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Innocents Aboard
Gene Wolfe
Tor, 304 pages

Innocents Aboard
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: 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
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Przybyszewski

Gene Wolfe has a friend in this ol' world, and I am sure Mr. Wolfe has no idea who that person might be. However, that friend is a big fan of his work, as well as his genre-defying efforts that use the tools of fantasy and science fiction to best illustrate those everyday things like belief, trust, and doubt. The fan, of course, is me. Of interest, I am not the only one who believes these things. The 1995 Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (among others) called Wolfe one of "the most important science fiction writers writing today."

However, I will not base this review on my personal involvement (read: none) with the author or on his past accolades. Instead, I base my comments solely on the text called Innocents Aboard, a collection of short stories that appear for the first time in collection. The individual stories have appeared across the gamut of the publication world, in places like the The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Realms of Fantasy, The Infinite Matrix, The Readercon 3 Anthology, Grails, Quests, Visitations, and Other Occurrences, Spirits of Christmas, and others. A quick look at the "copyright acknowledgments" page shows that many of these stories were written over the last two decades of the last millennium, and a tone in the book is the change between the old world and the new.

Such is the case of "Under Hill," the tale of an Arthurian Knight who has the chance to change the whole of human history. This chance comes from a strange courier from the distant future. The courier is a miserable little creature, one who can no longer tolerate the toils of his present. The courier gives the Knight the means to pacify all other humans, so that they cannot do violence. The device also would make sure that their future generations would not do violence as well. Given the chance, the knight demurs, and he throws the peace device into a nearby lake. His reasons are his own, though one expects that it has something to do with his understanding that his business is a violent one. Without the sword, he is not much of a knight, though the rules of chivalry would suggest otherwise. Wolfe's comment here is clear: we chose our path. Human history is not the product of some mystical process of history like many academics would have us believe. Instead, human history is nothing more than a series of decisions made at any given time.

Upon further reflection, perhaps the Knight did end up making a legend of his own, with the device becoming Excalibur and the pond in which it was thrown the home of the Lady of the Lake. The coming of Excalibur would mean an end of human folly. Wolfe's reminds us that it would be the end of the human story as well.

A second theme of Innocence Abroad is the relationship between folklore and personal experience, and the belief one must exhibit to allow folklore to happen in one's life. Wolfe's stories read with the authority of an urban legend, but with the vitality and believability of an 18th-century horror story. Wolfe has read his Poe, and the influence is clear as obsessed, first-person narrators tell stories whose occurrence they barely believe themselves. As an interesting aside, Wolfe dedicates this book to "John Cramer, PhD, Captain Wesley Besse, and everyone else who attended -- or is attending -- Edgar Allan Poe Elementary School." Hmmm.

A first example is "The Wrapper," in which an IT specialist is given an Aleph in the form of a candy wrapper. The giver of the wrapper, a small child, enters and leaves the man's life briefly, leaving only the small piece of colored cellophane behind. When the main character looks through the wrapper, he is presented with a world without boundaries, a world in all its detail and all its imaginations. The incredulous narrator can scarcely believe the thing he holds, and his fear is palpable. Wolfe walks that line between the extraordinary and the unbelievable by focusing on the experience of this narrator. This guy certainly believes he has experienced the things he thinks he has experienced. The reader will believe as well.

Another example comes from "The Eleventh City," where a professional folklorist comes face to face with an apparently true story of a demonic pig that dates back to the New Testament. Slyly, Wolfe does not allow Cooper to experience this bizarre happening between a local engineer, his girlfriend, and the neighborhood witch. Instead, Cooper must judge for himself whether the event happened based on the engineer's story to him at the local cantina. An easier route would have put the narrator into the midst of the story as in "The Wrapper." The difference is that while the first story features only the psychological happenings of the narrator, the second includes multiple characters, action, and dialogue. The choice of narrator turns "The Eleventh City" from typical folklore cum reality into an inquisition of just how much of this folklore stuff is real, and how does that same folklore stuff play in our everyday lives.

Wolfe's answer: that folklore stuff is important. Pay attention to the stories around you.

Copyright © 2004 Chris Przybyszewski

Chris learned to read from books of fantasy and science fiction, in that order. And any time he can find a graphic novel that inspires, that's good too.

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