Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Slaves of Sleep - Conclusion - It Only Needs a Tune-Up, Not an Exorcism

Everything's relative.  A bad day for a millionaire would be better than a good day for one of the migrant workers who grows his food.  George W. Bush looks like a competent and thoughtful leader when compared to Donald Trump.  And when you stand it next to the other L. Ron Hubbard stories featured on this blog, Slaves of Sleep looks pretty good.

Admittedly, a lot of this is due to what isn't in the story.  No sex crimes were committed, our viewpoint character didn't take malicious glee in anyone's murder.  The plot didn't stall as the author wasted chapter after chapter boating around, no act of genocide was hailed as proof of God's existence or mankind's manifest destiny to rule the stars.  Hubbard didn't froth about evil psychologists trying to kill us all, no racial caricatures graced the pages.

But Slaves of Sleep does have some good points, rather than a mere absence of horrible points.  The protagonist undergoes character development, after his bizarre experiences in another man's life help him be more assertive and effective in his own.  The "two bodies, one soul" idea is an interesting one, a different twist on the old "hero travels to another world" story.  The action is... well, it's pretty clear that nobody's going to land a sword hit on Tiger, but the battles aren't insultingly one-sided or descend into slapstick.  All of the villains in the story are such because they're willing to hurt others to get what they want, not because they have a devotion to evil for evil's sake.

Hmm, these are starting to sound like the "absence of horrible" points.  And while Slaves of Sleep does do some things right, and it avoids the catastrophic failures of the likes of Mission Earth, it also does some things wrong, and the things it does right could have been done better.

Like the whole genie world, for example.  The notion that our souls travel to another land to take up a second life whenever we fall asleep is a novel concept, but I've pointed out some of the logical problems that would arise when it comes to things like insomnia or naps.  Additionally, the Land of Sleep itself is surprisingly mundane given the number of jinn walking around, and while the variety of peoples and cultures represented there is unusual, it's not what we could call a "magical land" other than how the protagonist visits it.  You'd think it would be a place where a statue of a goddess would move and speak on its own rather than through chains and trickery, where places like Frying Pan Shoals would endanger ships not with reefs but with sheets of fire.  But it's more like an counterfactual Middle East than a true realm of fantasy.  Even the jinn themselves are disappointing - mighty tyrants like Zongri can be put in check with a bunch of musketmen, and he's stuck using a cutlass when trying to kill Palmer instead of shooting fire or anything.  The cover lied to us, man.

Palmer's character development is also problematic, since it's not so much that he's learning from Tiger as he is letting Tiger's instincts take over in certain situations.  This isn't a bad thing when it's time for swordplay, muscle memory and all that, but Palmer finding a backbone when dealing with his family and business associates is harder to swallow.  Palmer never gets a chance to learn from Tiger's example in that case, he's not riding along while Tiger swaggers his way through the crowded streets of Tarbutón - instead, Palmer spends most of the story a frightened nerd in a buff body, which occasionally goes out of his control to prank someone or steal something.  So did the pranks give Palmer the courage to stand up to his auntie?  Did picking on a weak crewman make him think he could stand up to a judge?  But the story insists that Palmer learned a lot from Tiger('s body), and that Tiger in exchange learned from Palmer, which might be true if Tiger is ordinarily too thick to use the magical artifact his body was so keen on stealing.

And then there's the Seal of Sulayman itself.  It's more or less as powerful as mythology describes... even though Palmer never tried to bend the hordes of jinn to his will, like Solomon did according to Muslim tradition.  Hmm.  Anyway, the thing is really too powerful, and makes the adventure almost pathetically easy for our protagonist.  A locked door stands in Palmer's way?  The Seal unlocks it.  A solid wall blocking the path?  The Seal knocks it down.  Enemy sailors carrying deadly weapons?  The Seal makes them fall to pieces.  An enemy fleet has the good guys outnumbered ten to one?  The Seal sinks it.  While this makes it abundantly clear why anyone would want such a powerful artifact, it also means that the story isn't very exciting once Palmer has his hands on it. 

It's like if in the Lord of the Rings, plucky little Frodo could use the One Ring to as devastating effect as Sauron did during that awesome battle sequence in the movie prologue, and without being corrupted by its power.  While watching a hobbit smash his ways through the armies of darkness might be hilarious, it wouldn't keep us interested in whether or not Frodo could succeed in his quest.  This isn't to say that readers are necessarily spending every page worried whether Frodo will survive in the original story - he is a main character, after all - but we can at least fret about the price of victory, or what hardships he'll have to endure to attain it.  With the Seal of Sulayman, we know exactly how Palmer is going to get out of danger, making his success even more of a foregone conclusion than it'd normally be thanks to his plot armor.

Making the Land of Sleep a bit more fantastic is the simple matter of inserting lines about perpetual magical flames being used for lighting, bizarre creatures in Queen Ramus' menagerie, and letting a jinni do magic ("on-screen") more complicated than Ramus' bit of shapeshifting in that one chapter.  Similarly, making Palmer's character development more believable just involves tweaking the way he and Tiger share Tiger's body.  But the Seal of Solomon is harder to deal with.  Since Hubbard is obviously basing this story off "The Fisherman and the Jinni" he can't not have it, though it must be noted that the plug in that story was merely stamped with the seal, and the king's magic ring doesn't appear in person, as it were.

But if we downgrade the Seal to a cameo, how exactly is Tiger going to prevail at the end?  We could give Tiger some thief skills to let him get through locked doors, but that enemy fleet is a bigger obstacle, and of course the most important use of the Seal of Sulayman was to grant the Curse of Eternal Wakefulness and thus prove Plamer's innocence in the murder of Professor Frobish threaten the judge into voiding his sentence.  For the core of this story to work, Palmer needs both knowledge of the two worlds and a way to share that knowledge with those who doubt him, and it's hard to do that without a magic ring or some other plot device... hmmm.  Maybe there's a magic mirror in Queen Ramus' palace that shows your life in the other world, and Palmer uses Tiger's thief skills to free it.  And if Tiger's a thief, he doesn't have to be a sailor, so we wouldn't need the naval battle at the end of the story.  Of course this forces changes in Zongri's motivation and actions-

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make here is that Slaves of Sleep has its problems, but they wouldn't require the amount of re-writes and revisions needed to make something like Mission Earth not awful.  But even if we did all that, we'd only end up with a fairly average pulpy adventure - one with a more interesting premise than most, but in execution not very different from any other swashbuckling tale.  And that says a lot about L. Ron Hubbard, doesn't it?  That his best stuff could, with some effort and editing, be improved to become mediocre literature?

Also, Curse of "Eternal" Wakefulness my ass.  Over the course of the story the Tiger persona steadily wears away at Palmer, and even the characters admit that they'll be back to normal in a week or two.  Try harder, Zongri.

So that's it for Slaves of Sleep.  Next time - either at the end of this week, or the start of the next - we'll move on to the sequel, Masters of Sleep.  It should go without saying that Hubbard didn't learn from the mistakes of the first story when it came time to write the second.

Back to Chapter Twelve

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