In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never experienced before in order to get a feel for their style.
This month’s selection was voted on by subscribers to my monthly email newsletter from a short list I provided. Wolfe was first published in 1965, and quickly established himself as a regular in Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies. (A quick word on Knight. Although I was not terribly impressed by his fiction, the man had impeccable taste when putting together original anthologies. If you ever come across an issue of Orbit do yourself a favor and give it a read.) Orbit stories tended to be avant-garde, which made them somewhat controversial among science fiction fans. (It didn’t take the advent of Star Trek, Star Wars, or the internet to make science fiction fans argumentative.) Through the 1970s, Wolfe’s style got more sophisticated and weird. His most famous work, The Book of the New Sun series, is a four book extended science fantasy novel, and is considered a stand-out of the genre.
But I’ve never read any of that.
For my first Gene Wolfe readings I picked two stories with neat sounding titles, concluded by one of Wolfe’s award winning novellas.
Originally published in Orbit 3 (1968)
Read in same
In Damon Knight’s introduction to this story in Orbit 3 he writes, “In my book of critical essays… I made a distinction between stories that make sense and those that mean something. I am unable to “make sense” out of this one – to make it add up neatly and come out even – but I strongly feel that it means something, just as Kafka’s The Trial or Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery does.” I got a kick out of that because I’ve often been confused by stories in Orbit, which was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction characterized by more “literary” stories that experimented with form and style, often focused on “soft” as opposed to “hard” science fiction elements, and overall guided by a rejection of the pulp establishment. You might think that as a scientist I prefer hard science fiction, but honestly I love them both. My favorite kind of science fiction is heavy on metaphor and social commentary (which tends to occur more in “soft” science fiction), but I also love Asimov, who was one of the “hard” science fiction adherents (and often a dick about it).
The Changeling is absolutely great. We get a nice setup of a disgraced soldier returning to his home town for lack of any better options. His parents have long since passed away, but he runs across the family of a childhood friend who insist on housing him for a while, and that’s where things get weird. I don’t want to give anything else away, because the complete unpredictability of the story was part of what I really liked, but suffice it to say that – like Damon Knight – at the end I don’t think I really understand what happened, but whatever it was I dig it.
How the Whip Came Back
Originally published in Orbit 6 (1970)
Read in same
I picked this one because I was intrigued as to what the title could mean, and was surprised at how dark it turned. Like in the first story, Wolfe drops you into a world with little introduction, and you spend a good percentage of the story just finding your footing. Even in this, his most straightforward science fiction tale of the three I read, his writing has an unsettling quality where you are always left questioning the very nature of the world. Sadly, the world he described in 1970 is shockingly similar to the one in which we all now live. The story centers around only two characters, both “observers” with ceremonial rolls at the United Nations. The main character is a woman that represents the largest international charity organization in existence. The supporting character is the Pope of the Catholic church, which is essentially the last of the dying religions. The short narrative describes a single scene with our two characters discussing a proposed global law that will turn all prisoners into slaves, available for lease until their prison sentences are up. All nations are in agreement and support of the idea, but they would like the ceremonial support of these two individuals that, quite frankly, form the moral wing of the organization. To put it bluntly, “how the whip came back” refers to how the slave trade, long since abolished, returns with enthusiasm.
It is worth noting that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the nation, reads in part, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That legal loophole has been exploited to great success to this day as prisoners are routinely forced to perform work for the profit of the state and private business, receiving a paltry wage of pennies an hour for their efforts. Despite what you might have been told, slavery is still big business in the United States, and its existence is adamantly justified by those that believe that punishment is the sole purpose of incarceration.
In all fairness, it didn’t take a great prescient mind to look at forced prison labor and extrapolate it to its logical end. What it did take was someone who gave a shit about it in 1970, and for that simple fact I’m really starting to like Gene Wolfe.
The Death of Doctor Island
Originally published in Universe 3 (1973)
Read in Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction
Chronologically, this is where I suspect Wolfe had fully come into his weird (some would say “literary”) style. This story won both the Nebula and Lotus awards for Best Novella in 1974, so you’d be right to suspect that it is good. Though it does feel a bit 1970s sci-fi, I’d go so far as to say it holds up to modern standards. (As a counterpoint, How the Whip Came Back felt outdated to modern standards in that it lacked any metaphor in its oral argument, and The Changeling would read as cliché if it was published today.) Once again Wolfe throws us into a confusing world, this time one where up is literally down, and leaves us to find our own way for a good chunk of the story. Since this is a novella, that chunk is a lot of pages, and it is only through Wolfe’s skill to intrigue me that I was interested in continuing to read until more was revealed. This is a story of what lengths a society will go to in order to fix those with potential, at the ultimate expense of those with none. In that respect it is similar to How the Whip Came Back in that there is an element of society working to exploit those on the bottom to benefit those at the top, something that I suspect Wolfe touched on throughout his stories given its presence in these two (and to a small extent in the first one as well, contained in the reason for the soldier’s disgrace). The Death of Doctor Island is an outstanding novella, and definitely one of the best I’ve ever read, classic or modern.
Gene Wolfe flew under my radar for a long time, despite being well known even until his death in 2019 at the age of 87. Wolfe’s last book, published posthumously in 2020, was submitted to his publisher shortly before his death and is a sequel to his 2015 novel The Borrowed Man, and both seem to have been well received. It’s always nice to hear of a “vintage” author still finding a modern audience through new work that they are able to keep fresh.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.