Sunday, 27 September 2009

Strange Birds

The other day I received a copy of Gene Wolfe's chapbook Strange Birds (2006), a collection of two short stories inspired by the paintings and sculptures of Lisa Snellings-Clark. It's a lovely little book with beautiful artwork, and I managed to get my hands on a copy signed by Wolfe and Snellings-Clark. Strange Birds was published by DreamHaven and limited to 1000 copies.

"On a Vacant Face a Bruise"
This short story makes a fantastic opening to the chapbook, being fairly lighthearted. It forms a prequel to a much older Wolfe short story called "The Toy Theater" (1971), and follows a young boy, Tom, who runs away from home to join the circus. At the circus, Tom encounters two characters from "The Toy Theater": the great mationettist Stromboli, and his neglected and abused wife Maria, who he first 'mistakes' for a doll. Tom comes to love Maria, and Stromboli soon leaves the circus with one of his dolls. When another child comes to join the circus - an alien child with four arms and the ability to control many dolls - Maria leaves in search for her husband. We gather from this story that Stromboli and Maria are both human (something we are unsure of in "The Toy Theater"), but this is problematised by the fact that when Stromboli pushes his wife towards Tom, there is a loud 'bang' like metal on metal when his hand contacts her back. This story was very enjoyable, and is probably best enjoyed after reading "The Toy Theater".

"Sob in the Silence"
A family of four goes on a trip to visit a friend of the father's, a 'horror writer' that lives in a large, haunted-looking house. When the visitors arrive, the horror writer tells them a terrifying story about the previous inhabitants of the house - a murder suicide in which one of the family's children survived (with brain damage) and went on to form a sadistic cult which murdered children. After the visitors have gone to bed, the horror writer murders the young boy, Robbie, and beats and abducts Kiara, the teenage daughter. He seems to be possessed by the spirit of the brain damaged cult leader that used to inhabit the house. Through careful planning, he makes it seem that someone else came in during the night and committed the crime, thus escaping the police. When he goes to an old well in a forest near his property, in order to collect Kiara, who he trapped in the well on the night of the abduction, he comes to a grisly (yet entirely just) end. This is a truly chilling horror story - Wolfe at his darkest. I think that the unnamed 'horror writer' is perhaps meant to be connected to a real-life horror author of some significance, but knowing little about horror, I couldn't place him (if we're even meant to). Also, don't make my mistake and read it immediately before going to bed.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

A list of Gene Wolfe's uncollected short fiction

Upon request, I have made available my list of Gene Wolfe's uncollected short fiction. I have included the stories' titles and dates, along with citation details of their first appearances in print. I believe it is fairly comprehensive, but if you are aware of any omissions, please contact me. If you have any problems viewing the embedded document below (or at this URL), I would be happy to e-mail you a copy. Enjoy!

UPDATE (9/3/2010): "Easter Sunday" (1951) has been added to the list. The obscure story, available online through RevolutionSF, was originally published in Commentator, a Texas A&M student magazine (see Bill Page's Fantasyland/Aggieland, available online, for the original citation).

UPDATE (10/6/2010): I have changed the embedded document to a Google Docs document, which is more accessible and iPad / iPhone friendly. Alternatively, the document can be downloaded. I have also added some of Gene Wolfe's forthcoming short stories to the list.

UPDATE (30/7/2010): The short story "The Tale of the Four Accused" (1989) has been added to the list. Information comes from: Stephensen-Payne and Benson, Gene Wolfe: Urth-Man Extraordinary: A Working Bibliography (1991). I have checked it hasn't been collected since this bibliography was produced.

UPDATE (9/10/2012): Added "Planetarium in Orbit" (2009), "Last Drink Bird Head" (2009), "Innocent" (2010), "The Giant" (2011), "Josh" (2011), "Why I Was Hanged" (2011), and "Dormanna" (2012).

UPDATE (22/11/2013): Added "Frostfree" (2013) and "The Sea of Memory" (2013), which were published in the recent Wolfe tribute anthology Shadows of the New Sun (2013).

