September 2005

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

John Crowley

John Crowley is one of those writers whose great skill and wonderful books seem destined to be overlooked because they don’t stick to their pigeonhole. He’s a writer of science fiction, of fantasy, of literary fiction, of historical fiction… And because of this, he’s a writer whose books keep slipping out of print, or are marketed cluelessly and then remaindered, or come out as small chapbooks from obscure presses. Great reviews and a determined group of loyal fans don’t seem to generate the fame a writer of his calibre deserves.

Little, Big is the title of Crowley’s best-known novel. It’s a marvellous fantasy, loved by almost all who’ve tackled it, but because of its significant size it’ll go henceforth unreviewed in this column. Instead we’ll take a look at three of Crowley’s other books, all of them on the little side: a group of undeservedly neglected treasures.

It’s perhaps a demonstration of his relative obscurity that, at the moment, none of these books is easily available on its own (except for Beasts in the UK). Instead, they each form part of an anthology or omnibus -- one of Crowley’s early novels, one of his shorter fiction, and one a luridly covered small-press magazine. The advantage of this, of course, is that in each case you get much more great fiction for your money (the relative expense of the average novella, in terms of pages per dollar, being one of the few drawbacks of this art form).

Beasts (1976): Perhaps as close to genuine hard science-fiction as Crowley has come. This absorbing story is set in a near-future world of environmental decay and political chaos: at first sight the kind of off-the-peg background used in many an undistinguished SF novel. But Beasts describes the adventures and natures of several genetically engineered animals, given a variety of human characteristics and forced to make sense of their divided, unsettled natures. The relationship between Painter the ‘leo’ and Reynard, the kingmaker behind the scenes, is a rich and believable one, and crucial to the unfolding complexity of that initially unexceptional background. Crowley also manages the extraordinarily difficult feat of writing believable animal characters, both genetically modified and 'normal.' These are not humans in furry suits, refugees from Watership Down or Duncton Wood, nor are they sentimentalised or patronised. Taken on their own terms, their rich lives made visible through human words, these beasts are quite unforgettable. A moving, beautiful book, it’s one of the three Crowley novellas collected in Otherwise.

Great Work of Time (1989): That time travel stories keep being written is no great surprise. The potential for playing with history, for satire, for plain old wish fulfilment, is as strong as ever. Most are quite conservative, in that they suggest that any alteration of our bitter, violent history would in fact make the world an even worse place. But in a genre more than a century old, it is amazing to find a story like this one, that takes the standard tropes of the time travel story and makes them into both a thing of beauty and a ripping yarn. Great Work of Time is only 100 pages (included as part of Crowley’s Novelties & Souvenirs collection), but looking back it’s hard to work out how so much wonderful stuff fit so neatly into so little space. Idealism and innocence aging into wisdom and disillusionment; the horrific crimes abetted by an imperialism intended only to make the world better; the intrigue of alternative histories; mystery and even fantasy with an apparently rational background; betrayal and murder; a pastiche of Victorian adventure fiction. One character, talking of a world whose history has been comprehensively messed about with, talks of it as being like "four or five different novels, novels of different kinds by different and differently limited writers… inside a gigantic Russian thing a stark and violent policier, and inside that something Dickensian, full of plot, humors and eccentricity." That gives something of the magic of Great Work of Time. It could have been a mess, but instead it’s quite literally marvellous.

The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines (2002): The biannual Conjunctions magazine devoted its 39th issue to what it termed "The New Fabulists" (also known as "slipstream fiction" or, more pretentiously, "The New Weird"). This is a collection of writers comfortable and assured with the history and conventions of fantasy, and able to push it in surprising and entertaining new directions. Crowley was a natural inclusion, and his story is the best of a very good bunch, but ironically enough it’s one of the least fantastical things he’s done. It’s a delicate tale of young love and of growing up, of discovering the joy of acting, of the everyday tragedies that mar every life, and of the real power of just the right book at just the right time. The wealthy can buy this as a separate (hideously expensive) book, but reading the rest of Conjunctions 39 is highly recommended.