[A version of the following appeared as the introduction to The Very Best of Gene Wolfe from PS Publishing in 2011.—the eds.]
Once there was a boy named Gene Wolfe who loved to read, who was sick fairly often, whose mother read to him and with him. Then the boy grew up and was drafted into the army and was sent to fight in a war.
It’s a cliché in our culture to say that while Vietnam veterans suffered on TV and came back to America and dealt with their demons very publicly, the Korean war veterans returned and went into the gray ranks of 1950s commerce and started families and didn’t say much about what had happened to them. Wolfe both fits and doesn’t fit this image. He did return home to live an outwardly conventional life, but his fiction, which is a kind of speaking out, has often been very concerned with war and is particularly good at describing prolonged murky bitter little wars; they recur in many of his novels, including The Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun, where the depiction of war and the battlefield in the aftermath is particularly intense and horrible. So the matter has remained with him throughout his career.
I think it possible that it also had a lasting effect on some features of his style, including irony, understatement, reticence, sidelong information, and the urge both to conceal and to reveal at once. I say this because all these characteristics, frequently mentioned by readers of his fiction, are evident in the letters he wrote to his mother during the war, which were published in the book Letters Home. In these it appears he wants to be able to tell his mom what is happening to him while at the same time wanting to protect her from any too vivid knowledge of the worst of what he is facing. He wants both to tell and not to tell.
The literature he had read as a boy with such pleasure included late nineteenth century writers like Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as the American pulp magazines of the 1930 and 1940s, which largely kept to the nineteenth-century traditions. He does not seem to have read the Modernists radically disenchanted by World War One; those writers are not the first ones an American boy in the 1940s would run into. But Wolfe in 1953 went to a war that resembled World War One more than any war since. So it seems that by a sequence of coincidences Wolfe was strangely set up to recapitulate the shock and disenchantment that the young British men felt as they were sent to fight in the trenches. Because of that, it is always interesting to think of Wolfe’s work in relation to writers like Robert Graves, David Jones, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Olaf Stapledon. They share much, including the fact that they all ended up being more than war writers.
Like these men, Wolfe entered his war in a sort of Kipling mode. He was already at 21 a good writer and a good mimic of styles, and he wrote to his mom in the tone traditional to dispatches from the front, ironic and jaunty. This worked fine for most of the war, for describing the boredom, the loopy logic of the military bureaucracy, and the mishaps of group life on the move. But then in June 1953 the Chinese army attacked the American line and Wolfe was suddenly in the thick of it. His unit was getting shelled; people around him were being wounded and sometimes dying. The stiff-upper-lip style of the letters grew insufficient to the reality, to say the least, and on June 11, after Wolfe witnessed American soldiers killing a pair of Chinese forward observers, he wrote two letters home that are among the most painful pages he ever wrote, their heavy, bitter irony his only defense against the event.
Different people process the traumas of war differently, and different cultures, too. It’s sometimes said that one generation is tougher or softer than another about these things, but I think anyone brought up in anything like stable circumstances will be traumatized by war, when all one’s ideas about what people can be are overthrown. After Korea, as after World War Two or maybe any war, many veterans, maybe most, came home and tried to forget about it. Wolfe himself did not write about the experience until around 1970, when “The HORARS of War” was published. See in that great story how the science fictional idea of the android allows the story to express the feel of the war experience, the alienation and self-alienation, the radical doubt about what we are, the horror. Realism can’t do this, because the feeling evoked by the event itself was more than a thought or a sentence, it was an image or a reality, a field of feeling that created a reality; and so a successful verbal representation of it has to be somehow the same. This is an art beyond what realism can manage, something the poetry of science fiction and the rest of the fantastic makes possible.
