'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

They Have A Computer With A Spell Checker, And What More Do They Need?

Most would-be writers fail because they're not willing to do the work and learn. They have a computer with a spell checker, and what more do they need? Everything they write should be bought and published. Almost anybody who's willing to write a lot, to try to write well, and to market what he writes succeeds.

Most of writing is easy. Characterization and plotting, which seem to scare a lot of beginners to death, are easily learned and soon become almost automatic. The hard things are telling a good story and writing graceful grammatical prose.

(From An Interview With Gene Wolfe)

Fantasy Is Nearer The Truth Than 'Realistic' Fiction

Your fantasy seems much truer to reality, truer to what we humans experience in this life than most of what passes for realistic, mainstream fiction.

Because fantasy is nearer the truth, that's all. Realistic fiction is typically about a married couple, both college teachers. He's cheating on her with a student, so she cheats on him with whoever's handy. Angst abounds. How true is that story for the bulk of humankind? Realistic fiction leaves out far, far too much. How old is realistic fiction? How old is fantasy?

So mainstream fiction has a tendency to represent a reality that the general public is willing to accept, whereas good fantasy is a reality so near the truth that it must be presented as "make believe" in order to get people to accept it? The only acceptable fantasy is old or distant fantasy. If you are going to look at the sun directly, wear shades—rose-colored sunglasses. Or, you can look at the beautiful image of the sun reflected on a rippling lake.

If you restrict "the public" to the upper middle class, I'm in agreement. I might add that it's far safer to look at the sun reflected in the lake.

(From An Interview With Gene Wolfe)

Come On Gang! Get Real.

The worst student stories as far as I'm concerned are the PC ones. All southerners (sometimes, westerners) are mindless gun-toting slobs and all military officers are evil. So are all corporations, etc. The students have learned to write these because they get good grades from their creative writing profs. The stories get published now and then, too. I read one not long ago in which Italians hated President Bush so much that they killed American tourists to get even with him. In the hope of escaping, some tourists wore buttons: I AM A DEMOCRAT. I'm not terribly fond of Bush myself, but come on gang! Get real.

(From An Interview With Gene Wolfe)

American Illiterate: Advice For Writers On Style, Voice, Characterization, Dialogue

(From An Interview With Gene Wolfe)

Style and voice seem crucial to a short story but are easily turned into abstractions.

Style has become a bucket of worms, thanks to the deteriorating standards of the public schools. The chief style I see in student stories is American Illiterate. It shows up in published stories sometimes too. "Should an enemy warrior cross that line, kill them!" Well, that's okay if the order-giver is an illiterate. Unfortunately, the illiterate is just about always the author. Other than that, the style should suit the story. Imagine The Wings of the Dove as told by Huck Finn.

It would be funny for ten pages, but...

If you're asking about the author's voice, or the narrator's, it's so closely linked to style that I see no point in discussing it separately. If you mean the voice in which each character speaks, each must be different. The butler mustn't sound like the footman, even though neither is an important character. This is one of those truths that students reject out of hand. They reject it because everybody sounds alike.

To them.

Can you describe the process of characterization—from the first glimmers of a character to fully rounded character?

Characterization is easy and rare. It's rare because so many people can't be bothered. You characterize by showing the character acting, talking, or thinking in characteristic fashion. That's all there is to it. Read Dickens, for whom characterization was as natural as breathing.

What makes for effective dialogue?

Oh, my! It must entertain the reader, forward the plot, and characterize the speaker. All pretty much at the same time. It must not be too wordy or too telegraphic; it must sound natural – that is, like something that speaker might say at that time to that person.

Dialogue is action.

Cool Expectations

In general terms, how does a short story work?

By engendering expectations and satisfying them. I told a student once to letter a sign and put it where he'd see it when he wrote: "I AM GOING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING COOL." Later he reported that he had done it, and it had helped immeasurably.

(From An Interview With Gene Wolfe)

I Struggle Against Easy Writing

'I struggle against easy writing. Long ago somebody said, "Easy writing makes damned hard reading." He was right. "Nick was a bad man and a cruel man." That's easy. I know I can't say it at all. I have to show [Nick] being bad and cruel in the context of the story. That's always hard.'

