'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Friday, November 27, 2009

GENE WOLFE! (Part 2 of 2)

I randomly picked up the first book in Wolfe's The Book of the Short Sun trilogy called On Blue's Waters because I wanted to finally get into Wolfe's interplanetary science fiction, a subject matter much more to my personal tastes and interests than the more Heroic Fantasy-oriented work I'd read so far. (The swords, the walking great distances or riding horse-like animals, etc. give his earlier The Book of the New Sun a heroic fantasy feel ala Tolkien with hints and moments of far future technology in ages-long decay – i.e. it's Science Fantasy proper).

Furthermore, it was in Blue that I ran into the Outsider. Gene Wolfe has introduced the whole concept of the classic monotheistic God into his ambitious science fiction two-part, multi-volume series (The Book of the Long Sun tetralogy followed by The Book of the Short Sun trilogy) by means of this entity called the Outsider. The Short Sun trilogy is written in journal entries of varying lengths by the main character, Horn. He says the Outsider is the God who is Outside the pantheon of the finite gods of the universe (the 'whorl' as the characters call the 'world'/cosmos). He is also Outside of space and time (the 'whorl') altogether (presumably as its Creator, though this is not explicit). Yet the Outsider is very involved in space-time because he also gets his name from identifying with those who are the marginalised and outcast of society – the outsiders. (These elements go a long way toward conceptualising a very Christian form of theism.)

This is the theological theme of every multi-volume work by Wolfe as far as I can tell: people in various forms of, shall we say, 'pagan ignorance', coming into contact in one way or another with the 'one true God' of (usually revealed by some hint or other) the Christian faith.

All this richly woven theology plus wonders, thrills, and monsters aplenty! There are moments of true awe, of extravagant vision (moving theophanies of both gods and God occur), of chilling horror, of weighty philosophical speculation, memorable characters, many asides on writing and writers – there are also seemingly inexplicable moments and passages, even certain places where I became somewhat 'bored' (actually that's mainly in the New Sun series, not really in On Blue's Waters) in my bewilderment as to what was happening and why and what it had to do with the story. Wolfe strangely, spectacularly (and not at every moment successfully) manages to simultaneously play the roles of philosopher and pure adventure storyteller.

The element I need to hasten to add to that last comment, so that you don't come to these books with misguided expectations, is that Wolfe is also a literary obscurantist of sorts. He is a seemingly natural and effortless trickster who loves indirectness and, as some have said, his work is both allusive and elusive. He is referencing so many things in history, literature, philosophy, and theology whilst at the same time remaining at least one step ahead of you, always just round a corner, at the edges of your vision. One of the very strangest phenomena of his writing to me is that his worlds are incredibly solid and well-realised (you often notice this more when you're not actually reading) yet because you are so suddenly and fully immersed in them without explanation or guide or map, you are found feeling on the one hand profoundly satisfied at such a world-building achievement whilst equally on the other hand feeling profoundly perturbed by your inability to fully grasp this world you've been so thoroughly engulfed by. Some readers find this too much and are put off, many to never return. For me, the more obvious positive qualities of wonder and adventure and glimpses of philosophy and theology in a rather exquisite writing style are more than worth the more disturbing and challenging qualities. (But I'm the sort of person who reads the entirety of Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and doesn't worry about whether I 'get' it all – I just let it flow over and into me and enjoy it!)

Anyway, in reading Blue I realised I was way in the middle of something massive and amazing, so I determined to start all over and even go all the way back to the New Sun series and properly finish it, which I did with immense pleasure. First though I went back and read some of the earliest work, Fifth Head of Cerberus (a satisfying interplanetary science fiction novel) and Peace (an ostensibly 'straight fiction' novel that reads something like an almost hallucinatory mid-Western memoir that is very obscure indeed). At the very least, these two early novels display Wolfe's truly excellent writing skills – the prose, to me, is just so very, very good.

Well, you always hear that you have to re-read Wolfe to truly appreciate him and this was so very true with The Book of The New Sun. Not only did it make a bit more sense, I genuinely loved going over again the journeys and adventures of Severian (the main character, a Torturer gone bad – that is, who keeps betraying his vocation by showing mercy to victims), rediscovering the characters and thrilling anew to the wonders and terrors unfolded. And the last book I hadn't read was an excellent conclusion. (Still, I would say, just because of my tastes, this will always remain low on my list in comparison to other works by Wolfe because I prefer the more off-world stuff.)

