Editor’s note: Stuart originally posted a review of this book in December 2015. This is a new version of the review.
The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Retrospective of His Finest Fiction by Gene Wolfe
I decided to tackle this collection for a third time, this time armed with Marc Aramini’s Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986, an 826-page analysis covering Wolfe’s output through 1986, including most of his short stories (no matter how obscure) along with 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.
Gene Wolfe is frequently described as one of the most brilliant SF writers in the genre by critics, authors, and readers alike. Some fans praise his books above all others, and there is a WolfeWiki page dedicated to discussing his work. This makes it very difficult to raise a note of dissent without feeling like the only one who doesn’t get it. But there are certainly many SFF readers that 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.
One recurring response I get when I complain I didn’t understand Wolfe is that you won’t understand a Wolfe story until the second reading or more. That struck me as strange – why should a reader have to read something twice to get it? It sounds like work rather than pleasure. And I think this is what separates Wolfe fans from others. If you take pleasure in closely examining a puzzle or riddle, are always on the lookout for a possible reference, hidden meaning in a character’s name, or a key story element hidden in a seemingly casual offhand comment, then his stories can be an addictive puzzle. Judging from the number of awards he’s won and his dedicated fan base, there is certainly a contingent who find the effort worthwhile, but I think it’s fair to say his work is an acquired taste. Many will find that it isn’t worth it, or lacks the enjoyment of their favorite writers.
Last year I finally read one of his earliest books, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), which consisted of three loosely-connected novellas narrated by some very unreliable characters gradually revealing a series of puzzles and mysteries for the reader to unlock. It was very challenging work, but intriguing enough to make the effort worthwhile. Please see my review for details.
So next I decided to try this collection of his best short stories, selected by the author himself. It’s a hefty tome with 31 stories spanning 478 pages. It includes a number of award winners, which I probably should have focused on, but I went ahead and started at the beginning. And discovered that Gene Wolfe’s short stories are more often than not inscrutable, impenetrable, and frustrating. First off, his favorite story element is unreliable narrators, who frequently do not identify themselves, and often has a piecemeal memory of events that they relay out of sequence. Wolfe loves to toy with the reader, sprinkling little breadcrumbs amidst an otherwise mundane surface story that we are supposed to pick up, digest, think deeply upon, and finally figure out what the author was carefully hiding in a second reading. Is this his idea of fun? For whom, I might inquire?
I understand the idea of not spoon-feeding the reader by spelling out exactly what a story is about, and avoiding a heavy-handed message at the end. Really, I get that. But I was literally at a loss at the end of most of the stories in this collection, since Wolfe simply cuts off the ending without any clear explanation whatsoever. So I initially gave up on this collection one-third of the way through, then decided to give it another chance and only made it to the midway point with no better luck. I decided to cut my losses and move on to other books that provided more immediate rewards.
Eight months later 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 (losing out to No Award, unfortunately, but that is another story). I recalled that someone by that name had posted a number of very helpful and insightful comments on my initial, frustrated review of this collection. Indeed they are the same person. And so here I am, making a third attempt to scale Mount Wolfe, armed with some serious firepower.
Here are reviews of the most notable stories, assisted by the analysis of a truly dedicated Wolfe scholar and fan. 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.
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 this book, perhaps you can listen to some of his YouTube videos first to get an idea of his erudition and enthusiasm. But since the greatest pleasure is solving the puzzles central to each story, they will not be revealed here.
“The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” (1970)
This is the story of Tackman Babcock, a lonely young boy who must entertain himself in the beach house operated by his mother near the sea. He is mostly neglected by his mother, aunts, and his mother’s male companions Jason and Dr. Black. So he spends much of his time reading a book given to him by Jason (shop-lifted, actually). In the book, Captain Ransom is the hero and ends on Doctor Death’s Island. Doctor Death experiments on animals, turning them into monstrous half-men. This is a clear tribute to H.G. Wells’ classic The Island of Dr. Moreau, but there are many more layers to this story.
The characters from the book begin to weave themselves into Tackman’s daily life, addressing him and having conversations. Soon the distinctions between his imagination and reality blur, and when strange events begin to occur in the house, we begin to see the meta-narrative come into focus. Wolfe is playing with the structure of narrative and the power of imagination, while also exploring the lonely world of an unwanted boy and the callous adults that surround him.
