A Conversation with On Stranger Tides
by Tim Powers
On paper, this book must be my favorite book of all time.
Let me rephrase that…in theory? Something like that.
What I’m trying to say is it should ought to be my favorite book. It’s premise is, basically, pirates but there’s also magic.
It ought to be my favorite book.
Why is it not? That’s the question I wanted answered by the Void. A question that I deserve, I think, after all this time spent contemplating the Void.
The Void hath an answer none.
Let me tell you what’s good about this book: it’s not silly. It has a hundred thousand opportunities to devolve into silliness. The cautionary tale which is The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise teaches us that if a premise exists with a strong danger of devolving into silliness it’s the premise, “pirates, but with magic.”
Which is a truth not to be avoided. On Stranger Tides bears the same name as a Pirates of the Caribbean film by no coincidence. It is, for worse or for worser, the book which vaguely inspired the quite silly fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film. And before you run away thinking I mean that as an unmendable burn, let me assure you that I rather liked the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It never quite betrayed itself, and for that reason it goes in the large bucket labeled “decent” where the films that I’d be willing to watch again someday go. So that’s meant as a fact of nature rather than any kind of acid burn.
On Stranger Tides could, quite easily, be a silly book. The fact that it avoids the billion little snares that ought to draw it down the path of silliness tells me that Tim Powers has got some of the best game going, when it comes to writing stories in English. I mean, you want a guy who’ll routinely make you say, “Well, that makes perfect sense,” to completely unreasonable ideas like that Merlin had a hand in halting the advance of Suleiman at Vienna or that at the heart of the KGB during the Cold War was a djinn? If that sounds like your bag, then none better a dude around than Mr. Powers for bringing the reasonable to the bonkers, which is what I like from a story.
On Stranger Tides had every opportunity to rise to the top of the scummy pond which is my literary memory, like a bog bubble raising an invisible rumor of dread from unseen depths, to leave a spore of a future fungus growth on top of the pond with the three or four other favorite pieces of literature that float there. And that may sound like a weird metaphor to describe my favorites, but I don’t really care. It’s the metaphor that works today.
And yet, somehow, On Stranger Tides didn’t do that. I read the whole thing. I enjoyed the whole thing. In theory, the whole thing bypassed all my doubts and spoke straight to my soul.
In reality, something bored me about the book.
I’m not sure what.
Unless it was the general feeling that it was half finished. I mean, it had a satisfying beginning-middle-end bridging activity going on, and I felt quite satisfied by the arcs of the characters. More so than a lot of books.
Which just goes to show me, maybe, that Mr. Powers on his off game is better than some other writers I might mention at their peaks. (Not that I can remember who.)
Because it felt like a whole story. It felt like a thorough story. Thoroughly researched, thoroughly told, with plots that held together and characters who made sensible decisions to accomplish reasonable goals.
And yet…I don’t know. It just felt like a penultimate draft, almost. Like Mr. Powers nearly finished, decided he didn’t care to go all the way, then left the manuscript unsatisfied, and turned it loose on the world with its completion bar at eighty percent.
I can’t quite explain what I mean. It was just in the general way it was written. Scenes felt nearly flat. Paragraphs said what they needed to, but didn’t necessarily say it with the beauty that some of Mr. Powers other books would say things. Mr. Powers often includes a good deal of poetry as heading material for the chapters in his books. He quotes the poetry that he likes, that gives emotional formation to the up coming chapter. On Stranger Tides didn’t have much poetry, and it gave an impression that Mr. Powers liked the book, but didn’t love it.
I don’t know, guys. I guess that if I want the book which to my soul speaks as if it be made by the same tailor, the book I thought I found here and found I did not, then I shall either have to look elsewhere or write it myself.
Still, this books has plenty in it for those of us who both wish that The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise stopped after the first movie but also, after the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, wanted more stories that could be described as, “pirates, but with magic.”