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Cover of Fontana paperback edition of "Operation ARES"

Review: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Operation ARES’

A review by Martin Crookall of Gene Wolfe’s problematic and rarely discussed first novel, Operation ARES. A version of this review originally appeared on Crookall’s website in 2017 and is reprinted here with the author’s kind permission. Note that this review contains spoilers. (Crookall has written reviews of all of Wolfe’s novels. See the end of this article for a full list of links to his reviews, including his obituary for Gene Wolfe.)

The first thing to be said is that, despite the presence of his name on the title page, this is not a Gene Wolfe book. It is a generic, ordinary, unexceptional Science Fiction book. It appears to be a book by someone who wants to write a Science Fiction book rather than a book that he wants to write. Gene Wolfe himself disowned Operation ARES.

Which is a mildly harsh but realistic appraisal. Wolfe’s debut novel, which appeared in 1970, is set in a future America in which societal structure is disintegrating in the face of a long-term economic collapse brought about by a popular and short-sighted uprising against science. The constitution has been suspended, the army and police (in name at least) disbanded, the welfare programme massively expanded, and science itself is confined to Mars, which is hated and feared and which is trying to get things to start improving on Earth.

The book concerns John Castle, who starts as a teacher and, in a manner that will become familiar as Wolfe grows into his greatness, ascends into a position of great influence based on his generally superior intelligence and tactical awareness. John, who is surprisingly only 22, is already a rebel against the way things are when the book starts. His personal adversary, a man we only know as either the Captain, initially, or the General, in the later stages, is convinced that Castle is a member of, indeed possibly the leader of ARES, the American Reunification Enactment Society. (It is also, of course, the name of the Greek God of War and another name for the planet Mars, none of which is a coincidence. This is an early example of a Wolfean construct/symbol, but definitely an early one because Wolfe spells it out for us. After this book, it is the reader’s job to make such connections, no matter how esoteric or specialised they may be.)

The irony is that, in the latter half of the book, Castle does indeed become leader of ARES, an irony compounded by the fact that ARES does not, in fact, exist.

But though Operation ARES is set sufficiently far in the future that the USA has colonised Mars and withdrawn support for it for twenty years, this is a book inextricably enmeshed in the politics of its time. What blossoms is an unacknowledged civil war, in which the Presidency Pro Tem, the ‘official’ government, is supported by the Communist Russians, and the Constitutionalists by the Communist Chinese. The latter are all Maoist slogans and references to running dog capitalist imperialists. The two antipathetic Communist states regard each other with mutual suspicion but share an ultimate aim, namely control over the United States.

Indeed, the abrupt and entirely unsatisfactory ending to the book comes when the two opposing US ‘parties’ decide to collaborate in an effort to buy the time to rebuild America again by playing off one Communist state against the other.

Yes, this is an unsatisfactory book on so many levels, though I admit that on re-reading, it gains an astonishing contemporary significance for me, at least in its first half, with its near prescient portrayal of a county whose economy and ability to maintain itself, let alone progress, has been destroyed by a comprehensively stupid decision to seize control of the country from its elected rulers and to divert money to the massed poor by taking it away from Mars, science and manufacturing.

As a result, all systems, including power, are failing, and the infrastructure is cracking up. Wild animals roam the country at night, making things incredibly dangerous. Food is being rationed, clothing is shabby and pitiful, graft is rife, and an ineffectual government keeps pretending all is well and attempts, by a combination of banal slogans and outright lying, to convince the populace that the country is better and stronger thanks to its rule.

One more glaring difference between Operation ARES and Gene Wolfe’s other books is the complete absence of an unreliable narrator. The closest we come to this staple Wolfean device is in the middle stages of the book, where Wolfe simply leaves out sections of a more comprehensive, but unimportant progression. There is no suggestion that the untold sequences have any fundamental bearing on the overall story, or that by these omissions Wolfe is doing anything more than avoiding clogging up the book. In later books, it is vital for the reader themselves to determine what they are not being told, as it will inevitably be of significance.

This, then, is a banal and undistinguished SF story, told conventionally within the conventions of genre, and unable to escape the political concerns of the time in which it was written, despite being set a good half-century into the future. The only element of this novel that is consistent with the Gene Wolfe we love is John Castle, the tactically competent man, who knows how to analyse a situation and project a solution upon it.

Having said all that, it should be made plain that the book as published is not as Wolfe wanted it or wrote it. After his publishers set a strict 60,000 word limit, Wolfe’s original submission was 103,000 words. Furthermore, after Wolfe had been charged to reduce it to 80,000 words and had trimmed down the first quarter of the book, the task was taken out of his hands and given to his editor, who achieved the desired word-length over the remainder of the novel by ruthlessly slashing whole paragraphs. Much of the criticism the work rightly receives is undoubtedly a reflection of this process.

No wonder Wolfe thereafter wanted nothing to do with it.

His next novel would appear in 1972. The contrast between Operation ARES and The Fifth Head of Cerberus could not be greater, as the titles alone demonstrate. It is the latter work which marks the true beginning of Wolfe’s literary career.


Martin Crookall is a former lawyer who fell in love with words at the age of four and never looked back. As well as his own novels, published through Lulu.com, he writes about everything that interests him at his Author for Sale blog. A born and bred Mancunian, and proud of it, he lives surrounded by books, comics and music.

He has also written extensively about Gene Wolfe. In reverse chronological order, his articles and reviews are as follows:

Gene Wolfe's "The Book of the New Sun" Chapter Guide

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – A Review of Michael Andre-Driussi’s ‘The Book of the New Sun: A Chapter Guide’

Hopefully, Michael Andre-Driussi needs no introduction for those interested in secondary resources on Gene Wolfe’s fiction. In the time before podcasts and easily accessible online forums, way back in 1994, the single best resource for information on Gene Wolfe’s most popular masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, was Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus. He has since released an even more comprehensive second edition, as well as The Wizard Knight Companion in 2009 and a guide to the further Solar Cycle in 2012’s Gate of Horn, Book of Silk. While he has also written more traditional essays on Wolfe, many of which were collected inside the brilliantly illustrated cover of Gene Wolfe: 14 Essays, the work under review here returns to the texts that made both Wolfe and Andre-Driussi famous: Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun: A Chapter Guide.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the critical discourse surrounding Wolfe involves how infrequently any two people will agree with each other. It seems each new voice adds something different, with an approach that is distinctive from others. Sometimes this results in wild speculation and interpretations that might sound like conspiracy theories, while at others it asserts a kind of post-modern multiplicity that can never be broken down into an objective, uniform reading. While Andre-Driussi acknowledges the complexity and allusiveness of Wolfe’s work, his writing has always seemed to me the most objectively grounded and easiest to digest (without the analytical equivalent of getting heartburn) of all the writers and analysts currently exploring Wolfe’s work. That doesn’t mean that Andre-Driussi does not occasionally stick his neck out for major interpretations, unifying ideas, or even minor theories, extrapolations, or goose chases, but his overall approach is grounded in the facts of the text.

Here, he shows his interest in the many works that lurk in the backbone and DNA of The Book of the New Sun, the literary progenitors invisible in the murky depths of the submerged Urth, the giants upon whom Severian and his entire commonwealth perch to stay afloat. Wolfe could be almost ridiculously allusive at times, and this book attempts to catalogue those influences and allusions as they are used throughout The Book of the New Sun.

As with any honest review, I must attempt to encapsulate the strengths and weaknesses of the approach Andre-Driussi makes, but you have my assurance that whether you agree with him or not in every detail, you will learn something from his chapter by chapter breakdown, from the influences working on Wolfe to minutiae about, say, the possible reason for Agia’s misspeaking of the word “machicolation.”

I am tempted to separate strengths and weaknesses, but in Andre-Driussi’s case, one of the hallmarks of his style actually encapsulates both. The book is a pleasure to read, easy to digest in well-organized fashion, with simple declarative statements and brief, objective summaries clearly delineated. He does not suffer from the problems of an interminable work (such as, say, Between Light and Shadow), which features twisty and confounding sentences that sometimes lose themselves as well as the reader. Andre-Driussi’s prose and style makes the book move quickly and surely. I will assert that this clarity and concision is one of the book’s greatest strengths. It is also its greatest weakness. This is his entire entry on the metaphysically sophisticated and ultimately confusing chapter 27 of The Shadow of the Torturer, “Is He Dead?”:

At the duel Severian is treacherously struck dead, but he rises up and his opponent panics, killing spectators in his attempt to flee.

Commentary: “The world was a great paschal egg, crowded with all the colors of the palette” (239). An Easter Egg, where Easter celebrates a resurrection.

Michael, give us more, please!

The book at times seems too brief, and some chapters without obvious allusions can feel rushed. There is a mountain of subtext to explore in the chapter I mentioned above, from the presence Severian feels behind him to the energy that sustains him, considering the nature in which eidolons and aquastors are created later in the book. Is this a genuine resurrection, as seemed to occur with Triskele and Dorcas? Then why do Severian’s later resurrections seem to leave an extra dead body behind? It would be impossible for Andre-Driussi to address every hobby horse for every reader, but I think I wound up wanting a two hundred fifty-page book. If this is the greatest weakness, that I wanted more, it is also, in my opinion, a great recommendation.

