Book Review: Beasts, John Crowley (1976)


(John Cayea’s cover for the 1976 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

“‘They want to kill us all, you know.  They’re trying […].  The government.  Men.  You.’  Still his eyes searched hers. ‘We’re no use to them.  Worse than useless.  Poachers.  Thieves.  Polygamists.  We won’t be sterilized.  There’s no good in us.  We’re their creation, and they’re phasing us out.  When they can catch us'” (33).

While reading John Crowley’s Beasts (1976) I was reminded of the life of Stephan Bibrowski (1891-1932) à la Lionel the Lion-faced Man.  Stephan was afflicted with hypertrichosis (most likely) which caused his entire body to be covered with hair.  His mother was so horrified at his appearance  — which she believed was caused because she saw her husband mauled by a lion while she was pregnant — that she gave him to the circus at the age of four.  He was exhibited around Europe and even appeared for major circuses in the US.   He was renowned for his intellectualism and soft-spoken demeanor.  Unlike Stephan Bibrowski, the eponymous beasts of Crowley’s novel are human-animal hybrids created by unchecked genetic tinkering.  But they too are strangely alluring (even sexually) to humans whom they come into contact with.  Crowley’s work explores humankind’s repulsion and simultaneous fascination with their ostracized creations.

John Crowley, more famous for his fantasy novels — Little, Big (1981) and the Ægypt Quartet (published between 1987-2007) — produced three science fiction works in the late 70s, The Deep (1975), Beasts (1976), and Engine, Summer (1979).  Beasts is perhaps the least known of the three and the first of his novels I’ve read.  I too am strangely drawn to his vision of a post-apocalyptical/balkanized United States with roving bands of genetically manipulated leos (lion/man hybrids) hunted by the government and mountaintop communes whose occupants are aloof and unaware of society’s political decay.

Crowley’s prose is characterized by an odd detachment, incredibly poetic passages, and haunting images.  It is easy to slip into the world but by the time you’ve emerged — a mere 184 pages later — you feel like you’ve only touched the edges.  In part because the narrative is comprised of nine distinct voices (some animal, some animal man hybrid, some human) — each is seductive, but many will find that each voice is all too ephemeral.

Highly recommended.  Especially for fans of literary science fiction (or perhaps I should say, literature with science fictional tropes).

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

The Union for Social Engineering — comprised of “militant, dedicated, selfless, expert propagandists, righteous proponents of ends that justified their means” (14) — claim to be able to end the “fratricidal quibblings” that had caused civil wars and promise a return to “central planning and rational co-operation” (14).  The leos, created under a previous government, are mercilessly hunted by the USE as part of a greater plan to bring all the tribal entities and independent states, including the remnants of the previous Federal Government,  under their control.

One plotline follows Loren Casaubon, an ethologist, who loses government funding for research on hawks and becomes a tutor for two gifted children of Gregorius, the leader of Federal Government.  Another follows Painter, an outlawed leo, on the run from the USE.  Very clearly a Messianic character, Painter gathers together a vast assortment of humans who are drawn by his presence and way of life.  The ways of his pride contrast with the moral strictures of purely human society: “the leos’ only loyalty was to their pride.  Whether they had inherited his trait from their lion ancestors or had consciously modeled themselves on lion society wasn’t known” (76). Painter, violently opposed to human civilization, embodies a vision  that many humans find alluring. Chased by agents of the USE, Painter journeys through decaying cities returning to the wild…

“The park they had long regarded with calm possessiveness was rank and wild, its few attendants went armed with cattle-prods, and their chief duty was to guard the concrete playground kept open during daylight hours for children who played glumly with their watchful nuses amid the tattooed seesaws and one-chain swinfs.  Few people went into the wilder park north of the museums, where ivy had begun to strangle the aged trees with their quaint nameplates, and city stinkweed to crowd out their young, except at need. “We lost them in the park,” the provisional police would report after a street fight with one or another faction” (103).

Caddie, a young woman who was indentured in a shady bar, becomes the first human to join Painter’s pride.  Although she is intrigued by Painter’s presence, she fights back her revulsion.  Eventually she becomes Painter’s lover: “for every conjunction they achieved, there were layers of shame to be fought like through the layers of their thick clothing: and only by shameless strategies, only by act after strenuous act of acquiescence, her voice hoarse from exertion and her body slick with sweat, did she conquer them: and entered new cities, panting, naked, amazed” (31).

And then there’s Meric Landseer — who unfortunately is given only a few chapters — a documentary film maker who descends from the Genesis Preserve, a utopian community that seals itself away in order to preserve the mountains, to join Painter.  Meric’s original job was to construct each year’s Birthday Show celebrating creation of the Preserve, a propagandistic program filled with terrifying images including a “flaming and degraded industrial landscapes [where] a black manna seemed endlessly to gall, and dogs and pale children seemed to seek, amid blackened streets, exits that were not there, and the sky itself seemed to to have turned to stone […]” (67).  Manipulating all (for often ambiguous purposes) is a character straight from medieval legend, Reynard the Fox — he’s the only fox human hybrid in existence.  And he enters into dealings with Painter.

Beasts embodies a fascinating dialogue between nature and civilization, man and animal…  Do not expect a straightforward narrative for many chapters function more as mood pieces.  Each is part of a mosaic of images, characters, and philosophies that struggle to survive, or are altogether snuffed out, in a rapidly collapsing Old Order.  The new society Painter embodies is obliquely hinted at rather than explicitly described.

My mind too stumbled, like Caddie from Painter’s embrace, from the last pages of Beasts, “panting, naked, amazed” (31).


