Review of Innocents Aboard: New Fantasy Stories by Gene Wolfe

Innocents Aboard is the first short story collection by Wolfe I’ve read. It is a diverse helping of mind-altering tales.

Ranging from Melville satire to Egyptian myth and Chinese folktale, a plethora of ghost stories and atypical Arthurian fantasy, with a few Biblical allegories thrown in. Story after story, I was constantly surprised, and typically scribbling with a pencil in the margins. The intrigue is all-consuming and the mystique is alive and well.

If you are familiar with his novels you might recognize some settings, but these 22 stories, as far as I can tell, manage to stand on their own. At the heart of each is a deep mystery, and though we are given many hints, we are often left with a partial picture of events. Only Wolfe could turn a tale about a person who steals underwear into cosmic horror. There are also moments of magical realism and adventure to be found. In short, I never knew what to expect.

Constellation origin stories, paganism, cannibalism, astral projection, time travel, bullying, witches, talking animals – you name it, Gene Wolfe has probably used it in one of his stories. But these strange occurrences are never the central focus of the storytelling. Wolfe decides instead to pursue character studies and wold-building through shifts in tone and perspective which are both jarring and revealing. They lend themselves well to re-reading and multiple interpretations in the author’s typical fashion.

If you read them for surface level stories alone, you’d be missing half the content. Nearly all of them operate with something like an undertext and overtext. The subtext is just as important as the Ur-text. That is to say, the travails of the protagonist are often all symbolic in nature. While entertaining, it is occasionally hard to describe why they do what they do unless greater forces beyond their control are subtly at work.

I’m no Wolfe expert (is anyone?) but I am quickly becoming a raving enthusiast.

Review of The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe

I enjoy a good fantastical forest novel as much as the next guy.

Gene Wolfe’s dependably polished writing delivers thrills and chills in this relatively early work. Set alongside Fifth Head of Cerberus, and Peace, The Devil in a Forest reads almost like children’s literature. That is not to say that it is not well-conceived and substantial. However, it is pretty straightforward in its plot and characters. It conveys many traditional storytelling devices through effective dialogue and complex motivations, and is reminiscent of Robin Hood. (Just don’t go walking into a forest alone if you live in Dark Ages Europe).

Truth is an elusive specter in this murder-filled adventure. The perspective is skewed by narrative distance and enhanced by precise description. Historically accurate weapons and surgery places these events some time in the remote past, more pagan than Christian. This is a time for alchemy and witches to hold sway over superstitious townsfolk. Wolfe peppers the dialogue with subtle variance – not a real language barrier by any means, but just enough archaism to flavor and flesh-out the characters.

For a pulp s-f, pseudo-obscure adventure tale the prose is too heady. For canon Gene Wolfe readers, this is definitely a minor work, reading more like the aborigine section of Fifth Head of Cerberus than otherwise. I was nonetheless intrigued and enthused by the quick pace, the mysterious atmosphere and the careful world-building. I become a bigger Wolfe fan with every foray into his oeuvre , but this is not the place to start if you are new.

The Barrow Man and lady Cloot were enjoyable versions of medieval legends/ folktale elements. Without them, this book would have bordered on pedestrian. It needed an infusion of magical realism, to undercut the vicious backwoods mentality of its characters. Make it a point not to miss this delightful novel.

Review of Endangered Species by Gene Wolfe

I would question anyone who reads this whole book and fails to rate it 5 stars. What are you looking for in fiction?

Sophisticated characters, complex subtexts, compulsively readable science fiction themes, lighthearted fantasy, excellent world-building, truly immaculate imagery, well-defined dramatic scenes, a huge variety of motifs, atmosphere and tense dichotomies? The list could go on and on. Stretched over 500 pages, this more than generous helping of Genius Wolfe is enough to satisfy anyone.

In 34 stories, Wolfe displays his brilliance on several levels. His usual fascination with ghosts runs through many stories, including a breathtaking traditional literary ghost story and a space opera that plays out as effectively as George R. R. Martin’s Nightflyers. Many of the stories are long and incredibly engaging. Each has unexpected twists and mesmerizing, subliminal suggestions. I was bowled over by the completely convincing Dickens homage. There is also a ghost story that read like a Somerset Maugham tale. There were a few interconnected stories related to the Solar Cycle and the mythology of Thag. You will encounter anthropophagi and anti-matter entities, robots and rampaging unicorns, post-apocalyptic struggles and straightforward insurance fraud. There have been stories of synthetic human war machines and interdimensional battles with magical creatures before, but no one tells them quite like Wolfe. I was enchanted by the Arabesque and moved by the many interlaced storytelling elements throughout. This work represents a career well-realized and a talent well-developed.

