Tag Archives: Gene Wolfe

A Story about Gene Wolfe (and me)

This is the story about how Gene Wolfe saved my life. The summer before eighth grade, a summer that is now almost twenty years past, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. What followed was a long chemotherapy protocol that involved lots of complications and secondary infections, spinal taps, blood transfusions, and extended hospital stays. Not the way you plan to spend a good portion of junior high school.

In the midst of this I retreated ever more into books, primarily fantasy and science fiction. I had always been a big reader, but being sick gave me an additional excuse to lose myself in secondary worlds. I was particularly fond of long, multi-volume epics like Shannara and the Wheel of Time. Eventually I heard (maybe through the Science Fiction Book Club?) of this author called Gene Wolfe who also had a few multi-volume epics. I asked my mom if she could go to Borders and try to find some of his stuff.

At that particular time, the only books she could find were the two pocket Tor paperbacks of Calde of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. So I was dropped directly into the middle of the Whorl, with Silk captured and Auk stumbling around in midnight tunnels beneath the city. It didn’t matter. I was instantly enthralled. There was something about the characters themselves: Quetzal, Inca, Auk, Chenille, and of course especially Silk. Suddenly every other fantasy novel I was reading seemed childish.

The character of Silk and his relationship with the Outsider resonated with a Christian pre-teen who felt very much on the outside of everything at the moment. I moved directly from the second half of the Long Sun to the omnibus edition of the New Sun (the SFBC edition that had all four volumes in one) and read it through twice in a row. I hadn’t experienced literature like this before, and I was reading Severian’s meandering travels in the midst of some pretty heavy medication. I remember reading chapters and then going back when my mind was clearer and wondering how much I missed or how much I was simply too ill to have captured entirely. I started keeping a notebook— my first— of words, clues, and gorgeous phrases I wanted to capture.

When the first two volumes of the Long Sun were released as a combined trade paperback, I was thrilled. I think they were the first book I ever ordered online, and I don’t know if I’ve ever waited to read a novel with such anticipation. And then there was the Christmas where Gene started it all over again, and I received On Blue’s Waters as a gift. I forced myself to read it slowly, bit by bit, buying time before the rest of the Whorl books were released.

I don’t know if these books literally kept me alive during my encounter with leukemia (and subsequent secondary malignancy of Hodgkin’s lymphoma). But I know they were very bright spots in an otherwise very dark time.

And then I discovered Wolfe’s short fiction, and I realized what I wanted to do with my life. Sure, I’d still need to get a career and do something that would earn a living, but I realized the thing I’d measure myself by. I had always wanted to be a writer, but Wolfe’s stories brought this into focus. They showed me what it meant to tell a story that had beauty and depth. They gave me something to emulate and something for which to aim.

I started writing.

I haven’t really stopped. The cancers went into remission, and I finished high school and left for college. The writing endured, always being worked on in the margins of my time as much as possible. College became graduate school, and the writing intensified. I began a correspondence with Gene and what had been imitation and emulation became to a certain (small) extent a mentored process. Finally, after graduate school (round one), the constant stream of rejections turned into a few acceptances. Then a few more.

Now, with almost twenty short stories published and one novel I’m still a very, very long way from the output or the quality of the Wolfean corpus. And whether I achieve anything like his depth and his beauty remains to be seen, though I no longer attempt to emulate him quite as sharply as I used to. So it was rewarding to read a review of my first collection of short stories that said things like this:

“There’s a richness of the imagination here, a calmly-measured pace, a solidity. . . . There’s a vivid quality to his writing, and an underlying ability to evoke wonderment at the worlds or tableaux pictured within these pages. There are echoes, too, of a Golden-Age- anything-is-possible kind of sensibility to many of these stories. . . . Case has produced a collection in which almost every story reads like a fable, the moral of which is a secret the reader may hope to discover before the end. There’s an easy acceptance of the fantastical, a hint of the impossible.”

And then of my novel: “The world-building in First Fleet is truly top-notch . . . rich and complex. ”

Sound familiar?

So I owe Gene’s writings a lot, almost as much as I owe Gene for writing them. I’ve come a long way from a hospital bed and meeting Patera Silk for the first time. But I’m still writing, still trying to infuse wonder and awe into what I do.

American Gods

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Neil Gaiman’s work is a good example of the law of conservation of narrative: story is neither created nor destroyed; it is simply transformed from one form to another. Gaiman’s novel American Gods could have been a hundred different things, representing the new gods of America in a hundred different ways. But instead it’s something significant, because Gaiman knows the first rule of original story-telling: know the original stories.

This is what’s wrong with a lot of writing today: it’s shallow. Much of it seems to be written in a vacuum. But the thing about writing (and especially fantasy) is that for it to be really alive, for the story to be rich, it needs to draw on deep wells. And these wells— as American Gods illustrates— go all the way back to the beginning. Gaiman weaves a new and compelling story, a story about the new gods and the old gods in America, but he does it because he understands the building-blocks of the oldest tales.

