Monday, October 31, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Eight - The Horrible Truth

So last time our hero got the smart idea of trying to defy the plot of the story he's trapped in, only to watch helplessly as his forces committed a war crime and run into his love interest anyway, both of which have now given the story's "hero" all the more justification to come and kick his "villainous" ass.  The only consolation is that Mike has been able to use his position as el almirante to punish his rapacious marines with whippings and half-rations, though this does mean that he has the new problem of a potential mutiny to worry about.

Which isn't to say Mike's old problems have gone away.  The ominous Father Mercy enters...  the scene, I guess, the author doesn't explain where Mike is conversing with Fernando at this chapter's start other than that it has a door.  It's not Mike's cabin, since that's where Lady Marion is, though it seems adjacent to it.  Anyway, Father Mercy enters the room to be creepy.  He's still annoyed that Mike won't let him torture the English prisoners, but he's willing to forgive this if Mike lets the padre get his withered hands on "a heretic of - ah - special interest to me," Lady Marion.

I gotta asks, is this character type common to early 20th-century-pulp action stories?  The sadistic, vaguely pervy priest who wants to get his hands on some damsel and do nasty things to her for the sake of her soul?  Was this thing common in pirate thrillers featuring the Spanish?

Anyway, Mike threatens to break Father Mercy over his own rack, and when the padre threatens his commission over "one silly English heretic," Mike throws a pistol at him.  Fernando, whoever he is, warns that it's "madness" to oppose such a high-ranking member of the church.

"I have a fleet and he has a rosary," said Mike.  "I leave it to you to discover which one fires the heaviest broadside."

"I think," said Fernando, leaving, "that you'll discover that it's the rosary."

Guess it depends how fast you fire it.  Maybe if you loaded it into some sort of railgun... anyway, after Fernando leaves, Mike spends a moment sitting in this vaguely defined room and has himself a drink.  And then Lady Marion steps out of Mike's cabin, so they can have a scene heavy with belligerent romantic tension.

Marion's overheard the trouble Mike is in, but after the disaster in Tortuga, she thinks his punishment of his soldiers is all an attempt to impress her, but he counters that he had no idea she was even on the island.  Both accuse the other of being conceited enough to think he/she fancies her/him, but Mike finally concludes that while he can't deny his feelings for her, he has "no taste for playing the part of a bungling buccaneer," and is only keeping her around as a hostage, which ends with Marion storming out and slamming the door.

Once the exchange is over, Mike is horrified at how combative he was, and how he blew a good opportunity to smooth things over with Marion.

But his words could not be recalled.  He-

His words.  His words.  HIS WORDS!

Suddenly he shook an angry fist in the direction of the sky.  "Damn you Horace Hackett!  So I'm to wreck my fleet, am I?  So I'm to fall in love like a puppy with this English girl, am I?  I'm to bowl myself over by opposing the church and them I'm to be murdered by your bucko-boy Bristol.  Well, to hell with you and your damned typewriter!  You're going to get something more than you expected before this thing is done!"

Yep, for all his efforts to change the course of the story, Mike is still having words put in his mouth by a cosmic force committed to his downfall, something I'm sure we can all relate to.  And for all his defiance, he can sense that Hackett's focus has shifted away from him to some other scene, so even this act of rebellion is empty.

So there's nothing left to do to return to Nombre de Dios, town of the ceaselessly-screaming wildlife and automaton ladies who keep walking through the streets without ever reaching their destination.  An indeterminate amount of time passes, and Mike makes the best of his respite from the author's commands by sending ships on patrol for any sign of pirates, as well as warnings to the Spanish colonies that the English may try something in reprisal for Tortuga.  Other than that, Mike can only take comfort in the town's defenses that could surely defeat any pirate attack, even one led by the famous Captain Bristol.

But, one day Fernando shows up with a packet of messages for the almirante.  None of them are good - one commands him to stop raising panic with his talk of pirates, another is from the bishop of Panama demanding that Mike let Father Mercy escort Lady Marion to the city to be examined, and the last is from Mike's character's former paramour Anne threatening to use her influence over Panama's governor to punish him if he doesn't hand over this English girl she think he's been seeing instead of her.

Mike deduces that Fernando has been letting these letters sit for a while to increase the controversy around the mad almirante, but still refuses to the enclosed demands, since sending Marion to the bishop would only provoke Bristol's wrath.  He also has Fernando follow him into his manor to see how he's been treating Marion.'

"Trombo," said Mike, "inform the Lady Marion that we would like to see her here."

Trombo, like some hulking, hairless bear, waddled away.  In the distance sounded a slammed door and a heavy thud and then Trombo came back feeling a new bruise upon his arm, looking guiltily at Mike.  "She say 'no.'"

Mike turned to Fernando.  "She is my prisoner and nothing more.  Now do you understand my position?"

So Mike tears up the letters and sends... whoever Fernando is back to Panama to give word of what he's seen here, along with the message that his detractors are all "the best allies that Tom Bristol ever had."  And the narration's point of view briefly changes to Fernando, who is not looking forward to another trek across the Isthmus of Panama and all its rebellious Maroons.  Which implies that he's a thinking, feeling being nevertheless consigned to the fate of a secondary character in a forgettable pirate story produced by a procrastinating author, raising all sorts of uncomfortable questions which we'll have to examine later.

At any rate, Mike is fuming, especially when Trombo suggests he correct Marion's attitude with a good length of belt.  Our hero paces, cursing the people around them and their attitude of "Spanish superiority!", and who are "All so sold on a man's duty to the church!"  Yeah, churches suck!  Nobody should belong to one, or found their own!

The insult to injury is that there's a baby grand piano in the room with Mike, with the words "Steinway, Chicago" on it.  We belatedly learn that Mike read "Pittsburgh" on the cutlasses used by the buccaneers and "C.I.O." on the shipments of lumber being loaded into the galleons in the harbor.  And that's cute, but it doesn't work, Hubbard.

We can accept that anachronism of the piano in this setting, and even that Mike can see the Steinway logo on it because that's what Hackett is patterning the instrument off of, and Mike knows that.  But why would Hackett include information about the maker's mark on the cutlasses of the pirate extras?  They aren't anachronisms, pirates had access to steel weapons, so we can't say it's a subconscious thing, and Hackett would be an idiot for specifying that these pirates' swords were made in America.  And he has no reason to go into detail about the stamps on the lumber shipments happening in the background at Nombre de Dios.

So this bit of silliness makes about as much sense as Mike kicking one of the buildings and finding it's just a false front propped up by some beams of lumber.  Actually, this makes less sense than that, that would at least indicate how shallow and unreal this setting is, while this seems to imply the author is dumb enough to go out of his way to include an out-of-place detail.

Anyway.  Mike laments that he doesn't have the technical skill to build something like a Lewis machine gun to fight Bristol with, and gives the piano a good thump as he passes it, which turns into him banging out his frustrations upon its keys, until he calms and spends a good hour playing music.  He winds down and realizes that Lady Marion is in the room with him, wearing a proper amber gown provided by "author-magic" even though she was recovered in a torn dress.

And now we get our properly romantic moment, after the two love interests have tried to deny the extent of their feelings for each other.  Marion softly asks him to keep playing, and as he does so, explains that she overheard the conversation about the contents of those letters, and asks why Mike doesn't do the easy thing and let her go, either to Panama to save his own hide, or to St. Kitts to save hers.  He says he won't have her killed and can't trust any crew to take her safely to St. Kitts, though he also admits to himself that he's lying and can't bear to part with the only thing that makes him happy in this world.

But he does tell her a different truth, however - "You do not know it, but you are only the character in a story.  A lovely, devastating character, it is true, and one who is, I find, really alive."  She sits in patient silence as Mike explains that he knows how this story goes because he knows its author, and thus knows that he is trapped in the role of a villain, fated to die while Marion will be returned to Bristol.  Marion comments that she's seen Shakespeare and thinks that Mike might be carrying his "all the world's a stage" simile rather far, and wonders by what "strange necromancy" - at this point I think Hubbard just uses the word as a synonym for 'magic' - Mike can claim to know God's will.  Mike can only reply that Marion's true god "is not the god you suppose him," but gives up trying to convince her of the truth.

Mike concludes that he's fated to lose to Bristol and lose Marion, and Marion agrees that "no one man can change destiny."  And I guess that's the depressing message of this story?  No matter how hard you try, things will happen because some greater plot requires it?  We're trapped in our roles and can do nothing but wait and see as they're played out?  That sucks, even if you're not in one of Horace Hackett's pirate pulps.

Having become resigned to his fate, Mike decides that even if he's due to get killed, and even if Bristol will ultimately end up with Marion, there's one thing he's sure of:

"Milady," said Mike, gathering her to him and holding her tightly against him.  "I love you," he whispered.


She thrust at him and tried to get free, but his arms were strong and his lips, seeking hers, were gentle.

D'aww retracted, replaced with outrage.

And then her arms ceased their flailing and her hands crept up across his flat, straight back and locked there.  "Oh - my darling," she whispered.

And so Lady Marion also concludes that it's useless to struggle, though in her case it means submitting to a man's advances rather than a role in a story.

And you were doing so well, Hubbard.  Well, you were doing okay.  Better than you usually do, certainly.

