Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Bible Repairman and Other Stories by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is not the most prolific of writers, which makes it slightly odd to note that The Bible Repairman and Other Stories is his third collection in barely a decade (following the complete lack of collections in his first two-and-a-half decades of writing). But it's not really as odd as it may seem: Night Moves and Other Stories started it off in early 2001, pulling together six stories from the '80s and '90s, and then 2005's Strange Itineraries expanded Night Moves, adding three more stories Powers had published in the intervening years.

Still, Bible Repairman came along only six years later, and contains six stories written since Strange Itineraries -- and, as far as I can tell, Powers has never written six stories in six years before this. I could quibble and say that I want more novels from Powers, but, the truth is, Powers is one of our very best and most exacting fantasy writers, and I'll take whatever he wants to write. [1]

As is common with story collections by major writers these days, several of the stories in Bible Repairman first appeared as expensive limited editions -- the title story and "A Soul in a Bottle" from Subterranean, and "A Time to Cast Away Stones" from Charnel House -- and one of the remaining three stories, "A Journey of Only Two Paces," only appeared in shorter form in the program book for the British national SF convention. So most readers, except for the most well-heeled and attentive Powers fans, will only have had the opportunity to see, at most, two of these stories. 

And so, to those stories:

"The Bible Repairman" begins in deeply Powersian territory: the darker, low-rent side of Los Angeles, with a premise that is equally Powersian in its religious magic: a middle-aged man, Torrez, has spent his life editing out difficult passages from personal bibles (prohibitions on divorce, or adultery, or demands for charity) for his clients and losing pieces of his soul, bit by bit, selling them to ransom ghosts back for other clients. And then the ghost of his own daughter comes back into his life, and he has to make a decision on one more ransom -- the one that might take enough of his soul to destroy  him.

"A Soul in a Bottle" is another LA story -- much of his short work, and several of his novels, stay close to home -- with another ghost, two sisters who are both writers and rivals, a mysterious death forty years before, and a man who survives by scrounging rare books.

"The Hour of Babel" might be science fiction or fantasy -- depending on how you squint at it -- with time travel and a uniquely shattering experience in a bar, thirty years before.

I'd read "Parallel Lines" before -- it was in the Stories anthology a few years back, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio -- and greatly enjoyed it again. I can't improve on what I wrote then: "An aged woman learns that her recently dead twin sister is still trying to control her life, but takes steps to finally correct this."

"A Journey of Only Two Paces" is another Powersian story about death, redemption, and (most importantly) the kind of people who cannot accept death (the original sin of so many Powers antagonists). It also has cats in it, and a quirky building in the LA area that Powers insists actually exists in his short afterword.

Last is the longest, strongest, and most major story, a novella named "A Time to Cast Away Stones." In a way, it's the link between The Stress of Her Regard and the upcoming Hide Me Among the Graves, telling the story of Stress's minor character (and actual historical personage, and massively interesting romanticizer of his own life) Edward John Trelawney, and his eventful encounter with the siliconari in Greece in 1825, soon after the death of Byron. As with most of Power's best work, it intertwines real, documented events -- Trelawney was in Greece fighting with a warlord at the time, and was shot by another Englishman on Mount Parnassus -- with his own carefully constructed mythology, producing that uniquely Powersian frisson: the story that is clearly fantastic but also fits with all known history.

I wouldn't recommend that new readers begin Powers here -- his slow accretion of detail and attention to nuance is best displayed in his novels, so any of the ones I mentioned below, plus the didn't-really-inspire-the-Disney-movie-more-than-glancingly On Stranger Tides, would be better choices -- but this is a fine collection of deeply Tim Powers stories, and just saying that should be enough for the knowledgeable.

[1] Speaking of novels, I have high hopes for his upcoming book, Hide Me Among the Graves, for very Powersian superstitious reasons: his first novels for the previous decades have been 1983's The Anubis Gates (a Philip K. Dick Award winner), 1992's Last Call (a World Fantasy Award winner), and 2000's Declare (a World Fantasy Award winner), which I'd call three of his four best novels -- and the fourth novel I'd put in their company is The Stress of Her Regard, to which Hide Me is a distant sequel. No pressure, Tim, but all indications show that you're going to hit this one out of the park.

1 comment:

Tim Pratt said...

Hide Me Among the Graves is quite good, one of my favorites of his, and features a fair bit of the elderly but still formidable Trelawney.

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