Gary K. Wolfe Reviews The Properties of Rooftop Air by Tim Powers

The Properties of Rooftop Air, Tim Powers (Subterranean 978-1-59606-974-9, $35.00, 80pp, hc) June 2020. Cover by David Palumbo.

There were plenty of evil clowns before Stephen King’s Pennywise basically photobombed the whole trope, and one of the most disturbing was Horrabin from Tim Powers’s The Anubis Gates, who would deliberately disfigure some of the beggars in his gang in order to make them appear more pitiful. Now Horrabin is back in the tightly wound and intriguingly titled novella The Properties of Rooftop Air, which alludes to Horrabin’s distaste for being in contact with, or even too close to the earth. An illiterate and rather clumsy beggar named Fairchild, who has only recently joined Horrabin’s guild, is terrified when he is summoned to meet with the clown himself – fearing some sort of mutilation is in store – but instead finds himself enlisted in a bizarre scheme to enhance his intelligence by psychically linking him to a community of tiny homunculi created by the alchemist dwarf Dungy, who seems to be, if not the brains behind Horrabin’s entire operation, at least its research and development arm. Fairchild’s mental slowness is actually an advantage, rendering him something of a tabula rasa for Dungy’s experiment. But even as he’s promised that he’ll gain the ability to read Pascal and Newton, Fairchild gradually comes to realize what this will actually cost him.

While the main appeal of The Properties of Rooftop Air will be to fans who relish the chance to return to the richly detailed, phantasmagorical Georgian London of The Anubis Gates, Fairchild’s rather sad tale of coming into consciousness, or gaining ”definition” as Dungy puts it, offers its own glimpse into the real grinding poverty of that era. Fairchild hopes that, by allowing Dungy and his homunculi to essentially turn him into a new and more valuable gang member, troubling memories of ”bad and foolish things he’d done” will be erased – but so, essentially, would Fairchild himself. It’s a dilemma that echoes one of the recurring themes of The Anubis Gates, with its body-switching protagonists and villains, but it’s also the sort of moral conundrum that has long fascinated Powers. In many ways, that conundrum, along with Powers’s familiar atmospheric skill, is what lends The Properties of Rooftop Air its power despite a rather slight plot and a fairly claustrophobic setting – which opens up in a dramatic way in a striking scene when Fairchild finally comes to recognize the cramped nature of his world. It’s more of a snapshot than a tapestry, but it captures a good deal of the old magic.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the June 2020 issue of Locus.

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