Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, by Tim Powers

Jimmy Akin passes on a tip from Tim Powers on dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s an interesting twist on hellfire-and-brimstone preaching, to say the least; at any rate, it’s an interesting twist on hellfire.

I have read only one Tim Powers book, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, and I cheerfully confess that it sat on my shelf unread for nearly twenty years. I belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club back in the eighties, and they sent me some truly dreadful books. By the time Dinner came round, I was thoroughly browned off by the whole book-club idea, and had pretty much given up reading the selections they sent me. I dropped my membership soon after. And so this bizarre, horrific, but tremendously interesting book slipped through a wormhole in my field of attention, only to surface in the summer of 2005.

Dinner is the kind of book that puts me off right at the beginning because it relies on a narrative assumption that utterly confounds my suspension of disbelief. (Guy Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry did the same.) It is set in a post-apocalyptic Southern California, and in this world, apparently, SoCal is the sole oasis of civilization in a post-nuclear wasteland. Now, Los Angeles does resemble an oasis in a good many respects, but civilization is not the first thing I would call it an oasis of. And like all large cities, it is precariously dependent upon resources brought in not only from its immediate hinterland but from all round the globe. The idea of L.A. as an island sufficient unto itself, merrily carrying on while the rest of the world goes kaboom, could be viable only in the mind of that sort of self-absorbed Hollywood career bimbo (of either sex) who does not quite truly believe in the existence of any place else.

But because Dinner, though fitted out with stock SF trappings, is really a fantasy in style and story, I was able to accept Powers’ L.A. as a kind of whacked-out funhouse fairyland, and get on with the story. Mr. Powers belongs to the California school of fantasy writers, which by no means includes all the fantasy writers who live in California, but does include K. W. Jeter, Kim Stanley Robinson (in certain moods and styles), and the man Michael Swanwick once wonderfully described as ‘the infinitely strange James P. Blaylock’. I saw a cluster of these fellows at a World Fantasy Convention some years ago, talking in a stagey conspiratorial undertone about Mr. Robinson, who had just gone on his way after greeting them. ‘He looks disgustingly healthy,’ one of them said. ‘Well, I suppose someone’s got to do it,’ said another. They were putting on an act, of course, not indeed for the public’s benefit (or mine), but for their own mutual amusement: role-playing the envious Morlocks gossiping behind the back of the too-beautiful Eloi. But I had a sense, which perhaps arose from the speed and naturalness with which they fell into their roles, that they were habituated to this kind of artifice, and that there was something slightly put-on and insubstantial about their whole comradeship. And there is something of the same air about Dinner at Deviant’s Palace. It is a book of horrors, yet one does not feel viscerally engaged by them; there is always a certain ironic distance between the suffering characters and the reader.

Not that the horrors are anything to sneeze at; and it was Mr. Powers’ anecdote, linked to above, that made me suddenly see what ambiguous horrors they are. The postnuclear SoCal of Dinner is dominated by the shadowy figure of Norton Jaybush, a villain as two-faced and slimy as Christopher Plummer’s character in Dan Aykroyd’s travesty of Dragnet. With one hand, Jaybush has built up a terrifying religious cult whose rituals centre on a blasphemous parody of the Eucharist, performed with human blood, and which consumes its victims entirely in a few years by a kind of industrial-scale vampirism. With the other, he runs a sink of vice, iniquity, and perversion in Venice, compared with which Las Vegas is a Mennonite farmstead. And his left hand, it appears, knoweth not whom his right hand is doing.

Now, this is definitely a blistering and heavy-handed satire upon something; but it is rather hard to identify the target among the wreckage. As my friend Eric Vondran says, close only counts in horseshoes and nuclear weapons, and Powers’ satire goes off with the subtlety of a 10-megaton warhead. Is it a satire on the Catholic Church, on Christianity, or on religion in general? Or is it merely directed against the bizarre trendiness (particularly noticeable in L.A.) of destructive mind-control cults like that of L. Ron Hubbard, with their self-serving imitations of genuine religion? One simply cannot tell from the text. The fact that ‘Jaybush’ is a plausible euphemism for ‘Jesus’, by way of the not uncommon ‘Jeebus’, rather suggests the former. On the other hand, ‘Norton’ suggests the famous Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, and suggests that this particular Jaybush (or Jeebus) has earned distinction by his fraudulence. And there was a kind of residual spiritual air about the story that prevented me from dismissing Powers as another spewer of thinly veiled anti-Christian propaganda. He is not, for instance, a Philip Pullman or a Dan Brown, out to do dirt on the Church and its God by fair means or foul. But Dinner at Deviant’s Palace remains disturbingly ambiguous, and if it is an attack on the Church, it is perhaps the most obscene, prejudicial, and unmerited one that I have ever read.

I was therefore rather startled to find out that Mr. Powers is not only a cradle Catholic (a common thing among SF writers, and pardonable as long as they are properly lapsed) but a practising one. I therefore have to conclude (leaving out the possibility that he was temporarily rebelling or out of his mind when he wrote it) that Dinner is in fact aimed at the perversion and exploitation of the religious impulse, and not at religion (or a religion) itself. This comes as a relief to me, and would probably be a disappointment to many of Powers’ readers.

For the mood of SF fandom, so breezily open-minded and tolerant at other times, has a tendency to turn censoriously ugly when certain topics come up, and one of those is organized Christianity. And it does seem that Christian SFF writers, or at least those who will publicly admit to being Christian, are conspicuously rare; at any rate, they are a good deal rarer than Christians in the general population. No doubt there are a good many closet Christians in the ranks of SFWA, for instance, but the default metaphysic of science fiction has always been a high-minded reductive rationalism, Comte-and-water with a dash of H.G. Wells, and one feels — I have felt it myself — that it just will not do to publicly profess anything directly contrary.

Here is a minor but symptomatic example. Certain SF authors and commentators take enormous care not to capitalize the word ‘God’, even when using it as a proper name. Sometimes they even recast their sentences to avoid using the word at the beginning where they will be forced to capitalize it, and the unwonted awkwardness of those sentences, compared to the general run of the author’s prose, betrays that the alteration has been made. One almost feels that they are desperately afraid of being mistaken for religious maniacs if they accord God the same respect that they freely give every other person, real or imaginary, except k. d. lang and e. e. cummings. There are various ways to prove that your foot is not in your mouth, but bending over backwards until your heels touch the back of your head is not generally considered the best. Yet that is precisely the kind of taboo-driven contortion that some influential persons in SF resort to when forced to deal with the concept of deity. One would suppose that the word ‘God’ was ritually impure.

In any case, Powers is a fine writer who seems to receive much less recognition than his due, and I am pleasantly shocked to find him a coreligionist as well. My stack of unread books is very tall and I am loath to add to it, but it now seems as if I shall have to balance some more Powers on top of the pile, and see what other pleasant shocks may be in store.

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