Forced Perspectives, Tim Powers (Baen 978-1-9821-2440-3, 384pp, hardcover) March 2020
When I reviewed the first book in this series, Alternate Routes, for Asimov’s, I said the novel “continues Powers’s invigorating investigations into spirits from the vasty deep, employing an approach and tone he has not previously offered. As is to be expected, after such a long and vital congress with specters, Powers brings his A-game to the page.” I could simply repeat myself for the sequel, and let it go at that—a word to the wise is sufficient—but it’s more fun to dive into the deep end of Powers’s seething Los Angeles infernal hot tub and relay the sensations.
Returning with a mix of brio, trepidation, regret, and valor are our two spook hunters, Sebastian Vickery—ex-cop living on the wrong side of the law—and Ingrid Castine, still employed by the secretive and conspiratorial Transportation Utility Agency, now a reformed version of its previous transgressive and manipulative self. Their world is still rife with ghosts, although less so than in their earlier adventure, when the pair shut down a rift into the afterworld at much peril to their bodies and souls. (In Powers’s schema, ghosts tend to congregate along freeways, which are really conduits of psychic power.) Vickery is trying to lead a semi-normal life off the grid and off the authorities’ radar in Barstow CA, while, back East, Castine has shifted jobs within the TUA, from field agent to low-profile desk jockey. But the two are both plagued by intermittent visions of a ghostly decrepit mansion inhabited by a spectral figure, and that occult envoy seems to be getting closer to them each time he appears in their fugues. So the pair reunite in LA to hash matters out.
But they are immediately attacked—in an aborted kidnapping attempt—by unknown human agents, for unclear reasons. Rescued by a certain Lateef Fakhouri, paranormal investigator for the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, Vickery and Castine regroup to try to puzzle things out.
What they can’t yet fathom is that they are being hunted by one Simon Harlowe and his pack of goons. Harlowe has a plan to bring about a kind of all-human Singularity. Through the use of an ancient Egyptian sigil—the Ba—he will instantiate the “egregore,” a Borg-like group mind that sucks all human consciousness into itself like a black hole. The Ba first came to the USA in the 1920s—featuring as wall decoration in a Cecil B. DeMille silent film—then resurfaced in the 1960s, when another mage, a hippie-rocker Manson type, one Conrad Chronic, tried the same gambit and failed. But Harlowe believes he can succeed, if only he gets ahold of Castine and Vickery, whose exploits in Hell have endowed them with powerful psychic mana which would help shape the egregore. Failing that, Harlowe intends to use his psychotic nieces, Lexi and Amber, in the same role. (Picture twin Harley Quinns forming the new template for reality.)
The timeframe for all this action—the egregore goes live on Halloween—is only a few days, and so our heroes must scramble to get up to speed and make a plan—while trying to avoid Harlowe’s assassins. Luckily they have the aid of Elisha Ragotskie, a renegade henchman fleeing Harlowe who wants to save his girlfriend Agnes from Harlowe’s clutches, as well as many of the colorful lowlife, seedy folks from the previous book.
By cramming all his meticulously conveyed action into the span of just seventy-two hours or so, Powers is able to provide the reader with a narrative that feels gorgeously overstuffed with doings, almost a realtime experience. We go from quiet moments—Castine and Vickery resting in his trailer, trying to jokingly resolve their feelings for each other—to wild car chases, encounters with ghosts (very creepy), and some old-school detective sleuthing. As always, Powers invests his specters with unique attributes: their fondness for M&Ms and cigarettes being just the tip of the iceberg. The conversations among the human characters always feel fresh, revealing and resonant with various high-voltage emotional currents. The solidity and ambiance of the California landscape and culture comes across vividly. Powers is one of our best poets of the West Coast. And of course, the stakes being played for are of the highest nature.
The climax of the book moves at jet speed, along unpredictable paths, and resolves in a fully gratifying melee involving almost every major character, living or dead.
At one point a minor character says, “Ghosts are spaces shaped like somebody, but the somebody isn’t there, they’re like bubbles in a fuel line—the engine stalls.” This might be true in the occult paradigm which fuels the events of Forced Perspectives. But in our larger literary realm, Powers has proved that ghosts can be among the most substantial engines of mystery and delight any writer can employ!
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