Saturday, 5 December 2009

Adventures in Pulp SF - Four Wolves

Yesterday I worked a fantastic shift in my library's Rare Books Collection, checking a collection of Astounding Science Fiction from the 1940s and 1950s against our current holdings of the pulp sf magazine, to see if purchasing the items for sale would fill any gaps. It turned out we have everything in the collection for sale, and in much better condition too - our pulp sf collection is quite impressive!

For those interested, the website of Monash University Library's Rare Books Collection is http://lib.monash.edu.au/rare/. A virtual exhibition of our rare science fiction pulp collection is also online at http://www.lib.monash.edu.au/exhibitions/scifi/xscifi.html, though it is a bit old, having been made in 1999.

Anyway, when I got home from work I decided to read a few Gene Wolfe short stories that have been waiting for me: 

Gene Wolfe, 'Four Wolves,' Amazing Science Fiction, May 1983.

'Four Wolves' is a collection of four, apparently unconnected short stories. The first, 'My Book', is collected in Endangered Species; the second and third, 'At the Volcano’s Lip' and 'In the Mountains', are collected in Storeys From the Old Hotel; and the final story, 'The River', is uncollected, and can only be found in this issue of Amazing Science Fiction.

All four stories are about a page or less in length, and each is preceded by a small illustration. It is amazing to see what Wolfe can accomplish in such short pieces, and how even his shortest stories can leave you in awe. I thought it was funny, however, that these stories appeared in an sf pulp magazine, since I wouldn't consider any of them to be science fiction. For those not aware, these reviews / summaries are spoiler heavy.


1. My Book

Beautiful and poetic, 'My Book' is narrated by a writer beginning a book, but deciding to start with the last word (the most important word, in his opinion). From there the writer moves backward, writing the penultimate, antepenultimate, preantepenultimate, transpreantepenultimate words, and so on. The finished product, as it turns out, is 'My Book' itself. Wolfe's writing in this short piece is amazing and hypnotic, with the story testifying to the unpredictable adventure of authorship.

By the way, does anyone know if "transpreantepenultimate" is actually a word? While I can't find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, I can find its predecessors (or successors, perhaps). Nevertheless, it's a fantastic word - I shall attempt to use it regularly in everyday conversation.

2. In the Mountains

A man who lives with his wife in the mountains tells of another couple who stayed in the city because they feared bears. The narrator believes that living in the city has destroyed their health, and is the reason that their children “have not turned out well.” As I read it, the revelation at the end is that the supposed bear tracks were actually elk tracks, hence their fear was unfounded, and they ruined their lives because of it.

3. At the Volcano’s Lip

A man and his wife visit the site of a volcanic eruption, and he compares the power of the blast to that of an atomic bomb. The story ends on a foreboding tone, perhaps regarding the danger of nuclear weapons. There's not a lot else to say about this one, it wasn't my favourite of the four.

4. The River

This story is certainly the odd one out, since it is narrated in the third-person, not the first, and is quite clearly fantasy. Siith, the Infinite Stream, is an uncrossable river – on one side are the “countries shown on maps”, and on the other, “lands that no map shows”. Althor-elmil, Lord of Siith, has navies that destroy any ship trying to cross the river from the unmapped region, taking some of their crew as slaves, and casting the rest overboard. These castaways, who can turn up on the shore or in the wells of the mapped region, are described as “blood-drinkers” and “hairy men” – vampires and werewolves perhaps? Maybe this is the reason why those on the unmapped region are attempting to cross the river, but those on the mapped region are not. In this way, it is a lot like the relationship between the planets Green and Blue in Wolfe’s Book of the Short Sun, where Green is inhabited by the inhumi (vampires), and Blue is the refuge of the humans from the Whorl. At the end of 'The River' we find that Althor-elmil has been creating flying machines to further his domain, but these are taken by Marhoon, Lord of the Air.
   

No comments:

Post a Comment