With Westercon just days away, I’m briefly switching the focus of this column from SF to Las Vegas. Prepping for what will be my second trip to Sin City, I picked up the Tim Powers novel Last Call in the dealer’s room at Baycon.
Vegas was around before the casinos, of course, but as we imagine it today it’s the youngest of the iconic American cities, making even Hollywood seem steeped in history by comparison. But it’s also unlike any other city and feels uniquely American. A brash denial of the obvious fact that you can’t just up and build in the middle of the desert and expect anything but tumbleweeds and dust, Vegas is gaudier, bolder and more incredible than it has any right to be.
My first visit was not at all what I expected. Along with my brother and his wife, on their first trip to the U.S., I expected a certain amount of entertainment but also a tacky, chintzy experience. And, for sure, Vegas is garish. Hunter S. Thompson described Circus Circus as “what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war”, and that feels about right when you’re standing in the middle of it. The city is crammed with singing statues, replicas of European marvels and American cities, fountains on a scale that would be marvelous enough in any desert but which also perform synchronized ballets set to light and music. Every inch is unabashedly artificial, even the parts that mimic nature like the cycles of night and day inside Caesar’s palace. My sister’s boyfriend described it as what generations of a post-apocalyptic underground future civilization might build while trying to recreate an Earth they never knew from fragmentary historical records.
But Vegas is more than the sum of its parts. Like ancient Egyptian or Roman architecture, the sheer monolithic scale of the place, the orgy of lights and spectacle, the side-by-side wonders which compete for attention are like an oversize carnival that runs 24/7. Like the circus coming to town and never leaving, simply growing like a gorgeous hedonistic cancer.
Years ago my sister, on her own first trip, described it as refreshingly single minded in its desire to separate you from your money. And that’s Vegas all over, no pretense in being anything other than what it is, and confident that there ain’t anything else like it out there.
The idea behind Last Call is that this unique personality is not an accident, but part of the mystic process surrounding the Fisher King. Vegas as we know it started from the seed sown by the first luxury hotel and casino, the legendary Flamingo. In the book, the Flamingo is entirely Bugsy Siegel’s creation, his own Tower from which to rule as the King of the West after defeating his rivals. Siegel is of course dethroned and killed in 1947 and a new King takes his place. The story of Last Call is set in the 80s when a power struggle takes place between the new contenders for the throne, some of whom desire a parasitic immortality which will keep them on the throne forever.
Poker cards, Tarot decks, the oversized artificiality of the city and the superstitious quasi-mystical nature of gambling and mathematics all combine in the story to tell the tale of the Fisher King and all the archetypes of birth, death and renewal that are often at the center of Powers’s mythologies. The characters are simultaneously real people whose weaknesses and strengths put them on the quest they follow, and at the same time archetypes such as The Fool who get swept up helplessly in something greater than themselves.
The city and its landmarks are all utilized as set pieces and players in the intricate cosmology of the succession. The inanimate universe is not quite so inanimate after all and the very atoms that make up the world we live in, and perhaps some beyond, desire a restoration of balance and align for or against the various players as they in turn attempt to channel these forces.
I don’t know that Vegas is a city you can love. I would imagine that even the gamblers for whom it was built don’t quite view it as a place they could call home, and it’s hard to actually imagine people living there, although people must. But presented as it is in Last Call, it’s fascinating at the least.
SF/SF Issue #69, July 2008