If you’re looking for a modern story-teller archetype, Neil Gaiman is it. He accumulated a nearly inexhaustible supply of capital and credibility with the classic Sandman series of graphic novels, where he showed he had the knowledge and skill to weave with a rich and textured fabric, pulling in literary figures from Orpheus to Chesterton. To be honest though, after Sandman I found most of Gaiman’s work— Neverwhere, Stardust, the movies Coraline and Mirrormask— to be a bit disappointing (though I liked M is for Magic). Like I said though, he has inexhaustible credibility, so I when I found American Gods in paperback on my sister’s tall brick shelves, I took it home.

This is the Gaiman I remember from Sandman: raw, epic, and dark in a way that shimmers toward opalescence, like the sheen on a serpent’s back. Gaiman’s world is haunting and beautiful; it’s elegant and terrifying; it draws on the deep joy of Chesterton and the riddled wisdom of Gene Wolfe (both of whose words make appearances in this book) with a more pagan flavor. But not an anti-Christian paganism; more like a pre-Christian paganism, a paganism of the deep forests where Christ is still a rumor of Rome on the horizon.

American Gods is the story of a man named Shadow (and this is where Gaiman’s narrative credibility comes in: only he could give a protagonist in a fantasy novel such a trite name and have it stick and work). Shadow has just gotten out of prison and is traveling home, when he runs into a figure who recruits him for a coming war. It turns out that our country has become a battleground between gods of the old world (Europe, Asia, and Africa, primarily) and the new gods of America (things like Media, Internet, and other intangibles as well as gods of industry, railroad, and transportation).

If it sounds a bit transcendental, it’s not. Gaiman keeps it grounded in physicality. Apart from Shadow’s annoying tendency to have significant plot points revealed through dreams (though in fairness he’s spending a lot of time in communication with Native American deities), Gaiman’s gods are very physical: they screw, smoke, swear, throw punches, and try to assassinate each other.

Like I said, a master of old stories. Look some up. This is what the gods spent their time doing.

I can’t go into the plot much at all without dropping spoilers, because even in the very first chapter there are twists and turns. The whole book is a riddle, and there are pleasing knots throughout. The narrative follows Shadow, about whom we continue to learn more, as he works with a man named Wednesday (whose identity readers familiar with mythology will work out fairly quickly) to recruit the old gods— those brought to America by immigrants— in a coming battle against the new.

If you know your mythology, you’ll recognize figures as they’re introduced, but you certainly won’t recognize everyone. Gaiman doesn’t keep his mythology confined to a specific ethnicity. There are gods and monsters from all across the map, several of whom I didn’t know. And Gaiman isn’t one to spell everything out for you, putting nice labels on each god as it is introduced.

That said, it’s the riddles that really make this book work. When gods battle, they tend to do it out of sight of mortals, which is why Shadow— a human more or less like us— makes a good lens through which to view the story. We’re forced to figure things out along with him. And the riddles envelop this story like those Russian dolls that fit inside each other. The big riddle of the entire book is revealed at the end, and it’s flawlessly done, something you don’t expect but that you see clues for throughout once you know it. And the smaller, nested riddles— such as the mystery that Shadow stumbles upon in the middle third of the book in a small Northern town— you can amuse yourself by figuring out as you go. In this, Gaiman is definitely a student of Wolfe, though unlike his master Gaiman is more merciful in that by the end of the book he’ll show you how the trick is done.

If you know Gaiman primarily through his softer stuff, be warned: this book is raw. The language is that of a Brit who seasons liberally with profanity (effectively, to be fair). And there’s plenty of sex. And not mere mortal sex either: god-sex. If you blush easily, keep this book on the shelf.

But the book is strong, and besides an excellent tale, Gaiman is saying something here about the nature of narrative and belief itself and even something about the essence of America. It’s a story by someone who loves America with the wide open eyes of an outsider. Gaiman writes about an America that actually exists, as he explains in his introduction, about real roadside attractions and about a culture (albeit one already slightly dated) we’re sure to recognize. More than that though, he talks about what’s happening beneath the surface: what happens to gods and beliefs and stories when they find themselves in this new world.

This is where his work has the most depth, and this is where you get a glimpse of Wolfe and Chesterton peering over his shoulders (or perhaps perched on his shoulders, like the ravens of Odin). In this non-Christian (but not necessarily anti-Christian) polytheistic world, Gaiman’s sympathies are clearly with the old gods with all their arrogance and faded glory, with all their personality. They have something the new, brash, neon gods of commerce and industry lack. As Gaiman has his character Shadow say: I’d prefer the sad roadside attraction to the new gleaming hotel, because there’s something more real there.