Andre-Driussi has considered the totality of what Wolfe has said about his influences, whether that be in obscure interviews, in an array of critical works, or even in personal correspondence. There are some things in the book that initially seemed unlikely to me until Andre-Driussi provides his full evidence. For example, he mentions that Wolfe is alluding to a pair of Algis Budrys’ novels in conjunction with details about the fate of Jonas. My initial reaction to this was something akin to “Well, that seems tenuous.” Andre-Driussi immediately anticipates my reaction:

So in addition to a Budrys novel about ambiguous cyborgs, Wolfe mentions a Budrys novel about deadly teleportation. If all that seems tenuous, please note that Budrys’s middle name was ‘Jonas’.

All right … you’ve almost convinced me.

In another example, he mentions an extremely obscure author and then manages to produce evidence from interviews and other sources that, indeed, Wolfe cared about that author enough to mention him as an influence.

Besides its chapter guide structure, Andre-Driussi provides essays titled “Postludes” that tackle some bigger themes and movements in the books, such as the implications of the existence of a First Severian as posited at the conclusion of Citadel of the Autarch, or an exploration of why the claw might only work some of the time. Whether you agree with his conclusions completely or not, it is nice to be able to follow those analyses to their logical ends.

Andre-Driussi also provides connections throughout that help to contextualize some of the enigmas of Wolfe’s masterpiece, like linking the steps that thunder in the mine at Saltus to the walking tower which appears in The Citadel of the Autarch (after all, when Severian and Jonas discuss the thing and its clanking chains, the question of how man-sized soldiers could possibly fight Abaia comes up, and the discussion soon turns to the defenses of the autarch, which Severian has good reason to remain somewhat silent about). However, Andre-Driussi never lets any theories overstay their welcome, and this also prevents the book from getting bogged down in the kind of speculation that would alienate readers.

This leads to how I really feel when I read Andre-Driussi’s work: I never feel the need to jump up and down and shout, “No, no, no!!”

The Book of the New Sun: A Chapter Guide is a worthy addition to the growing body of secondary literature treating Wolfe’s work with the serious study and dedication it warrants, and hopefully both Michael Andre-Driussi and other scholars will continue to do justice to the wonderful and complex oeuvre Gene Wolfe has blessed us with as his legacy.

Sundial

Posthistory 201

In this new study of how human history is measured and portrayed in Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, Michael Andre-Driussi reassesses the subject of his earlier essay “Posthistory 101” (originally published in Extrapolation, Vol. 37, No. 2,1996) and examines the textual evidence for estimating the duration of the Autarchy.

1: A NEW MODEL

Let me propose the following model for the underlying structure of Urth history as depicted in Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle:

  • Prehistory (before starflight)
  • History (Urth’s galactic empire)
  • Posthistory

The text gives us starting- and end-points for the this tripartite structure: Apu-Punchau at the beginning and the Deluge at the end.

Most of the details available are either prehistoric (from Apu-Punchau to the picture of the Apollo astronaut on the Moon) or posthistoric (Era of the Monarch Typhon and the subsequent Age of the Autarch).

The historic period of galactic conquest by Koreans includes the terraforming of Mars, Venus, and the Moon into Verthandi, Skuld, and Lune. It has a decline and fall, I believe. In any event, Typhon plans to create or recreate a galactic empire.

Jonas now shines for me as the man of history, in the Urth sense described above. Previously I had grasped that he shared common threads with us prehistoric readers: he has read Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, he knows the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and he is accurate in his comments on the European Middle Ages. In this respect he is our stand-in, our surrogate in Severian’s Commonwealth.

But now I see Jonas was there at the beginning of history: he saw Citadel Hill when it was the bustling Port of Urth, he knew Nessus under its earlier name, and he knows why the Wall was built (probably as a containment device to keep hazards in, rather than as a protection against things from outside). Jonas went up in his rocket ship and participated in the galactic expansion, but when that same ship came back, history was over, there was no longer a port on Urth, and they crash-landed the rocket somewhere in the Commonwealth.

I now believe that the enigmatic Kim Lee Soong was the navigator of his ship, and the poignancy is that Jonas has found the long-time descendants of his old friend imprisoned in the antechamber of the House Absolute.

The text often emphasizes the similarities between Jonas and Hethor, and I believe they are contemporaries, but Hethor went onto the Big Ship and adapted to starsails, whereas Jonas stayed with rockets.

When Jonas says the city was not called Nessus yet because it did not poison the water, it now seems crystal clear to me that the poisoning of the water is a direct result of technological decline. That is, it was a metropolis of the high population density only possible through 20th century technology for water treatment. The technology fell until finally the city had to move upstream to avoid its own filth.

2: THE AUTARCHIAL TIME

2.1 Overview

In “Posthistory 101” and Lexicon Urthus I stated that the time from Ymar to Severian was about a chiliad. Recent reading suggests that the range is actually between one thousand and thirty-thousand years, most accurately “many chiliads,” which means “more than three chiliads” and yet it is probably unknowable beyond that.

2.2 Revising my estimate
I had been working on a chapter guide to The Book of the New Sun for many months, and thus I was engaged with the text again.

Nigel Price and I were chatting in email about the timespan of Urth’s history. We agreed with the basic principle that Severian’s post-historic vantage point means that all time is vague. In this Wolfe goes against the Vancean grain of numbered Aeons known as history by the grubbing wizards of the dying Earth, as in the following examples from Rhialto the Marvellous (1984):

During the 17th Aeon, a land-bridge rises across the Straits of Garch…

And:

For double security I reverted the object to the 16th Aeon…

Then Nigel asked the simple question of why I was so certain that the Age of the Autarchy was about a thousand years. This proved surprisingly difficult to answer, because it turns out I had not adequately cited the source text for that detail in my essay “Posthistory 101”.

After putting in some research, it seems that my millennium autarchy (hereafter “1K”) was following the model put forth by Vodalus in his recruitment pitch to Severian:

“Has it never struck you that mankind was richer by far, and happier too, a chiliad gone than it is now?” (II, chap. 10)

This statement strongly implied to me that the autarchs had reigned for about a thousand years. For more context, I assumed that the exultant Vodalus was as well-educated as Thecla, so he might plausibly know such a thing. Furthermore, Vodalus was not presenting himself as a “reformer” but as a revolutionary who would restore Urth to a former glory of pre-Autarchial times.

In addition to that line from Vodalus, I was perhaps unduly influenced by a statement from Gene Wolfe in a 1983 interview by Robert Frazier, where two lines near the end go as follows:

RF: Perhaps we could end this by telling something about Severian which doesn’t end up in the books [The Book of the New Sun].

GW: There was a time when Severian encountered assassins in the Secret House who had come to kill Ymar, an autarch a chiliad dead. (Peter Wright, Shadows of the New Sun, p. 55)

Based, then, on Vodalus’ and Wolfe’s comments, I took the 1K model as being solid beyond reasonable questioning.

But then I found another timespan model, this time coming from Agia, of all people. She is a commoner, with no education. As she walks toward the Botanic Gardens she is larking along in flirtatious banter with Severian, but it turns out in hindsight that many of her statements are prophetically true.

At one point she says about the Conciliator: “Then there is nothing to prevent him, from a position, say, of thirty thousand years ago, coming into what we call the present” (I, chap. 19).

This is highly specific. She is saying that the era of the Conciliator was thirty chiliads back (hereafter “30K”).

Initially there is no solid link between the time of the Conciliator and the era of Typhon. This changes in The Urth of the New Sun, where it is established that the Conciliator met the Monarch.

2.3 Narrowing the range

The range in these two models is from one to thirty chiliads. In an attempt to narrow that down a bit, I set upon a brute force method of searching for the terms “chiliads,” “thousand years,” “ages,” “aeons,” and “eons,” in order to sift for further clues. (A trivial task now, with e-text.) My results are summarised in the following section.

3: THE LANGUAGE OF TIME

CHILIADS

  1. Jonas to Severian: “Once I read a history. I don’t suppose you know anything about it. So many chiliads have elapsed here” (II, chap. 16). This statement is generic. Jonas is probably referring to the “post-historic” nature of Severian’s culture, and/or the technological decline evidenced by the fact that Urth’s “(space)port” was missing.
  2. Cyriaca to Severian about her uncle at the Library: “It was a book no one had opened, as he believed, for a chiliad” (III, chap. 6). Since the Library was formed by Typhon, then this line can be read to support the 1K model, but of course it supports the 30K form as well.
  3. Severian to Typhon on the Conciliator: “He has been dead for many chiliads” (III, chap. 25). This might be honest, perhaps based on what Agia had said, but there is a strong case for dissimulation here.
  4. Severian on Typhon: “The heart that had not served him for so many chiliads ceased to beat” (III, chap. 26). An attempt at dissimulation would not work against Typhon at this point so this one cannot go into the 1K pile. It is too non-specific to go into the 30K pile, however. (Too bad Severian did not use “several,” since it seems that he always means “three” in that case!)
  5. Severian as Conciliator to his followers: “To the ice of ten chiliads will be added the ice of the winter now almost upon us” (V, chap. 27). This line is ambiguous for bringing in ice time. On the positive side, he definitely knows he is early in the Autarchy at that point, I think.
  6. Severian returned to the House Absolute, presumably at the eleventh year of his reign. Looking at the dead assassin, he is tempted to “replace the knife I had lost so many chiliads ago” (V, chap. 41, 292). Since he had just come from the Typhon Era, the knife he refers to is the one he drove into Typhon’s table (V, chap. 39, 275). This item cannot go in the 1K pile.