If you are ever in Washington D.C., try visiting the Korean War Memorial, just south of the Lincoln Memorial. It consists of a platoon of statues of American soldiers hiking uphill in a triangular formation. The statues are made of something like aluminum or pewter and are about life-size. They are looking around as if expecting to be attacked; their faces are images of fear, tension, anxiety, dread. To the west of them stretches a low polished granite wall on which tiny lines have been cut so as to appear to be faces, peering out of the wall from differing depths: Korean faces, American faces, Chinese faces, men and women, civilians, soldiers. Here again there is an image and a feeling. It looks like a Gene Wolfe novel turned into a tableau.
After the war other factors came to the fore. Some of these were as important as the war in their ultimate effect on Wolfe’s writing, as, for instance, his job, his family, his decision to become a writer. The war was not all that mattered; having brought it up, this has to be said. Otherwise, I might make the mistake I see in the slew of fascinating biographies of Virginia Woolf that came out between 1970 and 2000, when, in identifying various impacts on Woolf’s life and writing, each book seemed to be saying it had identified the key factor in her life and that the artist and her work were therefore now “explained.” This is very far from the truth, both in Woolf’s case and in Wolfe’s.
But before moving on, we have to speak briefly of the coming home from war, because Hemingway above all turned that into an American cultural and literary moment. Wolfe lived his version of it. It must have been a strange period, and in his autobiographical essay in The Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 9, he wrote, “My parents and I agreed that I should live at home and attend the University of Houston. The fact that I still showed a marked tendency to drop to the floor at a loud noise may have had something to do with it.” Not much more was ever written by Wolfe about this period, but in 1968, two years before “HORARS,” he published “The Changeling,” a story that reads like a Nick Adams story looped back into itself like a pretzel or a Klein bottle, so that if you try to pull the scenes apart into a chronological order, you can’t do it. It resembles one of the striking idea stories of Borges but is more emotionally intense; these are feelings rather than ideas that are being pretzeled into a pattern like a Celtic knot. I remember Damon Knight saying about this, “It was when I understood that I couldn’t make sense of it that I knew I had to buy it.” Wolfe went on to invent more formal innovations to make an emotional point, but this one is surely one of his best.
Compared to the war and the immediate aftermath, the supposedly boring America of the 1950s must have seemed in some senses like a blessing. Wolfe still loved to read, and around 1956 he decided to try to write. He taught himself to write fiction by working at it mostly in solitude. In these years and after, he was also working for American companies first as an engineer, then as an editor for an engineering magazine. And thus we come to his contribution to another classic topic in American literature, the story of work.
This is a much harder genre than war fiction because it has to express somehow the repetition and boredom of work without becoming boring itself. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman deals with this problem by putting the story on stage and making work explicitly the subject of the story and the source of the tragedy. Literature in print, on the other hand, tends to look in the direction of work and then mumble and decide some other topic will do better instead.
Wolfe dealt with it as he did with his war fiction and his coming-home fiction, mixing his realism with the fantastic. The main result was his story “Forlesen.” There are moving passages about work elsewhere in Wolfe, especially in the novel There Are Doors, but “Forlesen” is the heart of what he has to say here, compressing decades of his life and the common experience of millions, into one great story.
This was the first story of Wolfe’s I ever read, and I can still remember closing my copy of Orbit 14 thinking, “My God, science fiction is sure getting good these days! I can just pick up any old anthology and open it and find a great writer!”
I made a similar mistake a few years later when I drove down to see an Oakland A’s game, and an opposing batter lined a screamer up the gap that was destined for the wall, but the left fielder zipped over and cut it off. “My God, they’re getting fast these days!” I said. But it was Rickey Henderson.