America, it turns out, is a bad place for gods. As Gaiman spells out several times, the land isn’t fertile for them. And it’s the land itself lurking in the background of the story, a shadowy figure that’s never a player in the same sense as the (ultimately revealed) figures pulling the strings of even the gods. Gods don’t flourish here like they did in the Old World, and even the new gods arise quickly and fade fast. But this isn’t a work of comparative religion, so Gaiman never really chases this idea or offers us reasons why. And because this is a story to which the monotheistic gods aren’t invited, they’re not a part of Gaiman’s narrative.

But the book isn’t an explanation. It’s a story. The best stories explain some things, but they don’t explain everything. (This is what Biblical literalists forget about the Bible.) It’s a really, really good story about gods in America. It’s also, more significantly, a story about stories: what they do, what they’re for, how they have the power to shape cultures, and what happens to them (or might happen to them) in this brave new world in which we find ourselves.


NorstriliaNorstrilia by Cordwainer Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s something a bit strange about only children. Maybe it’s not polite to point it out, but not having siblings seems to leave one without context and make one a little bit more difficult to relate to. That’s what I felt with Norstrilia, the only completed novel of Paul Linebarger, a diplomat, foreign operative, and expert on psychological warfare who wrote and published science fiction under the moniker of Cordwainer Smith. Norstrilia is a strange only child.

Not only was it strange in content and tone, it was a bit awkward in form. The work was published originally as two separate pieces (serialized?) in magazines. It was only stitched together into a whole narrative later. And this particular work was compiled by a specialty press and included all the textual variations in an appendix at the end. Why do I get suspicious with textual variations? An author is never sure exactly what to say or how to say it, but usually they manage to hide this uncertainty. I suppose I don’t like the reminder of having it made manifest.

That all probably sounds like complaining, but I enjoyed reading Norstrilia quite a bit. I think I was prepared for it because even though it doesn’t have any siblings, it does have some cousins: those strange half-breeds and vagabonds that are the fiction of R. A. Lafferty. Norstrilia wasn’t a Lafferty, but it had several similar features: the strange, rollicking pace; the larger-than-life characters; the comfort with the bizarre; and the lack of emphasis on a tight, cogent plot.

So here’s what it’s about: in the far future there’s a planet called Norstrilia (a contraction of “North Australia”) that grows a viral serum that ensures long life for the rest of the galaxy and makes Norstrilia incredible rich by its export. (Think Arrakis with giant mutant sheep.) The planet is the epitome of the hardy, frontier lifestyle that Smith saw in his own time in Australia, and to preserve this way of life (as well as population control), Norstrilia has kept itself poor on purpose– even though most of its inhabitants are fabulously wealthy. One of the ways they do this is by making imports to the world incredibly expensive. The other is a test at the age of adulthood to determine whether the Norstrilian youth will receive full legal status or be killed (think the gom jabbar, also from Dune).

Against this weird background one Norstrilian grows up handicap, unable to telepathically spiek or hier like his peers. He uses a forbidden computer to play the markets and more or less by accident becomes the wealthiest man in the universe, and he buys the Earth. Traveling to Earth, he’s manipulated by various agencies– including Cordwainer’s famous Instrumentality of Man, the animal-engineered servants of humanity, and a mysterious agency living beneath the surface of the planet. Along the way a lot of things happen, with wild, lazy, larger-than-life brushstrokes that remind of Lafferty.

There’s a lot of bigness and beauty here, shot through with much weirdness. I don’t know if I would have appreciated it as much had I not already read things along these lines– again, had I not been inoculated, so to speak, by Lafferty. I don’t know if this means Lafferty is a gateway drug, but he certain helped. There are rambles here, large figments of imagination floating like icebergs in a froth of Silver Age science fiction, and meanderings enough to annoy someone used to the clipped, brisk pace of contemporary scifi.

But there is kindness as well. When a friend recommended this book, he said he thought kindness was a theme of Smith’s work. I see what he means, though the turn is abrupt and inexplicable halfway through the novel. The main character has a crisis of faith– mitigated by a psychological hall of horrors akin to the trial that started the narrative– from which he emerges with a sense of humility, gratitude, and benevolence. He is filled with pity for the erstwhile enemy that instigated his banishment from Norstrilia (though the denouement with this character is quite weak). From what I’ve read, Smith’s high church Anglicanism shaped his writing here in some respects.

In all, this was a book I enjoyed reading for its comfort with the bizarre and its quirks, but I’m not sure how strongly I’d recommend it to readers at large. I could see it being a bit impenetrable. But if you’ve cut your teeth on someone like Lafferty or even the meandering far futures of Gene Wolfe’s New Sun, you might give Smith a try.