(From An Interview With Gene Wolfe)

And I can truthfully report that Mr. Wolfe practices this 'show not say' writing ethic rigorously (sometimes maddeningly! but always enjoyably and rewardingly) in his body of work.

Hard Places and Unacceptable Truths

Here's a fine summary of Gene Wolfe and his work by Jeremy L. C. Jones (as the intro to his interview with Wolfe):

Gene Wolfe will tell you the truth, in conversation and in fiction, whether you want to hear it or not. He is perhaps best known for his novels set on Urth, including the four-part Book of the New Sun and the four part Book of the Long Sun. He writes fantasy and science fiction, and a grim blend of both that he insists is not horror.

Overall, he writes a story the way it needs to be written and he does so in rich, textured prose that delights on a first and rewards on a second reading.

"The high quality of Gene's prose guaranteed him critical attention," said David Drake, a long-time friend of Wolfe's and author of The Lord of the Isles series and the Hammer Slammers series. "He's also a commercial success, though, which is a very different thing. He's seen enough of life to be able to write about hard places in a fashion to both [speak] to those who've been in them, and to make them vivid to luckier people who haven't personally seen what Gene has."

It's those "hard places" and unacceptable truths that inform even the lightest of Wolfe's narratives. His stories, long and short, can be relentless, brutal, grim, and, word for word, maddeningly beautiful.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Gene Wolfe interview on writing!


Recall The Sea. And Run!

Garsecg said, “Going down may be infinitely easier, Sir Able. Look above you.”

I did. “The black birds?”

“They are not birds... ”

I was thinking it was like a big video game, except I was on the screen. Or virtual reality maybe. I sort of felt my head for the gear, but there was not any and just then a Khimaira swooped down at me, pulling up just before I could grab it, a little starved body, mostly black but red at the cracks, with claws and jaws and black bat wings… I went up about a hundred more steps, and one whished past so close I could smell it. Another went in back of me, and its wing brushed my head.

“Look about you,” Garsecg warned me. “Heeeeaaaar!

I looked back at him instead. Only he was gone, and where he had been there was a kind of alligator with horns, as big as a cow, and ten or twelve legs. The legs had suckers, and all the suckers were grabbing on to the steps. It lashed its tail and raised its head and roared at the Khimairas, snapping at any that came close. Just then one blindsided me. I fell and barely caught the edge of the stair with the fingers of one hand. They were slipping, and I knew I was going to die when a sucker closed around my wrist and heaved me back up onto the steps.

I was still grabbing and shaking when the alligator’s mouth opened and I saw Garsecg’s face inside it. He said, “Recall the sea. And run!”

I was so scared I could hardly stand up, but as soon as I did, a big wave caught me from behind. Do you know what I mean? My legs ached too, but that did not matter. I went up those stairs like I was flying, three steps at a time. They kept hitting me, or trying to, and once I stumbled. But I never stopped until one dropped down on the step ahead of me with a sword in each hand. It was black and all bones and wings, and its lips would not quite cover its teeth. But the eyes seemed wrong. They were those yellow-fire eyes all the Aelf have, even the Kelpies and the ones who gave me Gylf, the same kind of eyes Disiri used to have even when the rest looked just like a human girl. When I looked at them all I could think of was her.

It opened out its wings when it saw I had stopped. With those big black wings open it looked as big as a house. “You musst fight usss.” Its voice was mostly hiss, but you could understand. “Ssee? I have sswordss for uss both.”

It held one out hilt first, but I did not take it. I hit the pommel with the flat of my hand instead and drove the sword backward into the Khimaira’s chest. Its eyes got big and scared then, and stuff that was not quite blood spurted out of the wound, and it fell off the stair. I thought that had been pretty easy, but before I could take another step, five hit me all at once, not to knock me off but grabbing me and lifting. I had one on each leg and one on each arm, and one had its claws in my hair. They flew with me so fast it was like falling up in a hurricane. I saw there were windows and balconies and arches and torn places in the sides of the skyscraper, and way up above us but getting closer and closer was Mythgarthr: trees and people, animals and mountains.

(Gene Wolfe, The Wizard Knight)

And the action continues from there… but how Lafferty-esque is some of this! And Wolfe is just being himself in this particular medium, therefore the resemblance is mostly unintentional I think (I say ‘mostly’ because of course Wolfe is an avid admirer of Lafferty and has no doubt unconsciously imbibed elements of storytelling from him).

