The Very Best of Gene Wolfe
Reviewed by David McWilliam
08 July 2009
Having not read the entirety of Gene Wolfe's body of short fiction, I cannot confirm whether the contents of this collection support the claim made by the title. However, the stories collected in The Very Best of Gene Wolfe—or, in the book's US edition, The Best of Gene Wolfe—would be considered to be very good by anyone's standards. This review is of the UK rather than the US edition because the former includes not just an additional story ("Christmas Inn") but also a thorough introduction by Kim Stanley Robinson that significantly augmented my enjoyment of the book. Robinson's boundless enthusiasm for Wolfe is infectious, though he occasionally verges on hyperbole, claiming that this is "one of the best story collections ever published, a masterpiece of American literature" (p. xix). Robinson's articulate championing of the nuances of Wolfe's style, mixing biographical details with literary analysis, makes the introduction a valuable addition to the collection.
One point on which I disagree with Robinson, however, is his claim that Wolfe's use of the fantastic elevates his engagement with human sensation, specifically in relation to his experiences during the Korean War, above that attainable by the realist fiction writer:
Realism can't do this, because the feeling evoked by the event itself was more than a thought or a sentence, it was an image or a reality, a field of feeling that created a reality; and so a successful verbal representation of it has to be somehow the same. This is an art beyond what realism can manage, something the poetry of science fiction and the rest of the fantastic makes possible. (p. viii)
Whilst I believe that there are fictional effects that can only be achieved through the use of fantastic devices, to suggest that these elements are a precondition to evoking "a field of feeling that creates a reality" surrounding such massively traumatic experiences as going to war does a great disservice to writers who operate in the realm of the mundane.
Nevertheless, Wolfe's use of the fantastic is extremely skilful. The collection's first story, "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" (1970), details the experiences of Tackman Babcock, an alienated child who retreats into fictional worlds of fantasy and adventure in order to escape an unhappy home life. Related in the second person, the story invites close identification with Tackman, which is reinforced by the narrative's child-like incomprehension of the seemingly disinterested and nonsensical social life of adults. Tackman finds solace in an adventure novel that chronicles the struggle between the courageous Captain Ransom and the nefarious Doctor Death. These characters become so vivid to Tackman that they manifest outside the novel and form friendships with him, putting their antagonism towards each other to one side in the process.
Excerpts from the novel Tackman is reading intersperse the narrative, its heroic formula encouraging him to attempt to save his mother from what he perceives to be the evil designs of her future husband, the intimidating Dr. Black. The template for this fiction within the story is clearly H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896): it features beast-men who obey the Law of their creator, Doctor Death, whose ability to mould and shape flesh has given him messianic delusions akin to those of the titular vivisectionist of Wells's novel. Whereas Wells portrayed Moreau as a selfish Promethean scientist in the tradition of Victor Frankenstein, however, Wolfe's unethical vivisectionist is shown to be able to leave his day job behind and, alternating with Captain Ransom, provides comfort for the troubled child. Wolfe brilliantly uses this form of psychological fantasy to capture the emotional support that adventure stories can offer in childhood when we are at our most disempowered.
Wolfe's anecdotal afterword highlights the importance of this story to his career. It narrowly missed out on winning a Nebula, and provoked a comment from John Jakes of the SFWA that "You know, Gene, if you'd just write 'The Death of Doctor Island' now, you'd win." Wolfe saw this as a challenge and went on to write three stories that play around with the structure of the title, two of which are anthologized here: "The Death of Dr. Island" (1973) and "Death of the Island Doctor" (1983). The former, which did go on to win a Nebula, is perhaps the standout story of the collection. Its title primes a reader to expect the death of a physician named Island. Instead, we follow Nicholas Kenneth de Vore's discovery that the island on which he finds himself is itself in charge of the emotional well-being of the other two patients receiving Dr. Island's unique brand of treatment: Diane and the homicidal Ignacio. The story continues the questioning of parental authority that runs through many of the tales in this collection, and includes one of the most insightful and humorous exchanges of the collection, as Nicholas challenges the right of Diane's parents to label her as mentally ill:
"Your mother is probably sick, maybe your father too; I don't know. But you're not. If they'd just let you alone you'd be alright. Why shouldn't you get upset, having to live with two crazy people?" (p. 116)
This causes Diane, who had been conditioned to accept the label her parents have bestowed upon her, and she implores Dr. Island to challenge Nicholas's interpretation. After a debate on the relativity of madness, reminiscent of Michel Foucault's arguments on the subject (that sanity is merely the ability to function in society, according to society's interpretation of "functioning"; see Madness and Civilization, 1964), the doctor makes the wry observation that:
"We have treatments for disturbed persons, Nicholas. But, at least for the time being, we have no treatment for disturbing persons." (p. 118)
Such sharp social commentary is contained within many of the stories here and is made all the more effective by Wolfe's ability to create gripping narratives. The above exchange becomes even more damning when it is made apparent that the recovery of some patients is deemed to be more important than that of others, as Dr. Island shifts from benevolent guide to devious trickster god. The story continues to twist and turn, leading to an ending that is bleak, open-ended and utterly satisfying.
