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Tim Powers: The Physics of Fantasy February 2002

Timothy Powers, born February 29, 1952, is just 12 1/2 this month. Two of his early novels, The Anubis Gates (1983) and Dinner at Deviant's Palace, both won the Philip K. Dick Award. His work varies in style, often incorporating the supernatural and magic, and frequently involves mythology and "secret histories" of historical figures: Bugsy Siegel, Byron, Keats, Shelley. Last Call (1992), a contemporary fantasy, won World Fantasy and Locus Awards, and forms a loose trilogy, sharing characters and themes, with Expiration Date (1995) and Earthquake Weather (1997), both of which also won Locus Awards. His latest novel is Declare (2000), a supernatural ‘‘secret history’’ of post WWII British and Soviet spies; it won the 2001 World Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild’s best novel of 2001. Powers and his wife Serena live in San Bernardino, California.
Photo by Beth Gwinn

for books by Tim Powers

Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘When people say, ‘Powers’s novel is set in an alternate Middle East,’ I want to say, ‘It’s not goddamn alternate — it’s this Middle East!’ The whole point is not ever to contradict actual history. Add to it, sure; provide an unsuspected background, show the secret real story, but never give the reader the opportunity to say, ‘That’s not who was there, or where it happened, or when.’ I hope that, as far as you are able to test it, it all appears to be real. I’ll take a real character and give him motivations that we can be pretty damn sure he didn’t have — I’ll make Byron be afraid of vampires killing his children, or Bugsy Siegel trying to be supernatural King of America — but I also try — try, at least! — not to outright violate the portrait of any historical characters as far as we have them. I wouldn’t take a person who historically seems to have been very heroic and selfless and brave and say, ‘secretly he was a despicable coward.’ I might go the opposite way — I think I gave Bugsy Siegel a lot of slack, the way Robert Graves did with his hero in I, Claudius.’’


‘‘What I think I did (though it wasn’t deliberate) in Declare, was take the world according to Roman Catholicism as my physics. It’s my own default setting, being Roman Catholic myself. I figured, ‘These are your laws. You can stretch them, you can violate them if you’ve thought of a very clever justification, but you can’t just ignore the math.’ It was fun doing fictional adventure stories set in what I would say, if challenged, is the real supernatural structure. Some reviewers have called Declare an overtly Catholic book, but that direction was also indicated by the research. Kim Philby is a beautifully contradictory and mysterious character. You just hope to find characters as apparently irrational as him, so you can say, ‘OK, let’s look at him on the assumption that all his actions were not irrational. Let’s try to find some situation in which this behavior was sensible. Do we have any clues?’’’


‘‘Compared to fantasy, science fiction is almost a branch of mainstream. Fantasy is based on things that are logically impossible, going in directions that apparently can’t exist. Let’s say mainstream fiction would be a straight, one-dimension high-speed highway rushing along between trees. Fantasy is more like a perpendicular look down a corridor of trees to a clearing. It’s rotating 90°, it’s a fresh dimension — and it’s that perpendicular look, that dislocation or vertigo or disorientation that’s the fun. It doesn’t so much matter what’s in the clearing over there, whether it’s a unicorn or Cthulhu; it’s the fact of the new dimension. The attraction of fantasy is experiencing the impossible as real, but we wouldn’t bother to do it if there wasn’t a kind of resonance that happens in our heads too, if there wasn’t this wiring in our heads that, like an induction coil, picks up a current from it. There has to be a response in the reader’s head, which implies that Jungian archetypes are in some sense real.’’


‘‘I suppose that what September 11th did was not so much change how we think of the world or humanity as remind us of a lot of things we already knew about humanity. (We could have done without the reminder.) It reminds us that any time of peace and prosperity is a fortunate exception to the way the machinery ordinarily works, and in retrospect it makes you appreciate that time.’’

The full interview and biographical profile is published in the February 2002 issue of Locus Magazine.


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