Totalitopia: A Strange Horizons Review


By Paul Kincaid
Strange Horizons
November 27th, 2017

At one point in “This Is Our Town,” the only story original to this short collection, Crowley describes faith as “evidence of things not seen” (13). It’s a resonant phrase, and if we were to be presented with a career-encompassing Collected Short Fiction by John Crowley it would make a wonderfully appropriate title. Because evidence of things not seen, with and without the association with faith, has played a central role in much of his best work. The opening section of Love and Sleep, The Translator, “The Childhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines,” among others, all hinge upon that notion. More precisely, they all present childhood as the collision of belief and reality. And in that respect this new story could stand as a companion piece, both thematically and in terms of quality.

Crowley himself was raised as a Catholic, and that Catholic childhood and the worldview it fostered, shapes much of his fiction. In this story we are introduced to a book, also called This Is Our Town, which was written by Sister Mary Marguerite and which was something all Catholic children read in the fifties. The book was, of course, a lesson in faith and proper behaviour set in an idealized community of Timber Town and its nearby city of Coalsburg, and it is easy to visualize the simple, sharply-delineated illustrations, the “pillowy clouds and the black check-marks of flying birds” (7). But the nameless narrator of “This Is Our Town” lives in Timber Town. She’s a young girl around the time of her first communion, a girl who can see her guardian angel, who experiences life as a series of everyday miracles. Throughout the story there is a tension between the avowed fictionality of this world and the ordinary day-to-day experience of a very particular place and time, a small town in the early 1950s. It is possible that nothing fantastic happens in this story; it is possible that everything that happens in this story is fantastic. When her school acquires a rickety secondhand school bus, it won’t start until all the children pray, then it starts easily enough; when she sees a ghost boy while out trick or treating we have no way of knowing whether it is a genuine apparition or just another kid in costume. Her innocent faith allows the narrator to see everything as a miracle, and so everything is a miracle. Later, she acknowledges that everyone she once knew as a child still lives within that book world, and it is a world she continues to long for because “nothing is over in a book that’s being written or in God’s world being made, not until everything is over and the book is finished and closed” (20). The book allows for the biggest miracle of all, the continued trust that the good guys will win and everything will turn out well in the end.

“This Is Our Town” is a glorious piece of work, allusive and elusive, hovering forever on the threshold of the fantastic without ever definitively settling to one side or other of the line. It is far and away the best thing in this collection; but that’s okay, because it would likely be the best thing in just about any collection. It would genuinely be worth acquiring this collection for that story alone.

Of the three other stories, “Gone” had previously appeared in Crowley’s collection Novelties & Souvenirs, and is a curious choice for inclusion here, since it was far from the best story in that volume. It may fit within the mood of this collection, because the tale of enigmatic alien visitors who gradually teach people to behave with forgiveness towards others at least represents that sense of faith in what is not seen. Though there are other stories by Crowley that do the same thing rather better.

The publishing history in this volume suggests that another story, “And Go Like This,” also appeared in Novelties & Souvenirs, though it is not in my copy of that book. This is an oddly mechanical story, a fairly straightforward account of a scenario without anything in the way of plot or any suggestion of a life or an idea extending beyond the page. It begins with a quotation from Buckminster Fuller in which he averred that, in 1963, the entire population of the world could fit within New York City with enough room to dance the twist. This was a common enough thought experiment for the time; one thinks, for example, of John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar which was based on exactly the same idea, though from a different source. All Crowley has done in this story is put Buckminster Fuller’s notion into practice, having the entire population of the world flown into New York City where, once everyone has arrived, they dance the twist. I kept waiting for Crowley to do more with the idea; he didn’t.

Completing this somewhat lacklustre selection of stories is a one-page vignette, “In the Tom Mix Museum”, which recounts a childhood visit to a museum housed within a gigantic representation of the cowboy actor. “We go around to the back of his left boot, which has a heel as high as I am, with a door in it” (54). But the sort of mad invention we might find in a Steven Millhauser story is barely getting going when it comes to a stop.