THOUSAND YEARS

  1. Agia to Severian on the Conciliator as quoted above: source of 30K model.
  2. The aquastor Malrubius regarding the second time ship: “its range is but a few thousand years” (IV, chap. 31). Since this likely means that the mausoleum builder is alive in that time frame of a few thousand years in the past, it implies that the mausoleum builder’s era is there, which would require the Autarchial Age to be many chiliads. These speculations suggest it cannot be added to the 1K pile.

AGES

  1. Severian about the Atrium of Time: “No doubt because the frost of these latter ages entering the tunnel below had heaved its foundations” (I, chap. 4). Interesting that the “ages” here are shorter than the autarchial age.
  2. Agia about the Wall: “it has stood through a dozen ages” (I, chap. 25). Too ambiguous for use, but does use a figure (12!).
  3. Severian on duelling: “Those ages that have outlawed it (and many hundreds have, by my reading) have replaced it largely with murder” (I, chap. 27). This case seems to conflate “ages” with “societies” or maybe “reigns.” For example, we look to Wikipedia under “Duel” and see that Italy outlawed it in 1215, and the Holy Roman Empire outlawed it in 1650, etc. Still, he is talking about many hundreds of units here, whatever their actual duration.
  4. Jonas: “what they called the dark ages” (II, chap. 16). Based upon the points he gives, this is an anchor to the early middle ages (AD 500 to 1000), a span of 500 years. Hmm, so with the plural, each “age” of the dark ages might be 100 years? Hard to say!
  5. Severian: “costumes drawn largely from remote ages” (II, chap. 23).
  6. Severian on towers: “of metal so closely fitted that they had, ages ago, diffused into one another” (II, chap. 30). Another case where the multiple “ages” are tucked within the Autarchial Age.
  7. Merryn on the Cumaean and the stone town: “She is very old, but this city was devastated whole ages before she came to be” (II, chap. 31). The Stone Age/Bronze Age stone town seems to be a far point in time from the Autarchial Age, but “whole ages” seems (to me at least) less than “dozens of ages” or “hundreds of ages.”
  8. Appendix to Volume II: “An age is the interval between the exhaustion of some mineral or other resource in its naturally occurring form (for example, sulfur) and the next” (301). This note slyly shifts from the standard models of “materials of use” (Stone Age, Iron Age, Steam Age) to the 1970s concern for “resource depletion” (petroleum, uranium, etc.). While the Bronze Age lasts something like 2,000 years and the Steam Age around 145 years, the depletion schedule remains only theoretical. The text is plain that the citadel wall is made of unsmeltable metal, and that some things called “metal” are really more like cloth, etc.
  9. About seeds that “sink to the bottom of Gyoll and remain there for whole ages of the world” (III, chap. 11). Too vague for my task.
  10. Severian about his narrative: “I shall call it The Book of the New Sun, for that book, lost now for so many ages, is said to have predicted his coming” (IV, chap. 38). Could be used for 1K pile or 30K pile.
  11. Conciliator to Typhon: “and whole ages of the world will stride across it before my coming reawakens you to life” (V, chap. 39). “Whole ages” being equated with 30K, or at least “many chiliads.”
  12. On the estimated time of arrival for the White Fountain: “no matter how fast I drew my star to me, it was so distant that whole ages of the world would pass before it reached us” (V, chap. 40).
  13. Vulcanism: “In ages when men were only higher beasts, there were indeed such mountains” (V, chap. 42).
  14. “After ages of Urth, a bold man forced his way into that temple” (V, chap 47).
  15. The three Hierodules to Severian in the House of Day: “Whole ages of the world have passed since we’ve seen you” (V, chap. 50). The span they refer to is from Severian’s first year to the era of Apu-Punchau. The usage here resembles that in the earlier example involving the Cumaean.
  16. “Age of the Autarch” is used by Wolfe only in his article “Cavalry in the Age of the Autarch.”

So “ages” are all over the place, which is especially confusing when relating to governments or reigns or something like that.

4: INDICATORS OF TIME

Here are some more terms (given in upper case) and concepts relating to the passage of time which Wolfe uses in The Book of the New Sun and related texts:

Chain of civilizations: Wolfe writes, “in Severian’s time for the scholar-heirs of a sequence of civilizations that may be over a million years old” (“Books in The Book of the New Sun,” Wright’s Shadows of the New Sun, 195). Note that a million years = 1,000 chiliads.

Fossilization time: minimum 10,000 years. (Regarding the cliff-exposed city as a natural fossil.)

AEONS:

  1. “pounded to powder by aeons of tumbling in the…sea” (I, chap. 16).
  2. “the world is ordered to some plan…or one derived during the billion aeons of its existence” (III, chap. 27).
  3. “Ages are aeons to us” (III, chap. 33). [Good to know that aeons are greater than ages!]
  4. “for so many aeons” (V, chap. 21).
  5. “among the fallen towers [of the undersea city]…treasures…had withstood the passing of aeons” (V, chap. 48).

EONS:

  1. “to have walked among us eons ago” (I, chap. 29).
  2. “perhaps, [he is separated from his readers] by the abyss of eons” (II, chap. 4).
  3. “the eons [for the manapes] of struggles in the dark” (II, chap. 6).
  4. “In the earliest eons he [Apu-Punchau] had appeared” (II, chap. 31).
  5. “substance of the tiles [cliff city] in eons past” (III, chap. 14).
  6. “but during the eons of its existence [telecommunications], it laid upon him a spell” (IV, chap. 26).

The first instance of “eons” is especially interesting. This is Severian talking to Agia about the Conciliator, where he uses “eons” and she replies with “thirty thousand years,” which suggests that an eon could be around ten thousand years.

5: JONAS

When Jonas refers to “the dark ages” (II, chap. 16, 137), I am unsure as to his context. Still, he is talking very specific points:

  • king elected at Marchfield (AD 509).
  • counts appointed by kings (AD 450-751).
  • “baron” only a freeman of Lombardy (Old High German 750-1050).

Jonas seems to be highlighting that the Early Middle Ages, or “the Dark Ages”, were only five hundred years, and had these meritocratic qualities, whereas the High Middle Ages and Late Middle Ages, lasting 250 years each, showed improvements in some ways but positions became inherited. So the context seems to be, “I am shocked to find that this Autarchial Age has lasted longer than the Middle Ages,” which would move the scale from the one thousand years to the multi-thousand years model.

Urth cannot climb up out of the pit of its own “Middle Ages” because resources have been so comprehensively depleted.

6: POSTHISTORY

What can we conclude from this survey? Does the period that I have described as “Posthistory” have a precise duration?

My sense is that the autarchy is entirely within the posthistorical phase of Wolfe’s time scheme, but it probably started before then. Typhon had come in, made Urth his capital, and tried to conquer the galaxy, but it seems that Urth had already been fallow for some time at that point.

 

 

a looking glass and a crucifix on a bible

Everything has to be true somehow

Wolfe scholar Marc Aramini talks to Ultan’s Library co-editor Nigel Price about the progress of his massive critical review of all Wolfe’s published fiction, his approach to unlocking that author’s meanings, and the current state of Wolfe studies.

Nigel: Hello Marc. I hope you are keeping well. Thank you for agreeing to do an interview for Ultan’s Library. I know that you have been working on a major critical review of all Gene Wolfe’s novels and stories. Could I start by asking you how that is progressing and what the publication status is of the project?

Marc: Hi Nigel. This was supposed to be a two volume work which was finished way back in 2015, but it grew a bit out of hand in the process. Right now the total word count is over 1.2 million words, something about the size of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. It will eventually be released in probably four hardback editions of about 830 pages separated by year, and I keep hoping the publisher will put out Volume 2 and 3 on Kindle.

I have not completed The Land Across write-up, as I wanted to approach a definitive reading for each of the post Short Sun major works, and I might do a short appendix on Interlibrary Loan. I may yet surrender on Land Across … I prefer to end the book proper with the treatment of A Borrowed Man, a write-up I do not plan to edit as it was written while Wolfe was alive and makes reference to his status as a living author at the twilight of his career.

The volume titles will be Beyond Time and Memory, Behind Sword and Spirit, and, I think, Terminus Non Est. (I am going to contact my editor to see if I can pressure him into some news). My consolation prize for the delay is that my editor has promised me one of two leather bound editions of the work.

Nigel: Perhaps we could retrace our steps a little here! I have a Kindle copy of volume 1, but could you remind me of the title, who published it, and whether it is available in print or just for Kindle?

Marc: Of course! Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951-1986, is still only available on Kindle or ebook from Castalia House. There might need to be some rearrangement of the groupings to ensure that the hardbacks are of relatively uniform length, so I think the actual print run of the entire work will be simultaneous. 