Through these years when he was coming into his own as a writer, Wolfe wrote a lot of pastiches and clearly enjoyed it. He wrote stories in the styles of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, H. P. Lovecraft, P. G. Wodehouse, Marcel Proust, and R. A. Lafferty. He wrote pastiches of anthropological reports, fairy tales, aboriginal tales, Irish folk tales, Chinese folk tales, ghost stories, Arabian Nights tales, movie reviews, hunting articles, space operas, pulp adventures, hard-boiled detective stories, and Victorian boys’ magazine stories. In some of these pastiches he combined two or more styles; for instance, Arthur Conan Doyle is mixed with Lewis Carroll and Rex Stout in “The Rubber Bend.” That’s a combination that makes some kind of sense, but in “The Eyeflash Miracles,” Ernest Hemingway is mixed with L. Frank Baum, in that the initial situation from Hemingway’s “The Boxer” is transported to Oz. This is surprising enough that once I asked Wolfe why he had done it, and he replied promptly, “Because they were both Chicago writers, and so am I.” An unusual conception for a story, but the result is a beauty and illustrative of how productive the practice was for Wolfe. These were not just exercises but profound inspirations—not parodies, but homages to writers and genres that he loved. When he felt that way, he gave back, he sang along, he celebrated the originals. The only two here that are like parodies, meant to mock or scorn their originals, are “An Article About Hunting” and “Beautyland,” a hard-boiled detective story. The scorn for hunting articles speaks for itself, but it’s interesting to consider why Wolfe would mock the hard-boiled detective story when he seems to embrace so many other pulp styles, including the nineteenth-century mystery and detective genres that preceded Mickey Spillane and the like. The answer may lie in Free Live Free, where Wolfe’s portrayal of something like a hard-boiled detective’s life, so desperate and pathetic, leads me to think he considers the genre too much of a lie or simply ugly. He once told me that since “Our Neighbor, by David Copperfield” had a sentimental idea, he chose a sentimental style; “Beautyland” has an ugly idea, and so perhaps he chose an ugly style for it.
But in the main, Wolfe is playing in these stories; he is creating and remaking and celebrating his own personal tradition. And the pastiches are always more than mere imitations. As Wolfe said about one of them, “‘Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon?’ is and is not a Lafferty story.” Is and is not; this is a common Wolfe modality, here referring to the way all these stories are both imitations and commentaries on the originals, or else they are new creations that simply interact on the side with some other literature. Either way, they constitute Wolfe’s most substantial literary criticism by a long shot; you could say he does his literary criticism almost exclusively by writing more stories.
Note how the writers and genres here, which could serve as a list of his chosen tradition (what some people would call his “influences”), are mostly congruent; they are the various folk traditions, nineteenth-century popular fiction, and the twentieth-century pulps that continued in the nineteenth-century popular tradition. Looking at the list you feel G. K. Chesterton should be there, and he is, in the chapters of The Book of the Long Sun where Silk performs as a detective. The only incongruent artist, sticking out like a sore thumb, in fact, is Marcel Proust. And so, of course, he turns out to be another key that can explain everything.
Note there are no other high Modernist writers on the list, no pastiches or parodies of Faulkner or Fitzergerald or Joyce or Thomas Mann or Thomas Wolfe or Virginia Woolf—too bad, as far as I’m concerned, as I would love to read Wolfe’s entries in the Bad Hemingway or Bad Faulkner contests. But Marcel Proust is definitely there, and he matters; he came later in Wolfe’s reading life and served as the new torque applied to all that came before.
All this even though there is no single Wolfe pastiche of Proust to point to. We know that Wolfe read him: “Hour of Trust” begins with a suitably long-winded epigraph from Proust, and Wolfe’s story, “Suzanne Delage,” about a man who cannot remember a girl he went to high school with though he suspects he may have danced with her once, turns out to take its inspiration from a sentence in Proust’s novel. I made this discovery by accident; reading Proust I came on a passage in which Albertine says to Marcel, “You’re a friend of Robert Forestier and Suzanne Delage.” and I was surprised to see the name. In the Proust, Marcel continues
For a moment these names conveyed absolutely nothing to me. But suddenly I remembered. . . . Suzanne Delage, she was the great-niece of Mme. Bandais, and I had once been due to go to a dancing lesson, and even to take a small part in a play in her parents’ house. But the fear of getting a fit of giggles and a nose-bleed had at the last moment prevented me, so that I had never set eyes on her.
