Unlike many writers in the slipstream/fantasy genre, Tim Powers feels no obligation to crank out a novel (or more) a year to satisfy commercial dictates. He's like a literary ronin, following his own path and honing his writing to a razor's edge before slicing up whatever stale genre conventions stand in the way of his boundless imagination.
Ostensibly a thriller about the search for the ultimate scientific holy grail of time travel, Three Days to Never gives Powers a stage on which to enact an often searing human drama about broken people who each believe they could be mended if only they could be given a chance to hit the rewind buttons on their lives. All of us have had those moments of "if I knew then what I know now" reflection. But what if a machine existed to make that opportunity real? As one character cynically remarks, it'd be "better than the Catholics' confession... You just snip off the yards of sinful tape and start over. No repentance required."
The (indistinguishable from) magic item that's the object of this fantasy quest is a time machine devised by Albert Einstein himself, who immediately did all he could to suppress it once he realized its potential danger, which involves breaking into alternate universes. Powers ingeniously imagines a world in which the most cutting-edge discoveries of physics walk hand in hand with paranormal phenomena, Kabbalist mysticism, and enough weirdness for any five seasons of The X-Files. At the center of this unfolding mystery is widower Frank Marrity and his young daughter Daphne, who become aware that reality isn't what it used to be once they hear of Frank's grandmother's bizarre death at a Harmonic Convergence event. (The book is set in 1987.)
Investigating a shed behind the old woman's house, Frank and Daphne soon learn that his great-grandfather was none other than Einstein. After the two of them examine the shed's odd contents, Daphne innocently takes a videocassette labeled as Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. In fact, it's been taped over with a lost Charlie Chaplin silent film that is itself a key element of Einstein's machine. That such a baffling idea could be ultimately explained and made to work in the narrative is a testament to Powers' creative brilliance; there's no sense in my trying to explain it to you. Suffice it to say that Powers builds his mystery by dropping clues you have no immediate idea are clues, or, conversely, that you'll have a hard time figuring out how they could possibly fit. The result is that you're helplessly hooked.
Frank and Daphne soon find themselves the targets of several groups and individuals desperately seeking the time machine. An old man claiming to be Frank's father, who ran out on the family in 1955, turns up most unwelcome. Other players include the Mossad, as well as members of a secret society called the Vespers, whose origins can be traced to medieval Europe (they discovered the same time-travel secret Einstein did centuries before, and were promptly dealt with by the Vatican) and who had brief ties to the Nazis. Beneath group agendas are personal ones. Almost each person has a past tragedy to be erased; the Mossad's Lepidopt wants to prevent the Yom Kippur War. (No one, curiously, talks about preventing the Holocaust.) A young woman named Charlotte working for the Vespers, who was blinded in childhood and has since developed the psychic ability to see through the eyes of others, simply wants to go back and rescue herself from that tragedy.
There are almost too many inspired little story details to list. I loved the notion of ghosts as being individuals lost (and moving backwards) in time, due to the timelines in which they originally existed having been erased. Also, I'm going to leave it to you to discover the brilliant little touch involving the spontaneous appearance of babies any time anyone breaches universes, and why that actually occurs. Powers' mind is as playful as it is innovative.
If one were to glean a message from this story, it could be that, as much as we might dream of going back and changing events in our past that have hurt us to one degree or another, the point of life is to move forward through the pain, and not linger on it, tormenting ourselves by never learning lessons or growing as people. A lot of time travel thrillers would root themselves in the gizmo or the gimmick; Three Days to Never is that rare kind of thriller that never loses sight of the humanity beneath the surface. Then again, that shouldn't be a surprise. Tim Powers is a rare kind of writer.
Now I hope you'll indulge me briefly for a post-review rant. Won't take long, but it must be done. What kind of critic would I be if I didn't go off once in a while? What comes next is no reflection on the book itself, which is fantastic. You can stop reading here if you like.
Dean Koontz is a moron. In case you're wondering what a comment like that is doing in a review of a Tim Powers novel, it's like this. Powers has been unfortunate enough to receive an advance blurb for this book from Koontz, which reads, in part, as follows (with emphasis added to the moronic parts): "Because Powers knows that science poses its questions in search of a predetermined answer, this book is a swift, colorful pursuit of the truth visible only to those with humility and a sense of wonder."
Frankly I've had it up to here with the anti-science zeitgeist pervasive among the ignorazzi in fundamentalist America. If Koontz really thinks science only pursues predetermined answers, he's a moron. A remedial education in the scientific method itself ought to clarify that little bit of confusion. (Does Koontz think Einstein just pulled E=MC2 out of his hat, then looked for evidence to fit it?) And if he's really implying that scientists possess neither humility nor a sense of wonder, then he's a sorry son of a bitch who owes every scientist alive an apology. Show me a working scientist, and I'll show you a person who, if actual effort is to be figured into it, has more of a sense of awe and wonder about nature and the universe in his little pinky than Koontz, with all of his pseudoscientific woo beliefs, would possess in his whole body if you were to clone him a hundred times over. Does Koontz honestly think that astronomers gaze at the universe and don't feel humble and infused with wonder? Does he think physicists examine the building blocks of matter, and don't feel humble and infused with wonder? Does he think biologists and zoologists and anthropologists and paleontologists look at the vast panoply of life on Earth, and don't feel humble and infused with wonder? If so, allow me, unofficially on behalf of the scientific community, to say, "Fuck you!"
Anyway, the biggest offense about Koontz's quote is that it's a false and misguided description of the book it means to praise. Tim Powers — who, unlike Koontz, isn't a moron — knows that when he writes fantasy, he's writing fantasy. And Powers understands how to use fantasy as a literary genre in a way that illuminates truths, which is quite a different thing from Koontz's puerile inability to distinguish between the two.