Fantasy & Science Fiction

April 2007

Cover image

Editor: Gordon van Gelder
Issue: Volume 112, No. 4
ISSN: 1095-8258
Pages: 162

I was quite excited when I saw the idea for this issue: a focus issue on Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is one of the best writers in science fiction and fantasy and is a particular favorite of other writers for his grasp of complex technique and his use of language. His stories are, however, infamously puzzling and deep and benefit greatly from analysis and discussion. That makes a magazine that combines Wolfe short fiction with analysis and discussion an exceptional idea.

My enthusiasm extended to the contents: an introduction by Neil Gaiman, a long story by Wolfe, an essay by Swanwick on reading Wolfe, and an overview of his work by Michael Andre-Driussi, who has done quite a bit of that. That did seem a little light, though; surely more could be written on Wolfe than that, trading the few other short stories of the issue. But the ingredients seemed to be there.

Unfortunately, F&SF fell down on execution, turning this issue into a significant disappointment.

First, there's little analysis here, either of the Wolfe short story in the issue or of any of the rest of Wolfe's work except in the broadest possible terms or as part of a career overview. Swanwick mentions a few things in passing in his essay, but with nowhere near the depth I was looking for. This is a huge missed opportunity. There should have been a couple of critical essays giving perhaps competing takes on the story of the issue.

Second, both the Gaiman and the Swanwick piece are essentially the same essay: a short introduction to Wolfe and how to read him. Both of them are good for what they are, but we only needed one of them, and the repetition is particularly galling given the other missed opportunities.

Finally, Andre-Driussi's overview is only of Wolfe's short fiction without actually saying that (unless I missed it), and there's no analysis of his novels anywhere. I'm not saying the short fiction analysis is a bad idea. I found it interesting to read, although it was mostly brief descriptions of individual short stories. But to ignore the novels completely, particularly while supposedly classifying Wolfe's work by the decade, is hard to accept.

Combine that with skipping the non-de Lint book review column instead of the generally inferior de Lint column (although this issue was better than most), and I was unsatisfied with the non-fiction component of this issue. A Wolfe special issue is a great idea; I hope sometime one of the SF magazines does it properly. Even with that failure of structure, though, it was better than the average issue, mostly on the strength of the Wolfe story.

"Memorare" by Gene Wolfe: So much for that. How about the fiction? This is a nice, substantial story with a strong plot, a good bit of adventure and intrigue, interesting characters, and a great concept. The concept is using space as a high-tech mausoleum in the form of hollowed-out asteroids containing various tributes to the deceased. Some of the asteroids contain traps and other dangers, and indeed there are apparently various cults who believe that all explorers who die at these grave sites will strengthen the dead in the afterlife. (This sounds vaguely familiar; I think this idea may occur somewhere in history.) The lead character is exploring these to film a documentary.

Throw in a quirky love interest, an ex-wife, domestic abuse, some cat and mouse in space, and a particularly dangerous asteroid where nothing is what it appears to be (a quintessential Wolfe setting), and the story is quite satisfying on its surface. The ending, though, didn't quite work for me on a straightforward reading, and I think I had to understand the symbolism to work out what was going on. There's definitely some symbolism here (and I do appreciate Swanwick pointing me in the direction of a bit of it). But the lack of a critical analysis really showed.

Still, Wolfe is very good at this and this story has a solid plot even if you don't feel like digging deeper. (8)

"The Equally Strange Reappearance of David Gerrold" by David Gerrold: This is a direct follow-up to the odd story told in the form of a supposed letter to the editor from the January 2007 issue. One of those was enough, and I didn't enjoy the second as much. It is different in style, and vaguely interesting (while the pun angle of one of the characters annoyed me at the start, it became funny towards the end of the story), but I think Gerrold went too deep into the same well here. (6)

"A Thing Forbidden" by Donald Mead: It's very rare that a fantasy story set in the Wild West has worked for me, but Mead pulls it off here. He takes a survivor of the Donner party and puts them into a story about religious belief, salvation, and coming to terms with one's past and one's actions that's disturbing and surprising. Even the slightly shaggy dog ending worked. (7)

"Titanium Mike Saves the Day" by David D. Levine: The structure of this story just worked for me. It starts in the more distant future with a grandmother telling a tall tale to her granddaughter during the danger of a solar storm and then jumps backwards in time by increments, showing the evolution of the Titanium Mike tall tale and its impact at various points in man's move into space industry. The origin of Titanium Mike was nicely told, and then there's one more story which, if a bit sentimental, is even better. (7)

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-05-16

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