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Three Days to Never, by Tim Powers, William Morrow, 2006, $25.95.
Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville, Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2007, $17.95.
LITERATURE and history both set out to explain the apparent world to us, to demonstrate, to witness. Literature does this by making up characters, events, populations, and settings; history, purportedly by amassing fact. But increasingly we understand that the divide is not so great as we thought. With history, we snare facts in our net, then go about trying to suss out their possible and always slippery connections. Our nets will only snare so much, and some of what they do catch, we throw back. History is finally as mutable as memory.
Fantastic literature, arealist literature, sets out to explain the apparent world to us also, while at the same time having at its heart the absolute certainty of other, often unsuspected worlds existing behind, to one side, or in the very same place as this one. It sets a frame around mankind's life and place in the universe, then steps outside the frame.
Fantastic literature has, as well, a fine tradition of brilliant writers more or less following Voltaire's admonition to cultivate their gardens—imaginary gardens which they proceed to fill with real toads. Writers tend by their nature to be outriders; and some of the quirkiest, those who seem not to fit in even among other outriders, are drawn to science fiction and fantasy. I'm thinking here of people like Alfred Bester, Carol Emshwiller, Gene Wolfe, John Crowley.
From 1983's Anubis Gates to Last Call, Expiration Date, and Declare, Tim Powers's work is as instantly recognizable as any of these. Taking limbs from dark fantasy, branches from the paranoiac visions of Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon, he has grafted them onto the currently popular subgenre of alternate history, bending history to his own, quite ahistorical imaginative ends, discovering in the process a singular and spectacular voice. His novels are crazy quilts stitched together from the most improbable material—slices and core samples, ragends and remainders of worlds that seem never to have been meant to coexist, much less collide.
In Three Days to Never we have (and this is the short list) a Shakespeare-quoting father and daughter, time travel, Albert Einstein, a rotting eyeless head used to communicate with the incorporeal, the Mossad, a blind assassin who sees through others' eyes, a lost Charles Chaplin film, 1987's Harmonic Convergence at Mount Shasta, a secret society in existence since Medieval days, ghosts lugging their perceptions and speech ever backward in time as their timelines are obliterated, broods of babies appearing whenever universes are breached.
We also have, of course, all the landmarks of Powersland to steer by: multiple story lines, heavy-duty plotting and characterization, the gritty and the fabulist chockablock, uncanny blends of cerebral invention and breakneck action, abrupt shifts in perception, casual use of ritual magic. And hovering above it all (as John Shirley has noted) the sense that beneath "the fabric of the mundane world, the chatter of the media, the artifacts of history, is a secret realm of vibratory significance." The sense that the miraculous is all about us.
The narrative centers about the search for a time machine invented by Albert Einstein, a device he recognized as far more dangerous than the bomb. It has resurfaced, and apparently been used, by an old woman who seems one moment to have been at home in California and, the next, dying on Mount Shasta during the Harmonic Convergence. On the trail of the device are Mossad operatives, agents of an age-old cabal, and, seemingly, an errant, runaway father. Not on its trail, yet at the intersection of all points, are twelve-year-old Daphne Marrity and her English-professor father Frank.
Here, from quite early in the novel when pieces of Powers's quilt first begin to come together, is Daphne discovering unsuspected abilities. She has been watching a videocassette of what she believed to be Pee-wee's Big Adventure but which is instead a lost silent film, a key—like the cement slab bearing Chaplin's handprint stolen from outside Graumann's Chinese Theater—to the time machine.
"And then the house lost its balance and began to tip over into the pit—for a moment Daphne couldn't feel the couch under her, she was falling—and in a panic she grabbed with her whole mind.Mossad, Vesper, sub-agent, or relative, each of the supplicants has his or her own agenda. Charlotte wants to undo her fall and return to innocence, by whatever means prove necessary; she believes that gaining access to the time machine will make this possible. Blind, she sees through the eyes of others, and is to the Vespers simply a tool, used much like the Baphomet head that terrifies her.
"She had lit a cigarette to kill the spicy smell of the thing….Mossad operative Lepidopt wants to undo the Yom Kippur War. In the last days of that war, as he touched the Western Wall, much of his hand was blown away, the blow leaving behind a strange prescience. Twelve times in the twenty years since, he has, in the midst of daily life, realized that he will do some one thing never again.
"In 1970, three years after he had touched the Western Wall for the first and last time, he had attended a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv, and as the last notes of the Allegro Molto echoed away, he had suddenly been positive that he would not ever hear Scheherazade again. "Two years after that he had visited Paris for the last time; not long afterward he had discovered that he would never again swim in the ocean…. Just during this last year he had, for the last time, changed a tire, eaten a tuna sandwich, petted a cat, and seen a movie in a theater…. " [39-40]Even as he, along with Charlotte and all the others, strives to undo, Lepidopt is himself being undone.
