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The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories: and Other Stories
Gene Wolfe
Tor Books

The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories: and Other Stories
Gene Wolfe
Best known for his Shadow of the Torturer series, Nightside of the Long Sun series plus the novels, Soldier in the Mist and Soldier of Aerte, Gene Wolfe was given a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement a few years ago.

Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Stephen M. Davis

Gene Wolfe is not an author for the meek. If he drives like he writes, he probably waits until he gets up to highway speed and then boots his passengers out the door. Mr. Wolfe seems to think his readers are getting some sort of existential experience here; in actuality, he's having the experience and his readers are winding up in body casts.

This is not to say that Gene Wolfe is not a good writer. There are spots where he's brilliant. His style, though, often seems to decry the strictures of conventional fiction. His short stories are earthworms: no front end, no back end, and juicy in the middle.

I am not even opposed to this kind of plotless fiction, but too much of anything is annoying, and I got tired of muttering "What the devil?" every other page. ( Actually, that's kind of a bowdlerized version of what I was muttering). I don't like finishing stories before I'm fully aware that I've started one.

In "La Befana," a six-legged alien has a conversation with a family of humans about the baby Jesus, but it all ends before it has really begun, and the reader is left with the sneaking suspicion that Mr. Wolfe only wanted to hang something around a great opening set-up: "When Zozz, home from the pit, had licked his fur clean, he howled before John Bananas' door." Great scene. No story. By the time I'd figured out who and what the characters were, I was already headed out that passenger door with Mr. Wolfe's boot impression on my ribs.

There is some really good stuff in here. "Seven American Nights" is an excellent look at a post-holocaust America as seen through the eyes of a young Muslim traveler. There is a plot to go along with the story, and there's some tension created by the protagonist's ingestion of some hallucinogenic eggs.

Mr. Wolfe furthers one of his favorite motifs--a world where genetic manipulation and degradation have led to a state of catastrophe. In fact, this, along with cannibalism, is a theme that recurs through many of Mr. Wolfe's short stories.

Even in stories that didn't work for me, there is much to be said for Mr. Wolfe's writing. Here is a small bit from the story collection's title-piece:

You turn your back to the sea, and with the sharp end of a stick found half buried write in the wet sand Tackman Babcock. Then you go home, knowing that behind you the Atlantic is destroying your work.
Aside from "Seven American Nights," the piece that shines in this collection is "Tracking Song." Interestingly, these are two of the longest pieces in the book. Perhaps Mr. Wolfe is a writer who simply has a hard time saying what he wants to say in a confined space. Given some Lebensraum, Mr. Wolfe is capable of writing beginnings and endings to his stories.

"Tracking Song" begins in a manner that is reminiscent of Mr. Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist. A head trauma has caused the main character to lose his memory and he finds himself being cared for by a group of Inuk-like people. This person, Cutthroat by nick-name, spends the bulk of the story chasing after a Great Sleigh, from which he believes he has fallen.

In the process, Cutthroat stumbles upon a make-shift city in a cave, learns through other means that the world he inhabits is supposed to warm up considerably, and discovers that he may be one of the last humans on the planet.

If you've read The Book of the New Sun series, you will enjoy this story thoroughly. It has much the same feel to it as those books do.

I recommend The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories: and Other Stories, with reservations. If you've read Gene Wolfe before and you don't like his style, this collection will only reinforce your dislike. Even if you've read some of Mr. Wolfe's popular novels, you should be forewarned that a woman can only be cannibalized in so many stories before the process becomes a bit numbing.

Copyright © 1997 by Stephen M. Davis

Steve is faculty member in the English department at Piedmont Technical College in Greenwood, S.C. He holds a master's in English Literature from Clemson University. He was voted by his high school class as Most Likely to Become a Young Curmudgeon.

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