I prepared this for an April 1 book group presentation at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. For those coming to this from Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books, I'm not really suggesting it's forgotten (if perhaps a bit eclipsed by Little, Big and by Aegypt). And it certainly isn't old, nor, alas, a bestseller.
Engine Summer, by John Crowley
an appreciation by Rich Horton
"Ever after. I promise. Now close your eyes." So ends John Crowley's Engine Summer, one of my favorite SF novels of all time. I think that's one of the most affecting last lines I've ever read, but I have to admit, on its own, its impact is pretty minimal. Probably that's a feature of great last lines ... they are great because of what came before. So, what came before?
Well, first, two previous novels: The Deep (1975), and Beasts (1976). I found The Deep not long after its publication, and, expecting nothing much, was really impressed. Beasts probably got more notice, but though I thought it just fine, it wasn't as mysterious and original (to my mind) as its predecessor. Then came Engine Summer, which just detonated in my soul. Apparently it was Crowley's fourth novel, Little, Big (1981), which detonated in everyone else's soul, however. I don't want to denigrate that lovely book, but it is still Engine Summer which is first among his books in my heart. (Crowley followed up Little, Big with the four volume Aegypt sequence (which had a difficult path to print) and two unrelated novels, The Translator and Four Freedoms. Neither should his short fiction be forgotten: the novellas "Great Work of Time" and "The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines", as well as the short stories "Snow" and "Gone", are thoroughly magnificent, and almost everything else he has published is nearly as good.)
But I digress. (Snakes' hands, maybe. Which is an Engine Summer reference.) What is Engine Summer, then? In a way it is a bildungsroman set in a society which has abandoned even the possibility of a bildungsroman. In another way it is a post-apocalyptic elegy, resembling at a distance perhaps Edgar Pangborn's Davy. It is impossibly bittersweet, and at some level I can't say why, except everytime I finish it I am in tears. Perhaps the question is, tears for what, or who? For the main character, Rush that Speaks, who has lost his love? For the main character, who is doomed to endless repetition of his story, never knowing how it ends? For the person the tale is told to (either in the story, or, I suppose, me), who lives in a world separate from Rush That Speaks' world, a fragile and isolated world, a world, it would seem, doomed by its reliance on high technology. For humankind?
The story hinges importantly on its frame ... it opens with the narrator, in conversation with another person, denying that he was asleep – he has only closed his eyes. He opens them, above the clouds, below the sky, talking to an angel, who asks him for his story. "Shall I begin by being born? Is that a beginning?". How those lines resonate when the story is over!
The narrator is a young man named Rush That Speaks, who grew up in a commune of sorts called Little Belaire. The first section tells of his young life in Little Belaire, of his Mbaba (his mother's mother), who raised him, and of his cord (Palm cord) and his mother and father ... The customs of Little Belaire, which seem long established and little-changing, are introduced. He meets a girl named Once a Day (the names of characters in this story are one of its many wonders), and falls in love with her (over years) and she leaves to join the wandering Dr. Boots' List. I have of course elided a great deal.
We slowly gather a bit about this future ... it is centuries (probably) after an apocalypse called the Storm. (This is never clearly described, but it seems more an infrastructure collapse than the result of a war or of an overt catastrophe.) Most people died, but the Long League of Women had been planning how to cope for a long time, and they, it seems, enforced some sort of return to living lightly on the Earth for the survivors. It's never clear how many people survived, but quite few. Little Belaire seems to be the descendant of a group, Big Belaire, that came together towards the close of industrial civilization, before eventually leaving their home (in a city?) to wander (a time they call "When We Wandered") until somehow founding Little Belaire. They call people in their history with important stories to tell "Saints". And along the way, Rush That Speaks decides he wants to become a Saint. The people of Little Belaire have one critical characteristic: they are Truthful Speakers (a Heinlein allusion?): "they say what they mean, and they mean what they say".
This being a bildungsroman of sorts, Rush must leave his home. And so he does, first spending a year or so with an hermit who Rush thinks might be a Saint, a man called Blink. Then he wanders further, trying to find Dr. Boots' List, the group Once a Day joined. There are other wonders: the Planters, source of the unearthly psychotropic fungus that Little Belaire harvests and sells; the mystery of the silver glove and the ball; the mystery of the letter from Dr. Boots; the avvengers; and the Four Dead Men. And, of course, the question of where (and who?) Rush That Speaks is as he tells his story.
The story is magnificently written, not in any ostentatious way, but supremely gracefully. The choices of names, as I've said, are lovely. The simple descriptions of things – some familiar to us, some new – are beautiful; and we see things like "Road" newly as Rush That Speaks describes them. And the mysteries are made – if not clear, at least perceptible – in good time, and in a very satisfying way.
Engine Summer is one of my favorite SF novels of all time, and this reread reinforced my view. (Not a new view – my votes in the Locus Poll of a few years ago for Best SF Novels of the 20th Century are public record, and Engine Summer was on my Top Ten list.) It is heartbreaking in one sense but arguably nothing terribly bad happens to Rush That Speaks (except the girl he loves goes away – but to how many teenagers does that happen, anyway?) It is suffused with a sense of loss, but its world could possibly be called utopian (from some angles, anyway).