Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Part 3, Chapter 8 - I Liked It Better When Jonnie Was On Fire

Jonnie's a "mound of misery" in his cage, too blistered to make a fire, his eyebrows and beard scorched away. He speculates that the Chinko uniform he's wearing is fireproof, which gives us hope that one day Jonnie will die of an asbestos-caused cancer.

Bless the Chinkos. Poor devils. With their polite phrases and brightness, they had yet been exterminated.

No, the Chinko were exterminated because, despite being slaves to the cruelest and most merciless power in the galaxy, they tried a strike. Politeness alone doesn't get you killed, Jonnie. In fact, it can help you live longer.

So keep being your unlikeable, surly self.

There was one lesson to be learned. Anyone who befriended or sought to cooperate with the Psychlos was doomed from the beginning.

Jonnie doesn't wonder if it's just the Psychlo regime that's cruel, or if it's a racial trait. The idea of a good or even neutral Psychlo just doesn't seem to occur to him. They're all evil and worthy of extermination, it's as simple as that.

Terl had not made one motion in the direction of that burning vehicle to salvage him, knowing he was tied to it. Compassion and decency were no part of the Psychlo character. Terl had even had a gun and could have shot the flexirope in half.

Jonnie's judging an entire species by the actions of the one representative of it that he's had any amount of contact with. We'll see if these views change once Jonnie starts interacting with more Psychlos... not that it's going to stop him from trying to wipe out their entire race.

Terl shows up and blames Jonnie for the disaster, since he didn't know anything about remote controls and didn't check the tractor for them. He's being illogical and cranky, and Jonnie calls him on it, but doesn't get smacked. Then Jonnie informs Terl that there won't be an "again" for him to correct his mistakes. Again, Terl doesn't smack him.

You have to wonder why Terl hasn't killed Jonnie yet. His "trained humans" ambitions have been thwarted for the foreseeable future, and Jonnie has been nothing but trouble since his capture. As a slave, he's obstinate and defiant, and stupid enough to refuse an order from a being that could snap his neck one-handed. At best he was an experiment which proved that yes, humans can be trained as workers, but he has outlived his usefulness. Kill him and start over, maybe with a more cooperative captive.

Instead, Terl welds a new cable to Jonnie's collar, ignoring the man's attempts to squirm away from the flame. After that, he leaves.

Jonnie wrapped himself in the dirty fur of a robe and lay in sodden misery beneath the newly fallen snow.

Hint: we're supposed to feel sorry for him.

That's it for Part 3. We're now 111 pages into this nightmare of plot contrivances, unlikeable heroes, and unimpressive villains. Over a hundred pages of Battlefield Earth with nary a battle in sight. So far, all that's happened is that we met a caveman named Jonnie, who got captured by an idiot named Terl, and then tried and failed to successfully operate a tractor.

I was going to complain about how much books like Lord of the Rings, Ender's Game, the Harry Potter series, etc. accomplish in one hundred pages, how much character development and plot gets done in such a span. But maybe I ought to be thinking in terms of percentage, eh? This book's over a thousand pages long, so we're just over 10% into it.

...Which is a really depressing thought.

In Part Four, Terl hits the kerbango, searches for leverage, and continues to sow the seeds of his race's extinction. Until then, I'm taking a week off for the holidays.

Back to Part Three, Chapter Seven

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Part 3, Chapter 7 - Psychlo Humor

Cut to an unspecified amount of time later, as Terl prowls around in search of Zzt. He remembers how the crowd had laughed when the tractor blew, and how Numph had cheerfully made a joke: "Well, just shows you what animals can do. They pee on the floor!"

Uh... huh?

Numph old boy, you were doing fine until the second sentence. I mean, Jonnie didn't wet the cockpit in terror, unless our helpful translator cut that part from the previous chapter. The statement's just random and nonsensical, and certainly not funny. The important question here is whether or not this is meant to be a lame excuse for humor.

Anyway, after wandering past rows of stored "battle planes" and "blade scrapers," Terl's "earbones" (L. Ron Hubbard scoffs at cartilage) hear the sound of a blaster's safety being switched. Zzt got the drop on him, and holds him at gunpoint for a chat.

Terl accuses Zzt of installing a remote control. Zzt responds why not?, and adds that he threw in a remote mine, too. He also cheerfully reminds Terl that there are no witnesses to this confession, and that Numph saw him leave the field before things went wrong. When Terl demands why Zzt went through this bit of dickery, the other Psychlo accuses Terl of being behind the pay cuts, or at least not doing enough to stop them.

Our "villain" counters that Zzt just sabotaged his plan to help with the pay problem. Zzt thinks Terl's plan sucks, and quite reasonably posits that the human help would end up messing up the machinery. And besides, the explosion and foul-up was funny.

"Lots of things can be funny," said Terl.

Zzt motioned with the blaster barrel. "Why don't you just walk out of here and have a nice crap."

What is with the Psychlos' obsession with bowel movements? Is this a racial characteristic, or did L. Ron want to keep the foul language to a minimum, and instead had his big bads use grade school-level insults? Why couldn't he just throw some consonants together and make up some Psychlo curse words instead?

I should go back and do a tally of Psychlo uses of the word "crap."

Since Terl has no leverage over Zzt, he leaves the garage, soundly defeated. For his part, Zzt fails to kill Terl, which he could easily get away with at this point - he could make up a story that Terl was murderously furious about the tractor's failure (which is true), and that he blamed Zzt for it (which is also true). Shoot him in "self-defense," enjoy your vengeance, and cover your own back, especially since you just confessed your guilt like an idiot.