Creatures Are All We Know, And Can Be All We Know Until We Know Him

Morcaine asks Able:

‘“Do you credit a Most High God?’

‘The question caught me by surprise. I said, “Why of course,” stammering like the boy I pretended not to be.

‘“I do and I don’t.” She smiled, and the smile became her laugh. It was music, but I never ached to hear it again as I did Disiri’s. Even then, I thought her less than human, and that laugh was at the root of my opinion.

‘“I don’t and do.” She cocked her head like a bird.

‘I bowed again. “Just so, My Lady. We can think only of creatures, of things He’s made. Creatures are all we know, and can be all we know until we know Him. When we think of Him like that, we find we can’t believe. He can’t be like a creature any more than a carpenter is like a table.”

‘She nodded. “Wisely spoken. When I see how the world goes, I know there cannot be a Most High God. And yet that fiendish humor! …’

[And there the conversation moves completely away from this subject as far as I can tell.]

(Gene Wolfe, The Wizard Knight)

Nature Was Not Something Outside Anymore

‘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.’

(Gene Wolfe, The Wizard Knight)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Poverty Was Ended, Having Vanished From Sight

'It had been the function of the Hotel Consort to end poverty, and it did it very well. A cynic might have said that was the only thing it did well. An old Italian neighborhood had been demolished. The shops that had sold salami and crucifixes were gone. The cleaners who had offered invisible reweaving had disappeared. An ugly Walgreen drugstore had gathered its narrow aisles like skirts, wrapped itself in the perfume of its fine smells, and hastened off to oblivion. The funeral parlor, once almost smothered in carnations to the honor of a numbers baron, had withered in death. The people who had so often been janitors, nurses, and cops were gone too. No one could say where.

'Certainly they were not at the Consort. Its guests were businessmen, almost to the last. Its maids were black when they were not Puerto Rican, its assistant managers college-bred hoteliers who had skimmed Melville and Mark Twain in the course of learning to bully cooks and pad bills, its manager a computer no guest ever saw. Poverty was ended, having vanished from sight.'

(Gene Wolfe, Free Live Free)

Ferocious, Fluorescent Pinkness

'The fat girl tottered into the kitchen. A golden trumpet of sunshine striking the scuffed linoleum made her squint and press her temples with plump, pink hands.

'Her robe was pink as well, pink with the violent, almost ferocious, fluorescent pinkness found only in discount stores. Like her disordered yellow hair, it made her seem an immense doll, still bright, yet abandoned and bedraggled.'

(Gene Wolfe, Free Live Free)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Through A Dark and Ruined Dreamscape

In bed, tossing and turning, Silk drove the deadcoach through a dark and ruined dreamscape, the land of the dead still a land of the living. The wind was blowing and blowing, fluttering all the yellow-white curtains of all the bedroom windows, fluttering the velvet hangings of the deadcoach like so many black flags; like the slashed poster on Sun Street with old Councillor Lemur's eyes gouged out, his nose and his mouth dancing, dancing in the wind; like the kind face of old Councillor Loris cut away and blowing down the gutter; like Maytera Rose's wide black habit, heavy with hemweights and death but fluttering anyway while the tall black plumes bent and swayed, while the wind caught the black lash of Silk's dancing whip, so that when he intended to whip one black horse he whipped the other. The unwhipped black horse lagged and lagged, dogged and dogged it, snorted at the billowing yellow dust but was never whipped. He should have been for cheating his brother who sweated and lunged at the harness though his flanks were crusted with yellow dust that the white foam had already dyed black.

In the deadcoach Orpine writhed naked and white, Silk's old torn cotton handkerchief falling from her face, always falling but never fallen, always slipping but never slipped, though the wind whistled against the glass and carried dust through every crack. While whipping the wrong horse, always the wrong horse, Silk watched her clawing Chenille's dagger, saw her claw and pull at it though it was wedged between her ribs, saw her clawing like a cat at the red cat with the fiery tail, at the fine brass guard all faceted with file work. Her face beneath the slipping handkerchief was stained with her blood, forever the face of Mucor, of Blood's crazed daughter. There were sutures in her scalp and her brown hair was shaved away, her black hair shaved by Moorgrass, who had washed her body and shaved half her head so that the stitches showed and a drop of blood at each stitch though her full breasts leaked milk onto the black velvet. The grave awaited her, only the grave, one more grave in a whorl of graves where so many lay already watched over by Hierax, God of Death and Caldé of the Dead, High Hierax the White-Headed One with her white spirit in his claws because the second one had been a brain surgeon, for whom if not for her?

