A Tunnel in the Sky

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Three Novels by John Crowley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 21, 2022

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The Deep / Beasts / Engine Summer

The first three novels by John Crowley were published separately in 1975, '76, and '79. Since it has been about forty years since I first read them I can't be sure, but I think Beasts was the first I encountered, and I'm sure it was from the Science Fiction Book Club, even though I might have bought it used instead of directly from the club. I currently own the omnibus paperback pictured to the right, titled Otherwise, which was published in 2002. It is a reprint of an earlier collection simply titled Three Novels by John Crowley. To the best of my recollection the cover images below are from the first copies I read, the first one not from its original publication, but instead from a paperback reprint. The omnibus is still in print, and I've provided purchase links above. The individual titles are not, although they can be found used, since each has had at least a dozen editions over the years in English alone, along with foreign releases. However, some of those used copies are listed at very high prices online. Otherwise is not a trilogy. Each novel is unique, a standalone, unrelated to the others. The only similarity is the lyrical prose, and in the case of the first and last books, the almost dreamlike, mythical quality of the story.


I'm not sure if The Deep is simply a tale of a mythical kingdom, or whether to consider it science fiction? For generations the Blacks and the Reds have warred against each other, with the Grays and the Just being (supposedly) neutral observers. The reins of power have switched back and forth numerous times, held by the Blacks at the start of the story, with the Reds having sworn allegiance to King Little Black. But there are forces within the Reds that want to renounce that allegiance. Another of the Reds has aligned with the Gray faction, later becoming an Arbiter. I never did figure out the agenda of the Just, the only ones who have guns, the rest just swords, knives, and bludgeoning weapons. It seems like a medieval milieu, except where the events are taking place. The borders of the kingdom are a precipitous drop into a deep crevasse, similar to the Flat Earth concept of the end of the world. Is it a fabricated world, or an imagined one? For a while I was thinking of it as a game, either in the minds of the players, or possibly a computer simulation.

What is to be made of the mysterious entity that supposedly dropped down from space in an "egg"? "He" resembles a man, but is not a man, no sexual characteristics. Neither do they (or it) need to eat or sleep. It doesn't know where it is, or why, what its purpose might be. No name either, only identifed by three different titles at different times; Visitor, Secretary, Recorder. Is the Just known as the Neither-Nor of the same provenance? At one point they try to predict future events by the turn of cards that I assumed were like the Tarot. One of the Reds ponders the question of ancestry; if everyone has two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, and so on back and back for the multiple generations of history, why is it said that everyone came from the "Fifty-Two"? Could that be another reference to cards, that this story is just someone telling tales while flipping cards over to see what comes up next? Or were the "Fifty-Two" the original colonists who came from another planet? If so, why would they settle on a world that seems merely to be a small plot of land that sits atop a pillar, with nothingness all around? What about Leviathan? Is that part of the computer program, if that's what this is? I can't answer any of these questions, and I'm not sure I could even if I re-read it again right away. As with many myths, it can be interpreted many ways by as many people who read it. While not the first novel Crowley wrote, it is the first published, in fact it's the first of his work of any length to see print. I consider it an impressive debut, even if I don't understand all of it. Recommended.


Beasts is definitely science fiction. The beasts are genetically designed creatures, combinations of human and animal DNA. Some of the experiments were successful, up to a point, others were failures. One such "failure" solved their own problem. It's not clear how many variations were tried, but the two most prominent in the story are the leos, human/lion hybrids, and the human/fox known as Reynard. The leos can procreate among themselves, and they are human enough to be able to have intercourse with humans, although I don't think it was ever established there could be viable fertilization from such couplings. Reynard is sterile, as were all other fox hybrids, and he is the only survivor of that project. He is the one who was smart enough to figure out a solution to that problem. The events of the novel take place over a decade or so, and several generations after the break-up of the United States. Canada and other countries are spoken of as being essentially the same as today, but the US had been balkanized into various "Autonomies," although there is still a small remnant of the federal government. The split was similar to situations we see today, various factions calling for secession and/or civil war. Each autonomy makes its own rules, and all try to keep the federals from imposing their laws in their territories. Most of the action takes place in and around the Northern Autonomy, which I believe is at least partly in Maine, where the author was born. I'm not sure about all the autonomies, but at least in the Northern there had been a rejection of high technology, a return to nature philosophy, to counter-act the damages to the ecology.

Human characters in the midst of the story include Loren Casaubon, an ethologist studying peregrine falcons, hoping to establish a colony of them in an abandoned munitions factory, part of which was constructed like a medieval castle. After losing funding for that project he becomes a tutor for the children of the Northern Autonomy's Director. Caddie serves as an indentured servant to a man who runs an inn/tavern/general store. A leo known as Painter buys her contract, a surprise to her, and takes her with him on a search for which he will not give details. Meric Landseer lives in Candy's Mountain, a structure built in a territory adjacent to the Northern Autonomy, but not a part of it, and not really an autonomy of their own. They are separate from everything else as much as possible. One other prominent human is Sten Gregorius, son of the Director of the Northern Autonomy, who has been educated and trained to succeed his father. In opposition to these people and groups is an agency of the federal government knowns as the USE, the Union for Social Engineering. USE has declared all hybrid projects to be over, first saying leos and other species should be segregated in reservations, later deciding they need to be eliminated. Events are occasionally presented out of order. The search Painter is conducting is for Reynard, whom they find in the mountains, injured. We later learn how Reynard got in that situation. By the time Meric is introduced, Painter and his group, which still includes Caddie, are within the boundaries of Mountain territory. The feds show up after Meric has tried to make contact with Painter. A leo is killed and the others scatter, with Painter taken prisoner. When Painter escapes he makes contact with another animal, not a hybrid, but one whose intelligence had been enhanced through surgery.