This then was the springboard for Wolfe’s story; and near the start of it, Wolfe portrays his protagonist reading an unidentified book, “a book merely commonplace; one of those somewhat political, somewhat philosophical, somewhat historical books which can now be bought by the pound each month.” Ah yes, Proust for sure.
So, there may be no explicit pastiche of Proust in Wolfe, but then again we do have “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.” In both, a first-person narrator with a precise, sinuous style remembers events from his childhood. Well, that could describe a thousand books or more. But consider: Proust’s novel begins, famously, “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” while “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” begins, “When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early whether we were sleepy or not.” Proust had an older brother, and yet Marcel in the novel is an only child; Wolfe was an only child, and yet in his story Number Five has an older brother.
Of course Number Five is not Wolfe, you say; but neither is Marcel Proust and you need to consider the names again. In all the thousands of pages of Proust’s novel, there is only a single instance in which we read that the narrator’s name is Marcel. In “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” Number Five makes a display of avoiding telling us his name, as when his father asks, “What am I going to call you?” and he replies, “I told him my name.” With this and other obvious avoidances, the withholding of the name is made an issue. But the not-telling is accompanied by the telling. There are clues in the text that the family’s last name is either canine or lupine, and that it begins with a W (indeed, the Monday and Tuesday Number Five finds on the shelf when looking for his father’s work would be a rare little chapbook by Virginia Woolf, there next to books by Kate Wilhelm and Vernor Vinge). And, as I once said in a report to a seminar, after describing why I thought Number Five’s family name was Wolf, “what better first name for a clone than Gene?” The groans caused by this pun were appropriately loud, but I was talking about one of the great punmeisters of our time, whose story “Thag” ends with a character named Harry Naler who turns out to be a hairy nailer (of the serpent’s tail to the floor); so when I next saw Wolfe, at the SFRA conference in 1978, I told him my joke, and he nodded gravely. “You are the first person I know of to have guessed Number Five’s name,” he said.
I’m proud of that little first. And Number Five’s story was the first of Wolfe’s longer masterpieces, and maybe the time when his personal tradition was fully assimilated and he spoke in a voice he would use often afterward, a characteristic Wolfe style, in which a syntax, sensibility, precision, and analytical power reminiscent of Proust are set on the clones, robots, six-armed monsters, and all the rest of the matter of his beloved pulp tradition. The result is not just Number Five’s voice but in different ways the voices of Alden Dennis Weer in Peace and Severian in The Book of the New Sun—all first-person narrators obsessed with the remembrance of things past.
I don’t mean by this that Wolfe became “the Proust of the pulps” or anything like that; I don’t mean that the pulps were the clay and Proust was the kiln and Wolfe’s life was the fire; even if it’s true, I don’t mean it. What I mean is that after Wolfe read Proust, he understood he was free, free to become himself in any way he wanted, to become, like Proust, one of the great Modernist writers, all of whom make their own tradition, style, subject matter, and reality. After you’ve read a novel that contains a 240-page garden party, why should you fear anything? You can’t. Anything is possible. After “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” it’s obvious Wolfe felt that way, and took off into his own ever-expanding world.
Before and after that moment, indeed throughout his career, Wolfe’s fiction was rife with robots and androids, as well as doubled or split characters of various sorts: people whose brains are divided, people who are turning into other people, people who are not the people they think they are, people who are identical biologically but not mentally to someone else, people who remember exceptionally well, people who remember very poorly; people who mistake other people for robots, or robots for other people, and fall in love across the divide; and so on. The emphasis in these stories on variations of “almost human” or “human but different” is marked.