And now I've finally begun to read the first volume of The Book of the Long SunNightside the Long Sun. Nearly halfway through I'm probably more pleased with this than anything I've read so far (or perhaps equal to On Blue's Waters). I shall write more about it in a future blog entry. The first words and pages of the book begin with an enlightenment given by the Outsider to the main character, Silk (who is perhaps something like an abbot of a monastery and whom I'd heard much referenced in Blue). To start an s.f. story on such a blatantly theistically spiritual/supernatural note is just such a bold and thrilling move to a reader like me. And it is very well told, intellectually intriguing and visionary and yet believably realistic in its very human setting that so well-written. The plot unfolds from this central theme with the usual crisp and tight and yet at times demanding prose Wolfe is so well known for. The setting is also very enjoyably a wonder-filled far flung 'generation starship' that it seems has been so long on its galactic or intergalactic journey that its original function, nature, and purpose are completely lost in the mists of time and legend to the spectacularly immense space craft's inhabitants. The effect is like reading of the mystical mission of a medieval monk in an almost Blade Runner sort of futuristic setting. But in a way only Gene Wolfe could do, increasingly full of elusively crowding wonders and mysteries. My lupine explorations continue...

GENE WOLFE! (Part 1 of 2)

OK, it's long overdue that I weigh in on this highly important author that I am becoming an avid fan of. I'm still in the midst of properly engaging with the considerable body of his work, but I feel I need to make some preliminary remarks.

Before I get directly to Wolfe, some opening comments on my 'angle' are due. If you've read my other blogs, you'll probably have picked up on the fact that I love Theistic S.F. 'Theistic' because most s.f. I've read comes across as atheistic or agnostic – and even when some s.f. eschews the secular for a more spiritual view, it is usually a fairly non-monotheistic 'New Age' (neo-pagan?) variety of spirituality. Now I don't mean to deny the pleasure and value of works written from these perspectives. I have read and been influence by brilliant atheistic / agnostic s.f. (e.g. Brian Aldiss, Dan Simmons). And I have read and been influenced by brilliant 'neo-pagan' s.f. (e.g. Ursula LeGuin). But coming from a classically theistic worldview myself, I of course enjoy most when I discover it is that theistic view in some work of great imaginative fiction that is being embodied with artistic integrity, originality and even genius. Tolkien and Lewis are the classic modern examples, but we 'Inklings' fans[1] are always on the lookout for their literary heirs in the so-called postmodern / ultramodern / post-postmodern(!) world. I have an entire blog devoted to one such heir already, R. A. Lafferty (antsofgodarequeerfish.blogspot.com). Gene Wolfe is Lafferty's somewhat contemporary Roman Catholic and writer, and Wolfe, like Lafferty, is equally hard to categorise and analyse.

Now, I also want to say that I use the term 's.f.' advisedly over other possible terms for imaginative literature because though s.f. often stands for 'science fiction' it can also abbreviate the more inclusive term 'speculative fiction'. To my mind this latter term may include all the other forms of the fantastic including Heroic Fantasy, Magic Realism, Supernatural Horror, and much more. But perhaps most pertinent to a discussion of Gene Wolfe is that s.f. can stand for the strange and often (it has to be said) camp genre known as Science Fantasy. This is not a genre I personally usually read, but I readily acknowledge its inherent worth, at least for the rapturous heart of a boy – for this is the genre that can bring together swords and spaceships, dragons and aliens, knights and astronauts all in one story! For me, this sub-genre on the one hand slightly makes me cringe but on the other hand also intrigues me. Could such a thing be done right, done in a way that's not just completely farce? (Not that a farcical science fantasy wouldn't have worth as well – but that's a different point.) If science fantasy could be done well, then it would have to be one of the best things ever for the wonder-filled heart of a boy inside most men. But hey, girls read and love (say) Tolkien and Asimov too, so maybe they'd enjoy this genre well done also? I believe so. (Wolfe certainly doesn't seem to lack female fans of his fiction.)

I think it uncontroversial to say that the venerable Mr. Wolfe is well-known as the most sophisticated practitioner ever of this highly fanciful genre. But now I have to back up and say that Wolfe is so very far from a categorisable sub-genre writer. For a start he embraces and embodies all of the aforementioned forms of s.f. - fantasy and horror and science fiction and so forth. Even his science fiction ranges from some fairly 'hard s.f.' stuff to the more anthropological s.f. that flourished in the 1960s and '70s to the totally visionary and mystical. Furthermore, most of his fans, critics, and fellow writers seem to think that if it weren't for his chosen field of literature he would easily be acknowledged today as one of the latter half of the 20th century's Great American Authors, up there with (say) John Updike or Joyce Carol Oates or what have you. But his chosen form of extravagant and yet oblique fantasy fiction is an alienating stumbling block to possibly the majority of contemporary readers. An irony in this is that some of the obliqueness is due not least to Wolfe's very 'high' literary style. His works are often artistically ambitious to an intense degree, frequently very philosophical and, to the point at last, theological.

