Sunny Days in Heaven
Spiritual/Political/Philosophical Blog on the Nature of Truth and Falsehood and Heaven

Thursday, June 03, 2004  

Best Writer

Gene Wolfe is probably the best writer in fiction now. His books are not simply science fiction, but expand the genre much like Tolkien did to fantasy tales.

The universe Wolfe creates in his New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun series (they are all connected, but the second two most of all) is as rich as Tolkien's, always surprising, and usually a bit baffling.

That's because he employs an unreliable first person narrator who often fails to describe or explain what you most want to know, and often skips events in their telling. Yet, Wolfe cleverly drops enough dollops of explanation here and there so as to keep you adequately informed.

Where Tolkien went into encyclopedic detail in crafting his universe, writing books of history, culture, mythologies while producing very few actual stories, Wolfe withholds on the one hand but overwhelms with the richest descriptive prose anyone has seen in a long time. Wolfe is almost all culture, no history, and a vast conflation of myths all equally valid because each one seems to be an actual reality someplace or time.

As a writer, Wolfe puts Tolkien to shame, yet Tolkien has not been surpassed because Wolfe is incredibly frustrating to read in many respects. These stories are relatively plotless, seeing as they are rather open ended quests or adventurous ramblings. Nothing important is really at stake. Although from time to time you care about a character deeply, and what might happen to him, the emotion quickly fades as the quest goes on without apparent purpose or events occur more from accident than from hope, plan, or desire.

A quest shouldn't just happen. It should be more than picaresque which is fine for Candide or comedy, but should have a powerful purpose underlying it. A matter of need.

Characters are not particularly transformed by their adventures in Wolfe's stories. They learn, but they don't seem to grow in a way that's satisfying to the reader. What the reader most wants to know as he reads is how this universe functions, what are its bounds, what laws or rules operate. You never quite find out since some new kind of life or consciousness or being always seems to emerge later.

The one thread that seems to run through all the Sun series is pliability of consciousness. He doesn't put any limit to maleability of mind. Consciousness merges, the dead continue to live on by various means, machines are alive, beings come in all sizes and are as gods, computers hold living minds in them which then act as gods, and space or distance is no barrier to the action of mind. Mind is all, none of it is hierarchal or superior in nature. Revelation is simply another form of consciousness.

Wolfe's inventivness is incredible. His characters have heft and reality. There is little obvious about them. His prose has an amazing power of authenticity. It is generally rich, but also subtle in the way it pulls you in and holds you. The work in the New Sun series is stunning in quality. You think you have never read anything like this before. The very idea of it, a tale of a young man from a guild of Torturers in a multi million years hence post apocalyptic world (where there have been countless apocalypses, in a way), intrigues and insinuates itself into the reader.

Tolkien is the greater storyteller, though. The saga of the One Ring is compelling, the course of events thrilling, and the climax perfect with all the major characters undergoing serious transformations.

Wolfe tends to leave the reader scratching his head and wondering if all the effort he spent in following the story (and it does take work. You have to read every word carefully to make sure you pick up important facts or back story). Wolfe often nods, so to speak, but such passages can't be rushed through for fear of missing a tid bit you will later need to know.

He is not an easy read, or always rewarding, but he is intriguing, and there is a great sense that it will lead to something profound and marvelous. In that, I think he falls short. Yet, you want to know, to get to that last page where you can put the puzzle all together. Nor does the work of it feel like a waste. You often reflect on the stories later, go over them again, and marvel that one author can be so unique, strange, and compelling in his own way.

You want to know what the author's getting at, and often believe he is much wiser and smarter than you are without there being anything insulting about that. It's just that he is master of an enormous universe that's fascinating. He has all the facts while you have all the questions.

posted by Mark Butterworth | 9:27 PM |