Vintage Treasures: Great Work of Time by John Crowley

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

Great Work of Time John Crowley-small Great Work of Time John Crowley-back-small

Great Work of Time (Bantam Spectra, 1991). Cover by Thomas Canty

“Great Work of Time” was originally published in John Crowley’s 1989 collection Novelty. It was nominated for the Locus and Nebula Awards, and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. Two years later it was published in a standalone paperback edition by Lou Aronica at Bantam Spectra, with a handsome cover by Thomas Canty (above).

Great Work of Time is a time travel story, featuring a secret society at work to prevent World War I and preserve and strengthen the British Empire. The Washington Post calls it “dazzling, Escher-like,” and it has been warmly reviewed in many other places over the years. But my favorite review is a modest Goodreads post by a user named Daniel, which aims to articulate part of the magic of this small tome. It reads, in part,

This general theory of effect is nothing new to the genre of time-travel, yet in his explication of this phenomenon, and in his execution of the story set forth in “Great Work of Time,” Crowley has accomplished something novel and frightening: novel, because the theory that he posits for time travel gives birth to a puzzle-box of plots, each one linked to the other in a myriad ways that a lesser writer would find impossible to describe with mere prose; frightening, because Crowley directs his characters to employ this multifaceted instrument in the continuation and perfection of no less a behemoth than the British Empire.

Once the Big Idea of this novella makes its appearance, its connotations loom like a massive, starlit guillotine, its razored face poised above the great works proposed by Crowley’s characters, its fatal fall held back by a few tenuous questions. Yes, these time benders seek to do good and only good for all of humanity — but who are they to say what is good? Yes, they seek to erase the lines of power that tie men and nations together — but are they not themselves the source of a greater power, one that holds dominion over every possible reality?

These questions frightened me as soon as they appeared, and I wondered if Crowley would approach them in this novella of such modest size. And when he not only touched upon these questions, but traced them all the way to their conclusions, I was left stunned by what I read, and what the words made me see.

Great Work of Time was published by Bantam Spectra in August 1991. It is 136 pages, priced at $3.99. The cover is by Thomas Canty. It has been reprinted over half a dozen times since, including in David Hartwell’s 1,005-page classic The Science Fiction Century (1997), A Science Fiction Omnibus (2007), edited by Brian Aldiss, and most recently in the May 2018 issue of Lightspeed magazine, edited by John Joseph Adams. See our previous John Crowley coverage here, and all our recent Vintage Treasures here.


A Slender, Forgotten Gem: The Deep by John Crowley

Monday, May 13th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Case

The Deep John Crowley-small

1984 Bantam paperback edition; cover by Yvonne Gilbert

Some authors create slender, nearly flawless works of fiction. Books like little jewels on the shelf — cut just right, gleaming, standing alone. Beagle managed this a few times: A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn. Goldman turned his into a movie that was nearly as good: The Princess Bride. Swanwick and Wolfe have done it with literary science fiction: Stations of the Tide and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, respectively. The Deep is a book like this: finely wrought, chiseled, alien.

Is this tiny 1975 volume science fiction or fantasy? On the one hand, the book starts with the Visitor, a damaged android who arrives in the book’s world with no memory of what he is or his mission. But the world he’s in, the culture and factions of which his ignorance provides the perfect excuse for a narrator’s artful explanation, is purely fantasy: a kingdom riven by conflict between Reds and Blacks, with a city at its center and wild wastes surrounding, ringed on all sides by the Deep.

The world, as different characters explain at different times, is a platter or a plate suspended on the Deep by a great pillar. And even when the android journeys to the edge of this world and meets the Leviathan who dwells there, when he learns the nature of the engineered conflict and how humans were first settled on the world, Crowley doesn’t ever default to pure science fiction. Even if the reader can credit a resettled humanity in the far future, reset to medieval technology with continual wars to control the population, the story still leaves you with a flat world upon the Deep. Somehow, this central oddity works; it keeps a surreal wrinkle in the heart of the world Crowley creates.

