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Books
by James Sallis

The Land Across, by Gene Wolfe, 2013, Tor Books, $25.99.

Cordwainer Smith, Lord of the Afternoon, by Pablo Capanna, 2011, Guid Publications, $22.85.


THIS PLACE we're standing now, it gets called a lot of things. Science fiction, fantastic or speculative fiction, a genre, the field. For the moment let's just think of it as a sheltered bus stop. The bus can take you up the street to the mall or the hardware store. Or it can take you to a land you've never seen before. And whatever we call it, we've had from the first more than our fair share of mavericks, of mustangs, writers who think and write as no one else; this headstrong reach is built into who and what we are. So from Phil Farmer through Joanna Russ and Chip Delany to Tim Powers and Howard Waldrop, there's often a singular particularity. Or to employ a word that in our day of hype and hyperbole I generally avoid: genius.

SFWA Grandmaster and Hall of Famer, recipient of a lifetime achievement award, called "our Melville" by Ursula K. Le Guin and the finest living American writer by Neil Gaiman and others, Gene Wolfe hardly needs further encomia from me. He fares quite well, thank you, tucked in for the duration, part-time hedgehog, part-time fox, doing what he does.

What he does can take your breath away and turn the wilted flowers on your end table back to bloom.

To sustain a career at all during a time when publishing has shape-shifted about us so as to become barely recognizable, is remarkable. To sustain that career on one's own terms, following tracks no one else sees down uncharted alleyways, is miraculous. And Gene, now in the fifth decade of his career, has been as prolific as he has been unpredictable. The Land Across is something like his forty-fourth book and twenty-ninth novel. He has published trilogies, detective novels, ghost stories with and without ghosts, retellings of Oz and of Arthurian legend, juveniles, the classic Torturer/Sun series, a dozen or more story collections. In the period spanning 1965 to the end of the 1970s alone, he published more than 70 short stories. Hedgehog and fox, he goes on, crossing borders, shouting from beyond the fences and from deep within the trees.

Trap doors, snares, and rabbit holes abound.

Those shouts can be hard on some. Habitual readers of fantasy and science fiction may lament the lack of comforts, landmarks, and resolutions they expect, while readers innocent of our shibboleths may be confounded or turned away. All too often, uptown critics feel compelled to speak of downtown writers whom for whatever reason they've come to favor as "transcending the genre."

Friends: Gene Wolfe does not transcend one blessed thing. Few writers in fact honor the field's traditions more directly or more inclusively; he does not challenge the writing that came before, he explores and fulfills the potentials thereof. All novels, he reminds us, are fantasy, some just more honestly so. Nor does he forget that, whatever its grand intentions, art is play—serious play.

Perhaps my single favorite of all Wolfe stories, first published in Damon Knight's Orbit 14, is "Forleson," in which a man awakens into a life he cannot recognize or recall. Desperately encouraged by his wife to follow the rulebook and do as told lest the family starve, understanding nothing of his situation or of the aimless job at which he works, he cannot but look behind the curtain, cannot help but question the patterns that fall across and form his shadow life.

In its co-opting of familiar science fiction themes, its tucking of strangeness into the folds of the ordinary and its investigations of identity, most of all perhaps in the many readings available and the resounding Yes-No of its ending, this story seems, like his novel Peace, seminal Wolfe, a perfect summary of how Gene thinks and writes.

Finger in the ontological pie, so to speak.

The reader, like the protagonist, is rarely on safe ground. One cannot believe what one is told, what witnessed. Is this mimetic, or some form of hyper-realism? Allegory? Cautionary tale? Book of the Long Lie? Histories of the past, history of a future? And what to make of all those stories-within-stories? How many of the terrors are external, how many rear up from within?

Now, then, for The Land Across. Tickets are at will-call. Please keep arms and heads inside the cab. Objects in the mirror may be larger than they appear.

 

Our narrator Grafton wants to, or will, or perhaps will not, write a travel book about a sequestered country in eastern Europe. Few have been there; they've been turned away at the borders, arrested, disappeared.

