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Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe
edited by J.E. Mooney and Bill Fawcett
Tor, 336 pages

Shadows of the New Sun
Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is one of the most respected writers in the field, and one of the few authors in the genre whose stories have been accepted in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker. Nominated 19 times for a Nebula Award, he has received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. He is known for strikingly audacious novels such as The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but most readers will probably have learned to appreciate his writing in The Book of the New Sun series, and the associated Long Sun series. Wolfe lives in Barrington, Illinois, USA.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Severian of the Guild
SF Site Review: Soldier of Sidon
SF Site Review: Endangered Species
SF Site Review: Innocents Aboard
SF Site Review: The Knight
SF Site Review: A Walking Tour of the Shambles
SF Site Review: Peace
SF Site Review: Sword and Citadel
SF Site Review: Shadow and Claw
SF Site Review: In Green's Jungles
SF Site Review: Free Live Free
SF Site Review: The Urth of the New Sun

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dave Truesdale

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The primary reason I look forward to tribute anthologies (those honoring still living authors it must be noted, as distinct from those writers who aren't) is that, of the ones I have read, all of them have proved worthy of their respective honorees and have provided an intensely pleasurable reading experience. Examples coming to mind begin with the 1996 Roger Zelazny edited The Williamson Effect in honor of the work of Jack Williamson; 2009 saw two excellent tribute anthologies, Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance (edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois) and He is Legend: An Anthology Celebrating Richard Matheson (edited by Christopher Conlon), the latter copping a Bram Stoker award along the way. And now come editors J.E. Mooney & Bill Fawcett serving up Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe.

Frankly, I was somewhat intimidated, realizing that Gene Wolfe's career spans nearly six decades, with hundreds of stories and somewhere around forty novels enhancing his resumé. Would I be able to understand what the authors were doing with Wolfe's stories or worlds or characters if I hadn't read or remembered Wolfe's original stories? I have my fair share of his short work and novels bending the pine, much going back to the 60s, but there was so much of it read and now unremembered and still some not yet read. And I could only imagine how daunting it must have been for the contributors (at least for a deep breath or two), when they realized they were going to attempt to write new fiction that would, with any luck, come within hailing distance of the quality, general artfulness, and philosophical nuance of a Gene Wolfe tale, whom no less than Ursula K. Le Guin has remarked that "Wolfe is our Melville." A tall order, indeed, and one the authors have filled with assurance, a steady hand, and even panache, for each of the nineteen tales herein are entertaining in their own right and display (in their entirety) the breadth and vitality evinced in much of the work they honor. The icing on the cake is not only one new Wolfe story, but two; one lighthearted to open the book and one more meditative and reflective to close the book.

What better way to begin this overview of the book than with the first Gene Wolfe story, titled "Frostfree." This is a lighthearted little fantasy wherein a lonely appliance salesman is miraculously gifted with an all-purpose refrigerator from the future; it is programmed to cook and wash dishes in addition to supplying him with food and beer. It can also speak, and in the course of discovery of this amazing device he learns that his "Frostfree" -- as he dubs it -- fridge also has the ability to transform, to change shape -- in this case into that of a woman, a woman who informs him she has been sent to lift the curse that has been placed upon him unbeknownst, said curse making it difficult for him to find a proper mate. Through a bit of chicanery at a local bar & grill Frostfree invents a fib designed to get a waitress involved with our salesman, and it works. It's a fun little romp of the sort perhaps most closely associated with 50s issues of Galaxy, or perhaps Unknown.

Neil Gaiman's "A Lunar Labyrinth" is a direct take on Wolfe's short 1983 story from F&SF, "A Solar Labyrinth." Rather than having a maze sculpted from the positioning of statues and other worldly relics whose walls are formed by shadows thrown from the sun as it moves across the sky, thus creating an ever-changing labyrinth for children to explore in the light of day, Gaiman creates his dark labyrinth -- where the moon is the moving force -- from the stubs of hedges now in disrepair, and the still hearty and growing herb rosemary (a nod to She Wolfe's first name). An adventurer who travels the country looking for local oddities stops by this local tourist attraction, is introduced to the folklore of the now seemingly harmless curiosity of the labyrinth and asks to take the walk from the local owner and guide. Of course, the evil power of the maze still lives at the top of the lonely sacrificial hill in the dark of the moon, and our adventurous traveler discovers much more than he bargained for. Nicely done.

