Blast from the Past
By Cheryl Morgan
One of the things I have always intended to do with Emerald City was take advantage of the fabulous Gollancz Masterworks re-issues to highlight classic works of the past. Of course there is always a huge pile of new releases clamoring for my attention, and Iíve always tended to think that new books need coverage more than famous old ones, so Iíve never managed to get this thing done. But one advantage that the Masterworks books have is that they are all mass-market paperbacks. This makes them ideal to pack for "spare" reading on a plane journey, just in case the books I planned to read zip by really quickly, or I donít sleep much. On my last trip across the Atlantic I packed Tim Powersí The Anubis Gates as my reserve book. I am so glad that I did.
It is always a bit scary coming back to a book that you have been telling people is one of your favorite novels, just in case you donít like it on re-reading it. It is over 20 years since I read The Anubis Gates. The book is pre-Neuromancer. The world has changed since it came out, hasnít it? Well, not as much as you might think. Because while The Anubis Gates still stands up well as a fantastical adventure, I had completely forgotten what a fine piece of genre bending it is. New Weird? Ha! Tim Powers was doing that in 1983.
The book begins in 1802. Four years before a group of Yorkshire Magicians in another book decided to revive English magic, a very different sort of spell was being cast near London. At the direction of his master back in Egypt, Amenophis Fikee was attempting to restore the influence of Anubis on the world. His intention was to gain enough power to destroy Britain, and thereby free Egypt from that countryís yoke.
Like most modern magics, he thought bitterly, while it probably did something, it didnít accomplish what it was supposed to.
Oh, it did something all right. Unbeknownst to him, Amenophis Fikee had punched holes in the river of time. Almost two hundred years later, the reclusive billionaire, J. Cochran Darrow, described it to Brendan Doyle something like this. Suppose time is a frozen river. The fish within the river can only swim along with the strong current. But there are holes in the ice, and those who know how to spot them can jump out, skate back along the ice, and re-enter the river at some point in the past.
Darrow, of course, is planning to make such a jump. He is going back to 1810 to hear a lecture given by the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in London, and he is taking a small number of very rich tourists along with him. Doyle, being a leading academic expert on Coleridge, has been hired as a guide. Thanks to the inevitable mix-up, Doyle manages to miss the trip back and is stranded in 1810. Ah well, at least he can use the time to do research for his planned book on the reclusive American poet, William Ashbless, who is due to arrive in London any day now. There will be another gate in a few years time; he can go back then.
But is it the real 1810, or another timeline entirely? Why is Byron in London when Doyle knows he should be in Greece? More to the point, where the heck is Ashbless? He hasnít turned up at any of the places history says he did, though Doyle made sure he was there at the right times. And, for that matter, who are the mysterious thugs who are trying to kill Doyle, and why do they communicate with each other by whistling Beatles tunes?
So there you have it: sorcery, time travel, and something that is either an alternate history or a secret history. What is more it has Coleridge, Byron and the inimitable yet mysterious William Ashbless, of whom so much has been written since. Iím not surprised that the book won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1984 (something that must have been a particular pleasure to Powers as he knew Dick well). Why it didnít get on the Hugo or World Fantasy short lists is a mystery to me.
Of course it isnít just the imaginative plot and adventurous genre bending that makes The Anubis Gates such a good book. Powers is a fabulous fantasy writer, and his descriptions of magical goings on in the London of 1810, while by no means "English" in the way of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, are no less successful.
For a moment he just hung stunned in the water, for the lights had followed him and now surrounded him, and staring at the nearest couple he saw that they were eggshell halves, equipped with tiny torches, straw masts and folded paper sails, and ó and it didnít even occur to him to ascribe it to fever delirium ó a tiny man, no bigger than his little finger, crouched in each one, twisting the toy mast deftly in the breeze to hold his diminutive craft in position.
Powersí historical research probably isnít perfect. The one mistake I did notice is that at one point Doyle speculates as to whether Coleridgeís experiences in his company might have inspired "Kubla Kahn", but in fact that poem was started (and left unfinished) in 1797 when Coleridge was living in Somerset. But it could have happened. Because in The Anubis Gates Tim Powers has so successfully mixed fantasy and history that you come away thinking that it quite likely did happen.