 

There are no travel books about the land across the mountains. NONE! Not in any language I could find. I was going to be the first, and maybe I still will be. Only this book you are now holding comes before my travel book. You would not believe how long I have been writing and rewriting this one in my head, especially when I was a prisoner of the Legion of the Light and when I was in prison, sitting around in a cell with Russ Rathaus.

 

From what first appears the mundane narrative of a man seeking to visit a country as much from the difficulty of doing so as for any other reason, rather soon we seem to find ourselves in Kafka territory. Grafton is braced by authorities, his passport taken, then arrested for not having one. He is delivered to a private home, told he must live there and that, should he leave or transgress, its owner will be shot.

But don't put your bags down yet, traveler.

Appears. Seems.

As, moving right along, our mundane story unfolds dark wing after dark wing to give us revolutionary and counter-revolutionary factions, visits from a man in black who may be Vlad the Impaler (his castle is nearby), religious cults, cloak-and-dagger spydom, the clockwork of a contemporary police state, a life-size voodoo doll as centerpiece for a magical prison escape, a dead woman ensconced behind a mirror, and a severed head. Not to mention the tattooed hand that moves about, from time to time wrapping itself around throats, holding a gun, rolling over like a cat to be petted, or hitching rides in Grafton's pocket.

Similarly our narrator, curiously formless from the first, as from a photographic negative that develops before our eyes, travel writer to cuckolder to prisoner to occult witness to aide-de-camp and kept man to detective to secret agent, shape-shifting to inhabit the forms the story makes available to him. Always he seems relentlessly passive, a man who makes no decision, following where the currents take him. He seduces his host's wife, serves witness to astonishing events, throws in with the police state—all with little visible evidence of self-interrogation or moral disturbance. Nothing really registers. Nothing, not even prison, finds purchase on his slopes.

And there's that word again: seems.

For the narrator's mutability mirrors the book's own. The Land Across, finally, is a story driven by unexplained forces of which we perceive only the surface aspects, never the depths, one that proceeds by its own internal, inscrutable logic—that of dreams, and possessing a cognate vividness.

In a rare introspective moment, Grafton notes:

 

All that stuff was crowding into my mind, but there was something else, too. It was the feeling that something really, really huge was studying me the way I might study a bug, something I could not see even though it could see me fine. The whole world had cancer, and the thing watching me now was the cancer. It did not make a lot of sense, but that was how I felt.

 

From our unwillingness to believe that the visible world is all there is come our religions, our myths, our actual and metaphoric dreams, the tales by which we live. In these at one and the same time we encode both the strangeness about us and our inability to surmount the incoherence of it all, to make sense of the surfaces.

When at the end Grafton reaffirms his intent to write a travel book, i.e., to reduce the depthless mysteries we have witnessed to commonplace, with but a moment's reflection we realize that this is in fact what he has done all along in his narrative.

Here is the curtain, he might say.

And here, Gene Wolfe adds, are the figures and forms forever moving about behind.

 

Ah, our proud gallery of mavericks, magpies, and curtain-tuggers.

Phil Farmer dipping into Freudian wellsprings for the heavy water of "Mother" and "Open to Me, My Sister." David R. Bunch's parables of power and the powerless in cruel Moderan. Theodore Sturgeon's lyrical analogs of adolescence and love. Alice Sheldon with her nom de plume, ever-unsettling stories, and secret life. Cordwainer Smith with his.

He is, even in this exceptional company, among the most singular of all, distilling and pouring into new containers the legend of Joan of Arc ("The Dead Lady of Clown Town") and (as "Drunkboat") Rimbaud's autobiographical "Le Bateau ivre," recycling contemporary world politics into a loose-knit, eon-spanning future history.

Little was known of Cordwainer Smith at the time these tales were published and little enough, aside from his identity—for all the timelessness of his work—has since accrued.

Granted, it's an intimidating life and, both in its expansiveness and its uncompromising individuality, an intimidating body of work.

