Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe was born May 7, 1931, just two months after my father. He would have been 88 today, but he died April 14. Back then I composed this selection of my reviews of some of his later work, mostly for Locus, but I contented myself with posting a eulogy then, and I saved that for today, his birthday.

Locus, July 2002

Notable recent offerings at The Infinite Matrix include a new short story by Gene Wolfe, "Under Hill".  This is a clever retelling of the tale of the Princess on the Hill of Glass, with an odd ending twist.  It's minor Wolfe, but definitely to be read.

Locus, March 2003

February was a strong month for Sci Ficton. Gene Wolfe's "Castaway" is one of his best recent stories, a moving tale of a man rescued from a devastated planet, and the woman he had to leave behind. I hope it doesn't give away too much to say it reminded me of James Tiptree's great story "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain".

Locus, May 2003

Gene Wolfe's "Graylord Man's Last Words" (Asimov's, May) reminded me a bit of his recent SCI FICTION story, "Castaway", in treating a fairly familiar situation at a slant. In this case an old being is telling a story from his youth -- soon we gather that he is a robot of some sort, and the story involves one of the last humans. It's fairly simple for Wolfe, but still quite effective.

Locus, December 2003

"Of Soil and Climate" (Realms of Fantasy, December) is a new Gene Wolfe story, which is recommendation enough. A psychiatrist in prison finds himself suddenly in a fantasy land, where he encounters alluring women and mortal danger, Night People, Tree People, and Sun People, and a Princess. I found it intriguing but incomplete: could it be a novel excerpt?

Locus, April 2004

Gene Wolfe is suddenly a Realms of Fantasy regular, which is good news: for one thing because it means he's writing lots of short stories. "Calamity Warps" (April) is a simple and quite short story about a man and his dog and his shadow, which implies much at the end. Like his last solo piece for Realms, "Of Soul and Climate", it seems thematically related to his new novel (The Knight) in suggesting a crossover from our world to a fantasy world.

The First Heroes is a strong collection of stories (mostly fantasy) on the subject of the Bronze Age. The book opens very well with Gene Wolfe's "The Lost Pilgrim". His hero is a time-traveler, and soon we gather that he had meant to join the Mayflower, but instead ended up thousands of years previously, on the Argo, with his memory damaged in the process. At first the story is a rather humorously skewed view of some of Jason's journey -- and quite effective as such -- but the ending is darker and more moving than the opening seems to promise.

Locus, July 2004

Peter Crowther of PS Publishing has started a magazine, Postscripts. The first issue features a whopping 13 short stories and shortish novelettes by an impressive array of authors – veterans, up-and-comers, and several writers best known outside the genre. Gene Wolfe is impressive as might be expected, with "Prize Crew", an SF horror story about an enemy warship found mysteriously abandoned, which the title crew takes back to Earth – unfortunately.

Locus, October 2004

Gene Wolfe's "The Little Stranger" (F&SF, November) is another of his simple yet thoroughly weird stories – a series of letters from an old woman to her dead cousin, telling of gypsies, witches, a gingerbread house – all quite naively told, disquieting, striking.

Locus, January 2005

Aeon is a promising new 'zine distributed in electronic form (on CD-ROM, or in versions for handheld computers). The first issue has an impressive lineup, including a long novel excerpt from Walter Jon Williams. The standout story is a reprint from Gene Wolfe – but a reprint from an obscure source. "Talk of Mandrakes" was originally scheduled for a 1987 issue of the briefly revived Worlds of If, which never appeared. It was unpublished until earlier in 2004, in a limited distribution chapbook. So this appearance is welcome. The story is a clever SF horror piece about what an expedition to an alien planet has brought back with them.

Locus, August 2005

From Postscripts I also really liked a flakily original story from Gene Wolfe, "Comber", about cities floating on huge waves, and an impending disaster when a city begins to head down a wavecrest.

Locus, February 2006

PS Publishing offers a Gene Wolfe chapbook free to Postscripts subscribers. Of course Postscripts is worth subscribing to regardless, but this is certainly a fine bonus. It’s a seasonal story, “Christmas Inn”, about a struggling rural Bed and Breakfast called the Christmas Inn. One bitter winter, as they fear foreclosure, they are visited by four (or five?) strange people. The story is told from multiple POV’s: first person narratives by the two owners and their teenaged son, as well as some third person sections. The visitors, mostly via sex, interact strongly with the residents, leading finally to a concluding séance. Here their nature is revealed – at least to one character, and perhaps to alert readers but not as of yet to this reader! But despite not quite getting the story, I enjoyed it and was moved by it. All things I can say about a lot of Wolfe!

Locus, May 2006

Online SF took a harsh blow with the loss of Sci Fiction at the end of 2005. One potential bright spot we’ve been looking forward to is a new venture from Baen Books, entitled Baen’s Universe, edited by Eric Flint. The first issue appears in June, and it’s rather promising. It’s stuffed: about 140,000 words of new short fiction, a couple of reprints, several serials and some articles. The fiction comes from a wide variety of writers: Baen stalwarts like Dave Freer and David Drake, several new writers, and some writers you wouldn’t think of in connection with Baen Books, like Charles Stross and Gene Wolfe.

