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Powers, Tim

Entry updated 4 September 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1952-    ) US author properly thought of as fundamentally a writer of fantasy, but who began his publishing career with two sf novels, the first being The Skies Discrowned (1976 as Timothy Powers; rev vt Forsake the Sky 1986 as Tim Powers), a fantasy-tinged adventure much influenced – as Powers stated in his introduction to the revised version – by the work of Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950). The second, Epitaph in Rust (1976 as Timothy Powers; text restored, vt An Epitaph in Rust 1989 as Powers), somewhat more vividly sets the adventures of its protagonist, a reluctant monk, in a Post-Holocaust California. Already some features typical of the mature Powers novel were taking shape: protagonists who have been lamed by symbolic wounds but who are depicted with a sustaining dark geniality; plots which mix genres with elegant Equipoisal facility but without bleaching out or calling into philosophical question the various worlds which are flung together (so that Powers cannot be described as an author of Fabulations – differing in this from his colleague and sometime collaborator, James P Blaylock); and settings described with florid clarity and great devotion to detail. But – written as they were for Laser Books – the first two books only hinted at these riches, though they aroused sufficient interest to be assembled together as Powers of Two (omni 2004). It was not until his third novel, The Drawing of the Dark (1979), an outright Fantasy, that Powers began clearly to demonstrate his complex gifts. The title refers to the drawing of a beer which has been brewed in one location – atop the grave of Finn Mac Cool – for several thousand years, and which must be drawn by Merlin in the middle of the sixteenth century to allow a reborn Fisher King and the protagonist, who is an avatar of Arthur himself [for Arthur, Matter of Britain and Merlin, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], to save Europe from the Turks. Vienna is vividly depicted; the story, told in a slangy but unmocking manner, is gripping.

The Anubis Gates (1983; rev 1984), which won the 1984 Philip K Dick Award and is a central example of Steampunk, may be the easiest of all Powers's books to admire, though it is less daunting in scope than his later work. While tracing the career and work of the imaginary early-Victorian poet William Ashbless, the soon-to-be-duly-wounded protagonist Brendan Doyle is sent by Time Travel to the London of 1810, where he is trapped and the plot thickens with virtuoso speed; Egyptian Magic (intricately described in terms of the precise techniques necessary to operate it) intersects with a compulsive and feverish vision of the Underground life of the great City (in terms patently derived from the work of Charles Dickens), while haunted Monsters roam subterranean aisles beneath the streets and Doyle ricochets backwards through time then forwards into the body of Ashbless, whom he becomes (see Identity). Taking off from the manifestation of this blowsy poet here and in other contexts, both Powers and James P Blaylock have written "Ashbless" poems and other material, much of it assembled as On Pirates (coll 2001 chap), both authors writing together as William Ashbless. Fantasy, sf, horror and historical fiction all marry here with an ease which seems entirely natural. Only much later was the original novel to serve as the first volume of the Anubis Gates sequence with Nobody's Home: An Anubis Gates Story (2014 chap) and The Properties of Rooftop Air (2020 chap), the latter being a substantial tale focused on the demoniacal London gang-leader Horrabin, who here creates a psychic link between a young apprentice and an homunculus [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; the Bildungsroman that follows is carceral.

Powers's next novel, Dinner at Deviant's Palace (1985), which also won the Philip K Dick Award, marked a partial return to the comparative simplicities of his first work, though its use of a Ruined Earth version of Los Angeles (see California) was markedly less genre-bound than that constrainingly displayed in Epitaph in Rust, especially in its protagonists' re-enactment of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend, and in the confrontation with an Alien, who is both a fake Messiah and Lord of the Underworld. On Stranger Tides (1987), filmed with considerable changes to fit the ongoing franchise as Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), is a hugely enriched pirate yarn, set in an Alternate-History eighteenth century and concerning (in part) a search for the Fountain of Youth (see Immortality); Zombies are involved, and intricately deployed Identity Exchange eventuates. The Stress of Her Regard sequence begins with The Stress of Her Regard (1989), possibly Powers's most sustained single novel (until perhaps the sequel), which opens in a version of the early nineteenth century loosely linked to The Anubis Gates, focusing not only on Byron (who appears in the earlier book) but on Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley and John Keats as well, in a story involving lamiae (see She) and Vampires, all culminating in the sf-like revelation that non-carbon-based forms of life have survived and are the Secret Masters of the Austrian Empire. The sequel, Hide Me Among the Graves (2012), carries some of the same characters, along with the underlying set of premises, to 1860s London, where John Polidori – or some version of him now become a Vampire – interacts with various members of the Rossetti family (related to Polidori in real life), with an understandable focus on Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), whose extraction of a sheaf of his poems from his wife's grave had deservedly drawn attention ever since. Much of the action takes place Underground, and complexly justifies a sense that Urban Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] can still be written as though its urban setting were inherently significant.

