The Engineer of Summer
The Work of John Crowley
Aesop has a fable about a lion and a mouse. The former spares the life of the latter on a whim; later the rodent rescues the captured beast by gnawing through a net which entangles him. The moral: change of fortune can make the strong man need a weaker man’s help. But it is never stated precisely to what end. The novels of John Crowley provide the answer, venturing beyond the platitude-horizon to further examine relationships based on power and debt, intrigue and compromise. Armed with semantic spanners and verbal calculus, he has harnessed fabulism’s oily truths: they power the machineries of his prose.
The leonine Crowley, with his huge mane and beard, is a technical savant in the soft sense. His work takes as much from other writers in the genre as from real science or real psychology. It is often remarked that he makes complete use of what has gone before. While it is true he creates nothing new, this should not be held against him. His strengths lie in consolidating the gains of his forerunners, juxtaposing existing themes and standards, sharpening vague notions. He is less a pioneer of science-fiction than a literary engineer.
He is also markedly unprolific. Half a dozen books alone attest to his achievement. Nor are these volumes, with one exception, particularly lengthy. They are densely written and feel much longer than they really are, consisting of many layers of strata, each level suggesting varying interpretations, the end result being a fusion of disparate parts into a greater sum. It is the gestalt cliché with a difference: the plethora of meanings are available for access by the consciousness. Surreal they are not, despite the assurances of several critics; they are not intended to slip into the mind unannounced. Crowley’s manners are impeccable; always he knocks on the lid of his reader’s cranium and requests admittance. If anything, his visits are taciturn and wary.
Born in Presque Isle, Maine, in 1942, Crowley was educated at the University of Indiana and worked as a photographer and commercial artist immediately after his graduation. Rather surprisingly, he became a full-time writer in 1966. The decade between the start of his writing career and publication of his first book remains slightly mysterious. Whatever he wrote in this time forms no discernible part of his oeuvre. Like Samuel Delany, who launched himself with a novel, Crowley bypassed the general route of short-stories and dove headfirst into the melting-pot of SF. It was an unconventional move, and his work sank like a stone pillar, only to be dredged to the surface by later admirers. At the time, like many such debuts, it was virtually ignored.
First published in 1975, The Deep barely hints at the lyricism of Crowley’s mature books. Yet for all its limitations it is a haunting text, with elaborate plotting and a rich tapestry of pithy characters. As a plain story it is both confusing and confused, but as a slice of a genuinely weird reality it is a work of near brilliance. The taste of a whole society is made concrete through expert description and powerful dialogue. Mouths full of wise saws and magic formulae, the protagonists manage to dance on puppet strings without losing their integrity. It is a difficult trick to pull off first time.
The language of The Deep is as dark as the world it depicts. Across a disc suspended over an abyss, feudal armies surge and slay. Far below, sleepy Leviathan clings to the adamantine pillar which holds the world up. After a generation of enforced peace, the Reds and the Blacks, the two factions seeking to run the land, decide to sound the war-viols and slaughter each other. There is much head-lopping, imprisonment in chilly castles, retreats through bottleneck passes, feasts and betrayals. The stage for these theatrical devices consists mostly of moor, plain and rock. The plot, which reruns the Wars of the Roses, and mixes equally indigestible Celtic and Biblical mythology, rapidly becomes too tangled to follow. The fact that many characters have similar names increases the confusion — but this is the point.
For all its dark charms, The Deep is too coarse to merit comparison with Crowley’s second novel. Published the following year, Beasts is one of his three contributions to the highest shelf of SF, a hallowed place where the best of the Golden Age authors nestle next to the few balanced surfers of the New Wave. In Beasts, we meet Aesop’s lion, a doomed noble figure, product of genetic experiments in the twilight years of the old United States. This is no twee parable, but a cleverly-woven account of a Balkanised future, where regional governments battle against a newly resurgent centralist tyranny. Beasts is concerned with the struggle (a familiar enough one in SF) between romantic libertarianism and absolute authority. The beasts of the title side with the rebels: it is a futile resistance, but one which ironically allows them to best express their optimism. Painter, the lion-man, is a messiah of darkness, but a warm darkness: he preaches the rule of the heart, with all its cruelty and compassion. It is his sheer humanity that encourages his human friend, Meric Landseer, to follow him into exile.
Despite similar trappings, Beasts is all that H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau is not. The perception of Painter and of Reynard, the fox-man, and even of Sweets, the genetically altered dog, serves not to show the distance of humanity from its senses, but the intimacy. Here, Crowley is aligned with the kingdom of feelings over the republic of reason, yet he knows the latter is sure to conquer. This acceptance lends Beasts a dour sort of sprightliness, a melancholy joy. The lion is caught in the net time after time; it is the nature of independence to be hunted down by the soulless. However, Crowley is not backward-looking; he is able to visualise a compromise, beneficial to both, something which sets him far apart from writers who make use of similar material for reactionary and technophobic ends. Paradoxically, for all his use of fantasy and fairy imagery, he is the ultimate realist.
