Gene Wolfe has distinguished himself as one of the most significant writers in the history of speculative fiction. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, he became known for complex, brief fiction composed for the Orbit anthologies. Today he is most renowned for his novels, especially his early tetralogy The Book of the New Sun. Wolfe has written a significant amount of short fiction, and although that production has slowed since he started focusing on novels, he would still be a significant writer if that were his sole corpus.
Due to the complex themes and dark tone of his writing, Wolfe's popular success has always been limited, but he enjoys a cult following among fans and enormous respect among writers and critics, as evidenced by his many awards. Despite Wolfe's impressive critical reputation, he is an unusual science fiction writer. Although SF writers generally receive praise for their ideas and their ability to explain those ideas in clear expository prose, Wolfe rarely creates new concepts and tropes. Rather, he takes traditional concepts and explores them in striking depth and complexity. His style, though clear, is sophisticated, ambiguous, and hints at meanings. The surface of a Wolfe story never gives the entire significance; his reader must decipher his work like a code.
Wolfe's stories are formally innovative, with many composed in the form of letters, diaries, and memoirs. Such forms allow Wolfe to bring attention to the act of writing itself. His narrators often comment on the writing act and discuss events that occur between paragraphs.
The Best of Gene Wolfe collects 31 of Wolfe's stories from the nine or so volumes of Wolfe's short fiction. Included in this collection is some of the finest speculative fiction ever written, as sophisticated as Jorge Luis Borges (a writer who influenced Wolfe greatly). I strongly recommend the book, although I am critical of a couple of the slighter selections, which are not the best examples of Wolfe's writing.
The collection includes three of the four stories that form the award-winning Archipelago cycle, interrelated narratives (collected in The Wolfe Archipelago) with complex thematic and structural connections that portray islands as potent symbols. Islands are fecund symbols in literature; a quick glance at J.E. Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols suggests that an island can be a refuge from the sea of the unconscious and a sign of isolation, solitude, or death. Islands often are either cursed or blessed (160). In many proto-science fiction stories, unmapped islands are fantastic worlds filled with monsters and fabulous civilizations (the Cyclops and the Lotus-Eaters, to name two examples). These islands function like planets in space operas, where spaceships discover a new world in each story or episode (i.e. Star Trek or the picturesque tales of Jack Vance). Islands evoke the sense of wonder so often sought in speculative fiction.
"The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" portrays an unwanted and neglected child who tries to escape his lonely life and drugged-out mother by reading a pulp adventure tale based on The Island of Dr. Moreau. This metafictional story is written in a second-person point of view, which gives it an added immediacy because some fans will recognize the protagonist's experience of escaping an unhappy childhood by reading SF. The boy cannot ultimately escape; the ending implies that he's trapped in a prison of the self, represented by the island he lives on and the imaginary island he reads about.
The Nebula-winning "sequel" "The Death of Doctor Island" is arguably one of the greatest SF stories, an innovative New Wave story with powerful characterization and style, but at the same time a work of hard SF with the science based on psychology rather than chemistry or physics. Wolfe claims in the afterword: "I suspect that this is my most successful story" (158). It continues many of the themes and concerns of "The Island of Doctor Death," but with more complex characters that involve the reader more deeply.
The boy Nicholas is placed on Dr. Island, an AI therapist in an artificial satellite near Jupiter, with two other mental patients: the homicidal Ignacio and the fragile schizophrenic girl Diane. Nicholas has been subjected to a surgery intended to prevent severe epileptic seizures, his cerebrum sliced down the middle to separate the two halves of his brain and create a state similar to multiple personalities. This procedure has disturbing side effects. It causes him to constantly move his head around like a reptile, and the left side of his body does things his right doesn't know about, as when he unknowingly touches Diane's breast with his left hand.
The first description Wolfe gives of Nicholas outlines his character: He stood and looked about him, the head moving continually as the heads of certain reptiles do—
This passage establishes Nicholas as an individual, well-rounded character who could not be mistaken for anyone else. Nicholas is annoying, strange, and disturbing, while also being sadly sympathetic. The passage demonstrates Wolfe's unique style; notice the direct address to the reader and his willingness to add metafictional elements.