Everywhere here, Powers courts notions of private motive and public good, means and ends, utilitarianism, casuistry and the categorical imperative: the cracks, the crawlspaces, those jagged edges where lives have been torn away by violence, historical events, and personal suffering, and past which blows forever a dark, unappeasable wind. He reminds us that, just as the world we perceive around us may be only a part of the actual world, a single facet among many, an impression, so it may be with our time-bound perceptions of right and wrong.
Literature, it has been said, is a corrective to history. Reading Tim Powers, we are reminded how closely the two converge: how they help us try to understand, help us rise momentarily high enough to glimpse our place in mankind and mankind's place in the universe, help us go on.
There are few more fascinating world builders than China Miéville. Bas-Lag, the setting for Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council, is by turn grotesque and enchanting, ever strange yet oddly familiar, a refracting mirror that catches up elements and eras of our own world and throws them together in high relief. His powers of invention seem boundless, his sense of the intertwining of the personal and political quite unlike anyone else's, his sensitivity to language immense.
Fantasy hardly comes darker, or more illuminating of our own world. I regularly read pages of Miéville to my students—the opening of Perdido Street Station in particular, detailing the love between Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and the mute insect-woman Lin—and delight in watching students' eyes flare wide as they lean toward me, then, afterward, sit in silence. That, I tell them, is how one writes of the world's innate strangeness. That is what Aristotle meant by recognitions.
And now, from this spinner of some of the darkest and most complex work about, in four previous novels and in 2005's collection Looking for Jake, we have a young adult novel.
Miéville may be on holiday from Bas-Lag and New Crobuzon, but not from what most interests him. In no sense is this a watering-down or enervation, only a different way of getting at things. The internal dialogue has shifted, true—it is now with fairy tales and children's books rather than with tropes of classic fantasy, horror and science fiction—but the many engines of the narrative remain familiar. Even Miéville's political preoccupations are manifest: Un Lun Dun is ruled by a group of incompetent, corrupt bureaucrats called Propheseers; a war against the great enemy, the smog, exploits fear and claims of terrorism to consolidate power.
In some ways reminiscent of his first novel, King Rat, which was among much else a retelling of the Pied Piper legend set in an imaginatively reconstructed London, Un Lun Dun (UnLondon) is in part his version of the Alice in Wonderland books.
We have short chapters filled with whimsy, wondrous images, strange occurrences, odd comities, and dread.
We have a world where a book of debunked prophecies grows clinically depressed, men with inkwells as heads stroll about, buildings are composed of old typewriters and dead televisions, umbrellas flap and move about batlike, and a milk carton named Curdle serves as pet to our two adventurers, Zanna and Deeba. A world bouleversé, the forms familiar, their functions and import gone mysterious.
Miéville also takes his plot from the communal pot of YA fantasy: young person (here the Shwazzy, choisi, chosen) finds him- or herself drawn to another, unsuspected world to save it. But if nothing in our own world is quite as it seems, then neither is what Miéville dips from the common pot. In his version, the Shwazzy is down for the count from her first encounter with the evil smog, leaving the sidekick to carry on.
"There are fairy tales and debates with them all over the place in Un Lun Dun," Miéville has said in interview. And of weird fiction itself: "I think at its basic level, the weird…is a kind of pulp iteration of the estrangement that surrealism tries to create from everyday life." Thus the images in surprising, alogical configurations, the overlay of world and not-world, the reach for a convulsive beauty—all to the end of releasing us from the dailyness of our lives, to see those lives and our world anew: new focus, new frames, new wonder.It all begins sweetly enough:
"For the last few weeks, dogs would often stop as Zanna walked by, and stare at her. Once a little conga line of three squirrels had come down from a tree as Zanna sat in Queen's Park, and one by one had put a little nut or seed in front of her. Only cats ignored her." But then quickly, with cascades of the unkennable, the corner gets turned.
"Zanna spun the handle as if it were oiled. The noise of cars and vans and motorbikes outside grew tinny, like a recording, or as if it came from a television in the next room. The sound of the vehicles faded with the glow of the main road.Welcome, my friends, to Un Lun Dun. And to Miévilleland.
Here we have the latest work of two masters of contemporary fantasy. An alternate London, an alternate history of our time. Look over one shoulder and you can see behind them a long train: Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison, Philip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe, Jonathan Carroll. Consciously honoring yet extending tradition, Tim Powers and China Miéville continuously break new ground, reminding us what fantasy at its best—with its free-floating regard, its essential ahistoricity, its plummet to the archetypes within us—is uniquely set to accomplish.
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