The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers

While he was signing my copy of The Anubis Gates at the 2009 Eaton Science Fiction Conference, I explained my PhD research project to SF giant Tim Powers. Returning my copy of Anubis Gates, he asked with honesty, "So do you think it's steampunk?"

As was the case with Rudy Rucker, Powers seemed a bit bemused about the term, although he's not dismissive of being included within the steampunk umbrella, or parasol. If steampunk is supposed to be a subgenre of science fiction, then Powers' contributions don't really belong, as they contain less science than space opera does. It's involves time-travel, so it ostensibly relates to Wells, but the time-travel of Anubis Gates is affected through a scientific manipulation of holes created by magic, so it's some unholy hybrid of fantasy with unexplained science, not a work of physical science. But as Powers stated during a panel at the Eaton conference, his books are more fantasy than they are science fiction, unless one allows for spiritualism as a form of science as it was in the late nineteenth century. Since The Anubis Gates takes place in the early nineteenth century, it found itself lumped in with the Victorian fantastic tales K.W. Jeter and James P. Blaylock were also writing in the '80s. And as such, it was included in Jeter's offhand remark in Locus which birthed the term steampunk. As such, it forms part of an original canon, a word I would hesitate to use, save for the fact that steampunk resists canonicity, and so to determine an aesthetic, one must posit some limiting boundaries. I posit that to determine what constitutes a steampunk work, the original texts must be used as measurements. I would include Moorcock's Nomad of the Time Streams in addition to the original trinity, and extend the same inclusion to Gibson and Sterling's Difference Engine. And, as will be established later, Powers' Anubis Gates does contribute to the aesthetic of current steampunk, whether the author knows it or not.

At its core, The Anubis Gates is an adventure story. Powers is not writing a novel of ideas here. This is not postmodern, Pynchonesque steampunk ala Against the Day. It is not even Moorcock's politically-charged steampunk as in Nomad of the Time Streams. It is pure adventure story, filled with whimsy, page-turning cliffhangers, and contrived coincidences which permit the hero to make it through his adventures alive, though certainly not unscathed. The protagonist of The Anumbis Gates, Professor Brendan Doyle, joins a host of pulp characters who can take a severe beating and keep on going--how he does so was one of the most enjoyable moments of the book for me. All this said, it is not garbage. Powers is a superior writer; he just happens to have no higher agenda, exemplified best by his comment at the Eaton conference regarding Dracula. He related how people often tell him Bram Stoker's novel is about the situation of women in the nineteenth century, to which he replies: "Really? I thought it was about a creature who stays immortal by drinking blood!"

The Anubis Gates follows this philosophy, stubbornly resisting any reading deeper than "the good guy is now trying to escape from the bad guy," or "the heroine is now trapped by the evil sorcerous clown." One might be able to draw pop culture influences, such as aforesaid sorcerous clown as a steampunk Joker, but Powers' originality resists these sorts of comparisons as well. Explaining The Anubis Gates is like explaining Stephenson's Snowcrash or Whedon's Firefly. One always ends up invoking comparisons, and then qualifying those comparisons, and then making a contrast instead, before giving up in frustration, thrusting the book or DVD out, and exclaiming, "Trust me--you'll just have to read/watch it!" Ultimately, one might say explaining The Anubis Gates is like explaining what steampunk is, which is always the challenge of defining any pastiche in a quick and dirty fashion. And perhaps that is the best reason for keeping The Anubis Gates as an example of what steampunk is.

This is related to why I haven't made any comments on the plot, which contains too many twists and turns to summarize without spoiling the fun of the novel (unlike my earlier review of Mainspring, The Anubis Gates contains a number of surprises for even the well-read and jaded connoisseur of the fantastic). The book jacket reads that "Only the dazzling imagination of Tim Powers could have assembled such an insane cast of characters: an ancient Egyptian sorcerer, a modern millionaire, a body-switching werewolf, a hideously deformed clown, a young woman disguised as a boy, a brainwashed Lord Byron, and finally, our hero, Professor Brendan Doyle," which is no summary whatsoever. It is merely a cataloguing of the motley cast of The Anubis Gates, which might very well be the only way to tantalize a potential reader without giving away the novel's surprises.

What it clearly reveals is that The Anubis Gates is unconcerned with industrial technology, but is focused rather on thaumaturgic technology: magic. While I can't cite the precise instances or conversations, there has been buzz amongst steampunk adherents in the past year or so that steampunk is beginning to appropriate more gothic elements, or a sort of Lovecraftian aesthetic. What The Anubis Gates reveals is that magic has always been part of the pastiche of steampunk--Doyle wonders at one point "how much of this Lovecraftian fantasy could be true" (120). Without belaboring the point, it must be remembered that magic is historically the precursor to science in Western culture. It is, if you will, proto-science, or even the science of its day. Accordingly, magic was a sort of technology in the Romantic, Victorian, and Edwardian period. Serious thinkers such as William Butler Yeats and Evelyn Underhill were joining groups like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The magic of these groups is precision ritual - a form of technology. The working magic of The Anubis Gates plays upon this real world analogy, but is as anachronistic as steam, aether, clockwork, or difference engine imaginings in steampunk texts.

I'm not arguing that all magic is steampunk then, but only certain types of magic, within a certain context. The Anubis Gates plays with Egyptian magic particularly, utilizing the nineteenth century's generation and then subsequent fascination with the mummy's curse, as evidenced in the research of Dominic Montserrat and Roger Lockhurst. Accordingly, it is "contemporary magic" for the nineteenth century, going so far as to behave within the boundaries of a nineteenth century worldview, since the binding of the ancient Egyptian gods seems to have had something to do with the rise of Christianity: "They reside now in the the Tuaut, the underworld, the gates of which have been held shut for eighteen centuries by some pressure I do not understand but which I am sure is linked with Christianity" (11). Again, I must qualify: I am not stating that steampunk magic must apply but such rules, but there is a verisimilitude gained in paying even only lip service to the vestiges of Christendom, if one wishes to write fiction taking place in the British Empire, or Colonial Europe in the nineteenth century. China Mievelle's Bas-Lag can be as godless as its author wishes it to be, since it is a secondary world which echoes, not emulates a Dickensian London. The setting of The Anubis Gates is London, and accordingly, despite potential differences accorded an alternate history, should reflect the reality of that historical setting.

All academic musings aside, The Anubis Gates is a humourous, light-hearted adventure with turns dark and dreary, whose plot centers around the heart of counter-factual questions, which is, what if? What if things had been different? What if, asks Doyle, my life had turned out differently? He asks this question of his own academic inquiry, the enigmatic poet William Ashbless: "And how was it in your day, William? Were the cigars and scotch and women any better?" Potentially, this is the question at the heart of steampunk: how was it in another day? Powers never really answers this question, but instead chronicles the fantastic pursuit of such an answer, which may be, aside from the artistic quality of the text, The Anubis Gates' secret to literary longevity. In only asking the question, it opens up the sense of possibility, which is ultimately what good speculative fiction does--it speculates, on the possibilities, and leaves the reader to ruminate on their own conclusions, be they high-minded and pedantic, or simply, "damn, that was a good book." My brother-in-law had the latter reaction. So much so, he wanted to pick it up and read it again immediately.

In writing this review, I'm feeling much the same way.


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