Primer: Gene Wolfe - The Subtle Master
That Gene Wolfe is one of the grand masters of science fiction and fantasy is a fact disputed by few. Michael Swanwick called him “the greatest writer in the English language alive today.” Patrick O’Leary called him “the best writer alive. Period.” China Mieville called him “a god” and said, “He is one of the great living authors.” Ursula K Le Guin has called him “our Melville.”
As a fan, I though it only fair that I devote at least one column to talking about Wolfe and his books. The Book of the New Sun is one of the seminal works of fantasy, and his other explorations are well worth reading for those interested in seeing some of the best the genre has to offer.
What impresses me the most about Gene Wolfe is his absolute confidence as a writer. What he writes is often dense, but he doesn’t dumb it down for the reader in any way. He gives you all you need to understand what’s going on, but not a drop more. If you’re not paying close enough attention, you’ll miss what’s happening. It’s masterful control. In writing, so much of the time the struggle is to pare things down, to trim off the excess words. Wolfe handles that part particularly well.
Wolfe also frequently employs the use of the unreliable narrator. Many of his books are told from the first person perspective, and the reader sometimes spends as much time digesting what isn’t being said as they do what is.
Many refer to what he writes as puzzles, but I think that’s a disservice. That assumes that there’s one right, final shape that the stories are assembled into. I think he works in layers, and the more you read and reread, the more those layers are revealed. And you can take or leave them as you like. If you want to delve into the Catholic symbolism, for example, in The Book of the New Sun, you can. It’s not necessary to your enjoyment of the books, but there are rewards for returning to the text and, in my opinion, those are the types of books we should treasure.
Wolfe has a wonderful corpus of work available, some of which I’ve read, some of which I’ve yet to. The trick with Gene Wolfe is deciding whether to read something new, or to delve back into something you’ve read before. But for the purposes of this primer, I’ve decided to highlight three of his best fantasy works.
The Book of the New Sun
Wolfe is perhaps best known for this series of four books and one coda (which he later spun off into two more series, The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun). Beginning with The Shadow of the Torturer, The Book of the New Sun is a Dying Earth story, set in a time when humanity is part of a decadent society living under a red sun. There are science fiction elements in the world--aliens and spacecraft--but it has a fantastical feel, with a blurring between technology and magic.
The books follow Severian, a young Torturer of the Guild of Torturers (or the Seekers for Truth and Penitence), from his childhood as an apprentice to his manhood and greater positions of power. Severian’s journey is a long and winding one, bringing him in contact with a cast of colorful characters whose orbit he sometimes gets stuck in.
Severian’s journey begins with a betrayal to his Guild. His punishment is that he’s sent to become an executioner in the town of Thrax. Such is Wolfe’s style that Severian doesn’t take up that position until the beginning of the third book in the series, The Sword of the Lictor. This is a hallmark of Wolfe’s writing--characters set out for places or to complete actions and take long meandering paths to get there. By the time you’ve forgotten where they were going, they arrive.
The books are dense and definitely reward rereading. Wolfe’s worldbuilding is astounding, and he repurposes old words to create an almost new language for the world. Other books might spend much of their time on exposition, but Wolfe largely depends on context to bring the reader through, and new meanings are usually picked up on subsequent readings.
As mentioned, Severian is an unreliable narrator. While he has an eidetic memory and can recall everything that has happened to him with clarity, his description of events often differ from the way they are depicted. Inconsistencies appear giving the impression that Severian is prevaricating either intentionally or otherwise. For example, early in the first book he tells us about an apparently chaste relationship he had with a certain female character. Later, he lets slip a mention about kissing her breasts, implying that the relationship was, at some point, sexual and not chaste as originally described.
Severian is sympathetic (mostly), but his narration often veers into the philosophical and his relation of the events surrounding him give very little evidence of his true personality. But we see his actions and the way that he describes them, and he provides a wonderful lens through which to view the story and the world.
