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

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