Gene Wolfe has certainly written of wizards and sorcerers in his day, most notably in several of his more recent novels, The Knight, The Wizard (as The Wizard Knight duology, both 2004) and The Sorcerer's House (2010). In Timothy Zahn's "A Touch of Rosemary" we are given a still-powerful yet older and wiser wizard who has more or less retired to an out of the way tavern known for its very special cook, a young woman whose charmed culinary skills are worth protecting and whose scrumptious meals have a most unusual (and subtle) effect on those partaking of them. This creeping effect becomes a weapon when used by the wizard to thwart an army led by a powerful witch king who would most assuredly have destroyed the tavern and its villagers if not for the unusual after-effects of the chef's ensorcelled meals, always adorned with "A Touch of Rosemary," an indispensable herb and yet another nod to Mrs. Gene Wolfe (the real power behind the throne perhaps?).

Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress, and Jack Dann riff on Wolfe's series of stories that began with 1970's "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," and continued with 1973's "The Death of Dr. Island" (a 1974 Nebula winner), "The Doctor of Death Island" (1978), and "Death of the Island Doctor" (1983). Unlike several of the early Wolfe entries where a young boy enters the world of fictional literary characters, Haldeman tells his tale -- "The Island of the Death Doctor" -- from one of the fictional character's point of view, in this case Severian, the central and now iconic torturer cum Autarch from Wolfe's award-winning tetralogy The Book of the New Sun. And Kress, in her "...And Other Stories," switches her protagonist from a young boy to a young girl, a young girl at the mercy of her evil grandmother who, if the girl disobeys her wishes, sends her into fictional literary worlds of hardship beyond compare in an attempt to break her spirit through punishment. The girl's pluck and resolve under extreme adversity and how she overcomes it is a testament not only to her own power of will but the secret strength she finds in the books into which she has found a way to escape, for she has discovered something in special tomes not even her abusive grandmother can deny her. Jack Dann's "The Island of Time" is an even darker excursion, relating how a young boy's obsessive immersion into fictional literature due to the fatherly sexual abuse of his sister leads to a depressingly bleak outcome.

Michael Swanwick ups the cleverness ante by taking us back to Wolfe's 1972 novella "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" and revisiting Port-Mimizon where two young girls learn of their shrouded ancestry via two opposing historical views, one of which theorizes that long ago alien DNA was deeply encoded within human DNA in order to keep the conquered alien race alive but hidden, and at some future time it would reveal itself and the "aboriginal" aliens would once again regain their rightful place upon their world. Swanwick takes us to that future time in a taut, frightening journey into science-fictional horror he aptly titles "The She-Wolf's Hidden Grin." One of the books many highlights.

Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg revisit, in the shortest piece in the book at a mere four and a half pages, one of Wolfe's lesser known stories, "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton," continuing the story of Lame Hans and his fellow trustee inmate, both incarcerated for a scam involving a rigged (non-operational) computer on wheels that purportedly played chess, and the death of a woman involved in said scam. It is now years after the initial story and the tale of the traveling chess-playing computer and the bizarre death of the woman have become well known far and wide. People come now to see the prisoners and the hollow shell of the famous computer in a tale the authors call "Tourist Trap." The location is Bavaria at a time when continual war (always in the background of the common man's existence) is taken for granted and much of society and technology has seen better days. Reticent to offer too much, I'll note that the authors's take from the original story has to do with a certain theoretical mental ability Lame Hans has acquired as a consequence of the war, and how it has affected his chess game and leads to a haunting twist dealing with the dead woman from the original tale. Short, sweet, and psychologically effective in its own Kafkaesque way, this is perhaps understood and appreciated more fully if one has read the original story. Those who are familiar with Wolfe's original story, however (Universe 7, ed. Terry Carr, 1977 ), will enjoy the subtlety, and economy of execution of the new conceit.