But instead, Zzt leaves Terl alive, so that the latter can get horrible revenge on the former later.

These villains suck.

We end just below the top of page 110. Next chapter we check in on our medium-rare hero.

Back to Chapter Six

Monday, December 14, 2009

Part 3, Chapter 6 – Terl's Big Day

The demonstration is held on a thousand foot square plateau on the edge of the Psychlo mining compound, coincidentally next to a two hundred foot-deep ravine. Hint, hint.

The crowd of Psychlos makes the earth tremble as they shuffle out to watch the man-thing try to drive. Terl's got a loudspeaker suspiciously similar in design to our own trumpet-shaped voice amplifiers, to give Jonnie instructions, and his pistol, to give Jonnie incentives. For his part, Jonnie's feeling uneasy, because "a sixth sense was biting him, like when you had a puma behind you that you hadn't seen. It wasn't Terl's threats. It was something else."

That's right, folks. Not only does our hero have perfect health despite living in a radioactive gully, rugged good looks, an enlightened mind that scoffs at tribal superstitions, an independent streak, ranger-class survival skills, and a superhuman learning ability... he's also got a danger sense.

Terl makes sure his monkey's leash is welded to the tractor's rear bumper, and then the show begins.

"Raise the blade!" roared Terl, through the horn.

Jonnie did.

"Lower the blade!"

Jonnie did.

"Roll it-"

It goes on.

Terl orders Jonnie to make a mound of snow, but Jonnie, either showing surprising work ethic or just showing off, does him one better and makes a square-sided, level-topped pile. While making his last run:

Suddenly the controls did not respond. There had been a prolonged whirring whine in the guts of the control box. And every knob and lever on the control panel went slack!

Since a cliff was described earlier, naturally Jonnie's headed right at it. He glimpses Zzt holding something in his paw - good eyes, Jonnie - and tries to bail out, but he is alas, tied to his vehicle. Can our hero extract himself from this precarious situation?

Of course he will. The book is over a thousand torturous pages long, and we're not even at 110 yet. There is no way our hero is going to die here. There is no suspense, no sense of danger, no excitement to be had. We merely keep reading and wait to be told how this super-special character manages to survive.

Something under the tractor's hood blows, and then Jonnie's ride is on fire. He grabs the "flexirope" (after so much exposure to "breathe-gas," this doesn't even faze me), presses it against the superheated metal, ignores the burns and blisters until the metallic cable melts enough to break, and then leaps free.

The tractor goes over the cliff and explodes, and Jonnie tries to cool off in the snow.

Whew. That sure was exciting. What heart-pounding adventures will come in the next chapter?

...Terl confronts Zzt. It's not as interesting as it sounds.

Back to Chapter Five

Friday, December 11, 2009

Part 3, Chapter 5 - The Chapter After Part 3, Chapter 4

Terl wakes up nice and early and spends a whole "cartridge" of whatever the Psychlos use for fuel to get Jonnie ready for the demonstration. He heads back to our friend Zzt to get some more... whatever... and Zzt agrees to give the old half-exploded tractor a look-over. And there the mechanic meets Jonnie, who is turning blue with cold.

Zzt is surprised that Jonnie can talk, and though the man-thing is predictably sassy in his response, nobody hits him. Zzt's even interested enough to ask if he can watch the demonstration, and an annoyed Terl nonetheless agrees.

Our villain goes to inform the mighty Numph that everything's ready, and finds the living fossil staring out a window with a saucepan of kerbango on his desk. He's acting either distracted or senile, as usual, and Terl only just interrupts him from canceling the whole thing by asking about his nephew, Nipe.

Dun duh duhn! This casual mention gets Numph spooked, and Terl is jubilant at the older Psychlos' fear. The jolt is enough to get Numph off of his decrepit backside and outside, along with some of his staff, to watch the demonstration.

Which doesn't happen yet. You see, this is just under three pages of... stuff. Certainly not action, but not filler either. The plot is definitely advancing, painfully slowly. It just isn't particularly entertaining or interesting, and I wonder why you'd call it a chapter, if just about every other chapter in this wretched book had been just as short. Better to trim it down, stick it at the start of a fuller, better chapter. Or just give up the chapter format altogether so that you have to produce a single, rolling narrative, rather than a bunch of short and potentially pointless scenes.

We end with Terl happy that he's closer to finding some wonderful Leverage over Numph, apparently discounting the prospect that his snooping will get him in over his head and killed. But this is Terl, who is both cocky and stupid, so it's not like this is breaking character. Notice that once again, he's not paying attention to the condition of the creature that his schemes and aspirations are riding on. Hopefully his man-thing won't get frostbite and total the tractor when the big moment arrives.

Ha ha! Foreshadowing.

Back to Chapter Four

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Part 3, Chapter 4 - More Like a Baron, Maaaybe an Earl

The mighty planet Psychlo, "king of the galaxies," basked beneath the forceful rays of triple suns.

Three things here. First, the planet name: yep, it's Psychlo. It's just one of those weird sci-fi conventions that every other species in the galaxy shares a name with their planet, even though we don't call our homeworld Human or Man, or ourselves Earthlings. Given the amount of creativity displayed thus far, it should come as no surprise that L. Ron didn't bother to come up with a new name for his Psychlo homeworld.

Second, king of the galaxies? I'm just going to assume that our oh-so-helpful "translator" has rendered some Psychlo concept as "king," since it'd be disappointing to learn that the alien race followed the exact same evolution of government that Earth did. Though you have to wonder, if they control galaxies, as in plural, why they're settling for "king." Why not "emperor of the galaxies?" Or simply "master?" Maybe invent a more grandiose term?