Nigel: For those who have not seen the first volume, could you explain how you deal with each book and story? And are you literally commenting on every novel and story Wolfe published? Have some been hard to track down?

Marc: It originally began as an internet project on the Urth Mailing List, in which I intended to write up a summary and my observations on Wolfe’s earliest stories in chronological order, with input from the group. I had recently been able to track down the vast majority, and save for a few rather minor ones which appeared in, say, convention program booklets, it was not as difficult as I had feared. Yes, I have written on every story and novel. I soon found that engagement was sometimes very limited, so the brunt of interpretive work for the more obscure stories often rested on my shoulders.

Nigel: How many short stories, novelettes and novellas are there? The number must be huge. Wolfe was very prolific.

Marc: I am going to group the novelettes with the short stories if you don’t mind so I don’t lose my mind – there are about 220 short stories which were not excerpts from larger works and 15 novellas if you include the three which comprise The Fifth Head of Cerberus. That does not include the individual entries in Bibliomen, which I think should be treated as a whole. 

Nigel: Reading through everything like that, what strikes you most about the way that Wolfe’s writing develops over time? Does his style change? What about his subject matter?

Marc: Yes, I think his style undergoes a remarkable transformation after the publication of The Book of the New Sun, when he abandons the baroque and long sentences and often strives for a more minimalistic surface text. However, in broad strokes, he moved slowly from science fiction to fantasy over the course of his career, especially in his short stories, though there was always a genre mix.

His subject matter began with a stronger investment in future social structures and politics, but eventually I think his work achieves a far more universal application when he starts to examine more essential questions of spirituality and human nature. There is a reason Operation Ares will never be considered one of his great works that is only somewhat related to the botched editing job by the publisher.

The other thing that I think is interesting is how utterly difficult getting to the bottom of his post Wizard Knight novels can be. The subtext tends to replace the text. I found The Book of the New Sun enjoyable reading it as a child, missing much of the subtext. I don’t know that the same could be said of Home Fires or The Land Across, though I appreciate as an analyst what Wolfe was doing in those late works.

He definitely exhibited different styles and themes, and would often vary his preoccupations from work to work. The Wolfe Archipelago stories, as they are commonly called, play with innocence and guilt, maturation and immaturity, isolation and socialization, and love or its lack in all kinds of interesting ways, and he has done the same thing with explorations of and variations on memory and identity. Towards the end of his career, he seemed obsessed with the mysterious house trope, for some reason.

Nigel: What about your own approach to writing about Wolfe? How have you structured your commentaries? You say that you give a summary of each work and your observations. Can you tell me more about the kind of things you cover and discuss?

Marc: It took me a while to get the format down in a uniform fashion, but, unless Tor or some other publisher does what needs to be done and releases all of Wolfe’s fiction in uniform volumes, like the short works of Zelazny or Sturgeon have been, then I think this is the easiest way for readers to get a fairly comprehensive glimpse of Wolfe’s thematic progression as a writer.

I provide a summary with “mostly” objective details, an analysis that focuses on deeper or symbolic connections, and then sections on pertinent historical, literary, or religious allusions as well as some unanswered or ambiguous questions that others might want to consider as well as connections to other published works. This is the structure I followed for the short stories.

For the longer works I usually chose a thesis that I felt got at the hidden structure or truth of the book, explaining much of what happened in it, and focused on that for the argument and the details I chose to present. Unlike Wolfe, I found that my earlier work was too brief for people to follow logically, so I opted for longer and longer explanations for his late works, which made the write-ups easier to follow and far more tedious to read in my opinion.  

Nigel: How does your approach differ from that of other critics who have written about Wolfe?

Marc: One of the things which is most fascinating about the critical work surrounding Wolfe is how little different writers agree with each other. In general, I find Michael Andre-Driussi to have a good approach that avoids taking major risks, while Robert Borski takes too many leaps to follow logically.

One of my starting principles was that Wolfe writes with the precision of an engineer, and that he often has a structural backbone for many of his mysteries that points towards a definitive solution that will make sense of the vast majority of the text in an objective way.

This can lead to some odious disagreements, of course. Peter Wright takes a similar approach to The Book of the New Sun in Attending Daedalus, offering readings in terms of objective right and wrong … and, ironically, we disagree with each other significantly in terms of major themes and plot importance. He stops at a secular reading of The Book of the New Sun while I think it is a profoundly transcendent piece of theodicy in the spirit of Augustine or Milton, that God will make use of all things whether we choose good or turn away from it in the long run, and that there is no redemption without a fall, no immortality without death, and no transcendence without casting away the old. To borrow an image, Wright stops at the ugly and rotting masks of the Hierodules, while I think I get past that mask of rot, pain, fear, and death to see the transcendent and ethereal beauty beneath it. I will give you a few examples about the things that I emphasize in my write-ups:

I assume that Wolfe understands the motivations of his characters and that even if they are not entirely honest with themselves, something is true about almost every detail which is included in the text. He uses sophisticated techniques such as the mise en abyme, embeds tales which map allegorically to the larger story, grounds meaning through secular, theological, and literary allusions, and, perhaps most confusingly for some, creates symbols and metaphors to produce concrete plot conclusions.

So, for example, let’s take a fact from The Book of the Long Sun: the dogs running rampant in the tunnels are called gods. There are gods in the tunnels. From the perspective of my interpretation, many of the gods of the Whorl are actually stored in the tunnels, as repeating an unrelated fact in the text will objectively state.

That is a simple and straightforward example, but those instances abound. For a fecund union to occur in those texts, plant-named females must mate with animal-named males. A similar union is occurring throughout the Solar Cycle, ultimately producing the Vanished People and Hieros, and Wolfe already had that planned in New Sun, as can be seen in “The Tale of the Boy Called Frog” in which Spring Wind (Mars) is begotten on Early Summer (Juno) by a tree, in a riff on Ovid. 

However, meaning does not always or even most of the time depend on allusion. Sometimes Wolfe employs two confusing or mysterious things in a text that will explain each other.

In Home Fires, a protagonist seems to be involved in a gunfight that is entirely removed from all context within the novel. The “leader” of his enemies is shot. There is another scene in the novel where an investigator working for him is killed off-screen. There seems to be no way to solve that death … until we realize that the two mysteries explain each other. Then we have to explain why such a thing might occur and find possible explanations for that seemingly inscrutable behavior in the text – and when we can, we know we are on the right track.

Logic, small details, the literalization of metaphors, and the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated things repeatedly in a text are all means through which Wolfe controls his narrative, and I like to focus on these things in my write-ups in order to present a larger picture that attempts to make sense of as much as it possibly can.

Nigel: In my mind, I have a hierarchy of certainty as to the events, significance and meaning of what happens in a Gene Wolfe story. By this I mean that there are some things of which I am absolutely certain, some things which I think are highly probable, and other things where I have a working theory which I think is possible, but I am not absolutely sure. In most stories, there are also usually several things about which I have not a clue!

Even in this approach, there is a lot of ambiguity, though, because some of the uncertainty is mine, while I think some is deliberately left by the author. Just as an artist will paint some foreground objects in great detail but leave some background objects more hazy, so I believe that Wolfe has a hierarchy in which some details are important to him, while others are just fun and provide colour and context, but are essentially less important, so that he’s happy to leave many of their details undefined.

Would you agree, or do you think that is a lazy or negligent reading? I ask because I sometimes feel that other people’s readings of Wolfe seem over-specific and over-defined, asserting things as certain when to me they seem merely probable, possible, or sometimes even unlikely.

Marc: Here I have to admit that I will come across as a bit of an arrogant ass. I think I have good instincts for what I don’t understand after I read a Wolfe story two or three times in a row. If I don’t understand it, then that is where I need to explore. I have been extremely happy with my solutions for the late novels of Wolfe’s work. To the point of certainty, because they explain larger details that in my opinion only have one solution.

For example, the dreams in Wizard Knight. (Potential spoilers in the rest of this answer.) In my mind there is only one way to explain how these dreams are unified. Here are three presented back to back, with the surface explanation that Parka’s bow string brings dreams and visions from America. (Recall Parka told Able to “plant a seed” and when he looked back at the cave it was filled with a chaotic scattering of white doves):

I was a woman in a dirty bed in a stuffy little room. An old woman sitting beside my bed kept telling me to push, and I pushed, although I was so tired I could not push hard, no matter how hard I tried. I knew my baby was trying to breathe, and could not breathe, and would soon die.

Push!

 

I had tried to save; now I was only trying to get away. He would not let go, climbing on me, pushing me underwater.

 

The moon shone through pouring rain as I made my way down the muddy track. At its end the ogre loomed black and huge. I was the boy who had gone into Disiris cave, not the man who had come out. My sword was Disiras grave marker, the short stick tied to the long one with a thong. I pushed the point into the mud to mark my own grave, and went on. When the ogre threw me, it became such a sword as I wished for, with a golden pommel and a gleaming blade.

I floated off the ground and started back for it, but I could no longer breathe. (The Knight,  257-8)

At other times Able muses things like “How far to the dream my mother had?” or dreams that he is down in the hold with his mother and someone he cannot see while another person stalks him trying to kill him. (The land of Mythgarthr is made from the body of Ymar, whose name means twin).

There’s only one way to explain that first dream when you literalize it, and that has to include a mother whose child is going to die in utero. I won’t go further, but I am absolutely certain that Wolfe switched the dreams and the waking world in Wizard Knight, and the Jungian cyclic repetitions that involve metaphors for insemination, hunger, combat with allies, and assimilation are repeated over and over in the text with small changes and permutations.

Able was named for his ability to be born after a difficult pregnancy, according to the mother figure in the Room of Lost Loves, and on the last pages he declares with pathos, “I’m not Able!” as he returns what dropped off from Bold in the water so long ago. Any explanation of those dreams which does not include a mother losing her child, who can’t breathe, is an incomplete assessment of the work.

When Able meets the angel, the angel declares that his mother never knew him, and on the final pages we learn that the angel has found a way to deliver Able’s letter – through his mother’s dreams, so that she can know about the son she never knew. I view subtext as text when it is unified, and I find all of Wolfe’s late works to be puzzle box narratives with one solution. 

So … I think there is one reading which explains everything in the vast majority of Wolfe, but that for the most part the great mass of readers can’t get there.

One of my starting principles is that everything has to be true somehow, literally or figuratively, so I do not read with suspicion. I have listened to commentaries where people have problems or doubt the veracity of certain things that I take at either literal or metaphorical value as true, so I don’t have to doubt, say, that “Eschatology and Genesis” is transcendentally true, or that the dream visions accurately reflect “the Truth” once we understand them. In that way, the task of interpretation is to make everything true SOMEHOW, and when I can do that and other things can be explained by it, then I know the reading is correct as Wolfe intended it.

Wolfe often works with substitution. There is a dream in The Book of the Long Sun in which Silk dreams that Mucor is mad at him after Marble is brought to the church by litter bearers, one of whom is blind. (Spoilers for Long and Short Sun follow until the end of this paragraph, of course). Marble was possessed by Echidna at one point, and one of Echidna’s children, Tartaros, is blind. If you count Mucor as a stand-in for Scylla, since she is in charge of the church, then the number of litter bearers and Mucor is equivalent to the number of Echidna’s children (or, quite literally, her litter), and we can see that Silk stands in for Pas/Typhon in that Scylla has been trying to delete him from Mainframe in the larger story.

It also resonates with the deadcoach dream in which the prostitute possessed by Mucor is being transported to her final rest, led by two horses, with Scylla’s tentacles eventually blossoming from the deadcoach in the dream’s repetition. Given the association of horses with Scylla, the fact that Scylla will eventually be put to rest on Urth, and the absence of Mucor at the end of Short Sun (as well as Marble’s muttered, “Oh, Scylla” when she thinks of Mucor), we begin to see a pattern: Mucor is a clone of Scylla, and both will be laid to rest by the end of the books (though of course on a larger meta-level the Whorl is also hurtling to the burial place of humanity whether we realize it or not). We understand then why Marble took care of Mucor, as a shadow of Echidna’s affection for her daughter.

Nigel: You hinted earlier that you’ve had problems finishing off your commentary on The Land Across. Why has that work proved especially difficult? Have there been other novels or stories that you’ve found especially tricky to interpret and write about?

Marc: Yes, his late work is his most difficult because he doesn’t provide as many metatextual repetitions and motifs pointing the way. Indeed, I feel he started to play less and less fair. All I had to do was literalize things in Wizard Knight, and the reading fell into place. There Are Doors was easy when I saw that three individuals were always together doing the same thing in key scenes, whether that be escaping from a mental institution or holding a gun in the climactic showdown. But Sorcerer’s House, Home Fires, Evil Guest, and A Borrowed Man required intuitive leaps to limit the realm of possible interpretations. Wolfe’s increasing minimalism and refusal to come out and say things makes those books far more frustrating to deal with, and in my opinion The Land Across is the most difficult of all.

While it was difficult to get to the bottom of, Sorcerer’s House is a perfectly structured work (and here are more spoilers). I could see where Wolfe was pointing, but the structure hinges on a very obscure allusion that explains small details like the stench of Lupine and Nick, why Nick is a “skinny torpedo,” why Nick is a blood drinker who existed at the time of John the Baptist and why there were records of him before Bax was born in the town newspapers, why the Corinthian coin has a male and female face, and even the implication of Ambrosius and the house and its servants – there is one allusion that explains all of that, and Bax’s fate, too.

But when I had all that information, at first I didn’t know it was related, and was trying to explain each of those things independently. Finally, I started looking up Greek blood drinkers and was astonished – I suddenly understood, between that and the kikimora spirit, the entire book (see the Lamia of Corinth and Apollonius). That flash of epiphany is something I have gotten with all of his late work, and while some might think it is confirmation bias, I know the difference. Otherwise I would be done with The Land Across.

Nigel: I know what you mean about Wolfe’s late works, but I still enjoy the surface narratives in their own right. Wolfe told me once that, having been told so often that he was considered “a difficult writer,” he strove in his later works to make his style simpler and more accessible.

In terms of his own reading at this time, I know that he did occasionally read contemporary works of SF, fantasy and weird fiction but, as far as I could gather, for pleasure he was mostly reading classic detective stories, and I think that they provided the stylistic model for his writing. He loved the Nero Wolfe mysteries and the Lord Peter Winsey stories of Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, and I find myself thinking that The Wizard Knight is Wolfe writing heroic fantasy as if he were channeling Rex Stout. I enjoy that blend.

Similarly, I regard The Land Across as Wolfe’s mingling of G. K. Chesterton with Dashiell Hammett, recreating The Man Who Was Thursday after the manner of The Maltese Falcon. Considered in those terms, I very much enjoy Wolfe’s stories in  their own right as ingenious late entries into earlier literary genres. I suppose I should add that there’s quite a lot of Kafka in The Land Across, too, and I enjoyed that. 

I’ll ask a fresh question in a moment, but first I ought to give you the opportunity to comment on my assertions. Does such a genre and stylistic approach throw any light on these works, or do you think that I too am guilty, as I have implicitly accused others, of superimposing my own unfounded imaginings onto these stories? It’s more than likely!

Marc: I think those models are likely and can shed light on some of the stylistic choices Wolfe made. I certainly agree Wolfe had a strong connection to his traditional models; indeed, it could be that his Kafkaesque stories are always the most difficult for me. I don’t think you are superimposing anything that isn’t there.

However, I still think that his late works are at their heart puzzles. I know if I can’t explain every dream sequence to my satisfaction then I simply haven’t figured out the work yet, and the dreams in Land Across are especially perplexing, especially when Grafton notes that the dream of his death and inability to ever leave the land across has the force of a prophecy.

Nigel: Marc, I was going to ask you finally about what you made of the current state of Wolfe criticism and discussion. The Urth List used to be the place where all the interesting debates took place, but recent years have seen the emergence of other forums, including social media and podcasts. Which do you think are the most significant?

Marc: It is an interesting time to be a Wolfe fan. It is nice to see attention being paid to Wolfe’s work beyond The Book of the New Sun, and podcasts like The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast are providing a scholarly venue and genuine discourse that is not locked behind a paywall or hidden away in some inaccessible subscription library.

(Have you seen the resale prices on Wright’s Attending Daedalus or Shadows of the New Sun? Those prices were a factor in deciding that I wanted my work accessible to whomever is interested in it.)

For Urth List type discussion, the Rereading Wolfe podcast provides that. Reddit and Facebook and a few other forums have active Wolfe posts, but each has its own shortcomings. The Facebook Gene Wolfe Appreciation Society page has limited search functionality for old threads, so the Gene Wolfe subreddit, though it attracts a different demographic, has an advantage there.

The issue with frequenting the Urth List and these more contemporary discussion platforms is how often the same questions come up, and how often the same complaints or praises are produced. 

There are three podcasts now, and all are very different, as well as my own much more sporadic and brief YouTube channel, where I focus on what I feel to be the most important features of Wolfe’s books and his literary sophistication.

Craig Brewer, one of the hosts of the Rereading Wolfe podcast, and I have been attempting to get a collection of essays on Wolfe from various contributors published, and I know that there is going to be at least one academic journal with a Gene Wolfe memorial theme forthcoming.

I would like to see more academic work on Wolfe and have him achieve the recognition of a Joyce, Melville, or Nabokov (there are professors who devote their careers to the study of authors such as those, and it would be amazing to be a resident Wolfe professor, though that is but an empty pipe dream). I think his popularity will continue to grow, and while obviously I do not wholeheartedly agree with the general utility of the dominant critical paradigms in approaching Wolfe, I hope that future readers will find the magic and wonder that I did, so that his beautiful voice will never fall silent. 

I will close by saying I am always surprised by what observations and ideas survive in the popular consciousness. I think that I have made some important contributions to understanding or at least thinking about Wolfe, but there is one relatively minor discovery that seems to have percolated into collective knowledge far more thoroughly than my more important assertions. When I first read An Evil Guest, I found that the mountain with a washing woman for a wife resembled the set up for something in Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Every time An Evil Guest comes up I hear that bit of trivia regurgitated. As I said, I have written over 1.2 million words on Wolfe and argued some, to my mind at least, really neat things. Yet THAT minor detail and observation is what universally survives!

