I’ve now had the opportunity to read Peter Wright’s “Confounding the Skin and the Mask” several times and it continues to generate much thought.
Articles and essays about the fiction of Gene Wolfe
by Peter Wright
Since its publication in 1972, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe’s collection of three inter-linked novellas, has earned a reputation for being the author’s most perplexing single volume. Such a reputation is entirely justified since ambiguity is the watchword to the text. More significantly, it is also an organising principle of form, a means of confounding interpretation, and a fundamental theme associated with Wolfe’s defining authorial obsessions: the subjectivity of perception, the unreliability of memory, and the nature of identity.
This document briefly examines the use of torture and confession in Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun and how it both differs from and reflects actual historical practice (at least in Europe and America). It is not the purpose of these notes to provide a full or sustained argument, merely to outline some possible ways of proceeding.
By Nick Gevers
Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun (1993-6) is a deeply complex expression of momentum: the momentum of faith, of history, of escape, of understanding. Science Fiction is replete with texts that involve such accelerations of vision and concept; but Wolfe, with his penetrating and parodic understanding of the conventions and purposes of the genre, carries this technique of escalation to levels of subtlety not frequently encountered. In so doing, Wolfe achieves two grand purposes: first, he is able to demonstrate once again the extraordinary arsenal of irony, of resonant symbolism, and of subliminal implication that has fuelled his extraordinary career; and second, he is able to affirm the absolute primacy of religious faith – specifically, of his own idiosyncratic Roman Catholicism – by way of a work superficially characteristic of a thoroughly secular genre. The four volumes of The Book of the Long Sun are exponentially progressive secular leaps into the surrounding realm of Faith; this article, by means of close reference to the opening and concluding passages of each volume, explores how Wolfe structures this cascading, apparently inadvertent but in truth inevitable, march closer to the Divine.
By Nick Gevers
The title is a multiplex pun, so typical of Gene Wolfe. The Book of the Long Sun (1993-6) can only closely follow, or mirror The Book of the New Sun (1980-3). And just as Severian, the narrator of the first Book, is the New Son of God, a man becoming Christlike if not Christ himself returned, so Patera Silk, Wolfe’s new protagonist, is the Long Son, the product of a virgin birth, long (tall) in physical and moral stature. And the renovation of the Sun is again implied; and the story, in four volumes, is very long, and is not over yet. Thus Wolfe in six words summarises his second tetralogy; and the critic can add that The Book of the Long Sun is, very likely, the most significant work of SF to be published in the 1990s – the most precise, the most sustained, and the most profound. It is a tale of physical, religious, and philosophical exodus; and, as such, it interrogates, and dismisses, the material world. The result is devious, eccentric, and charismatic, an old story rendered utterly, weirdly new.
The moon is down
Taurus was in the sky before: it’s gone.
Time is passing.
It is midnight and I lie here alone.
“Who writes? For whom is the writing being done?” So Edward Said began his essay “Opponents, audiences, constituencies and community”, 1 by asking questions he said were vital for a “politics of interpretation.” Said, talking about modern literary criticism, could equally have been referring to genre fiction. His questions are particularly relevant for an examination of Wolfe’s writing.