final Blackout prophetic?  Certainly not when it was first published in 1940, this conflict doesn't look anything like World War II.  We happily cannot say for certain whether this resembles a nuclear war, but my guess is that one would look substantially worse than this.  Hubbard treats atomic bombs as simply very big, destructive weapons in this story, leaving behind patches of residual radiation but no lasting ecological consequences.  Plagues of disease and insects seem to be the bigger problem in Hubbard's setting.  And then there's that whole mess about how America is all irradiated but still recovered enough to forge an empire that spans half the planet, which really doesn't feel realistic.

But I guess the only way to know for certain is to provoke an atomic war with someone and see how quickly we can rebuild to the point where we're conquering South America and Asia to alleviate our overpopulation problem.

"Dynamic and vivid, L. Ron Hubbard's FINAL BLACKOUT fills us
with the legacy of war - dusty, honor and death."
Col. Edward G. Gibson
Skylab Astronaut and author

Hmm.  Well, Lefty gets the "death" part in at the very end, unusual for a Hubbard hero, though maybe he felt martyrdom was more appealing or appropriate for Lefty.  I guess he's honorable in that he gets along with enemy officers, but I still think any points gained from that would be lost to the deductions resulting from how Lefty treats neutral villages.  And he's dutiful in that he follows the stupid commands of his stupid superiors up until the point that his men mutiny, and then Lefty decides it's his duty to liberate England.  Except he more accurately conquers it himself instead of restoring some ousted civilian government, but don't worry, he did that out of a sense of duty toward his command, which he decided included the whole country.

"A damn good story!"
Jerry Pournelle
co-author "The Mote in God's Eye"
Editor of "There Will Be War"

Why is "co-author" not capitalized like "Editor" is, and where is the "of" after it?

"A chilling and lucid picture of the effects of incessant warfare."
The Kirkus Review

Is it?  I suppose Europe in this setting feels war-torn enough, with plenty of ruins for Lefty and company to pass through on their way to the next plot point, with a few hidden towns scattered here and there.  The author talks about the breakdown of society and shows how furniture and such is improvised from military (and only military) equipment instead of being made by experts.

The problem, however, is that this is a story focusing on a military company as it moves through unfriendly territory to its next engagement.  Aside from the buried village in Chapter III we never get a good look at what life is like for ordinary people - take that bit out and the story wouldn't feel any different from one set during World War II, devastation that resulted from less than a decade of Hitler rather than a full generation of atomic and post-atomic conflict.  So we only see the effects of an apocalypse on a group of soldiers, and whaddya know, it looks pretty similar to the sort of difficulties they'd go through in a "normal" war.  The main differences are that they don't have a working radio to keep in touch with their superiors, and the towns they "liberate" are even crappier than usual.

In a way, Final Blackout's setting is both too pessimistic and too idealistic.  Like, you'd think after twenty or more years of fighting, and especially after a nuclear exchange set civilization back a century, that leaders might be eager to pursue a peace treaty so they could focus on clearing the mutants from the glowing ruins of their capitals, but Hubbard has them stupidly fighting on over... what was the British Army doing in France, anyway?  Something about creeds, undoubtedly, and not anything specific such as the assassination of an archduke or the annexation of a neighboring country.  No, everyone's willing to keep slugging at each other over differences in government until everything is rubble and it's up to a man like Lefty to make things better.

And then, after decades of ceaseless fighting, after the nukes have left entire stretches of countries uninhabitable, everything bounces back pretty quickly.  All those bug-resistance crops just so happen to emerge in England right after Lefty conquers it, there's no resistance to his soldier government and all the citizens are just thrilled to be ruled by him.  And that's not getting into how America went from nuclear shooting gallery to a global empire with millions and millions of surplus citizens.

The story is internally lucid and operates according to Hubbard's view of the world, but should seem a bit incredible to everyone else, is the point I'm trying to make.  And since the events portrayed in the book seem unlikely, it's hard to be frightened by them any more than it is to be afraid that dragons will destroy our country.

So, to wrap this up, what is Final Blackout, then?  I'd call it "mediocre."  It's unexciting and unexceptional fare as science fiction goes, with flat characters and dumb villains and no dramatic tension.  It's only interesting when the author offers explanations for the causes of conflict and the proper form of government, which are stupid and worryingly fascist, respectively.  It's only real value is as another case study so we can better chart its author's literary career and what about his outlook changed over his life.

And by that measure, Final Blackout is more competently-executed than Hubbard's later works, and not quite as crazy.  The downside of this is that it isn't as interesting to read as the crazy, incompetent stuff.  But hey, at least we got to see Hubbard dabble in military fiction after all those rocket ships, pirate ships, and body-swapping midgets. 


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1 comment:

  1. What?! I loved the mote in god's eye, even if the sequel was mediocre at best. Jerry, why did you shill this?

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