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? by R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gene Wolfe has said of writing short stories that it is not enough to simply show people your ideas. He uses the analogy of a lion-tamer. A writer can’t just say to people, “Hey, look at this lion” and expect them to be impressed with her skills at showing them a lion. A writer has to do something with the lion, preferably something daring and unexpected. Wolfe says that the writer has to put her head in the idea’s mouth.

For me, that is the most difficult part of writing. Often I simply want to show people my ideas– an interesting imaginary place, for instance, or a character or device or image– but finding that narrative twist and plunge that makes the idea spark and come alive as a leaping, writhing story is something very different.

As important as Wolfe’s advice is though, I don’t feel like his requirement applies to R. A. Lafferty. There are in his stories– and specifically in the stories of this volume– rarely those unexpected twists that make you feel as though the bottom has fallen out of the narrative. In many of the stories that make up this collection, a reader can feel the end coming, can get a sense for the ultimate trajectory of the story, within the first few paragraphs. Part of this is because Lafferty does not craft those literary artifacts called short stories. Instead, he tells fables, and most fables have been told in some form before. But I think there’s also something deeper going on here with Lafferty and Wolfe’s lion-tamer analogy.

To return to Wolfe’s image, Lafferty does not need to stick his head in the idea’s mouth. Lafferty is the lion-tamer, but he’s a lion-tamer saying, “My God, it’s a lion. No, you haven’t ever really looked at a lion before. And you haven’t seen a lion like this. Look at it. This is the lionest lion that ever lived; this is the Ur-lion.” And then the lion– which, you realize, is indeed wilder and more savage and yet more merry than any lion you’ve seen before– rips out the lion-tamer’s throat and eats it with a wet chuckle, and both lion and lion-tamer have a good laugh together because that’s what lions are and that’s what lions do.

The story “Golden Trabant” in this volume is a good example of this approach. Narratively, the story is incredibly simple and has indeed been told many times before: a man discovers the El Dorado of asteroids, a rock not far from Earth formed completely of gold. What happens next? Exactly what you would expect. Pirates lay claim to it and become fabulously rich. Earth’s economy becomes unbalanced by the sudden influx of off-planet gold. The pirates build a kingdom with their new gold, sail the high skies hauling back their treasure in ship-loads, and ultimately turn each other. The asteroid becomes an irradiated waste haunted by a ghost. It’s every lost treasure story you’ve heard before with only the (now-blasé) element of being set in space. Maybe that was a new wrinkle when Lafferty wrote it, but beyond that there’s no unexpected twist that makes the story leap up out of the page like a living thing.

And yet it’s a fantastic story. Like so many of Lafferty’s, it simply works. The whole thing is alive. This is the case with many of the stories here. In some, it’s unclear what exactly is happening or has happened, plot-wise. “About a Secret Crocodile,” “Nor Limestone Islands,” and “Boomer Flats” are examples of this. “Boomer Flats” and “Maybe Jones in the City” in particular I found a bit frustrating, but the richness and jollity of Lafferty’s tone always wins me over eventually, even when they seem spun around nothing. If the bones of the story are a bit hollow, you still get Lafferty telling them. And that’s what you want. I’m convinced that had Lafferty taken it upon himself to re-write a phone book, it would be fun to read.

To be fair, there are stories with twists. There’s one at the end of “In the Garden” and “This Grand Carcass Yet” and “The Ultimate Creature.” “The Weirdest World” is all twist, and it may be one of the funniest Lafferty stories I’ve read yet. But the twist is secondary; the story is not built around it. And you probably saw it coming anyway. Moreover, the twist is usually twisted: this is a volume that highlights Lafferty’s brutal, grotesque humor, which is especially ripe in “This Grand Carcass Yet,” “Pig in a Pokey,” and “The Ultimate Creature.”

An annoying and puzzling (though easily ignored) feature of this volume is the needless division of the stories into those related to “Secret Places” and those about “Mean Men.” The stories in this work alternate back and forth between these two headings. In my edition of the book, this is even reflected by stories under each division having a differentiating font. Lafferty (not surprisingly) offers no explanation for this division, but it’s unlike Lafferty to offer much explanation for anything.

The reason the division doesn’t work though– or at least seems unnecessary and arbitrary– is that all of Lafferty’s stories are in some sense about secret places, and they’re all in some sense about mean men. They’re stories about the hidden, real world lurking just below the skin of this one and about the god or the devil lurking just below our own skins. That’s why their twists aren’t wholly unexpected: we feel them in our bones. We catch hints of them when we we’re not asleep.

If you’re new to Lafferty, this is as good a place to start with him as any. It’s hard to know what angle to approach his writings, but wading out into his short stories and learning how they rise and fall is easier than diving into one of his novels. Because, to be fair, you might not like his bright and bloody world. You might not want to get too close to that lionest of lions and hear its throaty chuckle. With his short stories, it’s easier to run away.