The joy of the series, though, is how deep and layered it is. It may not be an easy read, but it rewards your time. The first time I read through it, I thought I glimpsed the overall shape of the story. But The Book of the New Sun is almost fractal. You can zoom in, delve deeper, and continue to come up with shape and meaning. If you don’t like working hard in reading fiction, don’t even give this one a try. But if you, like me, are excited by making new connections and working to pull as much as you can from the text, this is a treasure trove.
I could write a whole column on The Book of the New Sun, several columns in fact, but suffice it to say that I think it’s Wolfe’s magnum opus. It’s the series I continue to return to and probably the one he will be best known for. I don’t think there’s anything else like it in the field. The first two books have been collected in one volume, Shadow and Claw, while the last two books are collected in Sword and Citadel. A coda volume, The Urth of the New Sun, wraps up some of the loose ends in the series.
There are also two volumes of commentary to help with the analysis of the text--Lexicon Urthus by Michael Andre-Driussi and Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski. I don’t always agree with some of the theories put forth about the books, but they often serve as a great jumping off point for my own explorations.
“Dr. Talos leaned toward her, and it struck me that his face was not only that of a fox (a comparison that was perhaps too easy to make because his bristling reddish eyebrows and sharp nose suggested it at once) but that of a stuffed fox. I have heard those who dig for their livelihood say there is no land anywhere in which they can trench without turning up shards of the past. No matter where the spade turns the soil, it uncovers broken pavements and corroded metal; and scholars write that the kind of sand that artists call polychrome (because flecks of every colour are mixed with its whiteness) is actually not sand at all, but the glass of the past, now pounded by aeons of tumbling in the clamorous sea. If there are layers of reality beneath the reality we see, even as there are layers of history beneath the ground we walk upon, then in one of those more profound realities, Dr. Talos's face was a fox's mask on a wall, and I marveled to see it turn and bend now toward the woman, achieving by those motions, which make expression and thought appear to play across it with the shadows of nose and brows, and amazing and realistic appearance of vivacity.”
- The Shadow of the Torturer
The Wizard Knight
Though this was published as two volumes, The Knight and The Wizard, it really makes up one novel. Again, Wolfe returns to the unreliable narrator, this time a young boy who is transported to a magical fantasy world. The boy becomes a knight, Sir Able of the High Heart, and must not only navigate the world in which he finds himself, but the worlds connected to it.
One of the benefits of The Wizard Knight is that it’s far more accessible than The Book of the New Sun. It’s not a shallow experience by any means, but you can pick it up and read it, front to back, and understand everything that’s going on.
Wolfe draws on Norse myth to create these worlds. Able lands in Mythgarthr, the equivalent of Midgard, which is just one of seven worlds. And while Norse mythology informs the cosmology, the society on Mythgarthr is more inspired by Arthurian legend, filled with knights and monsters. Able decides that he not only wants to be a knight, but that he will be a knight, and sets off on a journey to do just that.
One of the interesting things about these books is that the interpretations differ wildly. Some seem to find it a straight take on becoming a knight, on acting with honor and becoming a hero. Others seem to think that it subverts that idea, since, especially in the beginning, Able often acts like a bully and seems to think that might makes right, and offers to do some downright immoral acts.
My opinion is that it’s more complex than that. I think Wolfe is not simply making one bold statement, but a number of smaller ones. And just because Able might not start out as a real hero, though he is often recognized as such, that doesn’t mean he can’t experience a transformation along the way.
Wolfe, as is his practice, plays with the narrative a lot here, never really following a linear story. For example, Able might be headed off to a big battle in one chapter. In the following chapter, we pick up afterwards and the events of the battle are filled in via flashback or through dialogue. It’s best to trust that Wolfe will give us all the details, just maybe not in the order that we are expecting.
Able also often shies away from telling us or the other characters certain things. Many of the characters get distracted in the course of dialogue. A question may be posed in one chapter and not responded to until several later. Some might find this infuriating, but the information we need is given, when Wolfe wants to give it.
