For no particular reason, I’m going to do a series on steampunk starting with some Raw Feeds on proto-steampunk, works written before Tim Powers’ friend K. W. Jeter jokingly created the very term “steampunk”.
Raw Feed (2002): The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers, 1983.
This was an elaborate, intricate, action-packed mélange of Byron and Coleridge’s poetry, secret societies in Jacobean and Georgian London, time travel, lycanthropy, transvestism (the typical young girl disguised as a boy though, here, engaged in the atypical quest for vengeance for her dead boyfriend, killed by a werewolf), Egyptian mythology, literary studies, beggars, and gypsies.
From what I’ve read, this is the second of Powers’ secret histories (the first being The Drawing of the Dark) where he mixes history — cultural and political — with mythology to reveal the real story and motives behind famous events. The opening epigraphs of some chapters show this: a letter from Byron, where he remarks about how some thought they saw him in London when he was, in fact, in Greece; another epigraph has mention of the Italian physician, here the Egyptian sorcerer Romanelli, who talked the Pashah into massacring the Mamelukes — an event our hero Brendan Doyle aka William Ashbless barely escapes in his Mameluke disguise.
Standard Powers’ elements show up: magic described in physics terms, particularly in electromagnetic terms since the Anateus Brotherhood ground their boots to negate Romany and Fife’s spells; bodyswitching — a lot of bodyswitching here with Fife in his Dog-Face Joe incarnation forcing a lot of personalities to be evicted from their body; criminal undergrounds engaged in occult pursuits much like the hideous Horrabin clown here who mutilates people in his underground caverns; beggars; imbecilic immortals, and maiming. He uses a thriller format with scenes using not only his protagonist as a point of view character but also scenes built around his villains and minor characters. He often describes a startling or strange scene and then backtracks to give the setup for it. Humor shows up frequently, particularly, here, the ghastly dialogues with Horriban’s Mistakes in the basement of the Rat’s Castle.
There are differences here, though, between this and other Powers novels I’ve read. Not only does Powers mix fantasy and sf (with a tenuous justification for time travel), but his exchanges of dialogue are much longer here than in the Western America Fisher King books. The action is much more furious here.
Still, I’m impressed how Powers always uses certain images in each novel for thematic significance. Here it is the image of the river used, in its ice covered form, as a metaphor for time travel (an image probably taken from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine) and life’s journey including a passage through the Underworld of Egyptian myth). I’m also impressed how much emotion Powers develops through just brief mentions of Doyle’s dead wife and the poignancy of living with the knowledge of the hour and manner, as Ashbless, of his death.
I particularly liked the closed timeloop of William Ashbless and his work. His work springs from nothing since 20th century literary scholar Brendan Doyle, after not meeting him, begins to recreate his work in the 19th century and, eventually, becomes Ashbless — not a creator of Ashbless’ work but a caretaker, as he notes. It was a pleasant surprise as, at the end, Powers wraps up the loose plot end of Doyle’s ka and gives Ashbless a new, uncharted life to look forward to. I liked using Coleridge’s opium-addled sojourns in Horribans dungeon and his conversations with Horriban’s Mistakes (which he views as manifestations of his own mind and character) as the explanation for Coleridge’s later, more obscure poems (which I’m not that familiar with).
I also liked the not original idea of having a time traveler who thinks he’s going to use his historical knowledge to live well getting a comeuppance. Villain Darrow is able to do so, but the hapless Doyle barely escapes death and poverty several times. (He finds an aptitude for being a beggar.) I also liked Doyle, in his Ashbless body, boldly facing dangers because he believes he will survive them since Ashbless’ biography says he will — until, after blood is drawn to make a ka of him — he begins to realize that maybe the ka will survive and not him.
Powers also is able, through sheer narrative drive and inventive bizarreness, to make me overlook his convenient coincidences (here not rationalized magically as in Last Call): when Brenner’s bullet hits the gun around Doyle’s neck and Fike just happening to jump into Darrow’s body after the later has been shot to death. Some of the details of his magic seemed a little vague. Specifically, why Fike becomes Dog-Face Joe and why Romanelli is so worn out after traveling from Egypt to London.
Still, a very impressive and delightful book.