Richard Blanzac is a 40-year-old rare books dealer in San Francisco. While examining the contents of a few old boxes someone brought in, he discovers a manuscript with some poetry written by a little known San Francisco Beat poet named Sophie Greenwald who died in 1969. Shortly after, he is summoned to the bedside of an old lady in a nursing home. She’s the executor of the poet’s estate and insists that Richard burn the manuscript. After he leaves the nursing home, Richard discovers that there are others who want that manuscript, too. It gets really weird later when Richard is at home reading the poetry and is suddenly magically transported to a bar in 1957 San Francisco!
When Richard stumbles into the bar, he’s immediately met by Sophie Greenwald who insists that this is actually his second trip to 1957 today — he’d first arrived a few hours before and had just left before he arrived again. Richard thinks it’s a big joke, but when he goes outside and sees 1957 San Francisco, he becomes disturbed and overwhelmed. Sophie takes him home and fills him in on everything that happened earlier during their first meeting (when she didn’t believe he was from 2012) and she tells him about the manuscript. It’s something that she’d been translating for a job before she realized how dangerous it was. Now she’s hiding from the doomsday cult that wants the manuscript back.
Richard isn’t sure he understands or believes any of this, but when he arrives back in 2012, he realizes that what Sophie said must be true. Now he knows he must be going back to meet Sophie earlier in the day, and if he doesn’t do everything right, he fears he may obliterate himself with a time paradox. And, he has to make sure the guys from the cult don’t get their hands on that manuscript.
Tim Powers’ story gets even weirder from here. It’s a lot of weirdness to pack into a 160-page novella and it works really well. Richard and Sophie’s reactions to time travel are believable and Powers doesn’t ignore the problems of time paradoxes, but uses their potentiality to make us think about free will, determinism, and how small single events might affect our entire future. Powers has also provided an intriguing twist on a time-travel plot; when Richard meets Sophie the first time, it’s the second time for her but when he meets her the second time, it’s the first time for her. Here Tim Powers demonstrates how well he can craft a plot — it’s really tight and very impressive.
I didn’t quite believe in the romance between Richard and Sophie — they know each other for only a few hours during which one of them thinks the other is either crazy or a liar. But if we decide to believe, we see that Powers has created quite a tragic romance! He emphasizes this with a lovely repetitive motif in the plot, the imagery, and the poetry. (This is something I’ve never said before: I wish there had been more poetry!)
Salvage and Demolition is being released by Subterranean Press. There are interior illustrations by J.K. Potter (whose work I don’t much care for). This is an impressive novella that I’m sure to recommend and read again.