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Literature / Alternate Routes

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Alternate Routes is a 2018 contemporary fantasy novel by Tim Powers. It is the first of a series in which the protagonists are Sebastian Vickery and Ingrid Castine.

Four years ago, Sebastian Vickery was a Secret Service agent and Ingrid Castine was a civilian employee of the TUA, a covert unit within the Secret Service exploring the use of supernatural means to gather intelligence. Then Vickery stumbled on a secret that somebody was willing to kill to protect, and was forced to go on the run.

Now, Vickery lives under a new name in Los Angeles, part of the subculture that makes a living from the supernatural properties of LA's freeway system — properties which are also being exploited by the people who want him dead.

Castine finds him to deliver a warning: his enemies have found his trail again, and have made putting him out of the way a top priority. They're on the verge of achieving a major breakthrough — one which will have devastating consequences for the city, and possibly the entire world, if it's not stopped.

Followed by Forced Perspectives and Stolen Skies.

This novel contains examples of:

  • Backup from Otherworld: The ghost of Vickery's wife intervenes to help him a few times during the climactic struggle. Thanks to one of the stranger features of the afterlife featured in the novel, he also gets assistance from the ghost of their daughter who never existed in the first place.
  • Book Ends: In the first chapter, Vickery is working one of the psychic hotspots by the side of the freeway when Santiago arrives to tell him Castine has come looking for him. In the epilogue, Vickery is in another of the hotspots when Santiago arrives to tell him Castine has come looking for him.
  • Chekhov's Hobby: It's a recurring thing that Vickery and his late wife used to go hang-gliding together, and it's mentioned once near the beginning that he made the hang-gliders himself. The climax of the novel involves him having to build a hang-glider out of improvised materials and with improvised tools in order to escape from the place where he's trapped.
  • Electromagnetic Ghosts: Ghosts can make their voices heard on radios and their faces appear in the static on an untuned analog TV set (although since the story is set after the switch to digital TV signals, the only character who has an analog TV set is a ghost peddler who keeps an old one around specifically for communicating with ghosts with).
  • Foreshadowing: In the first chapter, after reluctantly taking Castine under his wing, Vickery makes a metaphorical comment about Icarus's failing wings in the Greek myth to convey that he's not sure how long he'll be able to protect them. The supernatural menace that the plot revolves around turns out to be closely related to the myths of Daedalus and Icarus.
  • He Knows Too Much: The villain wants Vickery dead because he overheard something that might lead him to uncover the villain's plot.
  • Insistent Terminology: The members of the TUA, which attempts to study ghosts as an objective scientific phenomenon, insist on referring to them as "deleted persons".
  • I See Dead People: Ghosts can only be seen by those who have some link with someone who has become a ghost (such as being the one who killed them). People in that condition can see all ghosts, not just the particular one they're linked to, and may not be able to immediately tell that it's not a living person.
  • The Legend of Chekhov: There's a story several of the characters have heard about a man who was driving on the Los Angeles freeways in the 1960s when he drove off an exit that hadn't been there the day before and wasn't the day after and found himself in the afterlife, and eventually made it back to the world of the living with a mysterious artifact. Vickery eventually meets the man, who helps him figure out what's going on.
  • Living Memory: The ghosts are just living echoes of people who have died in mystically significant circumstances, not the actual souls of the departed.
  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The whole thing started for Vickery because he saw some other Secret Service agents apparently in trouble and went to see if he could help.
  • Sequel Hook: The epilogue has Vickery and Castine discovering that their experiences have given them a new psychic ability, and going their separate ways after agreeing on a way to get back in touch if they need to. Forced Perspectives begins with one of them getting in touch with the other to arrange a meeting after their new ability apparently starts going wrong.
  • Straw Nihilist: The villain is a philosopher who believes that free will and consciousness are just illusions incidental to the deterministic physical processes that operate living bodies. And in his case, free will really has become an illusion because his attitude left him susceptible to becoming a meat puppet for something from Beyond.
  • Unusually Uninteresting Name: The villains operate out of an organization vaguely, and misleadingly, named the Transportation Utility Agency.
  • When Dimensions Collide: The climactic threat is that the irrational and immaterial otherworld is trying to merge with reality.