Sunday, 4 December 2011

Another reason to play Skyrim

I recently read an article on Paste Player, "Reading a Videogame: The Books of Skyrim", about the many books in Skyrim and the other Elder Scrolls games. The article consists largely of an interview with the Skyrim co-lead developer Kurt Kuhlmann and contains the following awesome nugget of information:
Kuhlmann’s own influences, direct and indirect, include “Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Park, Jeff Vandermeer, and Tolkien for the Silmarillion.”
Now I have yet another reason to buy Skyrim! To scour it for Gene Wolfe references! Although this may mean reading through hundreds of pages worth of in-game books... I wonder if I can justify the time this would take by calling it 'research'? I'll say 'yes'.

One of the majestic dragons of Skyrim. Makes me think of Wolfe's The Wizard Knight,
which is fresh in my mind. Screenshot from The Escapist.
 

Monday, 15 August 2011

Home Fires web comic & Wolfe Chapbooks

Came across a fantastic web comic on Comic Crits today about the experience of reading Home Fires by Gene Wolfe. The creator, John, does a great job of capturing the play on genre in Wolfe's book, and his comic certainly reflects my own thoughts on the novel.

Also, Lawrence Person just blogged about Wolfe's chapbooks, posting scanned title pages of At the Point of Capricorn (1983), The Boy Who Hooked the Sun (1985), The Arimaspian Legacy (1988), and Slow Children at Play (1989). As a fellow collector of Wolfe's work (albeit with a smaller collection than Person, no doubt), I know how rare and valuable these limited-edition chapbooks are. I'm so jealous!
 

Monday, 20 June 2011

Reflections on The Knight

I recently finished reading The Knight (2004) and have now moved on to the second volume of the Wizard Knight series, The Wizard (2004). Although the two books can be said to form one long novel (as is the case with most of Wolfe's series), I thought it would be worthwhile writing some thoughts and impressions on The Knight first.

The Knight follows a young american boy who, when wandering in the woods one day, finds himself in another world: Mythgarthr. There he is given the name "Able of the High Heart," is magically transformed into a well-built adult man, and becomes a knight. During his journeys across land and sea, he takes on various companions, including a half-blind sailor named Pouk, two female Aelf, and a talking dog named Gylf.

Discussing an excerpt from The Knight (part of which is available online) John Clute notes that although the story "may seem at first glance to inhabit a straightforward medieval secondary world with seers and swords, just another Arthurized Version of fantasyland," the book's setting in actuality "resembles fantasyland only superficially, and for just a few pages" (Pardon This Intrusion, 2011, p. 139). This observation echoes exactly what I was feeling as I read the book. At first I was taken aback by the apparent simplicity of the story and its setting: boy goes through Portal to typical Arthurian fantasy world, encounters valiant knights, mythical creatures and magical objects, blah, blah, blah. But it soon becomes apparent that the world Wolfe has created is far from typical. Mythgarthr, it turns out, is the fourth of seven worlds, which exist in parallel and interact with each other in complex and powerful ways. Each world also has its own distinct creatures and cultures. Able's past is also far more mysterious than it first seems, for is revealed that he has spent time in one of these other worlds before, although the experience has been wiped from his mind.

The story also has a fascinating and complex religious element, and a strange cast of mythical creatures from different traditions. One character, versed in magic, says that the human beings of Mythgarthr were created by "the God of the highest world," and we are also told that the Valfather, who lives in a floating castle in the higher world of Skai, is often called the "Most High God" (although mistakenly, for the Valfather abides in Skai, not the highest world of Elysion). These higher worlds also seem heaven-like, and one of them, Kleos, is even populated by angelic beings (the 'angel' that visits Able is named Michael—no kidding). The lower worlds, in turn, often seem hell-like by comparison. However, the small nuggets of information we are given in The Knight aren't much to go on, and I expect these interesting story lines to be developed further in The Wizard.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Knight and thought it was a fantastic return to the rich style of The Book of the New Sun, the four volume series for which Wolfe is probably best known. We again have a first-person narrator who journeys through a strange and fantastic world with a constantly-changing cast of companions. The story is again much more complex than it first appears (and I have no doubt it will become even more so as I make my way through The Wizard). And finally (and this is important) there is once again an excellent balance between conversation and action/narrative. Many (including myself) have struggled with the sheer amount of conversation in some of Wolfe's recent work, such as An Evil Guest (2009) and Home Fires (2011). In the latter of these, for instance, there is a considerable amount of important action involving the novel's central characters that is skipped over, only to be described (repeatedly and in great depth) in conversation later. This is not the case in The Knight, in which we have a fast-paced narrative with enthralling descriptions of Sir Able's adventures, and his epic battles with ogres, giants, dragons, and other knights. Although some conversations are rather long, they are not unwelcome, for they are fascinating and well written, and usually well separated.

There are, of course, also many differences that set The Knight apart from The Book of the New Sun. The language of The Knight is not as complex, and Wolfe refrains from using obscure and archaic words, something that was common in his earlier series. The setting is also very different, for The Knight is set in a fantasy world, whereas The Book of the New Sun (and, indeed, the whole solar cycle) took place in a thoroughly science-fictional universe (although it often felt like a fantasy world, and the interplay of genre in the series is often debated). In short, I would certainly recommend The Knight to anyone who has enjoyed Wolfe's previous series, and would also consider it a good introduction to his work.
   

