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.