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Heroes #1 – Gene Wolfe

I’ve just finished reading George R. R. Martin’s Song Of Fire And Ice series. I was thoroughly engaged by it. There’s a cast of literally hundreds of characters, sympathetically portrayed. The plot is complex but not afraid to move forward. It’s almost everything that a fantasy novel, indeed, any novel, could hope to be.

So why am I talking about George Martin when Gene Wolfe is the author I want to discuss? Well, to start with, everything that George Martin does in SOFAI, Gene Wolfe does in The Book Of The New Sun. A complex fantasy story with a complex plot and a vast array of characters? Of course. The difference is that just at the point where George Martin – and any number of other fine authors – stops, Gene Wolfe begins.

There can be few authors for whom the re-reading is more important. On first reading, TBOTNS is a fantasy quest story. Second time around, one begins to realise that it’s actually science fiction. Looked at more closely, it’s a religious allegory. In the end, one can’t characterise it as any simple genre piece. It’s unique in and of itself.

The language is astonishing. It’s a common trope in fantasy and SF to drop in exotic words, either created or obsolete. Wolfe has an entire new/old vocabulary which has the double purpose of obscuring and illuminating at the same time. Each strange new word appears meaningless at first, before it is clarified at a later stage, but the sound and presentation of each new word hints at a far deeper meaning.

There’s a strangeness to the book, an eerie otherness which only a handful of other books can sustain – David Lindsey’s A Voyage To Arcturus is one that springs to mind. This dream-like quality is never at the expense of the hard-edged realism of the characters, who express deep personal truths in a fantastic setting.

And yet the fact remains that Wolfe can be almost too intimidating to be read all the time. His prose is dense and layered with multiple meanings. One almost needs to pause after each page, almost every sentence, to appreciate all the possible levels of meaning. He’s an author I would hesitate to recommend. I would not dare to claim his influence as a writer. It would be almost impertinent. Perhaps it would be enough to claim that once one has visited his worlds, one looks at this one a little differently.

 

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