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Bet You Don’t Know John Crowley’s Engine Summer

The best cat novel--science fiction or otherwise--you've never read.

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My Beautiful Wife doesn’t get science fiction. For one thing, she has grown up with the notion that “science fiction” means “space lasers and bug-eyed monsters.” I have pointed out to her that some of her favorite movies–Groundhog Day, for example–might be classified as science fiction (fantasy, at least). But she’s a tough sell. I try to sway her with Gattaca and the magnificent Director’s Cut of Blade Runner and–god forbid!–certain extraordinary episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the trappings of science are merely the agents of great human drama. But she has a hard time getting past the robots and space jumpsuits.

I understand her reluctance to embrace science fiction. Most science fiction is escapist fluff–just like most mystery or romance or pop literature of any sort. Most serious fiction readers don’t even dabble in SF.

Or so they think. Somehow, Vonnegut gets a pass. Margaret Atwood can still be a literary superstar, even though she’s written brilliant science fiction. Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story was pure science fiction, and even Jennifer Egan‘s Pulitzer-winning A Visit From The Goon Squad took a trip into the future.

The fact is, when we consider the author to be brilliant, we overlook the science fictionness of the work. We’re reluctant to call Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy science fiction authors, even though some of their works certainly fit the bill. We don’t want the writing we love to be tarred with the science fiction brush.

Which is why I say to everyone I know: get over yourself and read John Crowley‘s Engine Summer.

Engine Summer is not Crowley’s masterwork: that would be Little, Big, a sprawling fantasy novel that made his reputation as a master stylist to be reckoned with outside the science fiction ghetto. First published in 1979, Engine Summer is a short, elegiac novel of incomparable beauty and sadness, and it is well worth the week or so of your life it will take to navigate its 182 pages through to their conclusion.

Crowley’s novel is set on a far-future Earth in which the apocalyptic events that wiped out all but a handful of humans are nearly forgotten; indeed, it’s clear that, in the distant past, there were staunch efforts made to ensure that all the technological advances that had enabled the cataclysm would be erased from human memory. Our hero, Rush That Speaks, grows up in Little Belaire, an American Indian-like commune where the people are known as truthful speakers. Their goal is to become transparent; a truthful speaker is incapable of lying to another truthful speaker, even if their words are literal falsehoods. The truthful speakers of Little Belaire lead simple lives as hunter-gathers and harvesters of St. Bea’s bread, a mild psychotropic alien fungus they eat and smoke and trade with visitors.

But Rush has a higher calling. He want to be a saint, like the saints of old who led the truthful speakers to Little Belaire. He decides that perhaps he will be the one who finds all the things that were lost and returns with them. And along the way, he meets a dark, mysterious girl named Once A Day who leaves Little Belaire with a clan known as Dr. Boots’s List and never returns.

Which makes her the perfect focus of Rush’s quest. He leaves Little Belaire to find Dr. Boots’s List and learn to be a saint, and to ferret out everything he can about the angels–those beings who inhabited the Earth previously–and their puzzling artifacts. “Road,” for example is a pair of twin snakes that goes everywhere, sometimes looping dramatically into the air and back upon itself. Its purpose, Rush is told, was “to kill people.” “Book” is an undifferentiated mass of material, like dirt or bricks; Rush sometimes finds piles of book in abandoned buildings.

The difficultly of reading Engine Summer is also part of its beauty: Crowley drops us into the middle of Rush’s consciousness with barely a word of backstory. Since the truthful speakers have forgotten the original uses of all the angels’ artifacts, the reader is often as clueless as Rush. I have read Engine Summer eight times at least, and I am still baffled by some of the descriptions.

But the language is rich and gorgeous enough to carry you through the opacity. And the opacity, weirdly, becomes part of the story. Rush eventually finds Dr. Boots’s List and Once A Day–but she is changed, perhaps no longer a truthful speaker. Rush is determined to find out for himself the secrets of the List and the enigmatic Letter from Dr. Boots they’ve all received.

It is at this point that Engine Summer also becomes the best cat novel you’ve ever read. If you’ve ever imagined what it might actually be like to be a cat, Engine Summer is the novel for you.

And even if you’re a cat lover, that is still not the best reason to read Engine Summer. The best reason is the heartrending ending in which we find out who our narrator is and how he came to be there–and the identity of the mystical other voice to whom Rush appears to be telling his story throughout the book. It’s an ending of rare emotional power, one that I find haunting and beautiful as anything I’ve ever read.

I forgive My Beautiful Wife her anti-science fiction bias. I understand that most science fiction is junk. But if we read literature to get more in touch with the human condition, then Engine Summer is literature of the highest merit. And if you’re interested in getting in touch with the feline condition, it’s in a class by itself.

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