There is a concept called “the uncanny valley,” introduced in 1970 by the roboticist Masahiro Mori, which postulates that as robots become more and more lifelike, they shift from being positively perceived by people to being repulsive to people, as seeming “human but not human” and therefore disturbing and wrong. If they were improved further and became even more lifelike, the concept’s presumption seems to say, then robots would become acceptable again, as being just synthetic people.
This concept seems to be something Wolfe intuited well before Mori hypothesized it, and his stories very often take place on the uneasy slopes of the uncanny valley, which could also be simply the existential abyss between a consciousness and any possible other. This is an area where Wolfe thinks good stories lie; and time after time he proves it true.
Mentioning patterns reminds me that I want to say a little about matters of form, because Wolfe has introduced quite a few formal innovations that I think are original to him and are in any case effective and interesting. These innovations serve to help create the emotions in his stories, but they also exist, like his individual sentences often do, as pleasures in their own right—like shapes, as with a vase or a crossword puzzle or sentence diagram, but at the level of story structure or form.
Wolfe may have invented one of these forms after the accident that brought about “The Death of Doctor Island,” described in his notes in this volume. Eventually, the three nouns in the title generated a suite of four stories that play off each other in meaningful ways, usually by reversals and resemblances. The characters, their situations, the resolutions of their fates, all shift from story to story in various kinds of reversals and alterations; as Gene said in one introduction of the group, he was “turning things inside out to achieve a different story.” He said, “When you read it, you may enjoy tracing the inversions.”
Another suite is made by the three novellas in The Fifth Head of Cerberus. These three interact in a different way than the Island/Doctor/Death suite. Because the middle novella is identified as a fiction written by a minor character in the first story, it seems as if we are reading an attempt by a member of a dominant culture to imagine the lost world of a conquered and extirpated culture, an anthropological act that is often accused of being a cultural appropriation. The third story suggests however that instead of cultural appropriation, we are seeing a case of physical appropriation in the other direction, of the anthropologist by a colonized subject who then wrote down a real memoir of his species. But exactly when the second story was written in the time of the frame tales is withheld from us (I think), so a hall of mirrors effect is created that reinforces the feeling that certain questions about identity (like who are we?) are never answered in this story or in life.
Another kind of patterned group is the four stories “The Dark of the June,” “The Death of Hyle,” “From the Notebook of Dr. Stein,” and “Thag,” which rest against each other like the four cards on the ground floor of a house of cards, each one set in a different reality and using a different mode or genre. The first is a touching science fiction story about a father watching a child grow up and leave; the last takes place in a book and ends with the pun about that father’s name, Harry Naler.
Moving on from the story suite, we come to my favorite formal innovation of Wolfe’s, which I call “the slingshot ending.” By this I mean a story in which the events begin to speed up as the narrative nears its end, and the story ends precisely at the moment of maximum acceleration into some new state, with the reader left to ponder open-mouthed what has been portended. “Silhouette” is the first great example of this device. Wolfe seems to have liked it too, as he used it again later in other stories, and in some of his finest novels. I suggested to him once that his editor David Hartwell had requested a fifth volume to follow The Book of the New Sun because he simply could not stand for such a monument of a work to have a slingshot ending, which it does. Wolfe laughed and agreed, and then said something like “But I got him in the end, because The Urth of the New Sun has an even bigger slingshot ending!” And the ending of The Book of the Long Sun speeds off toward The Book of the Short Sun in a similar fashion. It’s a great formal device or technique, and, I believe, Wolfe’s invention.
The acceleration of the slingshot ending is a matter of pacing, which involves not only changes in sentence structure that hurry the reader along but also a shift in how much action each sentence conveys. Wolfe shifts his pacing everywhere in his stories very freely, creating wonderful, rhythmic effects in the flow of the telling, the slingshot effect among others. He can be stately or pell-mell, classical or jazzy. It’s one of many ways I am often surprised by him in my reading. Just as there is no knowing what the content of the next sentence is going to be, there is also no telling if it will cover a second or a year or stand outside time entirely. What joy, after the too many volumes written entirely at the same pace, either plodding or frenetic but in any case ever so predictable and painful to one’s urge to flow or bop. In this, one falls on Wolfe’s pages as on music after a metronome.
