|Gene Wolfe is a writer’s writer. That’s not to say readers can’t enjoy his dense, cryptic tales like the epic “Book of the New Sun”, but his real champions are his fellow authors - which helps explain his shelf of awards combined with his relative obscurity.
In Shadows of the New Sun, editors Bill Fawcett and J.E. Mooney gather 16 of the best living sci-fi and fantasy authors including Neil Gaiman, David Brin, Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress and Michael Swanwick to pay tribute to Wolfe, sharing memories as well as original stories inspired by Wolfe’s award-winning work.
Additionally, the collection features two new stories from Wolfe himself “Frostfree”, a tale of a sentient, shape-changing refrigerator sent from the future to help a cold-hearted appliance salesman; and “Sea of Memory”, a beautiful story of space travelers emerging from suspended animation on a distant planet where time and place may not be all they seem.
But while the assorted reminiscences of encounters with the jovial, mustachioed Wolfe at conventions are filled with adoration and no small degree of awe, many of the stories fall flat.
Gaiman, arguably Wolfe’s biggest champion, offers “A Lunar Labyrinth,” a werewolf tale where the only connection to Wolfe seems to be the play on his surname. Better was Timothy Zahn’s “A Touch of Rosemary,” the story of a wizard who helped a cook make magic through the addition of the titular herb to her recipes. The little tale, a tribute to Wolfe’s wife Rosemary, became more poignant with her passing, shortly after this anthology was published last year.
Other authors attempted to examine Wolfe’s most famous works in ways that felt almost like fan fiction. Again, this yielded mixed results. Swanwick’s “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” is the finest entry in the collection, a chilling, alternate vision of Wolfe’s 1972 novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus.” But William C. Dietz’s “In the Shadow of the Gate,” which gives a different perspective on Severian, the infamous torturer/narrator of Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun,” disappointed. Severian is such an iconic character and “New Sun” is such a classic, the entire story felt wrong.
Haldeman and Kress take a meta-look at Wolfe’s award winning “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories” in their respective offerings: “The Island of the Death Doctor” and “… And Other Stories.” Haldeman’s tale features a reader meeting a variety of Wolfe’s characters and inspirations, including Severian and Holden Caulfield, as well as Wolfe himself. Kress’s story follows a girl who is condemned by her witchy grandmother to slave labor, trapped within classic novels, and is only able to escape by entering Wolfe’s story.
Other authors attempted some of Wolfe’s stylistic tricks, from unreliable narrators to epistolary constructions, a technique that worked wonderfully in Aaron Alston’s clever western, “Epistoleros.”
Steven Savile’s “Ashes,” in which a young man whose bride-to-be had recently died relives memories of his time with her during a magical journey through Europe was another highlight.
Unfortunately, the rest of Shadows of the New Sun barely registered. Michael Stackpole’s “Snowchild” was probably my favorite of the rest, and “Tourist Trap” by Mike Resnick and Barry Melzberg was easily the worst of the lot, otherwise the remainder of the stories didn’t stay with me.
Gene Wolfe is an author worth reading, albeit an often difficult one. My own steps into his deep oeuvre are still shallow and his dense writing is incredibly intimidating. But while Shadows of the New Sun may not be the perfect introduction to his work, even the weaker ones piqued my interest in discovering the stories that inspired them.
And reading the loving tributes from some of my favorite authors made it clear that Wolfe’s work is worth the effort. ~~ Michael Senft