Nor did Silk, alone in the padded black-leather driver's seat, know what any of these things meant, but only that he was driving to the grave and was late as usual. He always came to a grave too late and too soon, driving nightside in a dark that was darker than the darkest night, on a day that was hotter than the hottest day, so that it burned the billowing dust as an artist's earths are burned in an artist's little furnace, glowing gold in the heat, the black plumes billowing while he whipped the wrong horse, a sweating horse that would die at the grave if the other did not pull too. And where would Orpine lie, with the dead black horse in her grave?

“Hi-yup!” he shouted, but the horses did not heed him, for they were at the grave and the long sun gone out, burned out, dead forever until it kindled next time. “Too deep,” Chenille told him standing by the grave. “Too deep,” the frogs echoed her, frogs he had caught as a boy in the year that he and his mother had gone to the country for no reason and come back to a life no different, the frogs he loved and killed with his love. “Too deep!” and the grave was too deep, though its bottom was lined with black velvet so that the sand and the cold clay would never touch her. The cold, sinking waters of underground streams that were sinking every year it seemed would never wash Orpine, would not rot her back to trees and flowers, never wash off Blood's blood nor wet the fiery cat with the black mouse in its jaws, nor the golden hyacinths. Never fill the golden pool in which the golden crane watched golden fish forever; for this was no good year for golden fish, nor even for silver ones.

“Too deep!”

And it was too deep, so that the yellow dust would never fill it and the velvet at the bottom was sprinkled with sparks that might flicker at last but hadn't flickered yet as Maytera Marble told him pointing, and by the light of that one there she was young again, with a face like Maytera Mint's and brown gloves like flesh covering her hard-working steel fingers.

“Too long!” he told the horses, and the one that never pulled at all lunged and plunged and put his back into it, pulling for all he was worth, though the wind was in his teeth and the night darker than any night could be, with never a patch of skylands showing. The long road underground was buried forever in the billowing dust and all this blowing brush.

“Too long!”

Hyacinth sat beside him on the padded leather seat; after a time he gave her his old, bloodstained handkerchief to cover her nose and mouth. Though the wind bayed like a thousand yellow hounds, it could not blow their creaking, shining, old deadcoach off of this road that was no road at all, and he was glad of her company.

(Gene Wolfe, Lake of the Long Sun)

Friday, November 27, 2009

GENE WOLFE! (Part 2 of 2)

I randomly picked up the first book in Wolfe's The Book of the Short Sun trilogy called On Blue's Waters because I wanted to finally get into Wolfe's interplanetary science fiction, a subject matter much more to my personal tastes and interests than the more Heroic Fantasy-oriented work I'd read so far. (The swords, the walking great distances or riding horse-like animals, etc. give his earlier The Book of the New Sun a heroic fantasy feel ala Tolkien with hints and moments of far future technology in ages-long decay – i.e. it's Science Fantasy proper).

Furthermore, it was in Blue that I ran into the Outsider. Gene Wolfe has introduced the whole concept of the classic monotheistic God into his ambitious science fiction two-part, multi-volume series (The Book of the Long Sun tetralogy followed by The Book of the Short Sun trilogy) by means of this entity called the Outsider. The Short Sun trilogy is written in journal entries of varying lengths by the main character, Horn. He says the Outsider is the God who is Outside the pantheon of the finite gods of the universe (the 'whorl' as the characters call the 'world'/cosmos). He is also Outside of space and time (the 'whorl') altogether (presumably as its Creator, though this is not explicit). Yet the Outsider is very involved in space-time because he also gets his name from identifying with those who are the marginalised and outcast of society – the outsiders. (These elements go a long way toward conceptualising a very Christian form of theism.)

This is the theological theme of every multi-volume work by Wolfe as far as I can tell: people in various forms of, shall we say, 'pagan ignorance', coming into contact in one way or another with the 'one true God' of (usually revealed by some hint or other) the Christian faith.