“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (1972)
We are introduced to the twin worlds of Saint Croix and Saint Anne, which were originally colonized by French settlers but were overtaken by later waves of colonists from Earth. There are stories that Saint Anne had an original race of aboriginals that were wiped out by the French colonists, but details are strangely vague. In fact, some claim that the initial race were shapeshifters, suggesting they may still remain, hidden in plain sight.
Our protagonist is a boy growing up in a mysterious villa with his brother David, raised under the watchful tutelage of Mr. Million, a robot guardian who educates them. The boy and his brother initially are not cognizant of their father’s business, a high-end brothel, knowing only that there is a steady stream of wealthy visitors that come to their property to be entertained. Their father is a distant and somewhat menacing presence who shows little interest in them until one day he invites them to his laboratory. He begins to give them a series of tests, more like experiments, which involve drugs, psychological tests, and leave them both drained and uncertain of their memories afterward. This continues for some time.
The boys eventually encounter a young girl who becomes their companion, get into some petty criminal activities together, and finally the boy is taken further into his father’s confidences. The details that are revealed cast the entire story into a different light, and the story takes a stranger turn as a mysterious anthropologist from Earth named John V. Marsh shows up, asking to speak with the author of the Veil Hypothesis, which suggests that the native aboriginals were never wiped out, but instead…
“The Death of Dr. Island” (1973)
This story won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 1973, and had its genesis as a sort of jest when Isaac Asimov mistakenly announced that “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” had won the Nebula Award, when “No Award” had the most votes. So Wolfe decided to write an inversion of that story, playing with the title and themes as he is wont to do, and producing one of his most impressive stories.
The setting is very unique and important. A young boy named Nicholas emerges from a hatch in an island environment, naked and alone, surrounded by trees, ocean, and wind. Initially he explores silently, before the surrounding objects, both animate and inanimate, address him as Dr. Island. He then encounters an older youth named Ignatio, who attacks him without warning when he asks for some fish to eat. Finally he runs into Diane, who is not violent but also seems mentally disturbed.
Dr. Island reveals that the island environment is artificially made and intended as a place to provide therapy for them so they can rejoin normal society eventually. Nicholas is sociopathic and has undergone radical brain surgery to cure his behavior, and Ignatio is homicidal. Diane herself has catatonic episodes. But Dr. Island is not forthcoming with some very crucial details, and the “Death of Dr. Island” is a very multi-layered play on words that will only be revealed at the end.
The story of course has overt Christian imagery, namely the Garden of Eden in which our three characters are thrust into, naked and ignorant, and there are even serpents and fruits involved, along with the disembodies voice of Dr. Island who monitors this world. And yet it is far more than a simplistic metaphor for the loss of innocence – Wolfe subverts the analogy at every turn, in ways so subtle that multiple readings are needed to discover the little clues and recurring imagery that point to the natural world and contrast it with the artificial purposes of this future society and its treatment of the mentally disturbed. It is an intensely moralistic but sophisticated story, and for once I could appreciate the emotional lives of the characters, which are often distant in Wolfe stories. Definitely a highlight of the collection.
This may be one of the most inscrutable and bizarre stories of the collection, and that is saying something. I honestly didn’t like it when I first finished it, but after reading Aramini’s analysis, I could better appreciate what he was doing, even if I would never have recognized most of the references he embedded in the story.
Emmanuel Forlesen wakes up one morning, with no knowledge of anything, even his own name. He encounters a woman making breakfast, who turns out to be his wife, and she urges him to “read the orientation manual”. It feels a lot like The Truman Show or a PKD story at that moment. The manual welcomes him to planet Planet, and tells him everything is normal and not to be concerned, also indicating that any memories he has of the past are false, and urging him to not be late for work.
On his drive to work at Model Pattern Products he has two strange encounters, the first with a policeman who pulls him over when he pauses to look over the side of the elevated road, threatening him with a gun to get going. This bit strangely reminded me of a Cordwainer Smith story named “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, though mostly just for the surreal nature of the highway itself. His second encounter is with a strange old hitchhiker named Abraham Beale, who has lost his job and his farm. Abraham has done many jobs in the past, but it seems that modern society no longer has need of him. Forlesen drops off Abraham at a dog food factory and heads to the office.
