Short Fiction Spotlight

Short Fiction Spotlight: Casting Shadows

Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.

Gene Wolfe has been expanding the scope of speculative fiction for 43 years, so I suppose it’s no surprise that these days there’s practically a party line about the work of the SFWA Grand Master. You’ll know it the moment I mention it.

Perhaps it arises from the fact that his every book isn’t a bona fide bestseller—but why is that? I’d bet because Wolfe’s grasp of the craft is so subtle that the many miss it. Indubitably, it’s true that the accumulated acclaim of his esteemed peers invariably outweighs the passing fancy of the masses. To wit, critics have resorted to calling him a writer’s writer. An author’s author.

As Booklist put it in its recent review of the anthology we’ll be talking about today, “although Wolfe has legions of fans, nowhere is the respect for his talents greater than among his colleagues, 18 of whom contributed playful and provocative stories to this volume published in his honour.”

The volume in question is of course Shadows of the New Sun, a slim but star-studded collection of short fiction written in tribute to this wonderfully understated storyteller, whose prose is apparently so hard to parse that really, you’d best not spare them a thought unless you’re also an author.

What nonsense!

I’ll admit that Wolfe’s work is difficult; that it can require repeat readings for his meaning to become clear. I’ll grant that some of his stories are markedly more accessible than others, and furthermore, that the pay-off of a few is particularly obscure. But dismissing his fiction in the aforementioned fashion rubs this reader, at least, the wrong way.

Though the bulk of Shadows of the New Sun is devoted to tales written in tribute to the influential author, the collection is perfectly bookended by original fiction from the pen of the very fella. We’ll be looking at these in this edition of the Short Fiction Spotlight, beginning with “Frostfree,” a typically tall tale about a man who comes home from work one day to find himself in possession of a fridge from the future.

Appliance salesman Roy Tabak simply dismisses it initially:

Movers, clearly, had been moving furniture and so forth into a new apartment. There had not been room enough in the van for this large refrigerator, so they had made a separate trip for it. They had put it in his apartment by mistake. […] It was all very simple and convincing, and it would be more simple and convincing after a beer. Still more after six or eight. Aloud, Roy Tabak said, “Hell and damn!”

“If you are unable to find that which you seek,” his new refrigerator said politely, “I may be able to direct your, sir.”

Unable to square away the fact that his fridge has started talking to him, Roy promptly calls a psychiatric hotline, wondering if it’s normal to hear voices. It’s not.

Eventually, though, our man comes around to the fact that he has a rather chatty appliance. He asks it for chip dip; it politely proffers a choice of “guavacado, whipped kasseri, and fava-bean habas.” Their strange relationship begins there.

Later, they get to know one another a bit better. Roy tells the fridge about his pet greyhound Chester, and in turn the fridge fills Roy in on its future history. Conceived as a simple smart fridge, Frostfree evolved when its inventors decided to retrofit further functions, making it an oven and a dishwasher in addition.

“The oven requirement decided the matter. We could not function as programmable stoves. We could, however, apply our programmability to stove functions, by this means rendering a programmable stove superfluous. When one of us is in your kitchen, any old collection of oven and burners will do.”

“You can cook?” Roy asked?

“No, sir. The stove cooks, at my direction.”

“You can wash dishes.”

“Yes, sir. I can. I do.”

“Good.” Roy held up the almost invisible container; it showed green streak of guavacado. “I want you to wash this dish. Now.”

For a moment it seemed that nothing had happened. He blinked, and realised that his new refrigerator was more humanoid in appearance than he had realised.

Bit by bit, the fridge endeavours to attend to Roy’s every requirement. It—or indeed she—can cook, and do dishes too! Ultimately, Frostfree even sets her new owner up with a real woman to fulfil the desires she can’t satisfy.

I’m sure you see by now what Wolfe’s doing—and it’s safe to say he does it like no other. “Frostfree” is a provocative portrayal of gender roles, as unsettling in the end as the above excerpt suggests. By the post-coital conclusion we’ve come to see Roy Tabak in a different, darker light, and feel, in the meantime, for Frostfree: a fridge. Or is it?

Wolfe’s closing contribution to Shadows of the New Sun is significantly shorter than “Frostfree,” but don’t make the mistake of confusing quantity with quality, because the eight pages of “The Sea of Memory” are among the most mesmerising I’d had the pleasure of reading this year.

The tale takes the shape of a single, surreal scene in which a crew of crashed cosmonauts attempt to get to the bottom of what’s going on in a world where time seems to have little meaning. Telling the difference between nine minutes and nine hours is no mean feat here, where the finite food supply refuses to run out despite the team’s best efforts to eat their way through the interminable days.

They’re all vaguely aware that things aren’t quite right on this perplexing planet, but it’s our protagonist Adele who finally surfaces a solution… though she has difficulty communicating the theory to her colleagues:

“Do you understand time?”

Jeff shook his head. “Einstein said that time was the fourth dimension, but it’s nothing like the other three. A particle physicist I talked to one time said that time was really different things we were lumping together. I think he said five.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Neither do I, Adele. I don’t understand time, and I doubt anybody really does.”

“I don’t, either.” Adele was confident now. “But I know this about it: it’s not everywhere. Sy thinks it may snow here, and I think he may be right. But there are places where it doesn’t snow.”

You’ll excuse me if I don’t go into much more detail about the plot. In all honesty, there’s not a whole lot, so whatever I say, I’d end up giving the game away. Just know that though “The Sea of Memory” is a markedly more traditional science fiction story than “Frostfree” in concept, Wolfe’s astute execution ensures that it surprises and delights regardless of its ever-so-slight size.

Gene Wolfe has never been the easiest of writers to read, and if in recent years his novels and short stories have tended more towards the mundane than those with which he made his name, they’re still pretty darned demanding. That said, they are far from impenetrable. They simply ask that you do a little of the work too; work of a sort that writers might conceivably have more first-hand experience of than readers, and thus be better positioned to appreciate the finer points of than the hoi polloi.

Yet whether you do or you don’t get the work of Gene Wolfe—whether you are or are not an author—reading his playfully roguish prose is, as ever, a tremendous pleasure. They say he’s a writer’s writer. Clearly, I disagree. I’m a reader’s reader, and I adored these stories.

Now I’m not quite done with Shadows of the New Sun. The next time it’s my turn to point the Short Fiction Spotlight, I’d like to assess several of its most tempting tributes. I’m personally drawn to the Michael Swanwick, not least because of Mordicai’s recent recommendation, and the David Brin sounds particularly good too… but the Short Fiction Spotlight is first and foremost for you folks, so if there’s a certain story you’d like to learn more about, just give me a shout.

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.


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