Back to Chapter Seven

Friday, October 28, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Seven - Bad Times in Tortuga

The plot is moving again, so Mike, as Almirante Miguel Saint Raoul de Lobo, sets out from Nombre de Dios at the head of a mighty fleet escorting treasure ships as they pass through the pirate-infested Caribbean before going home to Spain  All the while he has to deal with lingering existential concerns.

This world was so real to those who lived in it.  They lived and were born and they got sick and felt pain and died.  And they looked up into the blue, wholly unconscious that they might well hear the rattling of a typewriter's keys and smell the horrible pipe which Horace Hackett clenched in yellow teeth.  From whence had this world come, whither would it go?  These people all thought they remembered long pasts and ancestors.  They were convinced that their progeny would continue up the ages.  They believed in their ingenuity and trusted their calculations.  And yet-

At which point Mike has to stop and go back to thinking about Hackett's history writing villains, he's not interrupted by anything.  I just have to say, this passage fits the story it appears in, since it's about a real person somehow getting sucked into a work of fiction.  But if you combine it with the "You are the Entity" speech from Fear, well... it's just kind of interesting that someone who spent his life using other people for his own gain also wrote about characters who discovered they were the only 'real' people in the world, and everyone around them was just a set of props or automatons.

Back to the voyage - Mike has a strong instinct to sail right back to St. Kitts, use what he's learned about the town's defenses to take it with barely a fight, and take Lady Marion as a hostage in case Bristol isn't among the slain.  All of the captains under his command keep recommending that he take such a wise course of action.  But, because Mike knows how this universe works, he knows that if the designated bad guys think something is a good idea, there must be something wrong with it that the designated hero will be able to take advantage of.

So when the treasure ships are sent on their way and Mike and his captains have a conference about what to do next, and someone named Fernando suggests attacking St. Kitts while the wind is a certain way, Mike explains that no, they won't be doing that - instead, the fleet will be hitting the pirate haven of Tortuga.  Mike plans to burn any ships they find there, so Bristol won't be able to add them to his fleet, and the settlement itself will be destroyed - "with all due humanity, of course."

Fernando is astonished, since he'd heard rumors about a very important woman at St. Kitts, but Mike grins and insists that it was all for the benefit of any eavesdropping Indian spies loyal to Bristol.  So Fernando can only gush about his almirante's brilliance and Mike congratulates himself for defying the plot and writing his own destiny.  Then he has to go on to plan the campaign, but it's fine, Mike is suddenly as good a naval strategist as he is a swordsman.

One paragraph break later and we're at Tortuga, as Mike's fleet approaches under cover of the pre-dawn mists.  He reminds his captains of the battle plan - bombard the defenses, then send in the landing parties, simple stuff that even a hack writer could come up with - but he also adds something his men weren't expecting.  He commands that "There will be no ravishing of this town.  There will be no useless slaughter.  We are here on a military objective and civilians are not fair game."  This confuses the Spaniards, since after all Tortuga is inhabited by filthy Englishmen and evil Frenchmen in league with the pirates that have been preying upon the Spanish for so long, but the officers nod their agreement and go back to their ships.

Then Mike's flagship drops the battle flag, the bombardment begins, the marines set out and...

Well, if you were expecting an action scene, or even a Hubbard Action Scene, sorry to disappoint you.  The fight for Tortuga reads more like an after-action report than an exciting battle.  We're told very quickly that the raid only lasted for six hours, and it was unpleasantly one-sided.  All the town's menfolk were out hunting in the island's interior, so some of the defensive cannons were crewed by women and children, who were killed during the bombardment.  Only a hundred fighters mustered to contest the Spanish landing, and since they were outnumbered five-to-one they were handily massacred.  And then the Spanish troops forgot or ignored Mike's orders, and the targeted strike against a pirate base turned out into an all-out massacre.

Mike tried to sound a recall, to no avail, and then landed with Trombo - what's Trombo's official position, anyway?  Does the Spanish navy has a position for a Big, Dumb Henchman?  Anyway, Mike can't get his men under control, and can only watch helplessly as they loot homes, chase screaming women through the burning streets, torture priests to death to find out where they've hidden treasure, and turn cannons on the houses of holdouts.  Trombo just says that the soldiers are "mad and drunk" and will surely listen to the almirante tomorrow, and helps himself to a keg of beer to help pass the time.

So we get about six pages of various atrocities interspaced with Mike sitting as a helpless, fuming bystander.  If you've seen some Hollywood "historical" action dramas like The Patriot you should know what to expect.  The only development worth mentioning is when Mike spies a group of men grappling with a filthy, bruised woman in a torn dress who is trying to get her hands on a cutlass, and he quickly leaps into action to intervene - it's Lady Marion!  How dramatic!  How convenient!

At point-blank he let a sergeant have a ball in the stomach and a sailor the other in the face.  And then his rapier was out and shimmering greedily.

"Let her go, you illegitimate sons," snarled Mike.

The soldiers can't make out their commanding officer under all the smoke, so they charge, and two get cut down in the space of a sentence - again, this does not read like Hubbard's normal action scenes.  The rest try to dogpile our hero, but then Trombo roars and starts pulling them off Mike and dashing their heads against the wall, charming.  Lots of brains getting let out of skulls in this story, I've noticed.

In the end, Mike is able to stagger to his feet and approach Marion.

"Miguel Saint Raoul de Lobo," said Mike, bitterly.  "Admiral of this rabble.  Your arm, milady, so that I can escort you to the safety of my flagship."

She started to object and then understood the folly of staying here.  She straightened up and with a slight curtsy, took his arm.

And so ends the Spanish "raid" on Tortuga and the chapter.  On the bright side, all the twenty-thousand casualties were nameless extras in this literary B-movie Mike has somehow found himself in.  And we've learned that he can try to steer the plot to an extent.  But we've also learned that when you're cast as the main villain, in command of a bunch of bad guys, they're going to act like bad guys no matter what orders you give them.  And when the author desires you to get swept up in a love triangle, you're damn well going to find your love interest even if you're specifically trying to avoid her.

Back to Chapter Six

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Six - Slow Times in Panama

Oh hey, it's a real place after all.

Nombre de Dios was a sweat-soaked town, fried by sun, steamed by jungle, depopulated by fever, commanded by a martinet, shaken by earthquakes, worked by slaves and cluttered with great stacks of silver and gold.

Yes, Mike, his rescued crew, and the pirates they captured in the course of stealing a ship were all able to successfully sail to one of the oldest and busiest Spanish settlements in the New World, a village of one-storied structures inhabited by soldiers in bright uniforms, ladies in carriages, slaves in chains, and a great deal of monkeys, parrots and scorpions.  Quite a colorful backdrop for a scene in a story, but Mike is getting tired of it.

See, it's now been a whole two months since Mike's flight from St. Kitts.  The first month was okay, as Mike got to boggle about life in a 17th-century colony when he wasn't fretting that someone would discover that he isn't really Miguel Saint Raoul de Lobo after all.  But nobody's caught on, and now Mike is suffering the full effects of being caught up in a cheap novel. 

Mike had been able to come to a definite conclusion regarding his predicament. He had no doubt that this was "Blood and Loot" by Horace Hackett, and that the whole panorama was activated only by Horace Hackett's mind. And what Horace Hackett said was so, was so. And what Horace Hackett said people said, they said. And when Horace Hackett said that the almirante waited two months for the repair of his gale-battered fleet and the arrival of ships from Spain to augment it, then the almirante did nothing for two months but wait.

And if Horace Hackett forgot to complete a scenic effect, then it was incomplete.  But if he generalized and said this was Nombre de Dios of 1640, then it was Nombre de Dios of 1640, with all the trimmings and the people.  And if he said it was an ever-blue sea, then, b'god, the sea was bluish even at night.

And if Horace Hackett stated that the parrots and monkeys screamed and chattered endlessly, so they did.  And if women paraded continually, they paraded continually.

There's a nice quote from Sir Terry Pratchett: "If you are in the market for easy laughs, you learn that two well-tried ways are either to trip up a cliche or take things absolutely literally."  Although in this case you might be able to find some horror in the situation.

The good news is that Mike has accepted that he is somehow in his buddy's stupid pirate story, so he's not wasting any more time in denial.  He knows that he's only gallant and competent with the sword because his character is meant to be a foil for the story's hero, and Mike is still spooked whenever he's "swept along by a force which was wholly invisible and untouchable" to play his part properly, like how he knows everyone's names and what to say when they greet each other.  Another downside of his situation is that Mike is forced to question whether his lovesickness for Lady Marion is genuine or required by the narrative.

The upside of all this is that Mike can make a good guess of where the plot will try to take him, since he knows the guy writing it.  He knows that de Lobo would want to kidnap Lady Marion and use her as bait for a trap only to get spitted on Bristol's rapier in reprisal, so that's not a good tactic for Mike to try.  He does admit that there's a "bare chance" that such a confrontation might end with Bristol dead and Marion siding with de Lobo if Hackett decides to turn his adventure story into a tragedy, but the odds of that are so small that Mike can't rely on them.

So it's been an uncomfortable two months, with Mike creeped out at his surroundings, pining for a character he may be required to pine for, and seething with anger towards Tom Bristol for trying to steal his girl and Horace Hackett for unknowingly trying to murder him in the course of telling a lame pirate story.  Mike's only hope is that he might be able to force changes to this predictable plot like when he refused to kill his wounded during the escape from St. Kitts.

