'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.


Anonymous said...

This one is a favorite of mine as well. The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories is a wonderful collection, one of the best I've read by any author. My personal favorite in that collection is "The Toy Theater", but that's more for the puzzle box nature of that story which gave me one of those "Eureka!" moments that you get when reading Wolfe and you figure out something. But "Tracking Song" certainly taps into something deeper.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yes, a great collection. I hope to write a decent review of the whole book someday.

I liked the Toy Theater too, but I'm not a particularly big fan of the 'puzzle' nature of a lot of Wolfe's work. I think I'm a rarity in that among his readers. It's not that I *don't* like the puzzle nature - I just don't really bother trying to piece it together on that level. I'm after the 'something deeper' you mentioned. Well, that and the pure adventure and wonder and invention.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Anonymous said...

I love this story as well. I was watching a documentary on Madagascar's lemurs a few weeks ago when I realized the parallels with "Tracking Song". A single species had migrated to a foreign place and subsequently evolved to fill every hole in the food chain. I can't imagine that this isn't intentional on Wolfe's part.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, I've always wondered what's going on evolution-wise in this story, with the continuum of beast to man-beast to beast-man to 'man'. All the anthropoids seem to be 'rational', 'sapient' (imago Dei?), even if quite brutal and savage. So that's what brings the moral-existential-teleological tension to this particular 'food chain'. So weird and uncanny. Quite an uncomfortable read in that regard I find. But then that's what makes it so strangely piercing with a sort of grotesque form of 'sensucht' as well.

Such a weird and wonder-full story.

And who the heck is the guy with wings at the end?

Steve said...

I don't normally foist my writing on others, but I found your blog through the Urth listserv, and you immediately struck me as a kindred spirit (and by kindred spirit I mean someone to whom Wolfe resonates in a similar way). I've published a couple stories that might be considered "allergorico-mythopoetic"-- stories in which I feel like I'm trying to do something akin to Wolfe-- and I'm always interested in what other Lupophiles think of them. Here's one: http://www.ideomancer.com/?p=459

Your thoughts are welcome. Also, thanks for the Nightside quote you've got wrapping down the edge here.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks for dropping a line and a link, Steve! Ah, so good to find Lupophilic sympathisers, eh? Glad you resonate with Wolfe in a similar way to what I describe here.

I'm very busy working on an academic essay on R. A. Lafferty (heard of him? Wolfe was a fan) today and the next few days I'll be out of town with my family, away from the internet, but I hope to get to your story at the weekend. Nice looking site and the first few paragraphs sound pretty good. Looking forward to it. Thanks for sharing! (I too write fiction, but am still honing the skill and am unpublished - I've put some efforts up on one of my other blogs - probably a premature bad idea, ha!)

Glad you like the Nightside quote.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Here's what 'alzabo' posted about this on The Gene Wolfe Message Board:

'There has been some discussion on the urth list about this story, so you may want to look there for further details. However, this story is somewhat of a wolfeian homage to Jack London's Call of the Wild viewed specifically through the looking glass of the evolution of Madagascar's lemurs. Here, Madagascar is our own moon, and the lemurs (which evolved to fill nearly every hole in the food chain on Madagascar) are us, that is, human beings.'

And my response:

Ah, cheers for that! Someone left a comment on my blog as well about the Madagascar lemurs. Do you know if that's something Wolfe himself said about the story? So pleased to hear that the Jack London element is intentional - that was one of the main things it reminded me of: kind of Jack London doing an anthropological s.f. story (guess that's why I said Jack London meets Ursula Le Guin). This is all just making me love the story more. I'm starting to feel like it's really worthy of being included more often in various anthologies - s.f. and otherwise.



Steve said...

I'd like to look at the Lafferty essay. I'm trying to find my way into him. PAST MASTER is on the way via Bookmooch, and I'm looking out for volumes of his short stories. Wolfe led me to Chesterton and Borges, so I figure it's time to give Lafferty a shot.


Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Just read the story, Stephen - some really great lines in there. Great setting and conceit. The Chesterton part cracked me up. Have you read any early Lord Dunsany? Your tale reminded me a fair bit of that.

I confess I did not really pick up much on the allusions and mythic resonances and what the story's 'about'. But I'm a great believer in just soaking these things in and letting what they're referencing and 'getting at' dawn on you in time. Is there perhaps a bit of a similar sentiment to T. S. Eliot's 'The Journey of the Magi' in there? (If you care to pass out any authorial hints, that is.)

Your story makes me think you'll like Lafferty a lot. I'm surprised there are not more 'dual-fans' of Lafferty and Wolfe. They are each the heir of Chesterton in a different form - and both are literary geniuses of genre fiction who mix and transcend the genres.

Persevere with Lafferty though. His short stories are really the best place to start - but they can be kind of hit and miss. His novels aren't nearly as impressive as the shorts when you're first getting to know him. Later, though, they come more into their own.