And third, triple suns. To my surprise, that's actually plausible. So I learned something from Battlefield Earth, imagine that.

A nameless courier is waiting on the latest shipment of material from Earth. We finally get a look at the seat of Psychlo power, the "king of the galaxies," the clenched fist that holds the universe in a chokehold:

Above him the mauve skies domed the purple hillsides of the horizon. All about him spread the smoke-spewing factories, the power lines, the tense and crackling might of the company. Machines and vehicles boiled in purposeful turmoil throughout the multilayered roads and plains of the vast compound. In the distance lay the pyramidal shapes of the Imperial City. Spotted among the outlying hills were the compounds of many other companies--factories that spewed out their products to whole galaxies.

So... yeah. Everything's purple, and there's a few factories near an "Imperial City" that likes pyramids. Distances and numbers are left vague, there's no real sense of scale, there's the stupid statement that these factories are able to supply entire galaxies on their lonesome, and that's about it. No real sense of majesty, certainly nothing to anoint this planet as "king of the galaxies." We don't even know if this follows the "planetwide city" convention other, better settings use to make their capital worlds impressive. Heck, there's nothing in that description that doesn't fit parts of Earth.

But Nameless Courier wonders why anyone would want to leave Psychlo, to go "live and toil on some forgotten light-gravity planet, wearing a mask, working under domes, driving pressurized vehicles, digging in alien soil? Or drafted, fighting some war on territory nobody cared about anyway?" And then it hits me - the Psychlo have mastered telepor-friggin-tation, but they haven't figured out their species' equivalent of terraforming.

Or robot miners.

Anyway, Nameless Courier sees a bunch of rocks materialize on the transshipment platform, and notices snow melting on it. Which means that yes, they're teleporting potentially hazardous materials onto their homeworld. Where does the melting water go? What does that do to their environment? Are there Psychlo cubs born with birth defects? What about oxygen, does atmosphere get 'ported too? Why isn't this planet a toxic industrial wasteland, if they're importing elements and compounds from countless alien, toxic worlds?

Whatever. Nameless Courier gets a dispatch box from the shipment, jumps on his "ground-go" - a Segwey? Go-kart? Pogo stick? - and makes his way to the Intergalactic Central Administration Compound. He hands the messages off to a clerk, and disappears from the story. Now we follow the Junior Assistant to the Deputy Director for Secondary Uninhabited Planets, Zafin... and a clerk who doesn't get a name or title despite being just as unimportant. Oi.

There's a "green-flashed urgent" information request from a security chief named Terl, who Zafin remembers requested a transfer five months ago. Terl is asking about Numph's connections to the main office. Zafin and Nameless But Just As Unimportant Clerk pass on that Numph is the uncle of the Assistant Direct of Accounting for Secondary Planets, Nipe. They also mark on Terl's report that he assigns too high priorities to nonsense, and to ignore further communications from him.

And that's it. That's all that happens in this three-and-a-half page cutaway from the "action" proper. We don't even get a good description of the Psychlo homeworld to make up for it, besides "purple + factories."

"The mighty, imperious, and arrogant world of Psychlo hummed on."

Whaddya mean hummed? Is its engine running noisy? How is it mighty and imperious and arrogant? Just because of its stupid nickname? The description certainly didn't...

Eh, screw it, chapter's over. Next chapter, Jonnie doesn't give his demonstration.

Back to Chapter Three

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Part 3, Chapter 3 - So Easy, Even a Caveman Can Do It

We skip ahead to Terl snickering at how stupid Jonnie looks in a huge Psychlo tractor seat, then immediately flash back to how they both got there. It's puzzling. Why do some trivial sequences get described in real time, while just as trivial sequences are covered in a neat bit of narration or flashback? What's the criteria L. Ron used to determine how to present his tiresome behemoth of a story?

Whatever. First there had been the Quest to Clothe Jonnie, made difficult because he's half the size of a Psychlo... and the little twit refused to wear purple. And then repeated himself after Terl smacked him for being so very, very stupid. Our hero is like a three-year-old. He doesn't wanna wear those clothes! They're the wrong color! If Terl physically forced a bawling Jonnie into a purple uniform, the little chimp would defiantly strip naked, folding his arms and jutting out his lip.

Terl, a terrible parent, caved to this negative behavior and got some blue Chinko fabrics for a Jonnie-sized uniform. Even though the stuff was "trash," nobody had thrown in away in the x number of years since the Chinkos were killed off. Jonnie also got an artifact belt buckle of plot significance, which bore the same eagle and arrows device as the stuff he found in the forbidden mountain and Great Village.

After that hubbub was the Quest to Procure a Vehicle, which ended in an outright brawl between Terl and a recalcitrant Zzt over what Jonnie would drive. It's really a shame that this throw-down was summarized in two sentences, because it's an action scene that the story solely needs after page after page of Jonnie in a cage. It'd give us a chance to see just how terrifying the Psychlos are in a fight, and really underscore their sheer physical power. It would help make them better villains, while at the same time highlighting the violent, hateful society they supposedly live in.

But no. Instead we get "Terl had hit Zzt hard and they had gone around and around for almost five minutes, blow and counterblow. Terl had finally tripped over a tool dolly and gotten himself kicked." Thrilling.

Since Terl lost, his pet is stuck with the 'dozer with the smashed cabin. Jonnie learns what color Psychlo blood is when he asks what all that green stuff coating the seat is, and then he asks why there's charred bits, which earns another whack from Terl. But the Pscyhlo does explain that there must have been a trace of uranium in the gold ore, which made the cabin's breathe-gas explode.