Sunday, 19 June 2011

My new blog: unfashioned creatures

Last week I created a new blog, unfashioned creatures. As I explain on the blog's first post, I created this blog, silk for caldé, as a place to discuss Gene Wolfe's work and develop ideas for my honours thesis on The Book of the Long Sun. However, I have also written a number of posts here that have nothing to do with Wolfe or sf literature, and this is something I have felt increasingly uncomfortable with, since this started out as a Wolfe-focused blog and is now linked to on other Wolfe-related websites, such as Ultan's Library. Thus, I have created unfashioned creatures as a place to post random miscellaneous outbursts of nerdiness.

     
This blog isn't going anywhere. There's a lot more research I plan to do on Wolfe's work and I've got a lot of his writing still to read. I'm about to post on The Knight, and I really should get around to posting on Home Fires at some point. I'm also planning to read through Letters Home and write a few posts on that as well. But if you're also interested in other posts by someone generally obsessed with sf/fantasy literature, film, tv, games, etc., then please do check out unfashioned creatures. You will also find a link to it, and feed from it, on the left sidebar of this blog.
     

Friday, 10 June 2011

Nobel Prizes in sf?

There was recently an interesting 'Mind Meld' post on SF Signal, one of the science fiction blogs I frequent, in which the following question was discussed: "What SF/F Authors Should Be Considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature?" It should perhaps come as no surprise that many of the contributors discuss Gene Wolfe, who certainly has some of the most sophisticated and literary writing I have come across (hence my obsession). There is also thoughtful discussion of other significant and influential figures in sf, including Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany. The frequent mention of Wolfe was partly driven by a recent tweet by John D. through the @sfsignal Twitter account, and with which I would have to agree:

Tweet from @sfsignal: RT @PrinceJvstin It's my contention that Gene Wolfe is one of the few core genre writers who could plausibly get a Nobel Prize in Literature
   

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Gene Wolfe's birthday, beginning The Knight, and first sentences

Today — 7 May, 2011 — is Gene Wolfe's 80th birthday. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when a post on Hoof & Hide's blog pointed me to a new blog that had been set up so that people could wish Wolfe a happy birthday (in the comments field of the first post). The blog, Happy 80th Birthday, Gene!, already has some 114 comments, including one from Neil Gaiman, and a humorous little birthday poem from Michael Andre-Driussi, Urth scholar extraordinaire.

A couple of days ago I started reading Wolfe's The Knight, which has been on my to-read list for ages. I have just started a new full-time job at a different library (while still studying part-time), and have thus been too busy to do much reading (or writing). I've been restricting myself to short stories, and I've been loving The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson and Charles Yu's Third Class Superhero — both fantastic short story collections. Anyway, I finally picked up The Knight. The first thing that popped into my head was that the first sentence seemed uncharacteristically straightforward for one of Wolfe's: "You must have stopped wondering what happened to me a long time ago; I know it has been many years." It got me thinking about the opening sentences of each of the series in the Solar Cycle, which were amazing:

The Shadow of the Torturer, the first instalment of The Book of the New Sun, opens with: "It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future." It is, in many ways, quite an odd opening sentence - it seems to have little connection with the rest of the paragraph, which goes on to describe the aftermath of Severian's swim and near-death experience in the Gyoll - but it so brilliantly encapsulates the book's metaphysical and philosophical themes of time travel, free will and predestination, that I think it's absolutely perfect.

Nightside of the Long Sun, the first part of The Book of the Long Sun, opens with what is one of my most-loved lines of the book: "Enlightenment came to Patera Silk on the ball court; nothing could ever be the same after that." Again, this first sentence sums up so much of what the book is about, it's philosophical and theological core — Silk's enlightenment by the god he calls the Outsider and the absolute paradigm shift that occurs when his entire worldview is turned on its head. When you read it, as the first thing you read, it startles you, in much the same way as the sudden coming of this "enlightenment" must have startled Silk, and thus puts you in the perfect mindset for reading the puzzling and erratic sentences that describe the enlightenment itself.

Finally, On Blue's Waters opens with what initially seems to be a fairly straightforward sentence: "It is worthless, this old pen case I brought from Viron." It seems a simple statement, but I believe it is a metaphor for something more profound, as argued on the WolfeWiki. The narrator's description of the "old pen case" could (spoiler alert) serve as a metaphor for his own physical body, the body of Silk, the elderly man he was sent to retrieve from Viron. The three quills referred to in the following paragraph could thus represent three spirits inhabiting it. The worthlessness which the narrator ascribes to the pen case could reflect the unworthiness (and even self-loathing) that he seems to feel throughout the series, and which becomes central to his character.

I guess I just wanted to rant for a bit about how much I love those three opening sentences, and how each embodies so much of the series that will follow, tapping at the thematic cores of each. It may be that, like the opening to On Blue's Waters, the first sentence of The Knight has some deeper meaning which won't be apparent until much later on, or maybe it is just a more straightforward series than some of his earlier work (which is absolutely fine, and I know Wolfe has been tending towards "simpler" stories in his recent stand-alone novels, perhaps for increased accessibility). I'd better get back to reading to find out!
   

Friday, 8 April 2011

Comics! and a Tights and Tiaras update...

I'm still trying to find the time to write a substantial post - I have some things to say about Gene Wolfe's latest novel, Home Fires. Lately I've had very little free time, though - between working near-full-time, studying a coursework masters degree part-time, assisting with the organisation of a conference, writing conference papers, and so on. I do, however, have time for comics!

