‘Salvage And Demolition’, the latest novella from Tim Powers, is a classic. I don’t necessarily mean it’s an enduring work of genius (though it’s pretty damn good), rather that it’s written in such a way and about such things as to instantly hurl its reader back in time to the or at least ‘a’ golden age of Science Fiction.
Which is undeniably the point because this is a story about a) time travel and b) stories and because the author is Tim Powers, the note-perfect echoing of fifties/sixties SF seems unlikely to be a coincidence. Not for nothing is the last line of the novella ‘He turned to the first page and began to read.’ (p.155)
Sure enough, our hero is soon thrown back to 1957 as he becomes inadvertently caught in a ‘discontinuity circuit’. Round and round he goes: Richard Blanzac, a rare book dealer and functional alcoholic in the traditional mould. Not quite an anti-hero, but rough enough around the edges to make for a richly human and powerfully sympathetic protagonist.
I’m not sure how much more than that I should say. It’s a sign of a good book that you don’t really want to talk about the plot, for fear of spoiling not the twists and turns but the simple joy of experiencing the way the whole thing unravels or curls around itself, more accurately. Suffice to say that ‘Salvage And Demolition’ and the neat little time-loop which gives it structure, orbits around the esoteric contents of a box brought to Blanzac for valuation and resale. A signed copy of ‘Howl’ and some letters from Jack Kerouac, a TV guide from 1957, a double-decker Science Fiction novel, the contents of an ashtray…and the handwritten manuscript of a long and remarkable poem.
Some of these things are more significant than others.
If you’ve read much post-war Science Fiction, particularly out of America in the late fifties or early sixties, the style of ‘Salvage And Demolition’ is like a warm bath of nostalgia. Its language is plain and direct, its sentences short and straightforward. There’s a sincerity to the storytelling you don’t often see these days and little overt irony. Like a tale told by the man on the barstool next to you, it has no interest in convincing you of its own cleverness but allows its narrative to stand or fall on its own merits.
There’s no doubting either the merits or the cleverness of ‘Salvage And Demolition’, however that unassuming style conceals an intricately constructed piece of narrative clockwork.
While the complexities of the time loop are what drives the story forward, it spends most of its time on Blanzac and the girl he meets in 1957, Sophie Greenwald. The relationship is given an interesting spin by the out-of-joint circumstances of their meeting, but it’s hampered by the dense exposition Sophie often spouts in place of dialogue. Perhaps this is something forced on Powers by the novella-length of the story or perhaps it’s another gesture towards old-style SF verisimilitude, but either way it can be a little jarring on occasion. Nonetheless, the banter back and forth between the two has just about enough spark to hold the reader’s interest.
Slight wobble aside, ‘Salvage And Demolition’ is an elegant, well-crafted tale and complex enough to both reward re-reading and have your thoughts returning to it long after the event. Its dramatic conflicts manage quite cleverly to feel both epic and everyday in scope and it delights in its own contradictions. It’s perfectly self-contained in narrative terms and yet manages to hint at whole vast conspiracies beyond the bounds of Blanzac’s mobius-strip time-hopping.
The art which heads each chapter is a little hit-and-miss, with what looks like manipulated photos illustrating the characters or events of the chapter to come. While some are quite cleverly conceived, others feel cluttered and overworked. On balance, I think the novel might be better off without them, but they’re an unusual and distinctive extra touch to an already worthy story. Whether they’re worth the extra cost of the Deluxe Hardcover Edition my advance proof paperback is threatening to turn into, I’m less sure.
Regardless, whatever the format you find it, ‘Salvage And Demolition’ is a fast and exciting read that punches above its weight. It’s worth reading any way you can.
(pub: Subterranean Press. 155 page deluxe hardback. Price: $30.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-515-4)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com