by Gene Wolfe
Tor Books 2011
$24.99; 304 pages
One word to sum up this book: disappointing. Perhaps I came it with my expectations raised too high. I had heard of Gene Wolfe from a number of sources, First Things ran an article on him, and a sci fi blog I used to read was named after one of Gene's ideas. When I saw this book on the newish rack at Bookmans, I grabbed it quickly. Here at last was my opportunity to experience an author who has been desciribed as "too difficult, and too religious".
The book hooked me immediately. No ambling prologue introducing the characters and the setting, we are just dumped into the action, in media res. Everything moves quickly, I wanted to keep turning the pages because I knew a new twist was coming soon. And there were many, many twists. It was difficult to keep track of everything that happened, I felt much like Skip must have, bewildered but fascinated. The setting is dystopian, but you can imagine getting there from here without too much trouble. I liked the lawyerly perspective; some of my best friends are lawyers.
Yet, for all that, I got to the end and I didn't like it. Maybe it is because Skip and Chelle are such horrible people. Really everyone is in this grayest of dystopias. Skip strikes me as the best of a bad lot, and that isn't saying much. If I wanted to read about this kind of thing, I could just turn to the news. I suppose my tastes in fiction are thoroughly bourgeois. I really do want evil to be vanquished and love to win out in the end.
I like my scifi hard, and moderately didactic. If, like Wolfe, the author is known to be thoughtfully religious, I like to see how that plays out in the way the story is written. Those things are not present here. I feel that Wolfe wrote the kind of book that critics like, and readers hate. This book is full of artful ambiguity and clever literary devices that will delight bitter and penurious English majors. As a writer, Wolfe is probably better than Pournelle or Powers, in the technical ways such things are understood. But this book failed its primary purpose: to entertain. The story is depressing, and not all that fun to read. The book was challenging in a good way, and thought provoking, but I doubt that I will ever read it again.