And I can't help but notice that I'm doing a lot of recapping in this post but not any critiquing.  That's because I can't find anything wrong with this chapter thus far - this is an interesting and entertaining premise, Mike is responding in a believable manner to unbelievable surroundings, and the prospect of a main character using his genre savvy to find a way to survive a hackneyed story is a lot more fun to read about than an unstoppable warrior swording or plot devicing his problems to death.

One afternoon Mike can feel Hackett's "spotlight" shifting back to him from some other scene as another character steps forward.  Trombo, who was mentioned last chapter, is "a gigantic creature" with brawny arms who wears nothing but pants, has a small, pointed head, no brow to speak of, and bright yellow skin... well, now we have something to complain about, don't we?  At best we can say that this is the sort of now-offensive character who pops up in early 20th century pulp novels.  You know, like that scaly Chinese villain in Spy Killer.

Trombo is one of those mildly retarded flunky types who follows Mike around like a puppy, and as Hackett's scene begins, Trombo switches from speaking Spanish to talking in broken English to tell Mike "You bothered."  Trombo's noticed that the almirante is not visiting any of his lady friends like the captured Indian princess Zuilerma, who is in her room crying that she's grown too old for her admiral even though she's "not yet eighteen" ...well, that's just how things worked back then, right?  Doesn't mean the author's some sort of pervert who'd spend chapter after chapter writing underage sex scenes.

Mike tries to fight back against the narrative by spitefully staying silent, at least until Trombo deduces that since Mike isn't taking advantage of the many, many women who'd be willing and eager to bed him, or slaves, who wouldn't have any choice in the matter, his almirante must be in love.  Mike warns that Trombo is "treading on swampy ground," but finally admits that yes, he is in love - with an Englishwoman, specifically Lady Marion Carstone, sweetheart of the notorious pirate Tom Bristol.

Trombo declares that Mike is obviously feverish, but when Mike goes on to explain that he plans to take Marion as a prisoner of war - so much for fighting the plot, Mike - Trombo's despair changes to delight as he marvels at how his almirante has planned such a terrible vengeance upon Bristol, who will get to see his beloved with his mortal enemy just before the almirante disembowels the pirate and feeds his entrails to the dogs.  Mike agrees, though he's horrified at the pleasure he feels from the morbid picture Trombo is painting.

And that's kind of hellish, isn't it?  To not only be trapped in the role of a villain, but to feel the same delight that villain would experience upon torturing the book's hero, even though you're clinging to your separate identity as what you hope is a good guy. 

So Trombo is mollified, even if he thinks that the almirante will eventually get bored of Marion like he has with all his other lovers.  And then another character enters the scene, a "gray shadow" named Father Mercy with a "corpse face" that remains still even when he talks.  This creepy priest is here to complain that Mike isn't letting him torture those captive English sailors to death - to save their immortal souls, of course.  And he's overheard Mike talking about taking Lady Marion prisoner, and insists that he be allowed to personally see to her salvation.

For his part, Mike is quite disgusted by Father Mercy, and not even because the plot requires him to be.  It's enough for him to shake off Hackett's control and rant at the "soul-scavenging buzzard," telling the padre that the prisoners are off limits - "if you crave autos-da-fé every day, use up Indians and leave white men alone."  Uh... well, at least some people aren't being tortured, right?

Mike insists that his orders place them higher than Father Mercy or even the god he supposedly serves, blasphemy that the priest is willing to forget if he can get his hands on Lady Marion.  But Mike would rather shell his own town than "Feed white flesh to your damned racks" - I mean, he's progressive for his setting, right? - and when Father Mercy talks about the hand of God, Mike can all too easily visualize the real force behind these events and declares that "Your god, sir priest, is as lecherous as thou."

So Mike, in the process of trying to figure out a way not to get killed in a predictable final showdown between himself and this story's hero, has not only committed himself to forcing that confrontation by kidnapping their shared love interest, but he's also made an enemy of a thoroughly unpleasant Spanish priest who has vowed to use all his power to see the almirante removed from command and placed under his tender care.

On the upside, Mike's purgatory in a land of endlessly strolling automatons and eternally-shrieking wildlife might be coming to an end.  And we eventually found some objectionable passages in an otherwise very good chapter, just so we don't forget that we're reading a Hubbard novel.

Back to Chapter Five part two

Monday, October 24, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Five part two - Blood and Brains

Last time, Mike and Lady Marion had a moment and the story's POV took an unexpected turn, only for both developments to be derailed by the arrival of "Blood and Loot"'s designated hero.

Mike and Marion can hear "a coldly quiet voice" talking "deadly business" with Lord Carstone in the next room, and Marion throws open the door so they can better overhear Bristol insisting that he be allowed to take a look at this "don" no matter how much Carstone protests their guest is an Irishman.  Since they're in the salon Mike can't see them, so Bristol will get a proper dramatic introduction in two pages, but he can see some of Bristol's sea dogs, brawny and cruel-faced fellows that include headsilked Frenchmen, as well as Caribs and Maroons bearing chests of plunder.

Also, Mike recognizes some of them, particularly three towering Maroons named Catshy, Zuil and Suyda, who he knows he had ordered flogged and tossed overboard to be shark food.  But he's too busy worrying about being identified as the book's villain to waste any thought on how he knows these things.  Eventually Bristol and Captain Braumley, who's come back from getting thrown out of the house by Mike, are able to convince Carstone that they need to take a look at his guest.  Marion calls that Mike's in the drawing room, and let the confrontation begin.  Set scene, and go!

Mike stood by the window, his face in dimness, his shadow painted gigantically upon an ancient tapestry by the guttering candles.  His very first glimpse of Bristol told him that here was a man who would have to be removed if he himself was ever to be safe again.

Bristol was lean and hard.  His handsome face was keen and strong.  His eyes were as pale and cold as Arctic ice.  He wore his own blond hair and it came in a metallic sweep down to the shoulders of his flaring cloak collar.  There was a hard steel quality about the fellow which Mike felt would, in itself, turn the edge of a battle-ax.

Huh, I think Mike can see the hero's plot armor.  Also, I'm a little disappointed that Mike didn't notice or comment on how he happened to position himself in the most dramatic manner possible.  Or was it intentional on Mike's part?

Lady Marion introduces Michael O'Brian and Captain Thomas Bristol to each other, and it's one of those scenes where the characters are trading polite pleasantries while staring at each other, waiting for the first sign of weakness or an indication of an attack.  Bristol remarks on Mike's good fortune for surviving that shipwreck, Mike gathers from the loot in the hall that Bristol's voyage was successful, and Bristol invites him to look at the booty.  Uh, plunder.  From all those Spanish ships Bristol attacked.

Now, Mike knows that the offer "was a trap to get him into sight of those Maroons" out in the better-lit hallway, but Mike also thinks "And yet it seemed a good bait to grab."  No elaboration.  We don't know if he's trying to bluff his way out of the situation, or if Mike is once again having thoughts beamed into his head by the all-powerful plot to make him behave in a certain way.  Missed opportunity, Hubbard.

Or maybe Mike can sense that this isn't a dramatic enough moment to reveal his 'true' identity so it's a safe offer to make.  This talk about inspecting the plunder gets Lord Carstone interested, and he insists, to Bristol's disappointment, that the treasure be hauled into the room where they're talking and drinking.  So Mike gets to hang out in the shadows where no one can identify him while Carstone first drools over the gold spilling out of the treasure chests, then complains that Bristol didn't bring him any slaves to work the plantations.  Bristol seizes this opportunity and orders Zuil to have the prisoners of war brought into the courtyard.

There's another page of agonizing small talk-

"Been long in these waters?" said Bristol.

"No," said Mike.

"Wonderful place," said Bristol.

"Aye," said Mike.  "Wonderful."

"Except for the fever," said Bristol.  "That gets the best of them."

"Aye, it must," said Mike.

-and the narration once again slips into the omniscient, when we're told that Bristol is quietly furious that his plans go give Lady Marion a necklace have been derailed by a rival to her affections.  But then a pirate announces that the prisoners have arrived, and everyone files out to gloat over those nasty Spanish.  On the way out Mike picks his wide-brimmed hat on the room's anachronistic piano, and... bleh.  Even when Hubbard's satirizing bad writing he still makes a mistake: Mike is startled by the hat, "for he did not recall landing with a hat," even though he's already mentioned the magically-appearing hat several times over the past few chapters.  He ought to be surprised it's on the piano, I can't find any indication he was wearing it when he started playing.

Anyway, they go down into the courtyard to inspect the prisoners by torchlight.  Lord Carstone starts examining teeth and prodding muscles while Mike tries to keep anyone from recognizing him, but wouldn't you know it but a young cadet, "Chains notwithstanding," throws himself to Mike's feet and clutches his leg while begging the "Almirante!" to save him.  Mike tries to kick the kid away, but Bristol draws his sword and those three named Maroons are upon him in an instant.

You know how it goes.  Mike blurs into action, filled "by a gigantic power, dancing back with his blade shrieking" to bring down the first baddie.  One of the Spanish officers steals a cutlass to try and help, and suddenly there's a "Clank!" and the prisoners, who had been chained together, are now "miraculously chained independently in such a way that he would be wielding his fetters as a weapon!"  Bristol and Mike briefly lock blades before Bristol is pulled back, and then the prisoners are swinging left and right until the courtyard becomes "slippery with blood and brains," ick.

