On Higher Powers, Pt 2.

On Higher Powers, Pt 2.

I know I have once mentioned Tim Powers, and specifically the book of his that left an impression on me for nearly 40 years to the point of tracking it down and buying it. Drawing of the Dark was as good as remembered, possibly better and weirder - and so I bought a couple more of his books. While one of his better known works, Anubis Gates, is in my reading pile, I ended up reading a much more recent work first, the hidden-world modern fantasy Alternate Routes.

Per the blurb:

Something weird is happening to the Los Angeles freeways—phantom cars, lanes from nowhere, and sometimes unmarked offramps that give glimpses of a desolate desert highway—and Sebastian Vickery, disgraced ex-Secret Service agent, is a driver for a covert supernatural-evasion car service. But another government agency is using and perhaps causing the freeway anomalies, and their chief is determined to have Vickery killed because of something he learned years ago at a halted Presidential motorcade.

What I got was a tight story that carries a bit of an air similar to the best of what Alan Dean Foster could provide*, but more mature. Unlike a lot of modern fantasy, it's not a pastiche of more recent authors works, but directly grounded in deeper and more ancient culture and the present day. The style is evocative, without a lot of made-up words.

Take the opening paragraph in light of the blurb:

Anyone paying attention has noticed the times that traffic slows up in waves due to someone, somewhere, up ahead slowing down, and that it can persist and move back even as the original cause is gone. In even the first two sentences, Tim evokes that even for people who've never noticed that before, and furthermore begins binding the highways to something mystical going on, that persists with a life of its own outside of the purely material.

From there, it builds, as we are introduced to our main character Sebastian prosaically picking up highwayside trash as part of a volunteer effort for the taco truck company employing him - and the devices they use to track the current level of spiritual activity. Without wasting time,  Sebastian gets thrown in the thick of it, without spending pages and pages of backstory on why he has the background to handle it, or why he and Castine would react the way they do. The labyrinthine maze of the LA highways sets the necessary frame, with the book revealing what you need to know of the past as its needed, without breaking the narrative flow.

Take this excerpt, a couple chapters in:

Relay-worded is a bit vague, but leaned on here as a shorthand for something already described in the story, that indeed fits the speech pattern where three people alternate words to complete a sentence as they query ghosts. There is a ritual here, a deliberate pattern. Breathless is indeed appropriate for the ghosts speaking through the radio. The last sentence tells you a lot about the people in the scene - the bureaucratese of "deleted persons" instead of "ghosts" or "dead" speaks of government organization, and the "whining demands for beer and tow trucks and baptism" - that those are the things Terracotta was sick of - tells us a lot of his attitudes towards people and the world. Even as you first meet and see these people Powers tells you who and what they are.

The story as a whole grounds its weirdness well. The language is clear, and evokes wonder and horror as needed. The moral choices made are hard ones, but not hopeless. There are few if any cheats.

As I mentioned in my past post, Powers is a Catholic. Those aspects absolutely shape the worldview of the characters here, without beating one over the head with it. From the "about the author" blurb on Amazon:

Many of his novels, such as Last Call, and Alternate Routes, are so-called “secret histories,” which use real historical events in which supernatural and metaphysical elements influence the story in weird and compelling manners. Powers grew up in Southern California and studied English at Cal State Fullerton, where he met frequent collaborators James Blaylock and K. W. Jeter, as well as renowned science fiction author Philip K. Dick, who became a close friend and mentor. Powers is a practicing Catholic who claims “stories are more effective, and more truly represent the writer’s actual convictions, when they manifest themselves without the writer’s conscious assistance. I concern myself with my plots, but I let my subconscious worry about my themes.” Powers still resides in Southern California with his wife, Serena.

He may not hit you over the head with them, but the themes are there, and not hard to spot. Philosophically, I find it of interest that the main antagonist, Terracotta, is a materialist and determinist to a fault, to the extent that his awareness of actions taken are more often treated as him discovering he did this or spoke that. Vickery/Woods hasn't gone to confession in years, but still considers himself a practicing Catholic who goes out of his way to attend latin mass.

* Alan Dean Foster has not aged well with me. For a guy who wrote so many Sci Fi movie tie ins, and did them well, some of his series, especially the spellsinger books, suffer from terminal cringe when revisited as an adult, often for terminal boomerdom. I still find a few of the Humanx and Flinx/Pip books to be worth keeping around, as well as the short stories gathered together in With Friends Like These... and Who needs Enemies.

It may be a "raised in SoCal" thing but Tim Powers shares some of the same stylistic touches, particularly bringing back to mind ADFs "Why Johnny Can't Speed" and one other story about street racing that was included in Who Needs Enemies.

About Last Redoubt

Ex nuke mechanic, jack of all trades.