Gene Wolfe: The Reliably Unreliable Author
May 8, 2015 8:16 AM   Subscribe

Whether it is Alden Dennis Weer in Peace, Severian in The Book of the New Sun and The Urth of the New Sun, Patera Silk in The Book of the Long Sun, Horn in the The Book of the Short Sun, Mr. Green in There Are Doors, or perhaps most interestingly Latro in Soldier of the Mist and its sequels, the vast majority of Wolfe’s narrators and perspective characters are explicitly shown to be unreliable. posted by smcg (78 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
 
The New Yorker also recently ran a Gene Wolfe piece as well.

I last read the New Sun books in college and kind of devoured them... I'd like to go back and read them more carefully. I also spent a really nerve racking flight on a Dash-8 in a thunderstorm reading "Castleview"... which ultimately was sort of disappointing but it sure did distract from my impending death!

His short stories are really his best stuff IMO... "The Tree is My Hat" is one of my all time "I need brain bleach after that" stories. If you like them Avram Davidson is another good choice in stories that mine some of the same veins.

Weirdly Castleview is not listed in his bibliography on Wikipedia. What's up with that?
posted by selfnoise at 8:24 AM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I meant to say, I sometimes like his deliberately difficult narrators and sometimes find the repetitive use of the idea really annoying. I have to be in the frame of mind to read slowly and analyze/deduce.
posted by selfnoise at 8:27 AM on May 8, 2015


I think his constant use of unreliable narrators not as a gimmick but as a philosophical position: everyone is an unreliable narrator. We all justify, edit our memories by self-mythologizing, leave out things we'd rather forget and misinterpret. It's part of the human condition. In many ways, an utterly reliable narrator, though conventional, is not the way most people think or self-narrate in reality.
posted by bonehead at 8:32 AM on May 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


How To Read Gene Wolfe might be useful, because I made it two books into The Book of the New Sun and I fucking hated it.

And I completed The Night Land.

I still need to finish 'New Sun', I figure I just need to find the key.
posted by Mezentian at 8:32 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I am just re-reading Peace at the moment after seeing the NYer piece. I love Wolfe's writing, although I've reluctantly had to admit that his recent work (starting somewhere around the end of Short Sun or maybe Wizard Knight) has really gone downhill, and into some weird conservative parallel world. I am pretending those are by some other guy called Gene Wolfe.

If you really want to lose several hours to Wolfe fan theorising, check out the Urth mailing list, and particularly anything by Robert Borski or Marc Aramini.
posted by crocomancer at 8:33 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


How To Read Gene Wolfe might be useful, because I made it two books into The Book of the New Sun and I fucking hated it.

Yeah, totally. I have no doubt there's a lot going on there. I think I've read four or five Wolfe novels. I also think I didn't really get it. One of these years I hope to be in the right frame of mind to try again.
posted by brennen at 8:36 AM on May 8, 2015


I would argue that Latro is the most reliable narrator in all of Wolfe's work. The reader just can't be sure how much of his viewpoint is real, filtered though his historical subjectivity or simply a faithfully reported hallucination. All or any of those could be true.
posted by bonehead at 8:48 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


None of the fan writing about Wolfe's unreliable narration that I've seen ever seems to take into account that it has basically nothing to do with unresolvable ambiguity or genuine epistemic uncertainty. Quite the opposite, it's "unreliability" as a kind of intricate, hyperrational trick or puzzle for readers, who assemble based on careful cluing the truth that the narrator doesn't know. The New Yorker piece was fairly typical in seemingly having been written by someone who never put the puzzle together completely in the first place, and so characterized the experience of reading as much more mysterious than it actually is. (I'm saying this based on the New Sun books; maybe he attempts actual literary ambiguity rather than puzzle-box plotting somewhere else.)
posted by RogerB at 8:50 AM on May 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


The short story collection Strange Travelers--in which each story revolves around a very loose theme of "travel," and eventually loops back around in a nice way--is a good introduction to Wolfe, and more accessible than the New Sun, Latro and Peace. All collections are a mixed bag, but some of my favorite stories--"Queen of the Night," "The Ziggurat," "The Haunted Boardinghouse"--are in there, the prose is beautiful without going all out and the shorter nature of the stories, plus having them all set next to each other, makes the narrators' unreliability more noticeable and immediately interesting. Castle of Days (or the original Book of Days, I guess, but Castle's the way to go) is a nice collection, too, mostly following a "holiday" theme.

