This August Tor will publish Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe. We have a copy here at the library, which Jonathan is poring over at the moment. Amongst the celebrated contributors like Neil Gaiman, David Brin and Nancy Kress, we spotted the name of Marc Aramini, a regular contributor to the Urth email discussion list, and soon to be a contributor to Ultan’s Library.
Hi Marc, would you mind introducing yourself to the readers of Ultan’s Library?
I live in Kingman, Arizona. I have an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from the University of Notre Dame, but realizing that my temperament is ill-suited to long hours of lab research, I decided to have fun and finished my Masters in English Literature from Northern Arizona University. I have spent much of my adult life in the corporate world, after one year of simultaneously teaching high school Biology and college English Composition. For the past two years I have been back teaching at the college level. I have been writing fiction for about eleven years, but with very little publication success. Until now.
Tell us about how you first encountered the fiction of Gene Wolfe.
I read science fiction and fantasy quite a bit as a young child – by the fourth grade I was reading Asimov and Zelazny (must have been starting at both ends of the bookstore shelf). My father’s friend gave me a whole box of SF books in 1988 or so from the Science Fiction Book Club, and one of the volumes was The Claw of the Conciliator. I had to find the other volumes in used bookstores or the library, but it quickly became one of my favorites. I think in the sixth grade a questionnaire at school asked what our favorite book was, and I wrote, for shock value, The Shadow of the Torturer, then resolved to go home to reread it. At that point I realized exactly how subtle and sublime Wolfe was, and time turned my “shocking” answer into definitive truth. My mother was in the Air Force, and though I have two older half sisters, I was raised as an only child, moving quite a bit in my childhood. Those books were more consistent and real to me than the people who came and went so often; they were the friends I never had to leave behind, the voices speaking in the silence of night.
Tell us about your favourite of Gene’s work, and what it means to you.
The Book of the Short Sun is definitely my favorite – I remember reading On Blue’s Waters in my senior year in college and just savoring it chapter by chapter. I have never been more rewarded from rereading a book – and it was really the first time I knew that “my” interpretation of the text was wholly and completely my own. There’s a lot of figuring out to be done in a Wolfe story, and that is the first time it all came together in such a way that I could point to a page and tell you – here – our narrator is Horn; here – he is Silk. I could tell you why, as well, but I won’t do that now. Having said that, I really do love almost everything he has written. “The Changeling” (collected in Castle of Days) has a similar special place in my heart.
How did you get involved with the Shadows of the New Sun collection?
Way back in college, I found a database with authors’ mailing addresses. Of course, the only one I was interested in was Gene’s, and I wrote him a fan letter. To my surprise, he actually answered my letter, and we have corresponded for probably the last thirteen years, our letters becoming less about his work and more like those exchanged by friends. It is amazing to me that a childhood hero would take the time and effort to get to know a fan. He let me know that there were plans to do a tribute anthology, using his creations as jumping off points, and I asked for the editor’s email (to crash the party uninvited, of course). Thankfully for me, Gene obliged (and he also let me know the editor liked dogs – so I made sure to include Cautus from Soldier of Sidon in the story).
How excited are you that one of your first publications is in a tribute to Gene Wolfe AND in the company of so many noted authors?
It’s a lifelong dream come true. I am so grateful and feel unimaginably blessed. I rate Wolfe above any other creative artist, whether that be Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Proust, Sterne (I daresay I had to mention him to you), or even Shakespeare – he speaks to me as none of them do, and it is such an honor to be involved with a worthwhile project like this. No doubt Gene and the literary establishment would disagree with how highly I rate him, but that’s okay. [They’re wrong. Ed.]
Even though I have tried to get published unsuccessfully on and off for over a decade, more than being a writer, I am a Wolfe fan, and I have read his work with such care and devotion that I feel that this is the kind of project I am well suited to. Being in print with Gaiman, Swanwick, Nancy Kress, Brin, Haldeman, and so many other truly great writers is a wonderful feeling (and of course, Wolfe is under the cover as well!). I have read, pondered, and reread almost everything fictional Gene has written.
What else have you written?
I feel that about ten of my old stories and my first two novels are more or less publishable, so I’m tweaking them a bit to see if any will sell. I try to make everything different – some are highly stylized, some are overtly science fictional. Most of them seem pretty realistic, but they are all at the very least fantasy – my few readers have said my weirdest stuff is the autobiographical writing – go figure. I have two half-finished novels and about five short story ideas floating around in my head. One of the unfinished novels is sort of a homage to St Peter, Godzilla, and Death’s Head with a destitute future eugenic Chinese setting. The other is a historical Japanese fantasy set at the time of the Tale of Genji where the main character is a terrible poet and a cultural outlier, and when they find his younger brother’s tattooed arm in a tree, everyone suspects him of fratricide. My mother liked the first novel I wrote and said the second was unreadable and too complicated, but I rather think it is the best thing I’ve written. My writing process is a bit bizarre – I can’t write every day, and I can’t write sequentially, so when the inspiration hits me I will write 5,000 or 10,000 words at a time, choosing the scenes I want to write, and then rearrange them later. The final step is writing bridging material. Perhaps some day I will become more reliable and mature in my method. I might write 70,000 words in a week and then not write for a year.
I am satisfied that my Wolfe tribute is seeing the light of day in this collection, regardless of whether or not anything else gets published.
I have always wished that the Soldier series sold well enough for Wolfe to definitively finish it as he had originally planned, because I think it is every bit as important and great as more celebrated works such as The Book of the New Sun and The Fifth Head of Cerberus.