If the fiction is disappointing, excepting the wonders of “This Is Our Town,” then there is compensation in the non-fiction, particularly two long essays, “Totalitopia” and “Everything That Rises.” “Totalitopia” starts with the idea of predicting the future but rapidly develops into a broad consideration of the character of science fiction, the nature of utopia and utopian thought, and the role of prediction in all of this. “Any prediction about what is in fact to come, when cast as fiction, runs the risk of not just being wrong but of being not about the future at all” (30), Crowley declares, an insight that should be inscribed upon all of our works, though it does rather point up how much of his own work is about the past: “The past is the new future” (23) as his wife puts it.

“Totalitopia” wanders away from the point in several places, or rather it seems to be aiming at several different points at the same time, but it does hold the interest. Rather more focussed, and therefore even more interesting, is “Everything That Rises.” This purports to be an account of a day spent at a Modern Cosmism conference, though it uses that as an excuse to cover a lot more ground. Cosmism was one of those esoteric movements – quasi-religious, quasi-scientific, quasi-utopian – that emerged in Russia in the 19th century. It was a movement that attracted a lot of scientists, including Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, despite some of its more outré ideas. A central tenet of cosmism was to defeat death, to develop as-yet-unknown technologies with which to resurrect everyone who has ever lived. This vastly increased population would then equip us to move out to other planets. The rather tenuous connection between Cosmism and scientific speculation means that the evolution of the movement over the centuries seems like a distorted reflection of the evolution of science fiction over the same period. The Modern Cosmism that Crowley encounters has odd, post-cyberpunkish aspects, talking about AIs, posthumanity, digitally uploaded minds and the like. “In this view the mind is defined as the information state of the brain, and is immaterial only in the sense that the information content of a data file is” (36) – Crowley doesn’t say as much, but it is curious how much the metaphors we use to describe the mind/brain problem change according to the current technology. From this basis, Crowley goes on to muse about the ethics of uploading a mind, the practical issues that might emerge (if the upload creates a double of the flesh-and-blood person, which one of them could vote?), and the comparative merits of immortality and resurrection. It is a fascinating tour of some of the wilder shores of esoteric speculation.

The remaining non-fiction is less interesting, mostly because it isn’t as revealing as it should be. There is a review of Other Stories by Paul Park. Of all the reviews that Crowley has written, one has to wonder why this particular piece was chosen for inclusion. It’s not a bad review, as these things go, but nor does it hit one over the head with surprising insights that change everything we’ve ever thought about Park. At a guess, the connections that Crowley makes between Park’s fictions and his biography are what makes the review stand out for him. When he notes that several of Park’s stories “raise the question of whether in order for the fiction to have its full effect the biographical material has to be known” (63), it is tempting to assume that Crowley is aware of similar questions about his own fiction. That he doesn’t even attempt to answer the question, but rather turns his attention to the furnishings of Park’s work, the clothing and buildings and foodstuffs and the like, what he calls (in a beautiful phrase) “the metonymic medicines of actuality” (67), mirrors the way that his own fiction draws attention to precisely these things, and leaves the more interesting questions to hang teasingly in the air.

Similarly, the final piece in the book, an interview with Crowley conducted by Terry Bisson, is convivial and engaging, but somehow evades revelation. It takes us on a brisk gallop through Crowley’s career: early days in New York, meeting Andy Warhol, his work on documentary films, writing the “Easy Chair” column for Harper’s, and so on. There’s an interesting question about the relationship between Crowley’s own story “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines” and Mary Cowden Clarke’s 19th century novel of the same title, but the question isn’t pursued in any depth. And a question about the arcane and conspiratorial religious orders that feature in much of his work could have spawned a long and fascinating discussion, though it is allowed to lapse after one brief paragraph. It is hard to tell whether it is Bisson or Crowley who is shying away from deeper engagement with these issues, but it feels as if it never comes close to hitting the spot.

It’s a short book, fewer than 100 pages, and once we get past the opening salvo of “This Is Our Town,” “Totalitopia,” and “Everything That Rises” it feels even less substantial than that short page count would suggest. And yet that opening story, coupled with those two fascinating essays, make this an absolutely essential collection.

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