Sorcerous Clock

“The Anubis Gates,” by Tim Powers is one heck of a spell-binding science-fiction that ropes in such disparate elements as time travel, Egyptian sorcery, history, and Romantic poets, all brought together in a riveting adventure.

It may have the occasional over-plotting and the text may tend, in places, to get stodgy, but you can’t help but keep going till the very end of the 387 pages.

Time travel doesn’t happen as a result of an H.G. Wells-esque time machine, but is the side effect of powerful sorcery, aimed at purging Egypt of its colonizers and thwarting its imperial ambitions.

Anubis—the lord of the underworld in Egyptian mythology—is invoked to open its long-shut gates.

The spell, intended to unleash the gods and spirits dwelling therein, also opens gaps in time, which, in 1983, are discovered by J. Cochran Darrow, an ailing English science and technology magnate.

He takes a party of culture vultures and literature buffs to attend a lecture by Samuel Coleridge, delivered live, on September 10, 1810 at the Crown and Anchor tavern.

Leading the time-traveling, literary soirée is Brendan Doyle, an American English professor. History intervenes and he’s unable to make it back to the present.

Stuck in pre-Regency England, he starts his life as a peddler, selling scrawny onions till he gets snapped up by a beggars guild. Panhandling and accosting strangers for pennies is fine by him, till he realizes, he’s caught in a hostile vortex, pursued by unknown enemies.

His only asset is his knowledge of the past, which, of course, now, becomes his future.

From his reading of the biography of William Ashbless—a fictional, obscure poet, invented by the writer—Doyle knows the time, date, and location of his arrival at a London coffeehouse.

He plans to strike up a friendship with him, hoping that his patronage will set him up in the new era.

William Ashbless doesn’t show up because William Ashbless is Brendon Doyle. The novel explores a vertiginous paradox, in which information can exist without having been created.

Doyle ponders:

If I stay and live out my life as Ashbless—which the universe pretty clearly means me to do—then nobody wrote Ashbless’ poems. I’ll copy out his poems from memory, having read them in the 1932 Collected Poems, and my copies will be set in type for the magazines, and they’ll use tear sheets from the magazines to assemble the Collected Poems! They’re a closed loop, uncreated. I’m just the … messenger and caretaker.

That is to say, that when the 21st century Doyle went back in time and became the 20th century Ashbless, the poems he wrote as Ashbless, were from his memory. These were the poems that were recovered 153 years later and became the very poems that were sent back in time.

So, when and where did they originate? Who created them? Neither Doyle nor Ashbless.

When Doyle traveled back in time, he could’ve chosen not to write them. Or, even if he did write them, he could have chosen not to send them to the magazine for publication. Or, even if he did send them for publication, the magazine could have chosen to reject his manuscript?

Could he have chosen to alter the past? Any action that would’ve created an inconsistency in history, would’ve been doomed to fail, asserts Novikov’s “self-consistency principle.” One way or another, he’d have performed the very actions that would have led to the creation of history, not tweak it.

The book has a dizzyingly imaginative cast of characters: a gypsy chief, who bobs about on high, spring-soled shoes; a hideous clown that runs the Punch and Judy show; a girl, masquerading as a lad; a clone of George Gordon Byron; frolicking human-shaped flames; a mage, who can switch bodies at will.

As we follow them around, we get a tour of the seedier sections of 19th century London. St. Giles rookery (popularly known then as “Rats Castle”), for instance, was a squalid slum, a den of crooks, hookers, and the wretched.

One of the joys of this book is that Powers shoehorns fictional events into recorded history so subtly and so seamlessly that they don’t appear invented, at all. One is, at times, lulled into nearly believing that the version of history, presented here, may indeed have occurred.

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