It is impossible to say what will stick, but I hope that people will continue to appreciate and love Wolfe and his work, whether it gains widespread critical respect in the academy or not.

Thank you for taking the time to ask these questions; I hope that Ultan’s Library will continue to be a platform for new and interesting takes on Wolfe and his work.

Nigel: Marc, thank you for that, and for taking the time to share your thoughts on Wolfe with us in this interview. Do make sure you let us know when the remaining three volumes of your study on Wolfe’s writing become available. I very much look forward to reading them.

Ancient Greek Temple of Poseidon

Place Names in Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist

Map of Greece

“Hundred Eyed,” “Redface Island,” — Gene Wolfe’s (1986) Soldier of the Mist is awash with charming place names that evoke wonder and puzzlement. This essay uses the lens of toponymy, the formal study of place names, to explores how the protagonist Latro generates these intriguing and idiosyncratic labels.

Introduction

Noted toponymist George Stewart (1975) observed,

Place-names possess a marked capacity to outlive the displacement of one language by another, by being passed from the speakers of the original language to those of the succeeding one.

Related to this argument, we learn in the Foreword to Soldier of the Mist that Latro speaks Greek fairly well, but he writes in his native tongue, which is archaic Latin. To understand Latro’s recording of place names, it is important to note (Soldier of the Mist, 1986, xii; all references in this essay refer to the original Tor hardback edition):

In dealing with place names, I have followed the original writer, who sometimes wrote them as he heard them but more often translated them when he understood (or believed he understood) their meanings.

This process of translation is referred to as folk etymology, and it is the primary method Latro uses to record his place names.

Shortly after its publication, intrigued Soldier of the Mist fans began speculating on exactly how Latro generates curious coinages like “Thought” for Athens. Jeremy Crampton provided considerable insight into the topic when he began the process of analyzing these names in his 1988 fanzine Book of Gold #1 (BoG1), which is available on Ultan’s Library here. Crampton’s article “Some Greek Themes in Gene Wolfe’s Latro Novels” (SGT) also originally appeared in this year. Crampton speculates, for example, that Latro’s “Clay” (Plataea, the opening of the story) is probably derived from a translation to platus, or plate, which was made of clay. Attica is recorded as “the Long Coast” due to its extensive shoreline (Crampton, SGT 1988; Wolfe, 1986). “Fennel Field,” according to Crampton (BoG1 vii, 1988), is named after the “yellow-flowered plant which is often used to flavor food” and grew wild at Marathon.

Crampton’s Glossary in Book of Gold #1 also provides notes, some onomastic and others descriptive, on Advent, Bearland, Boat, the Circling Isles, Clay, Cowland, Crimson Country, Dolphins, Goodcattle Island, Hill, Hundred Eyed, Long Coast, Redface Island, Riverland, Rope, Silent Country, Thought, Tieup, and Tower Hill. “Hundred Eyed” represents Argos, the “monster of the same name with many eyes” (BoG1 xxii, 1988). “Thought” is derived from “the goddess Athene, who sprung like a thought from the brow of Zeus” (ibid xxiii).

Other derivations in Crampton’s Glossary, such as “Thought” and “Rope,” are based on his analysis of Darrell Schweitzer’s interview with Mr. Wolfe that appeared in the Spring 1988 edition of Weird Tales, which is also reproduced here in full (ibid xiv):

Latro calls Athens Thought because that’s what he thinks it means. As it turns out, he’s right. That is what it means, although his derivation of it is incorrect. He’s connecting Athens with athanatos, which anybody with a superficial knowledge of Greek would do—immortal. What’s immortal is thought… Latro also thinks that Sparta means rope, because there is a very common Greek word spartos, which is rope, cord, string. Now Sparta didn’t mean rope. What it actually meant was scattered. But it took its name from a Greek word that was obsolete by the time Latro was in Greece.

These errors in derivation are examples of folk etymology. As it turns out, Latro uses a variety of methods to generate place names and, applying the categories provided by academic toponomy, we can identify that these include folk etymology, association, description, and commemoration. Topony also provides the tools with which we can examine and explain these naming processes.

Toponymy

How does a place gets its name? How do we come to know it and remember it?

Scholars who explore these questions engage in toponymy. In 1958, George Stewart introduced a popular taxonomy of toponyms that is still widely recognized (Fouberg, Murphy, & de Blij, 2009).

In Stewart’s system, there are 10 categories of place names. The first is descriptive; a location is named after a feature prominent to the eye, such as the Rocky Mountains. Latro’s “Long Coast” is an example of such a descriptive place name.

A related category is associative, in which a well-known feature of the place, such as a man-made object (e.g. Bridgeport), or highly representative flora or fauna, is linked to that location (e.g. Holly Ridge). Latro’s “Tall Cap Country” fits in this category.

Other place names fit into the category of incidents. For example, Columbus designated a Caribbean island “St Vincent” because he discovered it on January 22, 1498, the feast day of St. Vincent of Saragossa.

A fourth category, possessive, is based on ownership of a place, such as Johnson City.

A fifth category is commemorative. A commemorative place name celebrates a prominent person such as San Francisco or an abstract ideal like Concord. Latro’s “Hundred Eyed” (for hundred eyed Argus) falls into this category.

The sixth category of place names, which is highly relevant to the present essay, is folk etymology. In these cases, a place name is interpreted from another language. The translation is usually derived from a common sound or spelling. Latro’s “Hill” for Thebes is an excellent example.

The seventh category is commendatory and emphasizes a positive expectation of the new establishment (e.g, Prosperity).

The eighth category is relatively recent and is referred to as manufactured, such as Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

The mistake category typically involves an error in cartography. Nome, Alaska is probably based on the cartographer’s note “Name?” written on a sea chart.

Finally, the shift category refers to a toponym transferred from one place to another, such as Portsmouth, England shifted to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The following sections attempt to classify some of Latro’s place names in Soldier of the Mist according to Stewart’s taxonomy. The predominant category is folk etymology, followed by the less frequent use of descriptive, associative, and commemorative place names. In most cases, unless otherwise specified, I rely on the Online Etymology Dictionary by Douglas Harper to inform my analyses.

Folk Etymology

Folk etymology is the process of deriving a place name from a reasonable, but technically inaccurate, translation from one language to another. For example, imagine an English-speaking tourist who speaks German as a second language. He travels in Germany without carefully studying its place names. During the trip, he visits a large German city and wishes to record the name in his travel diary. He finds a native speaker and asks for the city’s name. The friendly German replies, “Baer-leen.”

Our English-speaking tourist knows that “bear” is the German bär, and he sees flags around the city adorned with bear crests. He puts two-and-two together and records “Bear Town” in his journal. Actually, etymologists speculate that Berlin stems from an old Polabian stem berl- for “swamp,” reflecting an associative toponym for a town situated on a marsh adjacent to the Spree River. Although not a good translation for tourism, Berlin was probably originally referred to as “Swamp Town.”

In this example, the tourist’s toponym is a reasonable place name representing a significant locale in his travels. Folk etymology reveals a fundamental tendency of the human mind: it constantly labels things. It assimilates, accommodates, and generally projects a personal frame of reference on the unknown. Abram Palmer, a 19th century etymologist, explained it this way:

The fact is, man is an etymologizing animal. He abhors the vacuum of an unmeaning word. If it seems lifeless, he reads a new soul into it, and often, like an unskillful necromancer, spirits the wrong soul into the wrong body (Wilton, 2013).

Latro is certainly a necromancer of sorts. At times, he records place names that do not match the literal sounds spoken by a Hellene because he is trying to communicate a deeper meaning about a place based on his understanding of the language.

The following table summarizes some of Latro’s place names derived from folk etymology. The first column is Latro’s place name. The second entry is the contemporary English translation. The third section notes how Latro used folk etymology to derive a place name.

Latro’s place name English place name

Folk etymology

Bearland Arcadia Gk. arktos – bear
Boat Lemnos Gk. lembos? – a boat built for speed; a fast cutter
Clay Plataea Vulgar Latin plattus – plate (plates were made of clay)
Cowland Boeotia Gk. bous – cow, bull, or ox
Hill Thebes Gk. teba – also Archaic Latin for hill
Rope Sparta Gk. spartē – rope, cord 
Silent Country Laconia Gk. Lakōnikos – taciturn (Spartans were renowned for brevity in speech)
Thought Athens Gk. athanatos – immortal (Latro associates immortality with thought)
Water Aegean Gk. aiges – waves

The place name “Bearland” is analogous to the tourist’s translation of “Bear Town” for Berlin. The Peloponnesian prefecture of Arcadia (Αρκαδία) is actually a commemorative place name for the mythical hero Arcas, but Latro doesn’t know this. The Greek word for bear is arktos, so Latro reasonably assumes that Arcadia is an associative toponym based on a representative animal of that region. The Greek suffix –ia connotes “the land of; territory.”

Latro’s “Boat” is a bit of a puzzler. He is referring to the island of Lemnos, residence of Hephaestus. Lemnos was originally a commemorative toponym for the Great Goddess by the original inhabitants. Latro perhaps derives “Boat” from the Greek word lembos, which is a small, fast cutter. He views vapor rising from volcanic Mosychlos and imagines that it is the Smith God’s sail.

