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the pathetic caverns - books by author - Tim Powers

eclectic reviews and opinions

Powers, Tim

Earthquake Weather

If you spend a few moments browsing the web, you can come up with a couple of interviews with Powers and bunch of reviews of Tim Powers' books. They tend to focus on how good Powers is at looking at some historical events and coming up with alternate connections that explain them at least as well as the presumed actual occurrences and the reasons behind them. Perhaps my favorite of his novels to date, for example, The Stress of Her Regard, combines a strikingly original and logical take on vampire legends with the lives of poets Keats, Byron and Shelley, includes the famous conversation which inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, and the novel's version of events is actually supported by (out of context) quotations from the poets' own work. (In a really weird coincidence, that same summer I read another extraordinary science fiction novel -- Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos -- which also used Keats as a character, albeit in a very different context, and the two works will always be linked in my mind.)

I don't want to downplay Powers's gift for constructing plots that are at once outlandish and compellingly believable — it is indeed formidable. But I want to cover some different ground.

It came to me, not long ago, that you could draw a sort of mutant, multidimensional Venn diagram around the whole of literature. (Although the diagram will have the most intersecting areas in 20th century works, I suspect, and it's not lost on me that the notion occurred to me when I was reading a stack of mystery books.)

A simple declarative sentence like "He got out of the chair" might appear, in that exact form, in at least a dozen novels. If you allow that pairs of sentences like "Veronica got out of the chair" and "Jack got out of the chair," or even "He got out of the chair carefully" and "He got out of the chair slowly" could be considered equivalent, I'll bet you could find the same sentence in hundreds of books. In fact, I'd bet that without relaxing the rules for "sameness" very far, you could find entire novels which are constructed solely out of sentences that appear in other works as well.

I don't mean to deny the virtues of the simple declarative sentence, but it strikes me that a novel with a higher percentage of unique sentences is likely to be better than a novel with a lot of non-unique sentences. Certainly there are places where a very plain, elementary style is thematically appropriate, but in general, I think, more original ideas are likely to demand more original presentation, both at surface and symbolic or thematic levels.

And one of the things I kept noticing about Earthquake Weather was that it didn't feel like it had a lot of sentences that I had read before. I tend to think that Powers is a better stylist than a lot of genre writers, as well as one of the least clichéd of modern fantasists. Here are a few sentences that I'd wager haven't been written before, selected more-or-less at random:

The sky beyond the curtains had been dark for hours, and the clock on the bedside table read 10:30, when the traditional Solville knock sounded on the door: rap-rap-rap, rap, in the rhythm of the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb." When she and Cochran had stepped out onto the devastated dark porch, and then made their unsteady way down the driveway to the halo of streetlight radiance at the curb, Cochran squinted back at the house: and in spite of everything that had gone before he jumped in surprise to see five — or was it six? — thin little girls in tattered white dresses perched like sickly cockatoos on the street edge of the roof, their skinny arms clasped round their raised knees. They had climbed in among the apartments, picking their way over the drywall and joist beams and aluminum window frames that had fallen across beds and couches, and shuffled carefully across springy, uneven floors, and stared at the body counts spray-painted by rescue workers on the pictureless walls.

I'll also mention that I continue to find the thematic use of alcohol within Powers' novels intriguing. You can get pretty far into the early novels, The Drawing of the Dark, with the notiona that the "Dark" of the title is some sort of malefic force (as it is so many Tolkein-derivative fantasies), when in fact it refers to a dark ale. Several of the books have had characters go off on a bender for a week or a month before rallying to do whatever they have to do. Booze, or the lack of it, or needing to stop drinking it, has played a part in virtually all of them. Earthquake Weather is no exception, with wine playing a fairly significant role.

Somewhat to my surprise, Earthquake Weather turns out to be the third volume in a trilogy that began with Last Call and continued with Expiration Date. This was surprising in part because I read the second volume without realizing it had any explicit connection to the first. This is the only one of the three that doesn't stand strictly on its own. I think Powers fills in enough of the requisite details, but I'm certain the story has more resonance if one is familiar with the earlier work.

It's a helluva story, anyway. It's got romance and adventure, ghosts, multiple personality disorder, a mad doctor, and a quest to restore a dead king to life. It advances the notion the Phylloxera, the pestilence which ravaged the great European vinyards in the last century, is a literal symptom of social ills. It's not the least bit silly. Some of it takes place in one of my very favorite real-world locales, the Winchester mansion in San Jose, built and rebuilt continually by the widow who inherited the Winchester repeating rifle fortune in an attempt to flumox the ghosts of all those dispatched by the weapons. It's the best science fiction novel I've read this year (unless I count Infinite Jest as science fiction, but despite a handful of genre trappings, one can't find that in the SF section of one's local bookstore.) I'd definitely recommend reading Last Call, just reissued in a handsome new edition, and Expiration Date, just out in mass-market paperback, first, though.

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