Tim Powers: Salvage and Demolition

Time travel stories are notoriously tricky to get right. Doctor Who and its multiple versions of the destruction of Atlantis aside (it’s the pre-Eccleston stuff. Go back and check. I’ll wait) there are a nigh-infinite number of ways the aspiring time travel fictioneer can stumble over their own conceit. Unintentional paradox, feedback loops, unresolved plot holes or just plain overcomplication – all of these can derail a time travel plotline thoroughly and absolutely. A single misstep brings the entire edifice down.

But when Tim Powers takes the wheel, none of these concerns apply. A past master of the time travel story since The Anubis Gates, Powers simply understands the nuances of time travel fiction better than perhaps any other living science fiction writer. And he brings all of his considerable knowledge and talents to bear on Salvage and Demolition, a genuinely sweet novella about a cult’s attempt to resurrect an ancient Sumerian death god through poetry translation.

The hero, give or take, of the endeavor is one Richard Blanzac, a Bay-area dealer in rare books who buys the effects of a long-deceased minor poet from the woman’s niece. Said poet, the little-known Sophie Greenwald, died years ago, and her possessions – a few autographed first editions, a strange manuscript, an Ace Double science fiction novel, and a bunch of cigarette butts – are intriguing. But when Sophie’s literary executor – the woman who’s kept her work out of print for decades – demands the return of the manuscript and a mysterious man pursues Blanzac – and the pages – things take a turn for the strange.

Or, more accurately, things take a turn for the Powers, as Blanzac suddenly finds himself in 1957, face to face with the mysterious Sophie Greenwald herself. Sophie has a problem, in that she’s been hired to translate a poem of unimaginable destructive power, and the people who hired her want the manuscript she’s produced. And Sophie is a problem, in that she’s somehow already met Blanzac, and knows more about what he’s doing there than he does.

The pleasures of this slender volume – 21000 words – are manifold. The banter between Sophie and Richard is snappy as hell. The plotting of the various time travel loops is airlessly tight and effortlessly elegant. And the style is elegant and clean, sweeping the reader along to where it becomes impossible to put the book down. This is a read-in-one-sitting gem, in part because of its length and in part because it’s so damn addictive. The illustrations, by J.K. Potter, are a matter of taste, based largely one one’s tolerance for Photoshop, but at worst they don’t detract from the propulsive narrative. Salvage and Demolition is quintessential Powers, pure evidence of a master working in his wheelhouse again.

(Subterranean, 2012)

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