'Engine Summer' by John Crowley is one of the most moving, lyrical and downright cruel post apocalyptic novels you will ever read. Although I try in these reviews not to give away too much of the plot, it's nearly impossible to talk about the emotional heft of 'Engine Summer' without revealing the twist at the end, so spoilers for a thirty-four year old SF novel to follow.
'Engine Summer' tells the story of Rush that Speaks, a youth on the cusp of manhood who lives in the idyllic pastoral settlement of Little Belair. Inspired by the stories of saints he hears from a wise old woman, he sets out in search of his own sainthood, and in the process suffers a series of revelations about the nature of the world he lives in and the people he shares it with.
Simple enough so far. It is a coming of age story, which is a familiar set up in post-apocalyptic SF; Russell Hoban would use a similar template for 'Riddley Walker'. 'Engine Summer' lacks the almost violent linguistic inventiveness of Hoban's masterpiece, and its spirituality is more subtle and muted, but it achieves a similar sense of pathos for its doomed protagonist and his dreams of a grander, less ruined age. The images of a youth travelling through the flotsam and jetsam of our ruined future, the significance of which has long been forgotten, also form a central part of Gene Wolfe's masterful Book Of The New Sun series. However it's hard to imagine more different protagonists than Severian and Rush that Speaks; in stark contrast to Wolfe's charming but utterly unreliable narrator who creates a tapestry of possible interpretations of every event that he relates, the people of Little Belair, and Rush that Speaks in particular, pride themselves on 'truthful speaking' - to say what you mean and mean what you say. Indeed, this facet of Rush's nature is what allows him to become the redemption to the 'angels' - the people who inhabited the Earth before the great disaster - at his own personal cost.
We find out at the end that our narrator is not Rush himself - he is a recording, whose purpose is to retell his life up until the moment of recording, which he has done over three hundred times in the past six hundred years. Through sharing Rush's formative experiences of exploration, awakening and disillusionment, the angels, and the reader of the book, are able to come to a better understanding of their own life experiences, but this version of Rush is doomed to relive these vivid and heartbreaking experiences over and over again. It is a strikingly cruel ending, and in a way a powerful metaphor for the existence of, and the way we as consumers of fiction use, fictional characters.
All of this conveys little of the wonder of Crowley's prose. He is a wonderfully lyrical writer. The style of 'Engine Summer' is less ornate and poetic than that of Crowley's influential fantasy masterpiece, 'Little, Big', but it is more naturalistic and affecting for being less mannered. It has an almost brutal concision lacking from the epic sprawl of 'Little, Big'. As wonderous as 'Little, Big' indeed is, 'Engine Summer' may well be his greatest work.