On Gene Wolfe Science Fantasy
Gene Wolfe resides comfortable on my
top-ten top-five top-two list of favorite writers, out-ranked only by Chesterton. (You thought I would say Tokien, didn't you?) For the uninitiated, Gene Wolfe is most famous for his tetrology The Book of the New Sun, which begins with The Shadow of the Torturer, but he is also the author of Peace, The Knight, and The Fifth Head of Cerebus. And he has written hundreds of short stories. These come last in the list, but actually much of his best work is in short fiction.
notorious famous for writing stories and novels with unreliable narrators. This is usually taken to mean that the story's narrator is a liar, but that's generally not the case in a Gene Wolfe story (though there are exceptions.) Just as often, the narrator is simply not party to some bit of information that is essential to the full understanding of the plot, but the audience, over time, is.
For example, in The Knight, our protagonist (Abel) is a thirteen-year-old boy who is teleported to a fantasy world, and granted a Herculean body. This is actually a common trope in low-brow juvenile fiction. Wolfe turns the power fantasy on its head a bit though by letting the protagonist behave like a thirteen-year-old boy suddenly granted power. He becomes a bully, and its a rare problem he doesn't think he can solve just by beating the problem-person into submission.
Abel is suitably frightened in situations where fear is appropriate, but otherwise treats the whole experience like a video game. Every person of any importance who asks him to do anything is a quest, a quest Abel takes an oath to fulfill. By the end of the first novel (which must be read along with its sequel, The Wizard), Abel has set himself up in a web of contradicting oaths, including oaths sworn to a Satan-figure to do all sorts of things that are actually, well, really bad. (I'm trying not to spoil plot points more than I have to.)
It's easy to think that The Knight is just Gene Wolfe slumming. Brawny heroes who solve all problems through physical force and adolescent escapism is not unknown in this genre. (It also has a reputation for being his easiest novel.) I've even read reviewers online of the first novel turned off by this. In fact, it is left to Abel to sort it all out in The Wizard when, via a plot device, his mind gets to age along with his body. Abel now is a little more conservative with his oaths, and a little less prone to solve every problem by bashing together skulls, and the central plot-line of the novel is his quest to clean everything up that he screwed up in the first novel.
Oh, and while I'm on the topic of The Knight, may I mention that I love Abel's relationship with Desiri, the Queen of the Moss Ælf? There are parts that actually make me start to tear up. You won't see it on your first read, but once you understand the cosmology of the novel's world, you will pick up on some undertones to Desiri's behavior that you did not see the first time. ( Once again, trying to avoid spoilers. )
We are never given a reason to believe Abel was simply lying to us in his narration, but his naïveté means he does not really understand all that is going on around him, while we do. (Is this technically an unreliable narrator? Yes, I believe so, because the story is told through first person narration and we have only Abel's point of view to consider.)
Moving on, there is one aspect of Gene Wolfe's wider work that is absolutely essential, but which turns people off (including one close friend who read Shadow of the Torturer.) Gene Wolfe will allow bad people to be his narrators, and they sound and act like bad people in the real world.
Have you ever spoken to a bad person? Bad people do not sound like bad people do in the movies or in books. They do not look the part. They do not sound the part, 99% of the time. They look and sound and act just like every one else. And then they say, or they do, something that makes you pause a moment. A moment when you realize an immense chasm lies between you and this soul who seemed so like you, so friendly, so reasonable. And that moment passes quickly, and it is gone. And then they seem normal again, but you forget that moment at your peril, because it is a window into something hidden.
For example, I'm currently on The Claw of the Conciliator, the second novel in the Book of the New Sun. This is, I think, my third or fourth read through of the New Sun cycle. In this case, our narrator is a Severian, a disgraced outcast from the Guild of Torturers. His crime? Having mercy on a young woman. We follow his travels across the wasteland of our world, in the unimaginably distant future, dying as the sun slowly runs out of fuel and becomes dimmer.
In Claw of the Conciliator, Severian describes the only torture and execution he is willing to describe along his journey. He tries to emphasize the parts that paint him in a positive light, but there is a moment that jars us, and reminds us who we are reading. He lets it slip that he dances on the scaffolds after the execution takes place. Every time I read it, I have a physical jolt. I have lived within this man's mind, listening to his inner thoughts about himself and his world for nearly 400 pages, and I had forgotten whose mind I occupied. You can imagine the older Severian, comfortably enthroned as autarch, describing this event to dinner guests, in wistful recollection while they sit horrified, and he chuckles, oblivious to their discomfort.
Have you ever had dinner with someone like this? I mean, I should hope the number of people who have dined with a close friend who recounted wistfully the time he danced while holding the freshly severed head of a woman is relatively small. But, I think we've all been in that situation where someone we thought we knew said something that hinted at a darker secret in their nature, and we are left shocked, and they aren't even aware of what they have implied.
We get these moments with Severian, only ever so often. Once or twice a novel. Often enough to unsettle us, not often enough that Severian cannot lure us back into feeling comfortable with him again. Severian sounds the way a bad person does in real life. We get bits and glimpses when he lets his guard down, or when we discover his tone-deafness about some particular topic.
Of course, Severian himself denies having a sadistic streak, and expresses disgust about one or two bona-fide sadists he meets along the way. It's very believable. But then he looks fondly back on dancing on a scaffolding, holding the severed head, being told that the woman he executed is innocent, and doesn't seem to care. Of course, he can rationalize the not caring: he was not the accuser, was not the judge, did not decide the sentence. He merely carried it out. If a travesty of justice was committed, it was not by him. But he learns the truth, and he laughs, and he carries on dancing on a scaffold.
As the reader, you have to decide what to make of Severian, this man, usually a good guy, often heroic, generally reasonable, but a man who, through either disposition or upbringing, does not realize or understand that we are horrified by things he considers just another day on the job.
But that's Gene Wolfe. Neil Gaiman put it well: reading Gene Wolfe is like having knives thrown at you at a circus side-show, and Gene isn't scared, because he's the one throwing the knives.
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