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Cover of "Gene Wolfe's First Four Novels: A Chapter Guide"

Micro-Wolfenomics: Joan Gordon reviews ‘Gene Wolfe’s First Four Novels: A Chapter Guide’ by Michael Andre-Driussi

Gene Wolfe’s First Four Novels: A Chapter Guide by Michael Andre-Driussi (2020)

There are two kinds of Wolfeian criticism: macro and micro. I tend toward the macro where I make broad claims about his themes and style and so on and back them up with specifics from the work. Michael Andre-Driussi offers the micro, noting all the small details, word meanings and origins, specific allusions, patterns and inconsistencies in plot, time-lines, and so on, things very useful to us broad-stroke people.

I have long used the iterations of his Lexicon Urthus as I spin my theories about The Book of the New Sun, and last year he produced a chapter guide to that work and its sequel. Now he has produced a guide to Wolfe’s first four novels: Operation ARES (1970), The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), Peace (1975), and The Devil in a Forest (1976). This guide will prove valuable to anyone who wants to explore Wolfe’s early work and, I hope, write about it.

Andre-Driussi suggests two ways to read the guide: read a chapter of Wolfe’s book, then the appropriate section of the guide; or read this book on its own, after, I presume, reading Wolfe’s. I did the latter, since I’ve read Wolfe’s work a few times already.

Each chapter of the guide covers one of the four books. The format varies a bit to accommodate the book under question. The chapter on Operation ARES begins with a short chapter by chapter description of events with a few notes on onomastics and allusions, followed by an appendix noting the history of the book’s writing, speculating about place names, spotting chess references, and commenting on undeveloped plot elements. In the briefness of the chapter, and its observations on plot holes, Andre-Driussi acknowledges the weaknesses that made Wolfe insist this novel not be reprinted.

The chapter on The Fifth Head of Cerberus is much more extensive, reflecting Wolfe’s arrival at mastery. Each of the three novellas has its own plot summary with notes on onomastics and allusions, and each is followed by appendices tracing particular puzzles or patterns. At the end of the first section, one of the two appendices lists references to the word “wolf” (the other appendix is just a few added notes). There are no appendices for the second novella but the the third novella, “V.R.T.”, has no fewer than eight appendices! All of these notes and appendices are not only quite helpful, but they illustrate how complex the novel is. Several of them move toward interpretation as they present their material: “Appendix 5HC1: Critical Appraisals” ends with Andre-Driussi’s own, “Appendix 5HC2: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” speculates about brainwashing, and “Appendix 5HC4: The Fifth Head–A Novel Solution” grapples with the novel’s internal author. The very extensive “Appendix 5HC5: Table of Elements” traces story events from one novella to the next, and would provide a fine launching pad for further macro-wolfenomics. Extensive as the appendices are, though, he didn’t include a chart of all the uses of the letter V.

The chapter on Peace is equally extensive, reflecting that novel’s complexity, ambiguity, and magnificence. Indeed, these two novels hold their own with the best of Gene Wolfe’s work, and that is saying a lot. Again the chapter guide is quite detailed, noting onomastics and allusions but leaving out overt interpretation.

I did find an actual error in this chapter, although it didn’t affect anything important: on p. 78, Andre-Driussi locates Adelphi University in Brooklyn rather than Garden City, New York. Big deal.

This time there are 11 appendices. The most unusual is “Appendix ADW2: A Touchstone from Ambrose Bierce”, which actually includes the text of Bierce’s story, “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886), which seems to be a source text for Peace. My favorite is “Appendix ADW10: Peace and the TAT Cards” because it describes the cards and how they relate to the novel. I could have used this when, in my Starmont Reader’s Guide (1986), I described the possibility that the whole novel unspools from Weer’s taking the Thematic Apperception Test.

The chapter on The Devil in the Forest is quite short. That novel was meant for young adults and is more straightforward than most of Wolfe’s writing, but it is beautifully written and makes important points about the role of reason in faith. It could benefit from a more thorough exploration than Andre-Druissi gives it, I think, perhaps developing the novel’s affinity with that famous man of faith and reasoning, Father Brown. Nevertheless, it offers some very thought-provoking observations.

I hope readers of this volume will be provoked by these observations to write some macro-wolfenomic essays that follow through on Andre-Driussi’s inspiring guide, and that some of those essays might work their way over to the academic journals, Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and Foundation. And from there to classrooms both undergraduate and graduate, so that Wolfe’s work becomes as widely known as it deserves. While Wolfe will always be admired by other writers, by the coterie of fans represented by Urth.net, the Rereading Wolfe podcast, and, of course, Ultan’s Library, I want even more.

So it’s clear that Andre-Driussi is doing very important work here, and I would like it to become more widely distributed for the reasons I mention above, rather than in these small publish-on-demand editions. But micro-criticism isn’t very lively to read, especially all at once, as I read it: useful to consult, but not fun to read. I longed for some summary statements, theories, evaluation, but this book is not meant for that. It provides the tools for others to use. Still, I would have loved for Andre-Driussi to cut loose. I’ll bet he has some good theories based on solid evidence.

The front cover of "Interlibrary Loan"

A Curiously Conflicted Book: Craig Brewer reviews ‘Interlibrary Loan’

Please note that, as with other reviews published in Ultan’s Library, this review intentionally contains multiple spoilers for the work under consideration.


The first paragraphs of Wolfe’s final novel Interlibrary Loan find Ern A. Smith looking back nostalgically on the adventure he’s about to narrate, enraptured by the memory of the wonders he saw, but also frightened of them and hoping that writing will somehow purge his need to remember. He wishes he could recall only the good things, “because I know that destiny and the world are not all dark,” but his memory cannot keep the bad from mixing with the good and troubling his mind.

Now it seems to me that writing down all the most important events here may help me clear my mind and let me think instead of the little empty things going on in this unmeaning museum now. Things over and done with when I have finished. If I ever do.

Or anyway I dare to hope that this writing may. (Interlibrary Loan, chapter 1, page 8 – this, and all other references, are to the Tor hardback first edition, 2020.)

Telling his story is simultaneously wondrous, cathartic, and also dangerous, because it threatens not to bring the closure he’s hoping for, forcing him to relive the uncertainty of the drama. Stories are tricky things because they may never really end, and, though we may love to retrace them, they can haunt us in ways we aren’t comfortable with.

It’s a curiously conflicted way to start a novel. But this is a curiously conflicted book.