Except for a few very notable exceptions, his endings are often melancholy, and I have always wondered where and on what note Latro’s wanderings would end. The first novel has one of the most sublimely ironic and finest endings in literature – our amnesiac narrator finally locates someone who knows him, dying there on the battlefield, and he can only give comfort. The long wait for Soldier of Sidon produced an ending that is far less than triumphant, and even less conclusive than Soldier of Arete, leaving Latro to look for his sword (perhaps fruitlessly?) and his destiny. In that regard, I wanted to definitely place my story as a possible ending in a philosophically high stakes struggle that fit the theme of Latro’s character progression. However, if this is contradicted by anything Wolfe decides to write, I also wanted to factor this difference into the frame tale, to be able to “explain it away”. So “Soldier of Mercy” is set some time after the end of Soldier of Sidon, but depending on the reader’s take on the frame tale, it doesn’t have to be a part of Latro’s canon at all.
If I could, I would like to talk here about some of the features of the Latro stories. I have always believed that Wolfe is a modernist who merely pretends to create inconclusive subjectivity; his elided structures point at “correct” conclusions that are often implied. Sometimes this is indeed thematic. In the first two Soldier books, I was certain that Latro’s sensibilities were developing away from bloodshed. Too many deaths, such as the murder of the slaves at the hands of the Spartans in the manumission ceremony in Soldier of Arete, and the death of his Amazon lover, have created a soldier weary of war. What other option does he have in the pre-Christian world?
There are other subtexts there as well, including the implication that Latro is in some way becoming the embodiment or incarnation of Ares, the god of war. You have these grandiose challenges like that of the Maiden (Persephone) in chapter XIX (“In the Presence of the Goddess”) of Soldier of the Mist: “Do you not know that I cannot be harmed by a common mortal?” To which Latro responds: “No, I don’t know that. Nor that I’m a common mortal. Perhaps I am. Perhaps not.”
There are even scenes in Soldier of Arete where Latro is actually called by the name Pleistorus, (“A name under which the War God is worshiped in Thrace”, according to the Glossary at the end of Soldier of Arete). Readers can explore for themselves the relationship posited between Ares, Pleistorus, and Ahura Mazda in Soldier of Arete. It is very enlightening. Latro wins combat like the Olympic competition at the end of Soldier of Arete, unless instructed to “throw the match”. He pushes the boulder of Sisyphus up the hill when Sisyphus can’t do it, though Sisyphus is a demigod. Nike or some victory follows him around, though always at his back. He is a gateway for the gods: they are unreal to others until he touches them. Latro falls for an Amazon girl, and the Amazons are called “daughters of Ares”. The traditional enemy of Ares is the boar, and Latro flushes him out. And Latro makes love to Aphrodite, in some stories the wife of Ares, but also the goddess of love, not war.
So the first two books seem to be building up to a theme of turning away from war, as the concluding poem in Soldier of Arete shows (chapter 40, For the Sake of Days Past):
You quench the bolt, the lightning’s fearful fire,
The eagle rests his wings, that never tire;
To hear you shaken by your song,
Fell Ares quits the spear-proud throng.
In this culminating poem, Ares is tired of war and leaves it behind, or at least this particular conflict: he has quit the warmongering crowd. I feel this is vital to understanding the Soldier series and Latro’s character progression, and I tried to show the end of this transformation.
There is one more subtext I wanted to explore: the tension between the Achaeans, the Dorians, and the Romans. In the original books, the Achaeans have been replaced by the Dorians (Spartans), who have gained ascendance. If I’m not mistaken, this angers the ghost of Achilles, and he wants the Spartans to be vanquished. Thus I wanted to place a Dacian or Getae presence in Rome to continue that particular line of tension. Something must rise in every power vacuum, and in my mind Latro represents the burgeoning triumph of Rome that looms over all Greece (he is the seed of Rome, as has been said). I have made more definitive conclusions about those struggles and Latro’s identity on the Urth list, but I feel this encapsulates many of the wonderful conflicts lurking in the backdrop of the Soldier series.
How difficult was it to write in that voice? Can you tell us about the challenges of writing this way?
There was a reason I selected Latro as a first person narrator, and not Severian, Weer, Horn, Marsch, or the casuist Father Chris.
Of all Wolfe’s characters, Latro is the one who will almost invariably act according to sound moral judgments. It is not Latro who can’t be trusted, it is his perceptions of the world. Severian might jump in to save a child, or he might stand back and claim that he was suddenly overcome with fear. Weer might or might not bury someone who tried to steal from him. Of all Wolfe’s characters, Latro is the one who looks at the facts he has and tries to act justly. The progression of his character in the first two novels (a bit different than in the third, after the passage of so much time between their composition) made him a being of action who is slowly but surely becoming weary of killing, but who still believes in right and wrong. He is unreliable only insofar as people try to use his lack of memory against him, turning his blade to their purposes. One of Wolfe’s most primitive characters behaves more nobly than the Catholic priest who narrates Pirate Freedom – why? Wolfe is not a naturalist: environment is only the excuse Father Chris uses, as Latro proves.
Having said that, I am not the artist Wolfe is, and I am sure Latro’s voice is a bit off, though I tried my best to actually portray his simple nobility and the mystery of the ancient spiritual world. It was more difficult to decide what to call the various gods and places, for Wolfe’s knowledge of history, ancient languages, and culture is far superior to mine. Thus sometimes I opted for Greek names, divinities, and words, especially when the character Isokrates was concerned.
What aspects of Gene’s writings did you try to capture in your story?
I feel like the themes of memory, identity, free will and salvation are always lurking in Wolfe’s fiction, and I think my story plays with these themes as well. Whether or not it actually evokes Wolfe will be up to the readers. While I think my writing can often be intellectual, I am still not entirely confident concerning the aspects that actually make it readable. Indeed, the sum total of input I have received on my writing before this is just a plethora of form rejection letters. Perhaps we should end this with the dominant metaphor: hopefully my style succeeds in being at least a pale shadow of a Wolfe.