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OTHER WORLDS: SCIENCE FICTION

EXPIRATION DATE, By Tim Powers (Tor: $23.95; 381 pp.) : THE TWO GEORGES, By Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss (Tor Books: $23.95; 384 pp.) : PASTWATCH, By Orson Scott Card (St. Martin's: $23.95; 351 pp.) : BEOWULF'S CHILDREN, By Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steve Barnes (Tor Books: $23.95; 384 pp.)

April 21, 1996|JAMES SALLIS | James Sallis' most recent books are the novel "Black Hornet," "The Guitar in Jazz" and "Ash of Stars: On the Writing of Samuel P. Delany."

Some writers essay again and again the same virtual territory, circling ever more tightly inward toward fundamental themes, preoccupations and apperceptions, striving to get it, finally, absolutely, right. Others palpably change and develop with each novel, taking on new subject matter, extending their reach, pressing the scope of their regard and ambition. A few, a scant handful, do both.

Tim Powers, for instance.

The writer he most reminds me of in his best moments is Theodore Sturgeon. Powers is not the stylist Sturgeon was, of course, but he's every bit the storyteller. And I can't imagine a higher recommendation.

Beginning with novels such as "The Anubis Gates" and "Dinner at Deviant's Palace," clicking into place forcibly with "The Stress of Her Regard" and 1994's "Last Call," Powers has forged a style of narrative uniquely his own, one filled with sharply drawn characters, fully imagined settings, elaborate underpinnings that pull all rugs out from under us and let us glimpse terrible, ragged floors beneath.

The purport of Powers' fantasy (perhaps of all serious fantasy) is ontological: To insist that things are not as they seem, that what we perceive as the world about us is but a scrim over something really quite different and ultimately unknowable.

His plots begin when, for one or another of his characters, a tear appears in the veil.

In Expiration Date (Tor: $23.95; 381 pp.), that character is 11-year-old Koot Parganas, who breaks into his parents' plaster bust of Dante and inhales the long-hoarded ghost of Thomas Alva Edison. Soon Koot and Tom are a team and most of the book's other characters are after them: Nicky Bradfield, onetime child TV star who, though dead, remains in the world through sheer force of will, subsisting wholly on cinnamon candy and setting out stuffed pigs that hoot at the approach of other ghosts; Sherman Oaks, a one-armed ghost hunter who uses his phantom limb as a kind of dowsing rod; Pete Sullivan, who hopes to rescue his dead father from ghost-devourer/filmmaker Loretta DeLarava.

Add to all that the death mask and severed thumb of Houdini, some monstrous rotting thing crawling from the sea and an inner city filled with ghosts who, speaking gibberish, consuming rocks and bottle caps, have accumulated just enough physical substance--from bugs and sick animals, from spilled blood and spit and semen--to lurch about panhandling, and you've a fair idea of the landscape here.

Set in a present-day Los Angeles that's tumbled down the rabbit hole after Alice, "Expiration Date" is a fine melange of the fantastic and mundane, its outlandish loops and limbs and odd-shaped parts at last locking down, in purest Tim Powers fashion, into a richly textured, eminently human, whole.

Alternate history has established itself in recent years as a popular and progenitive tributary of speculative fiction, giving us such fine and diverse books as Jack Womack's series, now in its fifth volume, and Michael Bishop's elegiac novel starring Phil Dick. At the forefront of this trend, author of dozens of such stories and novels, in particular of a much-acclaimed alternate-history Civil War novel, "The Guns of the South," is Harry Turtledove, a historian who, failing to find honest work, found his own alternative history as novelist.

And now as Richard Dreyfuss' collaborator.

The Two Georges (Tor: $23.95; 384 pp.) is set in present-day North America--a North America, however, in which colonists never rose up against Britain and remain, as the North American Union (NAU), a part of the empire. The famous Gainesborough painting of His Majesty George III and George Washington that serves as the symbol of unity of the empire has been stolen, and held ransom, by an extremist group calling itself the Sons of Liberty. Royal American Mountie Thomas Bushell, there when the painting was taken and responsible for its safety, vows to recover it at any cost.

And so we follow Bushell from luxury dirigible rides to jaunts about New York in steam-powered cars, join his expeditions to the independent Indian nations and northwestward to the edge of Russian-held Alaska, sounding what the Rights of Man and Jeffersonian ideals have become in this America where Jefferson (and, indeed, Jackson) never arose, where Martin Luther King is governor-general of the NAU and "Common Sense" a conservative political rag.

The stew's a tasty one, full of nourishment and substance. The stew well-spiced with humor, with marvelous touches of irony and satire, and with those "precise, telling details" of which Chekhov was so fond: Matches are lucifers, undershirts vests, a telephone exchange begins AGincourt.

Throughout, the novel is also a fine adventure story, wonderfully plotted and paced, replete with fully imagined characters, unusual settings, unexpected turns. It should appeal strongly to readers who in recent years have so embraced novels such as Caleb Carr's "The Alienist" and Peter Hoeg's "Smilla's Sense of Snow."

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