'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)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

silk for caldé: Another reason to play Skyrim

silk for caldé: Another reason to play Skyrim: I recently read an article on Paste Player, "Reading a Videogame: The Books of Skyrim" , about the many books in Skyrim and the other Elder ...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

'Well, oil up your whip and make sure you’ve got a good, stout chair...'

Dear Contestant,


I was one of the judges who read your story; the editor has asked me to write you and explain why it isn’t here… You had a good idea there, you have a way with words, and you worked very hard. You probably felt you deserved to win; and in a very real sense, you were right. But there were other writers—the new writers whose names and stories appear in this book—who deserved it more, including many who deserved it in a way you didn’t, writers who entered stories of professional quality, and not just good, solid, amateur fiction…


The fact is that it’s very easy to get a good idea for a story. The world is full of them; there’s an idea in every dust mote and every broomstick, and there are scores if not hundreds in every man, woman, and (especially) child you pass on the street…


When you write a story of your own, you start with a good idea. You try to get the style right for the particular story you’re writing (because no one style is right for every story). You work hard, because you notice that the harder you work the better the story gets. Then you discover that your story doesn’t have the effect on others that you know it should, and you don’t know why. I’m going to tell you—watch my lips.


You didn’t really do much with your idea. You unconsciously assumed that because it was such a fine, strong, sleek, and even potentially dangerous idea, it could run the story by itself.


Let’s change the metaphor. There are tigers in zoos and there are tigers in circuses. The tigers in zoos are strong and sleek and beautiful, and potentially quite dangerous; but they don’t do anything. The tigers in circuses are no stronger, no sleeker, no more beautiful, and no more dangerous; but they do things that surprise us and perhaps even frighten us a bit. We see them in action. People pay to get into circuses, but zoos are free. Now do you get the picture?


If I could give you just one piece of advice for the story you’re going to enter in the next contest, it would be this: Think of yourself as a wild-beast trainer, and your idea as a big cat in your show. Walking out onto the stage and saying, “Hey, look at my lion,” isn’t going to cut it. So what show—not what kind of show, that’s amateur talk—are you going to put on? Is your idea going to jump through a hoop of flame? Is it going to climb onto the shoulders of two other ideas and roar?


Well, oil up your whip and make sure you’ve got a good, stout chair, because somebody’s going to have to make it do that, and that somebody is you. You’ve got an idea in your head, and that’s good; now let’s see you put your head in the idea’s mouth.




-Gene Wolfe, 'An Idea That...' (1986; in Castle of Days, 1992)


Saturday, September 17, 2011

The sighting of two goddesses

[Previous episode: The god comes down to collect the dead]




Only I am left awake, and the black man, and the sentries Hypereides has set around us and the ships. A moment ago, a lovely young woman left the largest ship, and seeing that I saw her, halted to speak with me. I asked who she was.


She smiled at that. “Why, Latro, my name’s been on your lips half the day. Would you like to see me fatter, with red hair? I can do that, if you wish.”


“No,” I told her. “You are so much more lovely than your picture on the sail.”


Her smile faded. “Yet plain girls are luckier. Ask your little Io.”


I did not understand her, and I believe she knew it; yet she didn’t explain. “I only stopped to tell you I am going to the Great Mother,” she said. “I was her priestess once; and though I was taken from her long ago, it may still mean something to her, if only a little. Because you’ve loved my beauty today, I’ll ask her to be kind to you.”


“Is she merciful?” I asked, remembering what the tall lord of death had said.


Europa shook her head. “Sometimes she is kind,” she told me. “But we are none of us merciful.”


She has walked into the ridge, which opened a door for her. There is another woman on the ship now. I see her pace the deck in the moonlight, as if deep in thought. She wears a helmet with a high crest, like Hypereides’s, and her shield writhes with serpents.


