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Crowley, John

Entry updated 14 July 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(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 novel, The Deep (1975), is set on a flat discworld resting on a pillar that extends beyond measurement into the circumambient galactic 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: the disc being clearly an arena for His Godgame. 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 (see also Fantastika).

Beasts (1976) somewhat more conventionally depicts a balkanized America, but with a complex deployment of sf themes, notable among which are the uses made of Genetically Engineered animal/human hybrids – in particular the lion/human "leos" (see Cats) – 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 his third, Engine Summer (1979), the multiple implications of whose title neatly epitomize 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 always 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". And Go Like This (omni 2019) [for details see Checklist] assembles most of Crowley's fiction of the previous decade or so, plus the original appearance of "Anosognosia", the title being a term used frequently by the neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) to describe the condition of not knowing one's condition, but expanded here.

Crowley's major non-series novel – more massively influential and evocative, though less succinctly executed than Engine Summer – is the grave and eloquent Little, Big (1981; rev vt Little, Big; Or, the Fairies' Parliament 2022), which is most easily read as Fantasy. It is set throughout much of the twentieth century and eventually the Near-Future, most of the action taking place in a quincunx-shaped house named Edgewood at the heart of an enclave in up-state New York comprising five equidistant villages, all surrounded by and embedded into fields and meadows whose names echo those featured throughout the 15,000 Beast Fables for children by Thornton W Burgess (1874-1965); other parts of the tale are set in a vast storied City (unnamed but unmistakably New York) to the south. This large work puts into definitive form Crowley's steely nostalgia for the lost architectonic of a world whose meaningfulness is inbuilt. The title itself – whose Great and Small burden 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 Beast Fable and Polder above, and Little Big here, see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. The story itself contradicts the hero-centred centrifugal world of American fantasy, turning that narrative inside-out into an English-hued tale of harrowing centripetal inwardness. But its main protagonist Smoky Barnable's central life-long attempt to enter the innermost domain of faerie where the Tale is larger than the world, and enfolds the world, and is more real than even America, ends as it must, in his death, as he cannot believe a word of it. He is all story but he cannot believe in Story, cannot follow the Tale into what in sf terms might be called a story-shaped Pocket Universe: a seeming cul-de-sac that may work as a Slingshot Ending into another story of the world.

In the meantime, as the century itself closes, a reborn Barbarossa ravages an America that may be unsalvagable, despite the resistance of the Secret Masters of the land, who are members of the Noisy Bridge Rod and Gun Club. The Renaissance Art of Memory – as elucidated in the works of Frances A Yates, and complexly evoked by Gene Wolfe, Mary Gentle and Michael Swanwick, among others (see Fantastika) – significantly shapes and in a sense comprises 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 (William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed circa 1595; 1600) haunts the text). Little, Big has become a central American fantasy, and for wise readers a profound requiem for the land whose passing it mourns. Though they are as deeply distinct as the Matters of their native lands differ, Crowley and J R R Tolkien are similar in the depth and plangency of their embodiment in story form the fading, in both lands, of what seemed immemorial: but did not prevail.

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: for it is hard to grasp that what we see is what we get. John Dee's exploratory hegiras through realms of being permeate the series as a whole, and hint at a transubstantiation of the last years of the sixteenth century into something like a war conducted between Earth, a Dee-like Heaven and (it seems) Faerie [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below].

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) is an exceedingly ambitious, flowing 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, whose consecutive absorptions into a sequence of lives separated by centuries and continents convey some sense that Ka is a Tale of Circulation. Flint and Mirror (in The Book of Magic, anth 2018, ed Gardner Dozois; much exp 2022) traces, through a transfiguration of the life of the Irish rebel lord Hugh O'Neill (1540-1607), a conjoined rebirth of Ireland itself from a land Crosshatched with Faerie into a land that might (or, typically of Crowley's work) might not be utterly transfigured [for Crosshatch, Faerie again, and Instauration Fantasy see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Though the tale is not formally linked to Ægypt (see above), the presence once again of John Dee evokes a sense of thematic concord.

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. However, despite the often expressed advocacy of critics like Harold Bloom, whose posthumous introduction to the 2022 version of Little, Big is magniloquently sustained, Crowley has been generally ignored by the literary "establishment". This seems even more than usually scandalous. [JC]

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

John Michael Crowley

born Presque Isle, Maine: 1 December 1942



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]
  • Daemonomania (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


  • In Other Words (Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 2007) [nonfiction: coll: dated 2006: hb/J J Grandville]
  • Reading Backwards (Burton, Michigan: Subterranean Press, 2019) [nonfiction: coll: hb/Jack Harrison]

works as editor

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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