By this point the English have gunners shooting into the mob, so Mike calls "The gate!  La puerta!" and another opportunity for satire is missed when he doesn't wonder why he's speaking two languages.  The chained prisoners rush the fort's entrance, but the guards take aim at Mike at point-blank range, where even muskets can't miss.  But then,


He had a steel corselet about him which he had not had before.  He made a mental note to thank Hackett and even as he acted had a sudden chill of knowing that so far something had always happened to save him, but that he could not possibly continue to depend upon it.  The hero, Bristol, might.  But not Mike, the villain of the piece!

At least he's coming to terms with the situation.  As the Spanish batter their way through the gate sentries, Bristol reappears to lock blades with Mike as the two snarl at each other, their faces close enough to generate some homoerotic subtext.  "You Spanish hellion!", Bristol will never rest until Mike's hanged for a spy, "I'm not a pirate" as a comeback, Bristol promises to kill Mike, Mike promises to "probably have" Lady Marion, and then... again, missed opportunity.

Mike tells Bristol to get out of the way and his mob of escapees "swept over Bristol and battered him under" as they flee.  Even after recognizing that Bristol is the biggest threat to his life, Mike doesn't do the smart thing and kill him now when Bristol is hilariously outnumbered.  And more disappointingly, he doesn't wonder why he can't bring himself to do this, to kill off the book's hero before the story's halfway point, to act like an intelligent villain instead of one who sets up his own defeat.

Which isn't to say that Mike isn't totally neglecting to use his smarts.  He has the Spanish close the fort's gates behind them, then pours out the contents of a purloined powder horn and uses a pistol to spark a fire that sets the fort's entrance ablaze.  Once he and his men are out of range of the musketmen on the fort's walls, they take a moment using their stolen weapons to lose some dead weight, hacking the limbs of those who died during the escape and were dragged along by their chains.  Some are merely wounded, though, and beg to be killed instead of left behind for the English to recover.

And then Mike, about to order that death much to his own horror, changed that order.  "Pick them up, you hulks.  Are we English?"

They burdened themselves with the wounded.

The sound of the typewriter faded to nothing.

Which begs the question of how much credit Mike deserves for leading this escape, if it's only now that he's really asserting himself over the story.

The rest of their escape is no trouble.  Some soldiers or whatever come up the hill from the town to see what the commotion is about, but Mike is able to have his men hide in the brush while he in English tells the newcomers to hurry to 'rescue' the fort from an attack, only to get shot at in the confusion of night by the very people they're trying to help.  Bristol's buccaneers are in town, but they're celebrating their success in the traditional pirate manner, and don't notice the group of Spaniards slipping between the taverns.  So Mike and his men are able to steal boats, row out to one of the warships in the harbor, and take it without a fight because its crew are too drunk to notice they're being boarded until the Spanish are all over them.

Oh, and if you're wondering about that young cadet who blew Mike's cover, when Mike asks about the kid he's informed that he died during the escape.  Mike has no reaction to this, and there's no indication what he planned to do to the cadet.  It just kind of happens.

Mike has his men sail away with the ship's lanterns darkened, but soon he has to take a moment to take stock of what he's doing.  He's speaking fluent Spanish - Castilian, in fact - and giving the proper orders to the crew of this archaic sailing vessel.  He's also killed "seven or eight" men in less than a day, which doesn't seem to be tearing him up too much, and in his defense... well, it was in self-defense.  And he thinks he might have fallen in love with Lady Marion.

What strange power was this which decreed all those things?

Oh come on, just three pages ago you thanked Hackett for giving you a breastplate... though come to think of it, after the armor appeared, the musketmen never actually shot at Mike, he went straight into melee without any bullets bouncing off his armored tummy.  So it was ultimately unnecessary.  Anyway, Mike should know at this point what's going on.

So we end with Mike, aka Almirante Miguel Saint Raoul de Lobo, commanding a warship as it sails beneath the stars towards a place called Nombre de Dios which he isn't confident actually exists even though he has distinct memories of what it looks like, after having made a deadly enemy in Captain Tom Bristol, "the coolest and toughest and cleverest" of the pirates to threaten the Spanish in the Caribbean.  All while he has an existential crisis.

"She's luffing her t'ps'ls," said Mike.  "Bring the breeze farther astern."

Had he said that?

How did he know?

How- Wh-


And how would all this end?

Guess we'll have to keep reading and find out.

Have to say, it sure is a lot more interesting when you can't be confident that the hero will defeat the villain in the end, the villain is more sympathetic and likeable than the one-dimensional hero, and someone is trying to flout convention within the story itself. 

Back to Chapter five part one

Friday, October 21, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Five part one - Who Writes This Crap?

Bleh, decide if you want short seven-page chapters or enormous thirty-page chapters, Hubbard.

Mike de Wolf may be a bit of a dilettante, but he knows some stuff, and has been places.  He spent some time in the West Indies on a cruise and dabbled with painting some of the "native women with baskets on their heads" before giving up and tossing the results overboard.  He also remembers some of the information from the tourist's guidebook, as well as stuff from basic geography.  And thus he knows that wherever he is, it ain't St. Kitts.

The fortress-manor he's in is meant to be Brimstone Hill, except the year is supposed to be 1640, while Mike knows that the fort itself was built after the American Revolution.  Mike also remembers the island's history and how the French and English both had colonies there, so it's odd that there's no Frenchmen around.  He even knows that Sir Thomas Warner is supposed to be the island's governor at this time, which makes this Lord Carstone a bit of an anomaly.  And the island's harbor is too round, entered through a channel equipped with flashing lights, like a modern port.  And it'll get even worse later in the chapter.

The point is, Mike can now discount the 'time travel' theory because he's obviously not in the real St. Kitts.  But when he thinks about "Blood and Loot," and visualizes Hackett sitting at a typewriter surrounded by cigarette butts, Mike's mind recoils, and he cannot accept the answer that he's been dancing around since two chapters ago.  Instead Mike reflects more on his situation, how there's hostile Maroons and a Hubbard Action Hero out to get him, and what he's done since washing up on this strange island.

Two men he had killed on the beach and wounded another tonight.  And he had bested them with a rapier - a weapon about which he knew nothing, but which in his hands became abrupt demise.  And there was something else - his head felt quite all right and the bandage about it had mysteriously vanished; further, his side felt as good as new and there was no pull of tape there.  What mad world was this in which a man became possessed of sudden talents and healed in minutes?  And then his sword scabbard and cape and hat had appeared magically overnight.

It's stuff like this that makes me really wonder about Hubbard.

The easy way out is to assume that here he's critiquing other pulp authors while being oblivious to the things he's done in his own stories - Buckskin Brigades had muddled chronology, a hero who ignored his injuries unless it was more dramatic for him to have a handicap, and was able to learn new skills astonishingly quickly.  But it may be more likely that Hubbard is being self-deprecating here, or maybe confessing the little sins he's committed over his career in the pulps.  If that's the case, it's interesting that he's not trying to justify or excuse them - Mike isn't embracing these sudden skills so he can enjoy his role as a swashbuckling admiral in the Caribbean, or even admitting that he doesn't mind such conveniences in the stories he reads but not in 'real life.'  Hubbard's just cataloguing these anachronisms and inconsistencies as things that happen in literature and letting the reader do with them as they will.  Which is just bizarre coming from the guy who would later pound the reader with the Psychology Bad! mallet over and over.

But I wonder - if Hubbard was able to recognize these failings, these mistakes and shortcomings a pulp writer may commit in the rush to churn out copy, why did he keep making them throughout the rest of his career?  This story came out in the middle of his short fiction period, remember, so there's another decade of pulp tales that come after this one, to say nothing of some horrendous novels.

Well, in fairness I can't think of any major continuity errors in the stories I've covered on this blog, no cases where Heller or whoever suddenly had a gun they didn't in the previous chapter.  And since Hubbard focused on science fiction for the most part, there aren't any glaring historical anachronisms beyond the wonky timeline in Buckskin Brigades.  So maybe he figured that since he wasn't making those mistakes, he was practically flawless.

Back to the story.  Mike has a bit of an existential crisis when he tries to reconcile his memories of being, well, himself, with a bunch of other stuff - memories of a love interest named Anne and "a Carib slave girl" who might be gazing wistfully at the horizon while waiting for his return, memories of a giant named Trombo and a sadistic Father Mercy, memories of Valencia and Morocco and Panama that are all essential to the backstory of Miguel Saint Raoul de Lobo, but not Mike.  He's even got a proclamation from King Philip, in readable Spanish, authorizing him to hunt those pirates of the Caribbean, a pretty damning document that he ought to keep hidden from all these Spaniard-hating Englishmen.

No sooner does Mike shove the thing down his doublet than he hears Lady Marion walking along the fort wall nearby.  I didn't know Mike was on the parapets, but then again I though Mike was in a mansion, not a fortress, until the start of this chapter.  Marion's gazing down at the harbor in a way that makes Mike jealous, so he gets her attention with a polite "Milady" and greets her.

She started and then smiled uncertainly at him.

"The unfortunate lesson merited by Captain Braumley and administered by myself seems to have upset you.  Forgive such actions on my part..."

