“Crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children’s cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude, of joy or pain he couldn’t tell, for of course they all smiled with teeth. Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts. Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one’s body to feed the fire burning in this one’s crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance.”
In ‘The Deep’, as much as in ‘Engine Summer’, John Crowley displays both his gift with beautiful prose as well as his empathy with everyday suffering. Which is not bad at all for a first novel. Where its political manipulations between multiple morally ambiguous sides anticipates George R R Martin’s ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’, while Martin delights in dreaming up new and inventive mental and physical punishment to destroy his characters’ lives, Crowley’s characters meet with simple, unglamourous deaths, frequently lost offscreen in the indiscriminate chaos of battle. All that’s left is the sadness of pointlessly wasted human life.
I suspect you could argue long and pointlessly as to whether ‘The Deep’ is SF or Fantasy. It is set on a flat circular world that is supported on a giant pillar that rises out of the eponymous Deep, a void of nothingness that surrounds the world. The sun and numerous moons orbit around it, and an ancient beast known as Leviathan sleeps underneath the world, coiled around the pillar. So you have a premise not dissimilar to a severely warped Discworld or World Of Tiers, and indeed you might wonder what effect living on such a different world to ours would have on the people living on it. Well, the answer is perhaps less than you would think, seeing as the whole world is caught up in a viscous struggle for power that has been going on for time out of mind. You have your fairly standardish Fantasy set up, where the Folk, your average common people, are looked after – read exploited – by the Protectors, the landed gentry. The Protectors are divided into two factions, the Reds and the Blacks, who have been fighting each other for many generations. The knowledge in the world is controlled by the Grays, a brotherhood of priests and scholars, and just to confuse matters there is a group of freedom fighters called the Just, who see it as their task to assassinate everyone in the Protectors’ class to gain freedom for the Folk. Not that the vast majority of the Folk support their endeavours in any way. The neutral Endwives camp out near battles and clean up the mess, saving who they can.
Much of ‘The Deep’ deals with the futility of war, the pointless and never ending cycle of revenge, betrayal and violence. The two sides are even named after chess pieces, suggesting how they are all reduced to pawns in someone else’s strategy, pieces on the board. Or perhaps checkers is the more apt metaphor, with everyone’s brilliant strategies shown to be so much hot wind. Much like a game, whoever is in the position of power seems to have absolutely no significance for anyone outside of the people playing. The most sympathetic Protector is the vaguely Ned Stark-ish Redhand, whose honour and general decency get him absolutely nowhere fast in this particular game. At least by the end of the book, there is a sense that everyone is sick and tired of war, and there is at least some kind of hope for a way out of the cycle of destruction.
|Guess how many of these people are alive by the end of the book|
Into this confusion a Visitor is sent from beyond, a nameless being with silver skin and superhuman skin with a vitally important purpose to bring to the people, if only he could remember what it was. Due to his amnesia he starts the book as a wide-eyed blank slate, and is thrown right in the middle of the power struggle between the Reds and the Blacks, following a Red takeover from the Black king. Slowly we see him become wise in the ways of selfishness and deception as he learns more about the world he’s found himself in. The Visitor’s corruption is deftly handled. In his initial state, friendly, unthreatening and full of a hunger for knowledge, everyone he encounters finds him unsettling for these character traits as much as his bizarre appearance. Up until the moment where he takes action for himself, he is guarding the life of his friend.
But it’s not just his surroundings influencing his behaviour; the call from his true purpose is too strong to ignore. And his change in behaviour is linked to what that purpose is. The Visitor is a messianic figure, sent from the heavens to redeem this poor war-torn realm. And to a certain extent that’s true. One of the characters spends a large chunk of the book trying to figure out an ancient riddle: if everyone has two parents and so four grandparents and so on all the way back up the line, how come the small world is not overcrowded? Where do they go? Well, of course, they die. The Visitor has been sent to facilitate this by being a bloodthirsty warrior, leading the world even further into mayhem, death and destruction in order to keep the population down.
This is a brutal and shocking twist, and it gets right to the heart of what the book is about. Just because it is possible to imagine a higher power, should it exist there is no guarantee it would be the kind of higher power we’d like, or that its idea of our best interest would match ours. The world of ‘The Deep’ is ostensibly one where bad things happen on a regular basis, but it’s not in spite of God’s plan, but because this is God’s plan. When the Visitor, having travelled to the very edge of the world, summons Leviathan and speaks to it, he finds that the god-like being – it is never named explicitly – originally took mankind from another planet to this artificial world because people begged for a return to simpler times, without fully understanding what that wish meant. Eternal life as the perpetual motion of eternal struggle and strife. In ‘The Deep’, the covenant God made with humanity is simply a really bad bargain on humanity’s side.