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!