Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Why Tim Powers?

Tim Powers (1952- )

You know how it is when you have a long list of worthy books to read, and you find yourself instead obsessively following up every title by some hitherto neglected writer? True, I've been reading Tim Powers on and off for years, but this summer I found myself going through his entire oeuvre again in a rather more systematic way, book by book, rant by rant ...

Here's a list of my own collection of Powers books. It isn't quite complete, as there are a few missing novellas and limited editions - short story collections, mainly - but I have all fourteen of his novels, from The Skies Discrowned (1976) to Medusa's Web (2015).

  1. Powers of Two: The Skies Discrowned & An Epitaph in Rust. 1976, 1986, 1989. Framingham, MA: The NESFA Press, 2004.
  2. The Drawing of the Dark. 1979. London: Granada, 1981.
  3. The Anubis Gates. 1983. London: Triad Grafton Books, 1986.
  4. Dinner at Deviant's Palace. 1985. London: Grafton Books, 1987.
  5. On Stranger Tides. 1987. New York: Ace Books, 1988.
  6. The Stress of Her Regard. 1989. London: HarperCollins, 1991.
  7. Last Call. Fault Lines, 1. 1993. New York: Avon Books, 1996.
  8. Expiration Date. Fault Lines, 2. London: HarperCollins, 1995.
  9. Earthquake Weather. Fault Lines, 3. 1997. London: Orbit, 1998.
  10. Declare. 2001. New York: HarperTorch, 2002.
  11. Strange Itineraries: Short Stories. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2005.
  12. Three Days to Never. 2006. William Morrow. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2013.
  13. Hide Me Among the Graves. 2012. Corvus. London: Atlantic Books Ltd., 2013.
  14. Medusa's Web. 2015. Corvus. London: Atlantic Books Ltd., 2016.

So who on earth is Tim Powers, some of you must be saying by now? His work falls into the SF / Fantasy genre, certainly, but it's hard to be more precise than that - I've heard him described as a Steampunk writer, but I'm not sure that that label quite fits, either. He is, really, unique and sui generis.

Which is not to say that he's much of a prose stylist. One has to put up with some pretty clumsy phrasing at times, some clunky paragraphs - not to mention odd lapses of historical verisimilitude (and some truly dreadful attempts to translate bits of dialogue into foreign languages).

Guess what? It doesn't matter. Even though many admirers of Byron and Shelley would shudder to read what he's made of them in The Stress of Her Regard (for instance), or of Coleridge in The Anubis Gates, there's a mad exuberance about both books which keeps one reading on, and which ends up constructing a pretty plausible series of alternate universes largely controlled by magic and the hermetic sciences.

I once read an interview [Brad Katz, Brow Magazine (21/2/96)] with Powers where he said that he'd been much influenced by Fellini in his early writing. He liked the way that there's almost always something going on behind the main action in a Fellini film: a couple of extras trying to carry a church bell, a bunch of kids getting into a fight. He's been trying ever since, it seems, to get that effect in his fiction - a sense of teeming life going on behind his protagonists' mad preoccupations: to revive the dead Fisher King of Northern California, to stop a bunch of alien spiders from taking over the universe, to exterminate the rogue genies who've infested Noah's Ark ...

Tim Powers: Powers of Two (1976 / 2004)

This rather handsome hardback collects Powers' first two books, The Skies Discrowned and An Epitaph in Rust (both 1976). He writes in his entertaining 2003 introduction to this reprint:
the publication of these two books ... had effectively deflected me from wanting to be a college literature professor; I didn't go back to graduate school. ... if it weren't for K. W. Jeter and Roger Elwood, and the heady experience of seeing those first two books in print, It'd today be teaching "Twain to Modern," and "Analysis of Literary Forms," and maybe - with a wistful air, I like to think! - "Creative Writing."
Bravo, Tim! I like that "wistful air." As one who himself teaches Creative Writing (and various survey courses not a million miles from the ones described), I know what he's talking about. I remember once confessing to John Dolan how much I'd prefer to be a Sci-Fi pulp writer than any kind of "intellectual" or "experimental" writer. He stared back at me. "Of course!" he said. "If we only had the talent!"

