Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Slaves of Sleep - Chapter One - Schrödinger's Jinn

You know, the first paragraph of this book does a decent job of letting us know what we're in for: it starts out strong, but the problems start compounding as it goes on.

It was with a weary frown that Jan Palmer beheld Thompson standing there on the dock.  Thompson, like some evil raven, never made his appearance unless to inform Jan in a somehow accusative way that business, after all, should supersede such silly trivialities as sailing.  Jan was half-minded to put the flattie about and scud back across the wind-patterned Puget Sound; but he had already luffed up into the wind to carry in to the dock and Thompson had unbent enough to reach for the painter - more as an effort to detain Jan than to help him land.

These first two sentences quietly establish our main character as someone who prefers a hobby to work, feels pushed around, and who would rather run away from his problems than confront them.  Not bad.  But Hubbard can't resist throwing in sailing terminology to impress us, so either we get to endure the gibberish or start paging through the Glossary of Nautical Terms helpfully included at the end of the book, next to a diagram of a fully-rigged sailing ship that points out which is the lower main topsail and which is the upper main topsail.  Because in a story about genies and magical seals and the true meaning of dreams, you want to cram in as much obscure naval jargon as possible.  Kinda like making a lot of references to 1930's Hollywood stars in what is ostensibly a satirical sci-fi spy drama set in the near-future.

Palmer does nautical stuff with his jib and halyards as he parks his boat, pretending that he can't see Thompson - Palmer's vision is fine, but he finds that a pair of spectacles "helped him in his uneasy maneuvers with mankind."  Thompson, who the next page explains is an "ancient bird of a secretary," doesn't relent, and reports that a university professor has been waiting to see Palmer for two hours now, it's disgraceful that Palmer is disrespecting such an honorable and learned man, what would his father say, etc.

"Do we have to go into that?" said Jan, fretfully.  "I don't like to have to talk to such people.  They... they make me nervous."

"Your father never had any such difficulty.  I told him before he died it was a mistake..."

"I know," sighed Jan.  "It was a mistake.  But I didn't ask to be his heir."

It's interesting that Hubbard is telling us about these characters through their dialogue rather than dumping a page or two of backstory on us, unlike most of the other stories seen on this blog.  But yeah, the gist of it is that twenty-seven-year-old Palmer the Lesser was unexpectedly dumped with the family shipping business after Palmer the Elder went off to that big L. Ron Hubbard novel in the sky, and unfortunately Palmer the Lesser has the business acumen of a cocker spaniel and the backbone of a jellyfish.  He'd rather play with his dinghy or mess around with his junk than manage other peoples' ships, but folks like Thompson keep bullying him to do things like interact with other human beings, and it's just terrible.

"I'm not going to see him," said Jan in the tone of defiance which already admitted his defeat.  "He has no real business with me.  It is that model of the Arab dhow.  He wants it and I can't part with it and he'll wheedle and fuss and..."  He sat down on the coaming and put his face in his palms.  "Oh why," he wept, "why can't people leave me alone."

Ladies and gentlemen, we are not even at the bottom of the second page of the story and our hero is already crying.

I'm not annoyed, though, this is pretty hilarious.  And quite refreshing after novel after novel of square-jawed, unflappable, interchangeable Hubbard Action Heroes.  But before you topple back in your chair from the sheer unreality of Hubbard breaking from his pulpy formula, steady yourself with the thought that Palmer isn't really the book's hero.  He might be a protagonist, but he's more of a co-star - our hero is the guy on the cover, and we'll meet him later.

But back to Palmer.  After getting scolded by Thompson for being such a baby, Palmer follows him up from the beach to the family mansion, which legally belongs to him but is ruled by his Aunt Ethel, a whiskered shrew of a woman who's still a bit upset about a recent probate court ruling.  She yells at him for getting saltwater on the rug, then for putting his hat on a table, to which Palmer can only reply "Yes, Aunt Ethel" and trudge off to his room.  That at least is unquestionably his, if only because it's filled with so many knickknacks that no one else wants anything to do with it.

Oddly enough, though, we don't get a good fat paragraph describing this room, instead Hubbard wants to talk about the guy who contributed to it, Palmer's father's cousin, who sailed all over the world and sent back spears and headdresses and "a truly beautiful blackwood desk all inlaid with pearl and ivory."  Which I guess is nice enough, but something still feels... holy crap, where's the gold?!  How can something be luxurious but tasteful if it isn't slathered with shiny yellow metal?

