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From: Alex David Groce <Alex_Groce@gs246.sp.cs.cmu.edu>
Subject: (urth) The Mysteries of Gene Wolfe/"The Science in Science-Fiction"
Date: Mon, 25 Oct 1999 11:33:12 

Robert Aickman's collection COLD HAND IN MINE (which I strongly recommend to
all Lupines) opens with a quotation from Sacheverell Sitwell's "For Want of
the Golden City":  "In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the

When Wolfe tells us less than everything we want to know he is at his best.
The few works in which everything can be explained (away) are, in my opinion,
his least successful.  His best works are all saturated by mysteries, some
solvable by diligent study of the text, some forever perplexing:  PEACE, BOTNS,
BOTLS, "Seven American Nights," 5HC, the Soldier books, "Forlesen," etc.  
Occasionally, Wolfe fails--CASTLEVIEW is the most notable example, where the
mysteries endure only as a vague "What the heck was that all about?  I got
the Arthur bits, and G. Gordon Liddy, but...?"  But usually it is precisely
this "frustrating" narrative coyness that keeps us hooked--and, when the 
mysteries extend beyond the last page, keep the story alive in our minds
forever.  Had Wolfe ended BOTNS with "and by the way Severian went and got
a new sun and everything was ok" or had URTH been anything so simple as that,
we would have rightly reevaluated the beauty and importance of what went 
before.  By providing us just enough solution to construct the story in our
own heads and slowly fill in the blank spots of this map but not enough to
eradicate the last land marked "Here Be Dragons" or "The Edge of the World"
Wolfe manages to create fictions that mirror the knowable but fundamentally
mysterious nature of experienced reality.  In a sense this is fundamental to
all story-telling--the essence of story is to ask "and what happened next?"
and (sometimes forgotten, and hardly present in some stories--the latest John
Grisham novel, etc.) "what did that mean?"  The second asked, at least 
initally, not as literary criticism or symbolic explanation, but within the
context of the story--the hero has a dream, what does this dream portend for
the story?  Why does the hero have to kill his father?  The only story that
evades mystery is the one that tells us the ending on the first page, which,
of course, in a way Wolfe does in BOTNS!  Wolfe simply raises this art ok
keeping the reader (listener) going to very high levels indeed, by making us
(even after he has quit "speaking") ask these questions.


It may be that if time-travel does exist, it works somewhat as described in
BOTNS.  A recent NOVA (that came on when I was expecting Fawlty Towers) had
interviews with various pontificating physicists about wormholes, black holes,
and other SFnal physics, leading up to time-travel.  The new kink (at least
for me) was that some physicists, at least the one NOVA was talking to, are
now using something that sounds remarkably like fixed-point theory to get rid
of paradoxes in time-travel.

Fixed-point theory is used in many areas of computer science to mathematically
define self-referential functions and data structures.  The idea is that if
you keep plugging in the current approximation for the recursively-defined
thing in the definition then simplifying this and using it as the new 
definition, eventually (under certain conditions--there are "least" and 
"greatest" fixed points which are usually the well-defined ones) you will hit
upon a solution that does not change when you plug it in to the definition.  A
simple example:  Set S = all x such that either (1) x = 1 or (2) x / 2 is an 
element of S.  If we initially set "S" to some group of integers 1-n, the 
fixed-point will be just those integers that are powers of 2.

The time-travel idea is that whenever a paradox shows up, "nature" does the
same thing, iterating until a self-consistent solution to the time-travel
interactions arises.  The show used billiard-balls to demonstrate this, then
various talking heads said "it gets more complicated if you introduce free-will
and human actions, of course," but the implication was that it still made

So, perhaps it IS good physics that in BOTNS Severian succeeds because in the
future he did succeed and so the New Sun is on its way, helping him perform the
various "miracles" that he needs to perform to bring the New Sun.  Had he
failed completely the "first time" it might have been a consistent solution,
but once he succeeded at all, the lock was in and he was pulled up, in classic
time-travel fashion, by his own previous bootstraps.

"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." John 8:32
Alex David Groce (agroce+@cs.cmu.edu)
Ph.D. Student, Carnegie Mellon University - Computer Science Department
8112 Wean Hall (412)-268-3066

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

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