Who wouldn't prefer to be Gene Wolfe than Virginia Woolf, or - in this case - a kind of maverick hybrid of pulp fiction, period pastiche and perverse historicism like Tim Powers rather than a staid old English lecturer? Never mind, we give what we can - the rest is the madness of art ...

The books themselves are promising but a little embryonic: with quite a lot of Jack Vance mixed into their basic substratum of Philip K. Dick.

Tim Powers: The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

This book gives us the first glimpse of Powers' protean, Fellini-esque self. Loaded with detail (much of it referred to glancingly, in passing), it takes us through pre-Enlightenment Europe to Vienna in 1485 during its siege by the Turks. Merlin and Arthur are the principal protagonists, though in their latter-day avatars Brian Duffy and "Aurelianus": the stakes are no less than the soul of Europe itself.

It's a break-neck, rollicking yarn, and very entertaining to read, but not - in retrospect, at least - quite there yet. The essential parts of the Powers recipe are present, but the brew is still a little chunky and dark.

Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (1983)

Not so this book, which still has a claim to be considered Powers' masterpiece - the central exhibit of his early manner, at least. I was once stranded in Frankfurt airport by a snowstorm for a couple of days. I couldn't leave the hotel, and I only had one book: this one. I read it twice through in that time and it never palled. I could, in fact, pull it out and start reading it again right now. It's bloody good.

The story introduces Power's favourite Romantic faux-poet, William Ashbless, to the reader for the first time, and is endlessly, tirelessly inventive in its details. It ain't Shakespeare. Nor is it Dickens or any other high culture piece of fine writing. It has a punk soul, but it's also a kind of apotheosis of that page-turning trashiness that makes those of us brought up on them adore pulp paperbacks so much. What else can I say? Read it.

Tim Powers: Dinner at Deviant's Palace (1985)

This is a little out on a limb in Power's oeuvre. It reads, at times, more like his friend Phil Dick (Dr Bloodmoney, or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said) than Powers himself. But that's not to say it isn't good. As post-apocalyptic narratives go, this one is excellent. It's the kind of book his first two novels were aspiring to be (he admits in his introduction to them that he was already writing a book with this title before rattling them out in a hurry: two paperbacks in the same year). Nevertheless, I think he was right to complete it and get it out of his system. It is, in effect, a kind of alternate Powers: a slightly more predictable but every bit as accomplished writer.

Not really, then, quite, Tim Powers, though it did (like its predecessor) win the Philip K. Dick Memorial award.

Tim Powers: On Stranger Tides (1987)

This one had a recent vogue when it was used as the basis for the fourth film in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Students of the book could not have been blamed for not noticing, though: the resemblances are few and far between (coming down mostly to the presence of Blackbeard in both stories). It's a fine yarn (far better than the film, alas), with another of Powers' plucky and resourceful - but not omnipotent - protagonists, and a guest appearance from Ponce de Leon and his Fountain of Youth.

There are one or two interesting aspects to the historical research in the book, though. At one point (p. 140 in my paperback edition) there's a reference to the "murder of James 1st a century ago." This seems a little odd, since King James was not, in fact, murdered (he died of dysentery after a stroke), and introduces the possibility that this is supposed to be set in an alternate history analogous to Joan Aiken's in her Wolves of Willoughby Chase series. If so, he doesn't really follow up on the idea. Perhaps it's a fossil from some earlier, longer state of the book?

Of course, one could argue that it's actually a reference to the historical murder of King James the 1st of Scotland rather than James the 1st of England, but since that took place in 1437, it's a bit hard to see it as only a century before the present of the book (c. 1718). I bequeath this concundrum to more profound Powers scholars than myself.