The name behind the name was Paul Linebarger, U.S. born, childhood spent in China, student of Medieval literature at Oxford, doctorate in political science from Johns Hopkins at age twenty-two, diplomat, intelligence officer, adviser to Eisenhower and Kennedy, novelist under at least three names, author of Psychological Warfare, polyglot and restless traveler.

So our next stop is Pablo Capanna's Cordwainer Smith, Lord of the Afternoon. This book is the sort of thing we science fiction folk might well hope to see more of, a serious yet non-academic work. In the purest sense it's an essay, the ranging of a mind, freely, about and across a subject, by turns a conversation with the reader and with self. Capanna comes to no pat conclusions.

 

Ignoring all wise counsel, I engaged in criticism, psychology, history and politics with the audacity of a multidisciplinary reader. My only intention was to contribute, on the basis of scant material, to the understanding of a creative life.

It was many years before the work I began in 1970 took the form of a book, which was published in 1983.…

 

Italian by birth, resident in Argentina from an early age, Pablo Capanna is a journalist and professor of philosophy, both of which occupations exert their influences here, in his alignments of Cordwainer Smith stories with historical events in the U.S., for instance, and in his suggestions as to ontological underpinnings for the body of work. This book was published both in its original Spanish and in a translation by Kevin Krell by a firm in Malta; it is available in both electronic and print forms.

Early pages concern themselves with placing Smith against the backdrop of science fiction as a genre, with the writer's books under other names, and with establishing a baseline chronology and nomenclature. Even as a lifelong reader of Cordwainer Smith, I was newly astonished at the range of the stories, their breadth, their reach. Much of the biographical material, sketching out Smith's background in China, his education and political affiliations, and the possibility that he was the subject of a chapter in Robert Lindner's book of psychoanalytic case studies The Fifty-Minute Hour was new to me, and greatly welcome.

Not that I haven't cavils. For me, and for all its many graces, the book expends needless effort attempting to peg stories and attitudes to specific events in, say, the civil rights movement or Vietnam war, when general connections seem quite adequate to Capanna's theme.

More gravely, Capanna steps again and again into the pothole of attempting to exempt Smith from science fiction rather than placing him squarely therein. Striving to elevate Smith's work, he becomes reductive toward the genre, simplifying its ambitions and its achievements.

From page 148: "It should be clear by now…that what we are dealing with here is something more than merely escapist literature."

And from page 5:

 

Cordwainer Smith was neither an easy writer nor one for the masses. He was not even very popular within his own genre. His readers were unaware of his literary models, which included Dante, The Odyssey, the Chinese novel, Persian poetry, The Arabian Nights, Rimbaud, Tennyson and G. B. Shaw, not that they would have cared.…

Nevertheless, even a cursory look at his work reveals one of the few authors with an original style that the genre has ever produced. He created a mundus alter et idem, a subtle allegory of his times, but was never concerned with making it transparent.

 

May I have a heartfelt harrumph from the choir for each of those paragraphs? Thank you.

Arealist fiction—science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, whatever you call it—has direct connections with Jungian archetypes we seem to carry implicitly within us, with longings and inexpressible "understandings" that rise to the surface as dream, myth, folktales, religion. Operators are standing by. Just dial them up.

Much as all the way stations of Gene Wolfe's story lie along the track of dreams, Cordwainer Smith's stories recognize themselves as myth; many are in fact explicitly written as such.

Though he calls out the importance of the many levels on which fiction operates, Capanna has difficulty engaging with them, defaulting to privilege idea or "meaning" over the tales's many tell-tale hearts.

Finally, the best statement of what these odd stories are about, quoted here, is from Smith's own prologue to Space Lords.

 

This is science fiction, yes. But it comes from your own time, from your own world, even from your own mind.

All I can do is work the symbols.

 

And now we're in the home stretch, pulling into the last stop soon with our thoughts of Theodore Sturgeon, Phil Farmer, Carol Emshwiller, Edgar Pangborn, Walter Tevis. Cordwainer Smith. Gene Wolfe.

Those who work the symbols for us. The wild ones of our dreams.

We have been, my friends, and remain, in the presence of greatness.

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