Salvage and Demolition
by Tim Powers
Subterranean Books, 2013
$30.00; 155 pages
Tim Powers has been one of my favorite authors for over a decade, and this novella is full of the reasons why.
A good time travel book is hard to write, but I think Powers has nailed it. Again. Powers' most popular book, the Anubis Gates, is the best time-travel story ever written. If you take the premise of time travel seriously, then severe logical constraints are imposed on your storytelling. One way to avoid these constraints is to posit something like the Everett-Wheeler interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is the route Powers selected in Three Days to Never. The other route, the one selected here and in the Anubis Gates, is to embrace the implied determinism of time travel, everything you are going to do already happened and cannot be changed, and just deal with it. Powers does this in a way that follows those logical implications, and yet still produces a satisfying story. Somehow, he makes free will and determinism lie down together.
I think Powers may be even better in short stories and novellas than he is in novels. At the very least, I get a different vibe from his short stories than I do from his novels. I find Powers' short stories bittersweet and poignant, while his novels often find their way to a truly happy ending, although oftentimes though great suffering. Salvage and Demolition is a love story, but a love that can never live happily ever after.
I also have to give Powers recognition for a storyline that borrows elements of eldritch horror, while managing not to be horrific. The premise of Salvage and Demolition is reminiscent of that of one of my favorite videogames, Eternal Darkness. I have never read in an interview that Tim plays videogames, although it is certainly possible that he does. Nevertheless, Salvage and Demolition has elements far more light-hearted and whimsical than Eternal Darkness, or anything like it. I believe the key difference is that Tim believes in Providence, and most authors in the eldritch horror genre don't.
H. P. Lovecraft's visions are so terrifying because everything he ever wrote was suffused with the idea that the monsters are not only real, they are the ultimate reality, and they will eventually destroy us. Tim Powers is far too Catholic to think anything of the sort, and you can tell. If you take Christianity seriously, then the end of history is already known. In the end, the monsters will be thrown down, and the mourners' tears will be wiped away. What happens in the meanwhile is the stuff from which stories are made.