As Wolfe’s final novel, it’s tempting to hold Interlibrary Loan to a higher, or at least more sentimentally inflected, standard. And, thankfully, along with its predecessor A Borrowed Man, Smithe’s world and stories are more engaging and, for the most part, less opaque than other late novels like Home Fires or A Land Across, where both the context and plot often shift with disorienting speed. A “reclone” of his original mystery-writer self, Smithe finds himself caught up in another mystery, one that begins a bit like a missing person’s case but eventually becomes a murder investigation. He gets transferred from the Spice Grove Public Library to the smaller Polly’s Cove Library, where he gets checked out by a mentally ill woman who wants him to find her husband. This Dr Fevre is a medical professor who, it turns out, often travels to a small island community that houses a cavern full of frozen corpses, which he apparently uses as fodder for his gross anatomy labs. But, of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, or of the ice cave.

As others like John Clute and Gary K. Wolfe have remarked, the future depicted in A Borrowed Man and its sequel Interlibrary Loan is recognizably bleak, tired, and indeed dystopian. The world’s population is dwindling, and only those with “perfect” genetics are classed as fully human, leaving reclones of natural people with recognizable flaws like Smithe to be literally disposable. Interlibrary Loan goes further than its predecessor, however,  in suggesting that the status of “resurrected” people is actually much more complicated than simply whether they are fully humans or reclones, and that figuring out exactly where one stands on this spectrum is actually quite difficult to determine. As such, these two books create an opportunity for Wolfe to explore familiar themes of identity and personhood from a perspective obviously applicable to an aging writer whose legacy and memory will soon be out of his control. When Interlibrary Loan confronts these issues directly, however, it is thoughtful and nostalgic, creating scenes where characters find contentment simply in one another’s present company when not having to deal with issues of status.

Unfortunately, the last third of the novel telescopes the problems familiar in Wolfe’s work after The Wizard Knight: the plot takes a series of seemingly unrelated turns, and making sense of the later events appear to be shrouded if not outright obscured behind missing or occluded connections. The prose itself becomes radically compressed, with the final nine chapters each remarkably curt compared to the earlier portions. Wolfe introduces new characters, settings, and motivations not even hinted at in the first two thirds, squeezing what could well have been half or more of the story into a summary of itself and, of course, this leads to the suspicion that Interlibrary Loan is simply unfinished. It’s hard to shake the feeling that these last chapters are more notes for a novel rather than the thing itself.

The text also has certain small continuity errors suggesting that it did not receive Wolfe’s usual attention to detail. (And here, I am indebted to Nigel Price for first noticing many of these problems.) For example, in chapter 13, Chandra Fevre checks Ern out of the library again, and when they return to her house, Ern sits in a chair with a brocade arm. But two pages later, in the same conversation, she asks him to sit, and he does (again?) in a different chair. In the same chapter, Ern seems to enter the house twice (once after noticing that someone upstairs was walking in high heels). And, it’s a small point, but he also uses the phrase “stiff-looking” twice in close proximity, a redundancy that almost all writers would avoid. These may be small details, but, as Nigel notes, they’re exactly the kind of points that Wolfe tried hard to clean up during revision (and as Nigel on a couple of occasions assisted Wolfe with editing drafts, he can attest to the kinds of issues he was on the lookout for). It suggests that Wolfe’s eyesight, health, and general energy level may well have been failing him as the book came to completion, even if, as appears to be the case, the manuscript was delivered to Tor before he passed away.

In spite of these writerly problems, the book retains a marked thematic consistency. Wolfe is much more concerned with Smithe’s experience as a subaltern reclone here than he was in A Borrowed Man. While Smithe often commented on his precarious status in the earlier book, Interlibrary Loan makes this the issue of the plot itself. The first chapter transfers Smithe and two other writers by an odd truck trip to a new library in a way that expands much of Smith’s world beyond what we saw in A Borrowed Man. We see the indignity and indifference he suffers as literal cargo, not even told where they are headed. The opening tone of these chapters, filled with physical discomfort as well as the frustrating lack of the courtesy of providing even basic information about their destination, is something that Smithe increasingly discusses and even becomes his motivation for getting involved in a final mystery. The sub-human status of reclones, while always in the background of A Borrowed Man, now becomes the novel’s central focus. So while it is true that Interlibrary Loan is concerned with questions of identity, like much of Wolfe’s work, the question of how to mesh identity with inclusion, both personally and socially, seems much more on Wolfe’s mind.

Interlibrary Loan, then, has a consistency in Smithe’s voice that gives the book a unity even in the later sections when the story seems to have gone in multiple new directions, and it’s tempting to say that we should classify the novel as a slave narrative. In fact, it follows a common pattern: opening with a blind transfer of himself and two others as human cargo, waiting to be lent out, and then suffering a series of patrons (or “owners”) who use them for their own seemingly selfish ends until finally he is given a chance to escape, literally by being bought out of his status as a reclone.

From this perspective, the book actually does present a unified story, even if the last sections seem to take the complicated tale of the Fevre family and its mysteries into new and previously unhinted directions. As Smithe’s story of how he gained his freedom, the details of the patrons’ situations seem to matter less, perhaps even to be intentionally inscrutable, since what truly matters is not what’s going on in the wider world but rather how a lost and historically displaced figure like Smithe can use those circumstances to find freedom.

In the end, Smithe succeeds in exploiting the cruel and confusing world in which he lives to gain freedom for himself, and even love, without really needing to understand all of its machinations. In this, there is perhaps something of a salvific hope, suggesting that even if life never seems to make complete sense, a person (or soul) can still put together a narrative of release in an otherwise strange and fallen situation. Perhaps in the end, that is why Smithe opens the novel by hoping to remember only the good in his adventures and not get trapped in the labyrinths of mysteries and details that make him lose focus.

To my mind, looking at Smithe’s tale as a slave narrative means that this novel can be called a success, even if it was truly unfinished, because it retains a thematic unity even when its plot is inscrutable. That is one of the unusual marks of Wolfe’s success as a writer: he can confuse us but still make us feel like we are not completely lost, so that we enjoy and understand the thrust of a story though some of its nuts and bolts remain mysterious. That is why so many people return to the Solar Cycle when they do not understand large portions of the story: it still has a narrative arc of redemption while many of the plot details remain puzzles. The arguments about so many of Wolfe’s later novels seem to hinge on whether there are sufficient reasons to keep reading even in the face of the weirdness, but Smithe’s stories are successes even within that framework. The book isn’t entirely satisfying as a reading experience, but as a conception of a complete story, I think we have enough to see where Wolfe was going.

In order to really make that case, however, we need to find a way to fit the final exceedingly confusing chapters back into the earlier story, and I’d like to offer one way to do so. Note, therefore, that the following section is filled with spoilers and assumes that the reader has finished the book at least once.

The final portion of the novel appears at first read to be disconnected to the rest of the story. But I think we can tie enough threads together to discover at the very least what the larger story might have been had Wolfe been able to flesh it out. I don’t think we have to do this through searching for special clues or by playing complex puzzle games, but rather by taking Smithe’s narrative arc towards freedom as the real aim of the book. (And, besides, what fun is it to comment on Wolfe without doing at least a bit of theory-spinning?)

I think it’s fair to say that the book begins to go off the rails from chapter 13 onwards, after Smithe returns to the Polly’s Cove Public Library from his trip to Cadaver Island. At this point, everything with which we had previously been concerned seems, for the most part, to be over. The next four chapters establish that Dr Fevre has been murdered, and his daughter Chandra checks Smithe out again to help solve this mystery. Instead of a murder mystery, Wolfe quickly takes us on an inter-planetary (or inter-dimensional?) romp following a huge, feathered-helmet-wearing man who has, ostensibly, killed Dr Fevre with a spear. A Continental Officer named Katrine Turner comes to investigate, and she forces Smithe to accompany her through a portal, apparently built from the “other side” to come into our world. On the other side of the portal, Smithe and Turner encounter giant trees which are used as buildings, trees which are possibly sentient creatures and which grow eye-bearing fruit, and grass that moves of its own accord. But even this story ends quickly: Smithe and the officer seemingly at random meet the man, kill him, and return to Polly’s Cover with nary a word said.

But if that wasn’t strange enough, the story takes another series of weird turns beginning in chapter 18, “Buck Bastion.” Smithe gets checked out by an apparently new character named Ms Heath. Ms Heath hires Buck Bastion and Smithe to help her hunt “ghosts” and search for treasure in her huge, self-expanding house. In return, she offers the two reclones a kind of freedom by not returning them to the library. When Bastion and Smithe are alone, Dr Fevre appears to them, and there is much talk about him possibly being the previous Dr Fevre’s brother or a ghost. Fevre claims to actually own the house, however, and he, too, wants help finding the house’s “treasure.” He seems to simply disappear when Ms Heath returns, however, and we are treated to a surreal sequence in which Smithe seems to dream but turns out to be sleepwalking through the house.

The next day, Smithe decides to convince Ms Heath to check out Audrey, the “woman captain” with whom he fell in love during the earlier adventures. He then encounters a new clone of Rose, the reclone that Dr Fevre had checked out previously as a lover, but she seems not to know quite who she is. Smithe reveals that he knows what and where the treasure is and makes a deal with Dr Fevre to remain checked out by him. Then, in the last chapter, Smithe greets a new reclone of Audrey, expressing his love for her despite the fact that this copy does not know him.

The final scene appears to summon the mysterious “green box” introduced earlier in the ice caves, and the closing lines of the novel are extraordinarily enigmatic:

“Death takes many forms, Mr. Smithe.” Though she spoke to me, Audrey’s gaze was fixed on the green box.

Thinking to safeguard both this Audrey and the box, I stood up. In that I was nearly too late. Audrey grasped it, too; I had to snatch it from her.

I triumphed, and reality reeled. (Interlibrary Loan, chapter 22, page 238)

On a first reading, I submit that almost nothing in the closing chapters of the novel makes sense. Wolfe provides fewer details than in the earlier chapters and offers almost no narrative commentary from Smithe (just as The Urth of the New Sun has surprisingly fewer asides from Severian than the previous four books). And he makes no attempt to bridge these characters or situations to the first two-thirds of the novel.

Nevertheless, I want to offer a possible reading that emerges if we keep our eyes on how this narrative functions as a tale of Smithe ultimately gaining his freedom.

It seems likely that the “treasure” Ms Heath and Dr Fevre speak of is none other than the green box. And it also seems likely the green box is somehow related to the various resurrections that occurred back in the ice caves (of the two “angel” girls Ricci and Idona, and perhaps Sven as well). It is similar to reclone technology but with an important difference. Earlier in the book, Smithe makes it clear that reclones are made from “scans” of an original. But the copies are all copies of the person at the moment of that scanning; whatever the individual reclones experience is not rescanned and added to the original recloning template, nor is it shared between the existing reclones. Thus Audrey talks about how she was scanned before her final trip, and so she has no memories of her last adventure or of dying when her raft broke up. Furthermore, Smithe is haunted by the memory of an earlier version of himself who seems to have suffered such abuse from Adah Fevre (and whoever else) that he cuts his own throat from despair. But, of course, our Smithe never acquires that version’s memories.

When we meet the new Rose in Chapter 21 (“A New Fevre”), we learn two things about this copy. First, she is so new that she has to ask whether or not she is fully human. And, second, she retains her memories of the trip with Smithe that opened the book, memories which of course occurred long after her initial scanning as a “fully human.”

This suggests that the “treasure” is somehow related to resurrections and reclonings which create continuity between copies of people. So, it seems likely that the “new Dr Fevre” is also a product of the “treasure.” In fact, his cageyness about his status when he jokes with Smithe about being something like a brother and something like a ghost of the “original” Dr Fevre insist that he is not a “reclone.” He even says that he doesn’t want to get back in touch with his daughter quite yet because the state would consider him her ward, and he seems naturally opposed to this. He also claims to own the house despite what Ms. Heath says, so Fevre would appear to be working toward hiding his status as a clone but also perhaps trying to create a new status of “copies” which is no longer inferior.

But if identities can now carry across different versions of people, it also seems possible that the strange Ms. Heath is not a new character after all. In chapter 21, Smithe tells Rose that he has been checked out by Adah Fevre, not Ms Heath. And Dr Fevre, too, insists that since his wife checked Smithe out, he can recheck him (which he does). Is it possible that Ms Heath is in fact a copy of Adah Fevre? Perhaps her mental instability is complicated by the copying, and the chapter even ends with Smithe and Rose talking about her “cycles” of madness. The new Dr Fevre also appears in the chapter called “At Home with the Heaths” in which only one Heath is mentioned: Ms Heath. But if she is Adah, then her husband is also, of course, a “Heath.”

We don’t know much more about the “treasure” than this, and Dr Fevre even says he needs Smithe’s help to figure out how it works and whether it can be made to work safely. So Dr Fevre may not really understand how he’s come back. But there must be some connection between the strange ever-growing house and the other planet. Smithe himself calls attention to this when she describes it:

“We live in a living thing, but not as parasites. We feed, protect and groom it.” [said Ms. Heath.]

Like living inside a tree, I thought; but it seemed best to keep the thought to myself. That thought had waked a dozen memories. (Interlibrary Loan, chapter 19, page 213)

Further, the fact that the spot on Adah’s map that seems to create hallucinations is a “green rectangle,” that the box is green, and that the other world Smithe and Turner visit beyond the portal is full of green living things is no coincidence. Something about this other world seems to allow for a better kind of recloning. Because this part of the tale is so compact, it’s impossible to know quite how Wolfe imagined this connection or what it was, but this sense of doubling or reflection or even copying at more fundamental levels of similarity seems to be important.

The rest is, I admit, highly speculative. But it seems likely that this section is pointing us toward a better end for Smithe than his world initially offers. The “treasure” would seem to allow these characters to emerge from an endless cycle of recloning, allowing their memories to actually remain intact, and we know how important memory and its continuity are to Wolfe throughout his career (from Latro to Severian to Able). The “treasure” would grant them all a continuity of identity that overcomes so much of the tragedy of this world. One tragedy is, of course, the idea that copied people who are not allowed to write (which is similar to not being allowed to create and retain new memories) are un-human and therefore disposable, repositories of information but not creators of meaning.

But there is also the more touching tragedy of the final chapter where loss of memory means a loss of connection. Smithe has fallen deeply in love with Audrey, finally realizing it in his sleepwalking dream around the strange house. But when the copy comes to him in the last chapter, she doesn’t know him. And the final scene is an incredibly pathos-filled and touching moment where Smithe expresses his love to a woman who cannot know what they had shared almost literally in another life:

I made myself draw a deep breath. “Once we stood together on the railing of the Three Sisters to look out at the sea. That was another copy of you, I realize; but this lonely copy of me. I love you still. If I were to meet a thousand copies of you, I might go mad for joy.”

“You’re sincere,” Audrey sighed.

“If ever in my life I have been entirely, utterly, sincere, this is it. All my life, ever since I was published, I have dreaded the Fire. Now I dread losing you.” (Interlibrary Loan, chapter 22, page 237)

One cannot but hear echoes of Gene Wolfe losing his beloved wife Rosemary to Alzheimer’s, which so cruelly takes not simply memories but connections and relationships with them. And here Smithe says that losing that connection is, quite literally, worse than death and hell.

For Smithe to achieve freedom from the slavery imposed on him by this world, he has to gain free and lasting connections to other people, to be completely and irrevocably interwoven into their lives. And we see the absence of that in so many other characters’ suffering in the book: Adah’s longing for her missing husband, Chandra’s longing for her absent father, even the strange resurrected “angel” girls’ odd dislocation from their lost families in the past, and Lichholm’s families suffering for lost family members only illusorily “preserved” in the ice.

What the treasure they all seek in the end offers is not simply immortality for its own sake, but rather the preservation of connections, connections to different parts of oneself and connections to other people. Smithe’s final desire to recreate that with Audrey through the green box seems a fitting image to end the book.

It needs to be acknowledged, of course, that one of the problems with this approach is that it does not on the face of it mesh well with the beginning of the novel, where Smithe recalls all these events from the relative peace of his library shelf back in the Spice Grove Public Library once again. The most likely explanation is simply the book’s unfinished state: as it stands, the story never sees Smithe return to the Spice Grove library, which appears, of course, like a rather giant plot hole. Since, on the surface, this seems like a simple contradiction, I have no doubt that Wolfe would have addressed it with further time and attention. But whether or not he would have Smithe end up back in the library or somehow escape this fate is an open question. Even if the story did in face end with Smithe back in some sort of captivity, it seems obvious to me that the direction of the story was focused on Smithe and the other reclones challenging their system, and not simply living within it as happens in A Borrowed Man. Of course, we will never know Wolfe’s real intentions, but the structure of what we have certainly hints at a happier outcome for Smithe.

The book leaves many other lingering mysteries, too. One that still bothers me is the name Fevre. Geroges Fevre in A Borrowed Man does not appear in this book, but, of course, Dr Fevre does. And the most we get from Ern on the coincidence of meeting two men with the same name is tantalizingly reticent when he comments that he should have recognized the name earlier. Otherwise, nothing is made of the connection. And, to make things even more complicated, in Old French, “lefevre” can mean “smith” as in a blacksmith. So are the “Fevres” related to the “Smithes” somehow? Unless someone can find further hidden clues, we may well never know. (Just as we may never know why Millie sees a small girl in white disappear into a wall in Polly’s Cove soon after they arrive…another odd detail never mentioned again.) These hints and ghosts may well remain just that.

Wolfe’s tale definitely has room to fill in many gaps about the relationship between the two worlds. But in many ways, Interlibrary Loan is more optimistic than A Borrowed Man. In his review in Strange Horizons (Strange Horizons – Scores, 2 Nov 2015), John Clute writes that despite the narrator’s geniality and the way the surface plot wraps up, in A Borrowed Man Wolfe has given us one of the most pessimistic novels of his career. Given that Smithe sees into an entirely new world, a thriving green and perhaps Edenic world with brilliantly green emeralds, but subsequently decides to lock the door to that world and throw away the key, Clute believes that Smith dooms humanity. In Clute’s mind, the dystopia of A Borrowed Man, where living beings are treated like paperbacks and eugenics obviously reigns, is a final judgment on how Wolfe feels about our future, our world, and our humanity.

But Interlibrary Loan reopens the door to that other, greener, world, both literally and emotionally. And, through the working of the green box that is somehow connected to that other world, Smithe finds real love and ultimately hope for real freedom. The fact that both hope and freedom seem intricately bound up with preserving the ever-difficult mess of human memory is a fitting way to end a career that has consistently explored memory’s powers and dangers. As I said before, this is a curiously conflicted book, but at least it is conflict in a direction that we can recognize and appreciate, making this final work not simply a coda to Wolfe’s career but an integral part of its working out of some of his most central concerns.

PS Publishing edition of "A Borrowed Man"

A Weird Mystery: James Wynn considers Gene Wolfe’s ‘A Borrowed Man’

Please note that the following piece, which sets out to discuss the plot of A Borrowed Man as well as describing and evaluating it, inevitably includes spoilers.


“Motivations. The reasons why people act. Motivations are always important, and I haven’t been thinking nearly enough about them.” ~ E. A. Smithe (A Borrowed Man (ABM), chapter 16, page 253 – this, and all other references, are to the Tor hardback first edition, October 2015.)

A Borrowed Man is about a young man with the face and memories of an old man, a writer who is prohibited from writing and is now an artefact on a library shelf. In short, Ern A. Smithe (just Smith with a silent “e”) is a proxy for Gene Wolfe himself (silent “e”, right?) as Wolfe considers his own legacy at the end of his life.

I can certainly sympathize with Smithe’s dissatisfaction at looking at his own face in the mirror. I have reached an age myself when the face in the mirror shows more clearly the face of the old man I will soon become than the face of the young man I am familiar with.

In Wolfe’s early career, his novels focused on the structure of story; later, on character. With A Borrowed Man, Wolfe seems interested in the nature of narrative voice, that is, the spoken voice of the character, as opposed to the voice of the writer or the inner voice of the narrator. Let me explain.

Smithe is a reclone — a body grown in the twenty-second century with the memories of a man who lived in the twenty-first. The body has been modified to look like the original Smithe at the most famous point in his career. His mind has been imprinted with E. A. Smithe’s memories.

As such, Smithe has no more legal rights and protections than any other reference work. If people do not consult him, eventually he will be physically destroyed, unless the library can find a bargain buyer. And, again, despite his appearance, as a reclone, he’s actually only a few years old, in the body of a young man altered to appear older.

1: Voices, Names and McGuffins

Smithe has been modified so that he can only speak in the formal, stilted way that his genetic original wrote prose. His thoughts are free but he is artificially disabled from saying them out loud. Only in writing can he express his thoughts —but he is prohibited from writing. As the novel’s narrator, though, he does it anyway after the library is closed. When Smithe’s prose in this book describes a woman’s “tits” or uses other crude vernacular, it is not a failed attempt by Wolfe the author to get a PG-13 rating on his story. He is demonstrating the difference between Smithe’s mental voice and his literary speaking voice, which is not capable of such expressions. Like the “e” at the end of his name, Smithe’s true voice is silent.

And he is not the only one. One of the confederates Smithe collects during his investigation, Georges Fevre, also has an unspoken letter at the end of both his names. His wife Mahala is mute – a physical defect that effectively makes her a wanted criminal in the novel’s eugenic dystopia – and her only voice is the one she generates with a speech synthesiser on her “screen” technology.

Wolfe seems to be conveying that “voice” – getting a character’s voice right— is more than having them use special words or accents. It’s also about extracting from them things they would never say, either because they wouldn’t talk that way or because they wouldn’t know to say them. But the unspoken is key.

I have theories about silent letters at the end of characters’ names, but let’s save them for later.

Regarding Ern A. Smithe’s name, John Clute has pointed out that “Ern” suggests that Smithe is an urn, a container for the remains of a dead man (Strange Horizons – Scores, 2 Nov 2015). But I propose that it is also a reference to the true genre of this story: it is a Weird Fiction Detective novel. As such, E. A. Smithe, as his name suggests, is a cut-out for and combination of Edgar Allan (“E. A.”) Poe and Clark Ashton Smith.

Poe is often credited with founding the modern detective genre with stories such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1844), recounting the cases of French sleuth C. Auguste Dupin. Poe also wrote weird fiction and poetry. His last complete poem was entitled “Annabel Lee”. It describes the narrator’s love for his dead sweetheart, the eponymous Annabel Lee. It is surely no coincidence that in A Borrowed Man, Smithe’s long-dead ex-wife, whom he still adores and whose reclones he encounters in the course of the novel, carries the evocative name of Arabella Lee.1

Weird fiction author C.A. Smith was a writer, like E. A. Smithe, whose prose was also highly distinct from the way he (or anybody) actually talked. In case anybody misses the connection between Smith and Smithe, Wolfe has the reclone of Ern’s ex-wife Arabella quote from a poem by Clark Ashton Smith in the final chapter of the novel. She describes him as “terribly morbid, but good.” (ABM, ch 18, p 285)

The McGuffin of this story is E. A. Smithe’s own novel, Murder On Mars, which the original Smithe supposedly wrote after his memories were scanned, so our protagonist has no direct knowledge of it. Like Wolfe’s most famous novel, The Book of the New Sun, Murder On Mars was originally intended as a short story. Additionally, Murder on Mars was published by a married couple who ran a small publishing house, who seem vaguely reminiscent of George and Jan O’Nale of Cheap Street Publications, who published a series of Wolfe editions.2 However, it could be that this reference is irrelevant to the plot if the book was never written by the original Smithe at all, but I’ll address that question later.

2: My Duty as a Reviewer

From this reader’s point of view, the novel drags in the middle. This is not a horrible problem because it’s a short novel – eighteen chapters. The culprit is Wolfe’s decision to convey most of the exposition through character conversations. But context is important: from his earliest stories onwards, Wolfe the writer always followed an inner taskmaster in his writing, building stories according to his own compulsions and following requirements that no one else asked of him. The well-being of us woeful readers was always a secondary consideration. So, if A Borrowed Man is your first Wolfe novel and you finished it feeling as if Wolfe had written it in a coded language to some unknown reader—if it feels like you were supposed to know something that completely slipped through your education—well, let me introduce you to my shelves of Wolfe stories.

In a 1971 review, Joanna Russ noted in Wolfe’s first novel, Operation Ares, his “interesting technique of presenting things obliquely; big events happen off-stage, and often the explanations for events will be given long after the events themselves”, and how this provides an “intense concentration on the present moment.” (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1971)  Almost fifty years later, we understand that Russ had already identified the very essence of Wolfe’s style. While fans of his earliest novels have lamented that the later Wolfe “didn’t write novels like he used to,” it’s important to note that, well, actually, yes he did. All that Russ noted in 1971 was present in The Book of the New Sun and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and it is present in A Borrowed Man as well. Although he might not have been writing the novels we wanted him to write, I doubt Wolfe would ever have internalized our complaint.

Still, it drags in the middle. As others have noted, driving the plot and exposition through dialog is not unprecedented. It’s the structure of detective novels from Dashiell Hammett3 to Elmore Leonard. Paragraphs that would be quoted by readers forever if they were written as Proustian asides are, instead, embedded in conversations. Wolfe has opted to convey most of the story from behind the unreliable voice masks of the narrator and secondary characters rather than through his famous emotional prose. As a writer, this is a smart choice on his part since it avoids his own authorial voice becoming open to parody as has happened to H. P. Lovecraft and others. Wolfe had a prolific writing career spanning over 50 years. He was going to try other things.

On the other hand, Sam Spade stories don’t take place in the future and don’t, therefore, have the requirements of world-building. So, unless it can someday be determined that the detailed scene of the recloned Smithe learning to drive a contemporary car actually contains a deep insight into the plot, moments like that pull the story down when the reader only wants to move on. Perhaps there were things worth cutting even in this little novel. This could have been a problem for writers like Wolfe and E. A. Smithe who weren’t “edited a lot.” (ABM, chapter 1, page 25)

Another problem is that Wolfe’s earlier and more acclaimed novels can be enjoyed at the surface level. There are unresolved mysteries upon close inspection, but there are few show-stoppers in the plot. This is not necessarily true in this novel. There are significant plot-mysteries – mysteries that are positively not authorial mistakes – that are obvious even upon a first reading and are without easy resolutions. This might make A Borrowed Man a harder sell for anyone but established fans who have arrived at this party with their own shovels in hand.

Speaking of world-building, although the novel takes place in the twenty-second century, the clones, robot/AI servants, and flying cars are the only notable advancements. Beyond these, it’s much like our current world – or even less advanced. The adroit use of a search engine is treated as an extraordinary skill. But it might be that this is intentional. I’ll address that in my theory “Reclones and Silent Letters.”

3: Theory 1 – Reclones and Silent Letters

Every named reclone in the library has an unvoiced letter at the end of one of their names: Smithe, Lee, and Millie.4 I don’t mean to argue that this is some legal rule for reclones in this world. This is a signal by the author along the same lines that he employs symbology, allusion, and the naming of characters throughout his body of work.

If that is the case, then we need to take note of the other characters who overtly follow the pattern: Georges Fevre (the first name pronounced zhorzh and the last, probably, fehver or fever) and the Carole women: Collette Carole Coldbrook, Joanne Rebecca Carole Coldbrook (Collette’s mother) and Alice Carole (Collette’s grandmother).

What if recloning is far more common than society acknowledges? What if the reason Earth’s population has decreased by six sevenths in a century and a half is that much of humanity has given up on having children and only wishes to give birth to themselves via recloning? This same world-wide population collapse is a feature of Wolfe’s story “The Doctor of Death Island”, which might be an important touchstone to this novel’s sequel Interlibrary Loan. Anyway, the Carole women all seem to be reclones and are appropriately named in birth order: Alice, Joanne Rebecca (Becky), and Collette, that is, A, B, C.

Note that a reclone does not need to look at all like the original. In fact, that normally would never happen. In a transhumanist world, why not improve your looks, intelligence, and other aptitudes if you can? Although we learn in the sequel that Smithe’s body was grown from the original’s DNA, it was altered to look middle-aged and library reclones have to be careful not to gain or lose too much weight and mar the illusion.

One of the most insightful and sad passages of the novel is Smithe’s assessment of humanity in this time in which he was… “brought back?” Smithe uses that term, but it is the wrong one given the sentiment of this story and Smithe’s repeated assessment of himself. Rather… “the time in which he was built.”

“This is full humanity’s retirement. I have sensed that ever since they brought me back, and now I understand what it is that I was sensing. […] I mean real humanity has retired. That’s what we’re seeing, the meaning of all the new places we’re being chauffeured through. They chipped flint and made fire and exterminated the short-faced bears with nothing but spears and clubs, even though those were probably the most dangerous animals real humanity has ever faced. They had children and more children, and those children spread out and did the same and more until real humans were everywhere. The Arctic5 was a waste of deadly cold, but they were there. There was no jungle so hot, so wet, so disease-ridden that they didn’t live in it. Some of them lived in caves of radioactive rock. The oldest died in their thirties, but they were born and grew up and gathered and hunted and died there anyway. (ABM, chapter 8, pages 112-113)

This is the state of the humanity Smithe encounters less than 200 years hence, a humanity that is relinquishing its claim to the future in favor of its artifices: reclones, AIs, and robots. The motive for recloning oneself would be the motive for most transhumanist movements:  immortality. But A Borrowed Man’s perspective on this is that it is a fool’s bargain. Smithe never seems under any delusion that he IS, in any real sense, a continuation of the original writer whose memories he carries, despite his casual use of language that implies he is.

This is a disparagement that Wolfe continues from his late novel Home Fires (2010), which includes a character whose brain has been modified for the same purpose as the library resources in A Borrowed Man. Near the end of that novel, the protagonist defines the procedure as damaging a person’s brain so that they think they are someone else. In one of his last major interviews, Wolfe took an indirect but damning swipe at transhumanist immortality in his praise of Algis Budry’s novels.

“The plot of Rogue Moon is striking: Budrys tells us that if you destroyed a man here and reconstituted him somewhere else, you’re fooling yourself if you think that the reconstituted man is the same as the original man. The man who goes into the matter transmitter is going to go dark; he’s going to die. You can create a new man with the memories of the dead man; but that doesn’t mean that the dead man is still alive. The dead man is dead.” (MIT Technology Review, July 25, 2014)

As I mentioned, A Borrowed Man has been criticized for its failed futuristic world-building, in that, aside from the flying cars and recloning technology, it’s really not that different from life at the time of its publication in 2015. It seems to me that this is not evidence that the octogenarian author had fallen out of touch with modern technology but rather that, in the world of the novel, human technology has been stuck in the same place for a very long time. Following the discovery of scanning and recloning, humans ceased to thrive and populations began to decline. A society of reclones is a highly conservative one, one that prefers things to remain as they have been because that is the fundamental purpose of transhumanism and immortality: an aggressive assurance that the earlier generations will remain to influence the future.

Aside from the unhealthiness of the practice and the attitudes behind it, Smithe’s twenty-second century has developed other concomitant injustices toward people not meeting standards of artificial perfection and toward the reclones themselves, who are legally relegated to the status of property. In a world where the standard is artificially designed perfection, it is not only actual physical defects that will face discrimination. Natural healthy human features will be seen as defects as well. Twenty-second century humanity is making true humanity illegal and disability a crime, as we see in the case of Mahala, who must live as a fugitive for being mute. At the same time, ostensibly, it holds reclones, who simulate true humanity, in contempt.

Smithe says that “full humans” can always quickly detect a reclone, but that is only true for library reclones, who talk with the stilted, artificial affectations of the written word – perhaps without the “ahs” and “ums” that characterize normal speech patterns. In the sequel, we’ll learn that library reclones do not have the perfectly symmetrical faces that are considered the default for “fully humans.” Reclones without these limitations would not be detectable, and some might not even comprehend what they were.

Georges Fevre likely does understand what he is. When Smithe confronts him with his past as “George Franklin”, Georges assures him, emphatically, that his former employers, the police, have no further interest in him:

“Believe me, they don’t want me. They’ve had me, and they’re through with me.” (ABM, chapter 15,  page 237)

I propose that he is so confident of this because they have murdered George Franklin. But before they did, however, George recloned himself. It is possible he even extended his reclone by adding additional memories from other people. If so, that is why Georges has knowledge and skills beyond those of a mere policeman. It seems that George Franklin did take steps to have his reclone look just like himself. If so, Georges might have been one of Franklin’s tools to commit his crimes and to generate alibis.