Good Lord!  What was wrong with him that he had to talk in such a stilted way?  And - Yes!  There was the sound of that typewriter again!

Oh good, Hackett's back from the club.

They make small talk, and Mike spends a good paragraph quietly awed by Marion's beauty, but then she expresses her hope that he'll get along with Captain Bristol, who might not like Mike's Spanish heritage.  She admits that Bristol's crew is a bunch of "wild devils" and "restless spirits" who came to the New World as deserters or prisoners, and Bristol himself had a run-in with an inquisitor who sent him to a slave galley, so yeah, not fans of aristocratic Spanish officers.  Mike wisely moves the topic from politics to Lady Marion herself, and reveals that her father seemed proud of her when they talked after dinner.  She admits that Lord Carstone had some difficulty accepting her since she's inherently inferior for not being born a son, but Mike continues to pour on the charm.

They walk through the fort-mansion until they're in Marion's drawing room, and Mike realizes there's a piano there - "He blinked wonderingly at the gold letters: Steinway, Chicago."  Take a break, Hackett, you're drunk.  But Mike doesn't start ranting at this blatantly out-of-place musical instrument, or curl into a little ball of temporal despair.  Nope, he just rolls with it.  He's not embracing the madness, not just yet, he's just not going to spend a single sentence reacting to this development.

Instead, when Marion pours some wine and raises a toast "To the Empire of England in the New World," Mike says "I drink only to your beauty," and after draining his glass starts toying with the piano's keys.  Marion continues talking about her past, how her father changed when her mother died, how he gave her toys like toy guns and a sailing boat that turned her into the feisty tomboy she is today, and wonders how she's supposed to find happiness if men are intimidated by her strength while she couldn't stand being married to a man weaker than her.

Through this, Mike plays some soft and thematically-appropriate music on the piano, moved by her beautiful melancholy.  But eventually Marion points out that she's told him about her troubles, so it's only fair that he share his own.

"Ah, but you would not believe mine," said Mike.  "You could not understand the story of a man trapped into a world quite foreign to him, playing a rôle 

I thought at first that it was a smudge on the page, but nope, it looks deliberate.  It's another of Hubbard's technically correct but dated or esoteric word choices.  Guy had a gift.

which he does not understand, distrusting the reality of all things on earth and above, seeing no reason and having his own outraged, believing that all will fade too soon and grasping the fleeting instants of joy which, like gentle clouds hiding a scorching sun, too often and too swiftly blow away."

I can see where Hubbard is going with this, but I think he's putting it on too thick.  Mike just talking about playing an unfamiliar role might be a nice dual allusion to him playing an admiral in the story and "de Lobo" trying to act like a gentleman in an English household, with the nice foreshadowing that he's for all intents and purposes a Spanish fugitive pretending to be a harmless Irishman.  But the stuff about "distrusting the reality of all things" tips the balance more towards crazy person.

Marion isn't bothered, though, and takes another moment to consider this swordsman-musician.

Ah, yes, he was a very strange fellow.  A strangely fascinating fellow.  Here was not the straightforward bravery of Bristol, but the ultimate in gentility.  Fearing weakness in her eyes, no man had ever played to her or said such fragile things to her before.  But then, she sighed, there would be some flaw in him.  There must be.  There was in every other man.  Some failing, perhaps a lack of courage in war or clearness in thought...

Wait.  We're hearing Marion's thoughts.  We've shifted from a narrative focused tightly on Mike (or Hackett) to a wandering third-person omniscient narrator.

No, no, this doesn't work.  It could work, if maybe Mike realized with wonder and horror that he could somehow read Marion's internal monologue as part of his growing awareness of the story surrounding him.  But if the plot is about Mike getting dropped into a crappy pirate story, you don't want to spend too much time looking through the eyes of the literary constructs surrounding him, it raises some prickly questions.

Bleh.  Marion suddenly realizes that she's spent so long contemplating Mike that she's completely forgotten about Bristol sailing into town, just in time for a trumpet to declare the buccaneer's arrival.  And that's where we'll stop for now, because the next twenty pages get pretty busy.

Back to Chapter Four 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Four - Writers on Writing

There is a problem with this story's premise, in which Mike de Wolf is being forced to play a role in "Blood and Loot" as Horace Hackett writes it - what happens to Mike when Hackett has to take a leak?  In this chapter Hackett goes out for a drink, but in the next chapter Mike doesn't sob in relief after coming out of some sort of limbo state he got dumped into the instant Hackett's fingers left the keys.  So there doesn't seem to be a 1:1 ratio when it comes to time's flow in and out of the story, especially since we'll see later that Hackett carelessly writing a paragraph that starts with "several months later" dooms poor Mike to week after week of nothing happening, while only minutes are passing at the typewriter in the real world.  But there's also a moment when-

Well, in due time.  We probably shouldn't closely examine the mechanics of a fantasy story that kicks off when somebody electrocutes himself on a bathroom lightbulb.  So let's join Horace Hackett as he has a drink in a place called the Vagabond Club, sitting in a state of fashionable disarray, "a perfect picture of an author who has finished a day's stint and who hopes his virtuousness will be noticed."

He was wholly unconscious - so far as anyone could tell - of the whisper across the room, to wit: "That's Horace Hackett, the popular novelist."  And it was purely coincidental that Horace immediately sighed deeply and assume a profound expression.

Hmm, I've read magazines and such that referred to people as 'popular novelists,' but I think most ordinary folks would just call someone a 'writer.'

Hackett is joined by another author, a fellow named Winchester Remington Colt, good grief.  He's walking around in New York wearing a Stetson and "high-heeled boots," orders "a short of redeye, pard" from the bartender, and ambles over to "hunker down for a spell" next to Hackett after seeing how his friend is "all tuckered out" from "horsewhippin' the wordage."  And yes, we're allowed to view this guy as a ridiculous poser - his hands are pale, he loses the western jargon the longer he talks with Hackett, and in two pages admits to being on a farm "once."  It's just eerie how much this guy, someone trying so hard to become a western stereotype, resembles some of the 'satirical' characters in Hubbard's later works that we're supposed to take seriously(?).

It's a case of dueling egos as both authors try to discuss their latest pulps - Colt is working on something called "Hell on the Border," and he tries to talk about its plot and characters while Hackett blathers on about "Blood and Loot" - until they give up after a page.  Then they start talking about their profession, how it's "a hell of a business" filled with doubters prepared to dump you the minute you "turn in a sour one" no matter how many stories you've sold before, how editors are "a pack of bums" who have no idea what the public really wants, that sort of thing.  It's at this point that Hackett considers buying a farm, prompting Colt to relate how he spent a weekend on one - "Woke me up at ten o'clock in the morning they did, after me not being able to sleep all night because it was so quiet."  So yes, he's as much of a cowboy as George W. Bush, clearer of brush and wearer of loafers.

And then the topic turns to one of those strange things about writing, as Hackett admits that sometimes a story seems to write itself.  "You lay out the beginning and know how it's going to end, and it wanders around as it pleases in the middle.  'Course, you know the high spots, but even those take care of themselves pretty well if you have the effect you want in mind."  In his case, Hackett admits that his original idea for his story was a straightforward 'hero shows up, suffers setback, beats villain' scenario, but now he's found that the bad guy is a pretty interesting character too, with sympathetic motivations of his own, even if he loses in the end.  Which sounds less like the story writing itself and more like Hackett having a good idea during the writing process, but potato, pineapple.

Colt admits that something similar happened when he did "Hell on the Rio Grande," that he knew the start and finish and "the middle just went racing along" almost without his input.  Hackett agrees that it's kind of spooky, like they're "perfectly in tune with the story.  We don't have to think about it, it just sort of comes bubbling out of us like music."  And it makes me wonder - did Hubbard have such an easy time writing when he produced the Mission Earth books?  And if that's the sort of writing that comes naturally to you, what does that say about you as an author, or as a person?

Colt remembers Mike de Wolf mentioning that the only good stories get written in this way, and asks about the guy since he missed a cocktail party last night.  Hackett admits that he hasn't seen Mike since the guy got mad and "shoved off" after being used in a story, then goes back to talking about the power of writing, how it's "sort of divine, somehow," that ability to create and destroy.  Colt agrees to an extent and tries to phrase the process like that of a medium, but Hackett won't settle for that.

"No, I feel different than that.  When I go knocking out the wordage and really get interested in my characters it almost makes me feel like - a god or something."

"Yeah, I know," said Colt.

"It's a great business," said Horace.

"Yeah.  Sure.  Nothing like being a writer."

In-ter-esting.  Colt seems pretty level-headed since the farthest he'll go is to compare the writing process to channeling greater than yourself, which is a poetic way of saying that if you know the characters you've created, and know the setting, it's easy to figure out what they'll do in the situations that come between your story's beginning and ending.

But Hackett seems a bit more megalomaniacal, exulting in his power of creation and the control he has over (fictional) characters' lives.  After all, you can do a lot with a story: change the world so that it works how you think it does or should, or create a new world from scratch.  Have your views accepted and embraced by everyone, even say that they've changed the world.  Write your friends, even yourself into the narrative, and your enemies too so they can get what's coming to them.  Yeah, a certain type of person could go on a real power trip after messing around with a typewriter.