(Uncredited cover for the 1978 edition)

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19 thoughts on “Book Review: Beasts, John Crowley (1976)

  1. I read Little, Big years ago, and your assessment of Crowley’s prose matches what I recall: very poetic, with a strong ambient feel for setting, yet also detached, even distant at times. A stunning literary read, but also one that could confuse or bore an unprepared reader… subtle and cerebral.

    I didn’t know Crowley wrote any SF, I’ll have to look out for those 😀 This one sounds fascinating. I love my dystopic, balkanized Americas almost as much as I love my post-apocalypses… probably because one often bleeds into the other.

    • I read this some four months ago and couldn’t gather the courage to review it. But, I realized that the fascinating scenes and images had stayed in my mind. Also, in the course of writing the review I realized that I barely touched the surface of what the novel has to offer.

      Haha, yes, balkanized Americas are fascinating — Katherine MacLean’s Missing Man (1975) is another great example —

      I’ll read his fantasy eventually — I do have his first (slightly sci-fi novel) The Deep (1975) on my shelf

      • I think “Beasts” was strongly influenced by Orwell’s “Animal Farm”……..the comparisons seem too closely obvious.Unlike “Beasts” however,AM can’t be called science fiction,or even like “Beasts”,speculative fiction,but is an excellent,satirical fable.

        “Beasts” however,is a modern,pastoral sf fable,and that’s links it to AM I think,although the comparison between the humanistic animals is superficial,but a nearer novel within sf,is I think Thomas Burnet’s Swann’s “Green Phoenix”,a retelling of the fabulous creatures of ancient Greek myth,who are just as human in thought as those of Crowley’s genetically created “experiments”,and are similarly persecuted and being driven to extinction by ordinary humans.

  2. I’ve been looking for Engine Summer for awhile, after hearing that it’s a good post-apocalyptic novel. Haven’t found it, but I picked up Beasts the other month… now it needs to go to the top of the to-read pile.

    • As admiral.ironbombs pointed out above: “very poetic, with a strong ambient feel for setting, yet also detached, even distant at times. A stunning literary read, but also one that could confuse or bore an unprepared reader… subtle and cerebral.” So yes, a piece of serious literature. hehe

  3. Joachim, Another fine review. You are a perceptive reader–I recently read some infuriatingly bad reviews of Crowley`s AEGYPT sequence. Crowley`s abilities and concerns are miles away from those of 99% of sf/f writers–like Kubrick in film, Crowley is about Big Ideas, not just running stereotyped characters through escapist mazes. His characters in AEGYPT, THE TRANSLATOR [non-sf/f], AEGYPT, and especially LITTLE, BIG are so much more believable than the genre norm, but Crowley skips scenes lesser writers would milk for easy emotional release. It is no accident he`s won an award from the American Acadcemy & Institute of Arts and Letters, something not many writers of `fantasy` about magic swords and elves get. He`s also praised by Harold Bloom, whose tastes run more to A.S. Byatt than Robert Jordan. BEASTS is good, haven`t read THE DEEP yet, but ENGINE SUMMER is wonderful. LITTLE, BIG is one of my five favorite books.

    • Thanks! It took me a few months of ruminating, re-looking at certain passages, for the full import of the novel to sink in…. Definitely more of a mood piece — but I love mood pieces 🙂

      I look forward to reading The Deep and Engine Summer — I’ll hold off from his fantasy for now.

  4. I’ve recently read Beasts and am now working my way towards the end of Engine Summer – it seems to me that Beasts has much in common with Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood; there is a similar evocation of a flyblown, barely functional near-future version of our world, and a similar interest in the implications of genetic engineering… Though Atwood’s version is explicitly apocalyptic in a way that Crowley barely hints at.

    Engine Summer seems like an upbeat Californian cousin to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, which was published just a year later (in 1980).. Two desperately thoughtful novels, narrated by questing misfit adolescents existing in far-distant, broken-down futures. Riddley and Rush – two Holden Caulfields for the new dark ages. But while Riddley Walker is nightmarish, filthy, and dark (and darkly funny); Engine Summer comes across as sunlit, giggly, and slightly stoned (on St.Bea’s bread, perhaps?) – and set in a world where violence doesn’t exist.

    These are the only novels of his I’ve yet read – but Crowley certainly seems to have a thing for people living in great ramshackle self-sufficient communities – I’m thinking of Candy’s Mountain in Beasts and Little Belaire in Engine Summer. To finish off – a lovely quotation from Beasts on this topic:
    ‘Withdraw:…… You have done enough damage to the earth and to yourselves. your immense, battling ingenuity: turn it inward, make yourselves scarce, you can do that. Leave the earth alone: all its miracles happen when you’re not looking. Build a mountain and you can all be troll-kings. The earth will blossom in thanks for it.’

    • Thank you for stopping by!

      I never got around to reading Engine Summer, it’s on my shelf, waiting, expectantly….

      I did read Crowley’s first SF novel The Deep (1975) — I adored the book… characters replaying and replaying the movements they are destined to make, the landscape as a gameboard, into which a rogue piece is introduced. Gorgeous, brittle, hints at so much more. Find a copy (Especially if you loved Beasts and Engine Summer).

      I reviewed it here — >

      One of my favorite techniques is when apocalypse is barely hinted at — perhaps as part of our traumatic reaction we will try to live as if nothing happened. A delusion of course, the apocalyptic reality will interject itself in our lives.

      Riddley Walker has been on my radar for a while, I have a copy on the shelves, like Engine Summer, it’s waiting for the right moment. I’m a moody reader, I read what I want, when I want, and can’t follow set schemes of reading that I might try to convince myself to follow. I’ll get to both, I promise!

      Thanks again for stopping by.

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