I can understand picking up one of Wolfe's "major" works and being overwhelmed by and not prepared for it. I can't understand disliking it. Wolfe is one of those rare treasures of a writer who does fascinating things with narrative, character and what it means to be human, without sacrificing genuine imaginative richness. Too often "literary" authors only dip their toes into the fantastic, and "sci-fi" authors get a little too hung up on superfluous detail. Wolfe just writes incredible things that sit as comfortably beside the greatest novels as they do the weirdest pulps.
posted by byanyothername at 8:52 AM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


I love Gene Wolfe and the Latro books (the Soldier of... series) set in god-haunted ancient Greece and Egypt are my favorite.
posted by straight at 8:53 AM on May 8, 2015


Unless I missed something, the central ambiguity in the Soldier's books is unresolvable.
posted by bonehead at 8:53 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


"Book of the New Sun" is my favorite work of literature, with no runners-up really anywhere near to dislodging it from that position. It ranks at the top both when assessed on its own merits, and when contemplated as part of the larger "Solar" cycle. It's not just a book that I admire, it's a book I love, deeply. Roger Ebert used to say that his definition of a great movie was "one that I'd be sad to know that I was never going to see it again." I would heartbroken to learn that my last reading of BotNS was my last.

Because of that, I'm dismayed to learn that people have approached the book and hated it. But it's not the kind of reflexive irritation or defensiveness that one sometimes feels when upon learning that their favorite band sucks! It's more like a sense of not wanting people to miss something really beautiful. So, to those who have tried the book and failed to have it engage, I'd like to offer a suggestion, One Weird Trick that may make the book easier to connect with:

Treat it like the entire text is one very, very extended dream sequence.

Wolfe was an engineer before he was able to make a living at writing, and BotNS is "hard" science fiction of the kind that only an engineer can pull off. Everything in it has an explanation that's "plausible" enough for verisimilitude in SF terms, but attempting to figure out all of those explanations while you're reading can make for an exhausting slog. Fortunately, everything in the text also functions more or less perfectly in terms of dream-logic or myth-logic. And reading it like it's a dream makes some of the imagery and language come the fore where normally concerns about plot sensibility might get in the way.

About that language: one of the constraints that Wolfe set for himself was not make any recourse to made-up words or names in the depiction of the culture of "Urth". Everything that is expressed in Severian's language is rendered as English. Everything archaic to Severian is rendered as Latin.

I don't know if any of this would help make the book more palatable to people who've made a run and it and found it unsatisfying, but I hope it does. Reading it really is a once-in-a-lifetime revelation. Until you read it again.
posted by Ipsifendus at 8:57 AM on May 8, 2015 [12 favorites]


Quite the opposite, it's "unreliability" as a kind of intricate, hyperrational trick or puzzle for readers

This is true, but some people miss it because sometimes the solution to his puzzles is pretty mundane without any huge significance to the story. As he has said, "Everything means something, but not everything means very much."

I remember Wolfe first getting his hooks into me when first read Shadow of the Torturer and the narrator encounters a blind man but never mentions he is blind. Half-way through the conversation I realized what was up, realized I was reading a book that required more careful attention than I was used to, and went back and started again from the beginning.

There was no huge significance to Wolfe's narrator failing to mention the man was blind (except as characterization of what the kinds of things the narrator thinks are worth writing about). It's mostly a stylistic thing for Wolfe. Sometimes he pushes it in directions I find annoying, but mostly I think it's beautiful.
posted by straight at 9:00 AM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Wolfe plays with unreliability and ambiguity in different ways in different books and stories. Often there is genuine ambiguity, but you can tell yourself there's not and the narrative will hand you a few puzzle pieces that never really fit together to help you go that way. Often there are also events that are pretty much right there, but you have to squint to see them. Seeing them also probably pushes you into thinking the puzzle pieces you have fit together, when they're probably from different puzzles altogether. Which is not to say that it's all Dhalgren or something: there's a consistent narrative thread, but you're always looking at it through muddy waters and you'll never find where it ends or begins.

