Last year I tried twice (unsuccessfully) to finish The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Retrospective of His Finest Fiction, giving up in defeat. Many SFF readers are baffled and frustrated by his stories, because they are packed with metaphors, literary references, hidden themes, and require extremely close reading to understand and appreciate. I did get a lot of supportive feedback from various readers who encountered the same difficulties, including a very knowledgeable person named “Aramini”.
When the 2016 Hugo Awards were announced, Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 was the runner-up in the Best Related Work category. It’s an 826-page analysis covering Wolfe’s output through 1986, including all of his short stories (no matter how obscure, including his earliest works) along with his novels The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, Free Live Free, and The Book of the New Sun. It is truly a work of dedication, a painstaking analysis of symbols, names, literary references, and themes of each story, and yet clearly the work of a fan rather than a dry scholarly study. So I thought an interview was in order, and Marc Aramini graciously agreed to answer some questions below.
Stuart Starosta: First off, congratulations on publishing this massive study of the first half of Gene Wolfe ’s body of work. It’s a tremendous achievement, clearly a labor of love. I assume it took shape from numerous discussions on the Urth Mailing List over many years. At what point did you actually start writing down your thoughts about his work, and when did you decide that you wanted to make this into a book-length analysis?
Marc Aramini: I encountered Wolfe quite by accident in the fourth grade when my father’s friend, knowing I loved science fiction, gave my a box of books from the SFBC which included The Claw of the Conciliator. I had to track down a used copy of The Shadow of the Torturer, but the disparate attitudes of my immediate family, with my mystical and superstitious grandmother, my staunchly religious Catholic mother, and my pragmatic father, drew me in to the numinous and tense atmosphere of the book.
When I was at college in the late 90s, I came across the postings of the Urth Mailing List and began to intermittently post, on and off, for years. I felt some of my insights were unique, but I had no idea that anyone would think much of my writings about Wolfe until I attended the Fuller Award Ceremony in Chicago in March of 2012, in which Wolfe was honored in an amazing ceremony. When I introduced myself to someone, a gentleman nearby recognized my name and came over to speak with me, and the sense that, at least in this small circle, I was well known, produced a vivid realization.
As I talked with other prominent fans like Patrick O’Leary, Michael Swanwick, James Wynn, and Michael Andre-Driussi, among others too numerous to name here, we lamented the fact that all of the discussion seemed focused on the New Sun books, when the early work was also very rich and, at least in our opinions, important. I vowed to go home and start a chronological study of the neglected short stories, imagining myself as a facilitator on the Urth List. After about a dozen of those, I realized true discussion required thorough research and the willingness to make strong thematic claims, and by the time I got to about the sixtieth story or so I had started to normalize the format and realized I had enough for an actual book … which would require some serious editing for those first sixty entries in terms of both format and quality – something which became a little bit of an unending nightmare.
Gene Wolfe’s works are notorious for being difficult for beginning readers to understand. The narrators are generally unreliable, and the surface story usually hides a wealth of themes, allusions, and hidden agendas. What type of reader is likely to become a Gene Wolfe fan? How much knowledge of classical and modern literature is needed to really appreciate his work? Do you immediately pick up his literary references or do you have to research them while or after reading? Does Wolfe really expect his readers to be as well-read as he is?
Wolfe’s difficulty is real, and his attitude is one that requires a certain level of real engagement from the readers. I would by lying if I said he doesn’t enjoy tricking the reader: sometimes he isn’t telling you the story that you think he is, and this genre confusion is even present in The Book of the New Sun, which reads so much like a fantasy while playing with the tropes of SF, autobiography, and religious narrative (perhaps even hagiography). Sometimes you can just enjoy the book, but the vast historical backdrop behind a story such as “The Sailor Who Sailed After the Sun,” with its wealth of mythical and literary allusions, really brings home the beautiful theme of the story: all things pass away from their physical forms in time and risk being lost, but many things cast into the vast immensity of the sea, somehow, are still rediscovered, their oblivion but temporary.
I must do research, though I fancy myself well-versed in both the history of SF and Fantasy and in English and American Literature. The most unfair thing Wolfe ever did was refer to a volume of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories in “In Looking Glass Castle” … I had to read a ridiculous amount of them before I realized he was riffing on “The Horla,” about a shadowy thing driving the main character to suicide. In that same short story, he refers to obscure works on mathematics by Lewis Carroll, the works of Kafka, The Cradle of the Deep by Joan Lowell, and is also in a dialogue with James Tiptree Jr and perhaps Joanna Russ as well – and one could easily imagine him throwing in a particularly Catholic symbol or two if he were so inclined.
That requires an erudition and breadth of interest that I think is beyond the vast majority of readers, and I, too, have to do a fair amount of research at times, some of it coming to nothing (though I am a Catholic ex-scientist who loves classic literature, puzzles, and pulpy SF and Fantasy as well – I think some of my appreciation for Wolfe is in that close overlap of interests – though Wolfe is trickier and smarter than me, with a much firmer grasp on the currents of history). Wolfe’s stories are fun even if you don’t understand them, at their best. I don’t think Wolfe expects his readers to get every puzzle, but he does throw down a gauntlet. The irony is of course that many otherwise competent critics and readers seem to think that there is nothing behind the artifice: you are dealing with a Catholic engineer here, who uses symbols like a concrete scaffolding.