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Future Treasures: Ka by John Crowley

Friday, October 20th, 2017 | Posted by John ONeill

Ka John Crowley-smallMatthew David Surridge says John Crowley’s World Fantasy Award-winning Little, Big is “the best post-Tolkien novel of the fantastic I’ve read,” and Mark Rigney calls it “among the best and most endearing fantasy novels ever written… If there’s another book I’ve encountered in my adult life that calls louder to be re-read, and which reveals an even richer experience on doing so, I cannot imagine what it is.” Crowley’s thirteenth novel Ka, a fable about the first crow in history with a name of his own, arrives in hardcover from Saga Press next week.

A Crow alone is no Crow.

Dar Oakley — the first Crow in all of history with a name of his own — was born two thousand years ago. When a man learns his language, Dar finally gets the chance to tell his story. He begins his tale as a young man, and how he went down to the human underworld and got hold of the immortality meant for humans, long before Julius Caesar came into the Celtic lands; how he sailed West to America with the Irish monks searching for the Paradise of the Saints; and how he continuously went down into the land of the dead and returned. Through his adventures in Ka, the realm of Crows, and around the world, he found secrets that could change the humans’ entire way of life — and now may be the time to finally reveal them.

Our previous coverage of John Crowley includes:

In Praise of Little, Big by Mark Rigney
John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, Books One and Two by Mark Rigney
The Deep

Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr will be published by Saga Press on October 24, 2017. It is 442 pages, priced at $28.99 in hardcover and $7.99 for the digital edition. The cover is by Melody Newcomb.


John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle, Books One and Two

Monday, October 17th, 2016 | Posted by markrigney

613744Elsewhere in the hallowed halls of Black Gate, you can find my musings on what I consider to be among the best and most endearing fantasy novels ever written, Little, Big. Perhaps its author, John Crowley, could have hung up his spurs after that one, certain that his honorifics were now firmly in place, his spot in the pantheon assured. But then, Little, Big was never a major financial success, never “popular,” and besides, Crowley is that rare jewel, a writer who is also a thinker, and he wasn’t done thinking.

Among the works that have followed is The Aegypt Cycle, beginning with The Solitudes and Love and Sleep, then extending into Demonomania and Endless Things. I read The Solitudes in early 2015, and, having finished, set it down with a pensive hmmm, the same restless yet satisfied noise made by those who encounter an attractive puzzle box more devious and brilliant than themselves.

At the risk of sounding like a bent brown puppet from The Dark Crystal, let me repeat that: Hmmm.

Little, Big is sufficiently mysterious for most mortals, the equivalent of a buffet so satisfying and sumptuous that one reaches the end and returns at once to the beginning, eager to begin again. (Which I, in fact, did; I read the damn thing twice in a row.)

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Vintage Treasures: The Deep by John Crowley

Saturday, September 26th, 2015 | Posted by John ONeill

The Deep John Crowley back-small The Deep-spine-small The Deep John Crowley-small

I bounced off John Crowley when I first tried him. It was 1977, I was thirteen years old, and the Science Fiction Book Club had just shipped me his second novel, Beasts, because I forgot to return their stupid monthly request form. The cover featured a lion-man in a broken cage, and I figured, eh, what the hell. I got about five pages in before I gave up, and re-read Robert Silverberg’s Collision Course instead (that book rocks).

That probably would have been it for me and John Crowley, if it hadn’t been for his fourth novel, the landmark Little, Big, which won the World Fantasy Award in 1982, and was nominated for every major award the genre had to offer. It wasn’t long before my friends were talking about it excitedly, and I was forced to re-examine John Crowley. (Mark Rigney did a brilliant analysis of Little, Big for us here, if you somehow missed it.)

It was Bantam Spectra who got me re-interested in his early novels, though.

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In Praise of Little, Big by John Crowley

Monday, February 3rd, 2014 | Posted by markrigney

Little Big-smallOne of the great pleasures of adulthood is stumbling onto those unexpected moments when the world reveals that it still has secrets to impart. John Crowley’s novel Little, Big provokes in me exactly that response.