Some narrators are liars with perfect memory. Some are honest people with sketchy memories. Some are sincere recorders of the truth they've experienced, but they've fundamentally misunderstood the events of the story. It's all the different facets and ways that idea of narrative unreliability comes into play that fascinates me.
posted by byanyothername at 9:00 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Everything in it has an explanation that's "plausible" enough for verisimilitude in SF terms, but attempting to figure out all of those explanations while you're reading can make for an exhausting slog.

With a very important caveat. Everything in Book of the New Sun has an explanation of how it could really happen in our world. But Wolfe believes miracles really happen in our world.
posted by straight at 9:04 AM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Because of that, I'm dismayed to learn that people have approached the book and hated it. But it's not the kind of reflexive irritation or defensiveness that one sometimes feels when upon learning that their favorite band sucks! It's more like a sense of not wanting people to miss something really beautiful. So, to those who have tried the book and failed to have it engage, I'd like to offer a suggestion, One Weird Trick that may make the book easier to connect with:

Treat it like the entire text is one very, very extended dream sequence.


I did make it through The Night Land. The ideas in that are AMAZING. Mind-blowing. The actual words are akin to being branded.

But, and are you sitting down, I hated The Dying Earth at first. But I was trapped on a plane, so I read on. And now I rate it so highly. So the potential is there, if I can find the key.
posted by Mezentian at 9:11 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


The thing Wolfe does that I think is even more central than unreliable narration is the deliberate frustration of expectations. He is constantly leading the reader to expect and want something (information, a plot development, a turn in the conversation, an action scene, an explanation) but then giving the reader something else. That something else is usually strange and beautiful (or aweful), but you can only enjoy it if you can let go of your desire to have the other thing. Reading Wolfe is almost a spiritual discipline.
posted by straight at 9:11 AM on May 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


And sometimes Wolfe pushes it too far, or farther than I'm willing to go. Some of his conversations seem willfully obtuse in ways that I stop seeing the character and only see Wolfe playing games.
posted by straight at 9:13 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Wolfe is my #1 scifi/fantasy author, bar none. I've read "Book of the New Sun" and "Urth of the New Sun" probably a dozen times.

I bogged down in The Long Sun books mostly because of the unreliable narrator trope. It started getting exhausting, so I walked away from it.
posted by sidereal at 9:15 AM on May 8, 2015


But Wolfe believes miracles really happen in our world.

This sounds dumb. But the great trick Wolfe does in the New Sun books is to use all the trappings of high fantasy, then slowly reveal that all the "magic" and "monsters" have a science-fictional explanation. And then when you've gotten comfortable with the idea of being in a world of science rather than magic, he shows you a wonder and it seems possibly miraculous rather than just the magic of a fantasy world.
posted by straight at 9:25 AM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


"Long Sun" is a hilarious implementation of the unreliable narrator because you get to halfway through the third volume before getting a clear indication that the narrative voice of the damn thing isn't third-person. There's a one-sentence "slip" where suddenly the identity of the person telling the story becomes clear.

Here's a measure of how deeply ingrained my expectation of trickery in Wolfe's work goes. Within the first 2 pages of "Shadow of the Torturer", there's a contradiction in the text: one character says something, and a bit later the narrator describes somebody else having said it. And this is a narrator who claims to have perfect recall, mind you. Having made it all the way through the book, and having learned just how elusive the "real" story can be in it, I used to puzzle a lot about why this contradiction occurred.

So, about 10 years ago, as a birthday gift, my wife wrote Wolfe a letter, describing how much of a fan I was and asking about the contradiction.

Wolfe replied by writing me directly, positioning himself as having been instructed by "Agent A" (my wife) to establish communication. It was a great, funny letter, and he included an autographed chapbook, and an explanation for the contradiction:

Typo.
posted by Ipsifendus at 9:25 AM on May 8, 2015 [29 favorites]


Wolfe is my favorite writer--just edging out Antoine de Saint-Exupery, I think--but I haven't read everything he has written, yet. He is my favorite writer the way the sun is my favorite star, and both make my eyes go watery and my head hurt if I look at them too closely for too long.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:31 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


There's a lot going on with The Book Of The New Sun, some of it technical.

