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An Admiration for the Novels of Tim Powers

Sunday, April 5th, 2020 | Posted by Gabe Dybing

Alternate Routes-small Forced Perspectives-small

Alternate Routes (2018) and Forced Perspectives (2020). Baen Books; covers by Todd Lockwood and Adam Burn

Tim Powers is my most favorite living novelist.

He has a strange sort of fame. The most obvious cause for his celebrity is that twice he has won the World Fantasy Award for best novel (Last Call, 1992, and Declare, 2000). He also has been credited with inventing, with The Anubis Gates (1983), the steampunk genre — though Powers’s friend James Blaylock shares some of this regard, for his The Digging Leviathan (1984). Finally, for whatever reasons, Disney Studios optioned his 1987 novel On Stranger Tides for its Pirates of the Caribbean movie of the same name — I guess the studio simply wanted the title, for, though I have not seen it myself, the rumor is that it (predictably) has nothing to do with the book.

My own introduction to Powers’s work was in 2000, with Declare, and that novel shook my sensibilities and attitudes regarding the fantasy genre down to their foundations. Years ago I explained how this came to be in a (fairly embarrassing — I had just begun to practice the form) sonnet to Powers in an email fan group. To my pleasure, Powers responded in kind, and then many members of the group likewise wrote sonnets.

Since I have thankfully lost that sonnet, I must explain again what Powers showed me, and I think it’s best to get my readers into my mindset at the time wherein I creased the spine of Declare. In those years, Nick Ozment and I were publishing Mooreeffoc Magazine, we were looking for a certain fiction for it, and we had entered into correspondence with Sherwood Smith, who (no better exemplified than in “Mom and Dad at the Home Front,” first published in Realms of Fantasy, Aug, 2000, and reprinted in many Best Ofs since) did exactly that.

[Click the images for more Powerful versions.]

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The Anubis Gates (Ace, 1983), On Stranger Tides (Ace, 1987), and Declare (HarperTorch, 2002). Covers by Don Brautigan, James Gurney, and unknown

Most affecting to me, at that time and even now, was a passage that Smith had first written as a child, from the perspective of a character who had found a new life in a fantasy world, now to be found in her juvenile work C.J.’s First Notebook (begun, I believe, when Smith was eight years old but published by YA Angst, an imprint of Norilana, in 2007).

… the part of Earth I lived on, and the time I was born into, was — to me — determinedly ugly. I can’t even translate some of the words that were part of everyday life — like cigarettes, and plastic, and smog. The houses were ugly, the clothes were ugly, the smells were ugly, but mostly (to me) the spirit was ugly. Most of the ugliness was perpetrated in the name of Progress, and was not ugly to the perpetrators. To them, cutting down all the trees and covering the ground with cement was Progress. To complain meant you were not conforming to the standards of Progress.

This passage spoke to me of the disconnected, ennui-laden suburban childhood that I had experienced. The person who I am now thinks that what I have just said is exaggerating the truth, but encountering Tolkien and his imitators, while a child, had put me in touch with a sense that something was wrong with the modern world. I wanted a small, “low-tech,” rural one, one in which I was conscious of having an unalterable place in the community and in which I daily was conversant with the natural world. I felt like humanity had fallen away from that consciousness, and that my preferred kind of fantasy was showing me — us — the way back.

Historians, philosophers, and other thinkers had told me I was mistaken, of course, that I was pining for a reality that had never truly existed (outside of a religious/spiritual sense that most thinkers likewise condemned as naive). And then Powers came along, with Declare, and showed me how my “fantastic” values and sensibilities might become integrated into the modern era.

Declare is a Weird spy novel, a mashup of two genres (just as Robert E. Howard mashed the Weird with Western and Historical and other fictions a century ago). But Powers’s mashup did one thing more — it was “real.” If my readers aren’t remotely familiar with Powers, the first thing they must know is that, by the time Powers drafted Declare, Powers’s method was to adhere religiously to the historical record. In fact, his novel (and all of those to follow) grew out of researching a point and place in time, out of identifying puzzles in that period, and then in writing explanations into the resulting absences — much in the way that conspiracy theorists always must have concocted their personal paranoias, I expect. Because Powers’s “dials had been set” (Powers’s own words), from an early age, to science fiction, his own stories end up being fantasy — at least, Powers calls them fantasy, because his metaphysical components don’t adhere to known physics, though he readily leans on the established, factual weirdness of the understood cosmos as analogies for his invented realities, which these days almost always involve ghosts and time travel.

Through this method, Powers’s novels have “re-enchanted” reality for me. If discoveries in modern physics, though wondrous, lack the numinous, Powers has re-invested the cosmos with personality. He even has enchanted the dross of regular existence. In a Powers novel, all those incidentals that daily surround us — be they a McDonald’s Drivethrus, Twinkies, or the movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure — achieve a kind of significance and transcendence.

