John Crowley is very likely the greatest fantasist writing today. His reputation as one of the genre's towering figures - lifting him into a modern American literary canon that includes the likes of Barth, Delillo and Pynchon - rests on two books, which have consumed over two-thirds of Crowley's writing career: Little, Big and the as-yet unfinished 'Aegypt' quartet (effectively one huge volume in four parts: Aegypt, Love & Sleep, Daemonomania and the last, untitled book, due in 2002). While the books don't sell in great numbers, like the Velvet Underground, a lot of its fans will be inspired to go out and create their own works. And like Lou Reed and rock'n'roll, Crowley combines a respect for the history of his field with a unique vision of the possibilities of genre fantasy.
Which makes it all the stranger to be reviewing one of Crowley's science fiction books.
There should be no dichotomy. Several writers have effortlessly produced strong books in both sf and fantasy: Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, M John Harrison, Michael Swanwick and the rest. But Crowley's case is different. His science fiction - restricted to three novels published between 1975 and 1979 and a scattering of short stories over subsequent decades - feels like a youthful dalliance, as if Crowley went out with SF for a couple of dates, had a few good nights dancing the tropes away but eventually settled on SF's older, slightly fey sister, Fantasy. The three novels have been in and out of print over the years and have been regarded more as interesting eccentricities than root works. They didn't win awards, they didn't start cults. Crowley's early career is like what would have happened if Lou, John, Sterling and Mo had done a few doo-wop records before they discovered Warhol, heroin and the primitive beat of rock'n'roll.
Of the three novels, Beasts, the middle child between The Deep and Engine Summer, is a strange one for Gollancz to rescue. By general critical acclaim, Engine Summer remains the strongest (and maybe not surprisingly, the closest to genre fantasy in 'feel'), and is currently out of print - but then, the Gollancz SF Collectors Edition series seems to revel in avoiding the most famous obscurities.
Originally published in 1976, at first glance, Beasts seems to provide enough clues to explain why Crowley gave up sf for fantasy. The novel is a scrapbook of traditional sf matter. Set in an oddly timeless near-future, America has sagged into a pastoral world of high-tech relics, squabbling nations and tribal loyalties. It's a post-apocalyptic America which is instantly familiar. There's a sterile utopian community - with echoes of every sterile sf utopia from Forster's 'The Machine Stops' to Le Guin's 'The Ones Who Walked Away from the Omelas' - and a decaying, abandoned New York from which Kurt Russell can almost be glimpsed escaping. And at the heart of the story, it is a world populated by animals altered by science - an sf theme that dates back to the half dozen or so books with which HG Wells defined much of the genre's grammar - with men-beasts that range from normal dogs on the edge of sentience to the mysterious, half-man/half-lion 'leos'.
In a grand narrative swirl, the story twists a myriad personal and political conspiracies to reconstitute the old United States around the main tale of Painter, a leo hunted by the federal authorities. Through the eyes of some nine narrative voices - both human and animal - the book outlines the progress of Painter from a discarded medical experiment and drifter to a popular rebel to a future king.
In many ways, it is a classic sf plot - rebuilding and refining a New World with the wreckage of the Old - but for all its obvious props, this doesn't taste like an sf book. There's little or no explanation of how we got from our here to Crowley's there, no crucial 'what-if' line that links the best sf worlds to the reader's own. We're never told just how America fell apart, only an implication that this is what all great works of human rationality eventually come to, and the science behind the 'hybrid' humans is quickly dispensed in the first chapter. And for all the novel's preoccupations about humanity's relationship with Nature, unlike Kim Stanley Robinson, Crowley isn't that interested in a serious discussion about ecology.
Moreover, with whatever literary tradition Beasts is in dialogue, it isn't sf. If anything, the book feels like a long reply to CS Lewis. Crowley's central character, Painter, is a powerful creation, a Messiah-like figure whose charisma proceeds from both his human and lion natures, inspiring a band of human and 'hybrid' followers. In drawing a character who is recognizably both man and beast, Crowley succeeds in creating someone who is memorable in his own right as well as an answer to Lewis' own Messiah-like figure, Aslan. Beasts draws more from Narnia than Dr Moreau. Where Aslan is a gentle-hearted embodiment of civilized Christian virtues, Painter is as violent and raw as his true animal nature, a rebuff to civilization, Christianity and any human idea of virtue. He is the anti-Aslan. I've no idea if Crowley did this deliberately, but I like to imagine him, pen in hand, chuckling at the thought of composing a distant cousin who could kick Aslan's sanctimonious ass.
But perhaps the main evidence that shows this book is a fantasy in sf drag is when the narrative reveals its real purpose. Beasts is about the folly of humankind trying to impose its rational understanding on the natural world. The villains of the piece are all well-meaning and rational, like the Union of Social Engineering - an inquisitorial scientific organisation dedicated to ensuring we use the planet 'sensibly' - and the utopian community of Genesis Preserve (or the Mountain), which seals itself away from the natural world as a way of protecting the latter from the ravages of humans. But as Meric, one of the humans to throw down his metaphorical fishing net and follow Painter, muses at one point:
He (Painter)... asked Meric to overthrow the king within himself, the old Adam whom Jehovah said was to rule over all creation. For even in the Mountain, King Adam was not overthrown, only in exile; still proud, still anxious, still throned in lonely superiority, because there was no new king to take up his abandoned crown. That king had come.
That 'king' is the King of the Beasts. And in the conspiracy plot written by the Machiavellian hybrid fox, Reynard, and enacted by Painter, Crowley suggests a return to a world order that lies deeper than our current, rationality-fixated civilization, an Eden more wilderness than garden. In this, Beasts represents a faltering step towards the abiding obsession of Crowley's later writing, the role of Story in our lives. As he recently said in a Locus interview, "I'm trying to explore the dilemma of characters who are creations in a book... souls who find themselves in a world that they suspect is not merely fallen or bad but entirely unreal, including their own histories and natures." In Beasts, the hints are that it is an older, almost mythical Story which is reasserting itself.
All of this is told with ambiguity. The story itself unravels in a highly oblique manner, a series of perfectly-formed scenes which link together into a grander narrative while our attention is on another part of the tale. The ending itself resolves the plot but not the Story. What new world is Painter offering? What world can he offer, given that he's as much the child of rationality as of Crowley's idea of the natural world? And that's where Beasts is like Crowley's leos, a creature of two natures that never successfully combine. On the surface, it operates within the strictures of sf, but Crowley's sf world is transparently imaginary, a storytelling artifice whose details are not to be taken seriously because he is concerned with deeper truths. And yet sf is all about the details, the speculation, the nitty-gritty of a physical world a hop, skip or a light year ahead. The two do not fit well together. To misquote Woody Allen, sf and fantasy, like the proverbial lion and the lamb, can lie down together, but only one of them will be getting up.
So we should thank Gollancz for rescuing Crowley's love letter to an old girlfriend, but remain more thankful that he later found the true love of his life.
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© Phil Raines 23 June 2001