Crowley, John

Tagged: Author

(1942-    ) US teacher and author who has also worked in documentary films and television since 1966. His sf novels have had a considerable impact on the field, and his fantasies have established him as a figure whose work markedly stretches the boundaries of genre literature.

His first sf novel, The Deep (1975), is set on a flat discworld resting on a pillar that extends beyond measurement into the circumambient Deep, in which very few stars are visible. On this disc complex feudal conflicts, which seem interminably to repeat a bad year from the Wars of the Roses, are regulated, maintained and when necessary fomented for its own pleasure by the mysterious Being who originally transported to this strange new domain its present inhabitants – humans whose own world was dying. Though the story is told from various points of view, the reader's main perspective is through the eyes of a damaged Android, a Mysterious Stranger with memory problems sent to record events by the disc's peculiar God. Using sources as widely divergent as James Branch Cabell's Biography of the Life of Manuel, Philip José Farmer's World of Tiers novels and E R Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros (1922), Crowley constructed a story whose free and supple use of numerous generic conventions marks it as the sort of tale possible only late in the life of any genre.

Beasts (1976) somewhat more conventionally depicts a balkanized USA, but with a complex deployment of sf themes, notable among which are the uses made of biologically transformed animals and of the potential for genuine interspecies empathy. The chilly belatedness of these two books – like all his work they depict worlds caught in the iron claws of a prior authority or Author – warms very considerably in the third, Engine Summer (1979), whose title neatly epitomizes Crowley's abiding central concerns and whose plot – its protagonist finds that his life in a dying Post-Holocaust but Pastoral USA is nothing but a Memory interminably replayed, and that he himself is no more than a crystal device replaying those memories on command – exudes a cruel melancholy. But the story which Rush That Speaks represents in his being (and tells) is powerfully moving, and far more complex in its implications than synopsis allows; his sleep at the close (though we understand that he will soon be turned on again to play himself) is earned.

A similar grave cruelty infuses the Time Travel cul-de-sac uncovered in Great Work of Time (in Novelty, coll 1989; 1991), a tale which depicts the desolate consequences of attempting to control history (see History in SF); besides this long tale, Novelty contains several shorter fantasies and "In Blue", a Dystopian parable. Further short work, almost exclusively fantasy or nonfantastic, is assembled in Antiquities: Seven Stories (coll 1993). Novelties and Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction (coll 2000) includes the contents of both prior collections, together with newer work; Totalitopia (coll 2017), which comprises fiction and nonfiction, adds one new story, "This Is Our Town".

Crowley's major single novel – more massively influential and evocative, though perhaps less perfectly executed than Engine Summer – is the grave and eloquent Little, Big (1981), which is primarily a Fantasy; partly set in a Near-Future USA, this large work puts into definitive form Crowley's steely nostalgia for the long arm of immortal law. The title itself – which condenses a message repeated throughout the text: "The further in you go, the bigger it gets" – is a restatement in fantasy terms of the process of Conceptual Breakthrough central to much sf [for Little Big see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The story embeds in the centrifugal world of US fantasy a UK tale of harrowing centripetal inwardness; Smoky Barnable's book-long attempt to enter the world of faerie ends, as it must, in something like death. In the meantime, as the century itself closes, a reborn Barbarossa ravages an unsalvagable America. The Renaissance Art of Memory – later utilized by Gene Wolfe, Mary Gentle and Michael Swanwick, among others – significantly shapes the geography of the book, with the result that the metamorphoses suffered by its protagonists seem both mathematically foreordained (Lewis Carroll is a constant presence in the text) and symbolically potent. Little, Big has permeated the field.

The work which has dominated Crowley's later career – The Ægypt Cycle sequence comprising Ægypt (1987; vt The Solitudes 2007), Love & Sleep (1994), Daemonomania (2000) and Endless Things: A Part of Ægypt (2007) – examines Renaissance neoplatonism with hallucinated concentration, and seemingly moves towards a millennial shift in the world, a saltatory shift into another Story of the world; but the increasing immurement of its protagonist in the time and space of his narrowing human life has made the overall exploratory brilliance of the sequence difficult to grasp. Later singletons – The Translator (2002) and Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (2005) and Four Freedoms (2009) – contain Equipoisal hints of the fantastic, but no element of sf, though Ada Lovelace's central presence in the Byron novel hints of a wider world. Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (2017) in an exceedingly ambitious history of Atlantic-littoral Homo sapiens from prehistoric times to a Near Future ravaged by Climate Change, seen (almost naturalistically) through the eyes of an effectively immortal crow. In 2006 Crowley received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement.

In the long view – though he has never enjoyed huge commercial success – Crowley has created one of a handful of American literary careers of permanent significance in the last decades of the twentieth century. That he has been generally ignored by the literary "establishment" is more than usually scandalous. [JC]

see also: Adam and Eve; Alternate History; Fantastic Voyages; Far Future; Gods and Demons; Great and Small; Magic; Metaphysics; Mythology; Omni; Optimism and Pessimism; Perception; Pocket Universe; Science Fantasy; Secret Masters; Sword and Sorcery; Time Paradoxes.

John Michael Crowley

born Presque Isle, Maine: 1 December 1942

died

works

series

The Ægypt Cycle

  • Ægypt (New York: Bantam Books/Spectra, 1987) [Ægypt Cycle: hb/Ed Lindloff]
    • The Solitudes (Woodstock, New York: The Overlook Press, 2007) [vt of the above: Ægypt Cycle: pb/from Hieronymus Bosch]
  • Love & Sleep (New York: Bantam Books/Spectra, 1994) [Ægypt Cycle: hb/Jamie S Warren Youll]
  • Daemonomaniasfgateway.com (New York: Bantam Books/Spectra, 2000) [Ægypt Cycle: hb/from Frans Floris]
  • Endless Things: A Part of Ægypt (Northampton, Massachusetts: Small Beer Press, 2007) [Ægypt Cycle: hb/Rosamund Purcell]

individual titles

collections and stories

nonfiction

works as editor

about the author

links

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