Thursday, April 18, 2019

Death of a Literary Titan

It's been a momentous week, and not in a good way. I've been working through the events of the week one post at a time, and I've now come to my post about the death of one of my all-time favorite authors, Gene Wolfe, who died last Sunday at the age of 87. I have posted about Wolfe off-and-on for years. Gene Wolfe was a genre writer, he wrote science fiction, fantasy, and a bit of horror fiction, but the general consensus, which I share, is that he rivaled any 'literary' author.

I first encountered Gene Wolfe in high school, when I read a tale in an anthology which haunted me, though I forgot the name of the author in the press of academic work and extracurricular activities. The long short story, which I later rediscovered was Seven American Nights, about a traveler from a technologically advanced Iran to a decrepit, backwater of a United States, has staying power with its slow burn of a narrative, in which details accumulate in the reader's mind until an 'aha' moment which punches the reader in the gut:

There seems to be no logic to the prices in this country, save for the general rule that foodstuffs are cheap and imported machinery-cameras and the like--costly. .Textiles are expensive, which no doubt explains why so many of the people wear ragged clothes that they mend and dye in an effort to make them look new. Certain kinds of jewelry are quite reasonable; others sell for much higher prices than they would in Teheran. Rings of silver or white gold set, usually, with a single modest diamond, may be had in great numbers for such low prices that I was tempted into buying a few to take home as an investment, Yet I saw bracelets that would have sold at home for no more than half a rial, for which the seller asked ten times that much.

Wolfe often employed unreliable narrators, protagonists with memory issues, protagonists who are trying to deceive, or whose perception of events is colored by drug use or simple naiveté. A Wolfe story is a puzzle, in which the reader must pierce the fog of the simple narrative in order to suss out an approximation of what is actually occurring. Simply put, Wolfe forced his readers to become better readers.

Wolfe's first major book was The Fifth Head of Cerberus, a set of three intertwining novellas set in a distant star system on twin planets originally colonized by Francophone spacefarers. The first novella centers around a young man who is trying to come to grips with his home life under a despotic father who subjects him to a battery of different tests. The second is an anthropologist's account of a legend concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of one of the planets from before first contact with humans and possible extinction at their hands. The third novella ties together the first two, as the anthropologist who authored the legend synopsis is interrogated in prison. The connections between the novellas have to be pieced together by the reader- small details in each possible refer to events in the other novellas, but nothing is made explicit. Like all of Wolfe's books, The Fifth Head of Cerberus rewards re-reading with an attention to detail, so details revealed later can be correlated with previous elements of the story.

Wolfe's magnum opus is The Book of the New Sun, originally published in four volumes. This novel, which superficially seems a love letter to my beloved Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories, also features an unreliable narrator, a man who claims to have a perfect memory, but has grown up in a sheltered environment with a limited, specialized education... he might also be deceptive at times. The story takes place in a far-distant future, when the sun of Urth is moribund, the planet's natural resources have been depleted, society is divided into a vast population of poor people living under pre-modern conditions and a tiny minority of ultra-wealthy persons with access to high technology, and so much history has taken place that, as Wolfe once wrote: “If we are remembered at all, it will be as the contemporaries of Herodotus and Mark Twain.” Details of the planet's antiquity come in hints, references to things poorly understood by Severian, the narrator:

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

This warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt. In some obscure way, I wanted to take down the picture and carry it - not into our necropolis but into one of those mountain forests of which our necropolis was (as I understood even then) an idealized but vitiated image. It should have stood among trees, the edge of its frame resting on young grass.

Wolfe's particular genius in The Book of the New Sun was making his protagonist a professional torturer, raised in his guild since infancy. The narrative arc involves his exile from the 'Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence' for showing mercy to a prisoner he has fallen in love with, and his exposure to the world outside of the cloistered environs of the the most curious tower in which he lived:

But perhaps before I write further I should explain something more of the nature of our Matachin Tower. It is situated toward the back of the Citadel, upon the western side. At ground level are the studies of our masters, where consultations with the officers of justice and the heads of other guilds are conducted. Our common room is above them, with its back to the kitchen. Above that is the refectory, which serves us as an assembly hall as well as an eating place. Above it are the private cabins of the masters, in better days much more numerous. Above these are the journeymen's cabins, and above them the apprentices' dormitory and classroom, and a series of attics and abandoned cubicles. Near the very top is the gun room, whose remaining pieces we of the guild are charged with serving should the Citadel suffer attack. The real work of our guild is carried out below all this. Just underground lies the examination room; beneath it, and thus outside the tower proper (for the examination room was the propulsion chamber of the original structure) stretches the labyrinth of the oubliette.

The real power of The Book of the New Sun is that it is a story about stories. On the Vancian framework, Wolfe hung allusions to Borges, Robert Graves, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville... in order to 'get' the book, one is required to read other books. The novel features numerous subsidiary stories, as storytelling is a favorite pastime of the characters who live in a resource-poor milieu. The far-future setting is reinforced by ancient legends in which the Minotaur and the Monitor are conflated, in which The Jungle Book, the legend of Romulus and Remus, and the founding of the Plymouth colony are mashed-up. One of Wolfe's greatest achievements was coming up with a counter to Orwell's Newspeak when he has a prisoner of war from a totalitarian society which has reduced its language to Goodthink phrases from an equivalent to Mao's Little Red Book join in a storytelling contest for the hand of a soldier in a field hospital. Wolfe was confident that the human spirit could prevail even in the face of Orwellian thought-control:

The next morning, when we had eaten and everyone was awake, I ventured to ask Foila if it was now time for me to judge between Melito and Hallvard. She shook her head, but before she could speak, the Ascian announced, “All must do their share in the service of the populace. The bullock draws the plow and the dog herds the sheep, but the cat catches mice in the granary. Thus men, women, and even children can serve the populace.”

