Sunday, 7 April 2013

Salvage and Demolition

Tim Powers
Subterranean Press (

Salvage and Demolition, the latest novella from Tim Powers, is a classic. I don’t mean it’s necessarily 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)

And 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 attempt at 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 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.

This review was originally written for