Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers

[Yet again, apologies for such infrequent posting. Strange days.]

More astute cultural observers than myself will note that On Stranger Tides shares its title with a recently-released theme-park-ride-based crapfest of a seafarin' movie, which (to paraphrase an internet commenter who I'd happily credit if I could ever find again) pretty much rolled tape while Ian McShane and Geoffrey Rush talked like pirates for two and a half hours, and still managed to suck. I don't know how I failed to pick up on the connection with the novel, because I did see the movie (who could resist the marketing pitch: "it's not nearly as embarrassingly awful as the last one!"), and have since convinced myself that I remember experiencing a shimmer of hope or sadness when "inspired by the novel by Tim Powers" rolled across the opening credits. In hindsight, it probably explains what a reprint of a 1987-vintage, not-his-best publication was doing featured in the bookstore aisle.

Good thing the book and movie had nothing whatsoever in common. It didn't even rise to the level of "based on." Well, it borrowed almost nothing. I guess Disney managed to appropriate themselves a catchy title with those rights, and to co-opt any competitors who might have otherwise been tempted to generate a screenplay about pirates, on the Caribbean, from something that was actually worth reading. And the book does have both Blackbeard and the Fountain of Youth in it, but that's thankfully the extent of things.

That alone is a funny thing. If you were to pile variously unrelated local legends (Blackbeard, voodoo, and that elusive fountain) into a summertime concession draw, or into a television show, or into anything, you know, popular, then I'd consider it as axiomatically terrible as the latest uninspired vampire mashup to land in the "paranormal romance" section. [That's both unfair and sort of true. The whole fantasy genre has been simmering various familiar stews for generations now, and that doesn't mean it can't get pretty damn entertaining now and again. Like everything else, it's all a matter of how you manage to work it all in.] Tim Powers is generally good at mixing up the fantastic elements with contemporary life or historical events, and when you're doing these things, it really only comes down to how much finesse you can use to stitch up your secret histories, keeping consistency with recorded facts as well as with the story itself. Powers pulls it all together with an indiginous and slave-borne magic that manages to survive in a part of the world that's not yet gentrified it out of existence. (It's only a matter of time, of course.) He's done his research (and, as I thoroughly bored y'all with a few years ago, I can't not like Voodoo, it's just so unapolagetically freaky and ad hoc), and maybe even too much of it, unable to resist a thoroughly anachronistic quasi-scientific explanation here and there,* but it all weaves its way together quite attractively.

Much as it's appreciated, this story almost doesn't need that deeper consistency. Powers is mostly giving us an adventure yarn, complete with its share of duels, magic, cannonades, walking dead, romance, sardonic wit, betrayal, and nautical terms. As far as the story goes, it keeps the pages tearing right along, and he tops himself with dramatic entertainment and imaginative weirdness with each chapter. John Chandangac, a puppeteer off to Haiti to deal with some legal issues, finds himself conscripted (as Jack Shandy) into piracy, and, increasingly, into strange worlds of magic and obligatory derring-do. It comes complete with treacherous villains and a packaged love interest, with rescues and satisfying comeuppances clearly in store. Good stuff, and I'll happily recommend it for all that. Combining good writing and that thought-through depth, it's miles ahead of the sort of thing you'd expect from a pirate book that got the eye of Disney.

It's a good thing all that detail-level momentum keeps things rolling. Were I to pause very long, I might have wondered about what Jack Shandy's character was even supposed to be. Though he's got a score to settle, a father to avenge, and later gets a girl to fight for, he still seems more than a bit unmotivated and (realistically enough) ready to quit whenever the going gets very tough. He's not really a hapless sucker pushed around by events exactly (Powers sometimes writes characters are like this), but he also isn't quite convicted enough to make it as a plausible action hero. He starts off as completely bored by Beth Hurwood, the distressed damsel, and it's a little unclear to me how she manages to turn herself into a legitimate love interest by story's end. Shandy takes opportunities to slack off or betray people to save his ass, then, randomly, take some exception on noble principles. (Well, maybe that's all fitting a pirate.) He's such a blank slate that I was waiting for Powers to reveal that he'd been pushed along more than a little bit by some lurking Loas or bocors, given that mind control was well within that magical universe, but the closest thing we got placed Shandy as, merely, some kind of prophesied doom of Blackbeard, which isn't quite the same thing, and wasn't put out there very well either. Similarly, his training with puppets emerges for a couple plot events, but it's unclear how that made him more generally suited for piracy (how it produced the required physical constitution, for example), or contributed to his hardly-existent character. I'd argue that the plot shapes up unevenly too, and some characters are dealt with oddly (for example, Blackbeard had been built up as an intimidating and nearly supernatural bastard, and giving him a sympathetic point of view for three pages mid-story was a huge-ass mistake), or not enough, or dispatched before their time, only to let the long-telegraphed events finally emerge as a pretty significant anti-climax. It ends up a good book that with a few nips and trims could have been awesome. Ah well, it rips and roars enough that you'll hardly notice.

*Sorry to be so discursive, but this really interests me. The first one of these instances that I remember had the gang experience the magical fountain as a space palpably dead of possibility. The resident magician divulged an 18th-century version of quantum mechanics, explaining that the role of probabilities in subatomic nature had become fucked up in its vicinity. Now, you want to be careful about going too far when you import modern sensibilities into period literature (Powers probably went a little too far in manufacturing modern-minded characters too), and we've all seen those terrible movies where some classical villain's doomsday device looks suspciously like something out of 20th-century physics class. I don't think Powers handled this one much better you might get in a crappy skiffy flick.

Could he have done better? I mean, quantum mechanics has become essential to our understanding of nature, and the idea that the universe has aspects that can be described as probabilistic was a revolutionary advance in humanity's conception of things. Given that this is the understanding that Powers wants us readers to work with, could the character have better got there with the sort of book-learning, however abstruse, that was available in 1718? Or to look at it another way, could an open-minded seeker of secret knowledge found some other completely contemporary way to describe quantum reality if we can accept that he'd somehow been priveleged to the amazing secrets of the universe. I mean, in one sense, quantum is still just a description of the underlying reality, and while it's been made to be a reasonably accurate one, it's not not any less metaphorical than your standard selection of angels dancing on pinheads. With enough rigor, could a system of animating spirits be made as accurate as QM? Maybe I just want Ben Hurwood to use more convincing period language.

I should add that later in the book (too late in the book really), Powers tries this trick again trying to tie up the magic of iron into the story of the old and new worlds, and that second time it came out pitch perfect, and also funny. A character, now loopy with extreme age, observes that it's blood magic really, and celestial magic. Shandy is incredulous that anyone would think iron is in our blood. Exhaled from stars? That's crazy talk!


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Blogging Profits Unleashed said...

Probably one of the most entertaining books I've ever read. This is is the more famous of Powers' work, the only other book of his I have read to date is The Anubis Gates.