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WolfeWiki

Earlier this year, I had a not-so-good reading experience with a short story by Gene Wolfe. I knew I was missing some references and lacked the proper decoder ring to figure them out. Dave Tallman just recently commented on that post and pointed me to WolfeWiki, a reference that strives to explain all the multi-faceted layers of Wolfe’s writing. From WolfeWiki’s description:

Wolfe is best known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy, but his work encompasses poetry, horror, “magical realism,” and much more. Much of his work is designed to force the reader to work with the writer, using techniques like lacunae, unreliable narrators, shifting points of view, and many others to create mystery. It may be that a given Wolfe text has no “correct” interpretation, or even a “correct” answer to the question, “what happened in that story, anyway?”

But the mystery and the effort the reader expends in trying to understand a Wolfe text are, for some readers, more valuable than any number of the easy-to-understand pabulum-texts that appear on the shelves of our grocery stores and airport newsagents.

The wiki openly admits that it is probably not the best starting place for the Wolfe novice. For that, they offer this: A Novice’s Guide to the Gene Wolfe.

Thanks for the pointers, Dave! Next time I get stuck, I’ll definitely look to the contents of WolfeWiki for some assistance.

About John DeNardo (12198 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

26 Comments on WolfeWiki

  1. I was glad to discover there is a “WolfeWiki” and I would have been even more glad if it was a site that felt qualified to offer the “‘correct’ answer to the question, ‘what happened in that story, anyway?'” Do we need an ambiguous Wiki?

    Are there other Wikis that emulate the the best-known traits of the writers they’re dedicated to? Like a Harlan Ellison Wiki that shouts every answer at you in ALL CAPS?

  2. Personally, I won’t read him or any other author with the same style. That’s because I have no idea if I’m reading nonsense that he decided to write, and have me pay for, or a meaningful story.

  3. There’s also a Gene Wolfe mailing list (I’m a lurker). It’s amazing what those folks have discovered in his writing; far from being “nonsense” at all.

    As for an Ellison wiki…I’m not aware of one, but maybe if you go to the Ellison Wunderland site and make a suggestion it might come to pass.

    Or…wikis grow from small seeds (individuals). Start it up and see how it grows!!!

    😀

  4. I didn’t know there was a Gene Wolfe wiki, how really cool. Gene Wolfe is a fantastic author. There’s a LOT more going on there than meets the eye, although it’s all available to be worked out. His books are not only good reads, but they’re interesting puzzles that you can take or leave.

    I came to the end of his “Book of the Long Sun” cycle knowing I was missing a lot of stuff, but still happy that I’d read a good story. Now I’ll go poke at the Wiki and discover all manner of things I missed out on. Or, more likely, go “Duhhh….the readers and the writer are all smarter than me…”

  5. Fred,

    Trust me, it’s nonsense.

    If you try hard enough you can find meaning in the stain left by a spilled cup of coffee. That’s the way humans are.

  6. No meaning in a stain left by coffee? How about the dregs in a tea cup? Or a dried ink blot? I know people who have made entire careers out of the latter two.

    As for Wolfe, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Whether it is looking for religious allegory or delving into the meaning of words he uses, I find a lot of meaning and very little nonsense.

    :)

  7. Trust me, Gene Wolfe is not nonsense.

    Some people can look at a great work of art, and see nothing more than a spilled cup of coffee. That is also the way humans are.

    Not only can humans see human faces in meaningless blots, because we seek out patterns, we also can see meaningless blots were we should see human faces, because some people do not fit the patterns we seek.

  8. I have to laugh.

    I looked up the New Sun Trilogy, which I read when it came out and determined it to be crap, on Amazon to check reader reviews. The one star reviews are classics in themselves and totally hit the mark.

    The book isn’t art, it’s a bunch of disjointed ideas strung together and vaguely told. I would not be surprised to learn that Wolfe was high when writing, or involved with some kind of pressure to spew out work.

    I used to talk to Michael Moorcock a lot on his site, and he’s mentioned many times that he can hardly remember what he writes. Some writers have a careful story to tell while others just get in a fugue and babble on.

  9. New Sun is filled with allusions and symbolism; if you don’t see them, it could be that you aren’t widely read enough to recognize them. It’s telling, I think, that the biggest fans of Wolfe are other writers—Neil Gaiman, most famously. I have to say, though, that my favorite of his novels is Peace. It’s “fantasy,” but subdued and self-contained.

