Book Review: Cirque, Terry Carr (1977)


(Stanislaw Fernandes’ cover for the 1978 edition)

3/5 (Average)

Nominated for the 1978 Nebula

Terry Carr’s third novel Cirque (1977) takes the form of a religious allegory filled with a mosaic of characters that each represent a different psychological profile. These allegorical representations of the populace inhabit the city of Cirque, that surrounds the Abyss, a vast and seemingly bottomless chasm into which the River Fundament pours its fertile waters.  Each character must confront their own failings, spurned by a tentacled Beast which crawls from the depths of the Abyss…

Allegory. Yes! Strange (urban) landscapes. Yes! These elements succeed in the hands of the adept. John Crowley’s masterful The Deep (1975) took SF-tinged fantasy tropes, inserted them game-like into a stylized world on top of a pillar, and with icy detachment and minimalist dialogue spun a tale of choreographed destruction. Cirque, like a Kalachakra Mandala with its deities, wants each part, each character, to generate philosophical discussion and contemplation in its readers. In contrast to The Deep, a bland functionalism permeates Cirque‘s pages, the characters interact and challenge each other’s beliefs, the anti-religious fire artist sleeps with the sexy red-haired fire priestess, the holopath who monitors the thoughts of all leaves her chambers and experiences the city in new ways… The novel’s conceptual paradigm succeeds. The lines and connections that Carr is so desperate to make manifest jumble in bland and inarticulate ways.

Analysis/Plot Summary (*spoilers*)

Cirque is the jewel of Earth, now a “backwater planet” where few bother to visit from the “teeming planet-systems of the galaxy’s core” (1). The Abyss, which some see as a “gigantic receiver of all that was dark and evil in human nature,” forms the core of beliefs of the hundreds of temples in the city (10).  And these beliefs are thrown into confusion as the Beast with its tentacles emerges.  Some argue that the “shaft was bottomless, that it would received their discards forever” (38). While others, such as Salamander the head priestess of the Cathedral of the Five Elements, “know that the Abyss had a bottom” and now the “spiritual refuse of humanity had collected there and now it was reaching for the very rim of the shaft” (38).

The emergence of the Beast touches each of the characters in different ways.  Gloriana Crest, the twenty-five year old head of the city guard, must act strong in the face of disaster but also admit her love for Julian.  Gregorian, a fire sculptor who has never in the past made a commission for a temple, encounters the priestess Salamandar and must struggle with his notion of truth and beauty. His artistic creation will help spurn a coming together that transcends any individual faith. Nikki, who induces a state of “parasanity” via pills which bifurcate her personality, must confront her traumatic upbringing  with the help of a millipede traveler alien and a young headstrong girl named Robin (4).

One of the more interesting threads concerns Annalie, the monitor.  A young telepath, she controls the broadcasts, by scanning the minds of the city’s inhabitants for interesting events and thoughts which she then broadcasts to all.

“She had been born with this talent and had taken this job when she was just six years old. She was fifteen now, two years older than her predecessor had been when she had died. Holistic people don’t live long, but they live a lot” (35).

At one point these broadcasts were considered religious in nature, however, the position is no longer venerated and “no one knew the name of the current monitor” (36).  Her position as the psychic nucleus of the city does not replace the ability to interact and engage with others.  As the Beasts momentarily mutes her abilities, she leaves her chambers and wanders the city for the first time.

And of course, the nameless alien millipede… He knows the emergence will happen before it does and makes a point to visit the city.  His interactions, and alien perspective, serves as a sounding board and conscience preparing everyone for the final confrontation.

Final Thoughts

Terry Carr, primarily an editor, wrote three novels–of which Cirque (1977) is his third–and a number of short stories.  The other two novels–Warlord of Kor (1963) and Invasion from 2500 (1964) with Ted White–are pulp. I suspect Cirque is his most mature and it’s a shame that he did not write more as many strands of this mosaic show promise.

Vaguely recommended for fans of SF allegories, especially exploring future religion.  But really, go read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) or John Crowley’s The Deep (1974) first if you want stylized worlds that embody articulate philosophies!

For more book reviews consult the INDEX.


(Bill Tinker’s cover for the 1977 edition)


(Giuseppe Festino’s cover for the 1979 Italian edition)


(Michael Pfeiffer’s cover for the 1981 German edition)


(Terry Hall’s cover for the 1979 edition)


(Uncredited cover for the 1987 edition)

14 thoughts on “Book Review: Cirque, Terry Carr (1977)

  1. I have to admit to relative ignorance about Terry Carr.I know he was something of a warrior within science fiction fandom,and an excellent editor with Don Wollheim of seminal anthologies,none of which I loath to admit,I’ve read,although I have read some of the stories they anthologised elsewhere.Your rating of his novel however,was rather low for me.The trouble is though,I assume he’s no John Crowley,but it would be unfair of me to make comparisons.

        • I enjoy the Universe series as it is an original anthology, not random collected stories. Reading Universe 10 at the moment — Michael Bishop, James Tiptree, Jr., Howard Waldrop, R. A. Lafferty — > all good stuff!

          • I’ve read Tiptree’s collection,”Her Smoke Rose Up Forever”,which I thought contained nearly all of her works and therefore most of her best stuff,but I later discovered that her other collection,”Ten Thousand Light Years from Home”,contained several more,some of which for all I know,are even better.I wasn’t impressed with most of those in HSRUF.She really was a very good author,although her style is dry,acidy and clinical.

            • Yes,I’d like to read that collection.”Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” was a rather long book that was difficult to read all at once with so many short pieces written in that rather mordant style and varying quality.It would probably have been quite nice in two or three volumes.I did try to get her shorter collections in the early 90s’,but weren’t available at the time.

              Much earlier,I read her novel,”Up The Walls of the World”,but wasn’t very impressive I didn’t think.

  2. Another of the ones where the situation is finite – i.e. a place ontop of a pillar with some kind of “void” surround it – with “something” inhabing that void (alien,entity, other). The most interesting aspect of this book would seem to be Annalie whose “visions” seem to have lost their relevance – thus her purpose is effectively redundant or superflous and it begs the question as to why “they” (the society, those in charge) even bother anymore. The creature forcing her to leave her chambers and wander the city for the first time would almnost be aki to a sleeper waking from a dream (Neo busting out og the pod in Matrix) – a sense of wonder, newness – something that could or would have been worthwhile peruing further. Seems once again characters operate by “rote” and without that structure (however meaningless, mundane or repetative) one wonders hpow they and socity would function.

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