How the Tim Powers method for secret histories keeps my creative juices flowing.

Cory Doctorow
13 min readJul 31, 2022


Lake Mead is the massive reservoir that was created when the Hoover Dam stopped up the Colorado river, creating a reliable supply of water for Las Vegas casinos .

It’s drying up.

As the western superdrought starves the region of water, Lake Mead’s water level is falling to historically low levels, exposing the various things that people had consigned to its (seemingly) eternal depths.

Things like corpses.

The mob’s habit of dumping its victims in Lake Mead is the stuff of legend, but now the legend has been confirmed, with new, grisly remains being exposed by the drawdown of the lake.

Every time I read about a new discovery from the bottom of Lake Mead, I think of Last Call, Tim Powers’ World Fantasy Award-winning novel about Vegas gamblers vying to become the living avatar of the Fisher King. It’s an indescribably great novel about gambler’s superstitions, Egyptian mythology, and the mob history of Las Vegas.

It opens with the mob boss Bugsy Siegel’s head being stolen out of a Vegas morgue and tossed into Lake Mead by a French mystic named Georges Leon, who — in this tale — was secretly responsible for Siegel’s death. Last Call turns Lake Mead into a mystical prison for magically charged things (like mobsters’ head) and every time I fly into Vegas and espy the Hoover Dam from the plane window, I think of that novel.

The 1985 Ace Books cover for Dinner at Deviant’s Palace.
John Berkey/Ace Books

Tim Powers’s books have a way of sticking with you. I started in 1985, with Dinner at Deviant’s Palace, one of the most memorable post-apocalyptic novels you could hope to read, full of “eyeball kicks” (stellar, memorable, wildly imaginative imagery), like the horse-drawn muscle car featured in John Berkey’s cover for the original Ace Books paperback.

While Deviant’s Palace is unmistakable Powers-ish in its themes and imagery, it is atypical of Powers’ main body of work, which is characterized by his “secret histories,” like Last Call and Hide Me Among the Graves (a secret history of pre-Raphaelite painters being stalked by vampires, one of whom started life as Boudica) and Medusa’s Web (a secret history of Golden Age Hollywood stars who are haunted by interdimensional, sinister demons in the guise of spiders), and don’t get me started on Expiration Date, a sequel of sorts to Last Call, which introduces an ancient cult that captures and ingests the souls of the great people of history (the protagonist of Expiration Date inadvertently ingests Thomas Edison’s soul!).

It’s impossible to describe just how wonderfully creepy and immersive these stories are. Reading a Tim Powers novel is like falling into a dream, in which impossible things seem not just plausible, but inevitable. They have a kind of impeccable internal consistency that makes them so very spooky and great — it’s truly like visiting another universe with entirely different rules of causality and reality itself.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Powers was one of Philip K Dick’s three proteges, the other two being James Blaylock and KW Jeter. As young men, Powers, Blaylock and Jeter squired Dick — a dysfunctional mess of a man whose substance abuse and sexual misadventures kept him lurching from crisis to crisis — around Los Angeles, while immersing themselves in Dick’s bizarre, paranoid, mystical worldview.

Each of the Dick proteges refined (and, frankly, improved on) Dick’s tropes and tricks in their work in their own way. Powers’ secret histories are far meatier, far more captivating, than Dick’s comparable works, like The Man in High Castle, which feels primitive and gimmicky by comparison.

How does Powers do it?

In 2009, I found out. Powers was the Guest of Honour at Eastercon, the annual UK national science fiction convention, held that year in Bradford. During the Guest of Honour interview, John Berlyne (who was debuting his masterful history of Powers’ work, Secret Histories) asked Powers to articulate his method for plunging his readers into altered mental states with his storytelling.

Powers explained: when he sets out to create a secret history, he researches two or more seemingly disconnected people and/or events, creating a timeline of what happened to them, and where it happened.

Wherever there is some overlap — when two people were in the same place, say, or two events took place at the same moment — Powers assumes that it wasn’t a coincidence.

That’s it! The real events of the real world provide a scaffold of things that happened, people they happened to, and places they happened in, and Powers treats these as a join-the-dots exercise: “How could this not be a coincidence?”

(If you want to learn more about this, in Powers’ own words, check out this 2014 interview he did with Mitch Wagner and this 2009 SF Site interview with Sandy Auden.)

This is a powerful method when applied to fiction, and (terrifyingly) even more powerful when applied to the real world. As the right-wing fever swamp has emerged a series of ever-more-deranged conspiracy theories (Pizzagate, Qanon) and liberals have fallen into reds-under-the-bed conspiracies about Russiagate, I’ve returned to that 2009 Eastercon interview over and over again.