Nicholas likes his visions—
Dr. Island claims that it is an idyllic, pastoral refuge where humans can regain their sanity, but Nicholas feels imprisoned and confused. Like the reader, he cannot interpret his situation by staring at the surface. He must decode the meaning. Where is he really? Is he on a real island? Does Dr. Island want to help him, or does it have some insidious purpose? Is the homicidal Ignacio going to kill him? Why would a therapeutic computer put him and Diane in an enclosed environment with a dangerous individual like Ignacio?
Dr. Island explains that it is a social surrogate and must lie to them at times—
"Death of the Island Doctor" concludes the Archipelago cycle, and like the previous tales is a metafictional commentary on speculative fiction. Dr. Insula (again, a Doctor Island) is an eccentric retired professor who teaches a course on islands, and demonstrates that they can be symbols for magical, surprising places of fantasy, producing a bittersweet tale that is not nearly as dark as the others.
"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is a justly renowned narrative that derives much of its power from Wolfe's use of ambiguity and symbolism, and it can be reread repeatedly with the reader detecting new nuances and complexities each time. It was later expanded into a fix-up novel composed of three novellas structured through interlinked images and themes rather than traditional plot.
The narrator is a man who murdered his father, and he looks back at his childhood and the events that led up to the crime. His father refers to him as "Number Five" because he is the latest in a series of clones. The father and his ancestors obsess over the nature of their identity and recreate themselves over and over, running experiments on their "children" in a vain attempt to understand themselves and their inability to accomplish greater things. The problematic and ambiguous identities do not halt with the protagonist and his father. Mr. Million, the protagonist's robot caretaker, is an uploaded copy of the great-grandfather (who may have been a clone, or even the original of the clones). The narrator's aunt is a female variant of the clones, and a traveling professor they meet may be a shape-changing alien who adopted a human form and is now trapped in it. This story, like the Archipelago tales, portrays how the self can become an inescapable prison. The narrator murders his father partially to escape the repetitive trap the clones have built for themselves, but he ends up in an actual prison and cannot escape himself. There is no island in the story, but the characters live in an isolating, labyrinthine house generation after generation.
Wolfe often writes from a child's point of view, and he does so remarkably well, something that few writers can manage. In "And When They Appear," a boy lives in an AI caretaker house (mirroring the child/AI relationships of Nicholas and Dr. Island, and the unnamed narrator of "Cerberus" and Mr. Million). His parents died in a poisoning, and House protects the boy. On Christmas Day, House throws a party with historical Christmas figures to teach the boy about holiday traditions and to take his mind off his parents' death. The story impresses because it contains many elements of an M.R. James-style ghost story but remains strictly within the realm of plausible science fiction. Like most stories involving children, "And When" is a coming-of-age story, but Wolfe does not turn the protagonist into a sentimental innocent figure. Rather, he portrays how we all emerge from childhood wounded.
"Straw" is a brief, well written story with rounded characters set in an alternate-history Earth where hot air balloons are invented in the Dark ages. This invention allows mercenaries to travel freely across the European continent, thus igniting many wars. It's written in the first-person point of view of an older man looking back on the day he killed his first enemy as a mercenary of 17.
Wolfe is a devout, practicing Catholic, and his work often deals with religious themes, although not in a dogmatic way. In "La Befana," a woman cursed to wander the world until Jesus' second coming journeys to another world where Jesus is about to be born. After all, if Jesus was born on Earth to save it, wouldn't he have to be born on other worlds to save them? "La Befana" transforms a standard theology class thought question into a clever tale.
"The Detective of Dreams," a homage to Chesterton, Poe, and Arthur Conan Doyle, portrays a detective hired to investigate a dream master who controls people's dreams. The story's conclusion brings the religious themes into the forefront with a surprising and unusual take on the body and blood of Christ's Eucharist.