My wife and I ventured into the city today to check out a new comic store: All Star Comics. The place is gorgeous, with nice staff and a great range of comics and graphic novels. I had to seriously restrain myself while I was in there, but I ended up buying a few trade paperbacks and a few individual comics. I picked up Birds of Prey: Of Like Minds, the first Birds of Prey trade from Gail Simone's run, which has been recommended to me by various people. I was also excited to find Fables, Vol. 15: Rose Red — I don't care what anyone says, I love Fables, overdrawn Israel analogy and all. I think the characters are great, the art and covers are magnificent, and I love what Willingham does with classic fairy tale and fable characters and stories. I grabbed Dollhouse: Epitaphs and The Guild: Tink one-shots (for my Felicia Day fix, apparently), and I picked up issue #21 of the graphic novel adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (by Boom Studios and Electric Shepherd Productions). I remembered reading about this issue of DADoES on Gabriel Mckee's SF Gospel blog - it's the issue in which Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends do the exposé on Wilbur Mercer, which is central to the religious and philosophical storyline of the novel. Mckee also has a short essay at the end of the issue on the role of religion in the novel, which I'm really looking forward to reading.


Anyway, while we're on the topic of comics, I should mention that the conference my reading group is organising, Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures, now has a conference website and a second, extended call for papers (see below). We have also announced our keynote speaker, Karen Healey, an author of young adult fiction who is writing her PhD on superhero comics and has been active in feminist comics criticism with her now-archived blog on Girl-Wonder.org, Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed). If you're into comics and plan to be in Melbourne in August, then come along to the two-day conference!



TIGHTS AND TIARAS: FEMALE SUPERHEROES AND MEDIA CULTURES EXTENDED CALL FOR PAPERS

12-13 August 2011
Monash University, Melbourne, Australia


In 2010, the 600th issue of Wonder Woman celebrated the Amazonian superhero’s longevity in print media. To mark the occasion, the issue reinvented the superhero’s iconic costume to make it less revealing, introducing dark trousers and a blue, starred jacket. This shift to more practical, less sexualised wear arguably reflects changing attitudes about gender and the growing female presence in the comics industry. Nonetheless, the change prompted some controversy online amongst fan communities, again highlighting the problematic history of the representation of women as powerful figures.

‘Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures’ is a one and a half day interrogation of the construct of the ‘superhero’ as female and more generally of the representation of powerful female figures in fantasy and science fiction. Looking at a range of print and visual media, papers will explore the range of female characters in superhero narratives, the material history of the female superhero, and how visual and textual constructs of female heroes - and anti-heroes - have been re-imagined, re-invented and re-packaged over time.

Keynote Speaker: Karen Healey

Karen Healey is the writer of the popular archived feminist comics blog, Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed). She is currently an acclaimed author of young adult fiction and is completing a dissertation on superhero comics as fan-created text at the University of Melbourne.

Possible topics include:
  • The representation of female superheroes in print and visual media – in comics, comix, graphic novels, novels, short stories, fan fiction, film, television, and other media forms
  • Distribution of narratives and images of female superheroes across multiple genres and media platforms
  • The female hero quest
  • Deconstructing the superhero trope – studies in feminism, patriotism, politics, race, satire, comedy, and so on
  • Constructs of the female supervillain
  • Superhero fashions, including costumes, cosplay and sartorial signifiers
  • Female collaboration in comics
  • Female comics artists: historical and contemporary
  • Female comics audiences and fan communities
  • Analysis of the institutional, commercial and licensing histories of female superhero properties
  • The construction of powerful women in fantasy and science fiction genres
Please submit abstracts of no more than 250 words, accompanied by a brief bio, by emailed attachment to tightsandtiaras@monash.edu. The extended deadline for abstracts is 26 April, 2011.

Conference website: http://arts.monash.edu.au/ecps/conferences/tights-and-tiaras/
  

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

New Gene Wolfe short story in the upcoming anthology Ghosts by Gaslight

SF Signal just posted the table of contents for an upcoming anthology: Ghosts by Gaslight: Stories of Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers. The book, which will be published by HarperCollins and released in September, includes a new story from Gene Wolfe, who is well familiar with writing ghost stories. From the HarperCollins website:
They are the stories that have enthralled and terrified readers for generations, tales of the supernatural featuring haunted houses, phantoms beneath the floorboards, ghostly coachmen, figures in the carpet, ghosts in the machine, foggy, gaslit streets. In this mesmerizing collection, renowned editors Jack Dann and Nick Gevers bring together fresh modern feats of the phantasmagoric in the grand tradition of such classics as Henry James’s "The Turn of the Screw," Robert Louis Stevenson’s "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Award-winning and bestselling authors, including Peter Beagle, Sean Williams, Gene Wolfe, Garth Nix, and Robert Silverberg, weave their magic in tales abrim with deep frights, shuddering chills, disquieting subtlety, shocking psychological ambiguity, and radical twists on all the classic ghostly elements. Here, too, in all their gothic glory are the eerie mechanisms of steampunk, engines waiting to entrap, magnify, or focus the souls of the dead . . .

Revitalizing the Victorian and Edwardian ghost story for twenty-first century readers, Ghosts by Gaslight reminds us that within the darkness lurk not only our most profound fears, but also unsuspected horrors from within ourselves.
Sounds like a great collection! Wolfe's story will be titled "Why I Was Hanged." You can check out the full list of stories on the SF Signal post or on the HarperCollins website.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

New library acquisition: Encounter with Tiber

Who knew that Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, had co-authored a science fiction novel? I had no idea until a couple of days ago, when my library's Rare Books Librarian showed me one of the latest additions to our science fiction collection: Encounter with Tiber by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes. And the best thing? It's signed by Aldrin! Also, there's a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke. Wow. I was almost totally freaking out in a moment of super nerdishness. A New York Times review and synopsis of the novel is linked to on Aldrin's website.