Her face recalls to me the face of Oior, Oior’s face not as I saw it at any other time, but as I saw it when I looked back upon leaving him and saw him bent over the dead bowman. When I had met him on the beach and when we had talked at the top of this narrow ridge of land, his sun-browned face had been as open as the faces of the sailors, though without their vivacity and native cunning, a face as strong and as simple as the face of a charger or a bullock. It was a face much like my own, I think, and I liked him better for it.


And yet when I turned back to look at him as I descended the slope, it had changed utterly, though all its features were the same. It had become the face of a scholar of the worst kind, of the sort of man who has studied many things hidden from common men and grown wise and corrupt. He smiled to see the dead bowman, and he stroked the livid cheek as a mother strokes her child.


I must remember that.






-Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist (1986)

The god comes down to collect the dead

[Previous episode: A funeral on the beach]


My thoughts were still upon the fight on the ridge, and I glanced at the ragged skyline it showed against the stars. A tall figure with a staff stood there with a shorter figure, like a boy, beside him.

The woman who had sat beside Pindaros took my arm. “Come, Latro, it’s time to go.”

“No,” I told her. “You take Io. I’ll come soon. I think this is someone I should speak with.”

She and the black man followed the direction of my gaze, but it was clear they saw nothing. Holding the chain that bound her leg in one hand, the woman took Io’s hand in the other. They and the black man hurried off, followed by a bowman who was not Oior.

Alone, I watched the tall figure come down from the ridge. After him trailed the smaller one, who seemed often to stumble. A light surrounded the tall figure; the lesser one had no such luminosity but seemed translucent, so that I sometimes dimly glimpsed the rocks and trees behind him. Neither cast a shadow in the moonlight.

When the tall figure had come near, I saluted him, calling, “Hail!” By then I could see that his hair and beard were gray, his face stern and dark.

“Hail,” he answered, and lifted his staff. His voice was deep and hollow.

I asked him, as politely as I could, whether he had come for Kekrops, and offered to lead him to the body.

“There is no need,” he told me, and he pointed with his staff to the foot of the altar, where Kekrops had been laid out. I was startled to see that the body was still there; it rose despite its wounds and stumbled across the sand to him.

“You fear the dead,” the tall figure told me, seeing my look. “You need not; no one will do you less harm.”

The smaller figure had left the slope of the ridge; while we spoke, it crossed the beach toward us. It was a bowman dressed like those on our ship, and I asked the tall one if he was the man who had tried to kill me.

“Yes,” he said. “But he will not do so now. Until he is freed, he is my slave.”

“He is a murderer,” I said. “I hope you will punish him for what he did.”

The bowman shook his head. It swung loosely, like a blossom on a broken stalk.

“He cannot speak,” the tall figure told me, “unless you first speak to him. That is my law, which I lay upon all my slaves.”

I asked the dead bowman, “Didn’t you kill Kekrops? Can you deny his murder when he stands beside you?” Now that I must write that, it seems strange. I can only say it did not seem so then.

“Spu killed only in war,” the dead bowman murmured. He held a finger to his eye. “Spu would kill you, Neurian, in justice for him.”

“We must go,” the tall figure told me. “It is not right that they should remain on earth, and I have much to do. I have lingered only to tell you that my wife’s mother sends her to speak with you. Do not forget.”

“I’ll do my best not to,” I promised.

He nodded. “And I will remind you of it when I can. I do not understand mercy, and thus I am as I am; but perhaps she will be merciful to you, and I can learn from her. I hope she is at least just.” He took a step forward, and it seemed to me that he stood upon a stair I could not see. With each step, he sank more deeply into the ground; the sailor and the bowman followed him.

“Goodbye,” I called. And then to the bowman, I cannot say why, “I forgive you!” He smiled at that—it was strange to see the dead mouth smile—and touched his forehead.

Then all three were gone.


-Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist (1986)


[Next episode: The sighting of two goddesses]

A funeral on the beach

The dead man was laid before the altar and a fire of driftwood kindled upon it. Ten sailors who had sworn they had good voices and no blood guilt sang a litany to the sea-god: "Horse-Breaker, Earth-Shaker, Wave-Maker, spare us! Ship-Taker, Spring-Maker, Anchor-Staker, care for us!" And so on.



When they were finished, Hypereides, in full armor with his blue crest upon his helmet, cast bread into the fire and poured wine from a golden cup.



“Third brother of the greater gods


By destiny, Death’s king,


Accept for suffering Kekrops’s sake,



The food, the wine we bring.



He labored for thy brother,



Thy brother used him sore.



Accept a sailor cast adrift,



Beached on thy river’s shore.”

Some beast howled nearby, and little Io, sitting on my right, pressed herself against me. “It’s only a dog,” I whispered. “Don’t be frightened.”


The black man reached across her to touch my shoulder. When I looked at him, he shook his head and bared his teeth.


Hypereides finished the poem in a thundering voice I would not have believed he commanded.


“Yet should the old man slacken,



You’ll find no better oar,



To row such souls as Ocean rolls



Unto Death’s bitter shore.”


“By all the Twelve,” whispered Pindaros. “He remembered the whole of it. I wouldn’t have bet a spit on him.”


Hypereides then cast beans, mussels, and meat into the fire, with other things. Two sailors rushed forward with leather buckets of seawater to quench it. Two more quickly wrapped the dead man and carried him away.


“It was a wonderful poem,” I told Pindaros.


He shook his head. The men around us were rising and drifting back to the big fires nearer the ships.


“Surely it was. See how many of them are crying.”


“They were his friends,” Pindaros said. “Why shouldn’t they weep? May the Gentle Ones snatch you! Poetry must shake the heart.” There were tears in his own eyes; and so that I would not see them he strode away, his chain dragging after him in the sand.



-Gene Wolfe, Soldier of the Mist (1986)








[Next episode: The god comes down to collect the dead]



Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Alive and Kicking

Just for the record, this blog is still alive and kicking and I've tons more to post about the mighty Wolfe in due time. Lately most of my blogging energies have been expended at my R. A. Lafferty blog: The Ants of God Are Queer Fish, as I'm trying to write a paper on him for a chapter in a book that may someday see the light of day. At some point, I'm going to outline the Wolfe-Lafferty connection as they were mutually endorsing of one another and were fellow outside-the-box s.f. Roman Catholic literary geniuses. (I say 'were' not because there is breaking news on Wolfe, but because Lafferty died in 2002.) Interestingly, Lafferty and Wolfe are two of the biggest influences on the urban/gods/gothi-comic/mythpunk sort of fantasy of Neil Gaiman (by his own confession—and if you read enough of the works of all three, it’s easy to see).

Some months ago I finally got onto to some more recent Wolfe stuff and read Pirate Freedom and An Evil Guest. Reviews will be forthcoming. There’s definitely gold in both, but on a first read I don’t love Pirate Freedom as much as other Wolfe stuff and I feel mixed about An Evil Guest (though the latter has some really great stuff on a number of levels). I’ve also read some recent short stories—‘Lief in the Wind’ and ‘The Giant’. (I found the latter much better than the former and will comment on them in due course also.) Also, I recently read Wolfe’s essay ‘Scribbling Giant’ about R. A. Lafferty (found as an afterword in Lafferty’s novel East of Laughter).

The Wolfe still howls in my soul if I cannot at present release the lupine from my lips.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spake the Dwarf into the Ear of the Hoary Giant on whose Shoulders He Stood


'If I ever get to be a fraction as good a writer as you are, I'll be happy.'

Neil Gaiman to Gene Wolfe on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

HAPPY 80TH BIRTHDAY, GENE WOLFE!

