Quote of the Moment

"Magic comes from what is inside you. It is part of you. You can't weave together a spell you don't believe in." - Jim Butcher

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Steampunk and Time Travel in The Anubis Gates

SPOILER ALERT! If you have not read The Anubis Gates there are spoilers in this essay.

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In the Recent Science Fiction and Fantasy class I took, we had to research the steampunk sub-genre. The Anubis Gates was on many steampunk lists as one of the original novels that started the sub-genre, and I was curious about it then, so I was pleased to have the chance to read it now. Time travel paradoxes also tend to make my head spin, so I was interested to see how Tim Powers handles it in The Anubis Gates.

I must admit, The Anubis Gates is not what I expected from a novel labeled as steampunk. When I think steampunk, I think more the science fiction side of things with the air ships, the interesting gadgets, and the focus on steam as a power source. Therefore, I did not expect to find so much magic in such a novel! I'm quite glad I had the chance to read this novel, though, since it did give me a fresh perspective on the sub-genre. And with it leaning toward fantasy because of all the magic, I enjoyed it immensely.

When I wrote my essay on Boneshaker for the aforementioned class, I used an article I found on the internet called "Steampunk: A List of Themes" to examine how that novel incorporates steampunk elements. I looked at the article again after reading The Anubis Gates to see just how many categories it fits into. It's obviously an alternate history, closing in on the Victorian era, so we see a lot of those antiquities. There's the cannon near the end of the novel and the gunpowder used throughout. Plus the chemistry used in the magic and to alter the humans and animals in Horrabin's "hospital"--Horrabin and his father I think would rightly qualify to be labeled as mad scientists. There is the monster, of course. Dog-face Joe is a wonderful twist on a typical werewolf. There are secret societies, sword fights, and a clear class divide (Doyle himself experiences life on the low and high end of this). All of these things clearly make The Anubis Gates a steampunk novel, and I am even more enamored with the sub-genre after seeing this fantasy side versus the science fiction side.

But before we are steeped in this magically rich Victorian time period, the main character needs to get there first. And even though The Anubis Gates is steampunk, it's also a time travel story. Time travel is a fickle thing. The writer needs to set things up just right to make sure it all makes sense. Paradoxes are easy to fall into. Powers sets up his view on how time travel works in this world right away when Doyle and the others arrive for the Coleridge speech. History already states that Coleridge lectured at that date and time, but if Doyle and friends wouldn't have arrived and paid the money to rent the room for the lecture, it never would have happened. From this example it's clearly seen that Powers' view on time travel (at least in this novel) is that you can't go back and change things--everything has already happened. There is no way to change history because if you travel back in time, you've already effected that history so the result will be exactly the same.

Even though I think the "it's already happened" approach is a great one, since it doesn't mean the writer has to explain the ripple effect, I still found it hard to accept everything concerning the time traveling. Once Doyle was left behind in 1810, I had a hunch that he would actually be William Ashbless. That hunch was obviously correct, and I do think the set-up for it was done quite nicely. However, there were just some instances where I fell into a couple paradoxical holes. First was the poem, "The Twelve Hours of the Night". Since Doyle is Ashbless, he wrote the poem at the coffee house. As he admits, he wrote it from memory. So if he is the original creator of the poem, where did the words come from in the first place? It's like the eternal debate of "what came first, the chicken or the egg?", since you keep going in circles on trying to figure it out. The words had to be originally written at some point. Powers tries to explain things away later: "My God, he thought, then if I stay and live out my life as Ashbless--which the universe pretty clearly means me to do--then nobody wrote Ashbless' poems. . . They're a closed loop, uncreated! I'm just the . . . messenger and caretaker" (273). But the words have to come from somewhere originally, so this assertion fell flat for me. Even later in the book Doyle decides his experiences are what Ashbless must have been talking about in the poem, but it's hard to believe that the poem came before the actual experiences. Even the words in the book from the 1600s has the smell of paradox. Doyle would never have written the Pig Latin words in the book if he hadn't seen them in 1810, but if that was the only reason he wrote them, they shouldn't probably have been written in the first place. It can become a circular mess, and even trying to write about it strains my brain cells.

Even though I had some issues accepting some of the time travel paradoxes, I overall did find The Anubis Gates a great read. The story was compelling, even when you did know things were already "written in stone", so to speak, and it was hard to put down. I can see why this steampunk fantasy is considered a classic, and it makes me want to read even more in the sub-genre.

Works Cited

EvilEgg. "Steampunk: A List of Themes." Writing.com. 2007. Web.
Powers, Tim. The Anubis Gates. The Berkley Publishing Group: New York, 1983.

NEXT UP: A review of a few more episodes of Once Upon A Time.

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