John Crowley says at the end of Little, Big that we know the world as it is and not otherwise; that if there was ever a time when magic worked, it’s not now. Each of these fifteen stories (or fourteen and a novella) is a way of imagining that otherwise. Some of them read as reworkings of myths or fairy tales; others are more like science fiction; several play with our ideas of time. None of them are this world, quite, as we know it.
I’d only read one of these stories before: “Missolonghi 1824,” in which Lord Byron, nearly at the end of his life, tells a story of meeting a god. The second reading was as powerful as the first: I remain convinced that this happened, or could have, or something like it. What does Crowley know, that the rest of us don’t?
The centerpiece of the collection is the novella “Great Work of Time,” in which Cecil Rhodes founds a secret Otherhood to protect the British Empire — and therefore peace — by any means necessary, including time travel. But the manipulation of time, even for the ultimate protection of (one man’s definition of) peace, has its consequences, and Crowley deftly, surprisingly, pulls all the ravelling skeins of the story together at the end.
Several other stories play with the same Anglophilia that these two do. “Antiquities” is a British club tale about a plague of unfaithful husbands and a cargo of mummified cats. “Green Child” is a retold Suffolk folk-tale, and “An Earthly Mother Sits and Sings” comes from Scotland. But there’s more to these than either a simple love for the auld sod or a fondness for the eerie. Crowley is balancing strangeness and familiarity here, as when he recasts “Hansel and Gretel” in contemporary terms in “Lost and Abandoned.” He states his mission clearly:
I will write my story with a beginning, a middle, and no end. No bread crumbs, no candy, no woods, no oven, no treasure. No who, what, where, when. And it will all be there.
Where will they go, those kids?
Two of the stories struck me as so dense they were quite difficult to understand. “In Blue” is a science-fiction dystopia in which an entire society has been converted to “act-field theory,” the infinitesimal social calculus, the infinite regression of understanding human actions. Almost the entire story is given to the explanation of act-field theory, through the mind of Hare, a character who has begun to doubt its power and veracity. The story is a dark sideways look at systems like Communism, but I wouldn’t call it satire: satire usually means taking something that exists and taking a whack at it. “In Blue” creates something utterly new, and watching existing human behavior through that lens. It’s hard to read, but it’s marvelous.
The other story that I want to talk to someone about is “Novelty.” I keep reading reviews of it, and I have a theory about it that no one else has hit on yet. In it, an unnamed writer comes into the Seventh Saint Bar & Grill, orders a drink, and proceeds to think about a book he’s never written on the theme of novelty vs. security, imagining an alternative version of Christianity, in which Christ refused to die on the cross, and lived to be an old man, perhaps living out a fuller commitment to humanity that way. In one way the story’s about writing. But in another way it’s quite theological, and I have a theory. Hey! If you’ve read this, call me (making dialing motions.) We’ll talk!
Crowley is just as talented in short form as in long. “Exogamy,” which is five pages, is unsentimental myth at its finest. These stories are ingenious, beautifully written, challenging, and… otherwise.