a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe

Category: Book Reviews

Reviews of books by and about Gene Wolfe

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.

An astronaut on the moon

Mapping a Masterwork: A Critical Review of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun

  • Volume One: Shadow and Claw
  • Volume Two: Sword and Citadel (Millennium, 2000)

Reviewed by Peter Wright

The Fifth Head of Cerberus reviewed

Gene Wolfe, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (Millennium, 1999)

reviewed by Robert Borski

“When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early whether we were tired or not.” So begins, with its Proustian echo, the titular novella of Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus, first published in 1972.

Strange Travelers reviewed

Gene Wolfe, Strange Travelers (Orb, 2000)

reviewed by Michael Andre-Driussi

Here is a brand new collection of fifteen stories. Originally published in magazines, theme anthologies, and a program guide, they offer a wide variety of styles and modes for your reading and re-reading pleasures.

Harmonies and Mysteries: a review of Gene Wolfe’s On Blue’s Waters

Reviewed by Nigel Price.

On Blue’s Waters is a fine book. Beautifully written, it is by turns thrilling and amusing, moving and intriguing but, like much of Wolfe’s work, it defies easy classification.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén