Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Chapter Twelve - Gang Aft Agley

I never thought I'd prefer to immerse myself in an L. Ron Hubbard story instead of checking the news, but here we are.

Dawn cracked like the firing of a pistol and there was the sun, just up over the eastern horizon, a great scarlet ball which sent ribbons of flame quivering across the zenith.  The sea was smooth and though this hour in these waters should have had no wind, there was wind, about twenty miles of it, quite sufficient to send prows knifing and foaming.  But no ships were moving.

This is the unnatural stillness that comes from the author not quite understanding how ships work instead of the unnatural stillness that comes because the author hasn't started typing yet, it looks like.  Mike is still able to act normally, and takes a moment to size up the opposition through a telescope.  The pirate fleet is outnumbered two-to-one, especially since the Spanish fleet has somehow jumped from twenty to fifty ships since Mike led it out of port.  Another oddity is that it looks like Bristol's using the Fleetfoot as his flagship, the very vessel Mike stole when he escaped St. Kitts, but at this point Mike is so jaded that he doesn't give this a second thought.  And of course all the pirate ships are "rigged square without a lateen showing on any stick," which... are words that presumably mean something to someone who knows more about sailing than I do.  I actually miss that glossary at the end of Masters of Sleep, unreliable as it was.

In the space of a paragraph break the ships suddenly start moving, and as the fleets close, Mike orders a serpentine (a light cannon, I learned this from Medieval II Total War) to fire to gauge the range.  This is followed by a shot from a basilisk that brings down the foremast of the enemy flagship, and so Mike gives the command to fire at will.  Signal flags are hoisted, the Spanish ships start taking potshots that the privateers can't answer, and then the enemy is in range for a broadside.

"Fire!" said Mike.

On fifty ships battery captains loped from fore bulkhead to aft, chopping down a hand as each gun was passed.  If they had all been fired at once, the gunwales would not have stood the strain.  And so their flame and fury lasted down the length of the vessel for half a minute, lasting over the fleet for nearly three minutes and hiding all the gilt and all the flags completely in a fog.

And so the battle begins, which is to say that the Spanish give the English pirates a bruising that the sea dogs can't answer.  But there's something to note during all of this - Mike isn't doing much thinking or reflection now, he's just giving orders in between descriptions of the action.  I'm not sure whether Hubbard is doing this out of habit or to make a point about how Mike's character is determining his actions, but it's a bit strange to go from Mike spending big paragraphs noticing all the weirdness in the situation to just saying lines of dialogue.

Mike gives the order to "Wear ship," turning away from the enemy and traveling inside the clouds of your own gunsmoke while you reload, so when you turn back and come into full view you'll be ready to fire again.  He cycles through this tactic again and again, but eventually the enemy gets in range of their own weapons and begins to fire back.  Mike paces about giving his men orders, deafened from the roar of cannons and mostly blind from smoke, but despite these distractions he still has time to notice that even though the fighting has gone on for an hour, the sun hasn't moved in the sky.

And then he breaks character to have a little freakout.  One minute Mike is playing his role as the almirante, the next a round of chain shot comes scything through the air and turns poor Captain Fernando "into two chunks and his feet were still stepped back to brace as shoulders and head were squashed against the helm, spattering the quartermasters."

You know what, I'm disappointed Fernando didn't die repeatedly over the course of the book in increasingly outlandish ways as Hackett rewrote the story again and again.  But I guess one revision was the most we could expect from the guy.

Anyway, this surprisingly sudden and violent death is enough to make Mike queasy and take in the mangled wreckage and bodies on the ship's deck, the screams of the wounded and dying, the blood running into the scuppers, whatever those are, I think they're like gutters for boats?  He tries to remind himself that this is all in the hands of one Horace Hackett, but that doesn't steady his nerves, so instead he focuses on the immediate cause of his trouble - Bristol the pirate.  And that does it, the power of his hatred for his designated enemy lets Mike embrace his role, angrily giving the orders to continue the fight.  Maybe this is something you have to do if you've been dropped into a pulp novel.  Maybe this is something soldiers have to do to get through a battle outside of pulp novels.

Mike has his vessel savage Bristol's flagship, crossing its T and circling around to give it a vicious broadside that reduces it to a floating ruin.  The other Spanish ships imitate the maneuver, and soon the two lines of warships have moved past each other.  Mike's down twenty ships, and gives orders for some of his vessels to rescue survivors before the wrecks finish sinking, and then it's time to turn around and pursue the English pirates and trap them between the Spanish fleet and the guns of Nombre de Dios.