There is:
  • Gene Wolfe playing with language. There's a world of etymological fun to be had tracking down the unfamiliar words, and even with a significant vocabulary you'll be surprised how many words you think are made up are actually contemporary.
  • Gene Wolfe playing with mythology. Many many classical myths are present, but broken down and reassembled as if corrupted or retold for the audience of a different era.
  • Your basic swords and sorcery story, with some aliens and high technology thrown in.
  • A study in foreshadowing, both of the traditional type and of blunt "show you the future, then walk through how we get there."
  • An elaborate N-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, where any page may (often unnoticed) expand and explain an apparently unrelated one.
In short the books are great for people who love language, literature, and complexity. By that same token if that's not what you're looking for then they'll seem overwritten and pointless. The swords and sorcery story is good, but it's not enough to hold the weight of the rest if you're not interested.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:33 AM on May 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


Book of the Long Sun is awesome just for the talking bird.
posted by 7segment at 9:50 AM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Book of the New Sun is excellent, and Peace is one of my favorite novels; some of his more recent work I haven't liked as much. Some of his beliefs and attitudes show through (particularly regarding women) in troubling ways.
The biggest problem for me is An Evil Guest; either I don't understand it or it is simply not very good. I have reason to hope it is the former, but I haven't figured anything out yet.
posted by librosegretti at 10:05 AM on May 8, 2015


That makes two of us. An Evil Guest is proof to me that not even great writers get it right all the time.
posted by bonehead at 10:14 AM on May 8, 2015


One of my favourite authors, although I share others' reservations about his more recent work. This vintage interview is also great:

LM: Some of your works proceed in a relatively straightforward, linear manner, but many of them unfold in a more complicated fashion, with the events being filtered through memory, dream, unreliable narrators, stories within stories, different points of view. What draws you to these sorts of "refracted" methods?

Wolfe: First off, my intent in using these approaches is not to mystify my readers. My agent once said to me, "I know you thought no one would 'get' this in your story but I understood what you were up to." I wrote back that if I thought no one would get it, I wouldn't have put it in there. There's no purpose for an author deliberately making things obscure. What I am trying to do is show the way things really seem to me—and to find the most appropriate way to tell the particular story I have to tell. [...] It's the hackneyed notion: "The medium is the message." As I work on a story, the subject matter often seems to become an appropriate means of telling it—the thing bites its tail, in a way—because subject and form aren't reducible to a simple "this or that." "That" and "this" are interacting throughout the story. That's what I meant when I said I'm trying to show the way things really seem to me—my experience is that subjects and methods are always interacting in our daily lives. That's realism, that's the way things really are. It's the other thing—the matter of fact assumption found in most fiction that the author and characters perceive everything around them clearly and objectively—that is unreal.

posted by inire at 10:33 AM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Plus, he was 77 when he wrote An Evil Guest. Sometimes, you just don't have the control anymore.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:36 AM on May 8, 2015


Ok, consider me intrigued. What's a good entry-level book?
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:50 AM on May 8, 2015


I was so disgusted by the rape scene in Book of the New Sun that I haven't had the heart to go back and re-read it, even though I suspect that there's a lot of interesting stuff to dig into.

Or was that an unreliable accounting as well?! I'm so confuse
posted by Doleful Creature at 10:51 AM on May 8, 2015


True, but Wizard Knight was just four years prior. Maybe not top shelf, but still quite a decent showing.
posted by bonehead at 10:52 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ok, consider me intrigued. What's a good entry-level book?

Perhaps The Fifth Head of Cerberus? Short, twisty, a classic.
posted by inire at 10:55 AM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I worry that people get unnecessarily turned off by all the talk about puzzles and unreliable narrators. What drew me into the New Sun books in the first place is that they're full of strikingly vivid, evocative images and scenes that seem surreal at first, but end up being not only explicable in SF terms, but enormously satisfying as pure storytelling.

Towards the end of the first book there's a duel with flowers. It's an elaborate set piece. Wolfe very carefully sets up how Severian gets tricked into the duel, and the motivations and methods of the people tricking him make perfect sense. Wolfe also provides plausible mechanics for the flowers as weapons: these are alien flowers, hypnotic and poisonous, and the difficulty of fighting with them is part of the trick. The duel itself is exciting to read and ends with a clever twist that elegantly feeds into yet another, larger plot development. But when you step away from the book, what sticks with you most is this dreamlike, world-turned-upside-down image of Severian and his antagonist facing each other on the field of battle, fighting with flowers.

Another example is the analeptic alzabo, a substance that lets you absorb a dead person's memories by eating their flesh. This one basic idea gets developed in several different directions, narratively and thematically, throughout the books. It motivates the gravedigging in the first chapter of the first book. In the second book, it leads to an intense and horrifying cannibalistic feast, which (once again) feeds into several very important larger plot developments that I won't spoil, in addition to having obvious symbolic resonance. And then in the third book, we run into the origin of the substance: the alzabo, an alien monster that can mimic the voices and memories of its victims after it eats them. This gives us an SF "explanation" for the analeptic alzabo, plays off the themes of memory and identity that run through all the books, and provides an opportunity for yet another awesome and narratively satisfying scene, as several characters struggle to survive the alzabo's attack. I think it's that ability to elegantly interweave striking imagery, clever SF conceits, and old-fashioned good storytelling that makes Wolfe worth reading.
posted by twirlip at 10:56 AM on May 8, 2015 [10 favorites]


What's a good entry-level book?

The Wolfe wiki has some decent suggestions.

Short stories if you just want to dip your toes in. I started with Shadow of the Torturer because I was a teenager and it had a cool front cover.
posted by bonehead at 10:56 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I should go back and re-read the various books of the various suns. It's been a while. Especially since I recently realized that unreliable narrators seem to be A Thing in my own work.

or, in the case of the Long and Short Suns, finally actually read - my life got complicated while he was producing those.
posted by egypturnash at 10:57 AM on May 8, 2015


There's a lot going on with The Book Of The New Sun, some of it technical.

There is:
•Gene Wolfe playing with language. There's a world of etymological fun to be had tracking down the unfamiliar words, and even with a significant vocabulary you'll be surprised how many words you think are made up are actually contemporary.
•Gene Wolfe playing with mythology. Many many classical myths are present, but broken down and reassembled as if corrupted or retold for the audience of a different era.
•Your basic swords and sorcery story, with some aliens and high technology thrown in.
•A study in foreshadowing, both of the traditional type and of blunt "show you the future, then walk through how we get there."
•An elaborate N-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, where any page may (often unnoticed) expand and explain an apparently unrelated one.


and finally:

•Typos. I hope a scholarly edition of Wolfe's major books eventually corrects these.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:00 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'd start with a short story collection - Endangered Species or Castle of Days.

When you start Book of the New Sun, consider picking up Michael Andre-Driussi's Lexicon Urthus, which is a dictionary of the sometimes opaque terms Wolfe uses.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:05 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Have any of you diehard Wolfe fans read Robert Borski's Solar Labyrinth, and if so, what do you make of his theory that most of the characters are actually relatives of the protagonist? (It certainly makes sense from a Freudian perspective, particularly if you're reading the entire thing as a dream sequence, as Ipsifendus suggests, but seems like quite a stretch to me.)
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:05 AM on May 8, 2015


Ok, consider me intrigued. What's a good entry-level book?

Perhaps The Fifth Head of Cerberus?


Ha ha. I would consider Fifth Head jumping into the deep end (but perhaps I am not as smart as I think I am). It is pretty weird, structurally.

I might actually suggest Free Live Free. It is certainly not the best, but it's still pretty ok, and the edition I had, at least, completely spelled out the mystery in a postscript, which could be helpful. Hell, maybe even Pandora by Holly Hollander. Nowhere near as tricky as the rest I've read, but a well-written mystery that held my attention completely.

Peace would probably work, too.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:21 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was so disgusted by the rape scene in Book of the New Sun that I haven't had the heart to go back and re-read it, even though I suspect that there's a lot of interesting stuff to dig into.

Or was that an unreliable accounting as well?! I'm so confuse


Hard to say. Severian references it specifically in the Urth Of The New Sun saying that he believed/believes Jolenta was on board with it. On the other hand the whole little adventure is the kind of thing he would make up.

But frankly Severian is a stone cold misogynist (with the excuse that he comes from a stone cold misogynist environment) and IMHO his treatment of women elsewhere makes me think he wouldn't truly care much either way.

