Tim Powers' Three Days to Never is a fantasy/sci-fi novel set in California in 1987, at the time of the Harmonic Convergence. It's a tale of time trav...moreTim Powers' Three Days to Never is a fantasy/sci-fi novel set in California in 1987, at the time of the Harmonic Convergence. It's a tale of time travel, conspiracy theories, the supernatural, and secrets--secret inventions, secret family relations, secret government and religious groups.
The novel opens with the mysterious death of Lisa Marrity on Mount Shasta. Just before her death, she calls her grandson Frank Marrity and tells him she has burned down the shed behind her house. Worried, Frank and his daughter Daphne go to check on the old woman and her home. The shed has not burned down, though it was clearly meant to, and Frank and Daphne, in their explorations of the shed, discover several artifacts of interest (Charlie Chaplin's handprints from in front of the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, letters from Albert Einstein to Lisa Marrity, and a videotape that is labelled Pee-Wee's Big Adventure but, upon viewing, is actually a lost--and very disturbing and powerful--Chaplin film). Immediately after their removal of these items, rival groups close in on the father and daughter, each group trying to retrieve these various elements and recreate a lost invention of Einstein's: a time machine. In the process, the novel includes telepathic communication, time travel, out-of-body experiences, ghosts, dybbuks, explorations of alternate histories, and, of course, car chases and shoot-outs. This is all good stuff. I mean, you can't go wrong with time travel, attempted murder, and conspiracy theories, right?
In general, Three Days to Never is a good book. It's entertaining and certainly has a lot to keep the reader interested. But, although the jacket copy claims that this "is an exhilarating masterwork of speculative suspense," it ultimately falls short of being a masterwork (though it is frequently exhilarating and suspenseful) because the plentiful plot devices and multitude of characters overshadow the book's true potential.
Tim Powers provides the reader with lots of characters to keep track of, all of whom have a backstory. Mostly, this is a good thing. The characters are interesting, both individually and in combination, and this creates a nicely complex tapestry of interests and motivations to help drive the plot forward. But after 300-400 pages, trying to keep track of all the characters and their backstories becomes a bit tiring. Furthermore, most characters don't develop much past their initial backstory. There are intriguing hints of what has led characters to be who they are or glimpses of even more interesting bits of their history, but there is not enough of this. Powers has had to sacrifice depth of character for breadth of coverage.
Even worse, by the end of the novel, as a result of the multiple narratives that have been introduced, Powers seems to be left with little choice but to focus on wrapping up the various plots while shortchanging the more interesting thematic elements that have been briefly raised throughout.
The book is most interesting, not in its intricate plot development or suspenseful unfolding of connections, but in its exploration of larger themes: How do we deal with regret for past actions? What are the consequences of changing the past? How will we--and the larger world--be changed? Can we really know which timeline, which choices, are best for us? More important, how much choice do any of us really have? And finally, what obligation do we have toward our family, toward the past, toward the future?
One character in the novel says to Frank, "Choices! You don't get choices, you get . . . situations that you react to--the actual cumulative you reacts, with whatever half-ass wiring you've got at the time, not some hovering "soul." You're a mercury switch--if the spring tilts you to the right degree, you complete a circuit, and if it's got metal fatigue, it tilts you less, and you don't. You don't have free will, sonny. . . . If a scientist could know every last detail of your physiology and life experiences, he could predict with absolute accuracy every "choice" you'd make in any moral quandary" (356).
At its best, when at its closest to being a masterwork, Three Days to Never is an attempt to deal with this statement and the questions it raises. More often, the novel is a thriller (a good thriller, to be sure--I don't want to undersell it), but only a thriller. It's a thriller with pretensions to greatness. It gestures toward such fascinating questions and I had high hopes that this would be a novel that manages to be both a pageturner and a head-scratcher. In the end, though, the balance skews to plot over theme and Three Days to Never becomes more thriller than thinker.(less)
This book is a complex and fascinating examination of gender roles and ideology. In it, Russ contrasts and intertwines the stories of Joanna (a 1970s...moreThis book is a complex and fascinating examination of gender roles and ideology. In it, Russ contrasts and intertwines the stories of Joanna (a 1970s feminist of a world much like, if not identical to, our own), Jeannine (a young, fairly stereotypical woman of an alternate timeline in which the Depression never ended), and Janet (a woman from the distant utopian future of Whileaway, a world with no men and only women), showing multiple variations on the issue or problem of sex difference alongside multiple responses to inequalities. Joanna is outspoken and sees clearly the inequalities that surround her, even if she is not always certain how to best address them; Jeannine is thoroughly indoctrinated in the ideology that says a woman needs a man and has neither the strength nor the apparent inclination to challenge this ideology; and Janet, from a world without men, doesn't fully understand what the problem is. After all, it has never been a problem for her. She is what all women could be if sexist inequalities no longer existed.
Through Joanna, Russ is able to openly critique contemporary society. For example, Joanna says, describing her education as a woman,
"I love my body dearly and yet I would copulate with a rhinoceros if I could become not-a-woman. There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placation training. How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? I failed miserably and thought it was my own fault. You can't unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter; they are designed to not to be stable together and they make just as big an explosion inside the head of the unfortunate girl who believes in both." (151)
Joanna is the angry woman, and, more importantly, the woman who has every right to be angry. She is "a sick woman, a madwoman, a ball-breaker, a man-eater" who doesn't "consume men gracefully with my fire-like red hair or my poisoned kiss" but who violently destroys them (135). She speaks the anger of all oppressed women when she says,
"Alas, it was never meant for us to hear. It was never meant for us to know. We ought never be taught to read. We fight through the constant male refractoriness of our surroundings; our souls are torn out of us with such shock that there isn't even any blood. Remember: I didn't and don't want to be a 'feminine' version or a diluted version or a special version or a subsidiary version or an ancillary version, or an adapted version of the heroes I admire. I want to be the heroes themselves. "What future is there for a female child who aspires to being Humphrey Bogart?" (206).
