Monday, April 15, 2019

Alas for Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe, one of the greatest of science-fiction writers, has passed away. His work was subtle and superb. Wolfe wrote paragraphs you could lose yourself in, like a labyrinth, and come out a changed person on the other side. He thought profoundly about what story-telling means as few other writers have. He was honored inside the genre and sometimes outside it, but deserved far more honor in both places. Any account of 20th-century American literature that omits Gene Wolfe is incomplete.

There are many places to start reading Wolfe: his novella "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," and his epic masterpiece The Book of the New Sun. But I would put in a word for the short story "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," a meditative story which, depending on how you look at it, depicts neglected boy losing himself in a book of pulp science fiction or a book of pulp science fiction entering a boy's abusive environment to salvage him. It's the title story of the hilariously-named collection The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. (Wolfe also wrote "The Death of Doctor Island," which won the Nebula, "The Doctor of Death Island," and, somewhat later, "The Death of the Island Doctor.")

"The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" was part of a famous and ghastly faux pas. The Nebula Awards MC, Isaac Asimov, actually announced at the awards banquet that "Island" had won that year's Nebula for Best Short Story, and Wolfe stood up to accept the award before Asimov realized that Wolfe was the runner-up. "No Award" had won for Best Short Story that year. If that sounds to you a bit like the story about Pynchon, the Pulitzers, and Gravity's Rainbow, both stories are from the same era and feature profound, boundary-pushing work. As I said, Wolfe was never honored enough, in his parish or out of it.

Here are just the first two paragraphs of "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories":

Winter comes to water as to land, though there are no leaves to fall. The waves that were a bright, hard blue yesterday under a fading sky today are green, opaque, and cold. If you are a boy not wanted in the house you walk the beach for hours, feeling the winter that has come in the night; sand blowing across your shoes, spray wetting the legs of your corduroys. You turn your back to the sea, and with the sharp end of a stick found half buried write in the wet sand Tackman Babcock.

Then you go home, knowing that behind you the Atlantic is destroying our work.

Godspeed, Mr. Wolfe. You wrote in something far more durable than sand.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.

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