A bonus post for R.I.P. XIV (Readers Imbibing Peril) — what more could anyone ask of this week before Halloween?
Today, a YA trilogy drawn from Edison’s and Tesla’s rivalry that raises important questions about morality, mixed in with some scientific paradoxes:
Nick Slate, haunted by his mother’s death, discovers some odd items in the attic of his new home in Colorado Springs. Nick gets rid of most of them at a garage sale, but then realizes they’re Nicola Tesla’s inventions and tries to reclaim them — blender, fan, globe, bat, mitt, floor lamp, tape recorder, and so on — each seemingly harmless, until you hit the ON button. Nick’s efforts pit him against The Accelerati, a group of ruthless scientists who want to put Tesla’s inventions to “better” use (i.e., making money for them). Through the three books, Nick and his friends are involved in increasingly complicated and life-threatening scientific puzzles, barely managing to stay one step ahead of the scientists.
No spoilers here, so I will only say that Shusterman and Elfman have created a funny, frightening world full of imminent disasters, set in motion by a floor lamp. How does this series qualify as an entry for RIP? Well, for one thing, innocent adults and children meet some gruesome ends, but even more critical is the rising tension as Nick and his middle-school buddies search for and reclaim each “Teslanoid Object”. In Edison’s Alley, one chapter, involving the rescue of a musical instrument, left me shaking (yes, I succumb to suspenseful writing all the time, even when I know it’s “just a story”; that’s why I try to avoid certain books and films — I can’t take the racing heart and fear — yes, FEAR — that something bad will happen — and I’m NEVER WRONG — something bad ALWAYS HAPPENS).
These books are hilarious. The fates awaiting certain characters (good and bad) are perfect, and I couldn’t get enough of one student’s strangely apt malapropisms (“Every clown has a silver lining” and “Jealousy is a green-eyed mobster”, for instance).
Shusterman and Elfman often drop into a philosophical mood while Nick and the other students wrestle with seemingly random facts or deep moral issues. When one student starts to put two and two together in Edison’s Alley, the authors pull away from the story a moment to give us something to consider:
Humans have the uncanny ability to distance themselves from anything real. Sometimes, for their own protection, they create stories that pass for history because creating meaning is so much easier than searching for it.
In Hawking’s Hallway, a servant argues that she doesn’t work for an “evil genius” — she says that he’s “morally ambiguous”. This moral ambiguity is critical to the story, forcing us to decide how we would behave under similar circumstances. Does working for the enemy make you like that enemy? What if you’re blackmailed into doing it? Can we live with moral ambiguity? Or do we always expect clear demarcations between good and bad?
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, but, sadly, she is often a mother who dies in childbirth. Instead, invention is usually raised by its wicked stepmother: greed.
And, later in the same chapter: “Human nature is a dance between self-interest and generosity of spirit.”
Greedy self-interest vs generosity: Where do your dancing shoes take you?
“Fortean” = full of paranormal phenomena, from Charles Fort, who collected news reports of paranormal events (raining frogs, disappearances, etc) and who is briefly mentioned in Edison’s Alley. Shusterman and Elfman cram these books with all kinds of paranormal phenomena, none of which involve beings from other planets.