Wolfe's exemplary literary fiction
There seems to be no better time to declare that the term "science fiction" used to describe a certain kind of literature is no longer viable than with the release of "The Best of Gene Wolfe." Gene Wolfe has long been recognized as one of the finest living science fiction writers, none of his many novels or short stories really can accurately be labeled that. Wolfe himself has suggested the term Science Fantasy for his work, but there is still something oddly contrived about trying to fit an author of such magnitude into any genre box.
Wolfe is probably best known for his work "The Book of the New Sun," a four-part epic that is one of the most exhilarating and challenging things I have ever read. Wolfe loves the unreliable narrator, and most of his fiction relies on the very fact that we can never really trust what we are told, as all experience is filtered through things like pride, desire, and the fickleness of memory. His novels are dense and filled with arcane language, heavy with double meanings.
Wolfe's short fiction, however, is an entirely different animal from his novels. While much of it is layered with allusion on top of metaphor on top of symbolism, his writing is sparser and leaner. He knows how to make use of the short form narrative, but each story somehow feels part of the same internal multi-verse, with not only themes, but singular worlds expanding and diminishing and expanding again in numerous stories as in the case of the three stories, "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," "The Death of Dr. Island," and "Death of the Island Doctor."
While traditionally what one thinks of as science fiction and fantasy involves some part adventure and some part wonder, Wolfe's speculations are ominous and unsettling. Even the stories that (might) take place on other worlds, the sense of dislocation and displacement play more of a role than any kind of fetishization of strange technologies or the crypto-zoology of alien creatures. In the story "Forlesen" the main character is both with and without agency as he tries to negotiate the rules and regulations of his colonization on a distant planet; a place that tries to mirror the corporate world with no memory of their purpose, only the dehumanizing procedures.
The premiere story, "The Fifth Head of Cerebus," long considered Wolfe's best, also takes place on a colony planet, but here the setting is modeled like a French-inflected New Orleans. The colonists trade in slaves and prostitution, all the while working with advanced cloning technology. Both the social and the scientific pursue their ends with varying degrees of horror, but the main character, a boy named David, is such a compelling and precocious narrator, that his humanness offers the needed respite.
Wolfe is a sophisticated stylist, and has more in common with writers such as Jorge Luis Borges than almost any other science fiction writer both in terms of craft and themes. The story "On the Train, published in The New Yorker, is a surreal fable that could have been spawned in the mind of Italian writer Calvino.
Despite all this, there is something essential lacking in these stories. It might be that I have spent so much time with his novels it's difficult to read these stories without a sense they are merely experiments and sketches. Wolfe is so prolific; it's hard to imagine him feeling comfortable with so little room to work. Nevertheless, the best stories in this collection - "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" notwithstanding - are what might be called micro-fiction, exquisite stories like the mythic "The Boy Who Hooked the Sun," the vaguely threatening "Redbear," and the quiet ghost story, "The Recording."
Science fiction has come to mean so many things, that Wolfe's collection of his best stories gives us an opportunity to firmly declare that the separation of science fiction from "literary fiction," has blurred so much, we may as well admit that none of these terms can accurately describe the workings of a hyper-charged imagination.
Peter Bebergal is a frequent contributor to the Globe.