All this richly woven theology plus wonders, thrills, and monsters aplenty! There are moments of true awe, of extravagant vision (moving theophanies of both gods and God occur), of chilling horror, of weighty philosophical speculation, memorable characters, many asides on writing and writers – there are also seemingly inexplicable moments and passages, even certain places where I became somewhat 'bored' (actually that's mainly in the New Sun series, not really in On Blue's Waters) in my bewilderment as to what was happening and why and what it had to do with the story. Wolfe strangely, spectacularly (and not at every moment successfully) manages to simultaneously play the roles of philosopher and pure adventure storyteller.

The element I need to hasten to add to that last comment, so that you don't come to these books with misguided expectations, is that Wolfe is also a literary obscurantist of sorts. He is a seemingly natural and effortless trickster who loves indirectness and, as some have said, his work is both allusive and elusive. He is referencing so many things in history, literature, philosophy, and theology whilst at the same time remaining at least one step ahead of you, always just round a corner, at the edges of your vision. One of the very strangest phenomena of his writing to me is that his worlds are incredibly solid and well-realised (you often notice this more when you're not actually reading) yet because you are so suddenly and fully immersed in them without explanation or guide or map, you are found feeling on the one hand profoundly satisfied at such a world-building achievement whilst equally on the other hand feeling profoundly perturbed by your inability to fully grasp this world you've been so thoroughly engulfed by. Some readers find this too much and are put off, many to never return. For me, the more obvious positive qualities of wonder and adventure and glimpses of philosophy and theology in a rather exquisite writing style are more than worth the more disturbing and challenging qualities. (But I'm the sort of person who reads the entirety of Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and doesn't worry about whether I 'get' it all – I just let it flow over and into me and enjoy it!)

Anyway, in reading Blue I realised I was way in the middle of something massive and amazing, so I determined to start all over and even go all the way back to the New Sun series and properly finish it, which I did with immense pleasure. First though I went back and read some of the earliest work, Fifth Head of Cerberus (a satisfying interplanetary science fiction novel) and Peace (an ostensibly 'straight fiction' novel that reads something like an almost hallucinatory mid-Western memoir that is very obscure indeed). At the very least, these two early novels display Wolfe's truly excellent writing skills – the prose, to me, is just so very, very good.

Well, you always hear that you have to re-read Wolfe to truly appreciate him and this was so very true with The Book of The New Sun. Not only did it make a bit more sense, I genuinely loved going over again the journeys and adventures of Severian (the main character, a Torturer gone bad – that is, who keeps betraying his vocation by showing mercy to victims), rediscovering the characters and thrilling anew to the wonders and terrors unfolded. And the last book I hadn't read was an excellent conclusion. (Still, I would say, just because of my tastes, this will always remain low on my list in comparison to other works by Wolfe because I prefer the more off-world stuff.)

And now I've finally begun to read the first volume of The Book of the Long SunNightside the Long Sun. Nearly halfway through I'm probably more pleased with this than anything I've read so far (or perhaps equal to On Blue's Waters). I shall write more about it in a future blog entry. The first words and pages of the book begin with an enlightenment given by the Outsider to the main character, Silk (who is perhaps something like an abbot of a monastery and whom I'd heard much referenced in Blue). To start an s.f. story on such a blatantly theistically spiritual/supernatural note is just such a bold and thrilling move to a reader like me. And it is very well told, intellectually intriguing and visionary and yet believably realistic in its very human setting that so well-written. The plot unfolds from this central theme with the usual crisp and tight and yet at times demanding prose Wolfe is so well known for. The setting is also very enjoyably a wonder-filled far flung 'generation starship' that it seems has been so long on its galactic or intergalactic journey that its original function, nature, and purpose are completely lost in the mists of time and legend to the spectacularly immense space craft's inhabitants. The effect is like reading of the mystical mission of a medieval monk in an almost Blade Runner sort of futuristic setting. But in a way only Gene Wolfe could do, increasingly full of elusively crowding wonders and mysteries. My lupine explorations continue...

GENE WOLFE! (Part 1 of 2)

OK, it's long overdue that I weigh in on this highly important author that I am becoming an avid fan of. I'm still in the midst of properly engaging with the considerable body of his work, but I feel I need to make some preliminary remarks.