One more structural or formal feature common in Wolfe is not his invention, but is often used by him. And in this one area of Wolfe, the reader is not likely to be surprised: if one character turns to another and says something like, “I want to ask your permission now to ask you fourteen questions in reverse order of importance, and when you reply you’re only allowed to lie twice,” then the other character, implausible though it may seem, is going to say yes and off they are going to fly together, into a delightful conversation which will mimic well the loopy logic of human dialogue, while also revealing much about both the characters and their situation. These question and answer sequences in Wolfe come in the form of catechisms, interrogations, examinations, Socratic dialogues, classroom lessons, badgering sessions, and many other forms. I am reminded by this tendency for set piece dialogue of another writer with Irish Catholic ancestry, James Joyce, whose Ithaca chapter of Ulysses is a 70-page question-and-answer exchange that I think is his best and funniest writing and said to be his own favorite episode of his book.
Thinking of Wolfe and Joyce reminds me of Flann O’Brien, and I must digress briefly (and digressions are another formal device which Wolfe uses often) to mention that Wolfe’s Peace is one of the elect group in that subgenre of novels that are about the afterlife of characters who may not know they are dead. That’s a pretty tight set of specs to define an entire subgenre, but the five novels I know in it are all very fine. The first is by Flann O’Brien, titled The Third Policeman, which is why I thought of this; and the other three are Damon Knight’s Humpty Dumpty, Neal Barrett, Jr.’s The Hereafter Gang, and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s Reindeer Moon.
Knight loved Peace, and I believe that Humpty Dumpty is in part Knight’s tribute to Wolfe. Knight may have grown Wolfe from a bean, as the dedication to The Fifth Head of Cerberus relates, but then he learned a tremendous amount from him, as he always said.
Dreams are very important to Wolfe’s fiction. Three of his stories at least are dreams of his that he wrote down: “To the Dark Tower Came,” “Kevin Malone,” and “The Legend of Xi Cygnus.” All are fine, and “To the Dark Tower Came” is one of my favorites. And a great deal more of his fiction reads as if one is having a powerful and startling dream, meaningful in a way that eludes easy explanation afterward. The ending of “Seven American Nights,” and of “Houston, 1943,” and of “The Hero as Werwolf”—the entirety of “The Eyeflash Miracles”—these are magnificently dream-filled and dreamlike fictions. For many years, Wolfe got up to write in the early morning before going to work for the day, typing away before sunrise; I don’t think it impossible that he was still partly in the dream state while writing in those years, still tapped into the depths. In any case he has trusted that state or modality more than most writers, and the surreal majesty of a great deal of his fiction strikes me as certain dreams do, as a whole experience, very real while happening and afterward stuffed with a significance I can’t quite articulate.
Not many people can do this in their fiction. No phrase causes people to stop listening faster than “Let me tell you the dream I had.” But Wolfe effects some kind of transformation in this material, which when we dream and wake up feels arbitrary or is simply forgotten. And in fact the forgetting of dreams is not always a bad thing. Wolfe once told me he was taking St. John’s wort to try to stop nightmares, and in my innocence I wondered why he would care, since dreams aren’t real and when you wake you see that; but then I had a nightmare so powerful that I will never forget it, which seemed an attack or a betrayal of my self by some other part of me. If that happened very often, I would want to stop them too. Clearly it is not necessarily an easy or happy thing to be a vivid dreamer—to have a powerful genius inside one, as they would have said in earlier times. The shamans of the tribe always knew this, and a certain amount of suffering and mental struggle was just part of their whole experience. But here too Wolfe has taken the circumstances given him and put them to use in the service of art. Even his dreaming mind has been entrained to the task.
