Gene Wolfe’s imagination astounds me. Nothing is simple about his ideas, or their execution. When I read his great, fat books, I get lost in his worlds, to the point that I cannot pull myself out easily. I’m sure that my family will tell you that I emerge from a long read disconnected from reality, distracted, and I am unable to speak coherently for a bit. I’ve made the mistake, often, of trying to summarize Wolfe’s plots; each time I sputter senselessly until I realize I sound like a crazy woman. Such is this writer’s power.
I knew nothing about him until I found a used copy of Latro In The Mist in the chaotic stacks of my favorite bookstore. I think of Wolfe as a master of “what ifs,” much like Ursula Le Guin. What if you write two novels set in the beginning of Greece’s classical era, set it in the aftermath of a battle with the Persians, center it on a foreign soldier with a head injury that keeps erasing his memories while letting the gods talk to him, throw in the gods and goddesses as they were viewed at the time, and (this is the critical point) wipe out all the history we KNOW about the time, and replace it with the language of events that would have been used then. This isn’t Sparta and Athens, Zeus and Hera, city-states and democracy. Nothing has been codified yet. How does someone who forgets everything remember? He writes down everything, every day, and reads the words at the start of each new day.
Why do I like such complicated books? Books with pages and pages of notes in the back, books with languages I do not speak, books with back histories that recede into their own memories? Why do I like books which require so much of me as a reader? I read War And Peace when I was thirteen, barely keeping the characters’ names, and all their sweet diminutives straight. Tolkien followed, with careful attention to indexes and notes. Then giant fantasy operas of Herbert, Reynolds, Banks, and Wolfe. And Garcia Marquez, Eco, and Borges (who proves that you don’t have to write long works to create endless labyrinths). Don’t just tell me a story; I seem to need a world.
NOTE: Latro In The Mist is a compilation volumn of two novels, Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete.
Apologies for blowing right through the word limit. Couldn’t help myself!