A matter of taste. I guess that's what it must boil down to. Engine Summer is a novel that has, in the two decades it's been out of print, attained a level of "cult classic" standing in SF. Yet reading it for the first time in 2000, I have to say that I found it a cryptic, pretentious slog, although I will happily concede that Crowley conjures up several moments of lyrical beauty. But the story just left me flat and empty. The less sophisticated reader (and who knows, maybe I am one at that) might find himself using terms like "artsy-fartsy." Whatever term you choose, Crowley's overly earnest exercises in visual and thematic poetry too often result in a seemingly pointless narrative undermined by obscurantism and plain old tedium.
Set in Variation #6,497 of a post-apocalyptic future, Engine Summer (the title, we learn, is a bastardization of "indian summer") is narrated by Rush That Speaks, a young boy coming of age in a hippie-esque, communal society known as Little Belaire. Remnants of the distant past, when Earth was inhabited by a race now come to be called "angels," when enormous highways stretched from horizon to horizon, when amazing technologies brought the entire world together as one — these histories have long since faded into murky legend. Rush is learning to become a Saint, one who engages in "truthful speaking." Immediately Crowley begins to bury his story in airy-fairy mysticism, and we are treated to reams of pompous ramblings like "...For them a secret isn't something they won't tell. For them, a secret is something that can't be told." Clearly this is the sort of storytelling meant to appeal primarily to people deeply enamored of New Age philosophies...or maybe just the kind of people who think anything confusing must by definition be extremely deep. As I am not of that persuasion, then I call "Emperor's New Clothes" on the whole affair. For all of its pretensions, this supposedly profound tale comes off as disappointingly vapid.
Does this mean that I'm the kind of guy who would automatically reject any SF tale with mysticism at its heart? Heck no. A Canticle for Leibowitz, as well as the writings of Philip K. Dick (who, even when he wasn't making much sense either, was still a man who was honestly trying to sort things out), are the kinds of books I think handle these ideas well. And yes, to his credit, Crowley does display a talent for beauty of prose that can be quite breathtaking to read. And I will also happily admit that for the first half of this novel, I cared a great deal about Rush, and had a genuine interest in his quest as he leaves Little Belaire to find both his destiny and his love, the enigmatic girl Once a Day. (Her name doesn't mean what you might think.)
But as the tale wore on, with Crowley reveling in mysteries for the sake of mysteries, I found the story was trying my patience far more than I liked. What a shame. (If anything, this tale reminded me of the equally frustrating works of Alan Garner, some of whose books say nothing at all to me yet seem to have a fervent following in some circles.) Look, some of you out there may find Engine Summer to be the very quintessence of literary brilliance, and maybe I'm just a rationalist dullard who simply doesn't Get It. In the end, maybe the fact that Engine Summer is the kind of novel that attracts a heated polarity of opinion is the quality that ultimately legitimizes it as art, moreso than any of its self-satisfied metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. As always, you be the judge.