Just in case you stop by this blog this week and haven't heard of it elsewhere, this was sent to the 'urth list' (a Gene Wolfe discussion site) a wee while ago:

Rebecca Bushong-Taylor has sent you a link to a blog:

Hi - Joe and I thought it would be cool to collect birthday greetings for Gene for his 80th this Saturday, so I opened a special blog page for this. If you would be good enough to make sure folks on the urth list get this, I know it will make the day a special one for Gene. Thanks very much.

Blog: Happy 80th Birthday, Gene!
Post: Birthday Greetings for the Wolfe
Link: http://happybirthdaygenewolfe.blogspot.com/2011/05/birthday-greetings-for-wolfe.html


This is the greeting I posted there:

Dear Gene,

Your body of work has honestly been life-changing for me as a person, thinker, and artist. You share that very special place in my life with just a few other authors (Chesterton, Lewis, and Lafferty) - a place of influence and blessing beyond the literary or aesthetic and into the moral and spiritual. Thank you. 80 years well-lived, sir! Congratulations and Happy Birthday.

Sincerely,
Daniel Otto Jack Petersen

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Silk Takes a Stab at the 'Problem of Evil'

Silk: ‘The Outsider, as he showed me, has no reason to fear our leaguing against him. We’ve done it innumerable times, just as we betray him daily as individuals. His fear—he is afraid for our sake, not his own—is that we may come to love other things more than we love him. When I was at your manteion on Sun Street, foolish people used to ask me why Pas or Scylla permitted some action that they regarded as evil, as if a god had to sign a paper before a man could be struck or a child fall ill. On my wedding night, the Outsider explained why it is that he permits what people call evil at all—not this theft or that uncleanness, but the thing itself. It serves him, you see. It hates him, yet it serves him, too. Does this make sense to you, Horn?’

‘Like a mule that kicks whenever it gets a chance.’

‘Exactly. That mule is harnessed like the rest and draws the wagon, however unwillingly. Given the freedom of the whorl—and even of those beyond it—evil directs us back to the Outsider. I told you I rejected Echidna; I thought I did it because she is evil, but the truth is that I did it because he is better. A child who burns its hand says the fire’s bad, as the saying goes; but the fire is saying, “Not me, child. Reach out to him.”’,

(Epiphany of the Long Sun, p. 673)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

‘Tracking Song’

This novella is FREAKING AMAZING! I first read it years ago in a book called In The Wake of Man—a three-author anthology that also contained a novella by R. A. Lafferty. But now I’ve read it again in Gene Wolfe’s early short story collection, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (which I've discovered is a major book in Wolfe’s oeuvre).

'Tracking Song' is an action-packed story, totally evocative, viscerally detailed, brutal and alien, filled with creature-wonder and strange and thrilling adventure. In the midst of this weirdness and excitement it slowly dawns on you as an intense, complex anthropological study and psychological tale. It’s all these things, plus it’s a minor myth or legend or fairy tale! A very poignant one at that (even if hard to grasp how it is so). It’s like Jack London meets Ursula Le Guin meets… well, Gene Wolfe. (I actually do see a number of strong pre-resonances with his own Solar Cycle here – e.g. varying sizes of humans, vampire-bat-people, an underground sojourn, forgotten technology in the background, etc.)

Its resonant mythopoeic density reminds me of reading George MacDonald’s mystifying but mesmerising fairy tale ‘The Golden Key’. It does what C. S. Lewis says myth does: hits you at a deeper level than other genres so that you are processing it just out of sight of the conscious and rational. I love that a modern s.f. story achieves this. Science fiction and fantasy have a long tradition of tapping into myth and fable, but rarely do I see a story actually achieve something close to actually being a myth or fable, as I think this story does. Ironically, in modern writing I feel I’m more likely to find something close to a true myth in so-called ‘realistic’ works like The Lord of the Flies, The Old Man and the Sea, The Pearl, or The Road than in the sub-genres supposedly drawing most blatantly on this ancient tradition. But, as I say, I think Gene Wolfe has pulled off a minor one here (as probably elsewhere too) within the sub-genre.