  10. Matthew King // August 7, 2008 at 9:14 pm //

    Wolfe has said that each of the volumes of The Book of the New Sun went through multiple drafts. The first three volumes had at least two drafts at the time he started the fourth volume. He knew what he was doing, even if none of us can suss it all out.

    He could have put in a few Space Princesses, though.

  11. John Wright // August 7, 2008 at 11:16 pm //

    I can imagine someone saying that the New Sun tetralogy is not to his taste, or that some events in the books were unclear at first reading, but you have cut yourself from some of the finest writing in the English language, certainly the finest in science fiction, if you dismiss this wonder as crap.

    Since the ideas are presented with such consummate skill, and the mood and atmosphere perfectly done, and the voices of each character is distinct and skillfully drawn, and the emotions and depth of theme is better than I can do on my best day (which may not be saying so much, I admit) I can only assume you are coming to a hasty judgment about Wolfe.

    I grant you it may seem disjointed at first; he tends not to write plot-driven stories. But, in this, he equals or excels the plot skills of Heinlein, Asimov, or Bradbury — again, perhaps not saying much. Those men were not known for tightly-woven plots.

    But compare the commonwealth of Severian with the Dying Earth of Jack Vance: I doubt anyone will seriously maintain the Vance, skilled though he is, created a more nuanced, realistic, mystical, or wonderful world.

    I will mention three or four trivial examples from a work where there are treasures on every page. In SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, Wolfe implies, without every saying so, that the tower in which Severian is raised is the hulk of an ancient starship, so old that its original use is forgotten, but the old names for things (decks, bulkheads, portholes) betray its original use. None of the monsters depicted uses a made-up name such as Pelgran or Banth or Tarsk; instead the names of real prehistorical mammals are used. The mining village of Saltus we slowly discover are not mining ore; Earth is too old for that; instead, the miners are looting prehistorical buried cities, digging up ancient artifacts, or corpses preserved by time-defeating crystal coffins. Finally, one notices that Severian never says “the sun set” or “the sun rose”. His world has a dying sun, and his language is all Heliocentric rather than geocentric. He says “the Western mountains rose to cover the sun” or “The eastern horizon dropped its shadow from the sun.”

    Any one of these subtle and brilliant storytelling flourishes, I would give anything to master. I cannot. This is genius.

    But what this is not, is me simply reading genius into some messy coffee-stain of meaningless words. This is not James Joyce. I think you will find most readers figure out, for example, who Dorcas really is, and who Severian’s mother was. While it helps to know the old story of St. Catherine, its adds a small smile to that particular discovery when you do. I think you will find all fans of Wolfe tend to talk about the same conclusions. If we were making it up, we would all have each man his own personal theory.

  12. But what this is not, is me simply reading genius into some messy coffee-stain of meaningless words. This is not James Joyce.

    I’m with you in supporting Wolfe, who is the most sophisticated writer working in genre and one of the most sophisticated anywhere, but I think I have to get off your bus here. You’re not really saying that Joyce’s work is a “messy coffee stain of meaningless words,” are you?

  13. WolfeWiki is still very much under construction — so anyone who would like to contribute to making it clearer, fuller and more explanatory, please do come along!

  14. sphere777 // August 8, 2008 at 5:56 am //

    If you are not willing to invest some effort into Wolfe, you won’t get any of the rewards that the author offers.

    My guess is you expect the author to spoon-feed you everything you need to know and tell you everything about the plot (aka the “window glass” approach that most SF relies on). Well, Wolfe expects you to work a little but his beautiful style makes it all worthwhile.

  15. Folks, I have three grad degrees and have read more books than I can count. I well read on a variety of topics, trust me.

    The stuff Wolfe writes, and your reaction to it is pseudointellectual.

    From talking to people like Moorcock I’ve determined that some writers use words and ideas like music. They love to put them together like you might whistle a tune while walking down the street. You like how it sounds, but there’s no philosophy behind it. However, if the right set of people heard that particular whistle, they might declare you a virtuoso.

    They’d be wrong, right?