The High House

The High House (The High House #1)The High House by James Stoddard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is a survivor, one of those volumes that has come through multiple bookshelf purges over the years. It was purchased in an age of Brooks and Jordan and Star Wars novels, but it was solid enough that it remains when most of my pulp paperback science fiction and fantasy are gone. I was reminded of it recently by the graphic novel Joe the Barbarian, so I fished it off the shelf and decided to return to Evenmere, the epigrammatic house of the title, for the first time since childhood.

Evenmere is the central idea and the setting for The High House, which is more of a fable than a fantasy novel. The story is of Carter Anderson, a boy who grew up in the country English manor and only now returns to it as a man. The master keys of the house have been stolen by Anarchists, and Carter has to seek the mantle and the sword of his missing father and take his rightful place of Master of the House. This house, however, is more than a rambling mansion. It is a world unto itself, with entire kingdoms and countries within its rooms, corridors, and courtyards. The image of the house itself is enough for Stoddard to hang his tale on, and the concept comes to life with his descriptive language. Evenmere is Gormenghast done brighter (even with the Room of Horrors). It is a more cosmological version of Wolfe’s House Absolute. It is the extension of the house Susan, Lucy, Edmund, and Peter found a wardrobe within. Stoddard takes the idea of finding an entire world in a cabinet and transforms it into a place where a suite of rooms can be a kingdom without ceasing to also be a suite of rooms.

What is it about this kind of rambling, magical house that has such an appeal in fantasy? Stoddard’s house is a Christian house, the house of the created universe. There is an appeal here to a certain type of fantasy writer (and reader): those who believe the universe was indeed created and that we are all living in our Father’s house. It touches on a way of seeing the universe itself. Stoddard has his main character spell it out after a day of wandering empty corridors:

I love these halls, the crannies and endless passages. The secret panels. The promise of adventure. I think there is something wonderful in all the desolate places. It’s like being a child again, walking outside at night, with the wind stirring the trees, and the sudden fear that something would leap out before I reached the house. But beyond the fear there was a question, a mystery of what inhabits a land when no man is there. What do the trees do when they are alone? And the stones? And this is another desolate place. Think of it, year upon year, and perhaps we are the first ones to walk her halls in many lifetimes.

It is the same thought a friend voiced upon viewing a planetarium show on exoplanets: what does it mean that there are these worlds out there with measurable wind speeds and surface temperatures? How is it significant? In a sense, these places are the empty rooms, the barren corridors. For a writer like Stoddard, they are not simply random or wasted space. They are aspects and portions of a created order. Evenmere is a representation of a universe in which every seam and joining of space was crafted. There is meaning or significance to all of it. The characters spend days walking down empty corridors with dusty sconces and threadbare carpet. But even the empty parts were designed. They are part of the plan of the house. As empty or desolate or far away as they may be, as endless, they are still part of a home.

That’s the power of this book, the idea of a house as an entire universe, which reflects the idea of the entire universe as a house. The rest of the work, unfortunately, has not held up as well as it did when this book first captured me. The characters, though likable, are wooden and predictable. Besides their names, it is difficult to tell one from the other. It is a fable, not a character piece. You follow an Everyman on an adventure through the house, an adventure in which there are no deep personal twists or surprises or stakes beyond the survival of the universe itself. The bad guys, including the Wicked Stepmother, are unequivocally bad. The good guys have to wrestle with their own weaknesses but never in a way that transforms how they think. Everyone is on a set trajectory from the novel’s very beginning. In fable though, these are not necessarily weaknesses.

More disappointing reading this as an adult was the realization that the central theme, a house that is a universe unto itself, could have gone so much deeper. Stoddard’s Evenmere is beautiful, but about halfway through the novel I started getting tired of wandering its corridors. The world of the house starts to become simply an endless variation of architecture and decorating along with a network of secret passageways, all painstakingly described. But a house is so much more than that. There’s an entire universe in the plumbing alone, or the chimneys and gas pipes, or a hundred other things that could have been brought into play. Stoddard has written a sequel to this work that I have not yet read, and he is apparently working on a third novel as well, so perhaps these are aspects of the house he will explore in the future.

One final quibble: the dreams. A house that contains entire kingdoms within its walls is dreamlike enough, but a major portion of the action in this book takes place in long, meandering dream sequences that didn’t do much to move the plot along. These made the action drag.

The High House may not be a perfect, tightly executed novel, but it is a wonderbook, a quest through a beautifully rendered world hidden in the hallways of a house as old as time. In this respect it is simultaneously as new and mysterious as a house you’ve never visited and as familiar and comforting as your own hearth.


NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted something soft to read for the flight over the Atlantic and back. I knew I liked Gaiman’s short fiction, and I had heard good things about some of his novels. When I ducked into the library to grab a book for the trip, Neverwhere was the only Gaiman novel I could find. It had an epigram at the beginning by G. K. Chesterton, which was an encouraging sign.

