Saturday, January 11, 2014

Three Days to Never by Tim Powers

I’ve written a few times on this blog about the science-fantasy writer, Tim Powers, who I think is a very fine novelist. That said, it’s a good few years since I read any, so I was curious to read Three Days to Never. Would I still think his writing was so good?

Well, the answer is no, but a qualified no. Three Days to Never is certainly intriguing – I think it would be impossible to describe a Powers novel as anything but that, because he is a very clever writer and his technique – taking historical facts and events and weaving them into a wholly fantastic narrative – is fascinating. In previous novels he has taken the Romantic poets – Shelley, Byron and Keats – and written them into a story of vampires and the Lamia, and Blackbeard the pirate in a story of zombies in the Caribbean.

In Three Days to Never, Powers gives us a cameo role by Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein as inventor of a time machine. Frank Marrity and his twelve-year-old daughter, Daphne, become involved in a terrifying tussle between Mossad and a secret Albigensian group for control of the secret to time travel, which appears to be found in the shed of Frank’s recently deceased grandmother. Once the story proper begins, Powers’ trademark narrative drive truly kicks in, and the novel becomes a fast-paced metaphysical thriller. But there are a number of longeurs, sections of fairly tedious exposition and didactic writing in which Powers labours to promote his central conceit of the time travel-inventing scientist and philosopher. At 420 pages, the novel feels 100 too long.

In particular, the attempts to establish some sort of philosophical basis for the time travel theme are laboured and somewhat trite. They simply don’t come off. Albert Einstein himself is misquoted all over the internet as saying, as though he was a preppy undergraduate, that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” This is a ridiculous simplification of what he actually wrote, in a letter describing the death of a friend:

He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.
This feels to me the problem with Three Days to Never: it aspires to reach the real Einstein but instead falls into the territory of bastardising and simplifying his thoughts.

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