In post-holocaust novels, humanity has been wiped out in many different ways—ecological calamity, nuclear warfare, extraterrestrial invasion, and so on. The special turn that Engine Summer takes on this subgenre is that it does not emphasize the process of destruction; instead, it focuses on the way of life of the survivors. Further, the world is not presented in a coherent form by an omniscient narrator. As in Russell Hobans Riddley Walker (1980), another post-holocaust novel, readers themselves reconstruct the lost world from what the narrator reveals.
At the basic narrative level, Engine Summer reveals several forms of technological adaptation. The people of the Warren live largely unconcerned with the angels, as they had gone separate ways even before the Storm. Pieces of angel technology are worth saving as curiosities, but the people of the Warren do not seek them out. They value knowledge, even angel knowledge, but only if it serves wisdom.
The people of Dr. Boots’s List, on the other hand, gather and proudly use the artifacts, even those they barely understand. They treasure most the machine that stores the mind of Dr. Boots, though their encounter with it leaves them passive and accepting of a static way of life amid the angel ruins. Later, the depiction of Teeplee, whose entire existence is given over to scavenging angel artifacts, is a commentary on the pointlessness of Dr. Boots’s List.
Finally, the angels themselves, heirs to technological perfection, can be seen only as selfish and inhumanly cruel. Although Mongolfier takes a heroic risk to record Rush’s mind, he is not typical of his kind. The rest remain in their flying city, far above the dangers and ills of Earth, experiencing only through the mind of Rush what a real life might be like. They wake him century after century, unwilling to erase him from the machine and end his agony. He will live indefinitely in a kind of Indian summer, what his people mistakenly call engine summer.
An author of both science fiction and fantasy, John Crowley has one of the finest prose styles of his generation, and his closely textured fiction invites several levels of interpretation. Perhaps it is for these reasons that his output has been comparatively small—no more than a handful of novels and several story collections in a career that started in 1975 with his first science-fiction novel, The Deep.