I was about to close up my laptop and retire for the night, but I cannot shut my mind to the report of the death of Ursula Le Guin, one of the greatest writers of science fiction and fantasy, one of the greatest writers of this last century, at the age of 88.
Like so many of my generation, the first Le Guin I read was the Earthsea Trilogy, a series of magic and wizards of great brilliance and influence. I was young, barely into my teens, when the books first began appearing, with those magical Pauline Baynes covers. Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner, two vastly different writers of different worlds but both, in their ways, writers who depicted a world that could not exist in great reality.
From there, I grew towards such classics as The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, books like The Lathe of Heaven and, an astonishing work of imagination, the world of Always Coming Home.
I have nearly all Le Guin’s books, including those that consist of essays about writing. I will return to them and re-read them. She was one of the most clear-headed writers I have ever read.
Ironically, my favourite of her works is not SF or Fantasy, or anything that might be said to concern itself with a future, but the collection of historical stories set in an imaginary Eastern European country, Orsinian Tales. My favourite of them is the last story of the book, not really a story but a depiction of life before the Second World War, among an aristocracy already long gone. It’s last line always resounds with loss.
‘But that was a long time ago, and I do not know whether it still happens in that way, even in imaginary countries.’
From now onwards we will have to imagine a country in which Ursula Le Guin still lives. Our own has become unbearably small for the lack of her.
The quote above, from the short story, ‘Imaginary Countries’, was written from memory last night. Before going to bed, I located the book and read it. My memory was sadly imprecise: the actual words are:
‘But all of this happened a long time ago, nearly forty years ago; I do not know if it happens now, even in imaginary countries.’
So much better written than my recollection, more elegant, more fragile.
John Crowley’s third novel, Engine Summer, was my first experience of his work, before the breakthrough that would come from his next book. I read it from the library in Nottingham, twice at least, in its year of publication, 1979: on one occasion, it was my evening’s entertainment on one of those long Friday night coach journeys home to Manchester, every six weeks or so.
As such, though it does not in any way match up to the levels Crowley was to establish in his next book, Engine Summer was a clearly better book than his first two efforts, and I did acquire a cheap paperback copy for a time, before getting the Three Novels oversized compilation that included The Deep and Beasts.
Re-reading it, what struck me most was how much it reminded me of Ursula Le Guin’s magnificent Always Coming Home, though that is completely unfair to Crowley, who was writing a half dozen years earlier than Le Guin’s classic anthropological novel, making it at least possible that Engine Summer may actually have influenced her!
The story is set is a distant future, on a planet we are left to assume is Earth, in, by the same assumption, California. It is the story of Rush that Speaks, primarily by way of a lengthy recounting, interrupted at certain points by questions from an unidentified second party. The account is, in some form that we do not understand until the very end, a recording on a series of crystals, each bearing eight faces or facets – though only four facets are used on the Third and Fourth Crystals.
Rush that Speaks begins deep in his childhood, in the Coop of Little Belaire, which occupies a quiet, wooded river valley. A Path runs through Little Belaire, which is a community of truthful speakers, founded by Saints: Saint Andy, Saint Gary, Saint Olive, Little Saint Roy, whose lives are the stories that underpin Little Belaire and the way of life it has developed.
As the story slowly elongates, we learn certain elements of background. That at some point, the Earth of this much-removed future has suffered some sort of event, referred to only as a Storm, which has destroyed Western Civilization. Though the remains of the old culture – the practitioners of which are known as angels – still exist, here and there, there is no true memory of them. All forms of power have expired, and people have learned new ways of living, based upon beliefs and assumptions rooted in a lifestyle that has yet to come into existence.
Rush that Speaks is a part of this world, and the First Crystal is taken up primarily with his description of life within, in terms that are natural to him but which leave the twentieth (and twenty-first) century reader to try to take in, indeed to imagine, what all these things relate to.
Saints and Angels. And the Path. And the Long League. Doctor Boots’ List. Snake-hands. Cords. Like Le Guin so soon after him, but unlike, in that Le Guin – daughter of anthropologists – couched the story of her character Always Coming Home in so much detail (that in the terms of Engine Summer would be comprised of snake-hands) that we learn to understand the Kesh as much as if her book were a study of a Nineteenth Century Indian Tribe.
Crowley’s approach is much more surreal. Though at no point does he explain more than a fraction of the atmosphere he creates, though he provides little in the way of links, hinting at the possibility that the ‘history’ of this book does not exist in any coherent form, nevertheless, the dream-like sensation of Engine Summer is in no place jarring, never inconsistent, never tangible but never beyond the sense of recognition.
