By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1433) Tim Powers is at his best in Forced Perspectives. He managed to bring us this book last March, four years after Alternate Routes, a short time for him. He writes well – that’s one of my understatements, folks – but not, as he’s told us, fast.
I didn’t re-read Alternate Routes first. I don’t think you’ll have to.
He is, as we expect, imaginative, poetic, rooted in the world we know and branching away, realistic and strange.
C.S. Lewis advised what I call the One-Strange Rule: either an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, or an extraordinary person in ordinary circumstances. Rules get exceptions – does that have exceptions? never mind for now – but, or and, Powers does both.
I’ve advised The greater the reality, the better the fantasy. I didn’t have to advise Powers, he’s masterly at it.
As I said of another Powers book, and Samuel Johnson said of Shakespeare (it may take a genius to write about a genius; I’m doing my best), we’ve never met these people, and if as Powers says himself he is writing fantasy, we can’t meet them; but we believe that if we did, they’d be as he portrays. Such is the art of fiction.
Some years ago Bob Dylan sang “Nothing is revealed.” That was his art; not Powers’. If we see a man walking on stilts, with springs under his shoes – another Powers book – or a car painted all over with clown faces, we’ll learn why.
When one of Shakespeare’s characters says “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” he’s answered “Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them?” Of course that’s iambic pentameter. Powers has different fish to fry. His recipe isn’t particularly to sow doubt about the claim (nor is it always Shakespeare’s). In a Powers story they may well arrive. His recipe is Then what?
Another part of realism is Where did that come from? In a Powers story if a man has to swim a long distance under water, or shoot a handgun suddenly and well under great stress, we know how he can do that, and what it cost.
I’m reminded of a different careful fantasy author who made a modern man wield a centuries-earlier sword. The man was strong enough; nor did the foes he happened to be against call on him for much skill. He beat them. But he blistered his hand.
Not for nothing does SF have visitor stories, growing-up stories, investigation stories. Readers must somehow learn things the imagined world takes for granted. Forced Perspectives is an investigation story. The two protagonists, Sebastian Vickery – not his real name, as the old joke relishes – and Ingrid Castine, try to learn what’s going on. They’ve seen some of this before. They thought they were out of it. They weren’t.
Powers often writes what some call secret histories. Who, really, was Kim Philby (1912-1988; another Powers book)? How, really, did the sets for Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments (1923) get buried afterward in the sand and sea (this book)? Powers imagines the answer and tells us the true – according to his fantasy – story.
Another part of his realism – or, more technically, verisimilitude, the appearance of truth – is that he doesn’t invent everything. For this book he didn’t invent the notion of an egregore. He didn’t invent the Egyptian gods (or forces of nature? or demons?) Ba and Nu. You can look them up and see they’re what his characters say. Of course those sources you found might not have known – or told you – the real truth, aha.
There’s comedy in a Powers story. That’s hard to do, maybe harder in fantasy than in science fiction, which is already hard.
I’m not going to fall into the pit of trying to tell you what comedy is. I’ll suggest it has something to do with our recognizing That couldn’t be true. If I said to you What do you think, I can work magic?? you’d smile. But in fantasy the character who said that might be able to.
Anyway, two of my favorite moments in this book are “Isn’t either” (ch. 7) and “You have behaved in a regrettably high-handed manner all along” (ch. 17). Also you might recognize “Tension apprehension and dissension have begun” (ch. 15). I liked them. Maybe you will.
Once when Powers was being interviewed at an SF convention someone asked “Do you actually believe in this stuff?” He said “No. But my characters do.” As Gordon Bennett wrote, and Frank Sinatra sang, “This is all I ask, this is all I need.”