Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 by Marc Aramini
Last year I tried twice (unsuccessfully) to finish The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Retrospective of His Finest Fiction, giving up in defeat. Gene Wolfe is frequently described as one of the most brilliant SFF writers in the genre by critics, authors, and readers alike. Some fans prize his books above all others, and there is a WolfeWiki page dedicated to discussing his work. But there are also many SFF readers that are baffled and frustrated by his stories because they are packed with metaphors, literary references, and hidden themes, and require extremely close reading to understand and appreciate. So I didn’t expect to make any more attempts in the near future.
However, when the 2016 Hugo Awards were announced, I noticed that 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.
I recalled that someone by that name had posted a number of very helpful and insightful comments on my initial, frustrated review of The Best of Gene Wolfe. Indeed they are the same person. And so here I am, making a third attempt to scale Mount Wolfe, armed with some serious firepower. My technique was to read the Wolfe story first, read Aramini’s analysis of it, and then, if it felt worth it, read the story again. This often revealed a great deal of insight as I picked up on many of the clues and allusions buried in the text, previously unrecognized.
Each review in Between Light and Shadow contains a summary of the story, commentary on its themes, literary allusions, significance of character names, unanswered questions (there always are, even after exhaustive analysis), and connections with other works. Aramini even includes bibliographies that reference sources as wide-ranging as the Urth Mailing List, the Bible, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Goethe’s Faust, Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Edgar Allan Poe, James Branch Cabell, Gore Vidal, along with scholarly works about Wolfe like Michael Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus, Robert Borki’s Solar Labyrinth: Exploring Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun,” and Peter Wright’s Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader.
What this suggests is the incredible depth of literary knowledge Wolfe brings to his stories. It’s hard to imagine even the most well-read literature professor or critic catching most of Wolfe’s oblique references, so it’s incredible the amount of research and analysis that Aramini has done, of course with the assistance of the other contributors to the Urth Mailing List. I’m sure many of these insights came after years of discussions on the meaning of his stories. I wonder just how many of these references most of Wolfe’s fans pick up on.
What’s equally impressive about Between Light and Shadow is that he brings this level of attention to every single story Wolfe has written between 1951 – 1986. The early stories, in particular, I didn’t even know existed. Aramini has indicated he plans a second volume to discuss more recent works like The Book of the Long Sun, The Book of the Short Sun, Latro in the Mist, The Wizard Knight, etc. It’s the effort of a lifetime, and deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in Wolfe’s body of work.
Below I’ve listed some of Wolfe’s most notable stories that would be a good entry point if you want to give Wolfe a try. I gained great insight into them from the analysis of Aramini, a truly dedicated Wolfe scholar and fan. He also has a series of YouTube videos explaining Wolfe’s major works — here is the first one with a general overview: Marc Aramini on Gene Wolfe and Literature, Part 1. If you think you might be interested in Between Light and Shadow, perhaps you can listen to some of Aramini’s YouTube videos first to get an idea of his erudition and enthusiasm. For detailed reviews of these stories, please see my review of The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Retrospective of His Finest Fiction.
“The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (1970)
“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (1972)
“The Death of Dr. Island” (1973)
“The Hero as Werwolf” (1975)
“Seven American Nights” (1978)
“A Cabin on the Coast” (1981)
“The Tree is My Hat” (1999)
I love the cover!