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).


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.


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.


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.


  1. I read that Goodreads thread as well, but it seemed like the guy was trolling, so I didn't bother to respond. I'm very grateful for your well written and well reasoned response, however. Maybe you should post a link to your blog entry in the thread? Or I will, if you prefer.

  2. I considered that, but I wasn't sure if I would. With your encouragement, however, I think I will. Thanks! And I'm glad you liked the post :)

  3. This is excellent, Zach! You might be interested to see my recent slightly similar argument on the Silk & Horn Heresy blog about houses of prostitution in Gene Wolfe's works:


    It's interesting too that I also mention Dawkins in my 'Thoughts on the Book of the Long Sun (Part 2 of 2) - Evil Religion and the God Who Liberates':


    Zach, seriously, keep up this great work on Wolfe.


  4. I do have one question: what do you mean by some of Wolfe's approaches being 'perhaps a bit outdated'? I don't mean specifically what you find outdated (though that's interesting too), but what you mean by something being 'outdated' at all. It sounds to me like you're not likely to be some form of moral relativist and so wouldn't buy into objective morals being tied to an age and then becoming 'outdated' in that sense. So just wondering, what *do* you mean then? Cheers,


  5. Hey Daniel,

    Thanks for your comments and the links to your posts! I saw the new one pop up on my RSS feed reader the other day and read it immediately. I hadn’t thought about the prevalence of brothels in Wolfe’s work, but it certainly does seem to be a theme. As I mentioned in this post, I think that Silk’s reaction to the beating of one of the prostitutes at Orchid’s brothel reveals Wolfe’s own revulsion of the mistreatment and objectification of women in such places.

    Regarding what I wrote about some of Wolfe's approaches being outdated: it is something I will probably address more fully in a post on Home Fires (if PS Publishing ever gets around to sending out their copies, which were due out in January). As an example, though, in Home Fires all secretaries are referred to as ‘girls’, with the executives/partners drawing new secretaries out of a ‘pool’ of ‘five girls’. Aside from the fact that not all secretaries are female (certainly not today), referring to such women as ‘girls’ seems unnecessarily diminutive. The clear divide in the book between the lawyers and partners (men) and their secretaries (women) doesn’t seem terribly... progressive.

    Furthermore, the female characters of Wolfe’s fiction are often stereotyped in a fairly reductive way, with even the ‘stronger’ female characters tending to be overly sexualised and always concerned with their looks, relying heavily on the male characters and eventually having tearful breakdowns and begging for their men to hold them.

    Perhaps the word ‘outdated’ wasn’t exactly what I was going for, but I attempting to convey the notion that Wolfe doesn’t often depict women as the equals of his (usually) male protagonists, and not much of a case can be made for him as a feminist author. That said, I still don’t think that it’s fair to characterise him as a misogynist (i.e. a hater of women) per se, and I would certainly argue against the kind of reductive readings of his texts propagated by the initial poster on the discussion thread I mentioned in the post.

    There were also some technological aspects of Home Fires that I thought seemed quite outdated, such as the idea that in 100+ years people would still be using what are essentially fax machines and flip-open mobile phones.


  6. Thanks for the clarification, Zac. I thought that's more or less probably what you meant, and sorry for being pedantic but 'outdated' in regard to ethics is something of a pet hate of mine. (Dawkins with his 'changing moral zeitgeist' is the worst.) Yet, I see how that word could apply in a less rigorously moral way to Wolfe, to speech patterns and technologies (as you mention - though I wonder if he's ever intentionally and farcically playing Chesterton's game of 'cheat the prophets' - see Ch. 1 of the Napoleon of Notting Hill).

    Still, it's interesting that one of the truly weird charms of Wolfe to me is that he does often read something like a 1950s All-American 'dad' or something, who's writing cutting edge, experimental, psychologically, sociologically, literarily sophisticated fiction. Weird. (I guess it makes sense that he's part Frank Baum, part Nabakov!)

    I agree with you that he's not a feminist, that he is often rather reductionist about female characters (not always! e.g. Maytera Mint, Maytera Marble, Nettle, Agia and many others) but that also we see his revulsion of mistreatment of women in places like the scene in Orchid's house. He has a few interesting comments about this in his essay on Tolkien's LOTR (it's easy to find by search online and I'm sure you've read it).


  7. Good article on Wolfe's supposed hatred of women. The best writers often use irony and indirection, and some readers miss the point. I'm reminded of those who think "Huckleberry Finn" is racist because characters use the word "nigger."

    I also recall a posting by a reader who was outraged by Wolfe because of the treatment of the boy and girl in "The Death of Dr. Island." The reader was correct in being outraged but the author should not have been the object of the outrage.

  8. Reader for a while, first-time commenter...gender politics in Gene Wolfe is an incredibly provocative subject, but (I think, anyway) something that you have to deal with sooner or later. There's so much to say about it that it's frustrating to see the conversation revolve around (and be reduced to) very basic "portrayal is not endorsement" things.

    So, in short (also: in long)--I appreciate this post very much! Also your clarification about "outdated".

  9. You've said much of what I would, although I wouldn't have used a Biblical example.

    I've been considering writing an essay on Wolfe's supposed misogyny. It seems the interest is there at least.