Crowley’s third novel, Engine Summer (1979), is one of the great SF novels of the modern age, combining the energy and philosophy of his two earlier works with a new kind of sensuous beauty and a yearning quality almost unparalleled in the genre. The novel’s structure and dynamic are extremely complex without being awkward: as the story unfolds, clarity is gradually earned, not through the resolution of fictional events but by an alteration in the reader’s approach to the narrative. As with many of his works, Engine Summer is set in a near-future, after the collapse of the western economies. Post-Catastrophe communities have emerged, but these are not desperate times; over the rustic commune of Little Belaire an almost idyllic ambience has settled. Yet the story of Rush Who Speaks and his search for his lost love, Once A Day, is a surface fantasy. The veneer is quickly scraped off during the quest. Rush That Speaks has to journey beyond the borders of his haven, into a world still tainted with memories of our earlier age. Absorbing knowledge from his dealings with ancient sources, he discovers disappointment. It is Odin trading his eye for wisdom again; the lachrymose truth that the ability to register joy cannot be extended without its own loss.
The technicalities of Engine Summer are aesthetically pleasing. The world of Rush That Speaks looks back at our own in the same way that the real narrator regards Little Belaire. For Rush That Speaks is merely a recording crystal doomed to forever replay his life for the benefit of another future age. The irony of this is that the characters wish only to know and speak truth, to become transparent. Rush That Speaks attains this wish in a practical mode, his personality crystallised and subject to the penetrating will of his descendants. When he is switched off, at the end, his rest — though temporary — is deserved. Readers who persist this far, through the maze of plot, character and expression, are in a similar position: true empathy has been achieved, if not true sympathy. A primeval familiarity is gained, the text becomes archetypal. Crowley’s skill at slotting myth sideways into reality, rather than overlaying it on modern concerns, reveals a cunning adaptive mind at work. He perfects what others hardly know they have created.
During the writing of Engine Summer, Crowley finally decided to try his hand at a couple of short-stories. ‘Antiquities’ appeared in 1977, to be followed by ‘Where Spirits Gat Them Home’, both enjoyable and fay pieces of nonsense exuding an air of what can be described as exuberant gloom. As John Barth, an author with obvious similarities to Crowley, once remarked: “Writers tend by temperament to be either sprinters or marathoners.” Like Barth, Crowley is in the latter category. The short form is not his cup of nectar-and-oil. His best efforts in this field came a little later: ‘The Green Child’ in 1981 and ‘Snow’ in 1985, one of the better stories published in the magazine OMNI. It is tempting to think of Crowley’s short fiction as mere doodles, the ticking over of the machine while the driver was asking directions from SF pedestrians. Several maps were drawn on the back of an old genre, the driver pulled away and followed them all simultaneously.
They led him into the realm of the Alternative-Universe theme. The tome which resulted is Crowley’s best book, the remarkable Little, Big. Published in 1981, having been worked on intermittently for ten years, the novel won the World Fantasy Award and was showered with favourable reviews. To describe Little, Big as a ‘fantasy’ is slightly misleading. Though concerned with many of the elfin trappings of homely fairy-tale, a quick peep behind the William Morris curtains reveals something closer to mainstream satire. The book begins awkwardly, though comfortingly; it seems that Crowley is as unlikely to reach a worthwhile destination as his pedagogic hero, Smoky Barnable. Fifty pages later, these doubts are largely extinguished. On his way to marry Alice Drinkwater, the utterly charming heroine, in her family manse at Edgewood, Smoky turns memories in his mind, accompanied by a poignant sense of longing. But now Crowley springs a surprise: in Little, Big, the present is always more nostalgic than the past. Alice’s family are eccentrics who can communicate with an invisible realm of “little people.”
The domestic arrangements of the Drinkwater clan are incongruous in the modern world. Pacts are made — and broken — with the fairies; curses and blessings are traded like callow witticisms. Edgewood is threatened by another of Crowley’s militaristic autocrats, a reborn Barbarossa who decides to stamp non-conformists to dust. As his prime targets are those who revere the imagination, Edgewood, whose very fabric is stitched with the thread of the impossible, seems doomed. The Drinkwaters must defend themselves with a suitably imaginative ploy, though the cost is high. In this way, Little, Big resembles a less haughty version of Ernst Jünger’s marvellous novel, On the Marble Cliffs. They share a sense of impotence and sacrifice in the face of blustering dictatorial forces. Transported to the cosmos of “Faery”, the Drinkwaters are transmuted into suitably ethereal spirits. But in this form, Fairy-Land is no longer special; it is merely another prosaic abode. It is Alice who saves the clan, firstly in the flesh, to open the gateway between the dimensions; secondly, as a reborn soul, a symbol of immortal hope.
