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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder Wolfe thereafter wanted nothing to do with it.

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


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

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