I have no idea at this point whether ‘Tracking Song’ really taps into any deeply human or cosmic or divine themes, but it certainly rouses depths in one’s self. The effect feels a bit like the passages in Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer: 'We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges... it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic... the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves.'

Maybe this story is allegorico-mythopoeic (where Lewis said George MacDonald’s work ‘hovers’) in this: the lot of a person waking without memory among wonders and creatures and an ill-defined but urgently felt quest to seek one’s origins – origins that are moving both behind and ahead of you – to seek one’s purpose and people, is a deeply human theme that resonates with our experience. 'Tracking Song' certainly asks troubling questions about what is ‘human’ and ‘animal’, what is ‘personhood’ and what is mere brute or monster. Some of the scenes in this story (like their hunting of the tall girl-creature who begs them for her life, that they kill coolly as food) are akin to the 'beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron' that Lewis found in Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Slow Dawning of Wolfe's Art (and a few words on his politics)

Thought I'd paste my contribution to a comment thread that followed a review of Wolfe's latest novel, Home Fires (especially note a few words on Wolfe's politics, which I've never really commented on before.)

Fifth Head of Cerberus is a good starting place for reading Gene Wolfe.

The Book of the Long Sun is a great work, even if it does drag at times - and its main character Silk is one of the best characters of fiction of all time - this only really dawns on you as you're nearing the end of the tetralogy - it's an accumulative effect. The WHOLE 'Solar Cycle' (New, Long, and Short Suns) are the real masterpiece, not just the famous Book of the New Sun.

Wolfe's prose in all its forms (from baroque, dense, unreliable first-person to economic, crisp third-person) is some of the very best you'll ever read in fiction. Not every moment in every book is great (and a few of his books are skip-able), but there are almost always a number of elements in each book that make them totally worth it. Also, Gene Wolfe's whole body of art is something that builds up in the reader over a number of years of persistent reading. I know so many people think that's not worth it - but with Wolfe it really is. It's pretty awe-inspiring when you realise it's happening to you.

The more recent Wizard Knight duology is also great, contra some opinions. And I would guess just about any collection of his short fiction will thrill you and draw you on to more.

As to his politics, come on. Politics are politics. Authors run the gamut with them. His 'conservatism' (he says he's a Libertarian and there is a difference) doesn't seem to put off folks like Neil Gaiman and China Mieville and Patrick O'Leary, who are cutting edge fantasy artists who love Wolfe's artistry and therefore respect his worldview, even if they passionately disagree with aspects of it. He's not some neo-Nazi fascist after all. His stories show a huge sympathy toward all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. That's one of the key elements of his body of art and a very attractive one.

'All we are saying... is give Wolfe a chance.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Houses of Prostitution in the Fiction of Gene Wolfe

Prostitution is a recurring theme in Wolfe’s fiction and I’ve not yet seen anyone talk about it as such. It is almost always associated with a large house or hotel. We are always given at least a character sketch of the proprietor of the (often rather ‘high class’) brothel and sometimes he (or she, though they are usually male, I think) is a main character in the story. This social ‘institution’ is usually described in a very matter of fact way, accepted, seemingly, as a sort of inevitable reality, with no moral comment on it one way or the other. At least on the surface.

I usually find that, eventually, both the ‘users’ and the ‘used’ are quite humanised by means of Wolfe describing them so ordinarily, showing their thoughts and speech in such a mundane way in the flow of a larger narrative and plot. This seemingly banal portrayal of prostitution in his fiction usually tends to subtly reveal the whole enterprise as the oppressive, exploitative industry that it is. If we’re willing to read it this way in his fiction, then our real societies’ acceptance of prostitution becomes another sad comment on the state of our humanity.

But Wolfe brings the reader to this self-reflective indictment without preaching or haranguing or protesting. And in a manner that is affirming of our humanity, hinting at the possibility of redemption, rather than simply diminishing and damning people or culture. (In fact, it reminds me of how the writings of the New Testament plant the rather quiet seeds of subversion and liberation for both victims and victimisers in the ancient sex industry, as well as ancient slavery in general.)