Indeed Stross and Wolfe provide two of the better stories. Wolfe’s “Build-a-Bear” is set on a cruise ship. A lonely woman chances across a build-a-bear workshop, and ends up with a rather more impressive bear than she had expected.

Locus, November 2006

In October I thought two stories stood out – two that are perhaps not quite what a reader of Baen Books would expect. Gene Wolfe’s “The Old Woman in the Young Woman” is set after a holocaust, with a traveler meeting up with a young woman and her – mother? The women, of course, have a secret – not a terribly surprising one, but the story is still involving.

Capsule Review of Soldier of Sidon for Fantasy Magazine (2006)

Many years ago Gene Wolfe published two novels (Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Arete) about Latro, a soldier in Ancient Greece (though Latro is Roman) who loses his memory each night as he sleeps. In addition, Latro can see gods, even as those around him see nothing. These are wonderful novels, but clearly Latro’s story was incomplete, and readers clamored for more. At last we have another: Soldier of Sidon. In this novel, he travels to Egypt, in hopes of finding someone who can cure him of his amnesia. Latro (or Lucius/Lewqys, as he is also called) becomes the leader of a group of soldiers on a boat heading south on the Nile, in service of the foreign King occupying Egypt. The book tells of many wonders and adventures encountered on this trip: his river wife (a prostitute hired for the journey) who may not be quite human, another woman who seems to be made of wax, numerous gods and their priests, in various forms: human, snake, panther, etc., a trip to the underworld, imprisonment in a mine, and so on. There is much intriguing detail about life in Ancient Egypt, much quite realistic and much delightfully fantastical. The characters are excellently portrayed, ever through the odd window of Latro’s intermittent consciousness. Wolfe has always been fascinated by shapeshifters, by questions of identity, by memory and its impact on character – and all these elements pervade this novel. Latro’s story is not finished – there is at least one more novel to follow, I believe [If, indeed, another was planned, it never eventuated] – and that is the only disappointment here. Taken as it is, this is both involving historical fiction and mesmerizing fantasy.

Locus, March 2007

Gene Wolfe published a two story chapbook, Strange Birds, last year. This features two good stories, the better being a rather different kind of circus story, “On a Vacant Face a Bruise”, in which a boy joins a circus – but rather a different sort of circus, with such wonders as automaton dancers and talking birds – the true nature of this circus being shown only at the end.

Locus, April 2007

The big news this month in SF magazines is the F&SF Special Gene Wolfe issue. This includes essays on Wolfe by Neil Gaiman, Michael Swanwick, and Michael Andre-Driussi, as well as a very long new novella from Wolfe, “Memorare”. This is the story of March Wildspring, a documentary producer making a feature on spec. It seems that it has become common for small asteroids to be used as memorials to the dead. Sometimes very dangerous memorials. March recruits the beautiful Kit Carlson to help him, and she brings along a friend who has just left her abusive husband. This woman, Robin Reed, turns out to be March’s ex-wife. March is now in love with Kit – and perhaps she returns his love. As they plan to explore one more asteroid, reputed to be the most dangerous of all, Robin’s new husband turns up, trying to get her back. Clearly this story is about more than the memorials to the dead – it is about marriage, and about sin, and about redemption – which may be available for some inside the mysterious asteroid/memorial March calls Number Nineteen.

Locus, April 2010

Full Moon City is an urban fantasy anthology about werewolves, which on the face of it is a pretty tired theme, these days. But it has a heck of a list of contributors, and it rises well above the average urban fantasy anthology. It’s true that a high proportion of the stories are fairly fluffy – light comic treatments of the subject, but still entertaining. And two true veterans stand out. Gene Wolfe’s “Innocent” is one of many comic stories in the book, nastily comic in this case, as a werewolf in prison tells his story to a priest … a story that involves accusations of child molesting, of which he protests innocence. Of course it becomes clear that there is innocence and innocence!

Locus, July 2010

The best of Jonathan Strahan’s recent anthologies is Swords and Dark Magic, co-edited with Lou Anders, which should be treated at more length. It’s a collection devoted to the “New Swords and Sorcery”, which is to say, more or less, the old Swords and Sorcery with extra cynicism. Granting of course that cynicism was hardly ever absent from Sword and Sorcery fiction, this book does seem more of our time. And it’s solid from beginning to end. There is plenty of nice stuff here, but I’ll content myself mostly with mentioning Gene Wolfe, whose “Bloodsport” is quite powerful, about people recruited to enact a chesslike game, much in the fashion of medieval tilts. The main character is a powerful knight, who falls in love with a pawn on the other side – but then their country is invaded, and the game players become a sort of resistance. And, of course, pawns can become queens … but Wolfe has a different question to answer.

Locus, February 2014

Shadows of the New Sun is a tribute anthology for Grand Master Gene Wolfe. Happily, it features two good new stories by Wolfe himself – “Frostfree” tells of a somewhat unpleasant man who receives an amazing new refrigerator, that not only provides food and washes dishes, but helps – we hope – with his love life as well. “The Sea of Memory” is the stranger, and stronger, piece, about a woman waking – she thinks – on an isolated island with a few other people, and slowly learning – remembering? – her true situation.

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