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From: "Nigel Price" <nigel.a.price@virgin.net>
Subject: (urth) Notes Towards a Lupine Aesthetic
Date: Fri, 17 Aug 2001 23:37:27 +0100

I particularly enjoyed the extract from Alex Groce's unfinished dissertation
on Wolfe and detective fiction. (Alex, I'd love to read some more of this,
but for goodness sake don't let it get in the way of the work on your
doctoral thesis!)

Alex's discussion of the influence of detective fiction provides a helpful
rationale for certain characteristic elements of Wolfe's writing that I have
to confess I have been pondering for some while, albeit from a slightly
different perspective. Wolfe's stories are puzzling and tricky, and I've
been wondering about the  underlying aesthetic implied his work. On the
basis of his writings, what can we say about his view of what makes a
beautiful/good/successful novel or story? To put it another way, what is he
trying to do?

I'd like to suggest three possible aesthetic criteria.

#1    The balance of information and obscurity

Wolfe seems to adopt a literary model in which the perfect story contains
*just* enough information to let the reader know what is going on, and not a
single iota more. According to this view, too much information, explanation
and clarity is a fault. So also is too little, though Wolfe would seem if
anything to prefer to err on that side of the notional point of perfect

This approach is, of course, far from unique, and is indeed characteristic
of much twentieth century "literary" writing. The idea has so often been to
explain as little as possible while implying as much as possible, and I
suppose if we traced this back we would probably find its roots in late
nineteenth century novels and poetry. Sometimes the technique has worked
wonderfully well - I'm thinking of some of Eliot's poetry and Beckett's
drama and prose - though, of course, at other times it can produce work that
is merely obscure and self-indulgent.

Historically, science fiction adopted a very different aesthetic for much of
its early years. Explanation, particularly of technical devices and
scientific wonders, has long had a central and honoured role in the SF
Sometimes the author explains directly to the reader, sometimes a clever
character, usually a scientist or engineer, explains a point to a less
intelligent colleague or opponent.

The so-called "New Wave" in the 1960s attempted to challenge this approach
and belatedly to apply more "literary" narrative techniques to the SF story.
This has, in my view, immeasurably improved the general standard of SF
writing, while still leaving writers to grapple with the technical problem
of finding suitably subtle and effective ways of introducing those new,
alien, strange or futuristic elements into their stories which are
characteristic of the genre but which, by their very nature, need some sort
of explanation or description. Some authors have, indeed, ducked the issue
altogether, drawing instead on SF's now extensive repertoire of previously
defined standard tropes, devices and settings. Done badly, this can be very
dreary indeed. (Have you ever read a Star Wars spin-off book?) Done well,
this can still allow for the development of character and for the
construction of new and unusual combination of otherwise standard elements.
I think that Iain M Banks and the recently discussed Peter Hamilton are
essentially SF authors of this type, although the latter still loves to give
lengthy explanations when suitable opportunities arise.

Arguably, Wolfe also draws on an established, pre-existing collection of
science fictional ideas in much of his writing. Much of his success derives
from the way such standard elements and devices are perceived by his
characters, and particularly his narrators. Their familiarity with what is
to us bizarre and their ignorance of the true mechanisms which underlie
their worlds are key elements in the Lupine literary mix. Wolfe's characters
feel no need to explain what is familiar to them, and thus often refer in an
entirely commonplace manner to what in the works of other authors would be
astonishing science fictional marvels, ripe for detailed description and
explanation. Daily life in the Long Sun Whorl would seem to be a case in
point. Then again, their ignorance means that they are often unable to
explain the things that do puzzle them, and the reader may at times be ahead
of the characters in interpreting the real nature of what is going on. When
Wolfe's characters do explain things, they do so in terms which make sense
to them, and which may often only compound the reader's sense of the
strangeness of their worlds. (James Russell gave an excellent paper at last
year's symposium on the strategies which Gene Wolfe employs in the Urth
cycle to convey the strangeness of his post-historic world. This included
the use of arbitrary and apparently illogical systems of categorisation to
describe society and natural phenomena as a means of depicting alien
patterns of thought and cultural assumptions.)

In pursuit of the right balance of information and obscurity, Wolfe exploits
his characters and narrators' viewpoints and ignorance to limit the amount
of information which are willing and able to convey to the reader. Thus,
events unfold and stories take place, but while much is said, as many
questions are raised
as answers given. Perhaps more.