And I'm not complaining much, am I?  I've grumbled about the author's use of naval terminology he doesn't define for us, but there's nothing fundamentally wrong with this chapter.  It's a decent enough naval battle that doesn't get totally bogged down in nautical jargon, and unlike the climaxes of every other Hubbard story that comes to mind, it's actually... I'm not sure if it's exciting, but it's certainly more interesting than watching Heller fight a bad guy.  Because we don't know what's going to happen, we know that Mike is seemingly fated to lose as per literary convention, but we've also seen him try to defy this fate, so the outcome is still up in the air.  And we're rooting for this character, he's likeable, and an underdog, instead of the typical Hubbard protagonist who only has disadvantages to make his inevitable victory all the more incredible.

Mike himself has to suppress a surge of optimism as everything goes according to plan, because he knows "There was decidedly something very spooky about this action.  He was winning it!"  And it's not just because Hackett has forgotten the sun so it's still just over the horizon and turning the sea red in some accidental symbolism.

And then, suddenly, the sun leaped up the sky and in the blink of an eye was at the zenith!

The sailing-master didn't think that was odd, either.

When Mike pointed out to Trombo that there were nearly as many English ships left in action as there had been at the beginning, even though half the English fleet had been sunk, Trombo shrugged and muttered something about the will of God.

Again, this is cute if you don't think about it and try to work out whether Hackett is belatedly mentioning the sun's position or actually going back and rewriting this chapter, which would raise questions of how Mike was able to experience these sudden revisions to the world around him.

So the mysteriously not-battered English are sailing right into the town's coastal defenses, the Spanish are chasing them, the nameless Spanish sailors are all enjoying themselves and convinced that they're herding their enemies to their doom, while Mike is still feeling like something is wrong but holding out hope that "maybe Horace had a stroke."

And that's the scary thing about hope, isn't it?  You cling to it when things seem bad, or even when things seem good and you're frightened that the unthinkable might happen anyway.  But when that hope gets snatched away from you, when your worst fears are realized, when you watch that light dwindle and get snuffed out, the darkness that comes in its place is even deeper and bleaker.

The fleeing privateers finally get in range of Nombre de Dios' cannons, but the guns don't fire.  Mike bellows orders and gives signal flags to no effect, so he instead tells his fleet to continue the pursuit.  And then the guns fire, upon the Spanish fleet.  The Spaniards are so stunned that they spend a moment floating there getting shot to pieces, and when they finally try to act the wind suddenly picks up and keeps them from fleeing out of range.  Suddenly the privateers are attacking again, blasting the Spanish at close range before boarding the surviving ships.  In all of a page, the battle is turned on its head, and Mike is face-to-face with his nemesis, the dread pirate Bristol.

Mike stood amid the ruins of his quarterdeck and toppled mizzen and beheld the devil swoop upon him.  This, then, was the end.  This was the part where Bristol ran him through for a dirty spick and fed his corpse to the sharks.  And this was not cardboard scenery or puppet men.  Pain and death were real!

But can be reversed based on the author's whims, remember.  So there's that.

It's hardly a climactic confrontation, there's no exchange of dialogue, no fat paragraph about Mike's thoughts or fancy swordplay.  Again, we can't be sure whether this is indicative of Hackett writing an anticlimax in-story, Hubbard writing an anticlimax on purpose, or Hubbard writing an anticlimax out of habit.  Let's go with the middle option, though, because Mike is actively defying narrative convention.

He doesn't draw his rapier, since he knows that will only get him killed.  Instead he leaps behind a serpentine left pointing along the deck by a now-dead crew, meaning the cannon is now aimed directly at Bristol.  Mike picks up the linstock (torch?), lights the weapon, it fires-

Bristol was wreathed in smoke, untouched even by powder sparks.

Thrice-damned plot armor!

I'm not sure how it happens, but the very next line, Mike's in the water, getting swept away - oh, he grabbed a spar at some point?  While firing the gun.  Whatever.  Our hero's last, desperate attempt to defeat his enemy has failed, and the chapter ends with him in sea, his fleet in shambles, his men slain, his plans ruined, and his last chance at revenge foiled.  "And in his battered ears rang the English cheer which meant victory, and the whir of a contented typewriter in the sky."

Ugh, and the worst part is, since the typewriter is still clacking away, even Mike's survival is all according to the plot.  Tune in next time when we try to figure out just what happened to make everything go so wrong and wrap up this story.

Back to Chapter Eleven

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