Several of the women I've recommended the book to were turned off by the character enough that they felt it wasn't worth their time to wade through the rest. I can understand that.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:30 AM on May 8, 2015


I can't think of a better introduction to Gene Wolfe than his short stories, specifically "Endangered Species". It's got a little bit of everything.

There Are Doors fascinates me. I made my mother (a psychotherapist) read it a few years back so we could discuss it -- we were able to draw various snatches of meaning out of it but never arrived at a general understanding of the book or of Wolfe's intention in writing it. To this day I'm not sure he had one.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:34 AM on May 8, 2015


As a side note, a few years ago I made a pilgrimage up to Lake Diaturna (née Titicaca) and the floating islands are pretty cool. Unfortunately no castles were present. I would have killed for a battlement and a thunderstorm.

Someday when I have beyond stupid money at my disposal I'm going to open the world's most specialist tourist attraction up there. :-)
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:39 AM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


What I want to know is:

What happened at the end of Tracking Song?
What is the story behind Suzanne Delage?

(I finally understood what happened in Seven American Nights just this year, decades after reading it for the first time)

I LOVE Gene Wolfe's work; it's haunted me since I discovered a short story in a worn paperback SF anthology in my elementary school library.

A (very, very good) interview with Gene Wolfe by Jason Pontin last year in MIT Technology Review
posted by Auden at 11:57 AM on May 8, 2015


InfinityWaltz - yes (or at least I read a lot of it on the Urth list). My opinion is that Borski does have some good insights but that he's mostly riffing on the text in a highly speculative way. Without giving spoilers thete are definitely some of Severians family in the book but I don't buy the Borski line here.
posted by crocomancer at 12:01 PM on May 8, 2015


Gene Wolfe's novels are great but, in the opinion of his editor, David Hartwell, "Wolfe's body of short fiction is unequaled by anyone alive." (From Hartwell's speech when Wolfe was inducted into the SF Hall of Fame. Hartwell also mentioned that Wolfe has published a book almost every year since the 1970s.)
posted by straight at 12:03 PM on May 8, 2015


crocomancer (or anyone else), do you have any recommendations for websites that delve into the criticism and various theories of Gene Wolfe in general and the various "Sun" books in particular? I've read through "The Book of the New Sun" once (and parts of it more than once), so I'm not at risk of spoilers, but I'd like to get more details on some of the other theories and stuff floating around.
posted by infinitywaltz at 12:08 PM on May 8, 2015


This twitter conversation happened yesterday. Short version: Neil Gaiman, Patton Oswalt, and David St Hubbins all love Gene Wolfe.
posted by NoMich at 12:12 PM on May 8, 2015


You can do a lot worse than Ultans library (linked in the OP). If you want to go deeper I think Peter Wrights book is good, and you have to read Strokes because Clute seems to have been one of the first people to pay attention to Wolfe.
posted by crocomancer at 12:23 PM on May 8, 2015


"I was so disgusted by the rape scene in Book of the New Sun that I haven't had the heart to go back and re-read it, even though I suspect that there's a lot of interesting stuff to dig into.

Or was that an unreliable accounting as well?! I'm so confuse"

Severian is a bad guy, and the text is playing a game with you where it is simultaneously using a variety of literary tricks to make you sympathise with him and revealing how horrible he is through what still manages to slip through his narration. It's very similar to how the audience was seduced by Tony in the Sopranos. That's part of the interest for some people, and a turn-off for others. YMMV.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 12:29 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Another one of Wolfe's themes is alluded to in this quote from Soldier of Arete:

"You admire strength because you are not strong, and that's fine. But Latro is strong; for him to admire strength would make him a monster."

In most adventure novels, the hero faces opponents who are stronger than he, and he struggles to become strong enough to defeat them. But in many of Wolfe's stories, the protagonist is stronger than most of his foes and the drama comes from the moral and practical dilemmas of how to wisely and honorably use that strength.

