Friday, January 15, 2010

Part 4, Chapter 9 - Learning on the Job

The chapter opens with "The transshipment air was a loud clatter of hurtling shapes under the spring sun." I'm no English major, but this doesn't parse. Maybe the author meant "transshipment area?" Or maybe he just expects us to know what he's talking about.

Jonnie's chained to a dust analyzer, going deaf from the din and really wishing he had some safety goggles because of the grit in the air. His job is the throw a lever that makes the machine scan the ore particles, check to see if the "move on" or "dump" light goes on, and then throw another lever to either jettison or pass the cargo.

No, they can't get the most basic of AIs to do this, hush.

His supervisor is Ker, a chatty, midget (only seven feet) security risk, roped in on Terl's project due to some compromising photos involving two she-Psychlos. He and Jonnie have a shouting conversation while they work. Our hero asks what they're scanning for, and Ker reveals that even "one isotope" of "radiation dust" would cause a "spark-flash" on the Psychlo homeworld, were it teleported through. I'd be interested in what manner of physics would cause such a thing, but I doubt I'd be able to understand an explanation from a competent instructor, much less L. Ron Hubbard.

Jonnie has more questions.

"What about a solid piece of uranium?"

"You won't detect that."

"Would anything detect it?"

"We never ship it!"

Wha? If I'm reading this right... the scanners can detect uranium dust... but not a big chunk of it... because the Psychlos never intend to ship it... and no one would put some there intentionally, would they?

This is either some truly bizarre limitations on the part of their technology or an extremely idiotic design choice.

After a few days on the conveyor belt, Jonnie also learns that some radioactive dust could also cause Psychlo breathing helmets to blow up if there's a crack or something. Ker also explains that a nearby structure is the Psychlo morgue, where all dead employees are stored before being returned to Psychlo (the planet) for burial in the company cemetery. With such a vast and ancient empire, they must be up to their nostrils in coffins over there.

As to why they do this, it isn't out of respect for the dead, but paranoia - the Psychlos are worried their enemies might try to engineer something based on Psychlo metabolism. So I guess no Psychlo has ever fallen in battle and had his corpse captured. It's also an accounting practice, a way to do a "nose-count"... argh. The Psychlo have heads, but nooooo, L. Ron wants to add "character" to his created race and use an arbitrary body part to put a unique spin on an old figure of speech. Anyway, this is all to prevent employees from scamming paychecks on behalf of dead guys.

Oh, and all Psychlo breathe-gas is exported from their homeworld, the only place where a bunch of rare elements come together to make whatever fumes the critters use as atmosphere. Jonnie quite logically (for once) wonders why they haven't run out yet, but Ker breezily explains that "the elements are in the rock and even the core and it just makes more and more."

What.

You need plants and animals... if that were true, Earth's core would be nitrogen and oxygen and... it's a closed system, you can't just say the rocks are pumping out...

I've read fantasy stories whose systems of magic were better-developed than the science in Battlefield Earth, with carefully-explained rules, internal logic, descriptions of where the power comes from and how it is channeled, and so forth. Contrast with this book's science, which is used to justify the plot. Why does breathe-gas explode? So Jonnie can blow up Psychlos. Why does a civilization with drone fliers not have drone miners? So Jonnie can be taught the ways of the enemy.

In other words, Eragon's magic makes more sense than Battlefield Earth's science.

As part of his job togive Jonnie ideas about how to exterminate his species, Ker helpfully tells the human that there are sixteen minesites on Earth, with two power-supply substations, basically hydroelectric power plants. He even shows Jonnie a map.

Note that the substations are all automatic. Unlike the conveyor belts. Or the bulldozers or freighters or anything else Jonnie will be operating. I wouldn't say this story has plot holes so much as it has crumbling chunks of pseudo-plot drifting through a vast, cold, lightless abyss.

Jonnie swipes Ker's map, and starts asking more questions about Psychlo. After all, "when just one man was taking on the whole empire of the Psychlos in the hope of freeing his people, every scrap of information had value beyond price." One man who doesn't feel like working with his fellow humans, evidently. Of course, as a godlike Marty Stu, he doesn't really need help.

And so ends Part Four, a section where things happened, even if they didn't strictly have to. The next Part will be more like what this Part could have been if the last Part had been more like this Part. And everyone's favorite empty-headed, ambulatory plot device will make a triumphant return.

...pure science fiction...


Back to Part Four, Chapter Eight

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