In addition to Monash University Library's Rare Books collection, 
I made use of the following online resources while compiling my list:

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Thesis topic clarification

There seems to have been some confusion over what exactly I'm planning to do for my thesis topic, and the nature of the thesis itself. The aforementioned project is a 15,000 word undergraduate thesis which I will undertake in 2010 as part of my Bachelor of Arts Honours course. Most simply, my studying how the character of Patera Silk from Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun fits in to the greater context of the narrative function of the priest as protagonist in science fiction literature. While this may seem narrow (there are plenty of PhD thesis topics to be found in Catholic SF in general), I have had to be very specific on my choice of topic since I am greatly restricted by time and word count. I will now lay out a basic (possible) plan for the thesis, then explain some of my (tentative) decisions.

- Very brief history of religion in science fiction; there has been relatively little written on this topic.
- The priest as protagonist is a particularly common narrative device, used to explore faith and religion from 'within'.
- Typically, an author chooses to have a priest as a protagonist for one of two dominant reasons:

1) The 'negative' use of the priest
- Wherein the author chooses to have a priest as protagonist in order to expose them to some extraordinary (science fictional) dilemma which has a negative impact on their faith.
- The priest may have his faith profoundly shaken, or lose it completely. He may discover that God is evil, or come to have a lesser view of God in some way, thus losing faith in God's goodness.
- Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" would be a good example of this.

2) The 'positive' use of the priest
- The priest is chosen as the story's protagonist so that his faith can be affirmed, or strengthened, thus effecting his faith in a positive way.
- This is not to say that the priest will not experience some challenge to his faith in the course of the narrative; rather, the priest's faith perseveres and is finally seen as a positive thing.
- This may also include instances where a priest's faith remains strong and consistent throughout, and is cast in a positive light.

3) Gene Wolfe's Patera Silk, and the synthesis of these two dominant positions
- Wolfe manages to synthesise these two dominant uses of the priest protagonist, through his use of a pagan religion which is explicitly modeled on Catholicism.
- Silk renounces the religion in which he serves when he discovers that his 'gods' are artificial intelligences unworthy of worship. Since his religion is an explicit parody of Catholicism, Silk can perhaps be seen to be rejecting some aspect (the ritual aspect?) of Catholicism.
- Throughout the tetralogy, Silk's faith in the Outsider (the 'one true God' of monotheism) grows, and in this sense the spiritual aspect of Catholicism is affirmed.

- Something along the lines of Wolfe being an important and profound SF writer, etc. (I truly cannot anticipate this bit.)

I am sure that Wolfe isn't the only science fiction author to ever synthesised these two dominant (?) uses of the priest – there may well be others who do the same, or manage to maneuver straight between the two views along the fence of neutrality. My decision to engage with this seemingly crude dialectical opposition (challenge/reaffirmation) is based on the reading and research I have already done (minor though it may be), and the logic that if an author is going to make their protagonist a priest, they will likely be wanting to do one of these two things with the priest's faith (I think it would be fairly pointless to maintain absolute neutrality – why, then, choose a priest?).

I wish to stress that this is a very tentative plan, and will probably be greatly altered when I have done more research (and I have a lot of research still to do). Indeed, many people writing theses find themselves greatly changing what they planned to write after doing more in-depth research. I would greatly appreciate any feedback that anyone may have, or any suggested readings - I'm still compiling a massive list of all the books I have to get through in the coming holidays!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Audio SF!

I must share this: yesterday I discovered the audio science fiction magazine StarShipSofa. The weekly podcast, which can be streamed online, downloaded, or subscribed to via iTunes, presents brilliantly narrated science fiction poetry, short stories, and reviews. I strongly suggest you check it out!!

Lest I go entire post without mentioning Gene Wolfe, I should point out that StarShipSofa has recorded two Wolfe works:

Gene Wolfe and Lawrence Santoro, 'The Tree is My Hat,' StarShipSofa, podcast no. 49, 6 November 2008.

An audio play of 'The Tree is My Hat' (1999) in issue no. 49, written by Wolfe and adapted by Santoro. The story is connected to Wolfe's recent novel An Evil Guest. This audio version is particularly exciting, because Neil Gaiman is in the cast! (Grade: A)

Gene Wolfe, 'The Vampire Kiss,' StarShipSofa, podcast no. 60, 22 January 2009.