Wolfe has an expert’s understanding of science fiction’s underpinnings, and displays them by incorporating microuniverses, macro DNA strands and genetic modifications. He ropes in traditional fantasy storytelling, epic space action, and parodies. His work is known for allegory and Biblical themes, and many can be found herein. Yet, it is not easy to pinpoint some of his references, and true to form, he leaves many pieces and strings for the reader to work out upon reflection. Speculation is part of the fun, whether a character’s existence is called into question, or the reader must doubt another character’s perception or sanity, this is part of the process of digesting these vivid creations and deriving the every bit of intellectual stimulation out of them as you can. Like all of his stories I’ve read so far, I think I’ll be revisiting this collection.

Review of An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe

“Money is an evil guest.”

Gene Wolfe can write in any genre he desires, I suppose. This book was a noir with subtle science fiction elements. The blurbs and book jacket call it Lovecraftian horror, which is a lie. You can expect 95% dialogue, well-polished, for about 250 pages, and the final 50 pages reward you with a surprising, even shocking, ending.

The best part of the book is the main character, Cassie Casey, who is a well-rounded (voluptuous), smart, funny, charming, likeable, up-and-coming actress, who stumbles into a conspiracy of cosmic significance. Her run-ins with rich bastards and slick sorcerers, and later, vicious islanders, make for an occasionally harrowing drama. But for the bulk of the novel you will be piecing together the plot elements through Wolfe’s effective dialogue, which only reveals enough background to draw you into the tale. What it does on the surface level is establish deep characters, with complex motivations – enough for any fan of pulp noir.

Written with the simplicity and pace of a Philip K. Dick novel, Gene Wolfe afficionados and neophytes alike will appreciate a breather from his near-incomprehensible world-building. This was a refreshing, easy, compelling and surprising read, even if it lacked the abyss-like depth of Wolfe’s masterpieces.

A close examination of his themes and devices reveals far more hidden meanings in the characters’ names and “metamorphoses” than I gathered from my reading – as usual, I had to look them up. Wolfe, the sorcerer himself, doesn’t disappoint on this score. But one can’t help but wonder about Woldercan and many of the unexplored “islands” of this book. How much of the interior and exterior universe do we actually get to see? Very little. He maintains a close perspective, and limits himself to cast an aura of historical nostalgia. It would be a simple matter to dismiss this as a minor work, a mere curiosity in Wolfe’s disturbing cabinet of secrets.

Yet, the dialogue-heavy explication does undermine the author’s typically genius plot cues. We are given an Idiot’s Guide through the characters’s anxious dialogues. Cassie is still figuring out the scenario along with the reader. But I think this is more playful sleight-of-hand on Wolfe’s part. How are you supposed to notice the influences outside the narrator’s field of vision? Luckily, we are presented with a wider view at the end of the book. I think this abrupt shift in perspective saved this book from being ordinary, though it will bother some readers, who were enjoying the simplicity preceding it.

A memorable, exciting and still profound book by a grandmaster of the bizarre.

Review of Interlibrary Loan by Gene Wolfe

Sequel to Wolfe’s bizarre The Borrowed Man. Both orchestrated typical sleights of hand on my psyche. 

It is possible to get immersed in the surface-level narrative of a man who gets checked out from the library which is his institution of residence as a re-cloned mystery writer. Adventure ensures. But it is also possible you will fail to care for the seemingly inconsequential universe Wolfe has crafted in this one. However, the subtext, occasionally impenetrable, is strangely lacking in epic scale here. This side effect has occurred in me before, and the only remedy is rereading the book.

When Faulkner was asked what someone should do if they read his book twice and didn’t understand it, that author replied they should read it a third time. I would advise most people to practice the same exercise upon Wolfe’s books, if they have the patience. Nonetheless, there was a mythic quality to the latter part of the Borrowed Man not quite present here – perhaps merely suggested, like background radiation – and though it is entertaining to follow the quirky characters, the world they inhabit is a tad colder, less infused with the sinister undercurrent of a science fiction mythos. Any addition to the Wolfe canon is invaluable, so I was pleased to read this book, even if it could have gone further and done more. I still recommend it over Pandora. I’m glad Wolfe didn’t dabble too much in Noir, though to say he dabbled at all is grossly incorrect. I’m forever an incurable, raving fan of the author. You may want to consider checking this one out (pun intended) instead of buying. Since I have 35 books in my Gene Wolfe collection I’m tempted to get it for closure. Let us all mourn the passing of S-f’s grandmaster of dense world building and architecturally stunning storytelling.