I feel that Wolfe's short fiction is at its strongest when given the room to grow and develop. Some of the best stories in the collection are around forty to fifty pages long. I would like to highlight the excellence of "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" (1972) and "Forlesen" (1974), which after "The Death of Dr. Island" are undoubtedly the strongest stories of the collection. "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," set in a distant future, follows what appears to be the childhood of one born into a wealthy dynasty, until the nocturnal experiments of a father figure transform the palatial family home into a nightmarish prison. The tragedy of the story builds to a conclusion that suggests that the reader has been given a mere glimpse of a cycle of mistreatment through a revelation that made me want to re-read the story in light of this newly gained knowledge. "Forlesen," which as Robinson notes, compresses 'decades of [Wolfe's] life, and the common experience of millions, into one great story' (p. x), sees a man leave to work at a new job without any clear idea of what is expected of him, to be confronted with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where time flows so swiftly that an individual can experience their whole life career in a single day. The accelerated time of narrative events in "Forlesen" is evocative of the preternatural senescence experienced by the characters in Philip K. Dick's Ubik (1969) and has a similarly disturbing effect.
The shorter stories rely on striking concepts delivered with impressive technique, but are often not quite as effective as the lengthier entries in the collection simply as a result of having less space to develop character and setting. However, they could only be judged as failures relative to the superlative quality of Wolfe's less short fiction. My favourite short short story in the collection is "Bed and Breakfast" (1995), which manages to cram a discussion of damnation, Hell and sin into eighteen pages otsensibly about a sexual encounter that takes place between two strangers in a bedsit. The location itself is significant—the first sentence, "I know an old couple who live near Hell" (p. 399), provides a great hook, and sets up the nameless narrator's explanation that the bed and breakfast is situated close to a gateway to this kingdom of damnation.
The old couple rely upon traffic to and from the domain of Christian suffering for trade: "They get a few people on their way to Hell, and a few demons going out on assignments or returning. Regulars as they call them" (p. 400). The narrator meets a beautiful woman named Eira, who he invites to stay with him when a demon, J. Gunderson Foulweather, arrives and takes her room. Eira confides in him that she is fleeing an abusive husband, yet in the morning the demon intimates that all is not as it seems and that she had escaped from Hell. The narrator's investigation of Eira prompts meditation as to her true nature: "did she escape? Or was she vomited forth?" (p. 415). Unsure as to whether she is a demon, a damned soul, or the woman she claims to be, the narrator questions his own ability to pass judgement and the story ends with his indecision as to whether or not to answer her call. The story's strength lies in the sense of intrigue inspired by this inconclusive ending, as the intensity of their passionate encounter means that it is far from likely that Eira's status as damned soul will prevent the narrator from seeking her out.
The addition of the superlative "Very" to the title may just be a marketing tool, but also marks the inclusion of the aforementioned introduction and the story "Christmas Inn" (2006). Placed in prominent position as the final story of the collection, does "Christmas Inn" stand out amongst such an illustrious assembly of sf and fantasy stories? Well, no, not really. The story is set in an isolated hotel, the Christmas Inn, during a particularly snowy yuletide. The adverse weather conditions have decimated their bookings and on Christmas Eve not one room is let. That is, until a sinister black SUV is spotted by Wyatt, the son of June and Julius Christmas, amidst the snow on the drive. The four adults and mysterious child that disembark from the eerie, silent-moving vehicle have an otherworldly quality to them that is both alluring and disturbing. They alleviate the financial worries of the Christmases whilst opening potential divisions through sexual encounters between one of the adults assigned to each family member.
The story builds up to a séance, during which dead loved ones manifest as melancholy apparitions. The scene is undermined by the sentimental Christian message that people have forgotten that Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of Jesus. In a collection that is predominantly dark and cynical, "Christmas Inn" offers a respite from that darkness, but also lacks its impact. The story ends with June Christmas having to make a decision, but whereas "Bed and Breakfast" left me thoroughly intrigued, here I found myself disappointed and unsatisfied. Wolfe's note after the story explains that it was commissioned by PS Publishing, and its prominent positioning in the collection might well be explained by the connection it forms between publisher and author.
Unfortunately, the decision to place the story last also means that Wolfe's call, in the notes to "A Cabin on the Coast" (1981), for readers to contact Tor with their favourite stories omitted from this collection in order to provide impetus for a second volume, is somewhat lost. My own vote for that second—and necessary— volume would go to "The Woman Who Loved the Centaur Pholus" (1979); but as a standalone volume, The Very Best of Gene Wolfe will cement its author's reputation as a very fine writer of short fiction.