Engine Summer and Godel’s Theorem

I read a lot of science fiction as a kid, but somehow managed to miss out on John Crowley until this year. I started with the Hugo-winning Little Big, which is beloved by both Harold Bloom and Crooked Timber; that must say something. It’s a beautifully written and grand fantasia about fairies, architecture, and (I think) the decay of urban America in the early 1980s, when it was written. Around page 400 I started wondering how Crowley was possibly going to wrap up all the mysteries and stories in a satisfying way; and he didn’t, quite. When I complained to Steve about this, he told me that I should have read Engine Summer instead, because it’s small and perfect. So I did — and it is!

There’s some lesson here about short novels. Many of the ideas in Engine Summer reappear in Little, Big, and you can see why; in the earlier book things are done so gracefully, so concisely, and with so much left unmentioned that Crowley must have felt he hadn’t exhausted the material. And he hadn’t; there’s lots of terrific stuff in Little, Big that the shorter book doesn’t have room for. But grace, concision, and the presence of the unmentioned are serious virtues, not to be lightly discarded. This might be even more true in science fiction than elsewhere.

Here’s a quote — this doesn’t show off Crowley at anything like his best, but I wanted to point out that it appears to be a reference to the work of Godel, not something you find in every novel.

She came and sat by me again. “The gossips know, now, after many years of searching, that it can’t be read past Gate, not packed all together; and if Great Knot Unraveled is the whole set, then Great Knot Unraveled can never be read.”

“Does that mean,” I asked, “that it’s no longer any use? Since you know that? It doesn’t, does it?”

“Oh no,” she said. “No, no. It will be a long time before we have learned everything there is to learn even from Little Knot. But.. well. It seemed, when the System was first being truly searched, in St. Olive’s time, it seemed that .. it seemed there was a promise, that one day it would be seen all together, and answer all questions. Now we know it won’t, not ever. When that was first understood, there were gossips who broke up their Systems, and some who left Belaire; that was a sad time.”

If you want Steve’s thoughts on SF unmediated through me, he assesses Philip K. Dick in the July 2008 London Review of Books.

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5 thoughts on “Engine Summer and Godel’s Theorem

  1. Em says:

    Little, Big was the novel that turned Cary into a voracious reader.

  2. Anon says:

    Concision seems to be a forgotten skill among modern sci-fi authors. If you haven’t read it already, I’d suggest you try ‘Invention of Morel’ by Adolfo Casares (published by NYRB). It’s a perfect, compact piece of work of approx. 100 pp.

  3. Jason Starr says:

    Thomas Pynchon explicitly mentions Goedel’s theorem in “Gravity’s Rainbow” (as well as Whittaker and Watson, Poisson distributions, double integrals, . . ., actually I’m only 1/2 through so I’m not sure what else will pop up).

  4. John Cowan says:

    Concision is a forgotten art because publishers think people won’t plunk down $8.95 for a 100-page book, because after all, it’s well known we readers buy books for their bulk. “I give you books, and I give you books, and all you do is eat the covers.”

    The result is that older books have to be reprinted in groups of two and three, related or not.

  5. […] was prompted by Professor (of Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin) Jordan Ellenberg’s post (over at his wonderful blog, the whimsically named QUOMODOCUMQUE) on John Crowley, Little, Big, and […]

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