The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction
by Gene Wolfe
Review by Andrew Brooks
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765321350
Date: 17 March 2009 List Price $27.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
I've a confession to make. I've never read anything that Gene Wolfe has written until opening his latest, The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective Of His Finest Short Fiction. I've got a lot of catching up to do. This guy can write, and this collection of over thirty of his short stories is wonderful.
There are all kinds of stories in this collection, from adventure to meta-fiction to SF noir. Since a review covering all of the shorts presented here would be far too long, I've opted to discuss a few of my favorites, starting with the first story "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories". It's a story of a boy discovering just how comforting stories can be when reality has you down. But when the characters from the pulp action book he's reading show up in reality, the reader must separate fantasy from reality. Or must they? The story takes a fantastical look into how escaping into fiction can be both comforting and bitter. This story, the first Gene Wolfe story I've ever read, blends real life and the mystical into one of the most haunting shorts I've ever come across. Not since Joe Hill's "Pop Art" has a story moved me on so many levels. One of the best in a book filled with great stories.
Another of my favorites is "The Death of Dr. Island". Here, the protagonist finds himself on an island that speaks. The waves talk to him, the trees and the animals. But this island exists in space, and is, as we discover through reading, a hospital of sorts. On this rehabilitation center the boy runs into a young man and girl, both of whom have parts to play in each others treatment, as well as the boy's. The fun in this tale, in a lot of the stories Wolfe writes, is the way in which the big picture slowly comes in to focus. I've never encountered another writer who has the ability to pull you deeper into a story the way Wolfe does, feeding you tiny bite after tiny bite, until revealing all near the end. This story's ending is one I don't think many will see coming, and I felt disappointed when that end came. I didn't want it to, wanted instead to read a novel's length about the boy and that island in space.
One of the shorter stories, "The Recording", is more a recollection than anything else. In the story, a man remembers the day his uncle Bill took him into town and the record he buys on their trip. His uncle, a man not in the best of shape, dies while the boy is in the store. The narrator never listens to the record, for fear that it won't be the band on the cover, but his uncle's voice accusing him of not getting help. It's not a particularly scary story, but I found it enjoyable nonetheless.
The story "Forlesen" was my favorite of the bunch, although it's one of the bleakest stories I've ever read. A man wakes up in a home he hardly remembers, to find a wife he kind of recognizes, to enter a world as familiar as it is foreign. Though the story has a dream like quality, anybody who has ever toiled for any considerable length in the cubicle world will find it fascinating. And maybe a bit depressing. But Wolfe captures something very close to poetic here, the struggle of modern man. It's every bit as beautiful as it is horrifying, and the sense of how futile the man's existence is, is palpable. I loved every bit of it.
There are so many really strong stories in the collection that anyone who loves reading, much less whether they usually enjoy speculative fiction or not, would be crazy not to check it out. Highly recommended.