In short, so many childhood portal fantasies left me pining for the Other. Powers has brought the Other directly to me and to my modern life.

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Last Call, Hide Me Among the Graves, and Three Days to Never. William Morrow/HarperCollins paperback editions (2013); covers by Adam Johnson.

There is more to praise. Another object of Powers’s power of sacralization is Literature. In a Powers novel, a reference or a scrap of poetry from our literary tradition becomes talismanic, perhaps a map to secret knowledge that has been right out there in the open, though disguised. Literature often is in communication with religious or spiritual beliefs. In fact, some Modernists believed — or hoped? — that, in the 20th Century, the written word would come to replace religion. Powers incorporates these religious systems, too, into his metaphysical performances. I prefer the narratives that adhere to a Christian Catholic worldview — Powers’s personal practice and my own — perhaps because they seem more “real” to me, since they reinforce my own personal perspectives. But Powers also has worked in the “pagan” tradition, most notably in his “L.A. Trilogy,” the one beginning with the award-winning Last Call.

In fact, this trilogy aside, Powers’s “L.A.” works also are my most favorite of his output. Powers has evoked many times and places — all of them, because of his consummate research, most convincingly — but his most compelling, to me, are those set in the region in which lives Powers himself. I believe this is called the Southern California (or SoCal)/Bay Area Region. There are anecdotes of Powers’s wife, Serena Powers, driving down L.A. streets and highways while Powers holds a video camera through a passenger window, nonstop recording the SoCal sights for writing reference. A reader feels this process, while immersing in a novel set in this area; the verisimilitude is palpable.

And this same sense of reality is present in Powers’s characters, dialogue, and action scenes. Powers himself has said that he chooses characters who are best suited for the story he discovers; very seldom, therefore, are his protagonists writers. When these characters interact, Powers must imagine spacing, background noise, or all around lack of comprehension. Sometimes these characters mishear or misunderstand each other, which makes for interesting dialogue as they work out their communication — or results in funny wordplay or mondegreens that persist throughout the novel. I swear that, for an action scene, Powers must block it out — possibly in an actual place. He knows every type of gun that every character possesses, what the capabilities of those weapons or tools are, where they are on the characters present, and what is required for their effective use. There is a passage in Hide Me Among the Graves (2012) wherein a crash in one part of a house results in a carefully described acoustical interaction in another. It’s at these passages that I would swear that the story is “real.”

Last Call Tim Powers pb-back-small Hide Me Among the Graves pb-back-small Three Days to Never-pb-back-small

Last Call, Hide Me Among the Graves, and Three Days to Never back covers; click for larger versions

A last feature of Powers’s writing on which I wish to dwell is his humor. For my first Powers reading experience, I laughed out loud when the “real life” character of Kim Philby, at the culmination of a climactic scene, unbelievingly declared (with a sense of being more emotionally than physically wounded), “You shot me in the back!” Any English instructor will appreciate the humor in the following passage from my favorite of Powers’s books so far (probably because it contains a protagonist who is an English teacher), Three Days to Never (2006).

“Huck Finn is told by Huck Finn himself, from his point of view.”

Suddenly unwilling to read whatever sentence might follow that first one, Frank Marrity let the Blue Book test pamphlet fall into his lap.

And in Powers’s latest novel, Forced Perspectives (2020), I delight in Powers’s observation of the sort of common minutiae that besets every one of us on every single day.

Castine went to the Internet Movie Data Base site and entered the title.

“Here we are, What’s the Hex?, 1966 — Not Rated, 110 minutes, comedy drama.”

Under the broad IMDb banner was a summary of the movie: A beautiful witch raises the ghosts of dead surfers to compete in a surfing competition, with SEE FULL SUMMARY >>

Castine clicked on the link, but the remainder of the summary was just: unfortunate results.

If I have to explain to you the subtle humor here, then I guess it’s just not funny to you.

These days, after many years of being with William Morrow, Powers’s publisher is Baen Books. I’m not sure why. In that same interim of time, the Tim Powers email group first went idle, then moved to a Discord server. I got no answers there. Baen has been reissuing Powers’s early works, a fairly complete collection of his short fiction (Down and Out in Purgatory, 2017), and two new novels featuring the same characters as protagonists — Alternate Routes (2018) and Forced Perspectives (2020) — both set in my most favorite Powersian, SoCal region. He also routinely publishes short, fine volumes with Subterranean Press; this material often gets collected into later anthologies. I see that The Properties of Rooftop Air, a tie-in to the famous The Anubis Gates is scheduled for this coming June.


Gabe Dybing has been a small magazine editor (Mooreeffoc Magazine 2000-2001), often a writer, and usually a gamer. He is most interested in the “northern” fantasy tradition and frequently examines intersections between that topic and gaming. For Black Gate he has contributed many articles, including pieces on Poul Anderson, J.R.R. Tolkien, and roleplaying games.