The Fault Lines sequence – comprising Last Call (1992), Expiration Date (1995) and Earthquake Weather (1997), the last two being assembled as Fault Lines (omni 1998), each novel winning in turn a Locus Award and the first a World Fantasy Award – represents a shift of venue for Powers into the contemporary world, though one irradiated by a complexly couched return to the Matter of Britain translated into what might be called the Matter of California, with Bugsy Siegel serving as one of a series of Fisher Kings; the sequence contains a minimal sf element, much mutilation, hauntedly effective evocations of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, and a Paranoia-generating sense that nothing happens by accident. Declare (2000), another World Fantasy Award winner which unpacks contemporary history in terms of Biblical typologies, is not sf; nor is Three Days to Never (2006) which, despite a moderately sf-life use of Time Travel, at heart comprises a further mythopoeic exploration of California, as do the uses of similar devices in later work. Salvage and Demolition (2013) focuses on its protagonist's contrasting experiences of 1950s San Francisco and its current iteration; the tale itself, readable as sf, is built around a Basilisk, a manuscript that forces those who read it to commit Suicide. Medusa's Web (2016) is set in Los Angeles, in a complex Time-haunted Bad House [for Bad Place and Matter and Fisher King above, again see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], where travel through and visitations from various Dimensions intensify the portrait of the Hollywood dream. More Walls Broken (2019), similarly time-haunted, follows an academic ghost hunt into alternate time-lines: ghosts, in Powers's work, rarely co-inhabit their "victims'" worlds.

Though his fertility of invention can occasionally (as more often with Blaylock) impede the flow of story, Powers is at heart a storyteller, and ruthlessly shapes his material into narrative form, even in the perhaps-overelaborated Fisher King tales. His stories, many like the ambitious The Bible Repairman (2006 chap) and Salvage and Demolition (2013) of considerable length, have been most comprehensively assembled as Down and Out in Purgatory: The Collected Stories of Tim Powers (coll 2017; exp vt The Collected Stories of Tim Powers 2018). The result is one of the few genuinely original bodies of work in the modern sf/fantasy field. [JC]

see also: Clichés; Gothic SF; Heroes; Recursive SF; Writers of the Future Contest.

Timothy Thomas Powers

born Buffalo, New York: 29 February 1952



Anubis Gates

Fault Lines

  • Last Call (Lynbrook, New York: Charnel House, 1992) [includes a poem not in the trade edition below: Fault Lines: illus/hb/Peter Richardson]
    • Last Call (New York: William Morrow, 1992) [omits additional poem in the above; also slight textual differences: Fault Lines: hb/Rick Lovell]
  • Expiration Date (London: HarperCollins, 1995) [Fault Lines: pb/David O'Connor]
    • Expiration Date (New York: Tor, 1986) [rev of the above: Fault Lines: hb/Michael Koelsch]
  • Earthquake Weather (London: Legend, 1997) [Fault Lines: hb/Paul Campion]
    • Fault Lines (New York: GuildAmerica Books/Science Fiction Book Club, 1998) [omni of the above two: Fault Lines: hb/Don Maitz]

The Stress of Her Regard

Vickery and Castine

individual titles

collections and stories

collections: poems

  • Nine Sonnets by Francis Thomas Marrity (Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 2006) [poetry: coll: chap: "Francis Thomas Marrity" is a character in Three Days to Never above: pb/]
  • Poems (Lynbrook, New York: Charnel House, 2016) [poetry: coll: chap: hb/]
  • Three Sonnets by Cheyenne Fleming (Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 2006) [poetry: coll: chap: "Cheyenne Fleming" is a character in A Soul in a Bottle above: binding unknown/]

miscellanea as by William Ashbless

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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