This also puts a speculative light on characters like the police officer, Payne (with a silent ‘e’), who tortured Smithe in the safehouse.

4: Theory 2 – The Coldbrook Family

Let’s stack another theory upon my reclone theory.

I have proposed that the Carole women, Collette, her mother and grandmother, are reclones. If so, does Collette know? She might, or she might have figured it out and realised that her memories of playing with Cob are those of her mother playing with Conrad Sr.

There are other ways to go at it as well.

There are suggestions that Cob is not Conrad’s natural son. The casual murder of Cob is a hint in itself. Smithe points out that the murder of a son by his father is the rarest of all homicides. Conrad Sr did not murder Cob to reclaim either the book or the money from the emeralds. He did not search Cob’s suitcase afterward. His motivation was something else, possibly a personal one. We’re in dicey territory here but it is a task that the author has explicitly set for us. As Smithe said, motivations are important.

If Cob is Conrad’s reclone, then a possible motive for making him, perhaps with the assistance of Alice Carole, would have been a desire for immortality. This would then resolve the question of why Conrad treats Cob with such coolness during his life and why, ultimately, he displays such cruelty over a reasonable and inconsequential mistake: Cob was constructed to be Conrad’s replacement. Conrad had even taken steps to make Cob handsome while he himself had been homely. Both the Coldbrook children were constructed to replace their “parents.” But, Conrad held his own replacement in envious contempt. So, perhaps when he saw Cob take his place prematurely, he murdered him. The plan wasn’t as appealing in reality as it was in abstract. He disposed of him casually, because in Conrad’s culture, Cob was not “fully human” anyway. Perhaps he had decided that he would marry Collette instead.

There are other possible motives of course.

This opens the question of whether Conrad also murdered Joanne Becky Coldbrook, Collette’s mother, as her death, too, is shrouded in mystery. Or it might have been Collette, the poisoner, who did it, as her supplanter.

There is no evidence of a previous version of Conrad Sr. The plan was for Junior to replace him upon his death and become “Senior”.  As Collette put it:

“My brother was Conrad, Junior, while my father was alive. When father died he dropped the Junior.” (ABM chapter 2, page 31)

The idea of a person constructing a reclone to take their own place would explain Conrad Jr’s nickname: Cob. Cob is a nickname for Jacob, a name of Hebrew origin that means “supplanter” (Strong’s Hebrew Concordance). The Jacob of Genesis was a younger twin. When his elder brother, Esau, was born, Jacob was grasping his heel. Esau sold his birthright to Jacob on a whim for a pot of beans, just as humanity in A Borrowed Man is selling away its future to reclones, AIs, and robots for a vain sort of immortality. And in the end, Jacob connived to steal away his brother’s paternal blessing, thereby earning Esau’s murderous resentment. This is, analogously, the story of Conrad and Cob, and of humanity and their things. Additionally, Collette and Cob’s “mother’s” middle name is Rebecca, the name of Esau and Jacob’s mother.

5: Theory 3 – The Second Book

One fact that is repeatedly verified in A Borrowed Man is that there is only one extant copy, in any form, of the E. A. Smithe novel Murder on Mars. There is not even a record of the book having been written. Smithe himself has no memory of writing the book although he confirms that it appears to be one he might have written. The one existing copy was owned by Conrad Coldbrook, but there is an extensive discussion at the beginning of the novel about how easy it would be to create new copy of a book. And, frankly, absent a time-travel angle to this story, there is a second book. We know this because when Smithe first enters the jungle planet via a window (from which egress is impossible), he casually exits through the door into the house. The door immediately locks behind him.

The operation of the door is carefully detailed over many pages. There are two locks to the steel door: one on the Earth side and one on the planet side. One side of the book opens the Earth side and the other opens the planet side. Upon unlocking the door, after two minutes, the door automatically locks again.

From this, we have to conclude that when Smithe first exits through the jungle door to the Coldbrook house, someone must have entered or exited the jungle planet less than two minutes before. Smithe had previously hidden the book, so someone had a spare key.

Conrad Sr was missing when Cob opened the safe and found the book inside. There is hardly another explanation other than that Conrad was at the jungle planet mining emeralds. We learn near the end of the novel that Conrad returned with emeralds and discovered the others missing because Cob had found and sold them. So Conrad Sr had to have another book while he was planetside.

Let’s consider some counter scenarios to a second book.

It’s seems that Cob and Collette knew quite well what was behind those doors. Cob had seen it. What if Cob had attempted to murder Conrad by some unknown means, thought he had succeeded, and Conrad had returned to murder him in turn? That would be why he ambushed him from the closet rather than saying “Hi, Cob, I’m back.”

The problem is that any theory about Conrad’s missing period that does not include the room involves so many undetailed plot threads that it isn’t even satisfying. It is far better to conclude that Conrad was missing because he was mining emeralds behind the door.

Then again, even if Cob had seen the jungle planet from the window, Collette could not have known how to enter it because she had to enlist Smithe as a desperate solution.

So there is a second book, but it is not at all clear what happened to it.

Another possibility for the origin of the book, however, is that it was written by another Smithe reclone. This brings us to my next theory.

6: Theory 4 – A Second Smithe, a Second Collette

If another Smithe wrote the book, then it is possible that that other one is still running around. If that one isn’t still active, Collette might still be working with another Smithe to solve the mystery. In Interlibrary Loan, the existence of other E. A. Smithe copies is an important plot point.

An additional Smithe opens the story to the resolution of a number of puzzles, such as the one which arises when the writer arrives at the Coldbrook house with Georges and Mahala, and Collette seems to be there:

Inside the house, I heard Colette speak, then scream. (ABM, chapter 10, page 154)

A search of the house does not reveal Collette. But what if the second Collette was her mother, Joanne Rebecca? And what if the second Smithe were with her? And the place they disappeared to was the Jungle room, since they might have known the secret and had the other book?

With multiple Smithes running around, a natural option for an experienced Wolfe-reader is a time-travel solution. Although there is a sentence that seems to hint to this, it is in fact a false path. When Smithe refers to his choice of a hiding place for the book, he says:

Even though I could not be sure when I hid it, I felt certain now that Colette was not likely to look there; so I had picked the best place. (ABM, chapter 18, page 274)

Rearranging the sentence helps clarify Smithe’s meaning: “I felt certain that Colette was not likely to look there, even though I could not be sure [of that] when I hid it.”

Smithe is only saying that he guessed correctly in selecting his hiding place. He does not have an internal editor when he is writing his sentences as he does when he is speaking. He could have used one here.

7: Theory 5 – The Second Miner

Someone has been mining at the cave after Conrad Sr’s death. Again, we are told that Conrad returned with emeralds after his long absence. And why wouldn’t he return with emeralds after all the work he did to excavate them? But when Smithe arrives at the mine for the first time, there are seven emeralds and a rifle there. Conrad might leave his rifle at the cave, but he would have no reason to leave the emeralds. So who has been mining after his death? Is it the same person who used the second book just before Smithe climbed into the window?

The identity of the miner is a mystery but I do think we know what happened to this person. When Smithe, Georges, and Mahala entered the jungle planet and stirred up the native population (the “scarecrows”), they fled through the door and sealed it up from the Earth side because they did not yet understand that the door locked from both sides.

Hearing the commotion, the second miner left the rifle and emeralds, ran for the door and found their way barred.

Collette seems an unlikely candidate for the unknown miner since she enlisted Smithe to figure out the book door. Van Petten, as well, doesn’t learn about the room at all until the end.

Another reasonable theory, since this is a Wolfe story, is that the copy of Murder on Mars that Smithe retrieves from his driftwood hiding place was actually the second copy used by the mysterious miner. But that still leaves the mystery of why the second miner left his rifle behind to go wandering. Smithe doesn’t. So, the final resting place of the book remains a mystery. Perhaps the other Smithe picked up our Smithe’s book, thinking it was his own. Maybe he escaped? Maybe he set out to sea to explore this new world.

If the miners were Joanne Rebecca and the second Smithe, that resolves the loose ends around “Collette’s scream” but the untold story gets more complicated.

Maybe all this speculation about the second Smithe is a dead-end. Maybe the second miner is Dr K. Justin Roglich (“rogue-lich” as in “rogue corpse”, or even “rogue-like”) who might have been more involved in the construction of the jungle room passage than he lets on. It doesn’t seem credible that Conrad Sr, a minor executive, could have constructed all this from a germ of an idea by an academic.

8: Conclusion

Whether you can enjoy this story casually depends on how you approach it. The temptation will be to approach it as a futuristic detective story. Read that way, I do not think this book can be enjoyed without effort. Wolfe-critics (and, yes, Wolfe has his critics) damn him with faint praise as a creator of complicated puzzles. As a detective novel, this is not a puzzle, it’s a finger-trap, a story with huge portions of the plot for the reader to actively fill in.

Smithe looks like the ideal vehicle for a Thirties-style detective franchise: a 21st century outsider observing declining humanity just before the end. At the same time, for better or worse, he is among the inheritors of the post-human world. Living on a knife’s edge, he holds his world in contempt without ever considering the option to escape from it or defy its unjust conventions, just like classic noir detectives in their cities of corruption.

Smithe does the opposite of escaping. When faced with the possibility of his world infecting the virginal jungle planet or other planets, he burns down the portal, locking himself in with what is left of humanity.

Smithe’s solution can also be found as a world-building element in The Book of the New Sun when the Old Autarch explains to Severian why the Heirogrammates reverted humanity to primitivism and ended their interstellar travel. He says that when humanity had access to starships, they “brought all the old wars of Urth with them, and in the young suns kindled new ones.” (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter XXV, “The Mercy of Agia”)

Given the anti-transhumanist themes in A Borrowed Man, it is also interesting that the Old Autarch at this point describes the goals of the Ascian slaves of the Megatherian Erebus as wanting “the race to become a single individual, the same, duplicated to the end of number.” He describes this intention as as natural as it is perverted because each of us wants “to carry all the race and its longings within himself.” (The Citadel of the Autarch, chapter XXV, “The Mercy of Agia”)

Smithe is our guide to the plight of the tragic people and near-people of his quickly emptying world, yet the characters in this book are viewed from such a great distance – as Wolfe’s stories prefer to view such characters—that understanding why they are so interesting takes a great deal of work. They can only be enjoyed well after the book has closed. And, to be honest, I have enjoyed them a great deal after finishing the story.

Wolfe had a gift for creating memorable characters. With a few lines of dialog he made them recognizable and intriguing: Dr Marsch, Louis A. Gold, Hildegrin, Talos, Typhon, Remora, Quetzel, Jahlee, Gideon Chase. There are characters like that here as well but – and this was his choice – Wolfe has so obscured everything that motivates them that they can’t come to life without the vigorous participation of the reader.

In a Wolfe detective novel, the reader is the detective as much as the protagonist. Still, a detective novel that leaves major elements of the plot unresolved for the reader is problematic.

But as a Weird Fiction novel – and that’s what this novel is, like most of Wolfe’s novels – unexplained plot is expected. And that is how a first-time reader should approach this story, like something by Clark Ashton Smith or H. P. Lovecraft. Who cares that the horror of the alchemist investigator was “unnamable?”

At the end of the novel, Smithe will sit upon his shelf, confident that he has evaded the fire again. There will be time enough in subsequent reads to spin the story of the second Smithe, with the copy of his book on the jungle planet.


Editor’s Notes

1. Wolfe’s connection to Poe goes back a long way. As a boy, he attended Edgar Allan Poe Elementary School in Huston, Texas.

2. Other candidates would include UK husband and wife team Peter and Nicky Crowther of PS Publishing, who published limited editions of Wolfe’s works later in his career, including the special edition of A Borrowed Man whose slipcase and front cover appear at the head of this review.

3. In the world of A Borrowed Man and its sequel, Wolfe refers to the city of Niagra as the Continental capital and to the national law enforcement agency as the Continental Police. At one level, this seems to be an oblique reference to the political amalgamation of the USA and Canada, and possibly of Mexico too, into a single political entity covering the whole North American continent following the unspecified political and environmental catastrophe which precedes the events of the two books and has led to the ruined cities which Smithe witnesses during the road trips he makes in A Borrowed Man. At another level, however, it seems to be an invocation of Dashiell Hammett, who created the fictional detective “the Continental Op”, an operative of the equally fictitious Continental Detective Agency. The ruthless Continental Police detectives Smithe encounters in A Borrowed Man are definitely of the “hard boiled” variety.

4. Ultan’s Library’s editorial representative differs from the reviewer as to what constitutes a silent letter, preferring to regard the double “e” in “Lee” and the “ie” in “Millie” as diphthongs, that is, single sounds represented in each case by a combination of two vowels.

5. The published text actually has “artic” here, which is clearly a typographical error for “Arctic”.

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

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.


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.


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.


2.1 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…


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.



  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.


  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.


  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.


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.)


  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).


  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.


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.


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.



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.

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