  

Sunday, 6 March 2011

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

I just finished Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and I can hardly express how much I loved it. The story follows a time machine repair man, also named Charles Yu, who lives in a "science fictional universe" called Minor Universe 31. During the course of the novel, he becomes trapped in a time loop and must figure out how to escape it, all the while dealing with hangups on his childhood in a dysfunctional family. The book is prologued by the following paraphrased excerpt from the text, which hooked me immediately:
When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself.
     Not, you know, my self self. I shoot my future self. He steps out of a time machine, introduces himself as Charles Yu. What else am I supposed to do? I kill him. I kill my own future.
As the same time, though, I'm not sure it's a book for everyone. Some of the things I loved the most could well be despised by other readers. The narrator's frequent philosophising on metaphysics, ontology, time, and the nature of human memory and relationships could come off as self-indulgent ramblings that don't further the plot. For me, however, they made the book. They also make the protagonist a very interesting and well-developed character. An example of one of the book's great lines: "Most people I know live their lives moving in a constant forward direction, the whole time looking backward" (22).

The narrator's reflections on loneliness and isolation, his frequent comparisons of past and future to regret and anxiety, could come off as being unnecessarily negative and depressing, but perhaps they just appealed to my inner emo, because reading the narrator's struggles with these negative thoughts and emotions (regret over his childhood relationship with his father, and anxiety about ever seeing his father again, etc) gave the book a very human element, making it more about human relationships than time travel per se.

The book is also beautifully written, and even those sentences that 10-20 lines long flow wonderfully. There are frequent references to other science fiction stories and to nerd culture in general, and the novel often moves into the realm of meta-fictional self-reflection. I loved both of these aspects of the text, and in my mind its relatively short length, of a little over 200 pages, was ideal, since it didn't allow the book's unique style, blending sf with metaphysics and meta-fiction, to outstay its welcome.

Perhaps the book appeals to me because I've studies math, physics, sf literature, narratology and philosophy. Perhaps it's just because I'm a massive nerd. Either way, I would certainly side with the glowing five-star review the book received from Andrew Liptak on SF Signal, and agree wholeheartedly with his closing paragraph:
How To Live Safely is an exemplary example of storytelling in the genre, where story and characters come together to bring about a story of revelation, and one that is both thought provoking and touching. Yu, working through himself, paints a lonely, troubled existence, one with much baggage that he slowly works out over the course of the story. Here, time travel is the perfect medium for looking over past, rather than the future. [SF Signal]

I just really, really, really wish I could have this one-of-a-kind copy of the book, which mirrors the book as it is described in the book, and was given away by Wired.com last year:


The Book from Nowhere.
Developed by Andy Hughes of Random House’s Knopf publishing group
    

Friday, 4 March 2011

The Little Bookroom

When my wife and I were in the city yesterday we came across a beautiful new bookshop we'd heard some friends at uni talking about: The Little Bookroom on Degraves Street. The Little Bookroom is a small independent bookshop specialising in children's literature; their main branch is in Carlton North. My wife studied children's literature as part of her English major, and we've both studied fairy tales, so we have quite a collection of illustrated children's books on our bookshelves at home.

The Little Bookroom, Degraves Street, Melbourne

We saw some absolutely beautiful books there, including some incredible limited printings of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days and the complete Beatrix Potter, but my favourite collectible was on display at the front of the store: a limited edition of Shaun Tan's The Arrival, housed in a unique briefcase with a book of sketches and a signed print from the book. If I had five hundred disposable dollars I'd have bought it right there, but unfortunately that wasn't the case. Oh well. My wife and I do, however, have signed first editions of a number of Tan's books, including The Arrival, and we had the pleasure of meeting him at Aussiecon 4 last year (my wife also met him when he gave a talk at Monash University a few years earlier). Tan's short film The Lost Thing, which we got to see at Aussiecon 4 and now have on DVD, just won an Oscar.

Limited edition of Shaun Tan's The Arrival
  

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

“King Rat” and the abuse of women in Gene Wolfe’s stories

I am holding off posting about Wolfe’s latest novel, Home Fires, because I want to receive my copy of the PS Publishing edition (with its introduction by Alastair Reynolds) before doing so. So I thought that, in the mean time, I would do a series of posts on the three short stories Wolfe had published in 2010: “King Rat” (in Gateways: A Feast of Great New Science Fiction Honoring Grand Master Frederik Pohl, edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull), “Bloodsport” (in Swords & Dark Magic, edited by Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders), and “Leif in the Wind” (in Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio).

"KING RAT" 

In terms of genre, “King Rat” falls somewhere between the sword and sorcery fantasy setting of “Bloodsport” and the hard sf setting of “Leif in the Wind”, taking place in what seems to be a far distant post-apocalyptic future.

The story begins with the protagonist-narrator leaving his ruined city and sneaking aboard a massive alien spaceship, the main body of which seems to have been outfitted with a small, self-sufficient eco-system, with open fields and running streams surrounded by tall cliffs. (It is unclear why these aliens built such a spaceship, and whether or not they know that humans have been sneaking aboard and living there.) There he lives, just trying to survive, and even has a female companion stay with him for a while. For some time he stays near the cliffs of the spaceship, where he discovered a hidden door that allows him entrance to the ship’s corridors and storage holds. Near the end of the story the protagonist teams up with a young lion to take down the leader of a group of humans, thereby becoming king.

Throughout the story the narrator encounters a number of strange animals, and we are constantly trying to figure out the bizarre natures of these animals. What the narrator calls ‘spiders’ are clearly aliens, and probably received that name because of their eight eyes and eight legs, although they would seem to be roughly human sized. These aliens use modified, controllable elephants for labour. The narrator also describes multiple encounters with lions that seem to be intelligent and capable of speech, although they otherwise look and act like normal lions.

But the story is first and foremost about human nature and the human condition. Just as we are asking, “what are the natures of these animals?” we must also ask, “what are the natures of these humans?” And the human race does not fare well. The narrator, like most of the other people in the story, is treacherous, violent, cannibalistic, and an absolute misogynist.

DEPICTING THE ABUSE OF WOMEN: TEXT AND CONTEXT

Particularly given the way the story ends (and I'll get to that later), I feel I should say something here about the representation of women in this story and, to a lesser degree, in Wolfe’s work in general. The other day I was reading a heated GoodReads message board discussion on whether or not Wolfe is a rampant woman-hating misogynist that advocates the rape, torture, and general abuse of all women everywhere. The supposed evidence for this was the horrible mistreatment of women in Severian’s society on Urth in The Book of the New Sun, in which we have somewhat graphic descriptions of the rape, torture, executions, and general subjugation of women. Wolfe’s detractors took these scenes and aspects of the society, and the narrator’s passive endorsement of them, as evidence of his endorsement of the mistreatment of women, and hence of his misogyny (see message 1).

Of course, the entire argument is based on the false assumption that authors necessarily endorse everything they describe in their stories, and that narrators are always mouthpieces of their writers. That is not true of most sophisticated authors, and certainly not true of Wolfe (see message 7). Thus the argument progressed to adamant declarations that society was meant to have moved on from including such ugly things as rape and torture in literature, and that Wolfe’s writing is not literature anyway, but rather “pulp, fantasy Sci-Fi” (message 16 – also read the great responses in message 17 and message 23). Sigh.

Anyway, let me use some anecdotal and textual evidence to illustrate why it is important to consider context when reading such scenes, so as not to mistake condemnation for endorsement. One evening, a few years ago, a friend and I were watching the Richard Dawkins documentary The Root of All Evil? (later re-titled The God Delusion) on TV. In it, Dawkins argues that the world would be better off without religion, and as part of his argument he attempts to prove that the Old Testament, as an important part of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, contains poisonous incitements to (and justifications of) gross violence and misogyny (see also chapter seven of his book The God Delusion). He does this by citing Judges 19:22-30, which describes the group rape and beating of a female concubine, and her subsequent death and dismemberment. The next day my friend and I attended a lecture for our history/literature unit “The World of the Bible: Text and Context,” in which the lecturer, having also watched the documentary the night before, tore apart Dawkins's terrible misinterpretation of the text. He emphasized the importance of taking the text in context, and not taking the passive narration of the events (and almost all of the historical books of the Bible are narrated in such a way) as an endorsement of them. He explained that reason the passage chosen by Dawkins appears towards the end of the book of Judges is because that book is meant to illustrate the increasing degradation and unraveling of society, to the point that the people needed a king to guide them. The events of Judges are a progression from bad to worse, and the horrible mistreatment of women is the worst point society reaches before all-out civil war in Judges 20-21. Indeed, the book closes reiterating its most repeated words: “In those days there was no King in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The entire point of the graphic rape and violence in Judges 19 was to show how far society had fallen and how badly the people needed guidance – it was certainly not an endorsement of the actions being described, but rather a condemnation of them.

THE MISTREATMENT OF WOMEN IN WOLFE’S STORIES

As in the text discussed above, Wolfe’s description of the mistreatment and subjugation of women in Severian’s society (and by Severian himself) should not be taken as Wolfe’s personal endorsement of it, any more than his descriptions of cannibalism and public executions (also done by Severian) should be taken as endorsements of those actions. Rather, it should be read as further evidence of just how far human society had fallen by the time the story begins; evidence that the post-apocalyptic Urth is a dystopian place of horrible violence and perversion (and not just violence against women, for men are also raped, tortured and abused in the story, although, on the whole, women certainly do fare worse in the intentionally backward society of Severian’s Commonwealth). Just as J. G. Ballard is not endorsing the truly twisted, violent perversions described in novels such as Crash and High-Rise, Wolfe is not endorsing the mistreatment of women depicted in The Book of the New Sun.

Wolfe generally avoids using his protagonists or narrators to proclaim his own beliefs, but the closest he comes to creating and using such a mouthpiece may well be Patera Silk, the protagonist of The Book of the Long Sun. In Silk, Wolfe set out to depict a truly good man, and has acknowledged that Silk’s values tend to reflect his own (see the interview with Lawrence Person). When Silk sees a man hit a defenseless woman in Orchid’s brothel in Nightside of the Long Sun, he is infuriated and has to hold himself back from killing the man on the spot, clearly showing revulsion for the man’s mistreatment of the woman. The most sexist statements of the book (which took me aback when I first read them) are made by the wicked Councilor Loris in Lake of the Long Sun, and Loris is a character who clearly represents immorality rather than morality, and who, appropriately, is killed shortly after his misogynistic rant.