A genius in Wolfe: and if there are any fellow postmodern materialists reading this and groaning at the idea of there being anything unusual inside an artist or anyone else, anything beyond the workings of the brain, I will agree immediately, but point out that the latest news from brain science makes it clearer and clearer that saying “only the brain” is not much of a delimiting statement. The brain is not a clockwork, nor a steam engine, nor a binary or digital computer, nor any of the machines we conceptualize it to be with our simple metaphors based on our own feeble handiwork, as if the brain could only be as complex as something we ourselves could make. Very much not the case. The brain is a kind of pocket universe. The mind is huge, and consciousness a small part of it. The unconscious may well be inhabited by “subroutines,” as the computer people would have it, processes that may actually be more like characters. Maybe they are like Jungian archetypes—a shadow seems likely, perhaps an anima or animus—but who knows. Very probably the brain consists of organizations even stranger and more various than that. It may be a kind of library of stories all telling themselves at once. And by way of stories written down, one unconscious mind communicates with other unconscious minds.
So: inside Wolfe is one hell of a writer, a genius. Or a crowd of them. Thinking of it this way makes it easier for me to conceptualize the relationship between Gene Wolfe the man I’ve met, and the stories you now hold in your hand, and also all the books on his part of the bookshelf. It’s not so much that Gene is reticent about his work, although he is, but that when he does speak about his stories, as he sometimes does, he does not seem to have the same interests in them that their narrators have. He is like the curator of the work of a close relative. This makes sense because it somewhat resembles the actual situation; Gene like the rest of us has seen this prodigious flow of stories pour out of him. He has had to do the work of shaping what emerges into sentences and scenes, and that’s hard work, but he also enjoys it, it seems, and part of his pleasure must be that of any other reader reading these stories for the first time.
I have been coming at Wolfe’s stories from a variety of angles here, like the magpies in my back yard banging on the black walnuts on the ground to break them open. The magpies are not getting very far, but it’s March, and they are persistent. With these stories, no matter what angle you take on them, no matter how hard you whack them, they stay whole and unexplained. I suppose that suggests we have come to the moment to try to speak about what these stories mean: but no. I decline. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it would be hard. To do justice to that project would require some kind of ongoing Talmudic wiki that considered each story in turn, by itself and in relation to others. I have no doubt the Wolfeish community has already begun this discussion and will continue with it for ages to come. It is also true that sometimes the meaning of any given story is perfectly straightforward; in the later dialogues particularly, characters sometimes try to say things about life that are as plain and wise and interesting as you could want.
But more often it isn’t that simple. Wolfe’s meanings are complex. That’s part of his point, I take it: life is complex. There are values in life, these stories say, there is good and bad, and all kinds of other values, but they are not often simple to tease out or apply. Indeed it’s precisely where these matters are not simple that Wolfe is interested and finds his stories.
So most of these stories mean whatever the text of the story is, word for word. This is unusual, part of Wolfe’s distinction or difference, because a lot of fiction is written as a sort of allegory. Writers have themes, they have morals, and the events of their stories are there to be mapped onto some other kind of story, shorter and clearer, something like a moral, but in any case a message, contained in the events of the surface story. A lot of literary criticism, especially thematic criticism, consists in teasing out and identifying these other meanings, thus treating the stories themselves like codes that have not yet been decoded. A lot of writers then conform to this understanding and in some sense write allegorically; and science fiction as a genre uses allegory almost as a matter of definition, as the various science fiction tropes can famously be read as metaphors for some real-world current situation. Joyce’s use of The Odyssey as a template for his day in Dublin in Ulysses is a famous example of one kind of doubled or allegorical meaning, and there are other ways of doing it: symbol, theme, metaphor. It makes good work for critics doing this kind of explication, and because of that, this kind of writer tends to be taken up quickest by critics, as there is something to work on, and the job is naturally easier. Writer and critic do their coding and decoding, and they both can present this process to readers, colleagues, and students, as being somehow the real work of literature and criticism.
