Engine Summer, by John Crowley

Doubleday 1979.

What will the modern age look like a thousand years after the Storm that ends it?

Oh, the world was full in those days; it seemed so much more alive than these quiet times when a new thing could take many lifetimes to finish its long birth labors and the world stay the same for generations. In those days a thousand things began and ended in a single lifetime, great forces clashed and were swallowed up in other forces riding over them. It was like some monstrous race between destruction and perfection; as soon as some piece of the world was conquered, after vast effort by millions, as when they built Road, the conquest would turn on the conquerors, as Road killed thousands in their cars; and in the same way, the mechanical dreams the angels made with great labor and inconceivable ingenuity, dreams broadcast on the air like milkweed seeds, all day long, passing invisibly through the air, through walls, through stone walls, through the very bodies of the angels themselves as they sat to await them, and appearing then before every angel simultaneously to warn or to instruct, one dream dreamed by all so that all could act in concert, until it was discovered that the dreams passing through their bodies were poisonous to them somehow, don't ask me how, and millions were sickening and dying young and unable to bear children, but unable to stop the dreaming even when the dreams themselves warned them that the dreams were poisoning them, unable or afraid to wake and find themselves alone...
This is a small gem, an irreplaceable little book. As with Crowley's others, the story is rich, sad, and difficult to critique. It is in some ways a precursor to Little, Big, in that many important plot elements are unseen, unspoken and unspeakable. The power, depth, and subtlety of his creation is stunning. It is one thing to speculate about life among people with "world views" different from our own; it is another to experience their lives as we do in this book. Crowley gives us two such cultures: the gentle warren-dwelling "truthful speakers", and the secretive "Dr. Boot's List". As different as they are from one another, they are drastically removed from us (the "angels") in that they know they do not run the world, while we still think that we do. They are no longer at war with nature. All ambition has been burned out, and they are in the long "indian summer" of the world.

The people of this depopulated future earth seem almost like another species, and perhaps they are. The "angels" tinkered with human physiology; for example, the women of the future are born infertile. Who knows what other adjustments to human nature were made? Our narrator is "Rush That Speaks", and neither he nor his people seem to have any violence in them. Their games are cooperative, they eat no meat, they are kind to animals and even insects, and they have no money or writing. In our time this seems like a fantasy, but who knows what would come if everything we know were to collapse and vanish in a great Storm?

A new thing Rush's people have is "Truthful speaking":

They learned to make speech--transparent like glass, so that through the words the face is seen truly.
This is an insightful critique of rhetoric: is the purpose of speaking to decorate words so that they cloud men's minds, or is it to make the words transparent so that the true thoughts ("the face") of the speaker become clear? Rush's "saints" try to be transparent, achieving a sort of deathlessness. It is Rush's tragedy that he seeks to become transparent, but the woman he loves strives to be opaque.

The mythic power of the book grips me strongly. When I read it I enter into a world gone back to wilderness, not savage but gentle. At first it seems entirely depopulated, but now and then I come across others who know the story and feel at home in it. It's the oddest thing: when I was very young I lived in a sort of wild area and spent much time with my m'baba across the road, and went on walks in the woods with my father...

I did not completely understand the nature of Rush's narration during my first reading, but the text shows he understands his condition. There is a third person present with Rush and the woman he calls the "angel". "Be gentle with him" Rush tells her at the end. "Stay with him."

Others have described the cultures described here as similar to those of the Native Americans. I don't quite see that, other than in the types of names people are given. For a somewhat similar vision of post-technological civilization, complete with "Indian" names, see Robert Graves' Watch the North Wind Rise, also known as Seven Days in New Crete. It has more of fantasy and satire, and features an appearence of the White Goddess.

A criticism: the book is wrapped up too quickly. The narrative becomes much condensed after Rush receives his Letter from Dr. Boots. Understandably, it is difficult for Rush to tell this part of the story. But Teeplee and Montgolfier are not well-developed characters, and they introduce comedy where the story doesn't need it. At the end, the angel breaks in with a long explanation, but I still do not quite understand the angels' history with Plunkett, or how they knew Rush would be a better experience.

Miscellaneous notes.

Once a Day has the magical eyebrow featured in Little, Big. Her name anticipates Daily Alice, but they are not much alike. She is more like Sophie, "prefering sleep to waking."

Little Belaire has twenty-three towers, and is warmed at its center by tanks and stones under the earth. Trades glass and St. Bea's Bread. Population 25,000?

The ancient Co-op Great Belaire became a warren much like George Mouse's Old Law Farm in Little, Big.

"Cord" meaning "clan": does this derive from the phone cords of Co-op Great Belaire?

Tragedy is like truthful speaking, showing that we all have the same natures.

The four pots, "medicine's daughters", produced by Dr. Boots List:

No violence, weapons, money. Cooperative games. Vegetarians. Kindness to insects and animals. But: Blink has skins to wear in the winter. Altered physiology, women infertile. Writing very little known.

Little Moon is a large space station. If it always presages the Big Moon it must be at the trailing LaGrange point. If it hurtles across the sky it must be in a closer orbit.

The League hid the knowledge of the angels. But: Blink said there were still many books left.

St. Olive was of Dr. Boots List. She arrived with a large cat and a floating lamp. The List knows her as Olive Greyhair.

The List was of the League. Like the League, they travel.

Had Blink visited Dr Boots List? He knew the way there.

Climacterics: see a gossip every seven years.

The people of the List are given cat-like qualities from their first appearance.

Angel stone = concrete blocks. Angel silver = stainless steel.

I presume the world is largely depopulated, although we see little of it.

Where is Little Belaire located? Near a coast with hard winter. Probably Crowley's own New England. Co-op Great Belaire was far to the west, near "Clevelen".

Dr. Boots is female.

St. Bea's Bread is nutritive even when smoked.

The "spheres" described when recovering from Boots are like the gnostic imagery in Ægypt.

The Letter: "Forget", like Violet Drinkwater's message.

How did the silver glove and ball get from those who took them from St. Andy to Teeplee's ruins? (If they are the same). How did the Plunkett sphere get from St. Andy's wagon to the people of Laputa?

How do Montgolfier and the other angels know that Rush will be a better experience than Plunkett?

Let the task be the master.

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Bill McClain (wmcclain@watershade.net)