    Anyway, there’s always people who think that what’s confusing, paradoxical, and so forth is great meaningful stuff. That’s because they don’t trust themselves. They think that since they don’t understand it, it must be genius, which is a sign of low self-esteem. The philosopher Balthazar Gracian pointed that out in the 1400s.

    Speaking of which, I trust the Asian idea that the best and most truthful ideas are clear. If you have to read the work fourteen times something’s wrong.

  16. Tony Ellis // August 8, 2008 at 11:27 am //

    TheAdlerian wrote:

    I well read on a variety of topics, trust me.

    Yeah. I’m getting that.

    The philosopher Balthazar Gracian pointed that out in the 1400s.

    Not bad for someone who wouldn’t be born for another 200 years.

  17. “Anyway, there’s always people who think that what’s confusing, paradoxical, and so forth is great meaningful stuff.”

    I don’t find it confusing or paradoxical. Its just well-written.

  18. Ellis,

    Two typos?

    Come now.

    You didn’t even know who Gracian was until you looked him up, right?

  19. Matthew King // August 8, 2008 at 6:08 pm //

    “I trust the Asian idea that the best and most truthful ideas are clear.”

    We all know that truth is manifest. Those who persist in denying the manifest truth are heretics, or worse.

  20. From talking to people like Moorcock I’ve determined that some writers use words and ideas like music. They love to put them together like you might whistle a tune while walking down the street. You like how it sounds, but there’s no philosophy behind it. However, if the right set of people heard that particular whistle, they might declare you a virtuoso.

    They’d be wrong, right?

    Only if you agree that there is no philosophy behind what Wolfe writes is this argument valid.  I don’t think that any reader who came across his books could possibly believe that.  But novels aren’t just about conveying philosophic arguments, they are about testing those arguments in the world of the story.

    What if what a writer is trying to illuminate are the paradoxes that are a part of any life, particularly the life of someone who is devoted to a specific religious faith (as are many of Wolfe’s protagonists, particularly in the Sun books)?

    I don’t think that Wolfe’s stuff is confusing as much as it is complex.  He has taken the Dying Earth template of Jack Vance, and invested it with as much seriousness as a writer can, trying to convey the existence of a world that is deeply freighted with history, where civilizations have come and gone, and left their marks on the story in unusual ways.  One can read the Book of the New Sun and get immersed in the basic story of a man who becomes the Autarch of the Commonwealth.  And if one is so inclined, one can reread it, and begin to find clues to other stories about the past ages of this planet, and it’s possible future.  Yes, that takes work, and commitment, and it’s fine if you don’t want to commit that much to a reading experience.  But Wolfe is deliberately creating books that will continue to bring riches to a reader who is interested in re-reading.  It’s not about only understanding the book after the 14th pass through it, it’s about understanding it more each time I read.  The pleasure of finding things out.  What’s wrong with that?

    And if you like the way that virtuosic whistled melody sounds, why isn’t it good music?  Because it was tossed off?  Because things whistled while walking down the street aren’t good art?  Do you think that Wolfe wrote these books on the back of a napkin while pounding shots?  Just because you didn’t want to pay close attention (and there’s no fault in that – no reason to try to engage in something that bores you) does it automatically follow that it has no rhyme or reason?

  21. Hello all.

    Count me as another reader who prefaces my comments with, I’m not an idiot, but… 

    I ended up here by following a series of links, breadcrumbesque, attempting to find deeper meaning in Wolfe’s Mute,  from the Wastelands anthology.

    The final link, referred to here and elsewhere, is now gone/broken.

    The “…map the house and wall…” thing is maddening. Can anyone help me with this?

    Sadly, I’ve reached the stage where I would prefer to simply have the thing explained to me. Remember how, by the nine hundred sixth season, even the X-Files grew tiresome? -Well I’m there with this one.

    Thank you.

     

     

  22. Anonymous // October 4, 2008 at 10:19 am //

    Alas, it looks like WolfeWiki is no more.  Even Wayback machine has no record of it.  Perhaps it was all a dream…

  23. So I’ve gotta’ go back out on the web?!?!

    Oh man….!!!!

  24. Dave Tallman // December 9, 2008 at 6:54 am //

    The WolfeWiki is still around — it just moved to a better site. Try:

    http://www.wolfewiki.com/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=WolfeWiki.Contents

     

     

  25. Awesome — thanks, Dave! Links updated.

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