Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#20: John Crowley

I could probably save myself some effort by getting a rubber stamp withthe phrase "not to all tastes" (or, this being an electronic medium, by binding that phrase to a function key). John Crowley is one of the best writers in the genre -- but his books F2^H^H will not be to all tastes. Crowley will appeal to readers who (occasionally) appreciate beautifully crafted writing that doesn't have much of a plot. (It would probably be more fair to say that the books unfold with very little action -- which, for many readers, comes to much the same thing.)

"Little, Big" (****) is a relatively recent fantasy; Crowley's only been writing sf/f for a couple of decades. I'm at a loss as to how one would classify it further. About half the story takes place in New York City (it's never called New York, just "the City"), but it's not a recognizable variant of "urban fantasy". Most of the rest takes place at Edgewood (none of the names in the book are chosen arbitrarily), a surpassingly complicated house which was built around the turn of the century, by an architect whose wife could see...call them fairies.

Faerie (it's never called that) looms in the background, through most of the novel. It is the Faerie of English tradition -- capricious, mischievous, untrustworthy, with odd powers and odd vulnerabilities -- and it is in decline. Most of what happens in "Little, Big" stems from a complex, long-term Faerie scheme to rejuvenate the old...call them archetypes.

We are introduced to Edgewood -- and to the extended family that still lives there -- through Smoky Barnable, who marries a daughter of that family (the architect's great-granddaughter), and has to adjust to living among peoplewho take a subtle occult presence in their lives for granted. (Not direct occult intervention, though there's some of that, so much as an unspoken conviction that there is a Tale being worked out, that gives their lives meaning. It drives Smoky crazy, sometimes.)

Years pass, and we near the end of the century. Smoky's son Auberon leaves Edgewood for the City, but it's a darker city than the one Smoky knew. The country is trapped in a depression, and a new demagogue has appeared who has the potential to tear it apart. Services fail, things fall apart. (We don't see much of the country's troubles. They're a background to the Tale.) Against this background, Auberon meets, and falls in love, with Sylvie, who one day disappears, setting the stage for the final act of the Tale.

"Little, Big" is a waste of time, if you're looking for good mind candy, but if you sometimes like to savor good writing, it's anything but. It's a longish book (over six hunded pages, in paperback), but not a page is wasted. Every apparent digression and detour -- besides being worth reading in and of itself -- turns out to have its purpose. And as the tale proceeds, our understanding of Faerie improves, until we can see why its rejuvenation required...call it a Tale.

(Utterly Irrelevant Digression: I note, from the blurb about the author, that Crowley wrote for tv at one point. This experience probably informed some of the details that went into Auberon's stint at writing for a soap opera. Something of which Crowley was aware, which Heinlein may not have considered, is that you might have a problem killing off the Galactic Overlord, if the actor playing the Galactic Overlord has a long-term contract.)

"Engine Summer" (***+) is post-holocaust sf, albeit very soft sf. A thousand years have passed since the Storm brought down our civilization, and "Engine Summer" introduces us to the world that has evolved since. There are the Truthful Speakers of Little Bellaire -- whom outsiders call warren dwellers. (The original Bellaire was a co-op whose inhabitants turned inwards before the Storm, and stayed together when it struck.)

The narrator, Rush That Speaks, is born to the Truthful Speakers, and the story of his childhood introduces us to Little Bellaire. It's a complex society -- the fifty and more pages in which it is introduced don't lend themselves to compression into a two-line caricature, as is so often the case with post-holocaust novels -- and Truthful Speaking is its soul. Beyond literal truth, this involves successful communication. Beyond that is having something to communicate: Those whose tales have a lasting resonance are known as Saints. Rush That Speaks dreams of being a Saint, but he would settle for being happy with Once A Day.

There are the traders, known as Dr. Boots List. Although they deal in many commodities, they are particularly important for being the sole suppliers of the Four Pots -- also called "medicine's daughters" -- four drugs which humanity developed before the Storm. For reasons of her own, Once A Day leaves with a party of traders. Seeking his lost love, Rush eventually makes his way to their dwelling place -- where they coexist with large cats, and have some remarkably catlike characteristics themselves.

There are others in this peaceful future world. There are scavengers, still mining the old cities. (The Storm is placed far enough in our future that what was built to last, lasts.) There are hermits -- Rush lives with one for a while, using one of medicine's daughters to semi-hibernate through the winter. There is a flying city, which still retains its old technology, where Rush achieves a Sainthood he never expected.

"Engine Summer" isn't as good as "Little, Big", but if you haven't read anything by Crowley, you'd probably do better to read it first: It's shorter and easier, and if you don't like it, you probably won't like "Little, Big", either. (Conversely, if you do like it, you may well like "Little, Big" better.) "Engine Summer" isn't a story, so much as a picture -- a picture of humanity in a prolonged Indian Summer between the failed civilization of the past and whatever it will become in the future.

"Little, Big" and "Engine Summer" are special. They're F4^H^H not going to be to all tastes, but if you like good literary writing that can support its own weight without *trading* on its being literary, you'll probably find them pleasures to read. Among Crowley's other books, "Beasts" (***) is a good early work, set in a near-future world in which Leos (genetically engineered chimerae -- particularly human/lion hybrids) are struggling for legal status and survival. I didn't think much of his more recent "Aegypt" (*+).

Dani Zweig