Returning to “King Rat,” we find a first-person narrator who describes all kinds of degraded acts being done by people to one another, including cannibalism. After describing how he became king by killing the previous king, Kazi, he tells his daughter (to whom he is narrating) what happened to his wives, and gives her some final advice before sending her off to bed:
Kazi’d had two wives and I took them over, only a river lizard got one by the leg and drowned her. It’s how they do. The other one got to giving me a hard time, so we ate her. After that I remembered your mom [abandoned earlier in the story] and went back for her. Now I want you to remember all this stuff and think about it before you sleep. You’re going to have to teach your own kids how I got to be king and why you’re queen, see? I know you think your kids are far away, but guys see your tits already. You pick a good one. He doesn’t have to be big, but he’s got to be tough, and he’s got to be somebody who’ll stick by you. If he isn’t I’ll off him if I’m still around. If I’m not, you’ll have to off him yourself. Quick. (256-7)
The lightheartedness with which the narrator describes his acquired wives as property is bad enough, but the subsequent blasé descriptions of one being killed by a lizard and the other being cannibalised for getting on his nerves are shocking to the core. His final words of advice to his daughter, vulgar and murderous, also reveal him to be awfully hypocritical: he became king not from being tough, but from making a deal with a young lion; he didn’t “stick by” his daughter’s mother, but left her alone and forgot about her for months, if not years.

The final words of the narrator’s story are horrific – and that's the point. We are meant to be horrified by the sordid nature of this man, by his terrible mistreatment of his wives and his daughter’s mother. It is exactly that dark side of humanity – the inhumanity of people – that we are forced to reflect on. In the end, the nature of the man who became king is revealed in full: he truly is the king rat.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to argue that Wolfe is a feminist, just that he isn’t the woman-hating misogynist that some would make him out to be. I will have more to say on Wolfe’s representation of women when I discuss Home Fires, but suffice to say here that I do believe that when it comes to gender roles in society (and a number of other issues), Wolfe tends to adopt more conservative, if perhaps a bit out-dated, approaches. That, however, doesn’t change the fact that he is an incredible author. An author held by many, including myself, to be the greatest science fiction author alive. Or maybe ever. Yeah, ever sounds right.
    

Sunday, 20 February 2011

"Tights and Tiaras" - an upcoming conference on female superheroes

My wife and I have been members of a feminist reading group in Monash University's School of English, Communications and Performance Studies for a couple of years. Our group is currently organising a symposium on female superheroes, titled "Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures," to be held at Monash University (Clayton) in August. Check out the call for papers below the break. I'll post more details throughout the year. The last conference organised by the reading group was "Vampires, Vamps and Va Va Voom: A Critical Engagement with Paranormal Romance."

You might also like to check out the following blogs run by other members of the reading group:


Patrick has also compiled a list of blogs and websites maintained by staff and students associated with English, Communications and Performance Studies at Monash, which can be found on his blog.



TIGHTS AND TIARAS: FEMALE SUPERHEROES AND MEDIA CULTURES

12-13 August 2011

Monash University, Melbourne

Sponsored by: The Centre for the Book, Monash University

In 2010, the 600th issue of Wonder Woman celebrated the Amazonian superhero’s longevity in print media. To mark the occasion, the issue reinvented the superhero’s iconic costume to make it less revealing, introducing dark trousers and a blue, starred jacket. This shift to more practical, less sexualised wear arguably reflects changing attitudes about gender and the growing female presence in the comics industry. Nonetheless, the change prompted some controversy online amongst fan communities, again highlighting the problematic history of the representation of women as powerful figures.

‘Tights and Tiaras: Female Superheroes and Media Cultures’ is a one and a half day interrogation of the construct of the ‘superhero’ as female and more generally of the representation of powerful female figures in fantasy and science fiction. Looking at a range of print and visual media, papers will explore the range of female characters in superhero narratives, the material history of the female superhero, and how visual and textual constructs of female heroes - and anti-heroes - have been re-imagined, re-invented and re-packaged over time.

Possible topics include:
  • The representation of female superheroes in print and visual media – in comics, comix, graphic novels, novels, short stories, fan fiction, film, television, and other media forms
  • Distribution of narratives and images of female superheroes across multiple genres and media platforms
  • The female hero quest
  • Deconstructing the superhero trope – studies in feminism, patriotism, politics, race, satire, comedy, and so on
  • Constructs of the female supervillain
  • Superhero fashions, including costumes, cosplay and sartorial signifiers
  • Female collaboration in comics
  • Female comics artists: historical and contemporary
  • Female comics audiences and fan communities
  • Analysis of the institutional, commercial and licensing histories of female superhero properties
  • The construction of powerful women in fantasy and science fiction genres

Please submit abstracts of no more than 250 words, accompanied by a brief bio, by emailed attachment to Dr Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario, Rebecca.DoRozario@monash.edu. The deadline for abstracts is 11 April, 2011.
  

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Poppets!

It's been a whole month since my last post. I've been busy, but hopefully things are settling down a bit now. I've started my new course, the Master of Information Studies (Librarianship) at Charles Sturt University, and work's been taking off as we get prepared for first semester. I'm off work next week, though, because I'm getting my wisdom teeth extracted (eek!). If I'm not too doped out on pain killers, and can string a few coherent sentences together, I'll write and post a review of Gene Wolfe's latest novel, Home Fires, which I have just finished reading. For now, I just thought I'd post some photos of the two beautiful Poppets that my lovely wife bought me for Valentines Day.

