The Best of Gene Wolfe

The thing that pleased me most in this anthology of stories by the science-fiction master, Gene Wolfe, was its enormous variety. After all, shouldn’t that be the province of science fiction, to imagine all the possible and impossible worlds? But I find much science fiction distressingly samey: all-too-earthly tropes working themselves out on starships, or with tentacles.

Wolfe, however, seems to be a man of many conceits. “Forlesen” gives us a picture of an entire corporate drone’s life lived in a single day, golden watch and all. “Straw” posits the notion of a medieval world in which errant knights travel by hot-air balloon, and must come down in order to gather more fuel for their ship. “Seven American Nights” gives us an Arabian witness to a far-future America in which our present has become a twisted, nested mythology. “Kevin Malone” is a ghost story; “The Boy Who Hooked the Sun” is a fable; “The Eyeflash Miracles” is part Flannery O’Connor and part Wizard of Oz. I could easily go on, and not tell about the same kind of story twice. There are robots and monsters, faraway planets, diseases and werewolves and automatons. It doesn’t get boring.

I enjoyed these stories a lot. Most of them were sly, well-written, and interesting, like those carved puzzles that reveal more layers when you turn them in your fingers. I did quite frequently have the feeling that I wasn’t quite sure what had happened, at the end; re-reading didn’t always help. Does that mean the stories were too clever for their own good, or does that mean I wasn’t an attentive enough reader? One blurb on the back of the book compared Wolfe to “Dickens, Proust, Kipling, Chesterton, Borges, and Nabokov rolled into one,” and I for one think that might be a teensy exaggeration. Chesterton, maybe. There’s a strong sense of gleeful chaos and moral order to these stories that does reflect Chesterton. The rest, I might allow to pass by.

Still, the stories are good, and interestingly constructed. Have any of you read any of Wolfe’s longer works? Michael Dirda recommends his Book of the New Sun novels, and I will usually take a Dirda recommendation, but would love some backup.

This was the last book I read for our science fiction/ fantasy month. I got about halfway into Kit Whitfield’s In Great Waters, and I was enjoying it, but it was so much overdue at the library that I was practically funding a wing for them, so back it went. Onward and upward!

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9 Responses to The Best of Gene Wolfe

  1. Proust, huh?
    I’ve read The Book of the New Sun and remember it, to the extent that I do remember it, as pretty good. An inventive, well-focused fantasy epic that dodges or inverts the clichés and has some linguistic interest. Teresa would probably like it pretty well, too, since she digs mythic Stephen King.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I found him very inventive, also, and I agree with you about the prose: not bad at all. Next time I’m looking for something like that, I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks for the recommendation. (Proustian, though: not really, though see below.)

  2. shovonc says:

    Hi! You can’t really go wrong with Gene Wolfe. The Book of the New Sun is challenging — a key character is a torturer — but it’s unique and haunting, and the story keeps moving.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for this! There are few authors with whom I’d say you can’t go wrong, so that’s high praise. I’ll see what I think of The Book of the New Sun.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I know this name, but obviously need to get better acquainted with him through more of his fiction.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, for some reason I’d classed him with George R. R. Martin as a sword-and-sorcery guy. Not at all, as it turns out. I think you might like the sheer invention of his stuff, Jeanne.

  4. Tat Wood says:

    Actually, all those comparisons are valid, but not always with the short stories. The Book of the New Sun needs a lot of attention to apparently tiny details and to be read again once you’ve figured out a few of the reasons the narrator’s so unreliable. It also helps if you’ve read a lot of SF, and all those authors cited as comparison, and a bit more Wolfe. I’d start with ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’ instead, and ‘Peace’ (I dare you to deny the Proust influence after those), then a gap and THEN the New Sun books, with as little else on the go as possible.
    And be careful: it might be packaged as Fantasy but it’s all solid SF, just narrated by someone wh doesn’t know he’s in an SF story. There are reasons for everything that happens, although you aren’t going to be given most of them on a plate. That makes it sound like hard work, which it is on a second or third reading, but the first time through it’s a page-turner.
    If he were dead or South American you’d not be able to move for people praising him.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha! South America sounds crowded with SF enthusiasts, then.

      “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” was included in this anthology, and very clever it was, too. I didn’t find it Proustian, however. (I’m not sure anyone has ever applied the words “page-turner” to Proust, incidentally, fond as I am of him, if that was one of the comparisons you were making!) But I look forward to The Book of the New Sun on its own merits. Good literature is good literature, wherever it’s shelved.

  5. Jenny says:

    I tried one Gene Wolfe book this one time, but I did not care for it. However, I have always felt sure that Gene Wolfe and I were destined for a joyous future together. Maybe not via short stories but SOMEDAY IT WILL HAPPEN.

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