11 Comments »

  1. There’s a good interview with Powers online somewhere. I only mention it because my brother and I were discussing him recently. The interviewer asked him why his characters have this unusual relationship with alcohol. Powers wasn’t entirely sure. It was all the more mystifying as he’s not much of a drinker. Another thing that came up – in relation to ‘The Drawing of the Dark’ – was that he was commissioned to write this as part of a series dealing with various incarnations of King Arthur down through ages. He wanted to set the book during the Siege of Malta, but the publishers wanted the Siege of Vienna, so that’s what they got. Even though the mc is getting on (and Powers was only 27 when he wrote it) I think he does a decent job of capturing the mindset of some old warrior who’s slightly over the hill.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - April 6, 2020 6:45 am

  2. Thanks for the amplification! I often had wondered why Powers doesn’t drink—at conventions he often has in hand a can of Coca-Cola. I had created my own narrative, that he probably was a recovering alcoholic. Thanks for clarifying!

    I’ve read *Drawing of the Dark* one time, and knew about its genesis. In fact, I think that it, moreover, was supposed to be part of a series—originally published by Timescape books?—each novel representing King Arthur in different points in time, which accounts, a little more, for the editor’s niggling proscription, I suppose.

    Though *Drawing* is a fine and enjoyable novel—and considered a “masterwork” by at least one British publisher—I recently determined that I didn’t need it, permanently, on my bookshelf. I definitely consider it one of Powers’s “younger” works.

    Comment by Gabe Dybing - April 6, 2020 10:10 am

  3. Rereading my admiration, I feel compelled to enter a postscript.

    In *Forced Perspectives*, Powers refers to the IMDb as the “International Movie Database.” I can’t account for the error, and, in this article, I didn’t want to mar the words of my favorite novelist with [sic].

    Similarly, years ago, in a book club that was reading *Declare*, an elderly woman, who grew up Catholic and in Catholic schools, told me that Powers’s use of Latin was “wrong.” I can neither deny nor confirm this claim, though, at the time, possessed with zealotry, I professed that “there must be a reason.”

    Comment by Gabe Dybing - April 6, 2020 10:56 am

  4. I obsessively collect Powers, and have ever since I first read Anubis Gates when it was published (although I didn’t start collecting the limited editions until the early nineties or so.)

    He has a way of making you say to yourself…that absolutely could have happened that way. He is *the* secret history master.

    My favorites remain Last Call, and Declare, with Anubis Gates and….Dinner at Deviants Palace as my next set of favorites, although my favorites change occasionally on rereads :-)

    My Powers collection story is here: https://www.pornokitsch.com/2013/10/arin-komins-confessions-of-a-collector-tim-powers-edition.html

    Comment by akomins - April 6, 2020 11:32 am

  5. Also, am still waiting for the Charnel version of Forced Perspectives…and did you see the lettered state of Alternate Routes? With the etch-a-sketch embedded in the cover?

    I had to content myself with the limited edition of that one, rather than the lettered.

    Comment by akomins - April 6, 2020 11:34 am

  6. Thanks for the link to your article! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I’m sure my “special” collection is in no way as expansive as yours. I took a photo of it, but can’t figure out how to post it here, so here it is:

    The Bible Repairman
    Three Days To Never (of course)
    Nine Sonnets by Francis Thomas Marrity (of course, ingenious)

    Interstitial: Fatal Interview, Edna St. Vincent Millay, my favorite poet. Later, I heard she is Powers’s too! I shouldn’t have been surprised.

    A Soul in a Bottle
    Salvage and Demolition
    More Walls Broken

    Comment by Gabe Dybing - April 6, 2020 11:54 am

  7. I assume you’ve read Berlyne’s amazing bibliography – Powers: Secret Histories?

    Comment by akomins - April 6, 2020 12:50 pm

  8. I have not. I take it you deem it essential reading?

    Comment by Gabe Dybing - April 6, 2020 1:00 pm

  9. Yes, absolutely! Very much essential reading.

    Comment by akomins - April 6, 2020 1:09 pm

  10. Excellent enumeration of Powers’ powers, Gabe!

    I’m woefully behind you, having only read DECLARE and THREE DAYS TO NEVER, but I consider them to be two of the most powerful, compelling contemporary novels I’ve read — you articulate well here the reasons why (not to mention the kind of literature we’re drawn to in general, and why).

    Comment by Nick Ozment - April 7, 2020 3:24 pm

  11. …and just in case anyone hasn’t yet seen this: a look at the mysterious history of William Ashbless, with help from Berlyne, Powers, and Blaylock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwWRNitEOAI

    Comment by akomins - April 12, 2020 5:04 pm


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