|Three Days to Never|
Tim Powers, Three Days to Never (2006)
Reviewed by John Hertz
Retrieved from the Internet Archive (originally at Emerald City; copyright remains with the author). Used by permission.
In the 17th Century we thought drama should be governed by three unities, of place, time, and action. A hundred years later we were already wondering how valid they were as laws, but as guides they could strengthen focus in the theater, a main virtue there.
The novel rose, with its huge sweep; eventually s-f, with its measureless extension of the seemingly possible and even impossible. Today we are less likely to think a rule will be a help than a tyranny. But imaginative artists find use in disregarded tools. In Three Days to Never it is remarkable how far the unities are observed, particularly considering its huge sweep, its measureless extension.
The place is Greater Los Angeles, a neighborhood today, San Bernardino, Pasadena, Hollywood, Palm Springs. People arrive, or their predecessors did, so there are reflections, or repercussions, of Germany — Switzerland — Israel — and a ranging universe so vast and strange the characters think of it as a freeway to their local lives, or God.
The time is 1987: three days of it: hence the title — with a look at 1967 — the days of Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein — Pope Innocent III — Moses — and a man from 2006 who can't stand the crude technology.
The actors are a preteen girl and her father who teaches literature — and her great-grandmother — and her uncle — and two teams trying to undo place, time, and action, one from the Israeli intelligence service, one vast and strange.
The focus of these forces keeps this story strong. Powers has set us at their nexus, holds us there. The careful painting of their operation, almost prosaic in the midst of poetry, almost mundane in the midst of the mystic, keeps this world weird. He makes it shock and shimmer. Its spine is his imagination. Its sinew is his understanding. He is unafraid of good or evil, of comedy or crime.
C.S. Lewis is whom I remember for the one-strange rule. An ordinary person, he said, meeting extraordinary things, or an extraordinary person meeting ordinary things. It's a good rule; it can be a help and not a tyranny; it can strengthen focus. Look how well it has been used in s-f, by which I include both science fiction and fantasy. Indeed Three Days is both.
Daphne Marrity is the first person in the book we meet by name. The first we see of her is ordinary, or as ordinary as any twelve-year-old girl with an observant mind and a quick wit. She worries about things an adult wouldn't. She is with her father as they look round her great-grandmother's house in Pasadena. Later, much later, we understand what had just been happening when they arrived.
Such is investigation. As you start looking there are mysteries. If you keep looking, especially if you don't panic, reasons begin to appear. Daphne's uncle Bennett is a panicker. This is not quite why we dislike him. Powers carefully invites us to suppose he is a bad guy. He is that, though we meet worse, much worse. Powers also invites us to suppose this is why Bennett is jumpy. The invitations Powers gives us are good.
Investigation is the through-line of Three Days. Formal detective stories are hard in s-f; the author, bringing us unfamiliar worlds, must work twice teaching us what is incongruous. But investigation — we learn as the characters do, our wonder is theirs — is one of our classic forms. It is one of the resonances of science fiction. If the post-modernist sensibility is, as Bob Dylan sang, "Nothing is revealed," that is not true of a Powers story. The strange may however stand revealed as stranger.
At Westercon LIV, the 2001 West Coast Science Fantasy Conference — not only have I said s-f here, but over fifty years we've hedged our bets by sometimes saying science fantasy — Mike Glyer was Fan Guest of Honor, Powers was Writer Guest of Honor. Glyer interviewed Powers. Lest Powers close the circuit by interviewing Glyer, which as any Powers fan would fear might have had unimaginable consequences, I interviewed him, but that's another story. Powers said, "Some people write books with a message. Brush your teeth. I hate that."
There are no sermons in Three Days. The characters are what they are, and do what they do. Powers knows Show 'em, don't tell 'em. We have never met these people, and if as Powers says himself he is writing fantasy, we cannot meet them. But we believe that if we did, they would be as he portrays. Such is the art of fiction.
If I talked about balance in this book you might think it static. I could take you there; it is, at crucial points, outside time and space. But I mean a sense of event, of weight in motion. Powers' characters grope and hurl and hurtle. But he, the architect, has poised them — no — he, the choreographer, directs them. Or, if he merely gets out of the way, his instincts are sound. There is economy in Three Days, a breathtaking achievement when things seem fearfully complicated, as, outside time and space, they may.
Rules get exceptions, and counter-rules. A counter to one strange I remember as the derg rule. In Robert Sheckley's classic story "Protection", a man by an extraordinary contact hears a validusian derg, a creature able to perceive dangers and warn how to avoid them. The man gradually realizes that his involvement with the derg is drawing in extraordinary dangers. Powers knows this too. Characters who grow involved with the extraordinary are colored by it. There is a reason why, in Three Days, two men row a boat on Echo Park Lagoon with a collection of mechanical toy animals, some of which they must keep winding up as they talk of allegiance and death.
Shakespeare is a theme in Three Days, mainly his great play The Tempest. An illegitimate daughter of Einstein calls her father Prospero. He tries to drown his book. The parallel is not close, but there are reflections. Shakespeare is the poet of love. In The Tempest, as elsewhere, are people who seek power hatefully, people who seek freedom in slavery, people who will not repent, and people who are redeemed. There are no sermons in Shakespeare. He never says, but he shows, that love is not in the nature of imposition; it can be community. With these lights Three Days searches. It shines. It is the novel of the year.
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