"Eyeflash Miracles" contains many hidden depths with extensive religious motifs. The protagonist, Little Tib, becomes a Christ figure over the course of the narrative. He's an abandoned, blind child who wanders the countryside looking for "Sugarland" (the hobo utopia), a challenging journey similar to the Christian pursuit of heaven. The story is set in a future where robots have replaced most human labor, thus creating a work shortage and forcing people to hop trains and wander around looking for jobs—
"Forlesen," another major story, is a surreal Kafkaesque satire of corporate culture. In an ironic afterword, Wolfe says that the story is a tribute to people who work for Fortune 500 companies their entire lives. The story ridicules corporate "creativity groups" and meaningless slogans such as "creativity means jobs."
In addition to being a corporate satire, "Forlesen" is also an allegory of the human condition. The narrator lives for one day—
"Seven American Nights" is in many ways a prototypical work by Wolfe, presented in the form of a journal taken down by an Iranian who travels to a ruined, post-apocalyptic America. The story reverses the traditional narrative of the Westerner who travels to the exotic lands of Africa or the Middle East. The story foregrounds the act of writing itself (a common technique for Wolfe) as Nadan chronicles the day's events each night, musing over the plot's meaning and trying to decode the story shortly after he lives it.
"The God and His Man" and "The Boy Who Hooked the Sun" are myths from The Brown Book, an imaginary book read by Severian, the narrator of the The Book of the New Sun series. These slightly Dunsany-like fantasies derive most of their significance from the fact that they supplement Wolfe's most important work.
Despite the overall quality of the collection, there are perhaps inevitably a few weaker selections. "From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton" is a humorous epistolary story that the afterword explains is the favorite story of Wolfe's editor, David Hartwell (a barely disguised character). This story is more a fannish in-joke than a full-fledged work. In "Parkroads—
The collection includes myriad treasures such as "Game in the Pope's Head," which details a bizarre, surrealistic game about serial killers and murderers. "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton" is clever and well written with a lot of steampunk elements, a fine tale about chess in an alternate-world Europe. "Kevin Malone" is another dream story like "The Detective of Dreams."
"Petting Zoo" impresses as a futuristic tale about a boy who creates his own T-Rex, an act considered socially unacceptable. The teaching machines train him afterward to be a conformist, and thus Wolfe criticizes social control and the loss of individuality in the modern world.
"Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon?" is a first-person account about a dumb but noble and sympathetic bodybuilder who searches for the legendary "White Cow Moon" with his friend, Junie Moon. It contains a character who is a thinly veiled version of R.A. Lafferty, and is written in the style of a Lafferty tall-tale fantasy.
I did not realize until I read this anthology how much horror Wolfe has written, and I think that we can describe Wolfe as one of the better horror writers of the century.
"The Hero as Werwolf" combines SF, surrealism, and horror tropes, producing an unusual and unique concoction. Wolfe uses the original spelling of werwolf because that spelling describes a man who is to be feared because he became like a wolf, rather than someone who literally transforms into a wolf.
"The Tree is My Hat," a literary take on the lycanthrope legend and Lovecraftian ancient gods, is an introspective first-person account written in a series of journal entries by an American working in Polynesia. The narrator meets Hanga, a pale man with pointed teeth who initially seems to be a leper. The narrative reveals that Hanga is a shape-shifting shark, ancient god, or demon, and the idyllic tropical island becomes a place of haunting horror.
"Bed and Breakfast," set in a hotel near Hell, where tourists, demons, and escaped souls from Hell enjoy the accommodations, stands out as an excellent and ambiguous horror tale. And the collection concludes with "A Cabin on the Coast," a horror tale about a modern man encountering the fairy world. "Cabin" explains why so many cultures have legends of UFOs, fairies, and the Flying Dutchman.
With a few exceptions, these stories are of superb quality, and every speculative fiction reader should have this collection on the shelves. Beyond the unique weirdness and literary quality of Wolfe's work, what stands out is his talent as a synthesizer who combines the tropes and concepts that shaped the genre. He combines SF and modernism, adding formal and stylistic complexity to a genre that generally favors clear expository prose and uncomplicated forms.