Those who have read the book fall into two distinct categories. The first group raises baffled eyebrows and perhaps does not even make it through Book One; when this group sat down to order, this is clearly not the meal they expected or wanted. The second group adores Little, Big, and can barely speak coherently about it for fear of needing to sit down suddenly or perhaps burst into a gully-washer of hand-wringing tears. I belong to the latter crowd and what I love best about Little, Big (1981) is that I have only the most limited understanding of why the book affects me as it does.

Let’s face it, I read books now as a writer, which means I am in the business of unpacking the techniques and hidden machinery of every tome I plunder — sorry, not plunder: read. I really meant to say “read.” Plunder is for pirates.

My point remains: the better the book, the more I want to plumb its mysteries, vivisect its wildly beating heart, and fully behold what makes it tick.

With Little, Big, I remain largely in the dark. In the dark, and in tears.

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This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

Sunday, July 14th, 2019 | Posted by Steve Case

This Is How You Lose the Time War-smallWhen I was younger I remember reading a short description of Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time when it was reissued for the Science Fiction Book Club and being fascinated by the idea of a time war. I still haven’t gotten around to reading Leiber’s exploration of that idea, so I can’t say for certain how closely Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone were informed by it in their new co-authored novel, This is How You Lose the Time War.

The general idea of a time war though is fairly straightforward and has been a recurring science fiction trope since Leiber’s work. However, the execution of one (and writing a narrative that follows the agents waging one) is anything but. The theme works like this: assuming two sides have different desired and opposing outcomes for the future and that any future is the outcome of a millions accumulated events, waging a time war means sending agents or soldiers into the past to change the outcome of these events so history flows one way or another. This could be changing the outcome of a historic battle, causing the assassination of a specific individual, or even things more subtle like influencing a particular political leader as she develops her ideas.

Now overlay all this with a love story. That is what El-Mohtar and Gladstone are about in this very gorgeous book. The two sides in their eponymous time war are diametrically opposed: one pushing history toward a technological utopia with forces overseen by the cool, calculating Commandant and the other toward a future in which everything — even the stars themselves — has become part of a vast organic hive-mind called Garden. The Commandant’s best agent is Red, and her opposite for Garden is known as Blue. It’s difficult to classify either agent, who are the dual protagonists of the story, as human. Both have been synthetically created by their respective side with immense power, in addition to time travel (the mechanics of which are kept vague throughout). Both identify as female, and both fall very much in love.

The structure of the book is crafted around a series of letters between Red and Blue as they strike up a dangerous, flirtatious rivalry that quickly grows into much more. Each short chapter (which read almost like vignettes or carefully crafted prose poems) follows either Blue or Red in a different period from Earth’s past to the far future as the one’s missions are foiled or obstructed by the other. Each chapter ends with one finding a letter left by the other. The imagery throughout, especially in the letters, is striking, bringing each new landscape to life, and consistent enough it’s hard to tell where one author’s writing ends and the other’s begins.

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A Beautifully Written Kung-fu Godfather Story: Jade War by Fonda Lee

Sunday, July 7th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Jade City Fonda Lee-small Jade War Fonda Lee-small

Fonda Lee’s debut novel Jade City won the World Fantasy Award last year, beating out some very stiff competition, including John Crowley’s Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr and Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders. It earned plenty of praise in the usual quarters as well — it was Library Journal‘s Pick of the Month, for example, and they called it “a Godfather-inspired fantasy series that mixes bold martial-arts action and vivid worldbuilding… terrific.”

I’ve been looking forward to the sequel ever since Derek Kunsken reviewed Jade City for Black Gate, calling it “a heroically, beautifully written kung-fu Godfather story,” and it finally arrives in hardcover from Orbit in two weeks. In this volume, the second in a forecast trilogy, the Kaul siblings battle rival clans for honor and control over an Asia-inspired fantasy metropolis.

On the island of Kekon, the Kaul family is locked in a violent feud for control of the capital city and the supply of magical jade that endows trained Green Bone warriors with supernatural powers they alone have possessed for hundreds of years.

