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Issue #130 - June 2006

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The Physics of Metaphysics

By John Shirley

Tim Powers is his own genre. There are a few other novelists who write urban fantasy — de Lint and Gaiman, perhaps one or two others who attempt to bind physics and metaphysics, the spy novel with the novel of the fantastic, but none who move us with such proficiency, such deceptive ease from the gritty to the transcendent; who so excel at making us feel we too, if we follow directions, can travel effortlessly from three dimensions, to four, to five. Rudy Rucker’s glorious novelistic thought experiments, Spaceland and The Sex Sphere, for example, are housed in some distinct category next door to the categorical residence of Powers’ Last Call, his Expiration Date, his Earthquake Weather and Declare, and Powers’ splendid newest, Three Days to Never, so that the authors could talk companionably over the fence about strange backwaters of relativity, Einsteinian Cosmological Constants, and the terrifying perception-shifts necessary to negotiate the realm of the infinite. But their contrasts keep that fence between them: Rucker’s jazz-improv plots and off-the-cuff characterization contrast starkly with Powers’ elaborate plotting and rich characterization, and Rucker, a scientist (if a psychedelically tinged one) is not likely to identify with Tim Powers’ calm acceptance of the efficacy of ritual magic.

Recognizably influenced by Phil Dick, John le Carré and C.S. Lewis he may be, but Powers has created his own, personal, interior logic, his own pop cultural color-wheel, his own implied mythos — all of it somehow given more form, more definition, by what he believes philosophically, and rarely, if ever, directly says, though he came close in the masterful Declare.

In all his work Powers uses incisive, sometimes wry observations from conventional life to anchor us in the story, so that we’re never completely overwhelmed by the supernatural elements. His technique is partly his own, and partly drawn from outside the science-fiction/fantasy genres. John le Carré, Graham Greene and Len Deighton are evoked, for me at least, when I read exquisitely crafted passages like these:

Outside the vibrating window pane, the narrow trunks of palm trees swayed in the hard sun-glare over the glittering traffic on La Brea Avenue.


Oren Lepidopt had crushed out his latest cigarette in the coffee cup on the blocky living room table, and he held the telephone receiver tight to his ear. Answer the page, he thought. It’s a land-line, obviously it’s something that I don’t want broadcast.


The only sound in the apartment aside from the faint music at the window was the soft rattle of keystrokes on an electric keyboard in the kitchen.


…Marrity could see Grammar’s house ahead on the left — and he remembered riding his bicycle up the sidewalk here on many late afternoons in the winter rain, his canvas newspaper bags empty and slapping wetly against the front wheel fork, and the olive-oil taste of Brylcreem in his mouth from the rain running down his face.

It was tears he tasted now, and he quickly cuffed them away.

Set mostly in 1987, but sometimes the 1960’s and the early 20th century, making reference to 2006, and sometimes set outside of time completely, Three Days to Never is a variety of time travel novel. But it’s a time travel novel that ranges deliriously, incorporating back-alley warfare between a paranormal department of the Mossad and a secret society of diabolic mystics, with the folklore of the crypto-history underground (there really are people around who seriously contend that Einstein built a time machine), the physical implications of the metaphysics of the Qaballah, the unforeseen consequences of 1987’s Harmonic Convergence, dueling remote-viewers, and the liberal use of mediums. This last might seem a page out of Expiration Date, but the use of the spirits of the dead is fairly discrete in Three Days to Never — they speak against the usual flow of time, and a particularly creepy decapitated head, of startling parentage, is one of the means of talking to ghosts. There is a great deal more: Powers weaves in precognitive flashes, human sacrifice, telepathic links, interfering dybuks, astral projection (made weirdly believable), gun battles, magical amulets and very peculiar objects of power. In the hands of a lesser writer we’d probably be saying he "larded" these things in. They’d seem excessive, confusing. But those of us who delight in being caught up in Powers’ world, those of us susceptible to his unique brand of internal logic, don’t find it a whit excessive. We have to pay close attention, to parse all the players and the plot, but we don’t mind. The ride we take in this marvelous novel is glorious and gripping. And if we have a mind-bending panoply of the fantastic to absorb, we feel privileged to pay the price of entry — we accept it all as being part of the "physics of the metaphysics" of the grimly glorious Powers universe.