Well, wasn't that enlightening?  We learned a bit about early 20th century pulp writing culture, and might have unintentionally learned something about this story's author.  But don't worry, next time we'll get back to Mike as he prepares to meet the real hero of "Blood and Loot."

Back to Chapter Three

Monday, October 17, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Three - A Day with the Carstones

And we go from two ten-page chapters to a yuge thirty-page chapter.  Mike wakes up in an enormous canopy bed, freshly-washed and bandaged, and a bit slow on the uptake.  He considers going for a golf game since the weather's so warm - almost tropical, in fact - and doesn't react when a black servant sticks his head through the curtains, helps Mike sit up, and sets down a tray of coffee and snacks.  It's only when he suddenly remembers the encounter on the beach and hears the distant pounding of surf that Mike has a little freak-out.

No, Mike isn't shocked to see a black man playing meek manservant, he only tries to remember which of his friends employs people of color in such servile positions.  Nor does he try to engage the man in conversation.  This came out in 1940, remember.  The bad old days.

Mike manages to not send melons and sweet buns flying everywhere, then notices a lavender-scented envelope on the tray that turns out to contain a letter from a Lady Marion.  It's written in half-assed old-timey English - "I am grieved at the discourtesy which greeted ye upon our land and beg to tender my sympathy and the hope that your woundes paine you not this day" - but eventually Marion gets around to requesting to visit the "gallant captain" if his fever "not be too great."

Between this and the head injury, Mike decides to have some wine as he ponders the situation.  First, he's definitely missed that piano audition.  Second, he's pretty sure he killed two guys on that beach, which "In his realm" would get him hanged.  And third, his life is in danger in this realm too.  Mike overhears a commotion outside, and when he asks that Negro servant about it, learns that "Them people from de town" are demanding that the master of the household give up the "Spaniard" prisoner for execution.  Mike insists that he is in fact an Irishman, and decides to meet with Lady Marion to try to clarify the situation.

This will require getting dressed, and while the bad news is that Mike's outfit - which he isn't confident he was wearing the other day - is a ridiculous mass of black silk and lace and gold, the good news is that the servant is around to help Mike get dressed.  Once that's done, our hero takes a moment to examine himself.

The mirror gave back the tall, supple image of a Spanish gentleman, aristocratically handsome head backed by the upstanding lace collar, pale but strong hands barely showing under the folds of gorgeous lace, slim and shapely legs backed by the flowing cape which dropped from one shoulder.  He was Mike de Wolf, but somehow he wasn't Mike de Wolf.  There was a commanding poise about him which was an intensification of his usual manner, and in his face showed a pride of being and a consciousness of station which the old Mike de Wolf would not have had at all.  He was grand and handsome and dashing and, all in one, he was quite confused about it.

This is what I wanted on the book's cover, a swashbuckling hero in all his finery but betraying a fundamental confusion about his situation.

Adding to the weirdness is that Mike's impractically fancy rapier now has a scabbard when yesterday it did not, and he's also confident that he wasn't wearing that cape on the beach.  And there it is again, that sound of a typewriter clacking away overhead.  But at least he's dressed now, so he tells the servant to let Her Ladyship know it's safe to visit him.  She enters to find Mike striking a heroic pose gazing out the window, he thanks her for saving his life, and Marion assures him that the Carstones aren't murderous savages and will be happy to send their noble Spanish prisoner back to his people for just a "slight ransom to remove the stain of guilt from his lordship."

And then, Mike goes off-script.

He almost introduces himself as Miguel Saint Raoul Maria Gonzales Sebastian de Mendoza y Toledo Francisco Juan Tomaso Guerro de Brazo y Leon de Lobo... and if he tried to fit all that on his sword he'd have to carry around a claymore.  But instead of rattling off all that, Mike insists that while he was aboard the Natividad, he's actually Michael O'Brien, grandson of a Spanish castaway who married into an Irish noble family, seeking his fortune in service of Spain.

It doesn't seem to be a conscious decision - he's bewildered at the Spanish name on his lips, but then Mike hears himself deny being a Spaniard, so it's like there are two different autopilots fighting over the controls. When the incredulous Lady Marion asks if he was commanding the Spanish vessel, Mike denies it even though he "knew that he lied, but was powerless to correct that lie."  So I don't think Mike is fighting back against the story at this point, my guess is that he's feeling the effects of Hackett changing the specifics of the plot between talking about the story and writing it.  Also, Mike hasn't realized he's in a story yet.

Marion is relieved that the hostile sailor who killed two of her countrymen is Irish instead of Spanish, because what reason would the Irish have to dislike the British?  She says Mike is welcome to stay as long as he likes, and invites him to dinner with Lord Carstone that evening.  The way she leaves the room, walking in a graceful manner which makes Mike "warm all through," and after she's gone he flops down on the bed to exult over her poise and crown of red hair and dazzling eyes.

But eventually Mike's focus shifts back to his bizarre situation, and he decides he's hallucinating after a head injury or something, and will have a good story to tell next time he sees Horace Hackett.  And then Mike remembers Hackett talking about his pirate story and how Mike was perfect for its villain, so he concludes that this is all a dream.  He tries to go to sleep to wake up, only to emerge from a nap several hours later in the same bed, with that manservant alerting him that supper will be ready in an hour.  When asked the date, the "Boy" ("Mah name Jimbo, suh.") reveals that "I heerd somebody say this was somethin' like sixteen hunnert and forty, suh, but Ah wouldn't know."

What follows is a three-page-long freakout.  First Mike rants that he can't be three hundred years in the past, even though the outfits and scenery around him fit the period.  He dismisses the idea of time travel and instead kicks a wall in case he's in a movie set, but of course he isn't.  Then he has to deal with the memories of a naval battle he's also sure he didn't actually experience, and "a sort of strange belief in all this and a belief in his own part in it," since after all he knew how to use his sword and give orders on a ship.  And finally, Mike must come to terms with how everything around him seems right out of Hackett's upcoming story "Blood and Loot," and how if Mike seems to be cast in the role of the villainous Spanish admiral, he does not need to be sticking around this island.

Unfortunately, Mike doesn't have any options.  If he tries to flee the city to the island's forests, he'll get eaten by Caribs, and even though Mike was able to fight off those swashbucklers the other day, now he's decided that he doesn't know anything about swords and ships and muskets, so he can't try to fight his way to a boat.  So he might as well go to the governor's dinner.

Lady Marion of course is wearing a low-cut gown, while her father turns out to be "an overly upholstered giant sculpted out of lard" who "Harumph"s at every opportunity, and they're also joined by a Captain Braumley who is still suspicious of Mike and not eager to dine with a Spaniard.

"Ye'll keep yer evil tongue in yer cheek, sir," said Marion with lifted chin, "or I'll have ye taught better manners by the gentleman himself.  He's no common gutter-bred soldier!"

The captain choked on that one and became purple-hued.  Mike had never seen anyone really turn purple from embarrassment before, and it was really amazing to see it.  Bright purple.

There's not many moments like this in the book, but I still like them.  Take a literary cliche, a phrase like "turned purple with anger," and play it completely straight, see how weird and vaguely unsettling it would be to experience.

Dinner turns out to be a tense affair, with the captain baiting Mike until our hero admits that while he doesn't consider himself a don, he did have a Spanish grandpa.  When Braumley vows to bring the garrison to the manor to apprehend this stinkin' Spaniard, Mike doesn't so much draw his sword as he does catch his rapier after it "leaped from its scabbard," then jumps over the table to block the captain's exit.

So it's dinner and a show, as Bramley insists on fighting Mike right then and there.  Our hero freezes up for a moment because he knows he doesn't know how to fight, but Mike nevertheless is able to hold his own and drive the enemy back.

He knew he needed all his eyes for that magically shifting point which sought his heart or throat and yet he amazed himself by saying coolly, "Your permission, milady.  The beggar seems a bit insistent."

What the devil made him talk like this?  And was that sound he heard a typewriter?

It must be!

In the end, Mike is able to disarm the captain - in less than a page, without a single Hubbard Action Sequence - and slash his ass a bit before throwing the blubbering baddie out the front door.  Lady Marion is of course highly impressed with this swordplay and can only forgive his violence in a dazed voice before going to her room.  And Lord Carstone just pours him a drink and chats for a bit.  And by a bit I mean four pages.  Man, why wasn't this two chapters?  Could've ended the section with Mike taking a nap.

Almost finished.  Carstone rambles, first about how Marion "thinks she's sick at the sight of blood and violence, but what are women but violence and blood, what?"  Then the topic of politics and business comes up, and Carstone admits he's disinterested in religion, and knows that England has no claim to these islands, but he wants Spanish gold and so is willing to back buccaneers to attack Spanish shipping.  He's a little worried about one admiral, someone named Miguel Saint Raoul de Lobo, but Carstone has that problem solved - he's sent for a young firebrand named Bristol and promised him a governorship and Marion's hand if he can bring Carstone the head of the Spanish admiral.

Mike nervously asks how this Bristol will know he's got the right Spaniard, and Carstone reveals that they've taken some Maroons from the Panama coast who served as slaves on the Spanish ships and suffered Spanish raids and atrocities, and they'll happily identify this evil admiral.  Yep, once Bristol shows up, that nasty Spaniard's days are numbered.

"I dare say," said Mike, and memories were stirring uneasily where no past had been.  "And this Bristol will soon be home, eh?"


