Monday, March 13, 2017

Review of Dinner at Deviant's Palace

Greg Rivas, violinist and former tough guy in a bombed-out Los Angeles, comes head to head with a psychic vampire whose intended victim is Earth itself

Author: Tim Powers (1952- )
Subgenre: Science Fiction--post-holocaust
Type of work: Novel
Time of plot: More than 100 years after the holocaust; about 2100
Location: Los Angeles and environs
First published: 1985

The Plot: It is more than a century after a global thermonuclear war, and Gregorio Rivas makes his living in post-apocalypse Los Angeles as a violinist with a regular nightclub act. In his youth, Rivas had been seduced by the cult of Norton Jaybush, whose worshipers are called Jaybirds. Later, he became a redeemer, rescuing cult members for a price. He is now living on his fading reputation, and looking forward with growing fear to an impoverished middle age. Fate pulls him back into the dangerous life of a redeemer when Irwin Barrows, father of Rivas' one-time sweetheart Urania, asks Rivas to rescue Urania from the Jaybush cult. Rivas takes the job, even though it requires he pretend to join the cult himself.
Norton Jaybush is a mysterious figure whose cult members practice a devastating sacrament that literally destroys the mind if taken too many times. Jaybirds disappear into the Holy City (Irvine) and are never seen again.
Deviant's Palace is an improbable and deadly nightclub in Venice, home to many of the dregs of post-holocaust Californian society, including an astounding variety of mutants. The stories told about Deviant's Palace are too bizarre to be believed, but Rivas, who spent much of his reckless youth in Venice, has taken care to never go near the place. However, Rivas' attempt to free Urania from the Jaybush cult leads him to the Holy City, back to Venice, and, as the title indicates, to Deviant's Palace. In
the process, Rivas discovers what Norton Jaybush is, and he becomes custodian of the most deadly secret in the world.

Analysis: Dinner at Deviant's Palace is both more of the same and a significant departure for Powers. This book is more of the same, because the plot formula is very similar to that of nearly all of his other novels. The protagonist encounters a problem, struggles against it, gives himself up to drugs and denial when the going gets tough, but pulls himself together for one last try in the nick of time. The formula is acted out slightly differently in this book, because the stuporous period is over long before the book begins. Even this is reminiscent of The Drawing of the Dark; both books begin with the protagonist unwillingly revisiting his past for the sake of a woman he lost.
Despite the familiar plot, Powers breaks new ground in Dinner at Deviant's Palace. In contrast to The Drawing of the Dark (1979), The Anubis Gates (1983), On Stranger Tides (1987), and The Stress of Her Regard (1989), the adversary in this book is not supernatural. Yes, there are vampiric ghosts, zombies, monsters, and beings with superhuman powers, but all of these are explained without resort to magic. Also, the ending of Dinner at Deviant's Palace leaves important business unconsummated, whereas the other four books all end with the adventure finished, even if the protagonist does not get to live happily ever after. Powers may have felt that it was safer to end a science fiction novel on an ambiguous note because science fiction is inherently more familiar than fantasy, depending as it does on laws of nature that we all understand, and being based on an extrapolation of our own society.
The main plot device of Dinner at Deviant's Palace, the invasion of Earth by a lone being who is powerful enough to pose a serious threat to humanity, is a bit unusual but not unique (Larry Niven did it in World of Ptavvs (1986)). What makes Dinner at Deviant's Palace successful is Powers' intense prose style, and especially the careful attention to detail and consistency that characterize all of Powers' writing. Powers' writing may owe some of its intense precision to his background as a poet, for poetry is a medium that cannot afford to waste words.
Despite its science-fictional theme, Dinner at Deviant's Palace feels like Powers' fantasy novels. It has nothing in common with his earlier science fiction novel Forsake the Sky (1986). In Dinner at Deviant's
Palace Powers creates fantastic and horrible scenes that are so shockingly vivid it almost hurts to read about them. The descriptive style and underlying world view are similar to those exemplified by Roger Zelazny's Roadmarks (1979), which does not involve magic, and Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away (1978), Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber (1970) and sequels, Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds (1984), and Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East, which do involve magic. These authors share the ability to make magical, or at least fantastic, events seem inevitable within the context of the story. Only the reader (and in some cases the protagonist) is surprised when events turn bizarre.
One of the curious things about Powers' writing is that he does not seem to have grown as a writer between publication of The Drawing of the Dark in 1979, and of The Stress of Her Regard ten years later. Dinner at Deviant's Palace falls into the middle of this body of work both in years and in novels. Forsake the Sky was not published until 1986, but the writing is immature and the description uninspired. The book must have been written well before any of the others. One gets the feeling that the other five books could have been written in any order; in fact, that they are permutations of the same basic story. It is particularly surprising to see this failure to progress in a writer of such great technical skill. Also, even though Powers uses the same plot kernel in each of these five novels, he does not lack for invention. All of these books are stuffed with innovative ideas. Dinner at Deviant's Palace won the Philip K. Dick Memorial Award.

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