Review of The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

I don’t feel qualified to give a comprehensive review of this book. It is only the 2nd book of Gene Wolfe’s I’ve read, and the first I’ve come close to understanding. 

 I think this must be a better book to begin with though, than his Book of the New Sun series. I am a big fan of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series and Wolfe’s is similar in setting but not in tone. You get a lot of humor in Vance, and almost no humor in Wolfe – so far. Or at least the humor partakes of the same dense opacities as the rest of the book’s literary ingredients. It is hard to tell what is meant as truth or misconception, and many readers have found this to be part of the fun.

Wolfe ties together many deep themes, wild characters, and disarming alien descriptions alongside droll pseudo-reminiscences. He touches on Imperialism, genetic modification, interplanetary travel, sibling relationships, folklore, shapeshifting creatures, ghosts and many more intriguing elements, but only through hints and by undermining your expectations. The plot is only discoverable beneath a riptide of otherworldly richness, of bizarre, hallucinogenic revelations, and if swallowed half-digested and barely understood, it can still be incredibly interesting.

When the story flips to the perspective of the aborigines, I was treated to an intense array of breathtaking surprises. The reader is left questioning who is the actual protagonist of this story, and who’s version of reality can be believed.

The two nearby planets the author describes each have their own philosophy, anthropology, and history, and in the famous Wolfian fashion, none of it is readily discernible, except through subtle insinuations. This puzzle-narrative technique ceaselessly sabotages the reader’s attempts at interpretation. Like the characters themselves, the reader is forced to undergo an investigation of the facts provided, and is left to draw their own conclusions.

The author might have split up the book into 3 separate novellas, but that would not have aided much in how approachable they are. Taken together they enlarge upon their interior modus operandi in unique ways. This extraordinary interaction within the texts may never have been incorporated into literature before or since. I will have to examine his New Sun series at length to see if it lives up to his layered accomplishment with “Cerberus.”

The intelligence of the structure, the imaginative setting, and the elegant descriptions are enough to impress any fan of science fiction. If you do not mind Wolfe’s trickery, I think that there is a great deal of enjoyment to be gained from this book. Keep in mind this was written very early in his career, and he had only begun to experiment…

Review of Peace by Gene Wolfe

ISBN 0312890338 (ISBN13: 9780312890339)

I never expected so much depth. While it is barely Science Fiction, it is most certainly literature of the highest caliber.

Like Faulkner, Wolfe constantly cripples the reader’s understanding with his obscure perspectives and elegant suggestion. Chronology and irony are never explicit, and characters are always hiding pieces of their personalities. In a way entirely unique to his oeuvre, Wolfe invents layers beneath the surface narratives – stories surrounding an enigmatic core, like onion-skin.

After finishing Fifth Head of Cerberus, I was already convinced that he had deliberately designed a multi-dimensional masterpiece. Possibly even more thoroughly with Peace, he manages to make good on his techniques, and to deepen the modus operandi. We are forced to dig to uncover the rippling insinuations of his world.

A second or third reading will likely reveal more puzzles and subtexts to the seemingly innocuous, and tenuously connected stories of fragmented memories, contradictory doctor visits, Midwestern town life, the nearly Victorian tale of a porcelain egg, an homage to the Arabian Nights and the undercurrent of human deception cutting through it all.

Structured like a memoir, Wolfe’s style is never forced, and is always confidently stringing the reader along, no matter how thoroughly razzled your flailing body becomes. It is nonetheless a fascinating joyride, an imaginative dream, half-remembered but sprinkled with divine joy and profound sadness. Witness his use of playful fairy tale, and his staggering ability to engross and entertain you. His voices will haunt you, like the ghosts and banshees in his books, because of the uncanny magic of ‘what they know.’ Wolfe excels at dangling the forbidden fruit of knowledge before the reader. All you are allowed is a taste, but it is enough to realize the breadth of mystery inherent in any imperfect being’s conception of the universe.