April 12, 2012
(++++) WHEN WORDS AREN’T ENOUGH
So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel. By Phil Hornshaw & Nick Hurwitch. Berkley. $15.
Big Nate 4: Big Nate Goes for Broke. By Lincoln Peirce. Harper. $12.99.
Sometimes you have to go beyond silly and sarcastic to make a point effectively. Sometimes you have to travel to the land of silly, sarcastic and illustrated. And that is where Phil Hornshaw and Nick Hurwitch go in their generally sophomoric but often hilarious So You Created a Wormhole. Certainly the words are important here – they take up most of the space on most of the pages – but as amusing as they are, they tend to deal with the expected time-travel topics, such as the paradox of going back in your own life’s timeline and discovering that your own mother was “at one time, pretty hot.” But “if you in any way prevent the meeting of your parents or the consummation of their relationship in the form of exchanging bodily fluids, it could mean the instant erasure of your existence, which could, in turn, implode the universe. Additionally, it’s gross.” And this is but a “paradox by action” – albeit one whose illustration of the right and wrong thing to do with an apron-wearing and clearing willing woman, presumably a maternal unit at an earlier time, makes the explanatory words almost unnecessary. There is also the “paradox by inaction” to consider: “It comes into effect when your timeline has already been affected by time travel and your own travel through time is necessary to set up events that have already occurred in your past.” And there is “paradox by predestiny,” which includes a nifty illustration of Alexander Hamilton, and “paradox of a general lack of understanding of paradoxes,” meaning that “the threat of totally mucking up time is never really gone, as any action taken in the past (or future) could result in a paradox. That, of course, totally sucks.” But it makes for great illustrations, such as the circularity of “grandpappycide,” the forms of time-travel machines (booth-based, portal-based, closed-loop, and so on), the picture of an insect-like alien emerging from a cryogenically frozen human body, and a portrayal of “The Close Enough Axiom in Action” (which means you “get reasonably close” to the future you remember after you inadvertently make a significant change in the past). Then there is the illustration in the chapter called “Surviving in Time: Prehistory,” and portraying the food chain as an inverted pyramid with a human at the bottom, “definitely man-eating creatures” at the top, and layers in between showing “probably man-eating creatures,” “man-eating plants” and “man-eating ameoba” (which is misspelled, but you get the idea). The illustration neatly expands on verbiage that goes, “You’re not even on it [the food chain]. You’re a smear on the snot guard at the buffet. You’re slow and have terrible hearing, poor eyesight and almost no sense of smell.” And so forth. There is also the illustrated good advice about surviving in the Middle Ages: “Always be prepared to accept the most popular religion as your own.” And the “Know Your Aliens” picture that includes “Sexy Blue-Skinned Alien Babe,” “Xenomorph” and Doctor Who. The fact is that a lot of So You Created a Wormhole is just plain silly, even childish, such as the Stone Age warning label about fire and the hundreds of footnotes (371 of them, actually). But everyone can use a dose of silly fun now and then, and this book is a good place to find some. Rather too much, perhaps – try reading only part of the book, stopping before you overdose on the forced comicality, then coming back later. And definitely keep an eye out for the illustrations: an average picture may be worth the traditional 1,000 words, but given the quality of the words here, the ratio is more like 2,500 to 1.
So You Created a Wormhole is for adults, although admittedly ones with a strong streak of immaturity; the Big Nate series of amply illustrated novels is for preteens. But readers of Lincoln Peirce’s books – the newest is No. 4 in a planned 16-book series – will be even more grateful for the pictures. These books are packed with them, yet these are neither traditional comic-strip collections nor ordinary graphic novels. Instead, they are novels in which cartoons by 12-year-old Nate and about him are ever-present and significant elements. Nate is a typical self-involved sixth-grader, a kind of slacker-in-training with his disdain for school (although he is actually smart), and he is also a good friend and an almost-inadvertent sort-of hero (one bit of kindness in Big Nate Goes for Broke actually leads to a break – of Nate’s wrist). Spike-haired (seven spikes) and prone to getting detention for disrupting class in various ways, Nate is himself a cartoonist (as Peirce says he was back in sixth grade) – and Nate’s cartooning figures into Big Nate Goes for Broke as well. In fact, thanks to Nate’s creativity and drawing ability, things work out quite well for him and his friends by the end of the book; and that is a good thing, since matters are pretty crummy for them in most of the earlier pages. Nate’s school, P.S. 38, sustains water damage and has to be closed for several weeks, so Nate and his classmates are temporarily assigned to Jefferson Middle School, their arch-enemy – a super-fancy place filled with nastiness and bullies (who unfortunately never really get their comeuppance, even though Nate and his friends do find a way to defeat them in one particular contest). A new character in this book is a girl named Dee Dee, who talks incessantly and is something of a drama queen – she is, in fact, in the drama club – but who proves to be smart, fearless, a good artist, and a particularly good match for Nate (who is clueless about this; maybe Peirce will explore the situation further in later volumes). The book is written as a simple-to-follow story about Nate’s and his friends’ adventures before and during their time at Jefferson; but every single page contains illustrations that either show what Nate and the others are thinking and doing – or are created by Nate himself to illustrate points he wants to make (such as the “P.S. 38 Dance Floor of Shame” and “Rank the Stank: P.S. 38’s Worst Odors”). The result is a very enjoyable hybrid format, not quite a continuous comic strip but not just a novel with plenty of illustrations. Readers may even learn something here, as Nate himself does, since his eventual success turns on finding the Achilles’ heel of the stuck-up Jefferson kids – which means learning what an Achilles’ heel is – which means getting information, reluctantly, from his big sister, Ellen – and which means using that information in a surprising and satisfying way. In fact, “surprising” and “satisfying” are two good adjectives for Big Nate Goes for Broke itself.