Keep in mind that Terl wants to mine gold from a radioactive area. Gold which could very well contain uranium impurities.

He also lets it slip that he can't speak English, thus compounding his stupidity for letting his rebellious servant know that the air he breathes explodes when exposed to a certain, reasonably common element.

After dooming his race to destruction in later chapters, and after showing Jonnie the basics of the tractor controls, Terl leaves his pet unsupervised, operating heavy machinery, so that he can take a nap. Y'see, Terl's been up all night trying to figure out what Numph was worried about in his never-ending search for leverage. Hours later, Jonnie's dug up his practice field, knocked over some trees, and even sliced them into pieces. This is the same Jonnie who has never driven a vehicle before today, never seen a vehicle before encountering Terl, who constantly mouths off to people who could kill him with one hand, and who was once bitten by a window.

Terl asks about the wood.


"Let's say I'm tired of a diet of raw rat, my friend."

For some reason, this insolence does not earn a righteous beating. Jonnie needs more beatings. I'm not worried about brain damage at this point, and maybe it could emphasize how he needs to take care when interacting with creatures twice his size that are holding him captive. But really, I'm just in favor of Jonnie suffering violence.

We end with a smug and warm Jonnie enjoying roasted rat by a roaring fire, examining his new belt buckle, which he can now read.

The disk said The United States of America.

The belt buckle said The United States Air Force.

So his people long ago had been a nation. And it had had a force of some sort devoted to the air.

The Psychlos wore belt buckles that said they were members of the Intergalactic Mining Company.

With a smile that would have frightened Terl had he seen it, Jonnie supposed that he was as of this minute a member, the only member, of the United States Air Force.

No you idiot. You are a Marty Stu who owns a remarkably well-preserved fashion accessory that once belonged to a member of the USAF. You have just finished driving a tractor. A tractor does not fly through the air, nor does it constitute a "force." There is no United States for you to belong to even if your tractor counted as a "force." You are stupid and I hate you and I hope you die but I know you won't and that angers me.

I'm also shocked that concepts of God and the apocalypse that devastated humanity have made it through the years in his tribe' oral tradition, but not the concept of nationhood or geography. But mostly, I hate Jonnie.

We end just above the bottom of page 99. Next chapter, we finally get a look at the seat of Psychlo power. Don't get your hopes up.

Back to Chapter Two

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Part 3, Chapter 2 - On Productivity and Urine-Free Floors

The first thing Numph asks about when Terl and Jonnie walk in is if there's a mutiny. The security chief assures him that the revolution hasn't begun yet, and shows off his "man-thing." Heh.

The second thing out of Numph's mouth is an order to keep Jonnie from peeing on the floor.

Terl gives his sales pitch, pointing out Jonnie's "manually adept" hands, and explains that a mutiny could be headed off if production was increased thanks to human slave labor...

Waaaait a minute. The Psychlos are a slave-using race. Why'd they exterminate humanity instead of enslaving us? They basically threw away a viable source of income, and if they're so damn invincible during wartime, they shouldn't have to resort to gas attacks to win an invasion. Were they just feeling lazy? Or is Terl's stupidity indeed a racial feature?

Anyway, Numph keeps interrupting Terl to ask if Jonnie's peed on the floor yet. He also complains about Jonnie's smell, which Terl assures him is due to Jonnie's uncured hide clothing. He proposes that they give Jonnie some proper garments, which shocks Numph - would a creature that wears crude hides grasp the purpose of a jumpsuit?

My "every Psychlo is an incredible idiot" theory just keeps gaining ground.

Terl asks for some requisition forms so Jonnie can try operating a tractor. The man-thing in question, meanwhile, is shrewdly studying his surroundings, taking in every detail of the dome's interior, and also getting a good look at the Psychlos, who he's seeing unmasked for the first time.

They were almost human faces except they had bones for eyebrows and eyelids and lips. They had amber orb eyes like those of wolves. He was beginning to be able to read their emotions as they related to their expressions.

Holeeee crap. All that garbage about "eyebones" was intentional. How did I miss that on my first read-through? And more importantly... why bone?

Lips are fleshy. They help us eat, serve as an extra sensory organ, and more importantly, help us speak. They need to be supple and movable to do these things. Bone is not soft and movable. If the Psychlo have rigid, bony mouths, they do not have "lips," they have what would be best called "beaks." And they probably couldn't talk, at least not in a way remotely similar to how humans do it. Strike one.

Eyelids are thin bits of skin that help protect the eye and spread tears across them. Again, bone is not particularly well-suited to these roles - yes, it'd be more durable than a thin layer of skin, but our eyelids are able to be blinked quickly to block bright flashes of light or incoming debris. Bone eyelids... I'm trying to imagine a rigid dome of calcium trying to rotate out in front of a Psychlo eyeball at high speed and failing. Strike two.

And eyebrows? Eyebrows are hair. This lets them catch moisture rolling down our face that would otherwise get in our eyes. Bony ridges would not do this job well at all, and would certainly suck at conveying facial expressions, which are the eyebrows' secondary role. Unless, of course, L. Ron is telling us that the Psychlos have strips of wispy, spindly bone structures clustered over their eyes, which is stupid even for this book. The things already have normal hair. Strike three.

In conclusion, the Psychlos look like humans, except they have wolves' eyes, furry paws, claws, and faces like fists, all bony growths sliding across each other like a horrific fracture. In other words, they don't look very human at all.

