Starwater Strains by Gene Wolfe


Tor: Orb Trade Paperback 2006

Gene Wolfe is one of the giants in the science fiction and fantasy genres.  His works include the popular and critically acclaimed The Book of the New Sun series, and most recently, The Wizard Knight.  However, Wolfe’s excellence as a writer is not limited to the long form.  His story “The Death of Doctor Island,” collected in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, won the 1973 Nebula Award for best novella, and Storeys from the Old Hotel won the 1989 World Fantasy Award for best collection.  Wolfe’s latest collection of shorts, subtitled “New Science Fiction Stories,” includes stories written over the past twenty years, most of them from this first decade of the twenty-first century.  The subtitle is not entirely accurate, as the genres covered in this collection include fantasy, mystery, tales of the supernatural, and those tales that defy definition by either embracing more than one genre or none at all.

Many of the stories in Starwater Strains are not so much narratives of events as narratives of character and situation, the reading experience one of peering through filters of perception that both illuminate and conceal their subjects.  Wolfe, famous for his use of unreliable narrators, employs this storytelling technique in several of the stories in this collection.  It is used to humorous effect in “Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon?” in which the narrator is a simple-minded carnival strongman searching for his physicist friend and a very low-flying satellite.  In “In Glory like Their Star,” an extra-terrestrial relates his scouting mission to Earth and its encounter with a solitary desert nomad.  In this brief but beautifully written piece, the alien narrator’s at first seemingly detached account is belied by an increasing sense of emotional depth felt by the narrator’s audiences: a group of nomads who think the narrator is a god, and the reader.

Even in relatively straightforward narratives Wolfe plays with perception.  In “Viewpoint,” the hero is a contestant in a reality television show in which his prize money of $100,000 serves as bait for tax-collecting government agents.  Having spent much of his life in the wilderness hunting animals for food, the protagonist finds himself in a reversal of roles as he tries to escape the city and the omniscient eye of the media, including the camera seeing through his own eyes.  The theme of the hunter becoming the hunted appears again in “Try and Kill It,” in which the protagonist encounters a target that proves even more exceptional and deadly than he at first imagines.  In “Golden City Far,” reality and fantasy intermingle as a high school boy writes down his dreams in a journal.  Boundaries blur as elements of those dreams begin to appear in his waking life.  Throughout Starwater Strains Wolfe tantalizes the reader with revelations that only serve to reinforce the reader’s sense of uncertainty.

If a single prevailing theme can be discerned in this collection, it is the elegiac.  In “Graylord Man’s Last Words,” another unreliable narrator tells the story of humanity’s end.  In “Petting Zoo,” an old man and his pet Tyrannosaurus Rex meet for the first time since their childhood and reminisce about the fierce and unrestrained joy of youth.  In “Hunter Lake,” a woman is haunted by her mother’s death in a dream from which she cannot escape.  In “Shields of Mars,” the last two inhabitants of a once-booming Martian tourist town struggle to keep the town’s air manufacturing plant functioning.  “The Seraph from Its Sepulcher” tells the tale of a priest on a planet the angelic inhabitants of which he had once acted as missionary to but who have since disappeared.  In “Mute,” a brother and sister have an unusual homecoming in which they are greeted by glimpses of a long-absent father and a television on mute.  In “Castaway,” the title character, rescued after being stranded on a remote “dead world” for twenty-seven years, shares with a superficially disinterested narrator his memories of a mysterious companion, with whom he spent his days as a castaway.

Fans of The Book of the New Sun will enjoy the fairy tale “Empires of Foliage and Flower,” which takes place on Urth and features Father Thyme and a little girl’s travels between two warring nations.  “The Boy Who Hooked the Sun,” in which a child of Atlantis catches the sun on a fishing line and gains its power, has a mythical quality to it, and “Lord of the Land” captures the eerie atmosphere of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories of the elder gods.

Starwater Strains reminds us once again that Gene Wolfe is a living legend in the field of speculative fiction.  Fans of Wolfe should not miss it, and for newcomers it serves as an excellent introduction to Wolfe’s work.

Recommended among the collection: “Viewpoint,” “In Glory like Their Star,” “Petting Zoo,” “Empires of Foliage and Flower,” “Castaway,” “Golden City Far.”

© 2006 Arthur Bangs

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