Packed with arcane learning and passages of dainty delight, Little, Big is simultaneously the most elegant and awry of Crowley’s books. But it is assured classic status. The same cannot be said for the Great Work of Time (1989), a short novel which demonstrated Crowley’s inability to develop sufficient force and motive in less than hundreds of pages. Not that this book is a failure; rather it appears to be a backwards step in the direction of The Deep. Crowley does not stumble over the edge of the unfathomable gulf, but he totters briefly, waving his arms and clasping at the most overworked sub-genre of all: chrono-paradox. The lessons of the Great Work of Time have already been learned — Bradbury taught them, among others; Moorcock and Barrington Bayley threw them out of the classroom window. Meddling with time, controlling history, will always prove catastrophic: this is formularistic stuff. At least Crowley suffuses the dead-end ironies of his parable with cruel wit.
Strangely, this story of an alternative Cecil Rhodes who controls a secret brotherhood of chronic-argonauts gains strength when printed with related work. In Crowley’s first anthology, Novelty, the tale rubs prose with the title piece, the tautologous ‘The Nightingales Sing At Night’ and ‘In Blue’. The last is particularly impressive. Once again, Crowley dips hands into the clay of a traditional SF theme — the dystopia — and moulds a fresh vessel. Again, it is a relatively shallow dish, holding hints of something much tastier. By this time, of course, he had turned into the victim of his own talent. Having sprung fully-grown from the head of SF, like Athene from Zeus’ bonce, he seemed to want to capture a denied childhood. His retrograde motion was partly frustrated by readers and reviewers who were racing in the other direction, trying to catch up with him. The collision had already resulted in some minor vignettes and deflected him into less wispy territory.
Crowley had finally discovered the idea of the linked sequence, the dragon-and-butter of many a lesser fantasy writer. AEgypt (1987) was the first part of a quartet which will surely take as long as a real pyramid to complete. Diphthong-heavy, this novel has been generally dismissed by critics. This is partly due to its hazy rigour and also because Little, Big has already been nominated as Crowley’s masterpiece. His efforts to trump that magnum opus are unwelcome; they confuse the issue. AEgypt was thus immediately divided by a veritable Nile of sniffy comment: gentle disparagement on one bank, faint praise on the other. It is true that it lacks a readily-digestible pattern, and the airy dialogue seems to skirt direct communication between the characters, but the magic of the whole is no less potent for this. Indeed, Crowley relies on a deceptively easy pace for his effects. In all his books, dialogue is oblique; Little, Big is full of mumbling, tongue-tied characters.
AEgypt is a neoplatonist text, which means delicacy and bookishness form its core. The country of the title is not the same as the cradle of our civilisation, noted for wading-birds and crocodiles, but a land more closely congruent with the Mediaeval idea of Africa, a place of fabulous creatures and dog-headed men. Again the plot centres on an inward voyage across the borders of improbable dimensions. The unique Edgewood truism, “The further in you go, the bigger it gets”, applies here in a narrower sense. The story’s taste is slightly musty, as if the author has licked all the shadows in a curio-shop. Imagine the fantasy genre lost in a House of Mirrors; the distortions are Crowley’s basic materials. Sometimes, his manipulations even manage to twist them back to normal.
After another lengthy period of gestation, he attempted to cool the brow of fantasy with the reserved Love and Sleep (1994). This is a quiet and sombre work: the dusky prose is less dark than that of The Deep, but evokes a gloomier mood, though the bleakness is distorted and disguised, wrapped in bedsheets like a sleeping failure. More than his other books since that first novel, Love and Sleep has been ignored by establishment and honest public. It is a difficult book to obtain and not really worth the search, though it has a controlled passion and delicate intensity, a clean bluster about the edges of the ideas, which make it seem a genuine fusion between the classical and romantic aesthetic. Whether such an odd blend has a future, whether it might mature in the little room under the genre stairs, is hard to ascertain. Crowley has done it before: striking Little, Big with a hammer will spill more love and sleep onto the ground than any book too involved in bedroom theory. Perhaps the volume is just a spanner for the adjustment of future work.
John Crowley, with infinite care, has woven a net to catch readers of fantasy fiction. In the woodlands of imaginative writing, his snares are hard to avoid. It is the lion’s turn to capture his prey: the callow dreams that still sparkle beneath the veneer of cynicism. Ironically, in this conceit, the mouse — George Mouse, Edgewood eccentric, one of the most touching characters in Little, Big — colludes in the hunt and gnaws nothing. Even familiarity, it seems, can be forged anew. Haunting as he is, appraisals of Crowley are always affected by his invisible presence and snatch unwisely at his transforming style.
It is difficult not to respond to Crowley’s vision on an archetypal level, or to disentangle a pysche from his mystic webs. Aesop Redivivus, screwdriver in paw, he rewires the circuits of the Fable, activating the psycho-Summer with the friction of prose on mind. It is the season as it no longer is: as it never really was. Under its sun, his shadow nudges other genres; his volumes fall over ideas like mathematical sets. Rather than trying to struggle in the net, it is better to be hauled high into the Visitor’s Gallery of the Fairies’ Parliament, to take the proffered seat and hear out the entire proceedings.
Copyright © 1997 by Rhys Hughes.