Epitaph in Rust

The Tim Powers series continues with a look at his second novel.

Raw Feed (2004): Epitaph in Rust, Timothy Powers, 1976.Epitaph in Rust

The plot of this novel, Powers’ second, is similar to that of his first novel, The Skies Discrowned. A young man with artistic aspirations (here to be a poet) is suddenly exiled from his comfortable life (here protagonist Brother Thomas aka Rufus Pennick has to flee the monastery after assaulting the abbot), falls in with colorful characters and gets involved in a political revolution (here the colorful characters are actors who are also revolutionaries), is unlucky in love (here his first girlfriend turns out to be an android), and eventually turns his back on a comfortable position in the new political order he has helped found with the story ending with the hero wandering, all in a world of mixed technology (this seems to be some sort of post-apocalypse Los Angeles with firearms ranging from muskets to modern handguns, cloning, androids, and thumbprints).

Again, Powers exhibits his trademark maiming (always physically, sometimes psychically) of his hero. Rufus loses a finger on his left hand. Literature again comes into play with the actors rehearsing a version of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (which features characters in disguise which resonates a bit with the object of desire for the hero and another actor turning out to be an android in disguise). A difference between the general plot of this novel and The Skies Discrowned is that Rufus states he is giving up writing poetry while the hero of the latter work faithfully goes back to his first calling as a painter. However, you could read the opening epigraph, from the unpublished poems of Pennick, as evidence that he does keep composing poetry and that he is despondent about his time in Los Angeles since so many of his friends are killed there, he is maimed, and his first love turns out to be a treacherous android (though he abandons the possibilities of a romance with the female gaffer of the company).

The plotting here is tighter than The Skies Discrowned though, again, Powers does temporarily deviate from his main point of view character, Rufus, but the deviations flow better than his first novel. The mystery/suspense plot clearly points the way to the tight plotting necessary for his later secret history fantasies.

There are some marvelous touches of humor, especially the chess games through which the actors duel. Each piece is represented by a glass filled with wine. If you capture a piece, you must drink its contents. The game is won by checkmating your opponent — or him passing out. It’s a great joke and a subtle game. And Powers heightened the humor by having his challenged actor state that wine is for kids, that he’ll play with rum. I also liked the “bourbon renewal” — the neighborhood looks better the more you drink. And I liked other touches: the genetically engineered “tax birds” who go about scavenging shiny things and then being netted by the city to get their bounty (it is his illegally fishing for them that gets Rufus into trouble), the grazing androids, the “snoose” they take which is a mixture of opium, tobacco, and ground glass, the rain of frogs, and the accident involving trying to fire a chain from two cannons at once.

While I liked the novel, I thought it’s most intriguing aspect was the possible influence of Powers’ friend, Philip K. Dick, in the plot elements of the androids. As in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, there is a confusion, in the character of Pat, between human and android. Most of the androids are obvious (and they have dopey names taken from foods and drinks), but Pat fools a whole group dedicated to fighting androids. Rufus and another actor fall in love with her (though another actor says she’s a real bitch). As in the end of Dick’s novel, we gain additional sympathy for the androids though we’re not completely convinced they are humans. That transformation is done when Pat confront Rufus. She tells him that she didn’t turn in the actors even though she knows they’re revolutionaries and that she was sent to spy on them (she exhibits a knowledge of Shakespeare and ability to act which further humanizes her) because she loves him. However, once she finds out he has the android Pelias padmu, racial loyalty compels her to go after him and try to get the padmu back. There is a hint, when Pat says she’s going to abandon police work and go to Needles, that Rufus still loves her, regards her as human enough to love, because the last sentence of the novel has him going to Needles. The androids might also serve as commentary on the evils of rigid moral orders untempered by human mercy. The first assassination attempt on Pelias (who turns out to be Gladhand) was done because he was such a corrupt mayor and the majordomo wanted to replace him with an android administration of moral perfection. However, they end up killing people for minor crimes. In despair at the failure of his “morally infallible” androids, the majordomo later kills himself.


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