The Novels of Gene Wolfe
by Rich Horton
(Some time ago, a variety of threads were posted on rec.arts.sf.written, at the urging of the wonderful James Nicoll, each giving brief summaries of the novels of a given author. I contributed a few, and I'm now posting those here on my web page. The descriptions of each novel are quite short -- these are not full-fledged reviews. Corrections and additions are welcome -- I can be reached at email@example.com.)
I said of Kim Stanley Robinson that he was at his best at the novella length. I don't think precisely that can be said of Gene Wolfe, indeed it is incumbent on me to emphasize that he has done remarkable work at all lengths -- short stories like "La Befana" and "The Marvelous Brass Chess-Playing Automaton", novelettes like "Empires of Foliage and Flower", novellas like "Forlesen", novels like Peace, novel series like the "Soldier" series, and even series of novel series, most obviously the 12 volumes that make up the three "Sun" series. But what stands out to me is still the novellas -- incredible story after incredible story, from early in his career to the present -- "The Fifth Head of Cerberus", "The Death of Dr. Island", "Silhouette", "Forlesen", "Tracking Song", "The Eyeflash Miracles", "Seven American Nights", "The Ziggurat", "Viewpoint". I don't think any other SF writer can match that list of brilliant work at the novella length.
But what we consider here is the novels. And they are awfully good as well, though there are three that I have not yet read.
1. STAND ALONE NOVELS
Operation Ares (1970)
I have not read this. I understand that Wolfe has disavowed it, or at any rate that he prefers to forget about it.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972)
Micole Sudberg and Rachel Brown described this more or less simultaneously as a "novel disguised as a collection". I take them to mean that this is more than just a "fixup" -- that the three component novellas actually work better, are enhanced by their links, which is certainly true. Indeed, only the first novella, also called "The Fifth Head of Cerberus", was original published separately (though Kim Stanley Robinson later reprinted the middle story, "'A Story', by John V. Marsch" in his Future Primitive anthology). The novella "Fifth Head" was a Nebula and Hugo nominee, and I first encountered Wolfe's work when I read Nebula Award Stories 8 at the age of 13. I remember being both fascinated and wholly mystified by the story. A few years later I read the novel -- the Waldenbooks at which I worked carried paperback copies, even though it was past its sellby date at that time, because the manager liked Wolfe's work. (She had earlier worked in a mall near Barrington, IL, Wolfe's home, and describes one day seeing a chubby middle-aged man looking at a copy of the book -- this was, it turns out, Gene Wolfe himself.) At any rate I remember that when reading the novel I figured out all kinds of things I had missed while reading the novella. Also I remember that the novel reading raised even more questions. I reread the novel most recently a couple of years ago, and I think I figured out even more things -- and raised even more questions. This is not an unusual experience with Wolfe's books.
The story is set in a system with two "twin" planets, Ste. Anne and St. Croix. St. Croix has been colonized by humans, while Ste. Anne is still mostly inhabited by aboriginals (the "Annese"), who many people believe to be shapechangers. The first story concerns the coming of age of a boy named "Number Five" on St. Croix, and his growing knowledge of his own identity (one of the Wolfe's most famous jokes is his real name). The second story tells of aboriginal conflict on Ste. Anne. The third is about a man in prison, who may be John V. Marsch, the anthropologist, or Victor Roy Trenchard, an Annese who may have taken Marsch's shape. All three stories deal profoundly with the issues of identity, masks, colonialism, cultural identity, and so on. It's a dizzying performance.
As with many Wolfe books, talking about this might involve spoilers. Let's just say this story is told by Alden Weer, as he remembers his life, his "Book of Gold", and as he tells some ghost stories. A very good book.
The Devil in a Forest (1976)
I read this story a long time ago and don't remember it well. It's YA, set in vaguely medieval setting, with a bad witch and a young hero and a highwayman. Darker than I had expected. Quite good.
Free Live Free (1985)
I haven't read this (shocking omission #1). In general, it seems less well-liked among Wolfe fans than most of his stuff, though it does have its advocates. Apparently based on Oz.
There Are Doors (1988)
In a recent interview Wolfe (reluctantly, after some prompting) named this his favorite among his novels. It's very strange, and I think quite good, if difficult. A man from our world enters an alternate world ruled by women, where men die if they have sex. But he is obsessively in love with a woman he met in his world, who seems to be a goddess in this world. Or, he might just be insane.
An ordinary suburban man, from Northern Illinois, is also apparently an Arthurian hero, and is being drawn to fulfill his true destiny. Perhaps I am simply not sufficiently familiar with the Matter of Britain, but I really didn't "get" this book. I did enjoy the ride, though.
