Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Love/Hate Relation with Gene Wolfe
by Stella Atrium 12/8/12

Gene Wolfe inspired me to write when I was younger, and by example expanded my courage to take chances for breaking the rules and following my characters into new territory. But his stories also make me pull my hair out, like he betrays the reader after so carefully gaining her trust. Do you have a similar frustration with Wolfe or with a favorite author?
Below are examples of my ongoing love/hate relationship with Gene Wolfe: only a taste, I could talk about this frustration all day long.



Love – Wolfe has no fear of made up words, mostly based on Latin such as dimarchi for soldiers. In the combined four books of Shadow & Claw, I viewed the peppering of strange words like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Hate – He carries this habit too far in The Urth of the New Sun where sunset is nightshade and sunrise is shadeup, along with many other simple word changes. The one-to-one transposing is only irritating and slows the reader who recognizes the device. Less is more.


Love – The narrator is identified as writing from a place of long experience, injecting his later-gained wisdom into the story of a young man’s adventures.

The narrator often starts a new section within a chapter with a sidebar about his present visceral responses – left to answer a summons, but returned after dark –  without explaining the gap between where he sits and how he got there.

Hate – The narrator changes voices! I hate that! At the end of Book I of Shadow & Claw, he adds an appendix that tries to explain the use of Latin words as substitutes for translations of a dead language, thus casting himself as a translator rather than the writer of the memoir/adventure story.

Hate – In On Blue Waters, the narrator who again is an older version of the protagonist starts with a remorseful description of how he lost his wife, but never mentions her again after he rescues a mermaid who he maimed (naked, of course). The reader suspects the short piece of remorse, written separately maybe as a short story, utilized as impetus for starting the adventure, was inserted to get the reader going without a connection to the ultimate outcomes.


Love – Gene Wolfe is a great favorite among guys who are sci-fi fans because the point of view is from a soldier or executioner. The brooding philosophy adds moments of considering life on a larger scale and his place in the stream of events.

In Shadow & Claw, again, the protagonist named Severian has executioner skills and delivers a sucker punch better than Jason Bourne. He wins all fights, and women all want to bed him, stripping at a moment’s notice, even those women who are about to betray him.

Hate – Minor and long-term characters are often underdeveloped, only in the scene to help Severian unravel the present mystery. His nemesis Racho comes and goes posing as any convenient character and seems a paranoid delusion much like Moriarty to Sherlock Homes.

Hate – Characters are varied and described for personal quirks that are endearing but not revealing of motivation. Coincidences that force paradigm shifts are taken in stride. Female characters have no occupation and never wield decision-making power, only there to hold his sword.


Love – The worlds are complex and the gods are kept at arm’s length. The powers-that-be seem about to arrive with punishment for infractions. The hero’s impetus is well-drawn and his daily motivation is steady.

Love – Often a side adventure while the protagonist is trying to retrace his steps while lost in the city, or an engaging dream while the hero is healing from a fight, add to the reader’s enjoyment of myth and otherworldliness.

Hate – Plot developments are dependent on coincidence, and change-ups happen out of the blue. The characters shrug and drift in a new direction without anger or worry about where to gain tomorrow’s meal.

In Lathro in the Mist, for example, the writer covers this habit of disjointed plotlines because Lathro is brain-damaged and doesn’t remember yesterday without the help of his diary. However, the denouement of the plot is so general and poorly connection to characters (Lathro is rescued by the Roman soldiers – deus ex machina  –  who think he’s a great warrior) that the reader, once again, feels cheated after the investment of time to read 600 pages.

Of course I will continue to read, and re-read, Gene Wolfe in order to feed my soul. But I may soon be bald from pulling my hair out from frustration. Feel free to add your ideas about his genius and bad habits, or mention an author who has a similar effect on you.

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