Friday, January 14, 2011

Book Review: 'The Deep' by John Crowley

4 / 5 Stars

‘The Deep’ first appeared as a hardcover from Doubleday in 1975; this Bantam paperback (176 pp.) appeared in January 1984 and has a cover illustration by  Yvonne Gilbert.

The plot of this brief novel is straightforward. There is a strange world that resembles a giant dinner-plate atop an enormous pedestal, suspended over a formless void (the ‘Deep’ of the title). 

[Think of the painting ‘The Titan’s Goblet’ by the 19th century Hudson River School artist Thomas Cole:]

Peopling this world is a small population of humans, living comfortably at a medieval level of technology, who are governed by one of two perpetually warring parties: the Reds and the Blacks. As the book opens, the Reds and Blacks are busy with another struggle over who shall rule their odd little realm. A wrinkle is thrown into their contest by the arrival of the Visitor: an android, a sexless, ageless, nameless being who happens to suffer from brain damage. 

As the Visitor becomes drawn into in the political intrigue surrounding the successor to the deposed King Little Black, he begins to recover his memories, and an understanding of his purpose. It seems that someone, or something, connected with the Deep has an interest in the affairs of its people, and the Visitor may be a powerful tool for change…or destruction.

I remember reading ‘The Deep’  in hardcover back in ’75 and I have since re-read it multiple times. It’s one of the best SF / fantasy books to emerge from the New Wave movement. 

It’s true that Crowley’s prose style is not the most accessible. Many aspects of the politics and sociology of the world of the Deep are communicated in an oblique manner, and the narrative regularly switches from passages of straightforward exposition to those with poetic and figurative content, which can be frustrating at times . As well, the author’s convention of giving his major characters appellations that are based on variations of the same color – Red Senlin, Redhand, Old Redhand, etc., etc. – makes for confusion. 

The landscape of The Deep is an interesting one, featuring a Northern Country-inspired setting that is simultaneously familiar, but also unique. While The Deep was his first novel, Crowley avoided succumbing to the New Wave error of sacrificing plot for lots of pretty writing; with every few pages, another twist in the political and military gamesmanship at work in the world of the Deep becomes manifest. The book's ending includes appropriate revelations about the nature of the Deep and its origins, and does so without being facile or contrived.

The novel's atmosphere is downbeat and permeated with entropy, reminiscent in many ways of another great 70s SF / fantasy hybrid, M. John Harrison's book 'The Pastel City'.

The result is a novel with more artistry in its 176 pages than few other SF or fantasy pieces from the 70s could provide in twice the page count.

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