Jonnie also notices that while the other Psychlos they passed on the way to Numph's office looked at Jonnie with curiosity, they all glared at Terl in hatred. "Apparently he had some special job or rank that wasn't popular." Another amazing deductive leap from a man who was "bitten" by a window. Maybe Terl just has bad Psychlo B.O.? Maybe he cheats at Psychlo poker? He got a raise and they're all jealous? None of these scenarios are true, but there's no way Jonnie would know it. Yet he still manages to figure out the truth on just a minuscule bit of information.

"But then all the relationships among these people were hostile, one to another." You're one to talk, Jonnie. The elders hate you as a mouthy rebel, you glare at your family members until they do what you want, and you have two brainless females with an unexplained and total devotion to your will, which you return with cold distance.

Meanwhile, Terl's Leverage Sense is tingling. He intuits that His Planetship is bothered about something more than mutiny. But he continues speaking, and orders Jonnie to say something to show that he's trainable. Jonnie refuses. Jonnie is an idiot. Terl reminds the jumped-up little monkey that his face-mask is extremely removable. Jonnie tells Numph "I think Terl wants you to sign the requisitions so that I can be trained to operate a machine. If you ordered it, you should sign it."

Now, I've been hard on Terl in the past for beating up or otherwise endangering the life of his investment. But at this point, if it weren't for that demonstration coming up, there's no reason to keep Jonnie alive any longer. Jonnie is mouthy, rebellious, and above all else, thunderously stupid - he does all these things even after being threatened with physical harm for misbehavior. Simply put, he isn't slave material. Scratch him off as a flawed prototype and start over, Terl. Hope your next captive is a little smarter, and be a more careful handler.

Numph's reaction to Jonnie's words is to stare out the window, thinking about something else, before commenting that the man-thing smells awful. This is... actually somewhat effective. It reminds me of an instance in Terry Pratchett's Jingo when an arrogant aristocrat censors himself, ignoring words that "obviously couldn't be said" to him. Numph could be so shocked and appalled that this man-thing is talking to him like an equal, even offering advice (or orders, since it's Jonnie), that he simply refuses to acknowledge that it can talk.

Or maybe I'm giving L. Ron "eyebones" Hubbard too much credit here. Numph signs the requisition forms, and as Terl and Jonnie leave, asks if the human peed on the floor. End of chapter, halfway down page 95.

...Eyebones. What bizarre evolutionary path could have resulted in such an impractical biological set-up? And was this really the best alien species L. Ron could come up with? H.P. Lovecraft gave us things that were alien in every sense of the word - the Mi-Go, hybrids of fungi and crustacean, the Great Race of Yith, trumpt-shaped structures with specialized appendages, and the Elder Things, which were... I don't even know where to begin with those.

But all Hubbard can give us is some kind of bear-thing whose "alien" parts are so stupid that we hope they're typos.

Next chapter, Jonnie drives a tractor.

Back to Chapter One

Monday, December 7, 2009

Part 3, Chapter 1 - The Plot... Continues

I kept skimming ahead, trying to see when the action begins. The short answer is: not this Part. A longer answer is: not for hundreds of pages. All we've got to look forward to in the immediate future are scenes that would last only a second or two of a standard Training Montage, and a plot point or two that are new to Jonnie but not to us.

So buckle up! We're about to "blast off" with another thrilling chapter of Battlefield Earth!

We're with Terl and Zzt in the garage, and the latter is "throwing down tools, discarding parts, and generally making an agitated din." I'm imagining a monkey having a tantrum with a toolbox. Our vowel-less Psychlo is grumpy about the pay cuts that have arrived as prophesied, but Terl mentions that he has a plan that could solve this problem for everyone. All he needs is a little truck.

Zzt isn't buying it. He's suspicious because Terl was talking with the Planet Head before the pay cuts went into effect, and since the other guy doesn't have an official requisition form, Zzt gets back to tossing tools around and beating up on wrecked vehicles.

Lacking that holy grail, Leverage, Terl retreats and schedules his demonstration with His Planetship, then goes to check on his chimp.

Jonnie's apparently made hide tents to protect himself and the learning machine, since it's started to snow. He thinks Terl's taking him to pick up firewood, since the Psychlo promised that Jonnie could build a fire.

Wasn't that easy? I'm sure if you asked nicely, you could have stopped eating raw meat weeks ago.

Instead, Terl's getting his pet ready for a trip inside, which will require a breathing mask for the man-thing. Jonnie is confused until Terl reluctantly explains that the two of them have different breathing requirements, which you'd think a schmott guy like Jonnie could have pieced together by now. He gets a leftover piece of Chinko gear, and Terl has to explain (thanks to his "streak of sadism") that you use the past tense when referring to those guys, since they were dumb enough to try a strike.

"Ah," said Jonnie. It came together for him. One more piece of evidence that added up to the smoke on the belt buckle design. The Chinkos had been another race; they had worked long and hard for the Psychlos, and their reward had been extermination. It bore out his estimate of the Psychlo character.

The belt buckle he's referring to is Terl's. Back in Part 2, Chapter 6, there was a brief paragraph in which Jonnie connects clouds on this fashion accessory to legends of the end of his species. You can see a similar incredible leap of intuition in this paragraph, when Jonnie is able to determine how and why the Chinkos died from Terl's simple statement about them refusing to work when told. To most people, Terl's wording would suggest laziness or noncooperation on the Chinkos' part, but not Jonnie, no. He instantly deduces that the Chinko were steadfast and loyal, but betrayed by their masters - even though there's no indication that the Psychlo would have ever bothered to kill them off had the idiot Chinkos not tried a strike.

Also, keep in mind that all Jonnie knows about the Psychlos comes from his encounters with Terl, and those learning discs. In other words, he has decided that the species is a bunch of murderous, sadistic monsters because of personal experience with one representative. Terl + the fact that some Psychlos gas-bombed his planet in the past = all Psychlos everywhere are irredeemably evil. By this logic, Osama Bin Laden + 9/11 hijackers = every human is a terrorist.