The extended office sequence marks the bulk of the story, in which Forlesen meets a series of supervisors, secretaries, and working groups. The supervisors make inane sports metaphors about teamwork and results, the secretaries complain of problem employees. Forlesen is asked to join the Creativity Group meeting, which seems utterly pointless and futile, and then Leadership Problem Quiz, which seems equally meaningless. Events get more and more surreal, with dozens of tiny details that suggest possible hidden meanings but without obvious references. Finally at the end Forlesen meets the Examiner, who asks him, “What’ll it be? Doctor, priest, philosopher, theologian, actor, warlock, National Hero, aged lore master, or novelist?”
Forlesen replies “I want to know if it’s meant anything…if what I’ve suffered – if it’s been worth it.” To which the Examiner’s answer is “No…Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Maybe.”
It’s cryptic, but clearly Wolfe is ridiculing the modern corporate life and contrasting it with the lost working-class professions of the past represented by Abraham. It’s very much like The Office but not the slightest bit funny, just leaving a bad taste of futility and confusion, which is what I assume Wolfe was after. Aramini manages to find a wealth of insight from all the cryptic clues of the story, but the overall message is loud and clear even if the details remain a mystery.
“The Hero as Werwolf” (1975)
This story is much more accessible than Forlesen, though clearly important themes are hidden below the surface. It is about a young man named Paul, who is hunting food in a European city in the indeterminate future. As the story progresses, we learn that he is hunting the Masters of the city as food, while he considers himself human and separate from them. In the midst of the hunt, he runs into an old man and young girl who have selected the same wealthy couple as targets, and initially the dispute over who has prior claims. Paul is intrigued with the thought of another human girl, as they are very rare and humans live a furtive and fugitive existence in the Masters’ city.
He tracks down the old man and daughter and tries to negotiate to gain possession of the girl as a mate, for lack of a better word. The father resists, insisting he cannot care for the girl, who is mute and feral. But Paul insists, and they become hunting partners. When their target, a little boy, flees into a building, Paul and the girl rush in to pursue him, and just when they have captured the boy, and accident causes Paul’s leg to get caught in a door. The girl takes the only action she can think of to free him…and the story abruptly ends. I remember looking up and thinking, “WTF?” It’s a common feeling after finishing a Wolfe story. After reading Aramini’s careful analysis and re-reading it I understood a lot more, but it’s certainly a tricky one. At least it can be enjoyed as a tense narrative with interesting world-building. But that ending…
“The Eyeflash Miracles” (1976)
This story completely defeated me in my second attempt to read this collection. It has all the elements that excite Wolfe fans who want to delve into the huge number of religious allusions to the Wizard of Oz, birth of Christ, and Krishna as an incarnation of Vishnu, as it depicts the empty mechanistic hell of a secular and technology-dominated world where the marginalized members of society are cast aside. If you are not familiar with the above elements, the story of young blind Little Tib, Nitty, Mr. Parker, and Pravithi are almost incomprehensible. So I think this perfectly encapsulates what can drive a normal reader completely mad with frustration – the surface events seem unconnected, insignificant, and confusing, but for those readers cognizant of the undercurrents, themes, and religious symbolism, it is a rich and complex fable of a young man who may be Christ and Krishna, performing miracles in a fallen world as fantasy and reality converge, till they link hands and skip down the yellow brick road into the sunset at the end. Without Marc Aramini’s insight, I would never have gotten through this one.
“Seven American Nights” (1978)
This is one of the most fascinating and tantalizing stories of the collection and was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella. It is the story of Nadan Jafferzadah, a wealthy Iranian adventurer and arts/cultural tourist who journeys across the Atlantic to visit a future America devastated by chemical weapons. The story’s title is an obvious play on the Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights) collection of Middle Eastern and other folk tales that date back to the 8th century and earlier with their origins mainly in India and Persia. They coincide with the Islamic Golden Age of the 8th to 13th centuries, so they story’s setting is an ironic turning of the tables, with America in decline and Europe back in ascendancy.
Nadan writes the story in the form of a travel diary, with entries for each day, as he explores a Silent City dominated by ancient decaying ruins of a great civilization. We soon learn that this city is an ancient center of government, but the people living there are much diminished from their former greatness, as many are deformed by genetic defects caused by the chemical weapons war that wrecked the US.
