Every now and then a book makes you see with new eyes. For me, it is usually some nonfiction work that broadens my perspective, giving me new insight into my life and times so that aspects of the everyday, workaday world suddenly seem like footnotes to the text newly imprinted upon my mind. Less often does a novel have the same effect on me. But recently, I've found myself walking around seeing people in a new way. I walk down a street in my home town, turning my gaze from one pedestrian to another and wondering what tutelary figures reside behind their varied features, and what mythic forces guide the motions of their ambling, purposeful, or hurried gaits.
It is Richard Bowes' From the Files of the Time Rangers that has wrought this change on my perceptions.
Time Rangers is a wide-canvas panorama of a novel, full of strange and wonderful characters, action and incident, invention and history; and it is a bringing-together of an eclectic set of ideas and science-fictional tropes not typically associated with one another. The mixture, which might have resulted in a mish-mash of narrative in the hands of other writers, results in a strange, multi-textured, but definitely integrated whole. This is thanks in large part to Bowes' skill at presenting fictional events through the medium of an omniscient narrator, and his almost uncanny ability to paint figures and incidents on a large canvas, but in small strokes that turn out to be telling, and necessary, and true.
The element that gives the novel its singular flavor--that has changed how I see people on the street—is the notion that individual human beings not only possess individual talents and abilities but also the capacity to serve as receptacles for mythic beings, powerful figures who have existed alongside humans through history and to whom we usually refer as gods. In Bowes' novel, the gods that intrude upon human lives are familiar figures we know from Greco-Roman mythology, especially as seen through the lens of Ovid's Metamorphosis. It is a lens that seems exactly right, not only because Time Rangers deals heavily with the theme of transformation, but also because Ovid's Roman viewpoint seamlessly shades into the backdrop of Bowes' novel of the United States: "the Rome de nos jours," as a Scottish journalist recently put it.
In the world Bowes has imagined, humans are subservient to but not quite the pawns of the ancient deities. To a great degree, humans are allies of the gods, empowered partly by their human talents and abilities—which bind them to action within their own space and time—and partly, too, by the fact that the gods desperately depend on the survival of humankind for their own godly existence. The visionary knowledge of the gods includes awareness of a possible future in which humans are wholly supplanted by machines, a replacement that would spell the doom of the Olympians. The gods are essentially as vulnerable as humans: without the latter, the former cannot exist.
While events of the novel are largely restricted to 20th and 21st century America, they take place within a much larger panorama. Besides giving glimpses of past and future, the novel brings together visions of other pasts and futures than the ones we know, for the gods operate over a multitude of time streams, attempting through direct intervention and through the actions of their human agents and counterparts to create a time stream in which humans, and the gods with them, will survive into the indefinite future.
Far from being a drama of beings aloof from the motives and designs of the merely human, From the Files of the Time Rangers is the story of human individuals who struggle to make sense of their lives and to survive in the confusing and dangerous worlds within which they find themselves. Rather than follow one main character, Bowes has created a rich and diverse cast to populate his novel. Many are the Time Rangers of the title. They are agents of the gods who move at will in and out of time. They wear aspects of the gods to whom they owe allegiance, yet still must rely upon their own thoughts and instincts for their own survival.
Time Ranger Ed Brown appears on the novel's first page and on its second-to-last, and frequently in-between; and through the course of the novel the reader learns about his cadet days, how he makes his name for himself, and how he rises to a position of supreme importance in the Rangers. He always stands at the forefront of the struggle to establish and maintain order within the streams of time. While this by itself would offer enough of a story of bind together a novel, Bowes intertwines Brown's tale with those of numerous others, including that of Jess Quick, whose life intersects the lives of art-world stars, national political heroes, and the god Mercury; that of Timothy Macauley, who embodies the hopes the gods have for humankind; and that of Daniel Ignace, who writes "Time Ranger" stories for postwar SF pulps.
Most importantly, the novel introduces the figure of Robert Logue. Logue is a TV personality and detective operating within of a Manhattan similar to the one we know. Slowly growing attuned to the world of the Rangers even while not quite becoming one of them, Logue moves from childhood estrangement directly into the main whirl of worldly and other-worldly events. If any one character does, Logue resides at the heart of From the Files of the Time Rangers. The sheer humanity of his character shines through: his obvious vulnerability is coupled with a sure sense of command, while his canniness and cynicism are tempered by his near helplessness in the face of events that are spinning far beyond his control. If any one personality does, it is his that binds together the diverse, sometimes fragmentary, and always brilliantly imagined elements that make up the novel.
As I have found happen while reading others of Bowes' works, certain phrases and passages lift themselves up out of the novel, gems of writing that could live as easily outside their context as within it. On page 81 of Time Rangers, for instance, appears this sentence: "Children who tell adults everything are trying to make them as wise as they are." The rest of the paragraph is as insightful and beautiful.
As is the rest of the novel.
From The Files of the Time Rangers is a work of utter fantasy that offers an unflinching look at our own times. I recommend it highly.
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