A sad but enjoyable short story, which feels like it is set in the Victorian era. The vampire of the tale is reminiscent of the vampiric 'inhumi' of The Book of the Short Sun in its characteristics, biology/mythology, and eating patterns. Significant? (Grade: B+)

'The Vampire Kiss' is also available in print in StarShipSofa's first printed volume (cover below), which collects short stories by many eminent SF authors, and is available as a print-on-demand paperback and as a free e-book.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Uncollected short stories (Part 1)

One of the reasons I love Monash University's Matheson Library (at which I work) is because its Rare Books section houses the largest collection of pulp SF in Australia (probably the largest in the entire southern hemisphere). Every Friday I put work for a couple of hours in Rare Books, just helping sort and re-shelve materials. Last week I got distracted and started flicking through some issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and discovered a Gene Wolfe short story not collected in any of his short story volumes. This intrigued me, so I went away and compiled a list of his uncollected short stories, and I found that there are four at my library! So today, in my lunch break, I tracked down two of these. (The others will have to wait till next week).

Gene Wolfe, 'A Method Bit in "B",' Orbit 8, edited by Damon Knight, 1970.

I'm surprised that this story wasn't collected in any of Wolfe's early volumes, since it is quite good. Our narrator, a detective, is called to investigate disturbances at a manor (or castle) on the outskirts of his town. He curiously skips over describing what actually took place at the manor, and details an unusual experience he had in a bar later that night. In the bar he saw everyone 'unusual' in his town drinking beverages that looked alcoholic, but in fact had no alcohol in them, and acting in their most characteristically 'unusual' ways. He glosses over the shooting of a dangerous American werewolf by a werewolf-hunting occultist, and concludes the story with a description of him looking through one of his neighbour's windows to find the entire house empty inside, with dirt and shrubs where the floor should be. During the story, the narrator reflects on method actors, and how they become deeply immersed in their roles. We are left thinking that the narrator himself must be a method actor in a bad 'B' film - a peripheral character in a movie about werewolves and their slayers.

While not one of Wolfe's best short stories, it does leave you thinking for a while after reading it. Like most of his stories, you have to piece together what happened and solve the riddle Wolfe puts forth (though, admittedly, this one wasn't terrible difficult - it was kind of given away by the title). I think I liked it mostly because it's a pastiche of a 'B' film, like how 'The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories' and 'An Evil Guest' are pastiches of pulp novels.

Overall grade: B (get it?)

Gene Wolfe, 'Tarzan of the Grapes,' The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1972.

This story follows a reporter, Brown, as he accompanies a deputy, Prescott, and his colleagues, on a search a vineyard for an 'ape man' and his followers, believed to be living among the grapes. We are told that Brown and his boss, Culough, invented the 'ape man' story for their newspaper, but after it became widely read, copycats started living in the vineyard. The deputy and his colleagues find a ragged looking girl, who calls herself 'Jane', and take her into custody. A muscular 'Tarzan' then comes along and frees his 'Jane', but in doing so he is knocked down and handcuffed. The story ends with him breaking his bonds...

This very short story was surprisingly simple for Wolfe - unlike most of his fiction, we aren't really left with many questions as to what actually happened. The only real question is where this 'Tarzan' character came from, and how he gained his enormous strength. I see two possibilities: (1) he is just an incredibly strong man who took up living in the vineyard after Brown's story was published, or (2) he was living there all along and Brown's article was (unintentionally) true. Either way, the story doesn't have much of a SF or fantasy feel to it - and that's the primary reason I read Wolfe. The title (and perhaps the entire story?) is, of course, a play on Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes (1914).

Photographs of the pulp that 'Tarzan of the Grapes' was printed in. I'm not entirely sure what 'CANCELLED' means in this context, but it's a terrible thing to do to a book - even an SF pulp!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Two new books!

Well, not exactly new, but new to me. I just received my hardcover first editions of Gene Wolfe's Innocents Aboard and Starwater Strains the other day. They're in such beautiful condition! Thank you Sci Fi, Etc. I really love the cover art - especially for Starwater Strains. Also, Innocents Aboard is signed! So exciting. Now I just have to find time to read them... I can't wait for this semester to be over - damned coursework units - I want to start my thesis already!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Praise the protective power of polypropylene!