I can think of many worthwhile reasons Wolfe might want to explore such characters: How might we live if we were not afraid? Or if we did not admire strength? How might we treat others if we felt no need to struggle to be stronger than they are? How ought a rich country, with the most powerful military in the world, behave if attacked or threatened by a weaker neighbor?
posted by straight at 12:39 PM on May 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Another way of thinking about Wolfe's narrators is that he almost never uses a third-person perspective because there is no such thing as a third-person perspective and he considers "unreliable narrator" to be redundant.
posted by straight at 12:43 PM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Severian is a bad guy

I agree, though that realization develops over the course of reading and rereadings (so *spoilers*, I guess). Jolenta is one of the most obvious examples, but he is a monster, and becomes more monstrous over the course of the books.
posted by bonehead at 1:13 PM on May 8, 2015


Here's my list of favorite and/or most accessible Wolfe short stories, listed by the collections where you can find them:

Best of Gene Wolfe: "Forlesen," "Westwind," "Seven American Nights," "A Cabin on the Coast"

Castle of Days: "How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion," "The War Beneath the Tree," "Forlesen"

Storeys from the Old Hotel: "Westwind," "Trip, Trap,"

The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories: "The Death of Dr. Island," "Tracking Song," "Seven American Nights"

Endangered Species: "A Cabin on the Coast," "The Last Thrilling Wonder Story," "When I was Ming the Merciless," "War Beneath the Tree," "The HORARS of War," "The Other Dead Man"
posted by straight at 1:25 PM on May 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Gene Wolfe has a piece called "These Are the Jokes" (collected in Castle of Days) in which he has a dozen of the major and minor characters from the Book of the New Sun each tell a joke. Most of them are alien in a very convincing way; you don't find them funny but you can almost see why that character would.
posted by straight at 1:32 PM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I attempted New Sun a few years ago and I recall getting half-way and I had to stop, not because it was poorly written but because it was so intense. It was a heavy read that required a bit of a break. I need to dip back into it.

This was a good reminder. Thanks for sharing.
posted by Fizz at 2:43 PM on May 8, 2015


If you like Wolfe, you might like R.A. Lafferty, a writer unlike any other. He was a myth-maker from Oklahoma, and a complete collection of his short stories is available here.

Neil Gaiman is a Lafferty fan, and he once wrote an affectionate Lafferty pastiche called Sunbird.
posted by Agave at 5:20 PM on May 8, 2015 [6 favorites]


I love all his books but the older I get the more I love Long Sun the most. It's the closest I'll get to really understanding what very religious people get out of the bible. Silk good. Good man. Fish heads.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:38 PM on May 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yep, the Long Sun books are the best refutation to the idea that a thoroughly good character makes a boring protagonist.
posted by Ipsifendus at 5:54 PM on May 8, 2015


Well Silk isn't just nice. Like most messiahs he can also be cruel.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:09 PM on May 8, 2015


I loved Book of the New Sun just for the language and the strange ideas, which is why I read fantasy. Dug Soldier in the Mist for the same reason. Didn't really like A Demon in the Forest, but when he's on Wolfe is one of the best.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:57 PM on May 8, 2015


And I don't really care about the 'truth', 'cause there's no real 'sense' or 'truth' or 'logic' in anything. You can catch glimpses of it in Book of the New Sun, but as long as the narrator's perceptions are altered in a good way, than what comes out can be worthwhile.

This can also apply to the reader's perceptions.

At its best, art can induce that heightened, hallucinatory state. And BOTNS has striking images that still stay with me.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:58 PM on May 8, 2015


Wolfe is a huge fan of R.A. Lafferty as well, and several stories such as "Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon?" are literary homages
posted by Auden at 8:02 PM on May 8, 2015


I did read Book of the New Sun many times since I loved its depth and puzzle-like nature and so many of the gorgeous baroque images of complicated decay (like the cliff exposing fossilized remains of millions of years of civilization), references to stuff like the commedia dell'arte, and trying to figure out various "truths" of the book that didn't show up (for me) until multiple re-readings. It rewards re-reading.

But, notably I can enjoy it only if I bracket out most of everything to do with gender. It is a useful skill. I thought in the last book he tried, as if he had been advised by friends to try and write a better woman character, that Gunnie had some promise but he couldn't bear for her to exist for more than 5 seconds and had to bring in Burgundofara to be a sort of brain-wiped ingenue. That was sadly disappointing.

