Empowered and the Super Friends … add in some Tim Powers and you have something that is so very, very, very … wrong!
OK, because I’m so jazzed about Tim Powers’ “On Stranger Tides” beng the official basis for the next Pirates of the Caribbean (PotC, henceforth) movie (instead of the unofficial basis, as it was for the first three PotC movies) I’ve started reading “Earthquake Weather” the last book in the “Last Call” trilogy.
It’s been hard slogging, to be frank. The best Tim Powers novels (like “On Stranger Tides,” “the Anubis Gates” and “Declare”) grab your brain and hurl it through story so hard and fast that after you finish the book your brain skids for a couple of days.
Earthquake Weather” is hurt by having too many protagonists and by long sections of exposition in which the many portagonists try to figure out the nature of the supernatural problems and perils they keep encountering. Now Powers is famous for doing extensive research for his supernatural stories, filling them with accurate historical details, telling facts, strange but true science and just plain fun, but if you don’t know the basis for all the supernatural background, things can get a little dicey.
It’s a problem because you frequently find characters making deduction and so forth that are not at all reasonably derived from what’s going around … so far as you know. In fact, in Earthquake Weather this phenomenon becomes so pronounced that for me it was a lot like encountering Super Friends logic.
And that’s a harsh, harsh thing to say. “Super Friends logic” is a phenomenon identified by the Internet blogger Seanbaby on the infamous Seanbaby’s Super Friends Page, perhaps one of the most malefic, hilarious examples of Internet snarkery on any topic known to man.
To be fair, the “Super Friends” -- a 1970s Hannah Barbera cartoon based on DC Comics’ Justice League of America series -- is a near-perfect target for snarkery. Badly drawn, badly edited, badly wiitten and badly voiced, it was a truly feeble-minded enterprise that insulted the intelligence of the two-year-olds that were undoubtedly its primary audience. But Seanbaby skewers it with such precisely placed barbs that you find yourself reading the essays on the various character over and over to because you just can’t stop laughing. (Wonder Woman’s travails with her invisible plane and Aquaman’s entire review are my faves … good stuff.)
When the Superfriends were faced with some puzzle or mystery as they fought their arch villainous enemies (also essayed, to hilarious effect) they would of course combine their brainpower to puzzle out the mystery. But because the writers knew the conclusion they wanted the SuperFriends to reach already, and because they didn’t give a damn about how they reached it, the “logic” employed by the SuperFriends tended to be a series of unsupported non-sequiters having no relation to each other at all.
Superman: All the Fishmonger could say before he died was “Purple monkey dishwasher,” so we STILL don’t’ know where Lex Luthor has stashed Empowered!”
Hawkman: Maybe we can figure it out!
The Flash: Wait a minute! Mountains are sometimes purple … purple mountains majesty … and volcanos are a kind of mountain!
Robin: And … monkeys fear lava!
Green Lantern: And dishwashers spew hot water, just like volcanoes spew lava!
Batman: (Batman always announces the conclusion, the writers undoubtedly hoping you’ll buy it because Batman is “the smart one”) “So, ‘purple monkey dishwasher’ can only mean that Lex Luthor has Empowered trapped inside an erupting volcano!”
And so the Super Friends would go haring off to the nearest erupting volcano and sure enough, there would be Empowered, bound and gagged but not naked because, Super Friends was a family show. Dammit.
This sounds like an exaggeration but really it’s not -- the non-sequiters that the Super Friends actually used in lieu of logic were every bit as ludicrous as the one I just made up.
Tim Powers is on the exact opposite end of the scale from the uncaring hacks who spewed out the Super Friends stories, stories so bad they insulted the intelligence of the toddlers who were its only audience. Yet, surprisingly, the effect of his well-researched, intricately plotted writing is the same. Let me demonstrate with this passage:
Kootie had lifted out of the cardboard boxes an electric pencil sharpener and now the boy carefully unsnapped its wood-grain printed plastic cowl. Underneath, instead of the crossed grinders of a pencil sharpener’s works, a thick stick of yellow chalk was attached to the rotor.
“This middle section is pretty deeply grooved from the last time,” Kootie said, peering at the chalk. “But we can attach the spring to a different section, closer to the motor, and I remember how Edison set it up.”
“I’m not sure Edison himself knew what he was doing,” said Pete.
“I remember how he set it up.” said Kootie.
“Fine,” said Pete. “Good.” He glanced at Cochran and smiled. “That’s our speaker, our receiver -- that pencil sharpener. Most speakers used induced changes in the field of a magnet to wiggle the diaphragm; we can’t do that, because an actual physical magnet would draw ghosts the way a low spot on a pavement collects rainwater. If we did this a lot, I’d hook up a piezoelectric quartz, or an electrostatic setup with perforated condenser plates, but this arrangement actually des work well enough. We’ll soak the chalk with water, and then attach the diaphragm spring to the surface of the chalk, which will be spinning when we turn on the pencil sharpener -- wet chalk is toothy and full of friction ordinarily, see, but it gets instantly slick when there’s an electric current going through it. The changes are variable enough and rapid enough to get decent low-quality sound out of the attached diaphragm.”
Cochran understood that the man was sociably trying to let him know what was going on, so he returned the smile, jerkily, and nodded. “Clever,” he said.
“It was better sound quality than a lot of the headphones out there,” said Kootie.
“I’m not dissing your old orisha, son,” Pete said mildly. In one hand he picked up a rack of glass tubes and in the other a glass cylinder that had a little metal rod rattling in it like a bell clapper. “I’m gonna take the vacuum pump out to the kitchen and hook it to the faucet to evacuate the Langmuir gauge. You might get everybody crowded into the laundry room, Kootie, or out in the back room. Out of this room, anyway.”
Earthquake Weather, p. 116-117.
As you can see, it’s a combination of Amazing Super Science and a kid’s science project, with a smooth patina of supernatural blah-blah-blah. It’s fine in small quantities, but Earthquake Weather is jam-packed with this sort of stuff, and after awhile, your eyes gaze over, if not out-and-out cross, and you start mumbling … pencil sharpener … wet chalk … TV set … jar of penies … bug spray … orisha … Langmir gauge …” of COURSE … THAT’S how you communicate with the dead!
True, it MAY possible to construct a speaker using a pencil sharpener and wet chalk , and you may be able to communicate with ghosts on a TV set if you set up the aerials JUST SO and do the proper chants (I understand this is how EVERYBODY got TV back in the 1960s) but still, jumble enough of that stuff together and what do you have?
Purple … monkey … dishwasher.