There are a few things about the books that seem a bit odd, though. Able, in his original Earthly form, is supposed to be sixteen, yet his voice sometimes seems to be much younger than that, and from an older age (despite references to Macs and other modern conveniences). And Able in the fantasy world is not only gifted physically, but manages to collect an almost ludicrous number of human and supernatural allies along his rather meandering path.
Still, Wolfe gives us a lot to chew on in this duology and his fantasy world is a delight. In fact, I found myself wanting less of the knights and more of the mysterious Aelf and the Overcyns of Skai.
“I woke up in a cave by the sea, where an old lady with too many teeth sat spinning; and when I had pulled myself together and found my stick, I asked where we were, trying to be as polite as I could. "Can you tell me what place this is, ma'am, and how to get to Griffinsford from here?" For some reason I thought Griffinsford was where we lived, Ben, and I still do not remember the real name. Maybe it really is Griffinsford. They are all mixed up.
The old lady shook her head.
"Do you know how I got here?"
She laughed, and the wind and the sea were in it; she was the spray, and the waves that broke outside her cave. When I talked to her, I was talking to them. That was how I felt. Does it sound crazy? I had been crazy since I was born, and now I was sane and it felt wonderful. The wind and the waves were sitting in that cave with me twisting thread, and nature was not something outside anymore. She was a big part of it, and I was a little part of it, and I had been gone too long. Later Garsecg said the sea had healed me.
I went to the mouth of the cave and waded out until the water came up to my waist; but the only things I could see were cliffs hanging over her cave, deep blue water farther out, gulls, and jagged black rocks like dragons' teeth. The old woman said, "You must wait for the slack of the tide."
I came back, sea-wet to my armpits. "Will it be long?"
After that I just leaned on my stick and watched her spin, trying to figure out what it was that she was turning into string and why it made the noises it did. Sometimes it seemed like there were faces in it and arms and legs coming out of it.
"You are Able of the High Heart."
That got my attention, and I told her my old name.
Up to then, she had never looked away from her spinning. "What I say aright, do not you smite," she told me.
I said I was sorry.
"Some loss must be, so this I decree: the lower your lady the higher your love." She stopped spinning to smile at me. I knew she meant it to be friendly, but her teeth were terrible and looked as sharp as razors. She said, "There must be a forfeit for insolence, and since that's how it usually is, that one shouldn't do much harm."
That was how I got my name changed.
She went back to spinning, but it looked like she was reading her thread. "You shall sink before you rise, and rise before you sink."
- The Knight
The Sorcerer’s House
If The Wizard Knight is more accessible than The Book of the New Sun, The Sorcerer’s House is more accessible still. I originally opened it on the subway and ended up finishing it in hours.
Once again Wolfe gives us an unreliable narrator, this time in the form of Baxter (Bax) Dunn, a man recently released from prison, who tells us the story in epistolary format. Occasionally included are letters from some of the other characters.
Bax ends up in a small Midwestern American town, staying in a motel until he finds a large, empty house in that he considers squatting in. Later, he finds out that the home has mysteriously been left to him. When he moves in, he starts meeting strange, supernatural creatures and realizes that the house is bigger on the inside than it seems.
Twins abound in the story, and there’s plenty of mistaken identity, giving it a very dreamlike quality. Events at first seem unconnected, but as the novel progresses we see some meaning within them until everything comes together in the end.
As mentioned, this has all the typical hallmarks of a Wolfe novel, but is much lighter and requires a lot less work. Which isn’t to say you wouldn’t get more out of it the second time around, but that the connections are more obvious here. Neil Gaiman (to whom the novel is dedicated) says in his review on Goodreads (yes he reviewed it there), “I think the book, like the house, is bigger than it first appears.” And later, “I love that a lazy reader would read a book that is not as good as the one that Gene Wolfe wrote, while a reader who is working gets a book that, like the Sorcerer’s House itself, appears small and straightforward, and then grows on the inside.”
Now about the house. Please pay attention. It is important to me at least.