For all he knows, Terl could be a bad apple, and the Psychlo race as a whole subjugated by a brutal, evil regime. For all he knows, the Psychlos could consist of the same mixture of good and bad that makes up humanity, and that some bad Psychlos conquered Earth without the support of the good Psychlos.

It's not like that at all, of course, but Jonnie's still being a bit judgmental and illogical. L. Ron is going to try to justify this xenophobic attitude later, in a way that... well, you'll see.

Terl explains how his mask works, and there's a bit when Jonnie makes him look bad by pointing out that Terl's not using them quite right since he hadn't bothered to actually read the directions - which again reminds us how staggeringly idiotic and incompetent this "villain" is. Terl threatens to pull Jonnie's mask and make him go into convulsions if he misbehaves. I'm generally in favor of Jonnie going into painful convulsions, but no luck this time. End chapter, at the bottom of page 93.

Next, by popular demand, more Numph! Also a house-training joke, which is on its way whether you want it or not.

Back to Part Two, Chapter Ten

Friday, December 4, 2009

Part 2, Chapter 10 - Shooting Yourself in the Foot by Punching Someone Else in the Face

Terl knew leverage when he saw it.

As a veteran security officer, he depended on leverage at every turn. And advantage. And blackmail. A method of forcing compliance.

Terl, honey, this isn't "leverage." It's informing you that the diet you have it on isn't correct. This is "protecting your investment." A dead man-thing can't dig up gold for you, can it?

Our allegedly cunning and nefarious villain stares at Jonnie. He (rightfully, for once) concludes that the human can't have any idea of Terl's plans, but wonders if "he had been too insistent, day after day, so that this thing sensed he wanted something out of it."

Terl, dearest, you're feeding it. You're taking pains to keep it in a cage. You're teaching it. It's obvious you captured it for a reason, either because you wanted a pet, bet a friend you couldn't teach a common man-animal how to behave at a fancy soiree, or for another purpose.

The Psychlo also notices, for the first time in months, that his animal has been burying its crap. When you're in Psychlo security, blackmail and manipulation are more important than basic surveillance skills, evidently.

Terl blusters at Jonnie, who replies that the snow and cold is damaging the machine. Terl laughs at the weirdness of having an "animal" speak to him and notices Jonnie's Chinko accent, though the man-thing lacks the dead races' bootlicking. He warns the human that his attitude is incorrect.

"My name is not 'animal.' It is Jonnie Goodboy Tyler."

Terl absolutely gaped at him. The effrontery. The bald gall of the thing!

He hit him.

The problem with this passage is that we're supposed to feel bad for Jonnie, as opposed to cheering Terl on.

L. Ron intends for us to be impressed with how unbowed and fearless Jonnie is, but the line between bravery and "too dumb to live" can be fine at times. I'd prefer a character who knows when to put on a harmless facade, smiling meekly at his captors, all the while readying himself for the moment to act. Guile versus suicidal bravado, in other words.

Jonnie's collar cuts his flight short but almost breaks his neck, and Terl stomps off in a huff. Halfway across the compound he pauses as two of his brain cells start desperately bumping together. Hey Terl, they say. I know we don't talk much, but remember how this human is key to getting all of us off this planet?

Memory stirs in Terl's kerbango-addled excuse for a mind, and he nods, drool trickling out of the corner of his slack jaw, his heavy brow furrowed in intense concentration.

Yeah. So maybe you should - and this is just an idea - not kill the linchpin to this plan just because it was rude to you? Unless you really want to go round up a replacement.

Terl lumbers back to the cage, picks up Jonnie, wipes the blood off his neck, and stands the human up in front of the table.

"My name," said Terl, "is Terl. Now, what were we talking about?" He knew leverage when he saw it.

What leverage?! "If you're polite, I won't let you freeze to death, even though this would ruin my plans?" "Work for me and I'll call you Goodboy?"

But never in their association thereafter did he ever address Jonnie as anything other than "animal." A Psyclo after all could not ignore the fact that his was the dominant race. The greatest race in all universes. And this man-thing--ugh.

You know, "ugh" really does sum up Jonnie pretty well.

...Wait, "universes?" First the Psychlos control multiple galaxies, and now universes? How?! L. Ron expects us to believe that in all existence, these guys are the most dangerous and advanced race? Good grief. The friggin' Ewoks would give the Psychlos a hard time.

This short but intensely stupid chapter ends halfway down page 85, and finishes off Part 2. In Part 3, Jonnie's training really begins, and it's just as exciting and thought-provoking as Part 2.

And yes, I took a few liberties with Terl's double-take. But he really does walk halfway across the minesite before he realizes that he might be making the wrong decision.

Back to Part Two, Chapter Nine

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Part 2, Chapter 9 - Of Drama Bombs and Other Explosions

The explosion had been sharp and loud. Completely unlike the dull roar that every five days shook the cage and compound.

Odd not to mention the regular earth-shaking roars two chapters ago, after the first time skip. Maybe Jonnie didn't notice them because he was learning the alphabet so hard?

Our hero has wedged himself in a corner of his cage and chimney-walked his way to the top for a look around. Theoretically, this means he could escape if he wanted to, since the anchor end of his leash is just looped around one of the bars. But I have a feeling that hasn't occurred to him.