Saturday Afternoon Reading Poppet and Classic Little Red Poppet

Poppets are the creation of Lisa Snellings-Clark and are sold through her Etsy store, Strange Studios. She has made many different kinds of Poppet and has featured the Classic Little Red Poppet in numerous paintings. Her work has been featured in chapbook collaborations with Gene Wolfe, Neil Gaiman, Charles DeLint, John Shirley, and Peter Beagle. I absolutely adore the Wolfe chapbook, Strange Birds (DreamHaven, 2006), with its beautiful cover art and two original stories, "On a Vacant Face a Bruise" and "Sob in the Silence." Copies are still available, and the small book is a must-have for Wolfe fans (the two stories it contains cannot currently be found elsewhere).

 
    

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Gene Wolfe interview on io9

Just a quick post to point out a new Gene Wolfe interview on io9. The interview, which has just been posted, was conducted last month by io9's Josh Wimmer, and has been titled "Gene Wolfe talks dystopian futures, and the chances of star-drive in our lifetime."

The interview covers some good ground, including Wolfe's experiences in the Korean War and his predictions about where the world is going, while focusing on his new novel Home Fires, which was released earlier this month (although I'm still waiting for my copy to arrive in the mail - that's what happens when you live in Australia, I guess).

Josh also does a good job of introducing Wolfe, and I particularly liked this paragraph:
No one else writes like Gene Wolfe. Perhaps most famous for his four-part Book of the New Sun — which Neil Gaiman called "the best SF novel of the last century" — the onetime industrial engineer and editor crafts stories that seem to hint at dozens of things left unsaid. His prose can be simultaneously baroque and perfectly clear, demanding deeper engagement from readers than most fantasy and science-fiction literature does — and supplying commensurate rewards.
Hear, hear! Check out the whole interview on the io9 blog, which is one of my favourite sources of nerdy news.
 

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Thesis results, and my plans for 2011 and beyond

Happy New Year! Just a short post to update those interested on how my honours (undergraduate) thesis went last year. I submitted my thesis on religion in Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun in October last year, and received results in December. I was thrilled to receive First Class Honours for the thesis, which both examiners really enjoyed. Furthermore, last week I received the 2010 Monash University Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies Best Honours Thesis Prize.

One of the examiners also made some comments on how much he enjoyed reading The Book of the Long Sun in preparation for marking the thesis, saying that Wolfe's tetralogy reminded him of the "emancipative and enlightening force of early Christianity," with its emphases on personal faith in a single god and love and self-sacrifice for others. Yay! The world now has one more Wolfe reader!

This year I will be working on developing the thesis into a couple of articles - one on Wolfe's catholicism in The Book of the Long Sun (and how he uses the text to propound a complex and multifaceted Christian theology), and another on how Wolfe's use of the generation starship trope differs significantly from the generally more anti-religious uses of the trope which preceded his tetralogy (and which the tetralogy responds to). I'll be sure to post details here as these plans gradually come to fruition.

This year I also begin a Master of Information Studies at Charles Sturt University (part-time via distance over three years), in order to become a qualified librarian. I plan to continue reading and researching science fiction (and Gene Wolfe in particular) over the next few years, with the intention of beginning a PhD (probably part-time) a year or two after I graduate from CSU. My head is brimming with half-baked ideas on what this hypothetical thesis could be on: Wolfe's experiences in the Korean War and their influences on his writing (including a study of Letters Home), Wolfe's relationship to the New Wave movement, or maybe the narratological techniques Wolfe employs in order to open up his stories to multiple interpretations, creating an infinite interpretative space within the text (something I thought about working into my honours thesis, but in the end rejected because it proved to be too massive a topic to handle properly). I also need to take some time to finish reading all of Wolfe's writing, since there is a vast amount of it (including hundreds of short stories), and I'm probably not even half-way through reading it all yet. Oh well, there's plenty of time! All the best for 2011, everyone!
  

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The influence of G. K. Chesterton's writings on Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun

It's been a while since I've written anything substantial on this blog, so I thought I'd post some of what I wrote for my honours thesis last year (I'll do a post soon on how it all went). As I was researching Wolfe and the role of religion in his epic science fiction tetralogy The Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996), Chesterton's influence on Wolfe's faith and writing kept coming to the foreground. Most of what I wrote on Wolfe and Chesterton was originally incorporated into the main body of my thesis, but when I was faced with being about a thousand words over the word limit, I reluctantly moved the Chesterton material to an appendix, which, for some reason, doesn't contribute towards the total word count. Although most of these connections have been made before, I still thought I would post it here as it might be of interest to others who, like me, are fascinated by the literary and spiritual influences on Wolfe and his work.



The Best of Gene Wolfe (2009) reprints two of Wolfe’s most overtly Catholic short stories, “Westwind” and “The Detective of Dreams,” each of which is followed by a short afterword referring readers to Chesterton. The first attests to Chesterton’s literary influence on Wolfe, who cheerfully acknowledges The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) as a precursor to his own story. The second reveals Chesterton’s influence on Wolfe’s Catholic faith: “I will not lecture you on Jesus of Nazareth,” writes Wolfe, “but I advise you to find Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man” [1]. Both kinds of influence, literary and spiritual, are evident in The Book of the Long Sun, particularly in the characterisation of Patera Silk, the story’s protagonist.

