Jun 28, 2010

The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories And Other Stories - Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe has always been the kind of author that makes me feel guilty and maybe a little dumb. All his works - but especially his short fiction - require undivided attention, an almost maniacal eye for detail, and no doubt a passion for solving puzzles. The part that makes me feel dumb is knowing that the mystery is right in front of my eyes. Hiding in plain sight is always the trick with Wolfe, and one of the reasons his fiction is so exquisite. Alas, that knowledge rarely helps in unraveling the layers of innuendos, the significance of the character names, or the little details in the way words are arranged. Feeling guilty comes later, when I realize I've barely scraped the surface, but just couldn't force myself to start reading all over again. I am rarely able to reread before a long time has passed.

With all that said, I am nothing if not a sucker for punishment, so I keep reading Wolfe's works and keep loving them. The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories And Other Stories is one of the more ridiculous titles of short story collections out there, and the reason for the repetition is the titular story, The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories, which is a part of the so called "Wolfe Archipelago" - four stories that all have the words "Island", "Doctor" and "Death" in them. Here endeth the similarities though, as we can see from two of the other three parts of the Archipelago, also published in this collection. While The Island of Doctor Death... is a sort of magical realism and externalized metaphor for escapist literature (the characters from a pulp Science Fiction novel resembling The Island of Dr. Moreau all come to life, manifesting in the company of the young main character Tackie to help him with his real life problems), the second story, the Nebula award winning The Death of Dr. Island, is - in Wolfe's own words - "a thematic inversion" of it. The real island from the first story is replaced by the artificial satellite of "Dr. Island". The AI psychiatrist "Doctor" himself is now the villain of the story while the good boy Tackie is turned into the vicious and unstable Nicholas who has to be "cured" by the mind-screwing space station.

But Wolfe wouldn't be Wolfe if he made things that easy, and the third part of the Archipelago, The Doctor of Death Island, is nowhere near as comparable to the other two as they are to each other. It gives us a world in the near future, where humanity has achieved immortality at the price of losing love, ambition, literacy and other little things of the sort. Unfortunately for the main character - a convicted murderer - a life sentence in this world is still a life sentence. Although the author himself insists that themes of the other Archipelago stories persist here, I was not able to find them on the first reading. I also found the story a bit underwhelming, compared to the other two, and especially The Death...

Other highlights of this magnificent collection are:

The Hero As A Werwolf (the mistake is intentional) where humanity has turned itself into the "Masters" - a race of art-loving near-immortal creatures that never suffer from diseases, hunger or compassion. The remaining humans are hunted and purged, but they have learned to survive by feeding on the Masters. Thus the "Werwolf", from the Anglo-Saxon wer, which means "man"; the hero is a "man-wolf" - a noble creature turned into an animal, but still better in Wolfe's eyes to the soulless Masters.

Seven American Nights has to be my favorite story from this collection. In a future where America has barely survived a genetic apocalypse, leaving almost all of its citizens malformed and mutated in some way, a man from Iran arrives on its shores. The story is told through Nadan's journal. But it seems to cover only... six nights. Seven American Nights is by far the most intriguing mystery among the fourteen stories and a shining example of Wolfe's love for the "unreliable narrator". First of all, the number of nights does not match. Second, Nadan is vain, and trying to impress his potential readers - his mother and fiance. Also, at some point he gets paranoid about the intrigues in which he has inadvertently involved himself, and tears pages from his diary in fear that someone might read them. Also there are moments where he is obviously not in his right mind, be it under the influence of drugs or just raging fear. None of the characters - not even Nadan himself - are what they seem to be, and there are many theories as to what really happened, and how many nights he spent in the enigmatic third-world country of America.

Hour of Trust again sees America almost destroyed, this time by a vicious anarchist civil war. The only opposition are the big corporations which have taken the side of the failing American army, and are trying to raise funds from other firms in Europe by staging a party where their expected victory over the rebels in Detroit is to be aired live on TV. Here there seem to be no big secrets to unravel, but Wolfe gives indications for the ending from the very beginning. Names are important, and actions, and also little words. The strongest point of the story is in the atmosphere. You could feel the desperation, even if the main characters can't, the delusions of the Old Order that things could ever get back to what once was. Hour of Trust is a story about change, and about a world dying so that it can be reborn. It is also a little sad, because Wolfe never gives guaranties that what comes next will be better than what was lost.

All the stories offer more on second and third glance. I could write about the New Testament allusions in The Hero As A Werwolf, or about the multi-faceted relationship between Tackie and Doctor Death in The Island of Doctor Death...; or of the many layers of mystery and misleading clues in Seven American Nights. But I am neither qualified, nor willing to steal the incredible sense of wonder and fulfillment that comes with untangling Wolfe's stories by yourself. Suffice to say that after almost twenty years of reading SF and Fantasy, I am yet to find another author with such eye for intricate detail, and able to tell a self-sufficient straightforward story with another straightforward story hiding in plain sight inside it. And yet another one, thrown in for good measure. It is not a coincidence that Gene Wolfe has been labeled by many of his colleagues as the greatest living stylist in American literature. It is not an empty title, and I am yet to read a book or short story from him that disproves it.

As for The Island of Doctor Death And Other Stories And Other Stories, I couldn't find a single story inside that I didn't love, and I just couldn't recommend it enough.


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