Novelties & Souvenirs, by John Crowley

John Crowley is one of the rare f/sf authors who gets significant recognition from the mainstream press — in that way where Harold Bloom has a good opinion of him. His novel Little, healthful Big is probably the most well-known to spec-fic audiences; it’s essentially magic realism in the non-Latin-American way, order and won the World Fantasy Award. He’s also won the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, purchase a second World Fantasy Award for one of the novellas in this collection, and a third one for lifetime achievement. Born in 1942 in Maine, he currently lives in New York City and writes, as well as working in the documentary film field and teaching at places as prestigious as Yale.

Novelties & Souvenirs collects all his short fiction through its publication in 2004; it was published by Harper Perennial. Four of the stories were originally published in a collection called Novelty, after one of its stories. Others were published in various formats, including a chapbook, a collection printed by Subterranean Press, Asimov’s, and a few other anthologies. The titles include “The Green Child,” “An Earthly Woman Sits and Sings,” “The Nightingale Sings at Night,” “Missolonghi 1824,” “The Reason for the Visit,” “Novelty,” “Gone,” “Antiquities,” “In Blue,” and “Great Work of Time.” They include retellings, dystopias, alternate histories, and most other kinds of speculative fiction.

Probably the greatest work in the volume is “Great Work of Time,” being that it’s the longest and, after all, a World Fantasy Award winner. It’s perhaps seventy pages long, and encompasses several episodes. The basic concept is that there is a secret society who can travel through time, and they’ve been ‘fixing’ the past to bring about a less-violent future that still contains a British empire. Cecil Rhodes, who in our reality died of old age and donated his entire fortune to Oxford to create the Rhodes Scholarship, died young in Mr. Crowley’s reality and donated all his money to this secret brotherhood (the ‘Otherhood’). Unfortunately, there are significant problems associated with constant revamping of history, and they encounter too many of them.

A few of the stories had an overarching conceit that they were being told by one character in the story to another. “Antiquities” is one of them; I believe the two characters were having a drink together, or something else innocuous. “Missolonghi 1824” is another one of those; the main character is an unnamed poet assumed to be Byron, telling a story in which he encounters a Greek god (perhaps) to a young boy. Even a significant part of “Great Work of Time” was two characters discussing the story, rather than the events actually happening. In that way, I suppose that Mr. Crowley is fond of passive scenes, but I don’t think that makes the stories any less exciting.

In some ways, these are literary fiction stories rather than speculative fiction stories. By that I mean that typically lit-fic stories are concerned with an image, an idea, or a moment in time, rather than a plot, and spec-fic stories of the kind written by Michael Swanwick and Allen Steele are concerned with telling a good tale. These are more similar to Jai Claire’s work, or perhaps the genre- and mind-bending tales of Robert Freeman Wexler. Fans of Charles de Lint will also recognize some of the elements, although Mr. de Lint’s tales are generally gentler. I would definitely not call Mr. Crowley’s work plotless; obviously this isn’t the case, but he’s content to end the stories where they will, rather than tying everything up with a bow. 5/5 stars, and highly recommended to fans of the authors mentioned before, primarily adults.

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