It stands half a mile, perhaps, from the Riverman. I had noticed it more than once, a white house in good repair but a house that had clearly been vacant for some time. A few windows were boarded up, and the lawn was full of weeds; a few days ago, I investigated further.
The front door was locked, as I expected. The back door was locked also; but a small side door had been broken open. I went in. A vagrant had certainly camped in the house at one time. He had built a fire in one of the fireplaces, had cooked on it, and had slept, apparently, on a thin pad of newspapers laid before it. The papers were more than a year old.
It occurred to me, George, that I might do the same. There were disadvantages, true. There was no running water, and no electricity.
Ah, but consider the advantages! No rent to pay. None at all. Several rooms at my disposal instead of one small bedchamber. No sinister landlord lurking over my shoulder. I moved in the next day.
Long before I had gotten settled, it had occurred to me that I should make the place as respectable as possible. Thus I would be seen by my few neighbors as the legitimate occupant of the house. No one calls the police because a house holder is living in a house.
Not long before dawn I was awakened by stealthy footsteps. Throwing aside the blankets I had taken from the Riverman, I rose and found my flashlight. The tread was light, but very real. Several persons were walking about upstairs.
There is only one stair in the house, or so I believed at the time. I mounted it step by slow step, making no more noise than absolutely necessary. With every step a new question occurred to me.
Who were the intruders?
What did they want?
Were they armed?
How might I expel them without making enemies?
None of which were in the least relevant. I saw the glow of a candle and directed the beam of my flashlight toward it. The intruder who held it dropped the candleholder with a bang (at which the candle went out), and fled toward a window, dashing through it as though it had been an open door.”
- The Sorcerer’s House
There are, of course, other works by Wolfe that I’m not covering here. Many, like The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, and Pirate Freedom, I haven’t gotten to yet. Others like There Are Doors, and his short stories I have read and are well worth your time.
If I were to say anything critical about Wolfe it would be that with all these unreliable narrators, there can be something of a sameness to them after a time. Many of them are written with a kind-of naivete. Sometimes they all seem like man-children. And yet women are often clamoring to jump into bed with them. From Severian to Able to Bax, they are forced to turn away as many women as they sleep with. It can be a bit distracting, this tendency toward writing Gary Stu characters, but thankfully those moments are quickly swallowed up again by his wonderful writing and the captivating worlds he creates.
I’ll leave you with a short piece from Neil Gaiman on Wolfe as his fiction.
How to read Gene Wolfe:
1) Trust the text implicitly. The answers are in there.
2) Do not trust the text farther than you can throw it, if that far. It's tricksy and desperate stuff, and it may go off in your hand at any time.
3) Reread. It's better the second time. It will be even better the third time. And anyway, the books will subtly reshape themselves while you are away from them. Peace really was a gentle Midwestern memoir the first time I read it. It only became a horror novel on the second or the third reading.
4) There are wolves in there, prowling behind the words. Sometimes they come out in the pages. Sometimes they wait until you close the book. The musky wolf-smell can sometimes be masked by the aromatic scent of rosemary. Understand, these are not today-wolves, slinking grayly in packs through deserted places. These are the dire-wolves of old, huge and solitary wolves that could stand their ground against grizzlies.
5) Reading Gene Wolfe is dangerous work. It's a knife-throwing act, and like all good knife-throwing acts, you may lose fingers, toes, earlobes or eyes in the process. Gene doesn't mind. Gene is throwing the knives.
6) Make yourself comfortable. Pour a pot of tea. Hang up a DO NOT DISTURB sign. Start at Page One.
7) There are two kinds of clever writer. The ones that point out how clever they are, and the ones who see no need to point out how clever they are. Gene Wolfe is of the second kind, and the intelligence is less important than the tale. He is not smart to make you feel stupid. He is smart to make you smart as well.
8) He was there. He saw it happen. He knows whose reflection they saw in the mirror that night.
9) Be willing to learn.
Photo by 8 Eyes Photography
To leave a comment