The Powers method is the conspiracist’s method. The difference is, Powers knows he’s making it up, and doesn’t pretend otherwise when he presents it to us.

Meanwhile, conspiracy fantasists are engaged in a collaborative storytelling exercise that follows the exact same method: members of online forums take note of events in the real world (two people in the same place, two events at the same time) and presume that they aren’t coincidental. The only difference is, they don’t know they’re making it up.

As E.L. Doctorow (no relation) wrote in his essay “Genesis” (collected in a 2006 collection of the same title), the Bronze Age mystics who conceived of the Creation story were so enchanted by their story that they were convinced that this tale could not be the product of their imaginations, because it was too beautiful, too awe-inspiring to have emerged from their own flawed, human minds. No, they thought, this must be divinely inspired.

Conspiracy fantasists carry on these Sumerian logics, presuming that their strange ideas about adrenochrome and children locked in designer furniture must be true, because they lack the imaginative powers to have come up with it on their own.

The difference between the Powers method and Qanon, then, is knowing when you’re making stuff up and not getting high on your own supply. Powers certainly knows the difference, which is why he’s a literary treasure and a creative genius and not one of history’s great monsters.

When my daughter was very small, I had to travel to New York for a book event, and I stopped into a fancy Brooklyn toy store, where I found a deck of Tell Me A Story Cards: oversized playing cards with pictures of cute animals in funny costumes and scenarios.

These were designed to be shuffled and dealt out face up, one at a time, and joined one to the next with an improvised narrative thread. In the beginning, making up the story was my job, but as my daughter grew up, we took turns explaining how the story turned from one card to the next, and then, eventually, she took over altogether and started telling me stories. It was an immensely satisfying experience all around.

A tarot reading.
Chris Gladis/CC BY 2.0

Somewhere in there, I realized that we were basically doing tarot readings.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite aunts introduced me to tarot. She’s as into mysticism as I am not, a lovable character straight out of a Daniel Pinkwater novel, into crystals and smudging and tarot and pyramids and all that stuff I have no time for, except to the extent that I have time for her (and I have a lot of time for her).

Reading tarot felt both amazing…and dirty. The exercise of connecting the meanings of the cards was satisfying and creatively stimulating in just the same way that reading a Tim Powers novel or dealing a hand of Tell Me A Story with my kid on my lap was.

But tarot reading also committed the Bronze Age sin of Genesis: believing that anything so surprising and fascinating as the story you made up must be true, because you couldn’t possibly have come up with something that cool on your own.

Most of the time, this is a relatively harmless delusion, but it’s also the seed of life-destroying conspiracy cults like Qanon.

Not coincidentally, tarot features heavily in Last Call.

A screengrab of my Tumblr, “Mostly Signs, Some Portents”
Mostly Signs, Some Portents

In 2007, I attended Unbound, a conference on the future of publishing held at the main branch of the NYPL. At the lunch break, a couple of folks from Tumblr asked me if I wanted to try Shake Shack, then a New York-only phenomenon with an outsized reputation.

Shake Shack was disappointing, but lunch was still fantastic — thanks to the company. Before it was done, I’d decided to create my own tumblog, Mostly Signs, Some Portents, now in its 15th (!) year.

Originally, I used it as a place to post my photos of public signs, which I have always found fascinating (a sign in public tells you about the signposter’s theories about other people, as well as the history of the place where the sign appears).

But as I followed more and more Tumblrs that were devoted to posting striking images, often with little or no context, I found myself reblogging their images into my own stream.

Somewhere along the way, I began to manually repost those images to my Twitter feed, literally right-clicking each image, pasting it into a Twitter compose form, flipping back to my Tumblr tab, selecting and copying the caption, flipping back to Twitter and pasting it, then flipping back to the Tumblr tab again to copy the permalink, then flipping back to Twitter to paste it into the tweet composition form after the caption, then hitting control-enter to post.

As the list of Tumblrs I followed expanded, I began to do this dozens, then even hundred of times ever day. I believe it started with danismm (about whom I know nothing, save that he died suddenly about a year ago). Danismm posted all kinds of wonderful retro-futuristic imagery, especially Soviet-era modernist architecture, and the act of touching each of his images four or five times in succession (three times to reblog it, three more to move that reblog to Twitter) was imaginatively stimulating in a way I still can’t quite articulate.

As I followed more and more amazing accounts, my Tumblr became an atemporal salmagundi of old ads, panels from comic books, pulp science fiction book covers, medieval mysticism, industrial control panels, Disneyland paper ephemera, looped video clips from sci-fi B-movies, modernist architecture, Soviet propaganda art, postcards of dismal motels, dead magazines, nuclear explosions, video grabs from 1970s McDonald’s commercials, 1980s RPG illustrations, classic MAD Magazine spreads, street and portrait photography, fashion catalog images from the 30s to the 80s, old handwritten letters, strange party invitations from bygone eras, photo-booth strips of clowning strangers, stills from forgotten Italian horror movies… (This list composed by looking at the past 12 hours’ worth of posts).