Anyway, it's winter now, and Jonnie's scoping out a metal platform surrounded by wires and poles, adjacent to a Psychlo dome and a landing field. Cylindrical aircraft deposit "rocks and chunks of things," piles of vague but tantalizing "material," to put on a conveyor belt that brings it to the shiny platform. After five days, "the material on the platform glow[s] briefly. Then there would be a roar like a low thunderclap. And the material would vanish!"

So teleportation, okies. This isn't "a guy has no sword in his hand; bang, there's a magic sword in his hand." This is "there's a pile of 'material' on a platform; bang, there's no 'material' on the platform." Completely different, people.

Jonnie's seen this happen enough for him to be able to predict its occurrence to the minute (despite a distinct lack of chronometry), and knows that this latest boom is unrelated. One of the Psychlos' tractors or 'dozers has just exploded. Jonnie watches the work crew stuff a body into a "basket," and then Terl shows up.

Jonnie, in Psychlo, tells Terl that his teaching machine is broken. Terl replaces the battery, then indicates for Jonnie to get back to work, but our plucky human hero tells Terl that he knows all the discs now. His captor's face is looking "grim," but the Psychlo leaves and returns with a new stack of not-magical learning devices.

And then, after a deep breath, Jonnie tells Terl that "Man does not live on raw rat meat and dirty water." Dun-duh-duhn!

Well, Jonnie has. For months now. He didn't think to try to cook his rat, or bring up his contaminated water supply with his host before. I mean, obviously Terl wants Jonnie alive, or else the alien wouldn't be feeding him. Maybe feigning illness and begging for cleaner water would pay off? But nope, Jonnie's heroic and prideful and doesn't want to say "please," so he gets to drop this drama bomb. In a just universe he'd be dead by now.

Anyway, Terl... oh, that's it? Huh. The chapter ends at the bottom of page 83, and then the last chapter for this Part starts next page. Looks like it's gonna be a short one...

Well, this is a real cliffhanger, isn't it? What will Terl's response to Jonnie's audacity be? What kind of food does Man live on? Is the stench that not doubt surrounds Jonnie's pen strong enough to melt earwax, or can it be cut into bricks too? Tune in tomorrow for the excit... for the conclusion!

Back to Chapter Eight

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Part 2, Chapter 8 - Psychlo Economics 1010

It's now autumn. Terl has watched Jonnie ravenously consume as much information and teaching as Terl can provide, even if he "didn't even have enough sense to stand squarely in front of the instantaneous conceptual knowledge transmitter. Didn't it realize you had to get the full wave impulse to get it through your skull bones? Stupid."

Um, Terl, you're the one metaphorically giving him the recipe for gunpowder. Actually, scratch the word "metaphorically," I have a feeling chemistry lessons were on Jonnie's magical syllabus. He's probably like MacGyver now.

Anyway, Terl's a bit uneasy, because sometimes he sees danger in Jonnie's eyes, and more importantly, he's been summoned for a meeting by one of the executives. And so we meet Numph, Planetary Director of Earth, a decrepit old Psychlo rumored to have been sent to Earth as punishment. We first see him gazing out a window, gnawing on the corner of a file folder like a three-year-old.

...L. Ron, were you wanting us to take the Psychlos seriously? I know arrogance is supposed to be their fatal flaw, but they're coming across more as idiots, and having one chew on things when bored isn't making things any better. Every time I see them, I wonder how the hell they managed to get off their homeworld in the first place. It really says a lot about the rest of the intelligent races of the universe that they let a species like the Psychlos rise to power.

Anyway, Flumph wants to talk finances. The Earth mining camp is having trouble staying in the black, due to galactic economic fluctuations and cost of upkeep.

Numph tossed the folder at him. "Personnel costs. We have 3,719 employees on this planet scattered over five active minesites and three exploratory sites. That includes landing field personnel, freighter crews and the transshipment force. At an average pay of thirty thousand Galactic credits"-

Wait, "Galactic?" As in singular? I thought the Psychlo had holdings in multiple galaxies?

-"a year, that's C11,570,000. Food, quarters, and breathe-gas is averaged at fifteen thousand credits each; comes to C55,785,000. The total is C167,355,000. Add to that the bonuses and transport and we have nearly exceeded the value of our output. That doesn't count wear and tear, and it doesn't count expansion."

Hey, Psychlos? Ever considered automation? You know, robot miners, a simple application of technology you already use for gas drones and recon drones? You'd only be paying food and air costs for the robots' technicians, and though the initial investment would be greater, your work force would last longer, operate in more extreme conditions, work harder, and pay for itself in no time.

But that would prevent this idiotic plot from happening, so the Psychlos will use manual labor in the future.

Gumph is also worried about a mutiny once word gets out that they're slashing pay and bonuses. So Terl takes a gamble.

"We could increase our output," said Terl, fencing in toward his target.

"No, no, no," said Numph. "That's pretty impossible." He sighed. "We're limited on personnel."

That was cream to Terl's earbones.

...The hell? I'll let "earbones" slide for once, since yes, there are bones in the eardrum. But cream? The Psychlos regularly pour dairy products into their ear canals as a form of pleasure? Dammit L. Ron...

Terl raises the specter of executives getting lined up against a wall to get Dumph good and scared, then spills the beans about his little training project, which could potentially halve the local workforce - man could be trained in elementary machine operation, and wouldn't have to wear gas masks to work outside. Terl admits that there's only thirty-four in the nearby mountains, but says that there's thousands more on other continents. Plus, "they breed fast if given a chance."

So why are there only thirty-four of them in Colorado?

Terl promises a demonstration of Jonnie's mad tractor-driving skillz soon, but can't quite get Mumph to give him a blanket requisition. Still, Bumph is pleased, and Terl thinks the meeting went well. And then the old geezer mentions that home planet (which is named...?) sent a dispatch about need for an experienced security chief, but he turned it down and recommended Terl for another ten-year tour since he's doing so well here. Terl manages to make it out the door without throwing up.