Stories and novels by Gene Wolfe that I’ve come across, which contain prostitution, are:

The Book of the New Sun

The Book of the Long Sun

Fifth Head of Cerberus

‘Hour of Trust’ (in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories)

And I’m sure it is in other books that I haven’t read yet (e.g. I know a prostitute is a major character of the standalone novel Free Live Free; and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Soldier series has this element). But several of the above are long, major works by Wolfe where a house of prostitution is a rather central feature of the story. The two main characters of the New and Long Sun, Severian and Silk respectively, both have significant encounters in such houses rather early in their narratives. In the latter, Silk’s ongoing association with (and even spiritual ‘ministry’ in) the house of prostitution run by Orchid (the only female manager in the stories that I’ve run into, though her male employer, Blood, is the owner) is ongoing throughout the work and where a large portion of the story’s action takes place. The main character of Cerberus is described at length as growing up in such a house (run by his father), perhaps only dimly aware of its nature (though it is clear to the reader).

This theme of prostitution no doubt connects fruitfully to other major themes and motifs in Wolfe’s works, the most obvious being male and female roles in relationships and sex and desire (others would include the strong elements of sociology and politics in his works). But also, houses are a huge feature of his fiction, being where many characters are rooted and where very large tracts of action take place. (There are even several short stories featuring sentient houses, some capable of up and moving about or murdering their occupants!) The houses of prostitution fit somewhere into this scheme too (alongside aristocratic mansions, criminal mansions, monastery houses, pioneer homesteads, colonial stately homes, city and country houses, and so forth).

And, of course, prostitutes are just one of many examples of the societal misfits, outcasts, ‘unmentionables’, marginalized, and disempowered that fill the pages of Wolfe’s tales – these ‘ladies of the night’ take their place among torturers, witches, vampires, orphans, widows, slaves, the deformed, the disfigured, the disabled, the displaced, the mentally ill, thieves and other ‘petty’ criminals (as well as crime lords), mercenaries, prisoners, the exiled, and the condemned. I’m sure these classes of people in Wolfe’s work are amenable to in-depth treatment also.

This list of outcasts freshly and forcefully persuades me that Wolfe’s major ‘character’, the Creator Deity called The Outsider, who features throughout the seven volumes of the Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, is a central and profound element of his art. This Deity is described as:

‘The OUTSIDER, the god of the broken and the disparaged, whose realm lies outside the Whorl.’

(from the list of ‘Gods, Persons, Animals Mentioned in the Text’ at the beginning of Caldé of the Long Sun)

‘All that is outcast, discarded, and despised is yours.’

(from a prayer Silk prays to the Outsider in chapter 4 of Caldé of the Long Sun)

I propose that Wolfe wants us to see such ‘houses of ill repute’ as under the special care of The Outsider, who works through his agents ultimately for their liberation, as he does with all the rest of the oppressed and used.

Do share your thoughts…

Houses of Prostitution in the Fiction of Gene Wolfe

Prostitution is a recurring theme in Wolfe’s fiction and I’ve not yet seen anyone talk about it as such. It is almost always associated with a large house or hotel. We are always given at least a character sketch of the proprietor of the (often rather ‘high class’) brothel and sometimes he (or she, though they are usually male, I think) is a main character in the story. This social ‘institution’ is usually described in a very matter of fact way, accepted, seemingly, as a sort of inevitable reality, with no moral comment on it one way or the other. At least on the surface.

I usually find that, eventually, both the ‘users’ and the ‘used’ are quite humanised by means of Wolfe describing them so ordinarily, showing their thoughts and speech in such a mundane way in the flow of a larger narrative and plot. This seemingly banal portrayal of prostitution in his fiction usually tends to subtly reveal the whole enterprise as the oppressive, exploitative industry that it is. If we’re willing to read it this way in his fiction, then our real societies’ acceptance of prostitution becomes another sad comment on the state of our humanity.

