When Tim Powers’ recent novel Hide Me Among The Graves became available, half the speculative fiction fans I know cheered, and the other half said “Tim who?”. Have you enjoyed the recent Burton and Swinburne steampunk trilogy from Mark Hodder? How about Connie Willis’s time travel books? Did you like Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, or maybe Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon? If you answered Yes to any of those questions, Tim Powers is an author you should be reading. Also, he’s got some major street cred – when you and I were in pre-school, he was chillin’ with Blaylock and Jeter and helping define what many of us now know as steampunk. Tim Powers is truly one of my heroes of literature, one of the authors I go to when I need a comfort read, something I know I’m going to enjoy, something that is guaranteed to knock my socks off. When I first read The Anubis Gates around 10 years ago, I didn’t know who Powers was, but I knew I wanted more.
Powers writes primarily alternate history, but he does it in a way no one else does. He likes to use what I call the “pockets of I-don’t-know” theory, where he finds pockets in history where something odd was reported, where someone was reported acting very unusual, or went missing for a few days and wouldn’t tell anyone where they’d been, or just something strange happened. The fiction of Tim Powers lives in these pockets, he’s writing the secret history of what really happened. or as he puts it:
“I made it an ironclad rule that I could not change or disregard any of the recorded facts, nor rearrange any days of the calendar – and then I tried to figure out what momentous but unrecorded fact could explain them all.”
Intrigued? Here’s a few more reasons you should be reading Tim Powers.
He’s a “gateway” author. Go the bookstore or the library, and Powers will probably be found in fiction, not science fiction. He’s perfect for people who “aren’t really into all that weird scifi stuff”. Do you like spy thrillers? Try Declare, about Kim Philby’s true mission, which might have involved genies, and something horrific living on Mount Ararat. Prefer contemporary dramas with some suspense and maybe a smidgen of mythology? Try Last Call, which takes place in Las Vegas, and touches on some of the mythological opportunities that might have helped the luckiest city in the world, because destiny is the ultimate gamble, right?
The man is a master storyteller. I certainly have my favorite Tim Powers titles, but I can’t think of a single one of his books that is weak (The Stress of Her Regard wasn’t exactly my cuppa tea, but it was an astoundingly brilliant novel, and I should really give it another try). His novels are fairly dense and will require some concentration, but the pay-offs at the end, are just, WOW. This is the guy who showed everyone else how it was done, and he does it effortlessly.
Powers knows his stuff, which means you’ll want to learn more – Powers is a historian first. He takes the reported facts, and builds his story around them. If the history books state that someone was short with dark hair, and was known to drink at a certain tavern, then in the Powers version, the person will be short with dark hair, and the bartender will have their drink ready when they walk in the door. One of my favorite things about alternate history of this quality is that it always inspires me to learn more, and Powers always has me heading upstairs to non-fiction at the library, searching for things that i wasn’t remotely interested in three weeks ago.
the book is a hundred times better than the movie – On Stranger Tides. ‘nuf said. (my slightly spoilery review is here)
And best of all, he’s got a ton of books out there – Powers was first published in 1976, and really hit his stride in 1983 with The Anubis Gates (which I just finished reading. Review coming soon!). He’s been putting a novel out every two to three years for the last three decades, which means you’ve got a ton of work to choose from, there is something for everyone, and nearly anywhere is a good starting point. Here’s a link to his Amazon page, to help get you started.
Stay tuned for my review of The Anubis Gates, but in the meantime, let me know in the comments what your favorite Tim Powers title is. And if you’ve never read him, has this article inspired you to give him a try?