I'd question whether Hubbard really wrote this story, except later developments will make that abundantly clear.  Anyway, someone is already waiting in Palmer's room, Professor Frobish, an "Arabianologist" (a term that as far as I can tell Hubbard came up with on his own) from a nearby university.  He apologizes for his intrusion and the "great temerity" of taking up such an important person's valuable time, while Palmer focuses his attention on lighting his pipe.  Frobish blathers on about a valuable model while Palmer paces and daydreams about spending several days out on a sloop, until he suddenly realizes that the professor isn't really interested in the miniature boat on Palmer's desk - instead his eyes are drawn to something in the darkest corner of the room.

Though Palmer is a pansy, he's a cynical pansy who knows that "men never did anything without thought of personal gain and that when men reacted strangely they would bear much watching."  So he "wanders" over to where Frobish is trying not to stare too much, but can find nothing but some "ordinary" Malay kris knives and an ancient copper jar sealed with lead, and can't guess why this professor would want any of them.  When Frobish wraps up his speech about how much Palmer would be furthering science by handing over his favorite model ship, Palmer suddenly declares "I guess you can have it."  I'd say it's Palmer's attempt to get rid of the guy, but the narration informs us that all the while, our protagonist is "wondering why he had given up so easily."  So we might not have a dull action hero or gold everywhere - yet - but at least we've got characters doing things for unexplained reasons.

Frobish thanks Palmer for his donation, but doesn't quite see himself out, and continues to engage in excruciating smalltalk about all the interesting things in this room, such as - to pick something completely at random - that innocuous copper jar in the corner.  Palmer reveals that it was picked up by Greg Palmer, his second cousin.

"He--" Jan almost said, "He's the only friend I ever had," but he swiftly changed it.  "He was very good to me."

Aww, see?  Hubbard can make us sympathize with his characters.  And not just for having to put up with his other characters.

Palmer explains that second cousin Greg got the jar in Tunisia, and made Palmer promise to never open it.  Frobish compliments its craftsmanship and puts his hand on the doorknob to leave, but continues to stare at the jar and asks Palmer if he "ever had any curiosity about what it might contain?"  Palmer admits that he did, once, but he'd put it out of mind.  And then there's an awkward standoff interrupted when a "very officious little man" knocks and steps inside, Nathaniel Green, general manager of the Palmer family business.

Green's just here to complain about Palmer not answering his calls (because he's out boating), not giving him his power of attorney, and not spending any time at the office.  He dumps off some papers for Palmer to sign and then leaves as suddenly as he showed up.  Well, it's probably nothing worth dwelling upon, a pushy businessman trying to get a meek heir to rubber-stamp who-knows-what.

Now, back to Palmer and Frobish's stand-off over the jar.  Frobish admits that he's interested in "things which... well, which are not exactly open to scientific speculation."  Demonology, in other words, or at least "as connected with the ancient Egyptians and Arabs."  Not be confused with this modern occult "magick" crap.  What kind of pathetic sap would get interested in that?

Anyway, Frobish thinks this may be "one of THE copper jars."  You know.  Those jars.

"Very few people know much about the Jinn.  They seem to have vanished from the face of the earth several centuries ago though there is every reason to suppose that they existed in historical times.

Yeah, it's weird how you don't see many genies or dragons or fairies or youkai these days, but I mean obviously they existed at some point because otherwise why would we have so many stories about them?

Sulayman is said to have converted most of the Jinn tribes to the faith of Mohammad after a considerable war.  Sulayman was an actual king and those battles are part of his court record.  This, Mr. Palmer, is not a cupid's bow on this stopper but the Seal of Sulayman!"  Frobish was growing very excited.  "When several tribes refused to acknowledge Mohammad as the prophet, Sulayman had them thrown into copper jars such as this, stoppered with his seal, and thrown into the sea off the coast of Tunis!"

There's a small problem with this story.

The Seal of Solomon is a thing, and Sulayman or Suleiman would be the Arabic form of Solomon, who is of course a legendary figure from the Old Testament.  Except, well, Solomon was Jewish.  He lived some 1500 years before Islam got started, and while Muslim tradition holds that Solomon was able to command the jinn to do his bidding, there's nothing about the ancient king cracking down on the spirits for not bowing down to a prophet who hadn't been born yet.  One Thousand and One Nights does mention Solomon stuffing jinn in bottles in "The Story of the Fisherman," but the genie in it was canned for not recognizing Solomon as the prophet of the time, not because he didn't convert to Islam a thousand years early.

