Anyone who has ever driven the freeways of Los Angeles is sure to have felt the potential they hold as a setting for any sort of nightmare narrative – unearthly horror, dark fantasy, or apocalyptic sci-fi. Bleak, inhuman, unavoidable, and ubiquitous, they’re responsible for much of the brutalist, soulless quality that L.A. embodies in the public mind. To the modern eye, they’re much more evocative of doom and damnation than is any abandoned house or isolated hotel.
Something on that order certainly occurred to longtime Angeleno Tim Powers, as is evidenced in his latest novel, Alternate Routes. Powers is one of those writers who produces outstanding work year after year while remaining consistently undervalued, largely due to a preference for working in the genres.
For genre writers, the rule seems to be to maintain a full career operating just below the threshold of public consciousness for decades, existing at the center of a devoted cult – a growing one, if you’re lucky – that at last explodes into large-scale recognition, critical praise, and artistic admiration in the decades following your death.
That’s the uphill path Powers has been treading for the past four decades, in which he has produced a remarkable series of novels that have gained wide appreciation among science fiction, fantasy, and horror readers, earning critical admiration and a large number of professional awards while just missing general readership. His pirate novel On Stranger Tides, which was purchased by the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, didn’t do much to change this, probably because the completed film used next to nothing of the actual narrative. But that, as Powers would likely be the first to tell you, is Hollywood.
Yet another challenge to mass acceptance is the fact that Powers is both conservative and a practicing Catholic, both black marks against an artist practicing in any field at this point in Western culture.
Another complication with Powers involves his relationship with the genres. It’s accurate enough to classify Powers as a “genre writer” as long you put aside any idea of narrowing down which genre in particular—science fiction, horror, thriller, fantasy, or historical fiction—he’s working in at any given moment. His novels generally reveal aspects of all of these, often at the same time. (Powers pretty much midwifed the popular mashup subgenre of steampunk, exploited by everybody from J.K. Rowling to Hayao Miyazaki to Christopher Nolan, with his 1983 novel The Anubis Gates, although he long ago transcended it.)
Alternate Routes is a case in point. Ex-Secret Service agent Sebastian Vickery has been on the run for years from what we’ve learned to call the “Deep State” after overhearing some information he was not supposed to know. As the story begins, he’s finally cornered by government hitmen, only for another agent, Ingrid Castine, to come to his rescue and throw in with him thanks to a sudden fit of conscience. Now they’re both on the run.
So far, so conventional. But the voice Vickery overheard was that of a dead man, and Castine tracked him down by manipulating the spirit of Vickery’s dead wife. The government outfit hunting them both, a three-letter bureaucracy operating as the Transportation Utility Agency, is in the business of interrogating “deleted persons”—that is to say, the dead—for intelligence purposes, monitoring “freeway ghost-chatter the way the NSA monitors phone traffic.”
To top this off, the force that enables contact with “deleted persons” is generated, analogously to electromagnetism, by the L.A. freeways themselves, the moving mentalities in the speeding cars interacting with the stationary minds off the road to create a field that allows communication (and occasionally even physical transport) with the afterlife, or at least LA’s peculiar version of an afterlife, combining elements of the high desert, Dante’s Inferno, and the Labyrinth of Knossos.
Such a combination of horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and espionage thriller would seem to violate every artistic and marketing rule there is, along with straining the reader’s suspension of disbelief to the limit. But as weird as it may sound, it all holds together—as it always does in a Powers novel—at least as well as the quotidian world at our fingertips, and perhaps even better.
Welcome to Hell A
The bulk of Powers’ work is set in Southern California in and about the LA area, although it’s a SoCal that owes very little to previous writers such as Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler, or James Ellroy. Powers’ L.A. is a unique milieu, an extension of Purgatory inhabited by misfits, oddities, cripples and criminals, supernatural entities, and ghosts—lots and lots of ghosts. It’s a world in which the moral becomes concrete, where decisions made in an offhand moment can echo down through eternity.
It’s in this sense that Alternate Routes, like all of Powers’ books, stands as a serious Christian novel. As was also the case with earlier American Catholic writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, however, Powers doesn’t beat the reader over the head with dogma or apologetics. It’s baked in, part of the book’s framework, milieu, and characterization. Powers’s characters are believers, but they’re no less battered, careworn, and world-weary than the seculars they live among. They’re just a little more hopeful, a little more centered, a little more open to grace.
In all this, they’re a sharp contrast to the operatives of the TUA, in particular Dr. Emilio Terracotta, the physicist who runs the program as a cover for his more esoteric interests. A pure product of the Southern California lifestyle, Terracotta easily combines yoga and vegetarianism with assassination and torture. He acts as the secular worldview personified. As Castine tells Vickery, Terracotta “says people can’t help what they do, any more than a rock rolling down a hill can. The rock may think it has a choice about rolling left or right, just as people think they can choose what they do, but really it’s just physics.”
It’s all a façade, of course. Wracked by unbearable parricide guilt, Terracotta yearns for nonexistence, but a form of nonexistence that would somehow enable him to maintain an ability to continue affecting the world as a whole, in much the same way that suicides behave as if they’ll have some kind of awareness of events transpiring after their death.
He intends to gain this paradoxical state of (non)being through a merger with an entity both super and subhuman, which he identifies with the Minotaur of the Labyrinth of Knossos, and he doesn’t care whether he destroys the entire L.A. basin or the human world at large while going about it. Seldom has any writer more clearly outlined the intellectual and ideological connections between the secular and pagan worldviews as Powers has done here.
It’s considerations such as these that raise Alternate Routes above the common run of genre fiction. In Alternate Routes, Powers attains a level of moral sophistication difficult to find elsewhere in contemporary fiction of any sort.
This is not to say that Alternate Routes falls short as a genre work. The horror here packs a wallop, and there’s as much in the way of suspense and tension as the reader can bear. Powers takes us on one hell of a ride that at points threatens to go over the top, but never quite does.
Nor can we overlook such lovely grace notes as the ghosts of the Hollywood Forever cemetery quietly singing together in the predawn twilight, or Vickery’s daughter, who was never born (they too, exist as ghosts) stepping in to help her father at times when he seems overwhelmed.
Where else are you going to find a writer who can combine Ovid, Google Earth, Maya Deren, tips on freeway driving, Supergirl, the Minotaur, the care and operation of taco wagons, Blue Oyster Cult, and Daedalus the Artificer? There may be weightier Powers novels, more artful Powers novels, and more sophisticated Powers novels. But Alternate Routes is as good an introduction to the unique fictional world of Tim Powers as you’ll find.