In 1990, Great Work of Time won the World Fantasy Award for best novella. I’m surprised someone hasn’t snapped up John Crowley’s short book, given it a glossy steampunk cover, and re-released it. Of course it isn’t steampunk. John Crowley’s work doesn’t fit easily into any sub-genre except Things John Crowley Has Written. Still, Great Work of Time has enough of the British Empire, airships, alternate histories, train terminals, misty London cityscapes, and men with bowler hats and tightly furled umbrellas to justify a steampunk cover, which might introduce a whole new generation of readers to this unusual and powerful writer.
Great Work of Time starts with a forest under the sea. Or maybe starts with Caspar Last, an impoverished genius. Last has invented a way to travel in time. It is not a machine, at least not in the sense of toothed wheels, cogs, and flashing lights. After much detailed thought, Caspar figures out a way to go into the past and create a situation that will garner him, in his present timeline, “a nice bit of change.” In 1986, Caspar does just that.
Or perhaps the story starts with twenty-three-year-old Denys Winterset, in 1956, in a British Empire upon which the sun has never set. Denys, posted to a docile, British-dominated Africa, plans to go home for the holidays. He takes the Cape-to-Cairo train, noticing the young couple in the car with him:
Denys watched them and their excitement, feeling old and wise. Americans, doubtless; they had that shy, inoffensive air of all Americans abroad, that wondering quality of children let out from a dark and oppressive school to play in the sun.
In Khartoum, awaiting his dawn airship ride to London, Denys is approached by George Davenant, who invites him to dinner. Davenant regales Denys with stories of grand adventures, but he also seems to know a lot about Denys, which causes Denys some discomfort. Davenant acknowledges this himself, and then spins the wildest tale of all. What if there were, he asks, a secret society dedicated to keeping the world on track, or at least on track for the British Empire. What if the agents of that society could move not only geographically, but temporally? Denys leaves the dinner clutching a strange key, half-convinced that the whole episode is a dream.
Our present stretches out in a line. Our past and future lie, not behind and before it, but at right angles to it. It is this strange geometry that allows the President pro tem of the Otherhood (their Presidents are always pro tem) to visit Caspar Last in 1986, and Cecil Rhodes in 1896, and a timeless city in a nameless time, where he meets a magus and an angel. It is this strange geometry that allows this secret society of time travelers to keep the British Empire alive. At the center of the story is a plot conjured by the Otherhood to kill Cecil Rhodes, twelve years before his natural death, to protect an endowment Rhodes has left them in his will, and prevent a timeline that includes two world wars, upheaval and revolution, untold death and misery. Crowley portrays Rhodes, most famous for the Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford, a businessman, visionary and bigot, as a man standing on that right angle of history, poised at an historical crossroads he himself cannot see.
Crowley never forsakes his love of words. Names matter, as jokes or allusions, adding depth to the complicated work. “Caspar Last” evokes the Three Magi, and there are magi in this story. It also evokes the mysterious Kaspar Hauser, who appeared from nowhere one day on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany in 1828. “Last” is the ultimate, the final. It’s also a verb meaning to continue or survive. The Otherhood calls the time travel apparatus, whatever it is, “The Last Equipment.”
Toward the end of the book, a member of the Otherhood explains how it feels to travel to a point in time and change history, and feel it change around you:
… I knew, you see, what it meant that I let slip the moment; that now I could not go back the way I had come. The world had opened for a moment, and I and my companions had gone down through it to this time and place; and now it had closed over me, seamless and whole.
Whole, or hole? Both.
The words don’t always cast allusions or have double meanings. Sometimes they just bring beauty:
As the train chugged out across the span, aimed at Cairo thousands of miles away, passing here the place hard-sought-after a hundred years ago — the place where the Nile had its start — the spray did fall on the train just as Cecil Rhodes had imagined it, flung spindrift hissing on the locomotive, drops speckling the window they looked out of, and rainbowing the white air. The young Americans were still with wonder, and Denys, too, felt a lifting of his heart.
Crowley’s roots are in fantasy but his more recent works have been literary without much of the fantastical. What a joy it is to go back to a piece like Great Work of Time and see the concepts and conceits he will expand on in The Aegypt Quartet and The Translator. This book is not just a literary footnote in the career of an extraordinary writer. For all my earlier joking about steampunk, this story has plenty to say to readers who love the “what-if” game of history. There is talk that several African nations plan to work together to build a Cape-to-Cairo railway. Perhaps it is time to bring this slender book back.