Ultan's Library

a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe

Category: A Solar Labyrinth

Ultan’s Library republishes a classic Wolfe story

In a complete departure from previous practice, Ultan’s Library, which normally publishes literary criticism on the works of Gene Wolfe, has republished a classic Wolfe short story.

“A Solar Labyrinth”, which originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1983 and was later collected in Wolfe’s anthology Storeys from the Old Hotel, is a jewel of a tale, a miniature masterpiece. Neil Gaiman chose it as the basis for his own homage to Wolfe, “A Lunar Labyrinth” (collected in Shadows of the New Sun) and described it as, “a short story of brilliance and beauty and, hidden deep in the shadows, danger and darkness.”

The central conceit, about a maze made of shifting shadows, is a wonder in itself, but the true marvel of the story is the way that its form so artfully matches its subject matter. Just as the penumbrous walls of Mr Smith’s maze complicate its solution by moving with the passage of the sun, so the story’s meaning inexorably shifts under the reader’s gaze. Does the story have a happy pastoral ending, or a sinister and malevolent one? And is this a story about mazes at all, or is it really about untangling the meaning of stories in general, and in particular those written by Gene Wolfe who, as the author of The Shadow of the Torturer and the rest of The Book of the New Sun, really does know a thing or two about constructing narrative solar labyrinths?

To help readers contemplate these imponderables, Ultan’s Library is also delighted to publish the chapter on “A Solar Labyrinth” from Marc Aramini’s masterly and compendious survey of Wolfe’s fiction, Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe 1951-1986. Many thanks to Marc for giving Ultan’s Library permission to do so.

Aramini on A Solar Labyrinth

For some years now, Ultan contributor Marc Aramini has been engaged in an exhaustive chronological study of every piece of short fiction written by Gene Wolfe. The first half of his analysis, covering the stories from 1951-1986, has recently been published as Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe 1951-1986.[ Amazon UK and USA]. Marc’s video lectures on Gene Wolfe are on youtube.

In conjunction with our publication of Wolfe’s ‘A Solar Labyrinth’ we present the entry from the collection on that very story.

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A Solar Labyrinth

A Solar Labyrinth © 1983 by Gene Wolfe. This story first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was later included in Wolfe’s anthology STOREYS FROM THE OLD HOTEL. It is reprinted here by kind permission of the author and the author’s agents, the Virginia Kidd Agency, Inc.

MAZES MAY BE MORE ANCIENT THAN MANKIND. Certainly the cavemen constructed them by laying down football-sized stones, and perhaps by other means as well, now lost to us; the hill-forts of neolithic Europe were guarded by tangled dry ditches. Theseus followed a clew­ – a ball of thread – through the baffling palace of Minos, thus becoming the first in what threatens to be an infinite series of fictional detectives. The Fayre Rosamund dropped her embroidery with her needle thrust through it, but forgot the yarn in her pocket, thus furnishing Queen Eleanor’s knights with the clue they required to solve Hampton Court Maze.

Of late, few mazes have been built, and those that have been, have been walled, for the most part, with cheap and unimaginative hedges. Airplanes and helicopters permit rampant mar-sports to photograph new mazes from above, and the pictures let armchair adventurers solve them with a pencil. Gone, it might seem, are the great days of monsters, maidens and amazement.

But not quite. I have heard that a certain wealthy citizen has not only designed and built a new maze, but has invented a new kind of maze, perhaps the first since the end of the Age of Myth. To preserve his privacy I shall call this new Daedalus Mr. Smith. To frustrate the aerial photographers in their chartered Cessnas, I shall say only that his maze is in the Adirondacks.

On a manicured green lawn stand – well separated for the most part – a collection of charming if improbable objects. There are various obelisks; lamp posts from Vienna, Paris, and London, as well as New York; a pillar-box, also from London; fountains that splash for a time and then subside; a retired yawl, canted now upon the reef of grass but with masts still intact; the standing trunk of a dead tree overgrown with roses; many more. The shadows of these objects form the walls of an elaborate and sophisticated maze.

It is, obviously, a maze that changes from hour to hour, and indeed from minute to minute. Not so obviously, it is one that can be solved only at certain times and is insoluble at noon, when the shadows are shortest. It is also, of course, a maze from which the explorer can walk free whenever he chooses.

And yet it is said that most of them – most adults, at least ­- do not. In the early morning, while the shadows of the hills still veil his lawn, Mr. Smith brings the favored guest to the point that will become the center of the maze. The grass is still fresh with dew, and there is no sound but the chirping of birds. For five minutes or so the two men (or as it may be, the man and the woman) stand and wait. Perhaps they smoke a cigarette. The sun’s red disc appears above the mist-shrouded treetops, the fountains jet their crystal columns, the birds fall silent, and the shadowy suites spring into existence, a sketch in the faded black ink of God.

Mr. Smith begins to tread his maze, but he invites his guest to discover paths of his own. The guest does so, amused at first, then more serious. Imperceptibly, the shadows move. New corridors appear; old ones close, sometimes with surprising speed. Soon Mr. Smith’s path joins that of his guest (for Mr. Smith knows his maze well), and the two proceed together, the guest leading the way. Mr. Smith speaks of his statue of Diana, a copy of one in the Louvre; the image of Tezcatlipaca, the Toltec sun-god, is authentic, having been excavated at Teotihuacan. As he talks, the shadows shift, seeming almost to writhe like feathered Quetzalcoatl with the slight rolling of the lawn. Mr. Smith steps away, but for a time his path nearly parallels his guest’s.

“Do you see that one there?” says the guest. “In another minute or two, when it’s shorter, I’ll be able to get through there.”

Mr. Smith nods and smiles.

The guest waits, confidently now surveying the wonderful pattern of dark green and bright. The shadow he has indicated – that of a Corinthian column, perhaps – indeed diminishes; but as it does another, wheeling with the wheeling sun, falls across the desired path. Most adult guests do not escape until they are rescued by a passing cloud. Some, indeed, refuse such rescue.

Often Mr. Smith invites groups of children to inspect his maze, their visits timed so they can be led to its center. There, inlaid upon a section of crumbling wall that at least appears ancient, he points out the frowning figure of the Minotaur, a monster that, as he explains, haunts the shadows. From far away – but not in the direction of the house – the deep bellowing of a bull interrupts him. (Perhaps a straying guest might discover stereo speakers hidden in the boughs of certain trees; perhaps not.) Mr. Smith says he can usually tell in advance which children will enjoy his maze. They are more often boys than girls, he says, but not much more often. They must be young, but not too young. Glasses help. He shows a picture of his latest Ariadne, a dark-haired girl of nine.

Yet he is fair to all the children, giving each the same instructions, the same encouragement. Some reject his maze out of hand, wandering off to examine the tilted crucifix or the blue-dyed water in the towering Torricelli barometer, or to try (always without success) to draw Arthur’s sword from its stone. Others persevere longer, threading their way between invisible walls for an hour or more.

But always, as the shadow of the great gnomon creeps toward the sandstone XII set in the lawn, the too-old, too-­young, insufficiently serious, and too-serious drift away, leaving only Mr. Smith and one solitary child still playing in the sunshine.

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