John Crowley’s first published novel, The Deep, was published in 1975. He had written an earlier novel, based on the Wars of the Roses, but this was never completed. The Deep was marketed as an SF novel, and hailed with great praise by such as Brian Aldiss and Ursula Le Guin. But whilst I am usually prone to respect her opinions, I can’t share hers or Aldiss’s enthusiasm for this book.
If we’re going to talk genre, The Deep, to me, is properly a work of Fantasy and not Science Fiction. It is set in a fantasy world, of armies and Kings and magic, a world divided by the competing claims to kingship of two opposing factions. It’s a world that, early on, is said to exist on a pilar that is founded on the Deep, and this physical structure is confirmed at the book’s end.
Into this world, Crowly introduces one SF element, in the form of the Visitor. The Visitor – who will go on to subsequently be given the titles of the Secretary and the Recorder, titles which identify the three parts into which the novel is divided – is a made thing, superficially human but neither male nor female. Damaged at the outset by a skirmish between the Protectors and the Just, the Visitor progresses throughout the book towards the Revelation that he/she/it was been made by Leviathan, who has made the world of the Deep.
For what reason? There, for me, lies the great failure of the book. It uses the trappings of conventional fantasy but only to pay lip service to them. Rule of this world lies at first with the Blacks, a rule that the Reds are determined to challenge. There is an ancient feud between them with the throne at the heart of it.
But that’s all there is. The names are flat and prosaic: indeed, they put me in mind of Draughts (or more appropriately for an American author, Checkers). Crowley uses the tropes of fantasy but in an abstract form that denies any underlying form of passion. Everybody’s name incorporates the element of their faction: King Little Black, Black Harrah, Red Senlin, Red Senlin’s Son, Fauconred, etc.
It’s an approach that might work if the intent were satirical, to undermine the tropes by presenting them in such an elemental, anatomised manner, but whatever Crowley’s purpose here, he at least needs this story to be taken seriously, and this careful removal of any kind of human context doesn’t serve.
Indeed, Crowly takes pains, after adopting this schematic approach, to avoid actually depicting the cliches one would normally associate with the form.
It also makes it easy for the book to slide out of the head, leaving it untouched. It’s only a couple of weeks since I finished re-reading it, yet it’s already impossible to remember what it was about, what it meant, what end it reached. A couple of moments only: King Little Black running, shrieking a warning as he eavesdrops on the Queen rutting with her lover Black Harrah, but not what he’s warning against: the vaguely Mervyn Peake atmosphere of Little Black’s mad and ultimately fatal escape from imprisonment, but not which character he frees to go with him.
The Deep fails to spur the imagination and fails to hold the memory, and to me that makes it a complete failure. As such, I am at complete odds with those who welcomed and praised it, and who professed to see a skilled depiction of the complexity of human nature, and many deep levels. I don’t think I’m an unintelligent reader, but in this respect I see nothing in this book to recommend it, except the quality of Crowley’s prose.
He’s a very thoughtful, very stylish writer, almost to the point of mannered in some instances, and we’ll be seeing with later books how he can create an atmosphere, invest in a level of finely-observed detail, that will irresistably hold a reader’s attention irrespective of the actual content of the story.
The evidence is here that Crowley possessed that quality from the outset, a lucid, almost limpid prose that seeks to fill up the senses. Crowley’s on the right track alright, but at this apprentice stage it’s far from enough to hold. There is insufficient weight or body to either the events or the characters for the prose to form a musculature that absorbs attention. It’s pretty, but is it art? as the old saying goes and, for The Deep, the answer from me has to be no.
Frankly, it’s not a book I’d keep if I had it as a solo volume. After Crowley made it big with Little, Big, and confirmed his quality with Ægypt, his first three novels were reissued in an omnibus volume, as Three Novels. So, if I wish to keep any of Crowley’s early books, I must keep all of it.