He makes many observations expressing his pity for the sad state of affairs, but respect for the old architecture, art, and accomplishments of this once-great nation. He is eager to try American foods, theatre, and the local women as well. He takes a particular interest in a nearby theatre playing Gore Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planet and J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose, who is more famous for Peter Pan. He attends regularly and becomes romantically involved with the lead actress Ardis and her leading man Bobby. He also tours the city and has various encounters and glimpses of mysterious events whose importance are not immediately clear.
The details of the story are incredibly intricate. Most things seem innocuous coincidences, but as we realize that his journal entries may be concealing various details, and he experiments with some drug-infused marzipan eggs, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept what is being told. As events become more bizarre and sinister, it is unclear what is truth or hallucination. There are also various subtle clues that our narrator may not be the carefree tourist he claims to be.
I read this story twice, once before reading the extensive analysis of Marc Armini and once afterward, and was astounded by the amount of minute scholarship and analysis that he and others in the URTH mailing list have devoted to understanding this story. It is open to myriad interpretations of its cryptic events, to the point that plausible cases can be made for completely different explanations. There are a plethora of literary allusions, and Aramini and others have tracked down a wealth of details and parallels to events and themes the story explores, along with the significance of various character names. However, it should be notes that the story holds up as a finely-wrought story with multiple layers of meaning, and a cryptic ending that forces you to rethink everything that has come before. It is a masterpiece on par with Wolfe’s other great novellas here, “Fifth Head of Cerberus” and “The Death of Dr. Island”.
“A Cabin on the Coast” (1981)
This is a tricky little story about a young man named Timothy Ryan Neal, whose father is a Democratic senator. Tim goes to a cabin on the coast for a weekend trip with his girlfriend Lissy. He goes for a swim early in the morning and sees a mysterious ship on the horizon. He goes back to the cabin and discusses his father’s political career with Lissy, and she worries their relationship could be an issue, but Tim insists that they should get married.
One morning Tim wakes up to find Lissy gone. He assumes she has gone for an early morning swim, but finds her swimsuit wet and hanging on a chair. On further reflection he remembers she is generally afraid to go in the water beyond her knees, but the car is still there. He goes to the police to report her missing, but they tell him they have to wait 24 hours. He goes back to the ocean to see if she has gone swimming, worried that she might have drowned, and sees the mysterious ship again.
Revealing any more spoils the story’s many surprises. In typical Wolfe fashion, most of the stories details only take on significance when you read the conclusion, at which point I wanted to read the story a second time. There is a very strong element of the fantastic buried in the otherwise mundane details of the story, which are only apparent in hindsight.
“The Tree is My Hat” (1999)
I just noticed that every story I’ve highlighted as noteworthy comes from Wolfe’s prolific period in the 1970s except for “A Cabin on the Coast” (1981) and this one that comes 18 years later. Generally Wolfe’s stories don’t really have that many details that would place them in a specific year, and often feel fable-like in tone. This story mentions tech details the others don’t — setting up a new Mac and checking emails, but beyond that it also feels like somewhat timeless.
This is another typically unreliable Wolfe narrator, a series of diary entries like “Seven American Nights”. In this case, it’s a man named Baden (“Bad” for short) who is a government employee taking time to convalesce from an unnamed illness on a remote island in the Pacific. He drops various details about bad episodes, with fever, shakes, and hallucinations. He is friends with the local missionary Robert, and the local tribe’s leader, who lets him join in some local ceremonies. He drops comments indicating he is married but separated, and hopes to get back with Mary, begging the question of why he’s on a remote island.
Much like “A Cabin on the Coast”, initially the details are realistic, but elements of the fantastic start to creep into the story, and we cannot be certain if they are due to hallucinations or other factors. Baden takes up with a local woman who the chieftain suggests would be good for him. She shows him a mysterious ruin of an ancient pagan temple, which gives him an ominous feeling. He also encounters a strange dwarf-like man alone under a tree named “Hanga” with filed teeth. It is Hanga who explains that he avoids sunburn by making a hat out of coconut leaves, saying simply “the tree is my hat”. There are clearly other meanings to that phrase, though I am somewhat at a loss what they are.
In any case, things get very strange and frightening when his wife and kids show up on the island, as his entries get very erratic and confused. The ending is very bizarre indeed, though there are certainly clues planted in the early going, but none that fully foreshadow what happens eventually. I don’t really know what to make of these events, but his relationship with his family is complex and somewhat problematic.