Gene Wolfe has always been open about being a Catholic SF writer, and I believe his religious beliefs strongly influence his stories, particularly The Book of the New Sun. However, I think his ideas of sin and redemption, and the Christ-like role of Severian as a potential but flawed savior for the dying Urth, are much more complex than the overt Christian overtones of C.S. Lewis ’s Aslan in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA. Do you think Wolfe explores these themes for his own personal reasons, or because he wants readers to think about them? Is there an agenda?
The difficulty here is that Wolfe, unlike most extremely religious writers, is actually a brilliant and practical man. He can look at the world and see both the capacity for good and for evil in human beings, but he also focuses on something that Naturalistic fiction has suppressed: no matter the conditions, no matter the pressure, a human being has the ability to make choices which have real consequences, but also has the capacity to deceive themselves almost infinitely to justify those decisions, good and bad.
I have always argued that if Wolfe deconstructs anything, it is actually subjectivity. The author or demiurge leaves his readers free to make subjective interpretations, all the while knowing that the backdrop of reality has been carefully constructed, and that Truth lurks somewhere, silent, and, even if unknown, not entirely unknowable. I think he loves symbols, but can’t help creating such complicated systems and narrative tangles, sometimes making allegories so complex that they lose the simplicity we associate with the form.
At other times, especially in his short stories, he is clearly being allegorical, as the giant in “The Legend of Xi Cygnus” represents the natural world and its exploitation at the hands of evil dwarfs who even mine its blood for selfish resources to make their lives more indolent until some force greater than nature, which we should respect lest we perish, takes notice. The mythical creatures in that who serve the giant are of course the myths that hold a great respect for the natural world, and so forth. Somehow, even that isn’t obvious on a first read. His agenda is complicated, but first and foremost he wants to tell a rich, deep story that can be appreciated more than once.
The entire SOLAR CYCLE constitutes 12 volumes, including The Book of the New Sun, The Urth of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun. I have read The Book of the New Sun twice and recognize it as a masterpiece that rewards repeated readings and listenings. However, when I tried the Long Sun series I found it a struggle to get past the first two books. The pace seemed painfully slow and the events unengaging, particularly the extended break-in of Blood’s house that stretched for 100 pages. Would you say that these latter two series are not as accomplished or reader-friendly as The Book of the New Sun series? For example, the The Book of the New Sun books have a total number of ratings in the thousands (from 14,872 ratings for Shadow of the Torturer to 3,790 ratings for Urth of the New Sun), but only 625-991 ratings for The Book of the Long Sun, and 905-1,113 ratings for The Book of the Short Sun. Can you explain the gap?
I actually think Wolfe was trying to be MORE reader friendly in The Book of the Long Sun by dropping the archaic vocabulary and twisted sentences, as we can see a definite change in his style and a shift towards more minimalist techniques. However, his very need to do something different (save, of course, being cryptic as hell) every single time can alienate readers. I read The Book of the Long Sun when it first came out, and remember thinking, gosh, is this the same author who wrote The Book of the New Sun? However, the second time I read the entire cycle, after the release of Exodus from the Long Sun, I realized that it was just as deep, symbolic, and rewarding as The Book of the New Sun, without the baroque excess, and that this fit Wolfe’s new goal. They are all great novels, but Wolfe’s increasing reliance on subtext rather than text, moving the miraculous behind the scenes, definitely, in my opinion, keeps readers from truly appreciating these later works. (Which is a shame, because The Book of the Short Sun is the best thing he has written, in my opinion, working on every level.)
The truth is that Peace, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and The Book of the New Sun are OBVIOUSLY great even if the reader puts in no work beyond the surface, and the wealth of analysis and help along the way make it quite clear that they are dealing with an author of genius, while Wolfe’s later works trade in the pyrotechnics and ornate embellishment for an ever increasing subtlety and economy of expression that is almost antithetical to our initial impressions of Wolfe as an artist from The Book of the New Sun: he is far more literary than we at first supposed.
I believe you are planning to publish a second volume to cover the second half of Wolfe’s work, but I noticed in a recent comment you made in the Gene Wolfe Fans group on Goodreads that you might have to split volume 2 into two separate books due to length. What do you think is a rough timetable for the next two volumes, and what works are they likely to cover?
This has been a difficult year for everyone. I had planned to be done by July with everything, but while I was busy with those plans, life happened, as they say. I have finished the analyses of all of the short stories, and am working on finishing up the Latro in the Mist and The Book of the Short Sun essays, which will be the capstone of the second volume, and thus need to be as perfect as I can make them. Luckily, I know exactly what I want to say and each of them is about halfway done. The second volume, Beyond Time and Memory, will contain write ups on Latro in the Mist, The Urth of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, The Book of the Short Sun, There Are Doors, Castleview, Pandora by Holly Hollander, and all of Wolfe’s short fiction from 1987 to 2001.
The project was simply getting too long to fit in one volume. The third, as yet unnamed, will have everything else up to now. For that, I must finish a write up each for The Wizard Knight, Soldier of Sidon, An Evil Guest, The Sorcerers House, The Land Across, and A Borrowed Man. So eight essays left total. In a project which spans almost 250 essays, that doesn’t seem like much, but the novels have to be as strong as I can make them, so I really can’t give you a time table yet considering that my editor must also look over the second volume. Luckily, I have done a much better job of editing as I composed this time and have also written in a format which can be immediately translated into an ebook with individual entries for a table of contents, something which had to be done after the fact last time. On my end, little editing is left. I hope to have them as soon as possible, but that will also rely on my editor Matthew King’s workload. I owe him a special debt – the first volume would have been a truly complex, dense, and impenetrable mess without his painstaking attention and patient effort. I hope this time around he will have to do much less.