Foila flashed that dazzling smile. “Our friend wants to tell a story too.”

“What!” For a moment I thought Melito was actually going to sit up. “Are you going to let him—let one of them—consider—”

She gestured, and he sputtered to silence. “Why yes.” Something tugged at the corners of her lips. “Yes, I think I shall. I’ll have to interpret for the rest of you, of course. Will that be all right, Severian?”

“If you wish it,” I said.

Hallvard rumbled, “This was not in the original agreement. I recall each word.”
“So do I,” Foila said. “It isn’t against it either, and in fact it’s in accordance with the spirit of the agreement, which was that the rivals for my hand—neither very soft nor very fair now, I’m afraid, though it’s becoming more so since I’ve been confined in this place—would compete. The Ascian would be my suitor if he thought he could; haven’t you seen the way he looks at me?”

The Ascian recited, “United, men and women are stronger; but a brave woman desires children, and not husbands.”

“He means that he would like to marry me, but he doesn’t think his attentions would be acceptable. He’s wrong.” Foila looked from Melito to Hallvard, and her smile had become a grin.

“Are you two really so frightened of him in a storytelling contest? You must have run like rabbits when you saw an Ascian on the battlefield.”

Neither of them answered, and after a time, the Ascian began to speak: “In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.”

Foila interpreted: “Once upon a time …”

Gene Wolfe converted to Catholicism when he married his wife Rosemary, and his was a convert's zeal without a convert's dogmatism. Catholic themes, and Catholic imagery pervade his works- allusions to the Eucharist, meditations on sin and redemption, and biblical analogies. He was also a conservative before the word was tainted by anti-intellectualism and bigotry. He occasionally wrote about environmental themes, particularly in the context of energy production and use of chemicals in our foodways. One particular favorite quote of mine comes from his short story The Adopted Father:

John Parker crossed to the window and stared at the dark sky beyond the glass. "That's coal smoke, the technology of the Nineteenth Century brought into the Twenty-First and hard at work. They could have conquered the solar system and harnessed the sun, but they did this instead, because there was no fun involved. Their great-grandfathers had done it, and they knew it would work."

Regarding the decrepit setting of The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe wrote:

The challenge to science fiction today is not to describe a slightly hyped-up present, but a real future- a time radically unlike the present, that is. Clearly , there are more than one of these futures, there is the future in which mankind returns to the sea for new sources of food and raw materials. There is the future of extermination. I decided that the future most in keeping with the dark figure I had planned and his journey toward war was what I call the do nothing future, the one in which humanity clings to its old home, the continents of Earth, and waits for the money to run out.

One of Wolfe's most harrowing passages comes from the haunting Seven American Nights:

After I found my pistol and assured myself that it was still in working order, I dragged the thing to a spot of moonlight. When I glimpsed it on the roof, it had seemed a feral dog, like the one I had shot in the park. When it lay dead before me, I had thought it a human being. In the moonlight I saw it was neither, or perhaps both. There was a blunt muzzle; and the height of the skull above the eyes, which anthropologists say is the surest badge of humanity and speech, had been stunted. until it was not greater than I have seen in a macaque. Yet the arms and shoulders and pelvis-even a few filthy rags of clothing---all bespoke mankind. It was a female, with small, flattened breasts still apparent on either side of the burn channel.

At least ten years ago I read about such things in Osman Aga's
Mystery Beyond the Sun's Setting; but it was very. different to stand shivering on a deserted street corner of the old capital and examine the thing in the flesh. By Osman Aga's account (which no one, I think, but a few old women has ever believed) these creatures were in truth human beings-or at least the descendants of human beings. In the last century, when the famine gripped their country and the irreversible damage done to the chromosomal structures of the people had already become apparent, some few turned to the eating of human flesh. No doubt the corpses of the famine supplied their food at first; and no doubt those who ate of them congratulated themselves that by so doing they had escaped the effects of the enzymes that were then still used to bring slaughter animals to maturity in a matter of months. What they failed to realize was that the bodies of the human beings they ate had accumulated far more of these unnatural substances than were ever found in the flesh of the short-lived cattle. From them, according to Mystery Beyond the Sun's Setting, rose such creatures as the thing I had killed.

Earlier in the story, the narrator notes:

Everyone knows that these Americans were once the most skilled creators of consciousness-altering substances the world has ever seen.

The same knowledge that permitted them to forge the chemicals that destroyed them (so that they might have bread that never staled, innumerable poisons for vermin, and a host of unnatural materials for every purpose) also contrived synthetic alkaloids that produced endless feverish imaginings.

Surely some, at least, of these skills remain. Or if they do not,, then some of the substances themselves, preserved for eighty or a hundred years in hidden cabinets, and no doubt growing more dangerous as the world forgets them. I think that someone on the ship may have administered some such drug to me.

Maybe Gene wrote this as expiation for his role in creating Pringles.

I could go on gushing about Gene Wolfe, and cutting-and-pasting particular favorite passages of mine, but I've gone on long enough, and I'm distracting you from reading the man's work itself. Suffice it to say that we lost a literary titan, and a particular favorite of mine. As I have noted before, Gene Wolfe raised the bar for his readers, he demanded that we become better at reading, and that we read more and that we read more carefully. For that, I will always be grateful to him.

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