Tim Powers: The Stress of Her Regard (1989)

Now this one is something special. So dense is the narrative, centering on Byron and Shelley's haunted summer (during which his wife's great novel Frankenstein was conceived), that one can hardly follow it at times. Nor is Powers' prose style quite up to the task he has set himself at times, but it remains a kind of masterpiece: a genuinely frightening and thought-provoking novel with enough inventiveness to power ten conventional plots. What isn't in there? I'd rather reread The Anubis Gates anyday than venture into this one again, but I have to admit that it scared the shit out of me, and persuaded me that readers really could take a lot of disruption in their fictional fare without giving in (hence, I suppose, some of the more intractable elements in my own first novel, Nights with Giordano Bruno).

Tim Powers: Last Call (1993)

This is the first in a trilogy and (I would say) by far the most attractive in the series. It takes on the folklore of Las Vegas in a really big way, and almost succeeds in creating an American occult mythology to rival those of old Europe. It was the first of his books to win the World Fantasy Award, and it certainly deserves it.

Tim Powers: Expiration Date (1995)

There's something monstrous about the picture of LA, full of hungry, talkative ghosts, portrayed in this novel. It reads more like the transcript of a nightmare than an amusing piece of derring-do. Re-reading it this summer, though, I found that there is some benefit in reading the whole of his "Fault Lines" trilogy in order. What seemed merely bewildering and repetitive the first time seems far more planned and deliberate in retrospect.

Tim Powers: Earthquake Weather (1997)

The poet John Masefield called one of his own adventure novels One Damned Thing After Another (or ODTAA). there's something of that in the endless (and mostly futile) attempts to bring Scott Crane (the Fisher King of the Western states) back to life in this culmination to Powers' trilogy. He does succeed in knitting all the loose ends together, but at a certain cost to the narrative pleasure principle.

Tim Powers: Declare (2001)

This one I didn't like at all when I first read it. It seemed almost perversely incomprehensible, and trying to link together too disparate a mass of material. On rereading it, though, I wonder what I was thinking about. I see it now as a brilliant fusion of spy fiction and Dan Brown-ish antiquarianism. I suppose reading more about Kim Philby in the meantime has helped me see the inventiveness and intelligence of Powers's portrait of the modern era's greatest double agent. Winner (again) of the World Fantasy Award, I'd now recommend it highly, but that earlier adverse reaction does remind me that certain aspects of it may be an acquired taste.

Tim Powers: Three Days to Never (2006)

This is a good, solid piece of Powers-iana. The characters are attractive and well-drawn, the action compelling. To someone not used to his style, it might be quite difficult to follow in parts, but to a Powers fan, this is pretty mainstream stuff. After all, there was a time when even Haruki Murakami seemed incomprehensible to most readers. In a way, I hope such universal acceptance never happens to Powers. Part of his edge comes from that sense of inhabiting a private universe with only occasional connections with everyone else's ...

Tim Powers: Hide Me Among the Graves (2012)

Wonderful. This sequel to The Stress of Her Regard (with many of the same monsters) allows Powers to go to town on the Pre-Raphaelites. Great stuff throughout, and very visual in its appeal.

Tim Powers: Medusa'a Web (2015)

Which brings us to Power's latest work, set (again) in LA - this time in Hollywood - and with a slight overtone of Shirley Jackson (both The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle - fans of either of those would find much to attract them here, I feel). There's something a little Dr. Who-like, too, in some of the action.

To be honest, I don't quite know what to think about this one yet. I like it, but it didn't grip me to the same extent as Three Days to Never. What is certain is that it shows no diminution in Powers' skills after almost forty years of scribbling - and 14 major novels. Thank God he didn't become an English Professor instead sticking to what he does best: benefiting poor suffering humanity as a spinner of wondrous tales.

Tim Powers: Strange Itineraries (2005)


Richard said...

Very interesting! Didn't know about this fellow. He looks good. I thought for a minute I might have once had a book by him, the Medusa book rang a bell but it may have been someone else. I have a book by a T F Powers (stories). And a some books by Richard Powers (unread). Intentions paving the way...!