I bought a copy of Gene Wolfe's Endangered Species (hardcover, first edition) last week from a store on (a utopia for book lovers). When it arrived I found it to be in beautiful condition, and its dust jacket was protected by a Gaylord Book Jacket Cover. It then occurred to me that I had found the cure to my fear of touching my first edition books!

After some investigation, I found that there is an Australian manufacturer of such covers: The Book Cover Co. And even better, they sell discounted seconds at their factory outlet only 20 minutes drive from my house! My inner librarian was jumping for joy, so of course I had to go immediately to investigate. The extremely helpful gentleman at the showroom / outlet gave me enthusiastic demonstrations on how to cover dust jackets, hardcover books and paperbacks. I ended up buying masses of polypropylene archival film and polypropylene tape, and this afternoon I have had an awesome time protecting my Wolfe first editions. (Does this make me sad? or just very nerdy?) Not only does it protect the books, but it also makes it look and feel nicer too. Now I don't have to worry so much about actually reading my books!!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

It's official! I have a thesis topic!

After a fruitful meeting with my honours supervisor this afternoon, I have finally settled on a specific topic for my honours thesis! My intention was always to write something on religion in Gene Wolfe's solar cycle (or sun cycle, or Urth cycle... I'm not sure anyone can agree on what it is called), but I had trouble deciding exactly what to focus on.

My first idea was to study how Wolfe's focus on spiritual and religious themes in The Book of the New Sun (BotNS) challenge established definitions of Science Fiction (such as Darko Suvin's) which aim to exclude religion and spirituality in order to focus more on the hard science aspect of the genre. I found, however, that the real challenge of BotNS to SF definitions was that it manages to be both SF and Fantasy, blending tropes of the two genres expertly. Wolfe's theological and spiritual discussions remain somewhat abstract – their bearing on the events of the narrative being somewhat uncertain. While there is definitely something to be studied in Wolfe's treatment of theological topics in BotNS, such as Christology and the Free Will / Predestination debate, I decided to shift my focus to The Book of the Long Sun (BotLS). The protagonist of BotLS, Patera Silk, is a priest in a fictional religion which is both pagan and a parody of Catholicism. I narrowed the possible areas of study down to three topics:

  1. The religion of The Book of the Long Sun as a parody of Catholicism.
  2. Patera Silk and the role of the priest in science fiction.
  3. Patera Silk as messiah figure – particularly as compared to Severian, the protagonist of BotNS, who is cruel and malicious, unlike the truly 'good' character of Silk, but is also explicitly a messiah figure.
After much deliberation I have settled on the second topic, which lends itself well to a comparative study with other texts, and also offers a promising three-chapter breakdown. In brief, I plan to contend that there are two dominant uses of the priest protagonists in SF:
  1. To affirm the priest's faith / religion and its positive effect (e.g. the missionary goes to an alien planet, converts its inhabitants, and brings peace and utopia to all).
  2. To debunk the priest's faith and expose it as false (e.g. by having the priest discover something that has him renounce his faith).
These will provide the topics for the first two chapters of my thesis. In the third, I will address Wolfe's use of the priest protagonist in BotLS, which I will put forth as an interesting and unique case. Wolfe, I will contend, manages to synthesise the two dominant uses of the priest in SF, by simultaneously debunking Silk's religion (the pagan religion in which he serves as priest) and reaffirming monotheism (through Silk's growing faith in 'The Outsider').
My next task is to read a heck of a lot of SF that has priests as protagonists. Top of the list are James Blish's A Case of Conscience and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. I can't wait till this semester is over so I can get stuck into my reading!

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Wolfe books on Gaiman's bookshelves

A friend of mine just shared this Shelfari link to photos of Neil Gaiman's bookshelves by Shelfari:

As I was coveting Gaiman's incredible library, I found his collection of Gene Wolfe books! I am extremely jealous... all those beautiful hardcovers. Including the rare Bibliomen! One day... one day...

Friday, 4 September 2009


So here's the gist: I'm a student at Monash University, currently undertaking honours in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies. Next year I will be doing my minor thesis on religious themes in Gene Wolfe's science fiction (probably The Book of the Long Sun - hence the blog name).

I have created this blog to chronicle my deep and profound reflections on Wolfe's writing, and on science fiction in general. My hope is that it will also provide a place for me to think through aspects of my thesis. So, if you do happen to be reading this, feel free to comment or whatever!