Most people, including Mr. Wolfe himself, agree that his very best work is either his multi-volume epics or his usually very satisfying collections of short stories. At these two ends of the spectrum he seems most masterful and impressive. I first tried his four-volume novel, for which he is most renowned, The Book of The New Sun (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch) – I got through the first three books and enjoyed them quite a bit, but I was getting a bit lost and wondering whether it was really going anywhere and thereby ended up neglecting to finish it. (This was a mistake.) But I knew he was a very important writer and that his Christian theistic worldview was shaping his work in intriguing and exciting ways.

Anyway, after a number of years I happened to see at my local library (here in Scotland, though I'm originally from the USA) that Wolfe had a more recent, slightly shorter, two-volume work completely in the Heroic Fantasy realm called The Wizard Knight (The Knight, The Wizard; I love the ironic simplicity of these titles, belying the very subtle work within), boasting a quote on the cover from Neil Gaiman: 'Gene Wolfe is the smartest, subtlest, most dangerous writer alive today, in genre or out of it. If you don't read this book you'll have missed out on something important and wonderful and all the cool people will laugh at you.' (Mr. Gaiman seems to be the Great Legitimizer for obscure fantasists with cult followings, such as Lafferty and Wolfe.) It was a very deceptively easy read in terms of the flow of the prose. It was a beautiful, strange, disturbing, oblique but enchanting epic saga. The cast that built over the length of the books was a bizarrely memorable crew, the wonders and worlds were so ethereal and yet so utterly realised at the same time (true of all his work), and the briefly described battle scenes were often mystical visions in themselves. I still didn't understand much, but I was sure there was something very important going on here. To be sure, there were things I liked and didn't like but I was so very intrigued and impressed.

It only took one more book for me to get totally on board and commit to thoroughly immersing myself in Wolfe's body of work. His collection of short stories entitled Innocents Aboard totally swept me up and very thoroughly impressed me with his writing and storytelling abilities. Although, as always, while the collection was 'easy' (and usually very entertaining) to read in terms of 'prose-flow' and sometimes plot, it was not 'easy' in terms of the totally weird way Wolfe approaches everything! The story 'The Friendship Light' is one of my favourite horror shorts I've ever read.

With these introductory remarks out of the way, in part 2 I get to the things I like best about Wolfe.

[1] The Inklings were a loose-knit group of writers that included the aforementioned 'Tollers' and 'Jack' as well as the more obscure and weird fantasy writer Charles Williams.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Of Gods Ultimate and Many

This under-blog is about the totality of Gene Wolfe's writing, encompassing all his themes, but, it must be admitted, with particular emphasis on and keen interest in the Theism emobodied (and embedded) in his body of work. The divine name vocabulary across the Briah Cycle alone is of great interest and even aesthetic as well as intellectual pleasure - e.g. the Increate, Pancreator, and Paraclete (all one and the same) of The Book of the New Sun and the Outsider of The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun. There is also the Most High God of the more recent The Wizard Knight.
At some point I intend to compare the pluralistic (and yet naturalistic?) polytheism of Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Anansi Boys with the polytheism of the afforementioned works by Gene Wolfe. It is very interesting the way these fellow writers (and friends) accomodate, explain, and subsume relgious diversity into the worldview that informs their respective works. It is the ideas I want to compare, not so much the writing, for, it has to be frankly acknowledged, Wolfe is in a rare class of genius at least a few levels above Gaiman. I really think Gaiman would gladly acknowledge this. And of course that in no way detracts from the great pleasure and profit with which Gaiman is read (by myself included). Nor does it detract from Gaiman's own originality and all he has accomplished with pushing fantasy boundaries. (Not to mention that we have Gaiman to thank for often persuasively introducing a wider audience to the rather obscure Giants on whose shoulders he is Dwarfishly standing, such as Wolfe and Lafferty!)

Speaking of theism in Wolfe's works is not to neglect the particularly Christian nature of that theism that is also woven throughout - e.g. the concept of the Conciliator who uses his Claw on himself, not others; and the Outsider who is called such not only because he is Outside the orthodox pantheon and because he is Outside space and time altogether, but also because he identifies with and seeks out those who are Outside society's respectable company, the outcasts on the fringes and margins.

Nor is all this to deny a certain 'pagan' element that seems to flow through Wolfe's works - a strong occult sort of theme or influence (perhaps not unlike the poetry cycles and novels of Charles Williams, whose Christian faith also strongly shaped his fiction). I don't know just what to make of this yet (nor do I in Williams either), except that perhaps it is another part of his apparent obsession and project to show how the 'ultimate truth' of Christianity relates to 'glimpses of truth' in the 'darkness' of paganism. (Please don't take this as aggressive or offensive, those of you who may not share mine or Wolfe's Christian faith. It is simply a way of trying to explicate what Wolfe is trying to do overall in his work. Every writer's fictional world does the same, starting from some set of assumptions that necessarily excludes whatever contradicts it and then tries to explain and 'subsume' those contradictory views.)

I would appreciate comments and help on all these themes. Thanks!