The short version is this – if you’ve never read Powers, this might not be a bad place to start, to get an idea of exactly how insane Powers’ world is. If you’re a completist, you’ll wanna go grab it, like I did. However, for the casual fan, don’t, you know, race out to get it.
I love Powers. He’s in my top five favorite writers – not just sci fi but writers in general. He wrote what may well be my favorite book of all time, Last Call. But not every one of his books is a smacked-outta-the-park home run.
Like Cory Doctorow, sometimes Powers gets lost in brilliant concept and forgets about writing a great book. He lets his concept drive his plot, rather than leaving it as a background against which his story unfolds.
When Powers is on, he’s incredibly on. Last Call, Anubis Gate, On Stranger Tides (forget Pirates of the Caribbean, this is the book that made me the pirate I am today), the Drawing of the Dark. Expiration Date. Each brilliant, clever, entertaining books, nearly flawless. Books that make you look at something – Las Vegas, Beer, Pirates, Ghosts – a new way. Books that can make a fundamental change in how one sees something.
Even with a miss he’s interesting; Declare, Stress of Her Regard, Earthquake Weather. Each of these suffered from Powers’ love of weaving history and fiction together; when it works, it’s great, but when it doesn’t work as well, you’re aware of the author. You can see the wires. The illusion breaks. The books suffer from too much concept and too much working the plot around true history.
But there are a couple where Powers, in all his cleverness, just lost me. One was Stress of Her Regard, which i felt never came anywhere near working, despite being a vampire-themed novel (sort of), peopled with the likes of Lord Byron, Shelly, Keats, Mary Shelley, etc. Many Powers fans disagree with me on this and list this as a favorite, but to me, it was all style and concept and no plot. Declare, i’m on the fence about; I need to re-read it to be sure. My first take was that it, like Stress, suffers from too-much-history-not-enough-story. But it may be simply that I expected something greater than i got due to having recently re-read Stranger Tides and Last Call. And it’s possible I need to know more about the characters and incidents involved (Kim Philby, the bristish spy) to give the story resonance.
This latest book is a bit different though. While, as usual, it features a web of real history with the story woven through it, the historical figures (Einstein, Chaplain) are fairly far off-stage most of the time. So it doesn’t have that issue. This issue instead seems to be pure purely one of concept-over-plot; Powers spends so much time and effort building an elaborate Einsteinian-quantum-mechanics structure that it feels more like a text book for an imaginary technology than like a story. The characters get lost; you never really figure out who they are. And there are too damned many people snaking around who all have names so similar that I felt like I was reading a spy novel where everyone’s named Smith. After a bit I quit caring who was who because they all seemed the same.
The novel felt rushed; as if Powers had a publication date to meet, and didn’t take time to actually develop the plot he’d come up with; exactly the problem that Doctorow’s Eastern Standard Tribe had. It’s a shame, because both novels feature incredibly clever ideas driven by very, very, VERY good writers, but both feel like a waste, both story and concept short-changed by a ham-handed melding together. I wanted to know what was going on, I wanted to care about the characters, I wanted to understand who the bad guys were and what they were after. But I never got it, never got in any deeper than the main two characters, one of whom (Frank Marrity) is clearly Powers himself.
If this book were the first in a series, it would make sense. The elaborate techno-magical time travel idea Powers builds is rich, complicated, confusing, and could be a launch pad for a long, cosmic story crossing multiple time-streams. But Powers doesn’t do series, has stated he’ll never again even write a sequel after Earthquake Weather. So what he winds up with is an idea and a long list of questions, but only one answer, late in the book. Too little, too late.
To it’s credit, Three Days to Never is clever. Deeply and completely clever. It’s got characters you want to know more about and a story-behind-the-story that makes you think. It’s got a time-travel concept that seems new and fresh, and that isn’t easy to do with time travel. And it mostly avoids the usual time travel plot holes (but why didn’t they go back to BEFORE it happened and just stop it from happening?). And as I said, it might play well if you’re not a huge Powers fan with high expectations. To me though, it falls well short of what I expect, and I’m hoping Powers hasn’t hit that slide point, where he’s realized he can turn in weak books and still get paid. I’m seeing several of my favorite authors (CJ Cherryh, James W. Hall, Robert Crais) do this, and I’m hoping against hope that Powers isn’t hitting that point. He’s too damned good, and the good parts of this novel are too good, to let that talent go. This isn’t to say Three Days to Never is a bad book, not by a long shot. It’s really quite a good book. It’s just that it’s not up to the standard I’ve come to expect of Powers.
But I’ll buy his books no matter what. He’s earned it.