Not much happens over the course of the First Crystal: not much happens over the course of the entire book, for Crowley is not that kind of writer. At the beginning, Rush that Speaks meets Once a Day, a girl of similar age to him, though of Whisper Cord and not his own Palm Cord. Rush falls in love, without defining it as love: indeed, the pair are far too young for that definition, being between their first and second seven years: 10, at the most is my guess.
So, not love, but inseparability for what feels to be eternity to Rush that Speaks, until the black-hatted traders of Dr Boots’ List arrive on their annual visit, and when they leave, Once a Day goes with them.
As much as there is a story, the remainder of the book is of Rush that Speaks’ efforts to reunite himself with Once a Day. She doesn’t return to Little Belaire so, eventually, Rush leaves the coop to find her. He’s barely started moving when he stops, joining the household of a contented couple and their twin sons. After a prolonged stay with them, Rush winters with a supposed Saint, in the trees. Blink is not a Saint, but rather extremely shy and reclusive, but provides Rush with a home, until the following year, as we would term it (for Rush, the calendar, and the seasons, is determined by the character of the time so that a ‘year’ may have two Novembers and no September, if that is how the weather falls).
Leaving Blink, Rush moves on, but again not very far before he falls in with Dr Boot’s List and finds Once a Day again. Amongst those who are not truthful speakers, he feels a degree of fear, is threatened over the risk that he will betray their hidden camp. Gradually, however, he settles into their ways, so much so that, when the time comes, he requests and receives a Letter from Doctor Boots
It is not a letter but an experience, a seemingly empty experience, involving scientific equipment – albeit equipment couched in fantastic and mythological terms, such as the silver glove and the silver ball – though it is enough to change Rush. What is worse is, once he emerges from his Letter, he learns that Once a Day has left, refusing to return whilst he remains. He is welcome to stay, he will not be forced to leave, but the List want Once a Day to come back.
So Rush leaves, stealing away, intent on a return to Little Belaire. Before he can approach the Coop, he encounters Mongolfier, a seeming clown with an umbrella, though a hero to his own people, who are direct inheritors of the past that Rush and his people ascribe to the Angels. Rush’s story is recorded by Mongolfier, who answers certain question, providing information that only unsettles. It is recorded on four crystals, of which two use only four facets.
Rush himself, or that aspect of him that is a series of interactive crystals, is a story without an end. His return, his reception, his life is an impenetrable mystery to ‘him’ and his ending is a horror in which he begs to be released.
Looked at closely, it’s very easy to argue that Engine Summer is a very poor book. Nothing happens, nothing is explained. It is heavy upon atmosphere and mystery, without providing anything but the tiniest of clues to help resolve or explain. We see all things through the eyes of Rush that Speaks, who is less of an unreliable narrator than he is simply an unsatisfactory narrator. He fails to understand what is around him, but fails to observe things that would allow the reader to draw conclusions that lie beyond Rush’s reach.
Once a Day is an enigma, an unknown quantity. What causes her to turn so solidly against Rush is a question for which there are no clues. Curiously, it’s far from a surprise when it happens, but Crowley offers nothing by way of explanation: the reader has to make this up for themselves out of whole cloth.
So why then is this book so fascinating, so absorbing? Part of it lies in the language it uses: Crowley’s style is slow, and intense, constantly turning in on itself to debate. There’s an element to it of ‘stream of consciousness’, in that he is forever sliding into thoughts and reflections, philosophy and musement, though it always remains highly organised.
But what makes Engine Summer stand out is that it paints a picture. Like Always Coming Home, it opens up our eyes to a future that has been broken off from our path, to a way of life that has developed, evolved, from the absence of things that we take for granted. It has separated itself and the way people think, the assumptions upon which their lives are based, have changed.
Sometimes we recognise a connection: engine summer is a simple corruption of Indian Summer, that late-flowering, late September burst of good weather that follows on from calendar summer, and the title hints towards a certain impermanence in this world. Sometimes Crowley dangles what seems to be an obvious connection: four dead men, carved into a mountain is surely Mount Rushmore and the Presidents, but the four dead men of this story turn out to be something very different.
Crowley’s decision not to explain is surely wise. This world is seen from within and the reader explores it as a stranger, with no more information than its inhabitants, without a deus ex machina who comes along with a magic decoder ring at the end. The ring explains little or nothing: it makes us see this world as being contained in a bubble. Who knows if it even still exists?
Good as it is, Engine Summer remains ‘prentice work, but it’s the last of Crowley’s books that can be described so. When he next appeared, it was with something strange, wild, unprecedented, something that will still being read in another century.