"By the way, milord, I'd like quite well to stay, but I can't have the town revolting against you because of my father and because of this Captain Braumley."

Lord Carstone tries to entice Mike to stick around with offers of protection and employment as a double agent, but wouldn't you know it but a black messenger runs up to announce that Captain Bristol's fleet has arrived, an announcement made redundant by saluting cannons in the harbor.  And while the is certainly a convenient coincidence done for the sake of drama, somehow it just feels appropriate for this story, doesn't it?  This story about stories, I should say.

So now Mike is coming to grips with the situation, and while he may not fully accept that he's somehow been sucked into a story-in-progress, he's at least aware of where the plot is trying to take him.  And we're getting some instances of what a literary world looks like from the inside out, where an author's choice of words is played completely literally.  But next time we'll take a short break from all of this and check on how Hackett himself is doing.

Back to Chapter Two

Friday, October 14, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Two - Mano-a-Mano, Mano, Mano and Mano

The good news is that Mike de Wolf has a body again, the bad news is that it's getting tossed around by crashing waves against jagged rocks.  There's no time to think, Mike can only instinctively cling to the sand when he feels it under his fingers, and drag himself out of the surf to sprawl face-down on a beach.  He's bleeding and nauseous from seawater in his belly, and he's so exhausted that he does nothing but lie where he is even after he hears the distant "rattle of musketry."  And this is problematic, but just wait a moment.

Eventually instinct tells Mike that he needs to get up, plus the back of his neck is sunburned and flies are starting to land on his head.  There's no further sounds of gunfire, but there is "a faint whir, reminiscent of a typewriter, which seemed to come out of the sky."  This is an odd sound to come from the heavens, but Mike thinks no more on the matter.  That's forgivable, he's pretty woozy from his injuries.

He takes stock of his surroundings, and finds himself on a short beach against a wall of tropical foliage, while broken pieces of wood and tangles of rigging start to wash to shore around him.  Mike has no idea where he is or how he got there - but "Suddenly he was beset by an incredible memory," of being aboard a galleon in a raging battle, with pinnacles and spars and scupper ports and linstocks and everything.  And someone had called him "Your lordship" and he had given the order to open fire.

In other words, a character in a Hubbard story is suddenly and mysteriously knowing something.  But unlike in, say, Mission Earth, said character is actually acknowledging how weird and convenient this is, and he's just a surprised as we are.  The best explanation Mike can come up with is that the lobster he had for supper last night is giving him a crazy nightmare.

My only problem with this situation is that Mike is admitting how weird it is to remember this battle but not that he, a 20th century man, was able to recognize the sound of muskets firing.  If it sounds distinct from modern firearms, it's odd that Mike is experienced enough to know the difference.  If it sounds similar to modern firearms, Mike's first response should have been to assume it's just gunfire without being so specific.  If he'd just do a mental-double take and ask himself why he was so sure he was hearing musketry, we'd be set, but as it is it's an oversight.

But enough nitpicking, let's get things moving.  An explosion of sand near his hand and the crack of multiple firearms indicates that someone is trying to shoot Mike, so he scrambles to his feet and flees into the jungle.  He can hear people behind him shouting stuff like "There he went!" and "Get behind him!", and it's not a nice thing for a bunch of strangers to be so set on killing you.  He can even hear a horse running along the beach he's escaping from.  Not a good situation by any means.

He felt like a rabbit, having no arms whatever.  If only he had a gun or-


He felt himself smitten about the waist - and lo! he had a buckler and sword!  The rapier lay naked in the sling, without a scabbard, the way bravoes wore them of old.  The hilt of the weapon was gold, and studded with round-cut precious stones.  And in clear letters on the steel was stamped "Toledo" and "Almirante de Lobo."

Huh, lucky break.  Heller usually had to reach up his own ass to pull out the weapon he needed to win the day.

Mike doesn't waste any time wondering at this miraculous turn of events, but spends a moment trying and failing to control his temper, before giving up and striding out to face his foes, weapon in hand.  Four hostile swashbucklers are waiting for him, and they exchange banter like "Use your pistol, you English dogs, or I'll spit you like a roasting chicken and feed you to the sharks!" and "I'll take you on meself, me bucko, and send your ears back to 'is most Catholic majesty with the compliments of my bully boys."  Despite the leader's boast of taking Mike down personally, it's a four-on-one, then an eight-on-one fight, and no I don't know where the other four swashbucklers came from either, it just kind of happens in the space of a sentence.  By now you should realize that we're in the sort of story where this thing can happen and isn't necessarily due to the author being sloppy.  Or rather, there is a sloppy author involved, it's just not necessarily Hubbard.

Anyway, Mike takes down two enemies in a single sentence - and it's not even a proper Hubbard Action Sequence, just "Mike sent the rapier singing into the throat of one and then into the heart of the other."  But then he's disarmed and can do nothing but stand and wait for death, only for someone to shout "Stay!" and ride into the midst of the brawl on that horse he heard earlier.

The interloper is "A flame-headed woman, imperious and as lovely as any statue from Greece," and she proceeds to chew out the "wretches," demand that they return the "gentleman"'s sword, and tells them to "Handle your own bloody business" when they try to protest that Mike is a dirty Spaniard, and threatens them with a gibbet.  Which should all sound very familiar if we were paying attention last chapter.

So the bad guys leave, and suddenly "Swish!  Swirl!", Mike is wearing black silk and a plumed wide-brimmed hat.  There's nothing to do but doff the "miraculous hat" and bow before his rescuer, but he's so exhausted that he face-plants onto one of the dead swashbucklers, eww.

And that ends our chapter.  It's take another twenty-something pages for our hero to figure it out, but to us it should be obvious that Mike has somehow wound up in the hastily-assembled pirate story his friend Hackett was on the verge of writing.  The ol' "Trapped in TV Land" scenario.  Except with a book.  And it's what may be the first example of such stories.  And more entertainingly, we'll see how a fairly normal person fares when trapped in a world of pulp schlock.

As an aside, I'm calling our main character Mike instead of de Wolf not out of any sense of familiarity with the fellow, but because I don't like starting sentences with lowercase letters.  On the other hand, this may be the most sympathetic protagonist Hubbard has ever given us, so it doesn't feel wrong to be on a first-name basis with him.

Back to Chapter One

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter One - The Greatest Story Not Yet Written

Well, let's get right to it, shall we?

Horace Hackett, as one of his gangster characters would have said, was on the spot.  About three months before, Jules Montcalm of Vider Press had handed to Horace Hackett the sum of five hundred dollars, an advance against royalties of a novel proposed but not yet composed.  And Horace Hackett, being an author, had gaily spent the five hundred and now had nothing but a hangover to present to Jules Montcalm.  It was, as one of Horace Hackett's heroes would have said, a nasty state of affairs.  For be it known, publishers, when they have advanced sums against the writing of a book, are in no mood for quibbling, particularly when said book is listed in the fall catalogue and as there were just two months left in which it could be presented to the public.

So let's see - if Horace Hackett is some sort of author stand-in, it's a remarkably self-deprecatory one, what with him wasting an advance and partying dangerously close to a deadline.  The last name might be a play on 'hack it,' an expression for finding success at something.  Names like Jules Montcalm and Vider Press could be parodies of existing publishers, but I'm not interested enough to read up on the early 20th century book industry.  And there's some annoying repetition with the "as one of his characters who had said" gag being used twice in one paragraph.  Not a perfect intro, but certainly more interesting than some steely-eyed, emotionally-stunted blond ubermensch preparing to cut down scores of bad guys.

Hackett, as subsequent paragraphs tell us, is a melodramatic but somewhat popular writer who churns out love stories and gangster tales for other publishers, as well as about one novel per year for Vider Press.  His Greenwich apartment's basement studio is filled with unfinished stories, unpaid bills, empty bottles of booze, empty packets of cigarettes, and knicknacks like Colombian saddle bags that have deteriorated until they can be used as rugs.  Hackett is trying to act unconcerned about this looming deadline, but he knows "that he had never been closer to getting caught."

Also, he's wearing a dirty bathrobe.  I think if I ever become a pulp writer and get an unexpected visit from my publisher, I'll take a moment to put on some actual clothes if I'm not wearing any at the start.

So we've got Hackett trying to talk his way out of getting caught loafing instead of writing, Jules Montcalm - whose real name is Julius Berkowitz, and I'm not sure what we're supposed to do with this information - going after Hackett like "a hunter who has just treed a mountain lion and is now training his rifle to bop it out of the branches," and there's also someone named Mike de Wolf sitting at a piano.  Mike's playing something quiet and moody, since he's already decided he's going to fail an audition the coming morning.  Surprisingly enough, he's our main character.

Montcalm accuses Hackett of not even having a plot thought out for his story, and Hackett can only "Heh, heh, heh" and look to Mike for back-up while he insists that he totally has a plot, something amazing, probably the best he's ever come up with!  Also, would Mr. Montcalm like another drink?

"The plot," said Jules.

"It's sparkling and exciting, and the love interest is so tender-"

"The plot," said Jules.

"-that I almost cried myself thinking it up.  Why, it's a grand story!  Flashing rapiers, tall ships, brave men-"

"I already said that in the catalogue," said Jules, hopelessly.  "Now I want to hear the plot.  I bet you ain't got any plot at all!"

