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From: "William H. Ansley" <wansley@warwick.net>
Subject: Re: (urth) A Solar Labyrinth
Date: Sun, 5 Jul 1998 01:53:38 

Robert Borski writes:
>One of my all-time favorite short-shorts by Gene Wolfe is "A Solar
>Labyrinth." And yet no one I've ever shared the story with has ever been to
>figure it out, to solve the maze, if you will. So allow me my Daedalean
>intrepretation. (My apologies if this repeats anything similar said by
>others--I know the story has been discussed, but can't remember details.)
>It's about tv, folks. The labyrinth consisting of light and dark is a
>television--maybe color, more likely an old black and white.

Gee, Robert, I have disagreed with your interpretations of other Wolfe
works but I really, really, REALLY disagree with this one.

>Observe how Gene Wolfe describes it in a typical living room.
>It stands "on a manicured green lawn"--the carpet.

This seems to be the whole of your evidence that Wolfe intend us to infer
that area the maze occupies is like a living room; not exactly conclusive,
I'd say. My living room, for one, doesn't have a carpet.

>The various "lamp posts
>from Vienna, Paris and London" are the set's tubes or its cathode ray
>imagizer. "The standing trunk of a dead tree" is a console, the wooden box
>containing the tv.

This is inconsistent. The dead tree trunk functions just like the lamp
posts, to cast its shadow to make up part of the maze, so to say that the
lamp posts symbolize the 'works' of the tv and the tree trunk symbolizes
its container, the console, is so arbitrary as to be nonsensical.

>"The maze changes from hour to hour" (i.e., different programs begin and
>end) "and indeed from minute to minute." (the screen is alway changing).

This could apply to almost ANY image we see not just a tv screen, in fact
an analogy could be made between this shifting maze and just about any
process that experiences or produces change. If Wolfe really intended to
symbolize tv here, why didn't he work in some clever reference to the
fractions of a second occupied by the "cathode rays" in scanning the screen.

>The maze/tv is also a substitute for the real world. Hence the mention of
>"armchair adventurers" and "Gone, it might seem, are the great days of
>monsters, maidens and excitement." Tv has its own myths as well: the
>western, the sit-com, the hospital and cop shows.

Wolfe is talking about people solving a maze from an aerial photograph of
the maze, rather than by actually walking the maze themselves here. In
other words, he is contrasting interacting with a real object (such as the
solar labyrinth) with dealing only with a convenient image (the
photograph). This associates the maze with the real world and contrasts it
with images of reality, such as tv.

>Notice the mention of Diana, Tezcatlipaca and Quetzalcoatl, light-bringing
>entities. Compare this with Phosphor, the god of luminous dots, our 20th
>century equivalent. Note as well the ferver of interest in shows such as
>Seinfeld and the Superbowl--it's near religious. As is the tithe we
>frequently spend to enjoy it, what with vcrs, large screen sets, and
>satellite and cable technology fees.

This is a maze made up of *light* and shadow; it seems only natural to use
statutes of light-bringing deities to cast shadows that make up part of the
maze barriers. It's the kind of ironic wit that Wolfe often employs through
his characters.

Your attempt to equate the inclusion of a few gods/goddesses that very few
people worship these days (at least among tv viewers) in the maze with the
admittedly almost religious frenzy with which many tv viewers treat the
medium rings false.

>Observe as well how television can entrap--the lost being at the heart of
>this maze is not an Athenian youth, but a couch potato. It is a "maze from
>which the explorer can walk free whenever he chooses. And yet it is said
>that most of them...do not." "Most adult guests do not escape until they
>are rescued by a passing cloud." (i.e., we turn off the set) "Some, indeed,
>refuse such rescue." (Anybody remember the days when networks didn't
>telecast 24/7? Does your tv have a sleeper function that will automatically
>turn it off in a certain amount of time? Anyone have a friend or
>acquaintance who doesn't own a tv?)

I certainly won't argue that tv can entrap, but the more apt and more often
used parallel is with drugs and addiction. The oddity in the passages you
quote is the qualification "adult". In my experience children are as likely
to be entrapped by tv as adults, if not much more so. If you can come up
with a convincing reason that this distinction should be made if Wolfe
really means to symbolize tv by the solar labyrinth, then it would
certainly help your case, but I don't believe you can.

>"The frowning figure of the Minotaur...a monster that haunts the shadows"
>is either loneliness or boredom or an impoverished imagination (notice how
>some children escape the labyrinth).

Again, an inconsistency. Why should the Minotaur be associated only with
the shadows of the maze and not its light if it is meant to symbolize the
deleterious effects of television (symbolized, you say, by the whole maze,
light and shadow alike)?

>"Glasses help" to place you in the maze (especially if like Gene Wolfe you
>wear spectacles).

Glasses help you see, if you need them, whether you are watching tv or
participating in any real activity such as walking a maze.

>Mr. Smith is John Q. Public, the quintessential Nielsen family, whose
>interests determine maze design/tv programming.

Mr. Smith, being the maze's designer, seems quite un-Nielsen-like in his
creativity and lack of passivity.

>And the solitary child mentioned in the story's last sentence? It's the
>child for whom tv is both babysitter and sole companion, the one monster
>who will play with you when no one else will.

This last paragraph seems just SO wrong headed to me that it is the real
reason I decided to refute your whole analysis. First of all, the child is
playing with Mr. Smith, so is he also supposed to represent tv as well as
the maze? Again, when has anyone seen a group of children watching tv lose
interest one by one and drift away until only one poor pathetic soul
continues to watch? Certainly it happens, but with tv it's the exception
while with the maze it's the rule.

Solving the solar labyrinth is *difficult*, it takes *mental effort*; this
is why most of the kids give up. Whereas the essence of tv is its
effortlessness; it offers no challenge, you don't have to think at all.

The one point I will concede to your analysis is that it does immediately
explain Wolfe's mysterious comments about the sinister aspects of the story
that are so far in the background that most people don't notice them. You
state as much in the exchange below.

Jason Voegele wrote:
>This is an interesting interpretation, and you're right--no one I know has
>ever come up with anything like it.  One question though: what do you
>suppose is the "sinister element" that Wolfe claims to have "kept so far in
>the background that few readers notice it at all"? (Introduction to STOREYS

Robert Borski replied:
>I thought it was pretty much how tv insidiously takes over some people's
>lives; i.e., we become so enchanted by the maze, we're reluctant to leave
>and thus will always be vicarious "armchair adventurers" rather than actual
>participants in life. I find this notion scary, anyway.

I can't explain what Wolfe means by this, but I can't accept your
explanation as I'm sure I've made all too plain. One thing I did notice on
rereading "A Solar Labyrinth" to prepare this response is that when Mr.
Smith and the solitary child are "playing in the sunshine" at the end of
the story it is approaching noon, at which time the maze will be insoluble.
Why the maze should be insoluble when the shadows are shortest I don't
know, but the child will be trapped and perhaps the Minotaur can pounce at
this point. I have always associated Mr. Smith with the Minotaur, although
I can give no textual evidence for this.

In _The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction_ (CD-ROM) John Clute and
Peter Nicholls state quite baldly "'A Solar Labyrinth' (1983) was a
metafiction about the entire Book [of the New Sun]." Does anyone know if
their thinking on this point derived from any support Wolfe might have
given this idea?

William Ansley

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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