Let’s say you made a bet. “Gene Wolfe can’t write a creepy story about...” you search and flail, hoping to come up with the most absurd thing you can think of, something nobody would be able to write a spooky story about. “...a refrigerator!” you shout, in a moment of inspiration. There, you think. That has to stump him. Alas, friend, no, Gene Wolfe can’t be caged by any force known to humankind, past, present or future. Witness “Frostfree,” a story about a time-traveling appliance sent into the past to help break curses(?!), and is in part a thoughtful Wolfean exploration of gender roles(?!).
It’s a fitting way to kick off Shadows of the New Sun, a collection of short stories edited by J.E. Mooney and Bill Fawcett honoring the Wolfe himself, from a list of luminaries like Neil Gaiman, David Brin and Nancy Kress. The stories themselves dance around Wolfe’s themes and narratives in a fitting homage. My admiration for Gene Wolfe is no secret, and I’m far from alone— some of the genre’s best writers are here; they’ve eaten the analeptic alzabo and the Wolfe is in them now.
I’d never read Michael Swanwick before, but I’ve got to tell you, after reading “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin,” I am certain going to read more of him. “She-Wolf” is a contender for my favorite story in collection, in part because it is set in the world of Wolfe’s Fifth Head of Cerberus. If The Book of the New Sun is Wolfe’s Shadow of the Colossus, then Fifth Head is his ICO: a more personal story, and a spiritual predecessor. Swanwick manages to find a tone that evokes Wolfe without mimicking him (Veil’s Hypothesis joke intended) and incorporated the questions of identity at the core of The Fifth Head of Cerberus with panache. Awfully impressive. Fifth Head of Cerberus is made up of three novellas, and “She Wolf” mostly puts me in mind of the first, eponymous part; I’d really like to see Swanwick tackle the other two, create a trilogy of linked short stories the same way Wolfe braided the three novellas together— I’m just curious to see more of the worlds of Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne, and Swanwick really adds to the universe Wolfe first showed us.
I say “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” is my favorite in the collection, but there is really an embarrassment of riches. David Brin writes a short story called “The Log” about a dark future where a slave caste of gulag laborers live along side genetically modified elephants and wooly mammoths, creatures adapted to live in deep space, to chew up space rocks and harvest the crystalline trees that condense sunlight into readily available energy. Come on, what, that is great, but in the true spirit of Wolfe, it isn’t the big ideas or weird setting that are the focus; it is the personal element, it is the spirit of Russian endurance, it is the universal language of human suffering and ultimately the triumph of hope.
Or oh, Aaron Allston’s “Epistoleros,” too—I’m just leafing through the book and everywhere I open, there is another gem. A pun on gun-fighters and letter-writers? Right there, you’re speaking my language; that kind of pun is Wolfe up and down. The fact that it is an alternate Wild West story where the immortal paladins of Charlemagne are the vanguard of the expanding French forces in America is just gravy. Delicious gravy.
I really enjoyed Songs of the Dying Earth, a similar collection of stories in honor of Jack Vance, so I had high hopes for this as a Wolfe fan. Wolfe has such a distinctive voice— I should say, he has several distinct voices, as the man is an accomplished ventriloquist— but simply aping his style would leave the stories ultimately hollow. Fortunately, that isn’t what we get here; instead, as I mentioned, we have people deftly working with his themes and subjects, writers who focus on the subtle craft of capturing the heart of Wolfe’s writing. Or not capturing it; setting it free.
Sorry for all the double negatives and contradictions in the previous paragraph; reading Wolfe and reading about Wolfe put me in mind of labyrinths, crooked sentences, twisting winding mazes made of words. Which, ultimately, is the conundrum at the heart of things; Wolfe is an Apollonian figure, a sun god, but he is hidden Chthonic, hidden in the labyrinth. Odin, lover of poems and gallows. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king…and Wolfe does rule. He even has two eyes. It was nice to read a collection in honor of him, and it was even nicer that it was a fantastic collection.
Shadows of the New Sun is available now from Tor Books
Mordicai Knode really likes the naming conventions of the Shadow Children in the Fifth Head of Cerberus. The identity politics of the Other! You can talk about more Wolfe with Mordicai on Twitter or Tumblr.