'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)

Friday, November 27, 2009

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.

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