Ultan's Library

a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe

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.

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5 Comments

  1. Michael Orlando

    For me the meaning is sinister, but inexact. If it was explicit, murder or rape, it would have dimensions and boundaries , solidities, that the maze itself dispenses with beyond the icons and relics that constitute the strange hours of its dial.

  2. Nigel

    I agree and, in the quotation from Gene Wolfe himself which Marc Aramini cites in his essay, we get confirmation that we are correct in our suspicions:

    I tried to keep the sinister element well in the background, and it seems I kept it so far back that few readers notice it at all; but I like it that way.

    From the outset, playing on the word “clew” as a homophone for “clue”, the story evokes a parallel between solving a maze and solving a murder mystery:

    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 sinister connotations of the maze are thus established early on but leave us with a number of questions to ponder. Who is the killer and who is the victim? After all, the sacrificial victims led into King Minos’ labyrinth were killed by the Minotaur but, having solved the maze, Theseus later turns the tables and slays the monster.

    Do those who solve Mr Smith’s maze become his victims or his conquerors?

    My personal answer, as an avid reader of Wolfe’s stories, is that both statements are true. While I have, on the rare occasion, solved one of his puzzles to my own satisfaction, in so doing I have become forever lost in the infinite windings of his literary maze, much to my very great delight.

    Incidentally, while the clew/clue wordplay is open and explicit, the story also seems to imply the obvious but not explicit pun that those seeking to solve the solar labyrinth by noon, when all the shadows disappear, are seeking enlightenment.

  3. Michael Orlando

    Does the sinister aspect have to resolve itself in something as crass as murder (not that that wouldn’t be a worthy counterpoint to the ethereal substance of the maze)? Perhaps the maze (or the minotaur) becomes somehow internalized in the select child, a spider’s egg incubating to create further, even more oblique psychological webs.

  4. Nigel

    My answer to your question would be no, it doesn’t have to be anything as specific as murder, though the story’s central motif means that death and sacrifice are always metaphorically close by. But as you’ve already acknowledged and put so well, the story’s meaning is “sinister, but inexact.”

    I like your idea of the internalised maze. You escape one puzzle but become forever caught up in the business of solving and devising others.

    If the story is about stories, then the child who solves the labyrinth is probably going to be a life-long lover of books, and possibly a writer themselves one day. That may not seem especially sinister, except in an ironic way, but remember the words of the preacher: “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

    Wolfe’s other major treatment of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, of course, is in “The Tale of the Student and his Son” in chapter 17 of The Claw of the Conciliator. There, “Theseus” has become conflated with the student’s thesis, while the Minotaur has elided with the American Civil War battleship the Monitor to create the naviscaput, which lives in a maze of islands and the channels between them.

    I would also argue that the tenuous and ideal aspects of Mr Smith’s solar labyrinth reappear in the account of the notional city of Pajarocu in On Blue’s Waters, where the skeletal version of Pajarocu in Blue is only a shadow of the real city on the Whorl.

  5. Michael Orlando

    Ultimately, I think, the dangers of the maze (however it’s defined to the players, and it may be that those ends, gruesome or otherwise, may be no more alike than the maze itself is reliably certain) are self-inflicted. The sacrifice in a sense presenting itself through the minotaur (who is, after all, merely the castellan and watch-dog there) to the labyrinth itself because the maze presents no tangible barrier to an even modestly determined fugitive.

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