But Wolfe brings the reader to this self-reflective indictment without preaching or haranguing or protesting. And in a manner that is affirming of our humanity, hinting at the possibility of redemption, rather than simply diminishing and damning people or culture. (In fact, it reminds me of how the writings of the New Testament plant the rather quiet seeds of subversion and liberation for both victims and victimisers in the ancient sex industry, as well as ancient slavery in general.)

Stories and novels by Gene Wolfe that I’ve come across, which contain prostitution, are:

The Book of the New Sun

The Book of the Long Sun

Fifth Head of Cerberus

‘Hour of Trust’ (in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories)

And I’m sure it is in other books that I haven’t read yet (e.g. I know a prostitute is a major character of the standalone novel Free Live Free; and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Soldier series has this element). But several of the above are long, major works by Wolfe where a house of prostitution is a rather central feature of the story. The two main characters of the New and Long Sun, Severian and Silk respectively, both have significant encounters in such houses rather early in their narratives. In the latter, Silk’s ongoing association with (and even spiritual ‘ministry’ in) the house of prostitution run by Orchid (the only female manager in the stories that I’ve run into, though her male employer, Blood, is the owner) is ongoing throughout the work and where a large portion of the story’s action takes place. The main character of Cerberus is described at length as growing up in such a house (run by his father), perhaps only dimly aware of its nature (though it is clear to the reader).

This theme of prostitution no doubt connects fruitfully to other major themes and motifs in Wolfe’s works, the most obvious being male and female roles in relationships and sex and desire (others would include the strong elements of sociology and politics in his works). But also, houses are a huge feature of his fiction, being where many characters are rooted and where very large tracts of action take place. (There are even several short stories featuring sentient houses, some capable of up and moving about or murdering their occupants!) The houses of prostitution fit somewhere into this scheme too (alongside aristocratic mansions, criminal mansions, monastery houses, pioneer homesteads, colonial stately homes, city and country houses, and so forth).

And, of course, prostitutes are just one of many examples of the societal misfits, outcasts, ‘unmentionables’, marginalized, and disempowered that fill the pages of Wolfe’s tales – these ‘ladies of the night’ take their place among torturers, witches, vampires, orphans, widows, slaves, the deformed, the disfigured, the disabled, the displaced, the mentally ill, thieves and other ‘petty’ criminals (as well as crime lords), mercenaries, prisoners, the exiled, and the condemned. I’m sure these classes of people in Wolfe’s work are amenable to in-depth treatment also.

This list of outcasts freshly and forcefully persuades me that Wolfe’s major ‘character’, the Creator Deity called The Outsider, who features throughout the seven volumes of the Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, is a central and profound element of his art. This Deity is described as:

‘The OUTSIDER, the god of the broken and the disparaged, whose realm lies outside the Whorl.’

(from the list of ‘Gods, Persons, Animals Mentioned in the Text’ at the beginning of Caldé of the Long Sun)

‘All that is outcast, discarded, and despised is yours.’

(from a prayer Silk prays to the Outsider in chapter 4 of Caldé of the Long Sun)

I propose that Wolfe wants us to see such ‘houses of ill repute’ as under the special care of The Outsider, who works through his agents ultimately for their liberation, as he does with all the rest of the oppressed and used.

Do share your thoughts…

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Skilful Writing Style and Language Over Characterization and Plot

At worst, the narrative thrust may be blunted. Even parts of the latter two novellas of The Fifth Head of Cerberus come to feel less like stories and more like puzzles. You read them for the dexterity of the writing, not because the characters grip you or you wish to find out what happened next. But then, stylistic skill is as good a reason as any to keep turning the pages; you could say that when the storytelling momentum flags, Wolfe’s way with language is enough to keep you reading.