John Crowley: Great Work of Time

In reviewing Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth, John Clute points out that complex time travel stories (not simply going to some other time, but changing the past and having it affect the future, paradox, etc.) have evolved as such a genre into themselves that writing one is difficult: either a writer will retread territory already covered, or the writer will assume a background knowledge of time travel tropes that only a seasoned science-fiction reader will know:

Indeed, for those unfamiliar with the fantastic as a whole, the premises, assumptions, narrative strategies, affect chaos, paradox-mongering convolutions and general abandon of the time travel story make it almost unreadable. (Bones is a lot less contorted than most, but it is still no book to give to a stranger.)

Stanislaw Lem wrote an essay on the architecture of time-travel stories, or rather, the two architectures of time-travel stories. It would need expanding today, but its fundamental premises have remained the same. And so I find myself wondering, in reviewing Crowley’s brilliant, monstrous (120 page) time-travel story, whether I should target the science-fiction reader or the general reader. And I wonder what Crowley thought when he constructed this story, because it comes a good way towards meeting each side halfway. Or so it seems to me; I was schooled on Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” and “–All You Zombies–”, so I can’t speak for the novice.

At any rate, Crowley uses the time travel plot and its attendant tropes–characters meeting future/past versions of themselves, alternate timelines, the negation of the past–but mitigates it in two ways. The first is a long introductory section presenting a simple excursion to the past by a man who goes back in time and mails a rare stamp to his grandfather, followed by an explicit description of the time-travel model Crowley is using. In short, it’s the many-universes model; i.e., each change to the past simply causes a fully alternate timeline wholly divergent from the original. The second mitigating factor is that Crowley uses the entirety of time travel allegorically, as a metaphor for British colonialism.

The British entrepreneur and African colonialist Cecil Rhodes left money after his death for a secret society to work to preserve the British empire in all perpetuity. Crowley runs with this idea: the conceit is that the society thrived and, through surgically changing the past, has enabled the British empire to survive while minimizing certain horrors. World War I is made less tragic by preventing the invention of the machine gun. The second World War never occurs, and Jews are deported from Germany, not massacred. (A friend asks if this means that Crowley shares Daniel Goldhagen’s position on innate German anti-semitism.) The British Empire remains ascendant. The world is more pleasant and much more colonial.

The subsequent breakdown of this world, manifested in lizards, dragons, and an ironic vision of the Perpetual Peace Rhodes dreamed of, exists in tension with the allegorical structure of the novella. At the literal level, Crowley presents the colonial effort towards order as a nullifying force; in adjusting the past to create a preferable future, the secret society creates an ever-expanding explosion of chaotic degeneration. Allegorically, the message is that the attempt of the empire to exert control over fate has the opposite effect. Their hubris is polluted by tiny imperfections and variations, which unravels their own plans. The time machinations do not need to be compreshended precisely to reveal the thrust of the story: time and empire are not compatible; empire collapses under its own ever-expanding weight. It unmakes itself.

Crowley does not privilege the allegorical over the literal or vice versa; the story remains true to both to the very end, leaving an unresolved complexity when the two levels overlap but do not quite correspond. Like another masterpiece of allegory-telling, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Crowley uses science fiction tropes as novel analogies for history, and the result is far deeper than the often limited analogical vocabulary of science fiction, where the science-fiction content so often only allegorizes trite sentiments about love, power, and other conventional wisdom.

One thought on “John Crowley: Great Work of Time

  1. The image of the underwater forest at the end of time really is quite potent: the green world, or the green breast of the new one? When I read this I’d just come off a string of M. John Harrison stories, with their relentless excoriations of imaginary worlds and the deluded losers who pursue them: the defeat of the world devised by the time lords of this story seemed to fall right in place.

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