The glittering vein of gold lay in the mountains. His plans were going well in all other ways. It would take perhaps two years to get those forbidden riches, and the end of this duty tour would have been a personal triumph. Even the man-thing was shaping up. Everything had been running so well.

And now ten years more! Diseased crap, he couldn't stand that!

Leverage. He had to have leverage on Numph. Big leverage.

What is with the Psychlos and their obsession with ailing fecal matter? Give me made-up profanity any day. We end just about halfway down page 81. Next chapter, more technological magic.

Back to Chapter Seven

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Part 2, Chapter 7 - Upgrade Artifact

The title refers to a particular trope, the relevance of which will soon become clear.

Days later, the mud's dried up from the summer heat, Jonnie's made a makeshift booster seat out of folded animal hides so he can sit at the table, and he's been furiously learning his letters.

No word on his water supply.

After a week... hang on. His people don't have a written language. How have they kept track of a calender? Bah, anyway, Jonnie has mastered the alphabet in English, and is doing the same for it in Psychlo... wait, there's no one "alphabet," there's an alphabet for each language. It's not like there's a universal set of sounds conveyed through different letters. Arabic uses sounds English does not, while a single character in either language can stand for multiple... oh, what's the use?

Anyway. Thanks to the "groveling" Chinko instructor "fawn[ing] in an agony of politeness," Jonnie can now "rattle off" the alphabet in English and Psychlo, including "all the different nuances" of how they sounded. Quite impressive. Jonnie must be a genius if he can figure out two alphabets in just seven days, especially with an instructor who cannot actually interact with him, answer questions, or explain things.

Still, Jonnie can't take too long, since the diet of raw rat will eventually kill him. Apparently our little genius just doesn't feel like starting a cooking fire. Terl visits each day to watch him train, his "eyebones" narrowing as he scrutinizes his specimen. Then one day, Terl surprises Jonnie by pushing the lever into a new position the human never managed, launching a speedy cross-association drill. He leaves while the glorified chimp is bedazzled by a slightly different effect from the Magical Talking Disc.

Jonnie wonders what would happen if he pushed the lever, currently in a down position, upward? The result knocks him out of his chair.

"It took him quite a space of travel of the sun-made bar shadows to get brave enough to try it again." Ah, it blew the concept of minutes or hours right out of him! ...Hang on, without a clock, how would he know what those are in the first... argh...

Turns out the Magical Talking Disc's secondary mode shoots a beam of warm, tingling light. He pushes his hand into the stream of energy, and moves closer:

And he heard, in the weirdest way, sort of with his head, not his ears, "Beneath the level of your consciousness, the alphabet will now go in. A, B, C..."

What was this? Was he "hearing" through his hand? No, that couldn't be! He wasn't hearing at all except for that meadowlark.

Soundless somethings were coming from the MACHINE!

I think I've figured out the math behind this. Knowledge = Power, Power = Energy, Energy = Lurnin' Rayz. Elementary.

Suddenly he KNEW that if all three sides of a triangle were equal, all its enclosed angles were also equal.

He backed up. Never mind what a triangle was or an angle, he now KNEW.

He went back and sat down against the wall. Suddenly he reached out with his finger and drew in the dust a three-pointed shape. He poked a finger at each inside bend. He said, wonderingly, "They're equal."

Equal what?

Equal each other.

So what?

Maybe it was valuable.

...I can't remember my reaction to this passage, first time through. Did I groan, drop the book, and take a break? Did I burst out laughing? Or did I just grit my teeth and push on, the movie adaptation having already spoiled this particular plot device?

After this revelation, "an unholy joy" lights up Jonnie's face. Nice of L. Ron to admit his Marty Stu is an abomination. Jonnie's life becomes "a long parade of disks, stacks of disks." He spends every waking moment getting blasted by Lurnin' Rayz, in the ultimate form of cramming. And why? He's gonna learn everything he can about the Psychlos, with one goal in mind: "vengeance for the destruction of his race! Could he learn fast enough to accomplish his purpose?"

Of course he does. We end at the tippy-top of page 75. Well, the chapter does, but I'm not done.

Two things.

Remember the author's introduction? I mentioned the learning machines back then, and here's why: fiction, to be credible, has to be based on some degree of plausibility; fantasy gives you no limits at all. Writing science fiction demands care on the part of the author; writing fantasy is as easy as strolling in the park. (In fantasy, a guy has no sword in his hand; bang, there's a magic sword in his hand).

...And as an old pro I assure you that [this] is pure science fiction. No fantasy.

What is there to say, besides "L. Ron Hubbard, you fail, you fail, you FAIL."

My other point concerns Terl. All he needs for this man-thing to do is dig up some gold for him, possibly as part of a team. Yet for some reason, Terl needs to teach him, not just enough of the Psychlo language to communicate his intentions, but also geometry, history, the whole works. There is a very practical reason that slave-owning societies took steps to keep their thralls from getting too educated - it helps them rebel! Why would Terl give Jonnie such power, such a dangerous advantage?!

The short answer is that Terl is one of the dumbest, most inept villains I've ever had the displeasure of reading about. A blundering moron whose cunning jumps all over the place as the plot requires, but is never enough to make him a credible threat. He's basically an enabler for Jonnie to become a super-special-awesome hero.

So there we have it. Terl is a fething idiot, and L. Ron Hubbard is a terrible science-fiction writer. Next chapter, Terl talks finances.

Back to Chapter Six