This doesn’t seem to be Wolfe’s method. His stories usually are not allegories but events in themselves, something like dreams or vases. If you attempt to summarize them or to state their meaning, it gets too reductive and thus begins to go wrong. It seems to me the stories are saying that meanings are hard to map from one situation to the next. Ignoring that point and making any kind of automatic assumption or reduction puts a critic in the zone of Wolfe’s robots and androids, who are always making mechanical responses where a human one is required. And thus his stories have their famous elusiveness, their subtlety, their hermetic, esoteric, gnomic mysteriousness.
This is not to say his stories are abstract art or impossible to understand. They generate a string of feelings, and this is what fiction really should do. The sequence, the mix, and the quality of the feelings created in the reader are the story’s meaning. The writer as artist hopes to create a mix or sequence of feelings in the reader, feelings interesting, powerful, new in their mixture, moving.
New mixtures of feeling will happen a lot as you read this book. There are strange combinations, and in that sense they will be new feelings, hard to understand. After reading so much coded and metronomic fiction, it’s a bit like swimming laps in a pool all the time and then going and swimming in the ocean. It’s big and deep, opaque and whole; but you can still swim. Once you get used to the wildness of it, the new experience can be exhilarating. When I look at the table of contents of this book and recall each story in turn and the feelings they have evoked in me not just while reading but ever after and then consider that they are all here together in one place, behind one spine, I feel a sense of awe. What I have said about them conveys almost nothing of the feel of them. All I’ve said could be true, and yet the stories could have ended up being entirely different; they are not to be explained by Wolfe’s life or by critical insights. Once you get into the flow of the longer ones, especially, you are in a work of art beyond explication, whole and beautiful. There is a great clarity to each story, some strong central idea or image that will stick with you; after that, the meaning of it will be something to puzzle over, which maybe just means you will want to read it again. Because the feelings these stories evoke are not only complex and subtle but also basic and profound. Wolfe doesn’t fool around—well, he does fool around, and all the time, because the sense of play, of art as a great game and one of the deepest joys of life, is never far away in these pages. But the feelings are deep, too. He writes about love and grief, loyalty and betrayal, perseverance and ingenuity, awe and the sublime. Indeed, by his sheer strangeness and unexpected familiarity he creates a sense of the sublime more often than almost any writer I know. The sublime is a mix of beauty and terror; Wolfe sees and conveys a lot of both.
In an end note here, Wolfe invites us to suggest favorite stories for a second volume of “bests” to accompany this one, and I will take advantage of my opportunity to suggest “Houston, 1943,” “The Changeling,” “The HORARS of War,” “Silhouette,” “Tracking Song,” “Eyebem,” “To the Dark Tower Came,” “A Solar Labyrinth,” “‘A Story,’ by John V. Marsch,” “The Ziggurat,” “Memorare,” and there’s more, but I should leave room for others to make suggestions too, adding only that this second volume would be as strong as the one you hold, and when I think about what that means, I am amazed. Because this is one of the best story collections ever published, a masterpiece of American literature. It is going to be read and enjoyed by generations of readers to come, not only by Wolfeish scholars and other academics who will try to plumb the bottomless depths, a prospect which may make Wolfe groan, but also by people who find his fiction and read it in the way people read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Rex Stout, because it is fun and gives solace in just the way literature should. That will go on for centuries to come. So I will end by saying I am proud to know him even a little, and speaking with full confidence for the science fiction community, which is like a small town scattered over the face of the earth and across time too, I’ll say: we are proud of Gene Wolfe. We have published him, we read him with joy, we celebrate him; we will always have reason to be proud of that. Gene shows that literature can be everything, a game, a mystery, a religion, a dive into the deepest depths. Read on and see what I mean and rejoice. Life means something.
Kim Stanley Robinson lives in Davis, California.