Monday, June 15, 2015

John Crowley, Engine Summer (1979)

The similarities between this novel and Riddley Walker—as I'm sure has been mentioned umpteen times—are striking: both are post-apocalyptic science fiction novels in which humanity has only a fragmentary, inaccurate, and incomplete understanding of the old world, both are narrated by young men trying to understand, both are largely plotless, and...well, I guess that's all, really, except that they were published within a year of one another, which seems suggestive of something, but maybe not.

The immediately-obvious difference is that, in contrast to Riddley Walker, Engine Summer is written in boring ol' regular English. The non-immediately-obvious difference is that Engine Summer turns out to be substantially more abstruse than Hoban's novel. It surprised me, rather: if you didn't know better, you would be absolutely, one hundred percent certain that Beasts was the later novel, inasmuch as it points very strongly towards Crowley's later prose style, whereas Engine Summer...does not. I don't want to imply that it's a step backwards; there's absolutely a lot to recommend about it. But definitely a step to the side, at any rate.

Our narrator is Rush That Speaks, who lives in a kind of open-eneded communish-type community and I hate that I just used “commun-” twice in a row, but I wasn't sure what else to do). An important concept with these people is this idea of “truthfulness”—ie, not just telling the truth, but embodying it, collapsing signified and signifier into each other, as it were. He has a kind of romance with a girl, Once A Day, who ends up leaving the community with a group of traders. So he leaves, too, to follow her, or maybe to become a “saint,” like the people who founded his community.

It is puzzlingly cryptic in parts, and especially in the last third. Part of the difficulty is that the world includes both modern cultural artifacts rendered difficult to conceptualize by its people's ignorance and science fictional things that you wouldn't expect to immediately grasp, and it's not always easy to tell the difference. Things do come together, kind of, in the unexpectedly shattering conclusion, but it's really a book that demands to be reread. I still enjoyed it a lot, though, and was not bothered by not grasping everything. Anyway, this guy says he's read it eight times and is still “baffled by some of the descriptions,” so I don't feel too bad about it.

Oh, and not to spoil the mystique, but the title is just a corruption of “Indian summer”—though maybe “just” isn't the right word; it's certainly thematically suggestive. Recall M John Harrison's talk of “afternoon” and “evening” cultures in his Viriconium novels.


Post a Comment

<< Home