'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, 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.