(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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