Engine Summer • 1979 • Post-post apocalyptic novel by John Crowley

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

On my reading quest through Gollancz’s SF Masterworks, I encountered this post-post apocalyptic novel.

Synopsis: It is a far future post-apocalyptic North America, a subgenre I like to call post-post apocalyptic, far away from any zombie apocalypse or deep impact extinction. Ever since playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, I became a fan of that setting, where a back-to-iron-age civilization just dimly remembers 21st century’s technology, wondering about the overgrown skyscraper ruins. Similar to A Canticle for Leibowitz (review), but also very different.

Engine Summer follows the adventures of young “Rush that Speaks” through four different parts. Rush comes of age in a reclusive, closed community Little Belaire. “Cords” build the clans based on personality traits, their people perfected introspection with “truthful speaking”, leaving no room for misunderstanding or lies. Think of a Quaker monastery populated by aborigines.

There is no way through Little Belaire to the outside except Path, and no one who wasn’t born in Little Belaire, probably, could ever find his way to the center. Path looks no different from what is no Path: it’s drawn on your feet.

Rush’s journey starts when his girlfriend “Once a Day” leaves his village. Rush tries to find her, and joins a hermit for a while in order to become a “Saint”. Saints tell a story of their life, exposing a universal truth. The novel’s structure reflects exactly this ideal.  

Review: I absolutely loved Crowley’s masterful World Fantasy Award winner “Little, Big”. That’s a doorstopper of a novel with lyric prose and a homoeopathic dose of plot. 

One can say, that I knew what I was up to, because Engine Summer has exactly the same traits. Low/No plot, no villain, not a single fight. Add to that the mysterious, fascinating setting that’s never explained but has to be lived and read through, witnessed from within. Its dense narration allows no dreaming or skipping lines. 

In a different year, I’d have been up to the task, but this time, I found it exhausting at times. And still. This is still a masterwork of SF, and it’s more my own shortcoming than the fault of this beautiful text that I couldn’t enjoy it thoroughly. I can very well imagine that many readers wouldn’t like this classic SF novel, disregarding it as too cryptic, artsy, probably as a slog.

That’s not the case with me: I cared a lot for protagonist Rush, was invested in his coming-of-age story, and I enjoyed the world’s atmospheric mysteries. But the interest degraded in the second half, never returning to the same level. Not only is the epigraph, but the novel itself remembered me a lot of the fascination and exhaustion I had reading Kafka’s works. The good thing here is that it’s not a doorstopper at all but rather a short novel. 

Engine Summer is exceptional, something one doesn’t read often, a work of art. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. But readers who have a sense for more literary works, don’t need much action, are in for a treat. 

Meta: goodreads. isfdb.

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8 Responses to Engine Summer • 1979 • Post-post apocalyptic novel by John Crowley

  1. I loved this book. I gave it a solid 9 out of 10. One of the best books I’ve read in a year. I’m a big fan of Crowley and I still have The Deep on my list. Little Big was amazing as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pdtillman says:

    I can’t recall if I read this book. But I’ve seen and admired the mmpb cover art! By Elizabeth Malczynski,
    http://www.isfdb.org/wiki/images/6/69/NGNSMMRKWK1980.jpg Whoa.
    Must be the GF you mentioned? And that’s a handsome & very large tabby-cat!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. bormgans says:

    Good to know this isn´t a doorstopper. I´ll order it, thanks to you and Jerien.

    Liked by 1 person

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