"Mike!  Here I am telling him the greatest story ever written-"

"You haven't written it yet," said Mike, without turning his head.

And that's our dynamic for this chapter, Hackett trying to hype something he hasn't started yet, Montcalm pinning him back to reality, and Mike snarking from the piano.  It's not a bad dynamic, either.

Hackett repeats some more catalogue information about the story being set during the pirates' heyday in the Caribbean.  The hero is "A go-to-hell, swashbuckling, cut-'em-down, brawny guy" named Tom Bristol... huh, sounds strangely familiar...  Anyway, he's upper-class, of course, and a tactical prodigy, but so hotheaded that he gets kicked out of the service by an evil uncle, which Montcalm complains is what happens in all of Hackett's pirate stories.  Hackett gets indignant and defensive, asking if the publisher really thinks he only has one story in him, and starts talking about book sales before Montcalm gets him back on track.

And this is weird, isn't it?  This guy in a Hubbard story is doing things that Hubbard did throughout his career, recycle story elements and put a lot of emphasis on book sales instead of quality.  Yet I don't think Hackett is meant to be viewed sympathetically - hell, in a way he's the story's villain, but we'll see more of that later.

When Hackett gets to the part where Bristol ends up in the West Indies and falls for the daughter of a local merchant prince, Montcalm can already predict the blue-eyed blonde bimbo that Bristol will be paired with, only for Hackett to immediately contradict him and improvise a new heroine, a fiery redhead who can ride, shoot and gamble just as well as any man, and won't let just anyone claim her heart.  Montcalm is intrigued but moves on to questions about the villain, warning that after "Song of Arabia" Hackett is going to have to put some effort into the bad guy.  So Hackett starts talking about the Spanish admiral Bristol will have to defeat to earn his love interest's hand and a climactic naval battle, but Montcalm points out that this says nothing about the don himself.

Seeking inspiration, Hackett turns to the other man in the room.  Mike de Wolf is actually Irish, but one of the "black Irish," and Hubbard repeats the misconception that this hair color and skin tone is the result of interbreeding with shipwrecked survivors of the Spanish Armada back in the day.  The important thing is, Mike could pass for a Spaniard.

So Hackett spends a fat paragraph describing his villain/his buddy, his "narrow and aristocratic" features, how "his nostrils are so thin that you could see light through them," how he's graceful and well-manned but still a terrific fighter...

"There's your Spanish admiral.  A romantic!  A poetry-reading, glamorous, hell-fighting, rapier-twisting, bowing beauty of a gentleman, all perfume and lace and wildcat.  There's your Spanish admiral.  And he falls in love with this girl when he gets shipwrecked on the island where she lives and she doesn't know he's a don because he's so educated he can speak English without an accent-"

Mike had begun to glare.

"You leave me out of this."

So by the end of this unscheduled literary jam session, Hackett has put enough of a spin on his heroine and villain, and added a love triangle to the big conflict of his generic pirate story, that even Montcalm has to admit that it sounds pretty good.  The publisher does voice some concerns about its "color," but Hackett insists that he knows the Caribbean "like I know the keys of my mill," and launches into a rundown of how the story will progress.  But his friend is annoyed by how Hackett keeps referring to the Spanish admiral as "Mike" - not to mention Hackett's habit of leaving cigarette butts in half-finished cups of coffee and refusal to wash his bathrobe - and since Mike is already feeling indisposed, he quietly slips off to the bathroom in search of aspirin, unnoticed by the others.

Now, electricity can do a lot of things.  It can reanimate a bunch of dead tissue stitched together, it can give a scientist super-speed, and in this case - well, Mike is fumbling for the bathroom's light, activated by a metal string, and he braces himself against the sink to do so, and zap!

He made contact.  A blinding one!  The light short-circuited with a fanfare of crackling!

Mike's paralyzed for a few moments, convulsing and forced to listen to Hackett going on about his stupid story, until he eventually collapsed towards the bathtub.  He tries to steady himself, but his hands vanish before his very eyes, fading from the fingers down.  In fact, Mike's legs are gone, his shoulders are gone,

There wasn't anything left of him at all!

The room was wheeling and dipping.  He sought to howl for help.  But he didn't have any mouth with which to howl.

Michael de Wolf was gone!

He has no mouth, and he must scream.

So Mike's gone after a chance zap from an unshielded light bulb, and that's all the author will do to explain how this book's plot gets started.  Meanwhile Hackett and Montcalm eventually finish their talk and wonder where Mike went off to, before concluding that he probably got mad after being used in a story.  But at least it's a good character, and a good story, right?  So the publisher leaves, and the writer, still aglow with inspiration, sits down and begins to clatter away at a typewriter...

And that's our first chapter, an intriguing look at the creative process with some observations about the industry and a supernatural twist at the end.  Say goodbye to Montcalm and Hackett, we won't be seeing them again for a while, which isn't to say that the latter won't have an influence on the story.  Tune in next time to see where exactly Mike de Wolf has vanished to.

Back to the Introduction

Monday, October 10, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Intro - The Thunder of Keys Above

I think Hubbard peaked in 1939-1940, which makes it a damn shame that he kept writing for decades after that point.  Before that period we have Buckskin Brigades, historical fiction that tries to get back at evil white settlers for crimes they hadn't committed by the time the story was set, as well as forgettable pulp stuff like Under the Black Ensign.  After that period we have more forgettable pulp stuff such as "Space Can" and "The Slaver," then Ole Doc Methuselah and all its warning signs, before Hubbard goes completely off the deep end and excretes Battlefield Earth and Mission Earth at the end of his career and his life.

But in that narrow window, there is... well, there's Final Blackout and its boring tale of a bland military hero handily winning every engagement and building a enlightened dictatorship.  But there's also those rare few Hubbard stories that aren't entirely incompetent and have parts that actually work.  It helps of course that a story that doesn't collapse under its plot problems or unlikable characters counts as a success for Hubbard, but there are chapters of Fear that I legitimately enjoyed, and Slaves of Sleep worked pretty well as a fantasy romp.  And now here's this story.

Typewriter in the Sky was published in the November and December 1940 issues of Unknown Fantasy Fiction, which I suppose would make it the last entry of Hubbard's Not Terrible Period, at least among the titles covered for this blog.  It's not a normal pulp story, even if it's pretty pulpy.  It has fantastic elements in it, but it's not a real fantasy story.  It's not billed as some satirical epic like Mission Earth, but it has some wry observations and insightful yet humorous commentary to make.  Instead, it's a lot of different things Hubbard's done over his career, but done in moderation.  It's also a very metafictional tale, a story about stories in general and its own story in particular, and the whole process of storytelling.

There's not much to say about the cover other than that I'd do it a little differently.  We've got someone in a swashbucklery outfit with a rapier and pistol in hand, flanked by majestic ships of the line, but he's stepping out of some sort of portal showing modern metropolis in the background.  It's more thematic than accurate to the story, since there's no magic portal involved, but the thing I'd change would be the expression on this swashbuckler's face.  He looks... um, the emotion he's expressing is... let's call it stoic determination.  But I'd make him look more reluctant, even panicked, clearly unhappy to be where he is.  Because in the story - well, we'll see soon enough.

The back cover has the tagline "Enter a Gateway to Another World," which again isn't quite accurate, and a plot summary that I'll ignore so the premise comes as more of a surprise.  In the blurbs underneath it, Alan Dean Foster calls it both "a writer's nightmare" and "one of the most influential books in modern fantasy."  Kevin J. Anderson... man, he keeps showing up, doesn't he?  Well, he thinks it's "A true masterpiece of the genre... an exhilarating romp filled with delightful twists and turns."  I'd argue that his book is entertaining, if not really thrilling or exciting.  On the other hand, unlike many of Hubbard's works there's some real suspense over how or even if the main character can get out of the predicament he's in.

Another plot summary on the inside book jacket flap that I'll ignore, a section about "Master Storyteller" L. Ron Hubbard on the right flap, and wow that's a goofy picture of a young Hubbard in a hat and sunglasses with a somewhat confused smirk on his face.  Kevin J. Anderson with the Introduction again, talking about how he'd been busy doing all these books when a publisher asked him to do a foreword, he agreed that he might be able to work it into his schedule, only to instantly like Typewriter in the Sky when he started reading it in the bath.  Have to say, my experience was somewhat similar - right at the start I knew I wasn't in for a typical Hubbard story, and was actually interested in what was going to happen when I turned the page.

Anderson also talks how Typewriter in the Sky - actually, Anderson quotes someone else talking about Typewriter in the Sky, excuse me.  Anyway, the claim is that the book "anticipates plot gimmicks now popular among experimental metafictionists," which I didn't know was a real word.  Now, I'm reluctant to give Hubbard any credit for doing anything good just on principle, but if this is true, we can only wonder what sort of new frontiers in literature he might have developed if he hadn't decided to keep doing pulp crap and eventually come up with alternative sources of revenue.

Also, Anderson calls Hubbard "indeed a writer," and talks about how prolific the guy was and puts him in a category with Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, and Alexandre Dumas, all "classic authors who wrote quickly and in first-draft form."  Which pretty much confirms what I've concluded a long time ago about Hubbard being unwilling or unable to give his stuff a once-over or revise anything.

But there you have it, a cursory look at Typewriter in the Sky that's hopefully piqued your curiosity.  Tune in next time to see what all the fuss is about.