As it turned out though, reading Neverwhere for me was like climbing up a hill. If it wasn’t the only book in my backpack, I would have put it down several times during the first half. It’s not that it wasn’t good. The first chapter was compelling. It’s just that it wasn’t great, and yes– I’ve gotten that picky about the novels I read. After the pleasant surreality of the first chapter, the only thing drawing the story along was how bizarre and weird London Below, the mysterious and magical realm that exists somehow beneath or beside or behind the real London, was. And London Below really wasn’t that whimsical or bizarre. It was London viewed through the lens of Chesterton, assuming that the picturesque and odd names of London Underground stops corresponded to actual, physical truths. Black Friars at Black Friars. Etcetera.

It is fun. And Gaiman is a good writer. But the strange nature of the world itself– which never really seemed to have teeth or take on a deep characterization– wasn’t enough. It reminded me very much of Mirrormask, Gaiman’s Labyrinth-like movie that I finally turned off because one bizarre and lovely scene after another just wasn’t enough to make a compelling story. Apart from that, the main character– a normal guy with a normal job and a normal fiancee, who is pulled into London Below after an act of kindness to another protagonist– spent the first half of the book whining about how weird and scary everything in London Below was and how he just wanted to go home. Not terribly endearing.

So like I said, an uphill climb. Again though, Gaiman is a good writer. The dialogue was only unbearably trite in a few places. There were a couple interesting characters, a few good, solid twists, and a fine resolution. And about halfway through, the story found its feet or I just got swept up in the momentum of it, and the second half of the book was a satisfying read. But not terrific. Not terrifying or wonder-inducing, two of the things I’ve come to expect from Gaiman. Perhaps the surreality that is Gaiman’s distinct voice comes across most effectively in short works. Or perhaps it was just because this was his first novel. And we all know the danger of evaluating an author on his first novel. (Anyone remember Wolfe’s Operation Ares?)

In sum, Neverwhere felt like an exercise, like a solid writer seeing what it was like to write a long work of fiction. There was nothing in here to make one catch one’s breath, to genuinely frighten or awe. There was much to make one smile, a bit to make one groan, and a lot to pass the time in an airport, but it’s not a book to change your life.

Unless, of course, I’m wrong and it does. Because magic sometimes works like that.

Driving East


Well this is sort of a creepy guy, huh? He graced the cover of Lore, volume 2, issue 3, which was published back in April of 2013. Lore has an interesting flavor to it. It’s a sturdy, perfect-bound journal paying professional rates and publishing semi-regularly. The stories in it (or at least in this issue, I confess I have not read others) tend to be polished and subdued but also haunting and sometimes grotesque.

In this issue you’ll find a surrealist piece I wrote called “Driving East.” It’s about the commute I made weekly during the first couple years of graduate school. It’s also about (maybe) dying. I’d like to think the ending has something Wolfean to it, that it’s my attempt at his type of endings that are really just beginnings. It’s also the sort of story that makes my friends and family (the ones who read my work) pause and say slowly, “Well, that was interesting. But I didn’t really understand it.”

Neither did I. Sometimes they just need to be written.

To read “Driving East” you need to get your hands on a copy of this issue of Lore, which you can do here. You should do it. You’ll be supporting a smart magazine, and you’ll have that guy up there staring at you for a while.

The Land Across

The Land AcrossThe Land Across by Gene Wolfe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gene Wolfe won my undying devotion by being the author of the books that pushed me across the borderland from science fiction and fantasy to literature. (There’s no hard and fast border between the two. It’s a spectrum, but when you start reading Wolfe you realized you’ve definitely wandered– or plunged– into the literary side of this spectrum.) The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, and all of the Sun books are enough to cement his reputation, and they remain among my all-time favorite books. Yet the man is still writing, and I’m still obligingly reading everything that comes from his pen or whatever word-processing software he uses. The Land Across, a standardly (for Wolfe) unclassifiable novel that straddles the boundary between crime mystery, international espionage thriller, and supernatural fantasy, is his latest.

I’ll be honest, some of his most recent stand-alone novels seem like they could be a bit inaccessible to someone not familiar with Wolfe and his tricks. I come to them with a predisposition to love the writing and the writer. Even so, I left An Evil Guest with a confused frown and The Sorcerer’s House with a wry sigh. I closed The Land Across with a perplexed grin. It was nowhere near (to me) as impenetrable as Castleview (for which I lack the Arthurian key). Of all Wolfe’s novels, the one of which it reminded me the most was There Are Doors, but with the soft alienness of a foreign country instead of a parallel dimension. (I also recall Doors as having lots of conversations in cafes, as does Land.)

