Saturday, June 6, 2015

Danger in the Fourth Dimension (#118)

Danger in the Fourth Dimension coverDanger in the Fourth Dimension is a dumb title. The measure most commonly called the fourth dimension is time. The danger of time is that in the end, it saps us of our vitality, gradually taking our youth and leaving only decrepitude before we eventually die. It’s a long-term danger, one hardly able to be done justice to in a 150-page children’s detective book.

Also: Frank and Joe are not subject to the ravages of time, the bastards. It holds little danger for them, given that it has been 88 years since their debut, and they are still going — not as strong, perhaps, but still going. All it will take is a decent movie or cartoon or TV show and — voom, they’ll be as strong as they ever were.

Anyway, that’s a little off topic. In Danger, Fourth Dimension is a sci-fi theme park in South Carolina. Fenton Hardy has asked his sons to meet him there to help with an investigation, but when they arrive, he has vanished. Frank and Joe are told he checked out suddenly, and they are left in South Carolina with no guidance and no idea what they are supposed to be investigating (other than where Fenton is). Seems like a bit of a flaw in the Fenton Hardy Inc. operating procedures, but what do I know?

I’m not going to go into the suspect pool on this one; suffice it to say when Frank asks himself, “Were Fenton Hardy’s kidnappers too clever for them?” (81), the answer appears to be yes. Frank and Joe have trouble even discovering what Fenton was investigating: the first person who says he hired Fenton is park designer Justin Maceda, who tells the boys he needed Fenton to find blueprints that were stolen from him, while Bayport-resident-on-vacation Ernest Brody says he hired Fenton to foil a retirement-community scam. Unfortunately, even after they get somewhere on the second case, Frank and Joe are completely unable to recognize the villains once they take off their wigs. (Danger retroactively devalues every time Fenton fooled the boys with a disguise in the canon, as they are completely unable to recognize a couple of mooks who put on wigs and costumes, and they are unable to recognize Brody even though he matches the description of the old guy looking for them exactly.) They manage to catch the ringleader (Maceda) only because he forgets to flee at the end, thinking his holograms will be able to hold off the Hardys.

Frank and Joe search for their father at a leisurely pace, making sure not to stay up late or put too much effort into the task. They could get others to help, but they do not. Do they alert park management? Not really; they’re not sure who to trust. That’s not a bad idea; security is so awful at the park that they hand out keys to the boys willy-nilly and do not react to massive failures in the exhibits or the Hardys fighting a man on a roller coaster. Do Frank and Joe call the police? No, because the kidnappers might kill Fenton if they do that. Also, the local police are awful; they think the only way to be able to arrest — not successfully prosecute, but arrest — the villains is to catch the two low-level scamsters in a transaction; I admit it makes a better case, but it’s not necessary. However, they say the only way to arrest — again, arrest — Maceda is to get his confession on a wire, which is stupid. They can get the two underlings to testify against their boss, and if they had just moved quickly, they would have gathered a huge amount of evidence against Maceda and arrested him without a chase. Hmm … perhaps this is why Frank and Joe are so remarkably successful: their competition on the law-enforcement front is pathetic.

So Frank and Joe have to race against time to save Fenton … except it isn’t much of a race. The villains keep threatening Fenton’s life, but they never do anything, even when Frank and Joe refuse to stop investigating. It becomes clear about two-thirds of the way through the book that either Fenton is dead or the criminals lack the stones to kill him — either way, Frank and Joe shouldn’t be deterred. I mean, they aren’t (ever), but they shouldn’t angst about it. Eventually they find Fenton, but not until they’ve been fooled by a hologram of Fenton (under the Hall of Holograms, natch). Really, without Brody, they would have been in trouble.

As a book, Danger is going to succeed or fail on the strength of the Fourth Dimension park. So what’s it like? The basic idea seems to be based around retro sci-fi kitsch — metallic-colored jumpsuits, jet packs, robots, automated homes, BEM (bug-eyed monsters). The housekeeping staff at the park hotel wears garish overalls, because what says “utopia” better than people wearing ugly utilitarian clothing semi-willingly? The cafĂ© in the park is called the Interstellar Snack Shop — not embarrassing, but I have trouble believing they couldn't have come up with a better name. The park uses a monorail for internal transportation. It has Epcot-type buildings called the Hall of Holograms, Biosphere, and the Science Fiction Exhibit. (The entire park is a science fiction exhibit. Perhaps it should be called the Science Fiction Museum?) The park also has a home of the future, which has a “rock-o-matic chair” — that’s exactly what you think it is, a self-rocking rocking chair. Rocking chairs do not need the improvement, although Maceda manages to almost subdue Joe with the chair.

It’s not entirely Epcot; it does have rollercoasters and a video arcade (with Mega Baseball!), and Frank and Joe play in the “Space War Gladiator Game,” although it’s not clear whether the Laser Tag-type contest is something park guests can participate in or if it’s some sort of entertainment for them to watch. The park also has a solar system mobile, which has scale-model planets hanging dangerously over the crowds; while standing under them, Frank once again proves a law of motion: a suspended object, once no longer suspended, will fall directly toward (but not onto) the nearest Hardy male.

But occasionally Fourth Dimension transcends its retro futurism. In a 1993 book that uses the “National Network” — “the network that links computers in universities and libraries,” which we call “the Internet” — the video arcade has working virtual reality games, which would be impressive today. The park has literal — literal! — flying cars and working laser pistols. I am not joking about either of these. What is described as a hovercraft flies over a low part of a roller coaster, and the book sells the idea that Frank and Joe are scared for their lives when shot at with one of the laser pistols.

It seems Maceda, the park designer, has created these devices — the same park designer who’s running a real-estate scam to get the money to open his own sci-fi theme park. If he wanted money, he should have sold the patent to the flying car he invented. The army would love real, working deadly laser pistols. It doesn’t matter if either is practical for large-scale manufacturing; they both represent such a step forward that companies would offer millions for them. But no, the guy decides to try to bilk the olds out of their money. Honestly … He was bitter against his boss because his boss sees the theme park “merely as a money-making operation” (35), showing he hasn’t thought about capitalism very much.

But hey — at least Fourth Dimension will stand as a lasting monument to Maceda’s genius. Or maybe not. The owner might sell it to Disney, who’d make it into a Star Wars park, or maybe it will just go under because Maceda isn’t there to contribute his innovations. Plenty of abandoned theme parks in the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment