Gene Wolfe, Strange Travelers (Orb, 2000)

reviewed by Michael Andre-Driussi

Here is a brand new collection of fifteen stories. Originally published in magazines, theme anthologies, and a program guide, they offer a wide variety of styles and modes for your reading and re-reading pleasures. Since this is a review, I’m going to fly through the list of stories so you can see what is there, learn what you remember, and wonder at what you are missing.

Bluesberry Jam” (1996) is set in a permanent traffic jam, where a talented young street musician wanders away from the family car, in search of love and music. (Reminds me of Delany, especially the young musician heroes of The Einstein Intersection and Nova.) What begins as a straight “Orpheus” quest becomes caught up in the nature of two different types of musician: the self-taught, intuitive kind, who make up new songs in and of the present; and the highly polished “schooled” type, who perform the old hits from distant times and lands, with no personal input beyond the performance. And then it becomes something else again.

“One-Two-Three For Me” (1996) is a ghost story at an archaeological dig in the distant future.

“Counting Cats in Zanzibar” (1996) has a woman with seven pseudonyms being pursued by her past: the robots she helped create. (New Wave-ish, as if Ballard did a downbeat version of Asimov’s robopsychologist heroine Susan Calvin: something we might call “Eurydice in the Robot Kingdom”?)

“The Death of Koshchai the Deathless” (1995) is a tale of Old Russia, inspired by the tale of the same name told by Andrew Lang in The Red Fairy Book. A blend of (very funny) comical and horrific elements.

“No Planets Strike” (1997) is told by a donkey on an alien world inhabited by cruel, fairy-like beings. It could very well be set in Briah, the same universe as The Book of the (New/Long/Short) Sun . (The title is from “Hamlet.”)

“Bed And Breakfast” (1995) is about a man and a woman who meet at an inn close to hell. Almost hard-boiled, a sort of “supernatural realism” that reminds me of Chesterton and C.S. Lewis at their best.

“To the Seventh (1996) describes a chess game between God and the Devil, which translates into galactic warfare on the smaller scale. Space Opera.

“Queen of the Night” (1994) gives us a boy raised by ghouls until he comes to the attention of the Queen of the Night herself and trades one world for another. Erotic Horror.

“And When They Appear” (1993) is a very sobering Christmas story, with a boy in an automated house. (Makes me think again of Ballard: imagine Empire of the Sun crossed with Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” in The Martian Chronicles.)

“Flash Company” (1997) has a man being tutored in the ways of love by a haunted player piano.

“The Haunted Boardinghouse” (1990) is located in a neo-Victorian Illinois, a few centuries in the future. A young classics scholar is invited to be the new librarian at a school in a strange town that played a pivotal role in a war against Mexican invaders several generations before. (The building of the title is highly reminiscent of the house in John Crowley’s Little, Big, and the story begins as a low-tech world-renewed, the sort of agrarian arcadia beloved by both survivalists and ecotopians.)

“Useful Phrases” (1992) could fit in with Wolfe’s earlier Bibliomen, since it concerns a book dealer who becomes obsessed with a primer of an imaginary language and the world it seems to describe. Clearly related to Borges’s famed “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

“The Man in the Pepper Mill” (1996) has a boy exploring a magical world that intersects our own through the dollhouse of his dead sister. He is also trying to find a man to marry his mother and be his step-father.

“The Ziggurat” (1995): a mountain cabin, a messy divorce-in-progress, a suicidal engineer, the promise of child custody battles, a sudden snow storm, an alien invasion. A horror story.

“Ain’t You ‘Most Done?” (1996) features a successful businessman whose secret dream is to be a professional musician. He is caught in a traffic jam that seems to last forever . . .

Because the last story links directly back into the first story, I find myself pondering over how the other stories might connect to each other: Quixote Complex (“enamoured of other worlds found in books”) forms a link between “The Haunted Boardinghouse” and “Useful Phrases” (both also have foreign phrases as their keystones); the fates of the boys in “Queen of the Night” and “And When They Appear” might link the stories as being similar; the haunted artefacts of “One-Two-Three For Me” and “Flash Company” show them as contrasts. As far as themes go, the struggle between men and women in the name of love seems to be present in nearly all the stories. Couples in various permutations (pursuit, courtship, consummation, estrangement) dot the landscape rather like they do in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Many of the stories seem to have a reinvigorated “New Wave” aesthetic: I have mentioned Delany and Ballard (twice), but there are also three stories that seem linked to James Tiptree, Jr.: “Counting Cats in Zanzibar,” “The Ziggurat,” and “The Man in the Peppermill” (which mentions Tiptree directly). Technology is bad; a post-technological world is a pastoral utopia; stories are downbeat (situations go from bad to worse; problems can hardly be identified, let alone “solved”; characters suffer depression, suicidal impulses, paranoia, etc., and do not get better; etc.); sexual relations are free but pointless when not actually destructive.

Is this a collection of homages and near-pastiches? After all, in the past Gene Wolfe has given us such gems as “Our Neighbor by David Copperfield” (Dickens),”Remembrance to Come” and “Suzanne Delage” (Proust), “The Rubber Bend” and “Slaves of Silver” (Arthur Conan Doyle), among others. And in talking about Strange Travelers with other readers, a few people have mentioned that “One-Two-Three For Me” is very much like a classic horror story by M.R. James (“Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”).

This line of speculation (i.e., “is this story original or based on something else?”) of course links back to the two types of artist depicted in “Bluesberry Jam.” And where there is jam, we must have toast. So I propose this one: “To Gene Wolfe, for providing such a smorgasbord of food for thought. Cheers!”

(What? My editor gestures from down the table . . . I am far under word-count, he wants more . . . all this while he reads The Dying Earth for the first time! Well, that’s certainly important, better late than never. Toss back this glass of wine, pour myself another.)

Oo-kay. Now I will do a bit of work on one of the stories, “The Haunted Boardinghouse”–I will carve the roast, as it were.

As I mentioned before, the building seems inspired by John Crowley’s Little, Big, in which a rambling house with five faces serves as the axis for the family saga. Each face of Crowley’s house is done in a different architectural style (but he is a bit sneaky about revealing what the fifth one is; there’s a slight paradox involved) and there are hints in Little, Big that each face matches up to a different season (again, slightly odd since we moderns usually count four seasons).

Wolfe’s house has four faces, and we know what the styles are, and even most of the street names:

Style Street Note
Neo-Classical Water boy climbing out window (p.229)
Tudor (not given) window of Enan’s room (p.230)
Neo-Victorian Prescott “your world is neo-Victorian” (p.230)
Contemporary Gate (p.230)

The haunting details about the boy who fell out the window, took years to die of the injuries sustained, and continues to climb out the window: this points to the timewarping nature of the architecture. It may also be that the boy in question is none other than Wade, the student who befriends Enan.

In addition, rather than being (possibly) related to seasons, each face seems linked to its appropriate timepoint in history: since the story clearly ends with Enan going off across time and space to save Rome from Hannibal, the Neo-classical face leads to there; and since we are told that Enan comes from a neo-Victorian world, then that is the face that leads to Elan’s world. Finally, the miraculous saving of Rome from Hannibal is matched by the saving of Granville from the Mexicans, thus the link to the Contemporary face is made plain. So these time-Travelers go to the lands they are most enamoured of, at the time when they are most needed.

But wait, I have only traced out three of the faces. Is the Tudor face another recruiting station, like the Neo-Victorian face, with no associated “miraculous” save from invasion? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.

Style Invasion
Neo-classical Hannibal’s attempted invasion of Rome
Tudor Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England
Neo-Victorian (recruiting station for Enan and Wade)
Contemporary Mexico’s attempted invasion of Granville

What makes me think of the defeat of the Spanish Armada (aside from another spoiled invasion that ranks up there with the Mongols failing to take Japan) is the fact that the Defense of Granville involved a lot of boats on the river (p. 214), and the big ships of the Armada were done in by a lot of smaller, more nimble craft.

A final Crowley note: the mystery of the two Mrs. Seelys has a slight parallel in Little, Big but a much more pronounced one in Crowley’s AEgypt books.

Anyway, one of the surprises of my reading of this story is this: just as Rome was nearly wiped out in relative infancy, yet then went on to undreamed of glory and accomplishment of the Roman Empire; (and perhaps England, too, narrowly missed being crushed and delivered the English Renaissance and its avatar William Shakespeare;) so has Granville been spared . . . strongly suggesting that all of America’s true greatness still lies before it in Enan’s non-technological, neo-Victorian period (rather than behind it, as we might expect in such a post-technological setting).

Okay, that’s it. I’m done, I’m outta here. Enjoy your meal!