On the surface, the plot is not straightforward at all. In fact, it’s bewilderingly complex. The main character, Grafton, wants to write a travel book about an unnamed and difficult-to-reach Eastern European country. While traveling there by train he gets picked up by the border patrol and arrested as a possible spy. Under a loose sort of house arrest, he agrees to rent a (probably) haunted house in which there is reputed to be treasure. He gets kidnapped by an underground revolutionary movement and eventually arrested again by the country’s secret police. When his cell-mate escapes, the secret police enlist Grafton to help track the man down. The escapee seems to know some magic, and a secret society of Satanists gets involved. Mysteries are solved. Long conversations are held in cafes. Women (who, married or not, seem to throw themselves at the narrator) are obligingly slept with. Grafton gets awarded a medal by the country’s dictator. Then he goes back to see if he can find the treasure in the haunted house.

If all that seems rather random and scattered, it is. But the genius of Wolfe’s writing is the way he makes it all seem natural. There are aspects of the supernatural and the surreal, but as with most of Wolfe’s writing these aspects are subtle and the bones of the story are the people and the conversations they have. Wolfe is the only writer I know who can create what seems like an action-packed novel but where most of the action is actually taking place in conversations over cafe tables. He is a master of relaying dialogue the way it actually occurs in conversations. People talk like real people in Wolfe’s novels, with all the logical leaps and half-understood or misunderstood transfers of information that this normally entails. The challenge is that Wolfe doesn’t put you in the narrator’s head, so you’re required to make the leaps and conclusions on your own. The narrator might throw you a clue, but for the most part he assumes you can keep up.

I was left, as I so often am after reading Wolfe, with the feeling that there was a lot more going on in the novel than I figured out. Even though, as far as Wolfe novels go, there was a fair degree of closure. There are lingering puzzles: the jarring and dream-like way in which Grafton was first taken off the train at the beginning of the novel, the unnamed lady he meets a few times and then exits the narrative with, and finally the ghostly figure of the Leader himself (as well as Vlad the Impaler) that haunts Grafton throughout the story. But these aren’t large enough or central enough that their mystery detracts from feeling as though I’ve understood the story at all. (Though, with Wolfe, you can’t get away from the feeling that he’s laughing at you because the real story, the secret story taking place in the sewers beneath or the back alleys behind the narrative hinges on solving these lingering mysteries.)

Wolfe’s novels should be read multiple times, ideally immediately after having finished it for the first time. But I am still a bit of a lazy reader, so I was pleased The Land Across did not immediately draw me into a story of tangential pathways and dizzying divergences like Abel’s quest in the Wizard Knight books. Indeed, once Grafton fell in with the secret police, the “case” of solving where his escaped cellmate was and finding the identity of the head of the secret Satanist cult formed a more or less consistent thread on which the novel rested. And this thread was, at least superficially, resolved.

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

The Fifth Head of CerberusThe Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can’t keep beginning reviews of Gene Wolfe’s work with “one of the best books I’ve ever read” or “one of my favorite books of all time,” so I’ll begin instead with Ursula K. Le Guin’s blurb on the cover of my edition. She says that The Fifth Head of Cerberus is “a subtle, ingenious, poetic, and picturesque book; the uncertainty principle embodied in brilliant fiction.” I like that, especially the first part: this book is a subtle and ingenious puzzle, but it’s one clothed in poetic and picturesque language of the highest quality. So, yeah, I will go ahead and say it after all: one of my favorite books of all time.

The work is actually three separate novellas or novelettes. (I’m unsure of the word count, though the shortest, the middle one, is about sixty pages, while the final and longest is over one hundred.) I say separate, but they fit together like the pieces of a well-crafted and interlocking puzzle. Certain words or hints dropped in the first will only make sense after the final story is completed.

The stories take place on the twin worlds of St. Anne and St. Croix against a backdrop of colonialism, slavery, and (possible) genocide. The first story, set in a brothel in one of the cities of St. Anne, captures a rusticity and faded gentrification reminiscent of New Orleans. The first wave of settlers on St. Anne were French, but since then there’s been a war, and the setting (which spans much of the city) has a flavor of faded glory and isolation. The narrative centers around the narrator coming of age and his relationship with his brothel-master and geneticist father. Besides the science fiction elements, which remain subtle, the story is most striking in its tone– the mystery and mystique of an antique house filled with tall, silent women; the city and the slave market– all seen from the point of view of a child growing up and colored with by the dream-like perceptions of one who finds himself the subject of a years- (and perhaps generations-) long experiment.

There are deeper mysteries as well, perhaps only tangential to the first story but central to the second and third. The narrator of the first tale encounters one of these in the course of his childhood schooling, which is simply: what became of the aboriginal natives of St. Croix? There are theories that they did not die out but instead replaced the first wave of settlers and now masquerade as humans. Late in the story, the narrator encounters an anthropologist who has been on St. Croix and accuses him of being one of these native Annese. Yet this is not the riddle central to the first story, which reaches an oedipal conclusion involving cloning, entropy, and regeneration.