Wolfe himself has pointed to Chesterton’s Father Brown as an inspiration for Silk and there are numerous similarities between the two characters. Martin Gardner, the scholar behind The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown (1987), believes Brown to be “the second most famous mystery-solver in English literature,” after Sherlock Holmes [2]. Although both are highly observant and intelligent, Brown stands apart from Holmes because his deductions are more frequently based on intuitive leaps than the stringent analysis of scientific data. Silk also uses this mode of detection in a number of scenes in The Book of the Long Sun, most noticeably during his investigations of the possessions and murder at Orchid’s brothel in Nightside of the Long Sun, which Nick Gevers has rightly identified as a detective story pastiche [3]. In fact, throughout the entire series Silk shows remarkable intuition, frequently piecing things together before the other characters, or even the readers, have a chance to do so. In addition to their obvious vocational similarities (both Brown and Silk are clergymen), the two characters also have reformed criminals as sidekicks: Flambeau and Auk, respectively. These parallels demonstrate Silk’s connection to Father Brown and establish him as Wolfe’s homage to Chesterton’s famous detective.

Christopher Beiting has also observed parallels between Silk and Saint Francis of Assisi, since both are given a divine command they interpret “in the most literal—and wrong—way possible” [4]. The connection seems intentional on Wolfe’s part and was most likely inspired by Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi (1923), in which particular emphasis is placed on what Chesterton identifies as a defining moment of the saint’s spiritual journey:
The story very largely revolves around the ruins of the Church of St. Damian, an old shrine in Assisi which was apparently neglected and falling to pieces. Here Francis was in the habit of praying before the crucifix. … As he did so he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Francis, seest thou not that my house is in ruins? Go and restore it for me.’ [5]
Likewise, the god called “the Outsider,” who is surely none other than Wolfe's Catholic God, gives Silk an important mission during his initial enlightenment, one that is remarkably similar to St. Francis's: “There’s only one thing that the Outsider wishes me to do,” he explains to his students, “I am to save our manteion” [6]. Chesterton continues his narrative with St. Francis’s response to this calling:
Francis sprang up and went. To go and do something was one of the driving demands of his nature; probably he had gone and done it before he had at all thoroughly thought out what he had done. … In the coarse conventional language of the uncomprehending world, he stole. [7]
Similarly, when Silk becomes aware that his manteion (church) and its adjoining palaestra (school) have been sold to the crime lord Blood, he, like St. Francis, acts immediately, though irrationally, infiltrating Blood’s villa and attempting to steal the deed for the buildings. He fails, however, when he falls from the villa’s roof, breaks his ankle and is apprehended by Blood’s guards. Silk is then forced to agree to Blood’s demand for 26,000 cards (the currency of the city) for the property, double what Blood claims to have paid, although we later discover he only paid thirteen hundred: “Only when I’d talked to him a little, I made it thirteen thousand,” Blood boasts, “because he really thought those old buildings in the middle of that slum were priceless” [8].

According to Chesterton, after St. Francis’s release from jail for the theft and resale of some of his father’s possessions, he took to the streets and begged for bricks, which he used to repair the Church of St. Damian. Only later did he realise that:
he was labouring at a double task, and rebuilding something else as well as the church of Saint Damian. … something that has often enough fallen into ruin but has never been past rebuilding; a church that could always be built anew though it had rotted away to its first foundation stone, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. [9]
Likewise, Silk labours under the misapprehension that the Outsider wishes him to save the physical buildings of his manteion, and many of his actions in The Book of the Long Sun seem to be directed to this end. Only at the close of the final volume, Exodus from the Long Sun, does Silk finally realise what the Outsider truly meant: “I have done it,” he tells some of his followers, “saved it from the dissolution of the whorl. Or at least I will have when we reach the new one. I was to save our manteion; and that is the manteion, all of those people coming together to worship. The rest was trimming, very much including me” [10]. At the end of the tetralogy, Silk realises how drastically he misinterpreted the divine command—that he was meant to save the manteion’s congregation, not its buildings.

Silk’s gradual reassertion, throughout the series, of a distinctly Christian monotheism also seems to echo Chesterton’s declaration that the true church, the spiritual church, can always be rebuilt, even if it seems to have rotted away almost entirely, as is the case in Silk’s world. Thus, Chesterton’s distinctive retelling of St. Francis’s story, with its own emphases and commentaries, seems to have influenced Wolfe’s own understanding of divine calling and his portrayal of Silk’s enlightenment, motivations and actions. Wolfe’s debt to Chesterton, particularly in his characterisation of Silk, places The Book of the Long Sun firmly within a distinctively Catholic literary tradition.


[1] Gene Wolfe, The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of his Finest Short Fiction (New York: Tor-Tom Doherty, 2009) 346.
[2] Martin Gardner, Introduction to The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown, by G. K. Chesterton, with introduction and notes by Martin Gardner (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987) 1.
[3] See Nick Gevers's two brilliant articles on The Book of the Long Sun: http://www.ultan.org.uk/five-steps-towards-briah/ and http://www.ultan.org.uk/the-reader-as-augur/
[4] Christopher Beiting, “The Divine Irruption in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 11.3 (2008): 92.
[5] G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, 1923 (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1943) 62-3.
[6] Gene Wolfe, Lake of the Long Sun, 1994, in: Litany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty, 2000) 281-2.
[7] Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, 63.
[8] Gene Wolfe, Caldé of the Long Sun, 1994, in: Epiphany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty, 2000) 283.
[9] Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi, 68-9.
[10] Gene Wolfe, Exodus from the Long Sun, 1996, in: Epiphany of the Long Sun (New York: Orb-Tom Doherty, 2000) 702.