Beyond Kekon’s borders, war is brewing. Powerful foreign governments and mercenary criminal kingpins alike turn their eyes on the island nation. Jade, Kekon’s most prized resource, could make them rich — or give them the edge they’d need to topple their rivals.

Faced with threats on all sides, the Kaul family is forced to form new and dangerous alliances, confront enemies in the darkest streets and the tallest office towers, and put honor aside in order to do whatever it takes to ensure their own survival — and that of all the Green Bones of Kekon.

Jade War is the second book of what’s now being called the Green Bone trilogy. It will be published by Orbit on July 23, 2019. It is 609 pages, priced at $26 in hardcover and $13.99 in digital formats. Read the first four chapters of Jade City at the Orbit website.


The Golden Age of Science Fiction: On Wings of Song, by Thomas M. Disch

Friday, June 7th, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Malcolm Ashman

Cover by Malcolm Ashman

Cover by Michael Mariano

Cover by Michael Mariano

Cover by Lou Feck

Cover by Lou Feck

The Campbell Memorial Award, not to be confused with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Author, was founded in 1973.  The award is a juried award and presented to the best SF novel published in the US. The award was founded by Harry Harrison in memory of the long-time editor of Astounding and Analog magazine. The first Campbell Memorial Award was presented to Barry N. Malzberg’s novel Beyond Apollo. The award is presented at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and over the years a weekend conference has grown up around the presentation of this award and the Sturgeon Award, which was founded in 1987 to honor short stories. In 1980, the award was presented on July 31.

Originally published from February through April in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Disch’s 1979 novel On Wings of Song takes place in a Balkanized United States, where Daniel Weinreb lives in an Iowa ruled by a conservative Christian movement which bans a variety of activities, including singing. After an ill-advised jaunt to Minneapolis to see a movie with a friend who disappears, Daniel finds himself harassed by his friend’s powerful father and eventually sent to a penal camp for a minor infraction.  While there, Daniel learns the secret of flying and its connection to singing. Freed from the prison camp, Daniel flees to New York to pursue a career as a singer and learn the art of flying, although his success leaves his idealism and hope in tatters.

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The Golden Age of Science Fiction: Jem, by Frederik Pohl

Friday, April 12th, 2019 | Posted by Steven H Silver

Cover by Irving Freeman

Cover by Irving Freeman

The National Book Awards were established in 1936 by the American Booksellers Association. Although the Awards were not given out between 1942 and 1949 because of World War II and its aftermath, the awards were reestablished in 1950 and given out annually since then. Since 1950, only US authors are eligible for the award, which is designed to celebrate the best of American literature, expand its audience, and enhance the value of good writing in America. From 1980 through 1983, the American Book Awards were announced as a variation of the National Book Awards, run by the Academy of the American Book Awards.

While the National Book Awards were selected by a jury of writers, the TABA program relied on entry fees, committees, and voters made up of groups of publishers, booksellers, librarians, and authors and critics. The change was controversial and a group of authors including Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, and Susan Sontag, among others, called for a boycott of the award.

The American Book Award included genre categories, presenting awards for mysteries, science fiction, and westerns. Two awards were presented in the science fiction category, one for hardcover, one for paperback. The genre awards were abandoned after a single year. The only winner of the National Book Award for Hardcover Science Fiction was Frederik Pohl’s Jem. The Awards were presented in New York on May 1, 1980 at a ceremony hosted by William F. Buckley and John Chancellor. Isaac Asimov presented the science fiction awards.

I tend to find a lot of Pohl’s novels depressing, even while acknowledging he can write biting satire. His satire tends to be the darkest of humor, and Jem is certainly dark. It opens at a scientific conference held in Bulgaria in the near future, sometime after 2024. Earth has been divided into three massive alliances which are based on the products of the countries involved, The People countries that provide labor, the Oil countries that provide power, and the Food countries. Pohl introduces four individuals at the conference, Ana Dimitrova, a translator from the food bloc, her lover, Abdul Dulla, a scientist from the people countries, Danny Dalehouse, a scientist from the food countries, and Marge Menninger, a soldier from the food countries.

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