A scroll through my Tumblr/Twitter pipeline.
A scroll through my Tumblr-Twitter pipeline

I’d just paste these into Twitter, usually without any commentary. From time to time, someone would ask me what the point of all this was, and I’d say something terse about it being a memento mori, a reminder that all my futuristic visions would seem absurd and quaint someday, that all the eyeball kicks I enjoyed today would be trite and tired in a generation.

That was true as far as it went, and I found that other science fiction writers understood it intuitively —once, Neal Stephenson spontaneously brought it up while we were having an on-stage discussion, singling out Danismm for praise (RIP).

I don’t repost everything that comes up in my Tumblr feed, just the things that catch my imagination. I see myself as a funnel, taking in a very wide set of inputs and emitting a much narrower stream. That’s also how I view the accounts I follow —while some of them digitize their own materials, or spelunk for them in the scanned materials at the Internet Archive, the majority of material they post is reblogged from someone they follow.

This kind of funnel is very familiar to me from my yard-saling/thrifting days. I used to love going to a weekly junk-auction in Toronto that was supplied by the city’s best pickers, who’d scour thrift stores and yard sales for buried treasure and bring it to auction, where it would be bought by the proprietors of the vintage stores that lined Queen Street West. I filled a literal warehouse (where I also resided, illegally) with treasures from the auction house, and even wrote a science fiction story about it — my first professional sale, as it turned out.

The Toronto junk funnel went yard sales/thrift stores → junk auction houses → junk stores → antique stores → high-end auction houses. The signal-to-noise ratio improved by an order of magnitude with each stage, and the prices went up by an order of magnitude, too.

The Tumblr funnel that starts with “every scan on the Internet Archive” is way too wide for me. I’m always fishing for the sweet spot where I’m getting a stream that’s unrefined enough that it surprises me, but not so raw that it overwhelms me.

But even if I’m not overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean I’m not overwhelming. Notwithstanding my firm conviction that if you don’t like what I post, that’s a you problem, not a me problem, I sympathize with Twitter followers who write to me to tell me that the big tranches of Tumblr images I repost when I get up every morning overpowers their own feed, especially when the Tumblr accounts I follow have had a busy night (some mornings, I might post 100 images while drinking my coffee).

A couple months ago, I noticed that a lot of the stuff I was reblogging from many of the accounts I followed was, in turn, reblogged from a single account. I checked it out and it was great, just a bounty of stuff I loved on sight, but which I hadn’t seen before. The sweet-spot.

Or so I thought. I quickly realized that I’d just hit this account on a good day, and that it posted a lot of material, even by my standards. Soon, I was posting 400–500 images per day from this one account, and I realized I needed to do something to make this manageable for the people who followed me on Twitter.

That’s when I hit on the idea of threading the posts I found each time I flipped back to Tumblr, turning them into a single long thread of dozens or even hundreds of images that had accumulated since my last run. Twitter “collapses” threads in your timeline, so my readers who wanted to see the whole thread could, but it wouldn’t drown out the other posts in their feeds.

The cover of Tim Powers’ Last Call.

That was a happy day indeed.

For in threading those images, I found myself once again in the domain of Tim Powers, of tarot cards, of Tell A Story cards.

I found myself filling those seconds spent copying-and-pasting between a Tumblr tab and a Twitter tab with a storytelling exercise: how are these two images related to each other? What if the connections between them wasn’t a coincidence? What were these two people doing at the same moment? How did this person’s deeds affect this other person’s life? This this person ever visit that place?

Now, I find myself spending an hour or two every single day, improvising narrative connections between arbitrary images that still serve as mementos mori, but have become something more. They’ve become an endless deck of oblique strategies, an oracle that challenges me to think in connecting, creative ways.

I’ve never lacked for story ideas, but now that file is bulging. The exercise of scrolling Tumblr, reblogging the images that strike my fancy, and copy-pasting them into Twitter threads over ten or twenty distinct keyboard and mouse operations has become a daily exercise in fantasy divination, a storytelling improv session for myself.

It’s filled another funnel, this one made of story ideas. Nearly all the story connections I make as I run through the Tumblr-Twitter pipeline are immediately discarded, but a small number make it through to my ideas file, and a small number of those will turn into fiction.

I’m no Tim Powers, but I have adapted his method to my needs, and I find it endlessly satisfying and exciting.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).