In the second story the scene shifts to St. Croix, ostensibly before the wave of French colonization. The narrative here straddles the boundary of history and legend in what seems a relatively straightforward account of the aboriginals on the eve of colonization. There’s a quality about it that makes me recall stories of the Dreamtime among Australian aboriginals, heightened by hints that the aboriginals can change form and the presence of the enigmatic Shadow Children– who may be the actual pre-French, original human settlers or perhaps the aboriginals who replaced them, depending on who is asking and when. This story concludes with the arrival of the new wave of colonists and the realization that a culture will be complete, inexorably lost.

Finally, the third story brings together the strands of the first two and picks up additional pieces in what I thought was the most effective of the trio (on this read). The narrative here is stitched together from interviews, journals, and interrogation recordings being sifted through by a bored official on St. Anne. You quickly come to learn that these are documents related to the case of the anthropologist we met in the first story. He traveled from Earth to St. Anne to attempt to document any surviving evidence regarding the fate of the aboriginal Annese, who have now all but disappeared. Here the aboriginals have the feel of the Fair Folk from European legend, and the blend of science fiction, folklore, and field research is rich, non-linear, and incredibly fun to read. The anthropologist heads into the wilderness in search of lingering aboriginals, certain events transpire, and he reemerges years later to travel to the university on St. Croix, where he is incarcerated as a spy.

Wolfe is doing multiple things with this particular story. There’s the unnamed official himself, flipping back and forth through the materials forming the narrative, slowly allowing us to re-create the events along with him. There’s the account of the anthropologist and his studies and his venture into the wilderness, which reads in places like a nineteenth-century travelogue, and then the 1984-esque accounts of him in interminable detention on St. Croix and subject to random and ominous interrogations. There’s commentary on colonialism and politics and slavery (which is ubiquitous on St. Croix), interviews with early colonists who may or may not have interacted with the aboriginals, and finally the puzzle itself of what happened to the Annese and what happened to the man who came to study them (which I think Wolfe gives us just enough in the second two stories to piece together).

It’s an incredibly gorgeous, subtle, brilliant, lovely book. This is the book that put Wolfe on the map, and if you like good storytelling and beautiful riddles, regardless of how you feel about science fiction, it should put him on yours.

Spoilers: Here’s my own answer to the riddle, in case you care. The first story is still largely inscrutable to me, but it’s pretty clear from the second and especially the third that by the time the anthropologist comes to St. Croix, he has been replaced by an aboriginal (specifically, the boy whom he hired as his guide into the wild). The Shadow Children are the original human colonists who came to the St. Anne, perhaps centuries before the French. They have dwindled until they’re almost a thing of legend to the aboriginals themselves, though their original coming influenced the Annese to take human form. When the French come, the first French colonists are indeed replaced by the Annese. (The narrator speaks of a war, which the French lost. Colonists of other nationalities come after this war, and the French survivors they encounter are actually the Annese.) Certain descriptions by early settlers of the “aboriginals” (who are seen as little better than animals and killed on sight) are prime example of Wolfe’s subtle treatment of horror and identity when you realize they are instead the remaining Shadow Children and indeed human.

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Shadows of the New Sun

Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene WolfeShadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe by Bill Fawcett

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If you love Gene Wolfe, read this book. If you don’t know who Gene Wolfe is, or if you haven’t yet gotten around to reading his stuff, don’t read this book. Read his stuff. Because, consider: for what other contemporary science fiction and fantasy author could you publish an anthology with original contributions by such well-known and respected names all somehow influenced by and tributing him? Even if you don’t believe all your nerdy and literary friends about how great Gene Wolfe is, you should believe Gaiman and Brin and Haldeman and Zahn.

That said, I only gave the anthology two stars. As much as I wanted to like every story in here, I was less than impressed by many of them. It’s probably not fair to compare them to Wolfe’s own stories (the anthology is Shadows of the New Sun, after all), but I couldn’t help it. A story written about Severian by someone other than Wolfe? Someone else trying to play with myth and allegory in a Latro tale? A view of Ushas through non-Wolfean eyes? They felt flat to me. Even Gaiman’s contribution was a bit of a disappointment. I would also have enjoyed hearing more about Wolfe’s life and influence; the introductory paragraphs before each story weren’t enough, especially when each story was followed by author bios two or three times as long.

There were bright spots. I especially enjoyed the contributions by Brin, Allston, Swanwick, and Zahn. Maybe because they were original pieces, and to me that seems the best tribute to Wolfe: be original. Do fine writing, but be original. Not that the others were totally derivative, they just weren’t Wolfe enough to play in Wolfe’s worlds or to play the kind of literary games that Wolfe does so well. Or I’m just picky when it comes to my favorite writer. If anything, this anthology (in particular Swanwick’s story) did inspire me to re-read The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and that may be the best gift of all.

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