Jeannine and Janet each function in very different ways to illustrate the problem that Joanna rails against. Jeannine is lost, unable to stand up for herself, unable to figure out just what she wants or what she should do when the things she should want do not satisfy her:
"She hauls at the valise again, wondering desperately what it is that other women know and can do that she doesn't know or can't do, women in the street, women in the magazines, the ads, married women. Why life doesn't match the stories. I ought to get married. [...] "The lines of her figure are perfect, but who is to use all this loveliness, who is to recognize it, make it public, make it available? Jeannine is not available to Jeannine. . . . If only (she thinks) he'll come and show me to myself (108-9).
Janet, on the other hand, is thoroughly herself, competent and capable (even as an expendable member of Whileawayan society), untainted by the evils of sexism and gender inequality. As a result, she has trouble truly seeing the problem and recognizing why it is that Joanna and Jeannine are the way that they are. She is constantly questioning and challenging the assumptions that underpin contemporary society. For instance, she says,
"Now you tell me that enchanted frogs turn into princes, that frogesses under a spell turn into princesses. What of it? Romance is bad for the mind. . . . After all, why slander frogs? Princes and princesses are fools. They do nothing interesting in your stories. They are not even real. According to history books you passed through the stage of feudal social organization in Europe some time ago. Frogs, on the other hand, are covered with mucus, which they find delightful; they suffer agonies of passionate desire in which the males will embrace a stick or your finger if they cannot get anything better, and they experience rapturous, metaphysical joy (of a froggy sort, to be sure) which shows plainly in their beautiful, chrysoberyllian eyes. "How many princes or princesses can say as much?" (154-55)
Her matter-of-fact approach to the world reveals just how silly and useless sexist ideology is.
The Female Man is challenging not just because of its ideas (which are challenging enough for many readers, to be sure) but because of its structure as well. Russ alternates quickly and frequently between these three perspectives and narrative voices and also includes another narrative voice and perspective that remains mysterious until the penultimate chapter. It can be confusing. Most characters' perspectives are presented in first person, which makes it even more difficult to tell who is speaking. But in the end, this difficulty pays off. It is worth the extra effort in reading to have been able to see the world through so many different sets of eyes.
The experimental narrative style includes intrusions by the author as well, ranging in tone from the defensive to the hopeful. In one passage, Russ includes fragmentary predictions of the criticisms her book will receive:
"Shrill . . . vituperative . . . no concern for the future of society . . . maunderings of antiquated feminism . . . selfish femlib . . . needs a good lay . . . this shapeless book . . . of course a calm and objective discussion is beyond . . . twisted, neurotic . . . some truth buried in a largely hysterical . . . of very limited interest, I should . . . another tract for the trash-can . . . burned her bra and thoght that . . . no characterization, no plot . . . really important issues are neglected while . . . hermetically sealed . . . women's limited experience . . . another of the screaming sisterhood . . . ." (140-1).
And there's still more that I haven't quoted. Here, Russ quite simply beats her critics to the punch. Call me and my book shrill and hysterical and you're making my argument for me, she says, in essence. Dismiss this as merely political, merely feminist (feminist as a bad word here, of course), and you prove me right. The thing is, however, that this is not a mere trick on the part of the author, not simply a way of maneuvering her way to a victory over her critics; this is a clear-sighted recognition of the kind of response this kind of book had received in the past and would continue to receive in the future. She shows the reader just how deeply engrained the ideas she battles are, for only ideas that are in some way important to the culture would be defended so strenuously. If the sexist ideology she criticizes in The Female Man weren't fundamental, her criticisms could be ignored.
In the end of the book, Russ as author returns again, this time to address the book itself, sending it forth upon its mission to "recite yourself to all who will listen" and to "not complain when you at last you become quaint and old-fashioned, when you grow as outworn as the crinolines of a generation ago and are classed with Spicy Western Stories, Elsie Dinsmores, and The Son of the Sheik" (213). She says,
"Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers' laps and punch the readers' noses. "Rejoice, little book! "For on that day, we will be free" (214).
I have heard many people criticize the feminist movement as problematic because it will, of necessity, make itself irrelevant, destroy itself. I've never understood why these people saw this as a problem. That, after all, is the point. The feminist movement is a political movement to create change in a specific arena. Most (if not all) feminists would rejoice if they no longer needed to call themselves feminists because the movement had done its job and Russ reminds us of that truth. The feminism of Russ's The Female Man, even in its anger, is not a feminism of misandry or hatred but a feminism of hope for the future, a future that will require anger and a struggle in order to be reached. This is a criticism that reaches toward utopia, an acknowledgement of the problem in a practical attempt to create something better. Russ writes,
"Remember, we will all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be free. I swear it on my own head. I swear it on my ten fingers. We will be ourselves" (213).
This freedom to "be ourselves" does not require (as in Whileaway or the other future world described in the last part of the book) a world without men; it does, however, require a world without the sexist ideologies that have benefitted men and harmed women. And this world would be, as the allusion here hints, Heaven. It would be utopia. (less)