One of the more interesting toponyms is Latro’s “Clay” for Plataea. Plataea is actually based on a descriptive toponym from the Greek platys, “flat, broad,” as the city was located on a plateau. Latro instead makes a different association. The best explanation is Crampton’s (1988) argument that Latro associates Plataea with the Vulgar Latin word plattus, which possibly referred to a plate, and plates were made of clay.

Latro refers to Boeotia as “Cowland,” deriving cow from the Greek bous. Pindaros argues that Boeotia is an associative toponym: “The people here laugh at us because we named our country after our cattle.” The urban Athenians used the term “boeotian” to denote a country bumpkin.

Similarly, “Goodcattle Island” is an associative toponym for Euboea, based on the Greek eu “good” and bous “cow,” signifying a productive area for raising cattle. Despite the obvious links to associative toponyms, toponymists argue that the etymological roots of Boeotia are unclear. The name may stem from the Indo-European bhei “to fight,” or indicate that the original settlers migrated from Mount Boion in Macedonia. Regardless, Latro’s “Cowland” and “Goodcattle Island” are reasonable toponyms that describe important fauna of the area.

Latro’s “Hill” is one of the clearest examples of a place name based on folk etymology. The Boeotian city of Thebes, which is recorded as “Hill” by Latro, is perhaps a shift toponym for Egyptian Thebes. The Hellenes pronounced Thebes (Θῆβαι) as “Theb-eye.” Latro connects this pronunciation with the archaic Latin word for hill, teba.

Latro refers to Sparta as “Rope” because he associates it with the Greek spartē,  “rope, cord,” created from the shrub spartos. According to Wolfe (Schweitzer, 1988, as cited in Crampton, 1988), Sparta is really based on a descriptive toponym for a Greek word signifying “scattered,” as it was a loose collection of villages without a wall. In terms of the “Silent Country,” Wolfe (1986, xii) explains in his introduction, “Latro seems to have heard some taciturn person referred to as having Laconic manners, and to have concluded that Laconia meant ‘Silent Country.’” Laconia was actually a commemorative toponym for the founder Lacedaemon, son of Zeus and Taygete.

The toponym “Thought” for Athens, according to Wolfe (Schweitzer, 1988), is created by Latro associating the place name with the Greek athanatos (“immortal”).

Why would Latro derive “thought” from “immortal”?

In a 2010 contribution to a now deleted online discussion group run by Wolfe’s publisher Tor and entitled “The Gene Wolfe Book Club”, Michael Andre-Driussi distinguished between thought-as-process (e.g. a stream of consciousness in a living person) versus thought-as-product (e.g. art, literature) that is recorded and transcends time and space. Latro associates immortality with thought products, particularly those thoughts that are recorded in text and passed down through the generations.

In Sword and Citadel (1994, p. 147), the character Severian articulates this idea in his analysis of the alzabo’s ability to absorb the thoughts of its victims:

Not surprisingly, the problem of correlating the alzabo with some higher truth was more difficult; but at last I decided that it might be likened to the absorption by the material world of the thoughts and acts of human beings who, though no longer living, have so imprinted it with activities that in the wider sense we may call works of art, whether buildings, songs, battles, or explorations, that for some time after their demise it may be said to carry forward their lives.

The association between immortality and recorded thoughts is poignantly conveyed in Latro’s recurrent, yet fleeting, awareness of his amnesia as he rereads his scroll; he is dependent on the scroll to maintain a sense of personal continuity and identity.

Athens is actually a commemorative toponym for the goddess Athena, but the word is probably pre-Hellenic and of unknown origin.

Finally, the Hellenes pronounced the Aegean (Αἰγαῖον) as “eye – gah – ee – on,” possibly derived from the Greek αἶγες  (“eye-gees”) for “waves.” Latro assumes this is a descriptive toponym that he connects with the Latin aqua, which led to the translation of “Water.”

Descriptive Place Names

Latro’s toponym English toponym Visible feature
Circling Isles Cycladic Islands A swirl of Aegean islands
Dog’s Tail Kynosoura A thin, oblong peninsula
Long Coast Attica Long shoreline
Riverland Egypt The Nile

Descriptive toponyms emphasize a prominent visible feature of a place such as the swirl of islands Latro refers to as the “Circling Isles.”

Latro’s playful toponym “Dog’s Tail” is Kynosoura, a thin, oblong peninsula jutting off the eastern coast of Salamis and shaped like the tail of a dog. The toponym appears to be generated from kynos (“dog”) and oura (“tail”). Yet, as with many place names, some etymologists argue that “Dog’s Tail” may be a folk etymology. The Hellenic mariners also referred to Ursa Minor as Kynosoura, which is odd, given that the entire seven-star pattern would be named “Dog’s Tail” as opposed to the three stars in the tail itself. Without getting into the details of their arguments, nineteenth-century etymologists variously derived the translations “Trail of Light” and “High in Rising” for Kynosoura. The general lesson here is that etymology is often a slippery business with multiple plausible interpretations. In any case, Latro seems to rely on the derivation from kynos and oura, which probably resulted in something akin to “Canis Cauda” in his scrolls.

Wolfe (1986) mentions in his Introduction that Latro’s “Long Coast” refers to Attica. This is a clear example of a descriptive toponym representing the long shoreline of this prefecture viewed from the Saronic Gulf. Latro’s place name is perhaps influenced by the Greek akte, meaning “shore; maritime place” (Room, 1997, p. 39).

“Riverland” is an interesting puzzle and connects Soldier of the Mist to later novels in the series. On the surface, Latro’s referring to Egypt as “Riverland” suggests a descriptive toponym. This is odd, however, because his amnesia would presumably have erased his recollections of the Nile. Latro has been to Egypt, so he may have a buried memory of the Nile influencing his use of this place name. In Chapter 1, the Egyptian healer would refer to Egypt in his native tongue as “Kemet,” as indicated in the glossary. Kemet means “black land,” which is a descriptive toponym for the dark soil of lower Egypt. Another possibility is that they conversed in Aramaic, referring to Egypt as “Mitsrayim,” translated as “two straits.” Latro might conclude that these straits represent part of a river cutting through the land.

Associative Place Names

Latro’s toponym English toponym Representative object
Tall Cap Country Phrygia Phrygian cap
Fennel Field Marathon The field of wild fennel (Gk. maratho)
Hot Gates Thermopylae Gk. thermo hot + pylae gates – adjacent hot sulfur springs leading to Hades
Tie Up Piraeus Unclear—tying up boats at the port?
Tower Hill Corinth Referring to the Acrocorinth—a towered citadel looming over Corinth

Associative place names derive from an observer linking a place to something prominent there. In one sense, an associative toponym is a descriptive toponym, but the “something” is often man-made. “Tall Cap Country” refers to the iconic Phrygian cap worn by natives of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). Associative toponyms may also represent local fauna or flora. Latro’s “Fennel Field” and “Hot Gates” are clear examples.

A less clear example is “Tower Hill”, representing Corinth. It probably refers to the Acrocorinth, which is the citadel looming over Corinth, a suggestion originally made by Andre-Driussi in 2010 in the the aforementioned online discussion in the now defunct Gene Wolfe Book Club. It would certainly be a prominent feature to Latro as he entered the city, and he is less likely to know that Corinth is actually a commemorative place name for the founder Corinthus, son of Zeus.

Latro’s “Tie Up” is a puzzler unless we avoid over-analysis and simply acknowledge that he is referring to the fact that this locale, Piraeus, is a popular Athenian port where vessels are moored. The name Piraeus is perhaps a descriptive toponym from Gk. peran “beyond,” in reference to the fact that a marshy area separated it from the mainland. Its precise etymological roots are unknown, so it makes sense that Latro would rely on his own associative toponym.

Commemorative Place Names

Latro’s toponym English toponym Well-known individual or ideal 
Advent Eleusis Demeter
Dolphins Delphi Apollo (in dolphin form)
Hundred Eyed Argos Argus Panoptes, the 100-eyed giant
Peace Salamis Phonecian salam  “peace”
Redface Island Peloponessus Pelops

A commemorative place name glorifies a founder or ideal. “Advent”, for example, is from the Gk. eleuseos, “the coming,” representing the spiritual advent of Demeter in the Eleusinian mysteries.

“Dolphins” is from the Gk. delphis (gen. delphinos) “dolphin,” which is the form that Apollo took in the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo. Apollo the Dolphin God recruited Cretan sailors to found his temple at that location.

“Hundred Eyed” is the commemorative place name for the 100-eyed giant Argus Panoptes whom Hera set to guard the nymph Io after she had been turned into a heifer.

“Peace” is derived from salam, the Phoenician word for peace (c.f. Salem, Massachusetts).

“Redface Island” is a portmanteau for Pelops and nesos (island). Pelops was king of Pisa on Peloponessus, and his name is itself a combination of pellos (dark) and ops (face, eye), which was probably a birthmark (i.e. a port-wine stain).

Conclusion

This essay has explored how the categories and insights of toponymy can be applied to Latro’s place names, shedding light on the protagonist’s thought processes. Latro relies predominantly on folk etymology, and to a lesser extent on descriptive, associative, and commemorative derivations, which breathe life into his Hellenic place names. In turn, these colorful place names motivate the curious reader to learn more about Hellas, classical mythology, and the Greco-Persian Wars.

