Monday 27 July 2009

3 Days To Never: Tim Powers

I hope that the trade vagaries that resulted in his latest novel being reasonably well distributed in India (this is the first of his novels I have bought here first-hand and within a year of publication - that I then waited an additional two years to read it is another matter) continue to hold good for Tim Powers' future novels. They're just that good. While his earlier novels are more diverse, he's been focusing on fast-paced thrillers that take some chunk of recorded recent history, re-interpret it in the light of wild occult theories and Powers' own unique approach to practical magic and result in what people call 'secret histories'. All this would be so much dry arcana without Powers' knack for creating flawed, credible and appealing characters and his gift for vivid, relentless narrative and tight plotting.

'3 Days To Never' is based on the concept that the nuclear bomb was not Einstein's most horrific brainchild; that he had delved into kabbalic esoterica and developed a device or technique that could, at different levels of application, allow you to erase an individual from the world's history, to travel through time, and at the highest level, to be mentally aware of all time and space at once; to be like a god. Einstein hid these secrets well. Rival secret societies - an obscure branch of the Mossad and a group of European occultists - are on the lookout for them.

When Frank Marrity and his daughter travel to Frank's grandmother's house in response to a very strange phone call in which the grandmother claims to have burned down a ramshackle old outhouse, they discover a long-lost paving slab with Charlie Chaplin's hand and footprints on it, a box of letters written by Albert Einstein and catch a glimpse of gold buried beneath the floorboards of the shed, which is still intact. Grandmother, however, is not - she was mysteriously found dying quite far from home minutes after she must have made the call to Frank.

Frank and his daughter soon find themselves in the midst of a vastly complicated game of spy vs. spy, as each side tries to get information out of them. The plot is complex - really too complex to keep track of at times. But Powers' narration, always grounded in his main characters' experience and impressions is what kept me locked in for the duration. As did the cast of variously noble, cantankerous, tragic or downright twisted characters - Powers has a particularly good line in villains, as usual. As in any time travel novel, there is at least one time-travelling character present. I won't reveal the time-traveller's identity, but it has startling consequences for one of the main characters, and makes at least part of the novel about who we are, who we might become, and how the choices we make, along with an element of pure chance, could some day make us unrecognisable to ourselves.

There was much more I wanted to touch on about this novel - the use of quotations from 'The Tempest' that make the story sometimes seem to parallel Shakespeare's play and add so much resonance to it all, the business with Charlie Chaplin, the supremely creepy Baphomet head, several other characters, but that would result in one of those reviews that wind up being a needlessly detailed plot-summary with a few appreciative gurgles tacked on. Instead, I'll end by saying that concepts like 'slipstream' tend to be bandied - and practiced - as if they were esoteric, ultra-hip and difficult disciplines. It takes a master like Powers to use the idea of melding together disparate genres to create gripping entertainment with both head and heart.

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