Friday, November 18, 2016

Typewriter in the Sky - Hubbard's Finest Hour

We've examined a lot of dead trees in this blog, from the horrors of Mission Earth to the myopic morality of Ole Doc Methuselah, from the mediocrity of Buckskin Brigades to the flashes of competence in Fear and Slaves of Sleep.  We've looked at L. Ron Hubbard's very first novel and his very last work, and sampled his offerings from the Golden Age of Pulp Fiction.  And it's safe to say that Typewriter in the Sky is Hubbard's best story, something marked not just by an absence of flaws, but also with actual strengths and achievements.

Which means Hubbard peaked in 1940, sadly.

Typewriter in the Sky works because it takes something that's been done to death - the bog-standard pulp pirate story - and turns it on its head, lets us look at it from new perspectives.  We get glimpses of the writing process behind such stories during those chapters where Hackett is arguing with his editor, or discussing the writing process with a fellow author.  More significantly, within the narrative we're viewing it from the perspective of someone designated the story's villain, and so get see what it's like to have to play defense while the hero is out there somewhere preparing to ruin everything, how it feels to try to thwart someone the universe seems to be bending over backwards to help win.  It's everything Mission Earth wasn't because Mike is actually trying to oppose Bristol, and more importantly isn't a disgusting piece of brainless garbage like Soltan Gris - instead our antagonist is a likeable, normal guy who was forced to play a role by forces beyond his control and tries to do as much good as he can in a bad situation.

In the process, we get an atypical look at a typical pulp story protagonist.  It's hard to find anything heroic about Bristol - he's a pirate driven by rage and vengeance, with as much depth to him as a bloodstain on a sidewalk, someone who wins against impossible odds because the universe revolves around him.  In any other Hubbard story he'd be presented as a hero, but since this tale follows Mike de Wolf, we get a less biased account and so see just how frankly unpleasant all the Bristols and Yellow Hairs and whatnot really are.  By which I mean here Hubbard is actually acknowledging that the "hero" is a scowling murder machine wrapped in a thick layer of plot armor.

And even though we and Mike both know that Bristol is more or less fated to win, what would be boring if the story was following Bristol instead becomes exciting because we're instead following Mike.  Because we like Mike, and we want him to somehow prevail.  We see him fight to change the course of the plot and even succeed here and there, only for his victories to be cruelly snatched away with the sound of tearing paper.  So not only is there some real tension since there's no guarantee that the main character will survive, much less win, the fact that Mike is all but fated to lose means there's a sense of tragedy as the story enters the final chapters.

It's not quite a classical Greek tragedy where a fundamentally flawed figure like Oedipus or Jason is being set up for a fall by the gods as punishment for their hubris, since again Mike is basically a nice guy stuck playing a villain.  And it's not quite as bleak as the old Norse waiting for Ragnarok while knowing that even the gods were fated to die, since there is at least a sliver of hope that Hackett might change his mind and give Mike some measure of victory.  But it's a grim and fatalistic mood that makes Mike's initial success against the pirate fleet in the story's climax all the more satisfying, and his subsequent loss all the harder.

Contrast this again to Mission Earth, where none of us believed it when Gris "won" at any point, his defeat was both inevitable and too long in coming, and the only reason we rooted for Heller was because he was merely obnoxious instead of a sex offender.

Typewriter does have its problems, of course.  The way Mike ended up in a story is a bit silly, and the mechanics of how time progresses and events unfold within the story and while its author is writing it are a bit wonky, though these are hardly crippling defects.  More troubling are the moral questions raised by an author's ability to create and subsequently destroy whole worlds full of characters that Mike swears are real, which implies that any third-rate writer is unknowingly both a god and a mass murderer.  Which isn't to say that Hackett doesn't revel in the almost-divine power he wields as a creator of fiction... and I bet you could work those sentiments, even if they aren't expressed by Hubbard's actual author avatar RenĂ© Lafayette, into an examination of the mindset of someone who later founded a cult tax dodge perfectly legitimate religion.

At any rate, Hubbard probably did this to give more weight to the events happening within "Blood and Loot," so we treated the character deaths as gravely as we did those in less metafictional stories.  But this does run the risk of instead distracting the reader with worries that maybe authors should stop writing fiction altogether to save the lives of all those temporary but real beings they're killing for the sake of drama.  Or killing and re-killing in the case of poor Captain Fernando... which actually undermines Hubbard's point that these deaths are meaningful if they can be so easily rewritten.

But again, these flaws don't ruin the story.  Instead Typewriter in the Sky's biggest issue is where it falls in Hubbard's bibliography.  It's a story based around a fresh idea that deconstructs several industry standards and features engaging characters and an interesting plot - and it comes smack in the middle of Hubbard's pulp fiction phase.  Final Blackout came out just a few months before it, "The Slaver" and "Space Can" were published just two years later.  And as I've said, this story does everything right with the "villain as main character" conceit that Mission Earth did wrong, yet was written first.

And that's the big question this book raises - how can Hubbard write it and immediately go back to churning out schlock?

Typewriter in the Sky proves he can be creative, even groundbreaking, if you buy the hype in the book's blurbs and introduction.  The chapters with Hackett and Mike's commentary show that Hubbard is in fact aware of how formulaic and predictable these sorts of pulp stories are, and the book as a whole shows he can shake up that formula and do something interesting with it.  So why didn't he do more stories like this, metafictional pieces that skewer and deconstruct a literary genre even while having fun with it?  And more importantly, why didn't he learn from this experience?

Well, I guess he learned some things from it.  "The Last Drop" was a weird little story, "The Great Secret" was pretty far removed from the old formula.  The Ole Doc Methuselah stories were... formulaic in a different way, at least, even if the main character was an ass.  But none of these subsequent offerings were exactly good literature, and then came Masters of Sleep to herald the kind of author Hubbard was becoming.  So Hubbard's brush with good literature in Typewriter in the Sky at best changed the ways his other books sucked, and he forgot some of its most important lessons by the end of his career when he unleashed Mission Earth on an audience that probably didn't deserve it.

I can't offer much of an explanation for this, only speculation.  Maybe he just didn't see the flaws in his later stories and assumed he had grown out of his pre-Typewriter shortcomings.  Maybe he liked simple tales with simple heroes who always defeated simple villains more than he did writing about writing itself.  Maybe someone else wrote Typewriter and Hubbard hid the body somewhere in the Mojave.  Maybe it didn't sell enough for him to think doing more works like it was worthwhile.

So we can only wonder what could've been, what Hubbard's career would have been like if Typewriter in the Sky had been a launching point instead of a momentarily flare of brilliance, what kind of satirical takes on popular entertainment he might have penned instead of the "satire" of Mission Earth.  He probably wouldn't have been as prolific, but he also might have been known as someone who stood out from his peers and did things differently instead of being another example from the Golden Age of Pulp Literature.  Maybe the critical thinking skills he developed through this sort of work may have changed some of his opinions and behavior in his later life.

It's tragic, really.  Without Typewriter in the Sky, Hubbard's just an uninspired writer who got a little better, then considerably worse, over the course of his career.  With it - and taking into account parts of Fear and Slaves of Sleep - we can see him as someone who could have been so much more, who might have been a decent, even great writer.  All the ingredients were there, he clearly knew what he was doing wrong and how he could do things better, but...

Well, we've seen what he did instead.

1 comment:

  1. Is this the end of Mission : Spork? At least you could say the blog ended on a high note for Hubbard, which is pleasantly unexpected.