But I will keep an eye our for this fellow also. Quite an achievement to read all the books of a writer. I rarely do that although Coetzee I like and his books are short, so. Also it is good that Beckett's plays got shorter and shorter. So I read a lot of those: and they were important in many ways. I have a lot of Brautigan, but haven't read all by any means. Also went on a Hesse binge once...Others of course in my teenage years. Some more recently.

But I do know that feeling, every time I read book A, I look sadly at the rows of unread fiction books and unread poetry...and I also have rows of unread non-fiction of all kinds, subjects of a large range, all looking fascinating.

Oh well, the main thing is to enjoy the reading.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I think you might enjoy his books, Richard: they're rather down your alley, really. Either The Stress of Her Regard or The Anubis Gates might do start off with: full of stuff about the Romantic poets.

best, jack

Richard said...

Thanks Jack, I saw a cheap s/h copy of 'The Anubis Gates' so I bid on it and a J G Ballard I don't possess.

I wonder how to reconcile the thinking of our friend Harold Bloom, the Post Modernists (however defined) and others on what is "great literature" (however defined)...I went through a stage of reading Sci Fi but I seemed later to have a block there, I think I had so much to read when I "got back" into reading / writing etc...actually for me reading IS my writing.

But with meeting of the various theorists of the novel and what art is etc etc well, (I know there used to be a Paper on so called "popular" literature...)...How do we define, clearly define, what is great lit.? Your EMO (for example) is out there and should have a following as I think your other books, but the libraries for a start have to classify such a book. People in some cases cant "place" such a book...And such classification and ordering is not always harmful, we need it or we wouldn't be able to find anything or get anything done. We tend though to overcompensate (is this in some ways part of the "message" of Smithyman's poem 'Peter Durery's Storey/ - I think it is also that we all think there is a higher group or higher organisation who know how everything works and are organised and very aware of everything, and in fact I think that is a good kind of thing up to a point, except when our trust is violated, and of course, life, reality, is not like that, hence the nightmare of the keys inside draws in the mise en abyme, and it is comical also of course....): so we have this locked inside that and so on, and for Bloom certain writing is outlawed as if he were re-writing The Republic. But I like reading Bloom (and Vendler, although she is poetry only) [may the gods of PM and Theory and The High-Low Eternal English Department forgive me my omissions!]: right now [as well as reading The Republic, I am just reading parts of his book about the KJB, and reading my ca. 1880 edition of the Bible also (the King James)....his enthusiasm for writing and literature is inspiring, and his vast reading: his idea of agons between all the writers is clever but to be taken with a grain or two...Then slowly he includes those once excluded...So, where would such as Powers be placed if we are to classify. It seems strange also that we do...Ballard is the other example.

I recall reading a lot of Sci Fi stories, I couldn't get enough of them. Many of the stories are good, but sometimes they lacked that poeticality of language and depth of characters etc...I think Ballard is (sometimes, he is MOSTLY great in atmosphere, ideas, tension, drama etc) a little weak on this and the only Philip K Dick I read, the Electric Sheep, I felt was interesting, but didn't really set me on fire. I did enjoy some of Assimov's I Robot things as the "logical puzzles" induced by the robot laws lead to interesting events and dilemmas...

But those writers who cross or mix things in interesting ways are the best I think.

It is o.k. to not want, say, Robbe-Grillet in the Canon if Bloom doesn't (I have no idea), but if it is just for a theory, it is not good? (Would Bloom "approve" of Powers, and do we care, does it matter who approves and or why?) We need to be open to everything. My tastes cant be the basis of a Canon...and, indeed, should there be a canon (he leaves off the Chinese writers as he feels they cant be translated properly but he has all other early writers, or many of them)....

But I think the contribution of Sci Fi to major contemporary literature is important. (If we are going to divide these things up into minor and major etc).