More broadly, Latro’s place names illustrate how language influences a person’s perception and memory of a place. Latro sees mist rising from a volcano and thinks of a sail, generating “Boat.” He sees a towering citadel dominating a hill, generating “Tower Hill.” He hears “the-beye” and associates it with the archaic Latin word for “Hill.”

It is important to remember that Latro’s approach to recording place names is not archaic or obsolete. Travelers still use prominent or idealized features of the places they visit that ultimately color their perceptions and memory of that place: Paris—“city of light,” San Francisco –“city by the bay,” Prague—“golden city of 100 spires.” Place names influence how people represent a place in their autobiographical memories and how they communicate the essence of those locales to others.

References

Crampton, J. (1988). The Book of Gold: The newsletter of Gene Wolfe and his works. Retrieved from Ultan’s Library, http://ultan.org.uk/books-of-gold/.

Crampton, J. (1988). Some Greek themes in Gene Wolfe’s Latro novels. Retrieved from Ultan’s Library, http://ultan.org.uk/some-greek-themes-in-latro/.

Fouberg, E. H., Murphy, A. B., & de Blij, H. J. (2009). Human geography: People, place, and culture.

Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Harper. D. (2016). Online etymology dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/.

Room, A. (1997). Placenames of the world. Retrieved from Google Books.

Schweitzer, D. (1988). “Profile: Gene Wolfe”. Spring 1988 issue of Weird Tales, edited by George Scithers, Darrell Schweitzer and John Gregory Betancourt (Terminus Publishing Company Inc, Philadelphia, PA).

Steward, G. (1975). Names on the Globe. Oxford University Press.

Wilton, D. (2013). Common errors in etymology. Retrieved from http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/site/comments/common_errors_in_etymology/.

Wolfe, G. (1986). Soldier of the mist. New York: Tor.

Wolfe, G. (1994). Sword and citadel. New York: Tor.

A look behind the names

Scott Wowra

Scott Wowra

“Rope…” “The Long Coast…” “Thought…” 

Why does Latro, the narrator of Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist, give such strange and wonderful names to the places he visits in ancient Greece? How does he derive them and what does his choice of names reveal about his thinking?

Scott Wowra explores these questions in his scholarly new article, “Place Names in Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist”. Skilfully using the taxonomy of toponomy, the formal study of place names, he provides key insights into the way that Wolfe subtly reveals how his protagonist perceives the world that he lives in through the way that he assigns names to the places through which he passes.

“Place Names in Gene Wolfe’s Soldier of the Mist” is due to be published in Ultan’s Library on Wednesday 7 September 2016.

An Homage to my Honorary Grandfather

C S E CooneyJust shy of eighteen, I met Gene Wolfe. My father introduced us, and then we all went out to dinner: Gene, his wife Rosemary, my father, my stepmother Terry, and me.

I’d been shy about meeting him—not because I’d read his books (I’d read one, The Shadow of the Torturer, just recently, not having any idea who the author was or who he’d be to me)—but because I was shy of new people in general.

Halfway through dinner, I found myself asking if he’d read my novel. I don’t know what brazen ghost possessed me. I could see the moment his face changed. Got very careful indeed. Gently he said, “I can read it, but I can’t promise to say anything about it.”

I remember backpedaling, saying I’d just send the first three chapters. He twinkled at me. (He has very twinkly eyes.)

And after I sent my chapters, I received a letter.

I don’t know if Gene ever read past the first chapter. But he wrote me a long letter about what he did read, what he’d observed, and it was a letter full of keen incite, encouragement, what I was doing well (Dialogue! Character!), and most importantly, stuff I needed to work on. For example, I had a tendency to interrupt my dialogue with long infodumps. He used the phrase “lumps of prose like uncooked dumplings,” which delighted me—and has stayed with me these many years.

I could feel my brain cracking open and horizon pouring in. I wrote him back. I thanked him. I asked him questions. He started teaching me about short stories.

The subject had come up at that initial dinner. “Write short stories,” he advised me. “Build your byline. Once you have a body of work and some name recognition, you’ll be ready to sell your novel. Learn your craft; novels are the easiest to write. Short stories are harder. Poetry is the hardest of them all.”

That made me feel smug; I was already a poet.

“How do you write a short story?” I asked. I’d never been able to write short. A teacher in high school had called me “prolific,” in a tone of voice that was half-admiring, half-resentful.

“Anything can be a short story,” said Gene. “Look around. This chair could be a short story. That waiter. How they interact.”

Immediately I had an idea for a sentient chair and its best friend, the waiter.

To this day, I still write long, often novella-length. But I marvel at the engineering behind a Gene Wolfe short story. How can he pack all that story into such a limited frame? I have to sit with his stories and sink in; they go down so deep. They resound.

Gene taught me how to write cover letters. How to submit. How to subscribe. “Writers who don’t subscribe to the magazines they submit to are cutting their own throats.” He was clear on that point.

I still overwrite my early drafts (Gene told me he does too), and I still have to watch out for “lumps of uncooked prose.”

He once advised, “Always tell a story as cleanly and as clearly as possible.”

I find myself coming back to that. I often garland my stories in gilded curlicues of language that I later sometimes want to slash back to the bone. But there was this one time, after I wrote “Three Fancies from the Infernal Garden” (Subterranean Magazine: Winter 2009) and showed it to Gene, telling him I’d probably need to cut much of the sing-songy rhythm and internal rhyme, he urged me not to take my knife to it.

So I remember that too: Not only “Tell the story as cleanly and as clearly as possible,” but also—remember that sometimes, the elaborate is beautiful.

In a decade and a half of loving advice, encouragement, introductions, brilliant brunches, and road trips that Gene Wolfe has gifted to me, another moment sticks out. Early on in my submitting-short-stories process, I’d written him this letter—hyperbolic, tear-stained—about receiving yet another rejection. I’d thrown myself against a wall, I said, I’d wailed. And he wrote back, “Good on you! That means you care. It’s good to care.”

He wrote it better of course; but memory synthesizes our experience. And what a thing to remember! Especially for a young writer, addled by self-doubt, newborn-barefoot on the fierce terrain of the unknown. Rejection is a natural part of the process, and so is the artist’s reaction against it. It’s all right; we’re supposed to feel—even Gene Wolfe still gets sad at a rejection letter. It’s good to feel.

“And when it’s done,” he told me, “look at your story again. Scrub her face. Give her a new dress. And send her back out into the world.”

It’s because of Gene Wolfe that I view each new story as an intrepid daughter of Nellie Bly: suitcase in hand, checkered suit impeccable, head held high, heading off into the sky.


C. S. E. Cooney (csecooney.com/@csecooney) is the author of Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015), the title story of which was nominated for the 2015 Nebula Award. Her novella “The Two Paupers,” second installment of her Dark Breakers series, is included in Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. She is an audiobook narrator for Tantor Media, the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, and the Rhysling Award-winning author of the poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride,” which can be found in her collection How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes. Her short fiction and poetry can be found at Uncanny Magazine, Lakeside Circus, Black Gate, Papaveria Press, Strange Horizons, Apex, GigaNotoSaurus, Goblin Fruit, Clockwork Phoenix 3 & 5, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, and elsewhere.

What would it be like…

The cover of Bone Swans by C. S. E. CooneyWhat would it be like for you as an aspiring author to have Gene Wolfe as your mentor?

Award-winning author and poet C. S. E. Cooney knows because Wolfe encouraged and advised her when she was starting out and, in an exclusive piece for Ultan’s Library, she tells us all about it. We share her experiences of authorial rejection and acceptance and, in so doing, get a fascinating glimpse into Wolfe’s own approach to the practicalities of getting published.

C. S. E. Cooney’s “An Homage to my Honorary Grandfather” is scheduled for publication in Ultan’s Library on Friday 1o June 2016.

Ultan’s Library congratulates Marc Aramini on his Hugo nomination

Master Ultan offers warm congratulations to regular Library contributor Marc Aramini, whose full-length study of Wolfe’s fiction, Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 , has been nominated for a 2016 Hugo Award in the category of Best Related Work.

Ultan’s Library published Marc’s piece on The Fifth Head of Cerberus in 2014 and interviewed him about his short story in the tribute-anthology Shadows of the New Sun. Marc has also recorded a series of well-received video lectures on Wolfe and is a regular contributor to the Urth mailing list.

Most recently, Ultan’s Library published an extract from Between Light and Shadow about Wolfe’s story ‘A Solar Labyrinth’ as well as Wolfe’s original story.

The Feast of Saint Katharine (with a “K”)

Wolfe scholar and regular contributor to Ultan’s Library Michael Andre-Driussi describes his latest article thus: This essay traces the vestigial novella “The Feast of Saint Catherine” cryptically contained within the published text of The Book of the New Sun as a fossilized embryo. The plot of the tale will be established, along with the internationally recognized word count requirement for the form “novella.” Following these unassailable facts are speculative projections as to the novella’s resolution, conjectural notes on genre authors Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance, and suppositions regarding Gene Wolfe’s rejection of the novella.

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