It should be noted that Last Call, Expiration Date and Earthquake Weather are linked novels, sharing more referents to one another than they do with Three Days to Never; they’re a kind of unofficial trilogy partly about the peculiar forms the legendary Fisher King takes nowadays (in Last Call, it was Bugsy Siegel for a while!) In Three Days to Never Powers is shaking off some of that mythos, breaking new ground — but this is still recognizably the Tim Powers Genre.

One of the main characters in Three Days to Never is a time traveler (I can’t tell you which character without committing a "spoiler"); the plot revolves around an effort, in 1987, by psychically trained elements of the Mossad to obtain a time travel device created by Albert Einstein, and utilized by Einstein’s friend Charlie Chaplain, so the Mossad can rewrite history more to the advantage of Israel. Meanwhile our primary protagonists, a widowered Literature professor, Frank Marrity, and his charming, Shakespeare-quoting 12-year-old daughter Daphne, are trying to stay out of the line of fire while investigating the bizarre legacy of Frank’s grandmother — a legacy formed of gold swastikas and columns of glass, secreted in her backyard shed, where time has a way of hopping nervously from foot to foot. (Is there a sprinkle of A Wrinkle in Time in Three Days…? Perhaps.)

Grandma, who used the ill-conceived Harmonic Convergence for her own mysterious purposes, ending her life with the use of her exotic contraption, had a mysterious relationship with both Einstein and Chaplin, both of whom are revealed, in Three Days to Never, to be part-time sorcerers themselves. Marrity has to protect his daughter — with whom he has a psychic link, making his acceptance of the paranormal events unfolding around him more believable — and uncover his secret links with Einstein and another more sinister figure who's hovering in the background, circling for the kill. The agenda of "the Vespers" — the ironically-named secret society, Cathars gone terribly wrong — doesn’t quite come into sharp definition, but we infer that one of its players hopes to use Einstein's access to the astral world — a.k.a. the dimension of eternity, outside of time — to break free of the constraints of individuality, essentially becoming a god, a kind of latter day Gnostic demiurge. The Vespers characters are reminiscent, to me at least, of the cold-bloodedly Satanic scientists in Lewis’ masterpiece That Hideous Strength, but spun through the methodology of modern-day intelligence services, all of whom, in Three Days To Never, are by implication dangerously self-serving, and frighteningly hermetic — even the more likable operatives in the special division of the Mossad are utterly ruthless when they suppose they have to be, apparently unconcerned for the damnation of their own souls so long as their nation is served. But that issue — the tension between service to the perceived greater good and the right and wrong we see here in front of us in the present moment, is a pivotal turn of both plot and character, at the bloody climax of Three Days to Never, and may contain the novel’s real theme.

Like the rest of us — like the people who must dodge the bombs of the Taliban and the warring factions in Iraq, or the bullets of the gangs and cops in Richmond(*) — Marrity and his daughter find their imperative is finally just to survive the megalomaniacs battling for dominance. In Powers, the only way to survive these monsters is to see them coming from afar — to learn to read the secret signs, to find the hidden trap doors in reality itself. This may be Powers-code for the Divine: turn to the higher to find your way out of the traps of the lower.

Magic has its own physics, its own definite, inexorable rules — an idea common to Machen and Lovecraft and others — but usually one has to enter some special world, some shadowy realm, to make magic come alive; whereas in a Powers novel the whole world is pervaded with magic — or at least magical potential. Every object is a symbol or a part of a symbol and every symbol has metaphysical repercussions. In Last Call, playing cards used by gamblers were subject to magical "tides" and could manipulate reality; in Three Days to Never a concrete slab with Chaplin's fingerprints in it — and Chaplain's supposedly-magical suppressed movie — are as important to the story as guns or Einstein’s machinchen.

Expiration Date frequently references Alice in Wonderland while Three Days to Never frequently references Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in such a way that the Shakespearean tale seems to be intersecting (not quite paralleling) Powers’ novel, which also invokes (as it were) movies extant in 1987, popular songs, Nazi history, and of course figures who have become popular symbols, Chaplain and Einstein. The impression is that under the fabric of the mundane world, the chatter of the media, the artifacts of history, is a secret realm of vibratory significance. It’s as if Powers is saying, the supernatural — or the miraculous — is actually everywhere.

[(*) Richmond is a California town north of Berkeley currently notorious for its gang warfare — Cheryl]

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