On Blue's Waters (part 1, Book of the Short Sun) by Gene Wolfe
(Tor, hardcover, US$24.95, 381 pages; published October 1999. Tor, trade paperback, US$16, 384 pages, published 2000; ISBN 0312872577.)
I've never much cared for the Wolfe I've read (which isn't all that much), but he gets so much praise from people whose opinions I respect that, every few years, I try him again [note 1]. This time, I tried On Blue's Waters (1999), since I recalled seeing some comments that the Short Sun 'series' (which appears to be one long novel) is unusually accessible. Plus, I saw a blurb by Michael Swanwick praising Wolfe as the world's greatest working novelist, in any genre....
Anyway, Blue's does have clear prose and an unambiguously sfnal setting -- Blue is a pleasantly Earthlike planet that has recently been settled by colonists from the Long Sun generation-ship, which is a VERY large spaceship indeed. This is good, because I recall being put off in both the New Sun and Long Sun books by the fantasy-that's-really-SF tomfoolery [note 2].
Blue's also has a broken-back plot structure that got in the way of Wolfe's story (in my opinion), but there was enough going on to lure me into finishing the thing, even after it became obvious that this wasn't a stand-alone book (another annoyance). Anyway, Wolfe's conceit here is that On Blue's Waters is the memoir of the viewpoint character (with complications noted in the reviews cited below). Fine, except that it's a first draft memoir (written with a quill pen on handmade paper...), and the narrator is constantly jumping around from story-present to various times in his past, which I found both confusing and annoying. Plus the bridge-bits (which make it a 'memoir' rather than flashbacks) are meandering and rather dull. And there are all these carried-over characters from the Long Sun books, that I'm supposed to recognize, I guess... Faugh.
So here I am again, wondering how Wolfe has acquired such a stellar reputation from books that I find, at best, annoyingly 'literary' and at worst unreadable. Why would Wolfe structure Blue's as a confusing, meandering and dullish pseudo-memoir? How is this better than using a conventional first-person with flashbacks plot-structure? Why does Wolfe deliberately fracture and obscure what's basically a fine travel-adventure yarn? His choice, of course, and he clearly knows what he's doing, but it sure doesn't agree with me. Sigh.
I'm guessing that the Short Sun is as straightforward as Wolfe is likey to get, at novel-length anyway, and I liked On Blue's Waters well enough that I may continue into Green's Jungles sometime -- but I'm afraid that most of the glittering jewels that others see in Wolfe's work look like dusty pebbles to me.
1) I vividly recall a long-ago weekend in some godforsaken mining camp when for some reason all I had to read was Free Live Free. And it rained. It was a VERY long weekend, and it was years before I touched another Wolfe. [...back to the review]
2) I abandoned both series (after about 1.5 of each), not because of this, but because I Didn't Care What Happened to Those People. I have had better luck with his short stories -- I've liked maybe 1/3 of those that I've read, as opposed to, basically, none of the novels. I believe that I've sampled most of what Wolfe's fans think is his best work.... [...back to the review]
Alright, I went back to read the Short Sun reviews, all of which are written by people who Get Wolfe, to see what I missed....
"But this is a Gene Wolfe novel, a book written by an author who has
never in his life told a straightforward tale... Very soon it begins
to be apparent that things--as always in Wolfe--are not entirely what
they seem." -- John
"Wolfe has his cadre of established readers who know that every book
he writes is worth reading (even the less successful books), but he
remains a minority taste...." -- Rich
Horton, on Green's Jungles and Wolfe in general.
"For all his exquisite prose and expertise at world building and characterisation, Wolfe's special gift is in the engraving of subtle mysteries into the texture of his narratives. Tales of adventure, excellent in themselves, are detailed, deepened, and sometimes even undercut, by several further layers of meaning and significance. The hero... may not himself apprehend all these hidden meanings. But an alert reader will see the clues, and in careful reading and rereading may catch glimpses of previously unsuspected depths, where truths and ironies glitter in complex profusion." -- Nigel Price, ** CAUTION -- SPOILERS **
[Editor's note: see also Nick Gever's review of On Blue's Waters, elsewhere on this site -- "On Blue's Waters, written by the greatest author genre SF has yet produced, was the best SF novel to appear in 1999."]
I did miss a lot of this stuff, but so what? -- the Story is King, in any successful novel, and it seems to me that Wolfe lets his recomplications, allusions and self-references get seriously in the way of his storytelling. Maybe this is High Art, but I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it.
[from a discussion at rec.arts.sf.written]:
per Kevin J. Maroney (NY Review of SF), OS Card also thinks Wolfe is God....
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© Peter D Tillman 9 February 2002