Before I get directly to Wolfe, some opening comments on my 'angle' are due. If you've read my other blogs, you'll probably have picked up on the fact that I love Theistic S.F. 'Theistic' because most s.f. I've read comes across as atheistic or agnostic – and even when some s.f. eschews the secular for a more spiritual view, it is usually a fairly non-monotheistic 'New Age' (neo-pagan?) variety of spirituality. Now I don't mean to deny the pleasure and value of works written from these perspectives. I have read and been influence by brilliant atheistic / agnostic s.f. (e.g. Brian Aldiss, Dan Simmons). And I have read and been influenced by brilliant 'neo-pagan' s.f. (e.g. Ursula LeGuin). But coming from a classically theistic worldview myself, I of course enjoy most when I discover it is that theistic view in some work of great imaginative fiction that is being embodied with artistic integrity, originality and even genius. Tolkien and Lewis are the classic modern examples, but we 'Inklings' fans[1] are always on the lookout for their literary heirs in the so-called postmodern / ultramodern / post-postmodern(!) world. I have an entire blog devoted to one such heir already, R. A. Lafferty (antsofgodarequeerfish.blogspot.com). Gene Wolfe is Lafferty's somewhat contemporary Roman Catholic and writer, and Wolfe, like Lafferty, is equally hard to categorise and analyse.

Now, I also want to say that I use the term 's.f.' advisedly over other possible terms for imaginative literature because though s.f. often stands for 'science fiction' it can also abbreviate the more inclusive term 'speculative fiction'. To my mind this latter term may include all the other forms of the fantastic including Heroic Fantasy, Magic Realism, Supernatural Horror, and much more. But perhaps most pertinent to a discussion of Gene Wolfe is that s.f. can stand for the strange and often (it has to be said) camp genre known as Science Fantasy. This is not a genre I personally usually read, but I readily acknowledge its inherent worth, at least for the rapturous heart of a boy – for this is the genre that can bring together swords and spaceships, dragons and aliens, knights and astronauts all in one story! For me, this sub-genre on the one hand slightly makes me cringe but on the other hand also intrigues me. Could such a thing be done right, done in a way that's not just completely farce? (Not that a farcical science fantasy wouldn't have worth as well – but that's a different point.) If science fantasy could be done well, then it would have to be one of the best things ever for the wonder-filled heart of a boy inside most men. But hey, girls read and love (say) Tolkien and Asimov too, so maybe they'd enjoy this genre well done also? I believe so. (Wolfe certainly doesn't seem to lack female fans of his fiction.)

I think it uncontroversial to say that the venerable Mr. Wolfe is well-known as the most sophisticated practitioner ever of this highly fanciful genre. But now I have to back up and say that Wolfe is so very far from a categorisable sub-genre writer. For a start he embraces and embodies all of the aforementioned forms of s.f. - fantasy and horror and science fiction and so forth. Even his science fiction ranges from some fairly 'hard s.f.' stuff to the more anthropological s.f. that flourished in the 1960s and '70s to the totally visionary and mystical. Furthermore, most of his fans, critics, and fellow writers seem to think that if it weren't for his chosen field of literature he would easily be acknowledged today as one of the latter half of the 20th century's Great American Authors, up there with (say) John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates or what have you. But his chosen form of extravagant and yet oblique fantasy fiction is an alienating stumbling block to possibly the majority of contemporary readers. An irony in this is that some of the obliqueness is due not least to Wolfe's very 'high' literary style. His works are often artistically ambitious to an intense degree, frequently very philosophical and, to the point at last, theological.

Most people, including Mr. Wolfe himself, agree that his very best work is either his multi-volume epics or his usually very satisfying collections of short stories. At these two ends of the spectrum he seems most masterful and impressive. I first tried his four-volume novel, for which he is most renowned, The Book of The New Sun (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch) – I got through the first three books and enjoyed them quite a bit, but I was getting a bit lost and wondering whether it was really going anywhere and thereby ended up neglecting to finish it. (This was a mistake.) But I knew he was a very important writer and that his Christian theistic worldview was shaping his work in intriguing and exciting ways.