Aaron Allston takes us into wildly different territory with his novelette of deadly, nigh-immortal paladins in America's Old West, as one of these supernatural killers meets his match in the intriguing, well researched tale titled "Epistoleros." Far from the dusty West, we travel to the enchanting land of faerie with Todd McCaffrey, who has become a very fine writer as he ably demonstrates with his warm and touching journey concerning a kindly old man, and a young princess who discovers what it takes to render unicorns visible via the secret ingredients in a special tea made from "Rhubarb and Beets."

William C. Dietz and Marc Aramini offer new chapters in the lives of two of Wolfe's most enduring characters, Severian, and Latro (three novels: Soldier of the Mist, Soldier of Arete, Soldier of Sidon), respectively, with Dietz's "In the Shadow of the Gate" and Aramini's Latro homage "Soldier of Mercy." Both capture the essence of their characters admirably, the former more directly action-oriented and the latter a more emotionally and philosophically invested treatment. Jody Lynn Nye takes us to the world of Severian as well with her "The Dreams of the Sea," but from the sometimes overlooked fifth book and sequel to the previous books of the New Sun, The Urth of the New Sun (1987), at a far future time where the drowned ruins of the Citadel mark the focus of the story as a search is made for the Archives of the Autarch. A well imagined post-New Sun story in one of the most revered and honored series of novels in SF history.

David Brin contributes what might be the most unique approach to honoring the work of Gene Wolfe in that he has written a story dealing with no specific Wolfe work but has opted to emulate the tone and philosophical viewpoint he's noted in many of Wolfe's stories. About "The Log" David Brin says, "I was struck by Gene's tone and sense of irony, more than any specific story. His sense that tragedy abounds in the universe and fairness can be exposed as delusion... yet perseverance and honesty are things that no one can take away from you. Those storytelling traits always inspired me in his works. To what little extent that I managed to convey them, this effort is dedicated to Gene."

"The Log" takes the harsh realities of Russian life throughout recent centuries -- its totalitarian political system and attendant exiles and punishments -- and moves it into a future where asteroids are being harvested for their strange forests of crystalline wood and beasts of burden are now genetically modified into "mammuts" and "elepents." In this bizarre landscape are a mother and her daughters, banished to this new gulag merely for being related to a traitor to the current regime -- an enemy of the State. "The Log" relates their internal struggles and philosophy of perseverance under hardship until at some future time their patience will be rewarded and they shall once again taste freedom. A vivid and interesting glimpse (on the scientific side) at asteroid mining using possible future technologies set alongside the pain and suffering of what seems to be the inevitable and never-ending totalitarian disregard for the common man, and the secret to what it takes to survive such a soul-wearying boot on the neck existence.

Bookending the volume with his second original story is Gene Wolfe's "The Sea of Memory." This ultimately melancholy story seems to show a number of clones -- male and female -- sent to an uninhabited planet to die, to live out their numbered days, their usefulness at an end as their bodies and minds wear down. As their memories decay they ask questions to which their number have only partial, or no answers, the metaphysical answer provided by one -- purely as a random memory and by accident -- reflecting the best guess any of us have in this world when we wonder where everything goes upon our physical dissolution, that there is, we desperately hope, some vast ethereal place where everything we know or thought lives on, in "The Sea of Memory." Beautifully done and a poignant capstone to this anthology, the theme calls to mind the powerful emotions evoked by the Rutger Hauer character's dying speech near the close of Blade Runner.

Authors not mentioned but also offering interesting, colorful, or thoughtful takes on Wolfe stories are Steven Savile, David Drake, Michael A. Stackpole, and Judi Rohrig.

As with any of these tribute volumes, the more one is familiar with an author's works the higher the reward, but this in no way should deter those who are not conversant with the tribute author's body of work, for these stories (the vast majority of them) stand quite well on their own and serve as excellent enticements to seek out the honoree's own work. And with an author of such delicate skill, intellectual acuity, breadth of imagination and critical acclaim as Gene Wolfe you can do no better. As has been said of him, he is a true national treasure, and this excellent volume neatly underscores the accolade.

Copyright © 2013 by Dave Truesdale

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award four times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.


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