The other thing I want to say in this thread is that while Wolfe is a good writer, there are many other long, complicated works with interesting structure, unreliable narrators, and good ideas. When I find people who are fascinated with New Sun, I know that I can probably lay some other amazing "difficult" books (especially ones with very long arcs) on them which is a fabulous relief since those kinds of people are hard to find.
posted by geeklizzard at 10:04 PM on May 8, 2015


A Demon in the Forest

It's called The Devil in a Forest which (unlike, say, A Devil in the Forest) makes it sound like it's the forest that's the novelty here. It's a short, minor book, Wolfe's version of Robin Hood (among other things). It's got some of Wolfe's gift for verisimilitude about life in the past (medieval in this case; who knows if it's accurate) that makes the Soldier books so good.
posted by straight at 11:37 PM on May 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am a huge fan of R.A. Lafferty, based purely on the single short story I have read: 'Selenium Ghosts of the 1870s'.

I've got two Wolfe short story collections: Book of Days and Endangered Species. Any recommendations?
posted by Mezentian at 12:14 AM on May 9, 2015


Just get all the Gene Wolfe short stories you can. Start with the earliest collections and work your way forward. They are all brilliant.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:19 AM on May 9, 2015


When I find people who are fascinated with New Sun, I know that I can probably lay some other amazing "difficult" books (especially ones with very long arcs) on them which is a fabulous relief since those kinds of people are hard to find.

WHAT THE HECK KINDA COMMENT IS THIS YOURE TALKING TO AN ENTIRE THREAD OF THESE PEOPLE COUGH UP THE RECOMMENDS RIGHT NOW FFS
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:20 AM on May 9, 2015 [6 favorites]


My perennial Wolfe-adjacent RIYLs are Tim Powers Last Call and Elizabeth Knox Black Oxen. Read em.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:21 AM on May 9, 2015 [2 favorites]


It was one of the highlights of my year last month to talk to Bill Willingham (writer of Fables) about how great Last Call (and Tim Powers generally) is.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:23 AM on May 9, 2015


Fans of Wolfe's Soldier books would probably like Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.
posted by straight at 8:54 AM on May 9, 2015


I've got two Wolfe short story collections: Book of Days and Endangered Species. Any recommendations?

When I Was Ming The Merciless
The War Beneath The Tree
Kevin Malone

All from Endangered Species.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:57 AM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


As chance would have it I was rereading The Urth Of The New Sun when this thread started, and having just finished it I am once again disappointed with it. There's too much exposition, too much explanation.

And as always I wonder how I would feel about it if it wasn't connected to The Book Of The New Sun. It's probably a fine book, it just stands in the shadow of a masterpiece.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:36 AM on May 9, 2015


Wolfe's Alzabo in The Book of the New Sun remains the most horrifying monster I've ever encountered in fantasy. An enormous hyena-like quadruped carnivore evolved on some other planet, it's not particularly intelligent, it just has a singular evolutionary advantage: it can perfectly mimic the speech of whatever it has recently eaten.

First it eats your loved ones, then it comes pawing at your door, crying to be let in, in their voices.
posted by sidereal at 2:38 PM on May 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's more than just their voices. It holds some of their personality, asking you to join them in their new body.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:35 PM on May 9, 2015


The leucrota is a monster that speaks with a human voice to lure its prey.
posted by 0rison at 10:04 PM on May 9, 2015


I finished The Fifth Head of Cerberus two days ago - my first Wolfe - and it's one of the finest things I've ever read. My brain is on fire. I also need to immediately reread it. It's far more complex than I gave it credit for - I missed about 75% of the "hidden" narrative - but it's fairly readable and accessible on first blush. So pretty much a perfect introduction for me. I can't imagine how it gets even better than this.
posted by naju at 11:44 PM on May 9, 2015


I finished The Fifth Head of Cerberus two days ago - my first Wolfe - and it's one of the finest things I've ever read. My brain is on fire. I also need to immediately reread it.

Is there higher praise?
posted by Mezentian at 6:07 AM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


I finished The Fifth Head of Cerberus two days ago - my first Wolfe - and it's one of the finest things I've ever read. My brain is on fire. I also need to immediately reread it.

... try to deduce (without internet sleuthing) the real name of Number 5. The clues are in the text, although quite hidden.
posted by Auden at 10:34 PM on May 10, 2015 [1 favorite]


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