Some thoughts on Gene Wolfe

There’s a thread on Mad Genius Club about the worst books you’ve read. I’ve suggested God-Emperor of Dune, probably the dullest book I’ve slogged though to the end, referred to as “God-Awful of Dune” for a reason.

A couple of other commenters suggested Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the Long Sun”.

You’ve gut a malfunctioning generation ship ruled by AI personalities that have set themselves up as gods, war, rebellion, sentient robots, mutants with psionic powers and the ability to possess people, an invading society of Amazons that come off like a female Taliban, and vampiric shapeshifters who want the humans in the ship to escape to their planet rather than a safe planet so that the humans can be preyed upon. How can all that possibly be boring???

But it is.

A bit harsh But…

I find Wolfe can be infuriatingly frustrating at times; when he’s good his books are so immersive and compelling than it’s worth persevering when another of his books seems heavy going. Wolfe always takes “show, don’t tell” to extremes, and always shows you his worlds through the eyes of his characters, and if they don’t understand what’s going on, neither should you. There were parts of Book of the Long Sun that seemed exceptionally slow-moving on the first reading, such as the interminable section in the tunnels beneath the city where very little seemed to happen. But this was a book that made more sense on a second reading.

Even then, it does lack the accessibility and magic of the earlier “Book of the New Sun” and the direct sequel “Book of the Short Sun”, even though both of those are as every bit as complex and enigmatic. Is the central character, Patera Silk less compelling that Severain of Book of the New Sun or Horn of Book of the Short Sun? Or is it something else?

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4 Responses to Some thoughts on Gene Wolfe

  1. With a lot of art forms, what someone else finds interminable can be fascinating to someone else. But expectations are also a part of it.

    I’m a staunch defender of “Under The Skin,” for instance, the Scarlett Johansson film (directed by the same fellow who gave us “Sexy Beast” but it couldn’t be more unlike that film). I suspect the hate for the film for a lot of the folks stems from them expecting Johansson to reprise some note from one of her more popular movies, and being let down when they got what amounted to “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”.

  2. Worst book I’ve ever read: Ulysses, by James Joyce. So incoherent that I frequently accidentally turned over several pages at once and couldn’t immediately be sure that I had done so.

    But sticking to the SF genre… yes, it’s got to be God Emperor.

  3. Tim Hall says:

    <LitPseud>If you don’t like Ulysses you’re not clever enough to understand it</LitPseud>


  4. I read “Ulysses”, and god help me, I actually enjoyed it. But again, expectations. I had a good idea of what I was getting myself into. I knew full well it wasn’t John Grisham or even Dostoevsky.