#2    The equality of location of information

Wolfe's tales, even when not overtly detective stories, contain a strong
element of mystery. They are more than "mere" puzzles, because other
elements are present and are usually well done. There are interesting
characters, settings and adventures to be found, and a beautifully
controlled prose style to be enjoyed. But mystery is a key element in the
mix, and as Wolfe's mysteries often concern fantastic events, they are major
contributors to that sense of wonder which is a sine qua non of great
science fiction.

If Wolfe's aesthetic is one in which the text implies puzzles to which only
just enough information is given to ever derive an answer, it should be
added that a further level of difficulty is created by Wolfe's insistence
that all locations in the text are equally valid for the disclosure of
information. Significant items of information which, in terms of the
"puzzles" presented by the text, logically belong together, may be disclosed
to the reader many hundreds of pages apart. They may be given in any order,
and may occur in any context. They rarely if ever occur all together in one
place in the correct order, and are not usually labelled as important hints,
clues or explanations. On the contrary, they are casually let slip by the
narrator or other characters, and may or not be spotted by the reader, or
indeed the narrator or other characters.

This insistence on hiding key information "in plain sight" assumes a high
level of attentiveness and intelligence on the part of the reader. It also
usually requires several readings. For a reader to be willing to give this
degree of investment, the puzzles must be sufficiently interesting in
themselves, and their solutions must sufficiently ingenious to satisfy the
persistent solver. More than this, however, the other, non-puzzle elements
in the story must be sufficiently excellent and robust to sustain interest
and close examination. (I have to confess that I am still pondering the
Short Sun books in this context, not only in an effort to understand them,
but also to determine to my own satisfaction whether they are sufficiently
good to warrant the difficulty of their puzzles. My personal jury is still

#3    Dynamic levels of certainty

So: only just enough information and no more, and clues scattered
everywhere, unmarked and unsorted throughout the narrative.Wolfe certainly
follows these two criteria, but there seems to be yet another level of
refinement to his aesthetic, namely that the amount of information he
provides to answer the puzzles that he sets varies according to the nature
and importance of the puzzles themselves.

I discussed this with Jonathan Laidlow back in September last year, when he
first mentioned Alex's essay on Wolfe and detective fiction to me. Being
essentially lazy, I'll cut and paste here what I wrote to him then...

    Any further news of Alex's projected essay?

    I thought that it sounded an interesting project, being an aspect of
    Wolfe's work which has received relatively little critical attention.

    As well as the question of the use of the detective genre in Wolfe's
    work, I'm also interested in the related issue of his use of scientific
    method. Characters (particularly Severian) will often propose
    several possible explanations for a phenomenon, sometimes even
    ascribing relative probabilities to each explanation. As well as
    using this technique to reveal something of his characters'
    assumptions, personalities and presuppositions,
    Wolfe himself seems to carry this technique over into the puzzles
    he sets the reader. I mean by this that there is a spectrum of different
    levels of certainty with which the various "riddles" within the stories
    can be solved.

    These levels, expressed in terms of the amount and quality of the
    "clues" which Wolfe provides, relate to the importance and centrality
    of the riddle to the story, the limitations of the characters'
    and the "knowableness" of the issue at stake. Amongst other things,
    this technique allows Wolfe to deal in a quasi-scientific manner
    with metaphysical issues which do not necessarily allow certain
    answers. Some "facts" of the narrative therefore have clear, albeit
    hidden, answers. The towers of the citadel in Nessus are spaceships.
    Dorcas is Severian's grandmother. Other "phenomena" of the
    narrative have several possible interpretations, but the weight of
    evidence may still, cumulatively, suggest that one interpretation
    is more correct than another. Silk may have a direct encounter
    with God at the start of the Long Sun, or he may, as Dr Crane suggests,
    have had a mild stroke or sub-arachnoid brain haemorrhage or
    whatever. I would suggest that the weight of evidence points to the
    former interpretation, but the latter remains at least a possibility.

    I want to put something of this in my essay - if I ever get there - but
    you're welcome to pass it on to Alex (preferably with an ascription!) if
    you think that he might find it helpful.

I don't know if Jonathan passed this on to you, Alex, or not, but here it
is anyway, all these months later!

All the foregoing implies that a good, successful, Wolfe story will contain
several puzzles, and that there may only be just enough to information to
answer the most important of those puzzles. This information will be
scattered, often unflagged, throughout the narrative. Some puzzles may only
be partially solvable, and others may not be solvable at all. This lack of a
solution will itself be significant to the meaning of the story.

The possibility that Wolfe may set puzzles to which there are no answers may
be either intriguing or irritating to the reader, but is at one level part
of his "naturalism". Life is often puzzling, and there are not always easy -
or any - answers.

There. Is that any help, or have I just been mumbling in my beard again?

Nigel Price
Minety, Wiltshire

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

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