No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

2011/18: Declare -- Tim Powers

... the SIS Beirut station picked up a heavy traffic on the service bandwidth: it was en clair, but they thought it must be code because it was all nursery rhymes -- 'the man in the moon came down too soon', 'how many miles to Babylon' -- that kind of thing. The SIS triangulated the signal and found that it seemed to originate in the Bashura cemetary, but they could never find a transmitter, and the signal faded after a month, and they blamed the vagaries of the Heaviside Layer; but we in Declare knew that it was St John's ghost, catching hell from the Moslem angels. (p. 467)
  1. Declare braids two timelines; Andrew Hale's reluctant reconscription to the intelligence services in 1963, and the events leading up to an epic confrontation (and a poker game) in 1948 on the slopes of Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark traditionally came to rest. There's backstory aplenty, sketching out a secret history that goes back to the Ararat earthquake of 1883 and explores the arcane foundations of the Soviet Union. Switching between the timelines adds mystery and suspense, since Hale in 1963 (where the novel begins) is profoundly affected by the events of fifteen years before, while the reader's wholly ignorant.
  2. The suspense might be drawn out excessively: there's nothing about the nature of les parasites ("knots of turbulent activity in the nighttime Heaviside Layer", p. 83) until a third of the way through, and then we're inundated with explanation. I also found the multiple viewpoints uneven: for most of the book the narrator is Hale (young or older), but in the latter third there are other perspectives.
  3. Declare is a Cold War spy thriller with strong supernatural elements: distinctly fantasy, though the supernatural beings are more fully-realised, more three-dimensional and different, than many space-opera aliens.
  4. Andrew Hale grows up ignorant of his father's identity, groomed for the Secret Service and pledged at age 7 to the shadowy organisation named Declare. As a double agent in occupied Paris, he meets and falls in love with Soviet agent Elena Ceniza-Bendiga; back in London, he encounters Kim Philby -- whom he recognises from dreams -- and begins to suspect that he and Philby share some preternatural connection.
  5. Andrew Hale's fascination with the supernatural is all too credible: he wants to know, even after he's had a very close encounter with a force he can't control, or reason with, or even name.
  6. Powers has said "I made Catholicism be true in the definition of the world the story takes place in -- so that baptism, for instance, has a real effect on a person's identity" (Strange Horizons interview, 7-2-05). Powers also writes, in the afterword of Declare, about the process of examining the known facts -- in particular, Kim Philby's often eccentric behaviour -- and fitting them into a larger, stranger tale.
  7. The characterisation of Kim Philby is fascinating (because Powers is clearly fascinated) but seems inconsistent: sometimes hero, sometimes coward. He doesn't quite add up, doesn't feel complete. This might be because of his nature, or the destiny his father choose for and instilled into him, or because of the events he's lived through: but Hale feels more rounded. (I'm less impressed by Powers' version of Guy Burgess, though the flaws of this particular Burgess are explained by events alluded to in the novel.)
  8. I thought this novel failed the Bechdel test, but I was wrong. (Though Elena's a pawn and a prize as far as Philby, in particular, is concerned, she does have an independent story arc and isn't simply a token female.)
  9. After reading Declare, I looked at my world with new eyes. Powers gives an excellent rationale for drinking gin (it's all in the name). I wish he'd write a short story featuring Romeo, the fox that was living at the top of the Shard in London. And one of many interesting facts that I learnt from this novel: 'vrej' is Armenian for revenge. This casts one aspect of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle in a different light.
  10. Declare is packed with detail, anecdote and observation. It's not (or not only) Powers showing how thoroughly he's researched the period, the events, the people: often a significant detail (topology, meteorites, ankhs, bird's eggs, poisonous honey, bilocation, hitching a ride on the Ark) is buried in a plethora of scene-setting. And the scenery is robust: as the action moves from London to Paris to Moscow to Berlin to Beirut, each city comes alive with a different ambience. (I found Powers' descriptions of city streets and sordid bars more evocative than his, often poetic, descriptions of desert and mountain.) Occasionally an Americanism uttered by an Englishman grated; occasionally I wanted to query a detail. (When did Marks and Spenser start making quality menswear?) But overall, I enjoyed this novel immensely, and while I was writing up these notes I pretty much reread it.

Shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award 2010. (Declare was first published in the US in 2000, but a British edition only appeared last year. Given the globalisation of the book market -- and how very much easier it is to acquire non-UK books than it was even a decade ago -- maybe it's time to rethink the 'first UK publication' rule?)

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