As with many stories of beasts, or monsters, one must ask themselves who the true beasts and monsters are. Frequently it is humans, or at least one or more groups of humans. In one section Loren is reading from a book by another ethologist. "…what Loren felt was not the shocking sense its first readers had, that men are nothing more than beasts, their vaunted freedoms and ideals an illusion—the old, old reaction of the men who first read Darwin—but the opposite. What the stories seemed to say was that beasts are not less than men: less ingenious in expression, less complex in possibility, but as complete: as feeling; as capable of overmastering sorrow, hurt, rage. love." Neither the leos or any other hybrid had asked to be created, but once they existed they developed their own morality, their own self esteem, a need for bodily autonomy. Some may have committed crimes as established by others, but the true crime was the denial of their rights as individuals. All three of these novels are short by current standards, and as far as I know none have sequels. While they may be open-ended, there are resolutions to several plot points. Here, gathered at the end, are Painter, Caddie, Loren, Sten, and a few others. The only questions left are how many they might be able to recruit to their cause, and what they can build for the future. A very straight-forward story, without ambiguity, without confusing metaphors or analogies. Easy to understand who the heroes are, and who are the beasts. Another recommendation from me.


Engine Summer is sort of a cross between the two previous books. It is science fiction, but reads a lot like a fantasy. It is post-apocalyptic, centuries after The Storm which ended civilizations, but of course there were pockets of survival. The main character is a boy named Rush that Speaks, who lives in an isolated community known as Little Belaire. There may or may not have been another Belaire which had previously been abandoned. Myths of the before times are prevalent, but it is not clear what the stories mean or if there is any truth to them, although belief systems have been formed. The inhabitants of the far past are referred to as angels, men who could fly, who had created Cities in the Sky. More recent personages who inspired stories became known as saints. But these are just stories of course, even though there may be some truths buried within. Rush that Speaks had a goal; to go out into the world and find things that had been lost, treasures from the angels. That inspiration came from his father, Seven Hands, who always talked of leaving Little Belaire to explore. Rush eventually realizes his father will never do that, and he starts to wonder if he will ever leave himself. Little Belaire is made up of various groups known as cords. Rush is part of Palm cord, a group known as truth speakers, or at least they strove to always speak with clarity and transparency.

At the age of seven, Rush begins instruction under a woman named Painted Red, who knew how to read The System. That is described in a way that made me think of library microfiche, but I was never convinced Painted Red knew how to interpret the slides. On his second day of instruction Rush meets a girl near his own age named Once a Day, from Whisper cord. They become close friends, but Rush is disappointed when Once leaves Little Belaire one spring with traders from Dr. Boots List. At that point Rush decides he doesn't want to find the lost things, he would become a saint instead. I believe it is two years later, after Rush realizes Once a Day is not going to return with the traders in spring, that he decides he will leave Little Belaire to become a saint. He needs to find another saint to teach him, and mistakenly believes a hermit he meets is a saint. He stays with Blink through the winter, then goes wandering on Road. He eventually encounters a group of the traders, but when he sees Once a Day she acts as if she doesn't remember him. The traders think he is a spy who will reveal their camp and eventual destination, but he is able to convince them he is not a threat. They allow him to travel with them until they reach their main base, known as Service City. Rush remains puzzled about Once's indifference to him, and completely confused by everyone else, since no one is a truth speaker. After he is finally introduced to "Dr. Boots" he finds out that Once had left word that she would not return to Service City until she was sure he had left.

He does leave, and after a couple of other adventures, he wends his way back to Little Belaire, but hesitates to enter the warren for some reason. His wait lasts long enough for him to have another encounter, which I'll try not to spoil. From the very beginning, as Rush is telling his story, we realize he is speaking with someone else, but we don't learn who until close to the end. Parts of his narrative are confusing and questionable. Things Little Belaire, and other communities, received from the traders are possible remnants of "angel" science, some of which include medicines, but also mind-altering substances. Hard to understand some of his hallucinations; as hard for the reader as they were for Rush. Not to mention how is mind was altered by Dr. Boots. There aren't any clues that would indicate this is set further along the same timeline as Beasts, although there are animals that surprisingly live with humans, including several types of tiger and mountain lion. We also learn, and Rush knew, that a valued commodity, a plant called St. Bea's Bread, is extraterrestrial in origin. How many of the things he knows of his world are from the angels, or from off Earth instead?

Engine Summer was nominted for the American Book Award for hardcover science fiction, and was also a finalist for British SF, John W. Campbell Memorial, and Locus awards. The other two were not nominated for any awards, but both were well reviewed on publication.

As I mentioned above, all three novels are short, Engine Summer the longest at about 200 pages. They are examples of a rarity in SF today; standalone novels, of any length. One might want the stories to have continued longer, but you cannot, or at least should not, be dissapointed with what Crowley gave us. Thought-provoking stories with memorable characters, that cover the full range of human nature and emotions. Our hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties. But mostly our dreams, even when they are not realized. I wish I hadn't waited so long to re-read these. I've always preferred to experience a writer from their beginnings whenever possible. The fact these are Crowley's beginning is very impressive. I hesitate to pick a favorite, but for most readers I suspect Beasts would be the most accessible. If you still browse used bookstores and see any of these individual titles, or the omnibus, at a reasonable price, grab them. Or use the links at the top of the page for the omnibus, which may earn us a commission. You can thank me later.


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John Crowley

March 5, 2002
Originals, 1975-79

Detailed in review

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