Anyway, after a number of years I happened to see at my local library (here in Scotland, though I'm originally from the USA) that Wolfe had a more recent, slightly shorter, two-volume work completely in the Heroic Fantasy realm called The Wizard Knight (The Knight, The Wizard; I love the ironic simplicity of these titles, belying the very subtle work within), boasting a quote on the cover from Neil Gaiman: 'Gene Wolfe is the smartest, subtlest, most dangerous writer alive today, in genre or out of it. If you don't read this book you'll have missed out on something important and wonderful and all the cool people will laugh at you.' (Mr. Gaiman seems to be the Great Legitimizer for obscure fantasists with cult followings, such as Lafferty and Wolfe.) It was a very deceptively easy read in terms of the flow of the prose. It was a beautiful, strange, disturbing, oblique but enchanting epic saga. The cast that built over the length of the books was a bizarrely memorable crew, the wonders and worlds were so ethereal and yet so utterly realised at the same time (true of all his work), and the briefly described battle scenes were often mystical visions in themselves. I still didn't understand much, but I was sure there was something very important going on here. To be sure, there were things I liked and didn't like but I was so very intrigued and impressed.

It only took one more book for me to get totally on board and commit to thoroughly immersing myself in Wolfe's body of work. His collection of short stories entitled Innocents Aboard totally swept me up and very thoroughly impressed me with his writing and storytelling abilities. Although, as always, while the collection was 'easy' (and usually very entertaining) to read in terms of 'prose-flow' and sometimes plot, it was not 'easy' in terms of the totally weird way Wolfe approaches everything! The story 'The Friendship Light' is one of my favourite horror shorts I've ever read.

With these introductory remarks out of the way, in part 2 I get to the things I like best about Wolfe.

[1] The Inklings were a loose-knit group of writers that included the aforementioned 'Tollers' and 'Jack' as well as the more obscure and weird fantasy writer Charles Williams.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Of Gods Ultimate and Many

This under-blog is about the totality of Gene Wolfe's writing, encompassing all his themes, but, it must be admitted, with particular emphasis on and keen interest in the Theism emobodied (and embedded) in his body of work. The divine name vocabulary across the Briah Cycle alone is of great interest and even aesthetic as well as intellectual pleasure - e.g. the Increate, Pancreator, and Paraclete (all one and the same) of The Book of the New Sun and the Outsider of The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun. There is also the Most High God of the more recent The Wizard Knight.
At some point I intend to compare the pluralistic (and yet naturalistic?) polytheism of Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Anansi Boys with the polytheism of the afforementioned works by Gene Wolfe. It is very interesting the way these fellow writers (and friends) accomodate, explain, and subsume relgious diversity into the worldview that informs their respective works. It is the ideas I want to compare, not so much the writing, for, it has to be frankly acknowledged, Wolfe is in a rare class of genius at least a few levels above Gaiman. I really think Gaiman would gladly acknowledge this. And of course that in no way detracts from the great pleasure and profit with which Gaiman is read (by myself included). Nor does it detract from Gaiman's own originality and all he has accomplished with pushing fantasy boundaries. (Not to mention that we have Gaiman to thank for often persuasively introducing a wider audience to the rather obscure Giants on whose shoulders he is Dwarfishly standing, such as Wolfe and Lafferty!)

Speaking of theism in Wolfe's works is not to neglect the particularly Christian nature of that theism that is also woven throughout - e.g. the concept of the Conciliator who uses his Claw on himself, not others; and the Outsider who is called such not only because he is Outside the orthodox pantheon and because he is Outside space and time altogether, but also because he identifies with and seeks out those who are Outside society's respectable company, the outcasts on the fringes and margins.

Nor is all this to deny a certain 'pagan' element that seems to flow through Wolfe's works - a strong occult sort of theme or influence (perhaps not unlike the poetry cycles and novels of Charles Williams, whose Christian faith also strongly shaped his fiction). I don't know just what to make of this yet (nor do I in Williams either), except that perhaps it is another part of his apparent obsession and project to show how the 'ultimate truth' of Christianity relates to 'glimpses of truth' in the 'darkness' of paganism. (Please don't take this as aggressive or offensive, those of you who may not share mine or Wolfe's Christian faith. It is simply a way of trying to explicate what Wolfe is trying to do overall in his work. Every writer's fictional world does the same, starting from some set of assumptions that necessarily excludes whatever contradicts it and then tries to explain and 'subsume' those contradictory views.)

I would appreciate comments and help on all these themes. Thanks!