Pandora by Holly Hollander (1990)
One suspects this might be a novel written some time earlier. It's a bit YA in feel. Holly Hollander is a teenaged girl in the Chicago area who gets embroiled in a mystery. I liked it, though it's not earthshakingly great stuff.
Soldier of the Mist (1986)
Soldier of Arete (1989)
Shocking omission #2 -- I haven't read Soldier of Arete. (That's the last shocking omission, actually.) Soldier of the Mist is a very good story about Latro, a soldier during Ancient Greek times, who has a condition whereby he forgets everything overnight. The book is a journal he writes every night to try to keep himself up to date. He also has what appear to be encounters with actual gods. I don't remember the plot well, but I do remember enjoying it. The sequel is generally well-regarded, and a third book in the series may eventually get written -- apparently it would be called Soldier of Sidon, but it will have to wait until after Wolfe's current project.
3. THE SUN BOOKS
3a. THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN
The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)
The Claw of the Conciliator (1981)
The Sword of the Lictor (1981)
The Citadel of the Autarch (1983)
The Urth of the New Sun (1987)
I set The Urth of the New Sun off a bit because it is not technically part of The Book of the New Sun, rather it is a novel-length pendant, supposedly based on a paragraph David Hartwell wanted Wolfe to add at the end of the original tetralogy. Also, I list The Sword of the Lictor as 1981 because that's the copyright date, but it was a 1983 Hugo nominee, so it may not have actually appeared until 1982. The Claw of the Conciliator won the Nebula Award.
These are thoroughly remarkable books, especially the first four. They are told by Severian, a member of the Torturer's Guild, who eventually leaves his guild, after falling in love with one of his "clients" (i.e. victims), and after much wandering through a far future Urth, proves himself worthy of becoming Autarch. In The Urth of the New Sun he travels to another world, and also apparently another time, and brings the New Sun to revive the dying sun of Urth.
They are distinguished by remarkable use of language, an extremely symbol-rich narrative, lush imagination, and a moral focus that is not common, IMO, in contemporary fiction. I think they represent the crowning achievement of 20th Century SF.
3b. THE BOOK OF THE LONG SUN
Nightside the Long Sun (1993)
Lake of the Long Sun (1994)
Calde of the Long Sun (1994)
Exodus from the Long Sun (1996)
These four books are loosely linked to the New Sun books, but the links become much stronger in the following trilogy, The Book of the Short Sun. These books are set on a generation ship, the "Long Sun Whorl", which we eventually learn was sent by Typhon, a tyrant mentioned The Book of the New Sun, and which are inhabited/ruled by uploaded "gods" who seem to be members of Typhon's family. The hero is Patera Silk, a clergyman who receives enlightenment from another god, the Outsider, and who ends up leading a revolution in his town, and who causes an exodus from the "Long Sun Whorl" to the planets of the system to which the Whorl has come. The series of books is long and drags a bit in parts, but it's fascinating in the whole, and the end is extremely moving. It's written in a rather clearer, simpler, prose style than Wolfe used for the New Sun books, though there are still plenty of ambiguities, symbols, and hard to explain events.
3c. THE BOOK OF THE SHORT SUN
On Blue's Waters (1999)
In Green's Jungles (2000)
Return to the Whorl (2001)
These novels concern the journey of Horn, a pupil of Silk's who was the "writer" of The Book of the Long Sun, from his home on Blue to a spaceship elsewhere on Blue which is intended to return to the Long Sun Whorl. Horn wishes to find Silk and bring him to Blue, to restore civil order. He writes his story after he returns, thus the three books run on two time tracks, one following Horn as he is writing the story, and at the same time fomenting revolutions and government reforms in a number of cities, while the other track is Horn's narrated story, of his original journey, his sojourn on Green with his estranged son, and his eventual doings on the Long Sun Whorl. Included are a number of astral trips to the "Red Sun Whorl" -- i.e. Urth at the time of Severian's youth. A critical feature of the books is the inhumi, bloodsucking shapechangers who live on Green but sometimes invade Blue -- they take on the characteristics of whatever they eat, thus it is morally incumbent on humans on Blue to be good, so that the inhumi themselves will be good, if they prey on humans. There are other secrets to the books, which I have not revealed. They are remarkable stories, again very moving, and at the end of the seven books of the Long Sun and Short Sun series we have a portrait of one of the most truly good men in literature -- Patera Silk.
Wolfe's next project is a very long fantasy novel, to appear in two volumes, collectively called The Wizard Knight. I believe the two volumes will be called Knight and Wizard, and Knight is rumored for 2003.
Wolfe is, I believe, the single finest writer the SF field has yet produced. He is a master of prose, he possesses a magnificent imagination, his characters (at least the males) are very well portrayed, his narratives are subtly and ingeniously constructed, and his works are about something -- about worthwhile moral issues, for the most part.