Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers
Time travel is one of the more commonly used science fiction tropes. For some reason, writers of all hues seem to believe such stories are easy to write whereas the reality is rather different. This year has seen a high point in The Coldest War and a low point in Looper. No doubt future years will contain similar extremes but, for once, it seems 2013 is going to start off with a high in the shape of Salvage and Demolition by Tim Powers (Subterranean Press, 2013). In terms of tone, I’m reminded of Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson which is a wonderfully melancholic story of a man dying because of a brain tumour. He becomes fascinated by an old photograph of a woman and finds romance with her in the past. The evocation of the Hotel del Coronado is delightfully detailed with the woman readily accepting this stranger as a lover because two psychics have foretold his arrival. If you have not read this book, you should. It deservedly won the 1976 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.
Moving to this new novella by Tim Powers, we have a dealer in rare books who receives three boxes of books and manuscripts to sell on consignment. It’s the third box that proves the trigger for travel back from modern times to the San Francisco of 1957. When he touches a manuscript and begins to read the first pages, the first disorienting harbinger comes in the form of a sudden physical and auditory illusion that he’s out of doors in the rain. He can also hear some music playing. Seconds later, he realises the walls and ceiling of the room he uses as an office are still securely in place and everything is reassuringly dry. Without spoilers, we then have various shuttle movements between the two times. In a sense, it doesn’t matter what the mechanism is. Unlike both Time and Again by Jack Finney and Bid Time Return which rely on a form of self-hypnosis, the force for this movement has its roots in ancient magic. But how this works is irrelevant. There are neither marvellous machines with flashing lights to impress nor ancient spells to chant in suitably declamatory style. We’re intended to focus on the people involved. Suffice it to say, there are physical and personal relationships at both ends of the time loop that entwine in a carefully choreographed way. Indeed, the particular magic of this plot is how meticulously the detail is introduced and then dovetails together as we watch the key players in their respective times.
Then there are some enticing questions to ponder. For example, when in 1957, why should our traveller give his name as Vader (aka Darth) and explain his “profession” as dealing in salvage and demolition, when he’s actually Richard Blanzac, a rare book dealer? In a contemporary setting, there can be innumerable reasons for concealing identity, but when our hero goes into the past. . . And then we have the following lines in the opening verses of the manuscript he reads,
His own will, print himself on this world!
He chose — and bit — and dimmed each future dawn.
Does this suggest our hero can manipulate the world in some way but, if he does so, that the outcomes will be bad? Obviously dimming the future dawns leaves everything in darkness. If taken literally that would be a disconcerting outcome. It might make Matheson and Finney’s movement by self-hypnosis sound rather safer. Then there are the following lines,
Two Streams: one flowing South, the other North,
As if from mirror’d Springs they issu’d forth. . .
Perhaps these words are somehow a metaphorical reference to the publishing practices of Ace Books. The series termed Ace Doubles sold two novels in tête-bêche format, i.e. bound so that each novel is presented head-to-tail and vice versa. Or it suggests everything should be in pairs as in the original and its reflected image. This could, of course, mean there must be a return for every going through time, or it could mean there should always be an even, not an odd, number of journeys to preserve symmetry and balance. Such uncertainties are a source of real delight.
As we’ve come to expect from Subterranean Press, this is a beautifully produced book and it’s delivering what looks to be one of the novellas to beat in the 2013 race to the awards. More importantly, Tim Powers has written another of his genre-defying stories. Salvage and Demolition is for everyone who enjoys science fiction mixed into fantasy with real world historical figures dotted across the fictional landscape in a not quite alternate history. No matter how you try to classify it by genre, it’s tremendous fun!
The dust jacket and impressive interior illustrations are by J. K. Potter.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.