First of all; I leave for Rome in three days (Wednesday morning, to be precise). But that’s not what this post is about.
In my recent post about Doctor Who, I talked about how that show, while lacking somewhat in plot, manages to have interesting characters, and, for all its inconsistencies, and interesting secondary world. The works of Tim Powers seem to me to have the opposite strengths and weaknesses; he has interesting plots, and does a quite good job with the world-building, but his characters are poorly done.
So far I have read Declare, about spies during WWII and the Cold War who are trying to find a second Ark built by Djinn who are trying to escape, and Three Days to Never, about how Einstein actually discovered time travel and his grandson/great-grand-daughter need the help of the Mossad to stop that technology from falling into the wrong hands.
In both of these, Powers takes actual historical facts – none of his books, supposedly, directly contradict established history – and weaves them into an alternate universe that is a mix of sci-fi and fantasy. For example, the 1973 Israeli strike against Iraqi military facilities was not intended to destroy WMDs, but rather to destroy this time travel machine. And there are demons who live in 5-dimensional space who are guiding the progress of the evil forces trying to get their hands on this time travel technology. And so on. And he has just the right amount of scientific explanation and correspondence with reality to make this stuff at least somewhat believable. It’s quite impressive, really. (It’s also interesting how Powers is a practicing Catholic and the worlds he creates are always pretty much consistent with the Catholic worldview.)
But, well, Powers can’t portray characters effectively. There are romances in both of these books, and neither of them are really believable. They both follow the formula of “flawed heroine who has enough good in her to redeem and be redeemed by the hero”. They even both have the female character start out working for the bad guys but switch over to the good guys. And neither of them are really sympathetic. He has problems with the other characters too – they seem cliche, for the most part – though his main problems are with the females.
Still, they’re enjoyable books. If nothing else, read them for his theories about the truth behind Djinn, ankhs, swastikas, the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Mossad.
And a small digression about Harry Potter. As I mentioned above, it seems possible to look at fantasy fiction writing as having three main categories – the characters, the plot, and the mythopoeia (this is obviously ignoring the quality of the prose, but I’m OK with that). Now, Harry Potter has good plot, and decently laid out characters (though I dislike most of them) – but horrible mythopoeia. Truly horrible. It’s not just that J.K. Rowling is bad at it – it’s that she doesn’t care about having it make sense, at all. She prefers throwaway gags (like all of the silly character names and titles of the magical textbooks) to building a world that is actually somewhat convincing. This is my main complaint with her, and it is a huge one. She ends up with a fantasy world that no one would ever believe existed or could exist.
Now, Doctor Who isn’t coherent either, but this is less of a problem because Doctor Who is intentionally absurd – one of the main messages of the show is that the universe is much more complicated than we know, and we will never understand all of it, so it makes sense for the world to be somewhat chaotic and incoherent – while Harry Potter has a serious, straightforward plot. There’s no excuse for an absurd fantasy world. It’s as if Rawling just said “well, it’s magical, so it doesn’t have to make sense!” and went from there.