Also, parts of that story will look really familiar in fourteen pages.

Anyway, Palmer's reaction to this bombshell is "I know."  But he gave his word to his second cousin, see?  So no, he's not going to open the jar and see if there's a bound demon stuffed in it.  He can in fact resist the maddening urge to break that beautiful, shiny seal, that jolly, candy-like seal that is all that stands between him and confirmation that the supernatural exists.

Frobish is, perhaps understandably, incredulous that Palmer won't pop the cork to see what vintage of spirit his second cousin brought him, and spends nearly a full page in a feverish rant delivered in a bloated paragraph.

"You can't be human!" cried Frobish.  "Don't you understand the importance of this?  Have you no personal curiosity whatever?  Are you made of wax that you can live for years in the company with a jar which might very well contain the final answer to the age-old question of demonology?

Well, an answer.  I guess a genie in a bottle might prove that some demon-like entities exist, but then you'd have to figure out which of the rest of the world's cultures got it right when they talked about devils or oni or whatever.

For centuries men have maundered on the subject of witches and devils.  Recently it became fashionable to deny their existence entirely and to answer all strange phenomena with 'scientific facts' actually no more than bad excuses for learning.

Yeah, babble all you want about ions and electrical charges, but I know the truth about Zeus trying to smite you suckers with his heavenly thunderbolts.

Men even deny telepathy in face of all evidence.

Evidence such as...?

Once whole civilizations were willing to burn their citizens for witchcraft but now the reference to devils and goblins brings forth only laughter.

Once whole civilizations thought it was okay to treat people like livestock because they looked different, or marry off children to total strangers to seal a business deal.  I don't think we're less wise for abandoning these practices.

But down deep in our hearts, we know there is more than a fair possibility that such things exist.

This is starting to remind me of Fear.  But don't worry, we won't spend the whole book in suspense over whether the things Palmer is experiencing are real or the result of a tropical illness.

And here, man, you have a possible answer!  If all historical records

Of religious myths.

are correct then that jar contains an Ifrit.  And if it does, think, man, what the Jinn could tell us!  According to history, they were well versed in all the black arts.  Today we know nothing of those things.  Most of that knowledge was from hand to hand, father to son.

But evidently enough survived for people like Frobish to get interested in it.

What of the magic of ancient Egypt?  What of the mysteries of the India of yesterday?

Those aren't Arab or Muslim cultures, bro.  I mean, modern Egypt is, ancient Egypt wasn't.  Kind of odd for an "Arabianologist" to make that sort of mistake, but he seems to think that King Solomon was a Muslim before even the birth of Christ, so...

What race in particular was schooled in their usages?  The Jinn!  And here we have one of the Jinn, perhaps, entombed in this very room, waiting to express his gratitude upon being released.  Do you think for a moment he would fail to give us anything we wnated in the knowledge of the black arts?"

I like how Frobish is assuming Palmer is as interested in all this magical garbage as he is.  For his part, Palmer hadn't even considered this sort of reward, but argues that after this many centuries, any ifrit in that jar has to be dead.  Frobish counters that "Toads have lived in stone longer than that!" and continues to rave that he'd sell his very soul for a chance to pop open that jar, but it's no use.  Though Palmer is willing to be pushed around by everyone when it comes to matters of business or even his domestic life, this is the one thing he will not compromise on, and he will not break the oath he made to his dearly departed second cousin,.  Even when Frobish starts begging him or complaining that he's rich enough to have anything he'd ever want, Palmer doesn't relent.

"I have nothing.  In all things I am a pauper.  But in one thing I can hold my own.  I cannot and will not break my word.  I am sorry.  Had you argued so eloquently for this very house you might have had it because this house is a yoke for me.  But you have asked for a thing which is beyond my power to give.  I can say nothing more.  Please do not come back."

And so Frobish can only leave in defeat, so flummoxed that he forgets to take that model dhow.  Unfortunately Palmer's victory is undermined somewhat when the narration suggests that it was partly due to the fact that, unlike Aunt Ethel and Green and Thompson, Professor Frobish hadn't been pushing Palmer around since his childhood, which means that if Frobish went to one of those people to argue on his behalf, Palmer would crumble.  But for now, our protagonist has defended his personal honor, so hurrah!

But for how long?  Palmer is meek but no fool, and he knows that this isn't the last he'll be seeing of Professor Frobish.  So tune in next time, when we see the last of Professor Frobish.

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