John Crowley – Engine Summer (1979) Review


I hardly know how to start with this review. It’s such a complex little novel, like a multifaceted crystal, and when you peer into it and turn it in your fingers, the internal structure only gets harder to make out. All of Crowley’s novels are like that, hinting at deeper truths. His novels are phenomenal, and Engine Summer is one of his earliest but deeply Crowley, and one of his best. I should have known this was going to be hard.

Set in a far post-apocalyptic world; the twilight, the Indian summer (Engine Summer) of the world. A young man named Rush That Speaks lives in a community of Truthful Speakers called Little Belaire. Rush narrates his story to someone else, an unknown person who interrupts his story now and then. Rush is not an unreliable narrator, but he (like Severian in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, who is not strictly unreliable) tells his story from a totally strange perspective which makes sense to his own culture. It evokes the feeling of to how Native Americans or Aboriginals relate to the world through their own myths.

Throughout the story are hints of technology from bygone eras, but it is so interwoven with the allegorical language of the Truthful Speakers that these hints are hard to pick up. I’m for instance not even sure how human the characters are. I’ll avoid spoilers. All inhabitants of Little Belaire are categorised into personality types, or issues of certain personality baselines, which they call cords. As if there are literal cords or branches stretching between members of the same “cord”. People called gossips give advise based on your cord, for which they consult the “Filing System”. Here’s an example on how it affects their language:

That’s what it’s like having a knot with someone. Nothing – not even the simplest feelings – seem to cross between you without somehow getting tangled.

With something like an audible whisper, the knot became untied in me, and left me sad. ‘One day,’ I said. Beneath his hood his face was grave, and sad too; for I had in those two words just told him what I had learned.

Rush That Speaks’ journey has a dreamlike quality to it. Similar in structure to Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, we follow Rush rummaging around in the warren of his home for quite some time and learn all the ins and outs of his culture before he is ready to leave that world. His journey has the small magical moments of meeting strange folk and mysterious objects, but it is not as grandiose as New Sun or Anathem. It’s a personal journey of enlightenment.

The writing is lyrical and beautiful. To be savoured, sentence by sentence. It’s gentle and introspective, and dense too, and worth taking your time to soak up the mood and the deeper layers of meaning. The story itself isn’t in a rush anyway. A weight is given to storytelling itself, and the book being a story told by Rush to someone else, the ambiguity and power of stories also goes for Rush’s entire tale, the book itself. In a roundabout way, Rush explains that some parts of the story may be superfluous, or they seem that way but are actually part of the tale, of the “Path”. Again, echoing Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, but Engine Summer predates that series.

Path is like a snake, it curls around the whole of Little Belaire with its head in the middle and the tip of its tail by Buckle cord’s door, but only someone who knows Little Belaire can see where it runs. To someone else, it would seem to run off in all directions. So when you run along Path, and here is something that looks to be Path, but you find it is only rooms interlocking in a little maze that has no exits but back to Path — that’s a snake’s-hand. It runs off the snake of Path like a set of little fingers. It’s also called a snake’s-hand because a snake has no hands, and likewise there is only one Path. But a snake’s-hand is also more: my story is a Path, too, I hope; and so it must have its snake’s-hands. Sometimes the snake’s-hands in a story are the best part, if the story is a long one. 

On Rush’s journey, his Path, he meets peoples who have a totally different perspective on life, and here Crowley’s skill in imagining societies and their philosophy is impressive. These 240 pages dip from a deep well of imagination. Much is made of seeing your own life as a story, and the role you play in other people’s stories, and dark and light parts of that story in how they relate to the unknowns of your own life. And in a sense, the story of humanity and losing touch with the planet that nursed us.

Looking at other reviews online, I suspect you’ll either love it or find it a bunch of pretentious nonsense. Engine Summer takes an introspective and slightly melancholic stance, and a love for nature and seasons. It does get confusing at times and I think I’ll need to read it again to understand some of the deeper layers. And the ending is really, really good. Stick with it because explanations will come. 

I can see this become one of my all-time favourite books. Reading Crowley, I always find myself spoken to by a gentle, kindred spirit.

A final quote:

Time, I think, is like walking backward away from something: say, from a kiss. First there is the kiss; then you step back, and the eyes fill up your vision, then the eyes are framed in the face as you step further away; the face then is part of a body, and then the body is framed in a doorway, then the doorway framed in the trees beside it. The path grows longer and the door smaller, the trees fill up your sight and the door is lost, then the path is lost in the woods and the woods lost in the hills. Yet somewhere in the center still is the kiss. That’s what time is like.

Want more Crowley? Try Little, Big (1981) or Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (2017).

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10 Responses to John Crowley – Engine Summer (1979) Review

  1. Andreas says:

    Thanks for remembering me of this book. I‘ve read it in the 80s and nearly forgot everything about it. Now, I want to reread it 👍

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome! I think this book makes a good case for rereading, because it has many deeper layers. But if you’ve forgotten all about it, then you’ll have to rediscover everything anew. Actually, memory is an important topic in the story. It might be a good or a bad thing to forget stuff. I expect myself to reread this one ten years down the road.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    Likewise, thanks. It came on my radar after reading Triffids and some related reviews, but I didn’t think it would have aged this well. I’ll need to find a copy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The shape of the story has so much to do with topics like love and death, memory and seeking purpose, in other words, ageless topics, that the age of the book doesn’t really factor into it. There might be some hippy-esque ideas if you squint real hard, but it didn’t bother me. It has a lot in common with books like The Book of the New Sun.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    I’m a huge Crowley fan — I have reviews of his two other 70s SF novels on my site. the Beasts (1976) and The Deep (1975) — partial to both.

    I have this one on the shelf but haven’t read it yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ola G says:

    I enjoyed Little, Big a lot, Aegypt much less – didn’t know he wrote SF (but then, the boundaries between genres were nearly non-existent back then, oh happy times ;)) I’ll put this on my TBR, sounds really good (especially your comparisons to Anathem and New Sun!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah I had mixed feelings about aegypt. Perhaps it only makes sense of you read the whole 4 book series, but that was too much of a commitment for a book that I had mixed feelings about. Engine Summer is much closer to Little Big, but then in a post apocalypse setting.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: TOP 100 SCI-FI BOOKS | A Sky of Books and Movies

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