The Deep (1975) was John Crowley's first published novel and his first of three SF works from the 70s (The Deep, Beasts, Engine Summer). He is best known for Engine Summer (1979) and his complex/literary fantasy - Little, Big (1981) and the Ægypt sequence (1987-2007). In the two novels of his I've read (the other is Beasts), Crowley's prose is characterized by an almost icy detachment, an adept construction of unusual images, and dialogue that says only what is needed.
The Deep deploys, in minimalistic fashion, the standard tropes of the fantasy genre mixed with distinctly SF elements: namely, an android visitor whose blood "was alive -- it flowed in tiny swirls ever, like oil in alcohol, but finer, blue within crimson" (1). The world itself is fashioned like a game. The players are arrayed across the surfaces of a pillar that rises upward and is surrounded by the eponymous chasm, the Deep. The characters move across the landscape in the methodically-structured dance of a game -- each action reeks of cyclical timelessness, endlessly played and replayed, played and replayed. The being that fashions such choreographed destruction clutches the cosmic pillar -- a re-imagined Yggdrasil -- from below, wreathed in the deep, twined like the Norse serpent Nidhogg, the Hateful Striker.
Everyone besides the Visitor seems aware that their parts have been played again and again. They are content to repeat the same empty yet impassioned motions. They are content to strive for glory knowing that once the balance is askew the Just will set them aright -- with the Gun.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
The novel begins with the discovery of the android Visitor, who is "neither male nor female," by two Endwives, who care for the wounded and the dead caused by the endless struggles between the Reds and the Blacks. The society on the pillar is feudal in nature. The Blacks and the Reds, called the Protectors, evoke old claims for the throne in continuous back-and-forth maneuvering for the ear of the king and even the throne itself. The Just "protect" the common Folk by assassinating key players who are selected by lot by their sexless and mysterious leader, the Neither-nor.
The other power are the Grays who arbitrate the law, collate knowledge, and slowly uncover obscured carvings in their indomitable keep that illustrate the cyclical workings of the world: "crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children's cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude [...] Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts. Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one's body to feed the fire burning in this one's crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance" (30).
Soon the Visitor, who relearns speech from the Endwives, is discovered by Falcounred, a lesser noble who owes his allegiance to Redhand. The Visitor is exposed to the complex machinations of the Blacks and Reds -- Crowley bases their conflict on events from the English War of the Roses. The exact lineages, figures, battles -- although discussed at length -- are not the main movements of the plot. Rather, the Visitor, as he experiences more of the world in the employ of the Reds, soon learns his origins and purpose.
I found the sculptured landscape -- the plain called the Drumskin, where the battles are waged; the lip that surrounds the edge of the word; the circular lake surrounded by mountains whose single island contains the residence of the King; the increasing decay that inundates the landscape as one moves outward towards the edge; the deep abyss that surrounds the pillar; the movement of the stars -- incredibly evocative. The reader watches the action unfold below, like the hypnotized audience of a chess game. But there is only one player... The Leviathan wrapped around the pillar. The Visitor, initially ignorant of the world, is a cypher for the reader who slowly learns the workings of the board.
For fans of literary fantasy and SF. Crowley's early visions are not to be missed. Perhaps not as intriguing or as complex as Beasts, The Deep will transfix the diligent reader.