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Gene Wolfe Q&A
Letters to Gunny. Many of you met Ian Gunn and Karen Pender-Gunn when they were over here in 1995, courtesy of the GUFF fund – nice people, apart from a fixation on plastic spacemen.... Students of Ansible will know about Ian's current treatment for cancer. It's going pretty well, but letters and e-mails from fans would be appreciated (PO Box 567, Blackburn, Vic 3130, Australia; firstname.lastname@example.org). Ian is suffering all the usual chemotherapy side-effects and issuing remarkably cheerful reports about it all ... e-mail with Subject lines like Gunny's Land'o'Cancer or, when the inevitable happened, Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow. I tried to reply in similar vein:
'Now, about the Haircut from Hell ... I wondered about this aspect when the very cuddly Jean Hoare (Martin's wife) went through chemotherapy horrors not long ago. It turns out that there's a way around falling-hair problems: the chilled skullcap. During treatments they put this rubber thing on your head and pipe iced water through it, thus causing the blood vessels in the scalp to constrict in the usual reflex action to avoid losing too much body heat when deep cold prevails. As a result, relatively little of the chemo muck reaches and affects the follicles; and although Jean's nice long hair did thin out somewhat, she came through in good hirsute shape. Clearly, though, there are not enough of these skullcaps to go around. What apparently happens is that the hospital Aesthetics Consultant tours the wards, sizing up those about to undergo chemo. Is this, the AC asks in each case, a head of hair that is worth preserving, that enhances the quality of life? You may have noticed one of your attendant staff making questioning eye contact with the AC, and being responded to with a polite, regretful thumbs-down gesture. But I am too tactful to tell you what it meant.'
Later: 'As for the other symptom, I must mention my all-time favourite US TV ad, recorded by a fascinated British visitor. The scene was a bus-stop and it was raining, and this glum man standing there with his umbrella turned dolefully to the camera and said, "In weather like this, diarrhoea's no fun."'
The subject of oysters somehow came up: 'One of Calvin Trillin's foodie essays records the story, much inflicted on newcomers to mass redneck oyster-eating thrashes, of the man who could eat an oyster through his nose. A small one, of course and (further subtle verisimilitude) with not too much spicy sauce....' [Ian replied: 'There's an old 70s Aussie comedy film called Stork in which the hero upsets various dowagers at a snobby party by offering around hors doovers while having an oyster dangling from his nose.'] 'My favourite oyster line is from Victoria Wood's Acorn Antiques. BABS: Quite frankly, Clifford, I'm flat, flat broke. CLIFFORD: But you gave me oysters. BABS: Instant mashed potato and a heck of a lot of nail varnish.'
And I was able to thrill Ian & Karen with their narrow escape: 'We have party fun coming: John D.Berry himself is visiting for a wild typography convention at Reading University, and staying in our famous spare room. Little does he know that, after a year's delay, the man who's rebuilding the rickety cupboard inside that room's door has started work. One of this artisan's early discoveries was that the weight on top of the cupboard (consisting of a huge great cold-water tank and a central heating expansion tank) was supported only by a long 2" x 3/4;" prop, wedged in place without any fastenings. We feel as though there's been an unsprung booby-trap in the house for the last 15 years.... I remember the unfortunate incident during your visit when Karen bumped into a bookcase one flight down and instantly had a troll fall on her head (our model Detritus from the Discworld books, a gift from Terry). Aren't you glad she didn't bump into That Cupboard instead? Yes, so are we.'
Perhaps Onions. George Orwell once announced, slightly unexpectedly, that for idle reading in odd moments there was 'nothing to touch a back number of the Girls' Own Paper.' An Ansible reader, Gail-Nina Anderson, confirms this by sending a selection of 1880s GOP replies to readers' letters – which, weirdly, were not themselves printed. 'JUDY: Perhaps Onions. PANSIE: We cannot make out whether you ask about white pussies or puppies. If they want cleaning, you are better without such pets. LINNET: It is a good plan to talk to the parrot when placed in a dark room. TOPAZ: Write to the secretary for the examination papers. Clean with bath brick or finish with a little oil. ALLIE: If you care for your soul's health, avoid the novels which you refer to. The writer is one of a set of authors who write books to sell, not to benefit the readers.' Thank heaven such wicked writers have long since been stamped out.
Mailing 56 Me ... oops. How embarrassing to misremember a mnemonic: the memory-jogger for e (2.718281828, to nine places) should be 'It enables a numskull to memorize a quantity of numerals' ... not 'numbers'. The word-lengths carry the message. Paul, Steve ... gosh, poor old John Clute is taking a knocking this mailing. I hope you're sending him these pieces. As I've pointed out to Steve, John may be over-keen on the dread INSTAURATION FANTASY, but I don't think it has that much effect on the balance of the book. Lots of us never cross-referred to it at all. (I think I did once.) Bruce ... further Ouch noises about your burglary; many thanks for the words on George Turner. KVB ... Lear's Nasticreechia krorluppia popped into my mind in the Entomology Corner, just as it did into yours. I then non-sequitured in the direction of James Thurber's A New Natural History: 'A Trochee (left) encountering a Spondee' – shades of Searle's cartoons of the wild gerund and gerundive; 'The male Wedlock (left) cautiously approaching a clump of Devil-May-Care; at right [looking intensely disapproving] the female'; and one that Thurber suggested to The New Yorker's editor but never drew, of 'a man being generous to a fault – that is, handing a small rodent a nut.' Catie ... The Devil in Velvet is an old favourite of mine, too. It's surely Carr's best historical crime story, despite a slight overload of flaunted research material. Almost as good: The Bride of Newgate (London, 1815 – no fantastic elements, but high melodrama) and Fire, Burn! (London, 1829 – modern policeman timeslips back to the early days of Scotland Yard). Mark ... My last dream to contain a 'plot' involved cryptic handwritten letters which I knew I'd sooner or later understand. Then I woke suddenly enough to retain the exact phrase I was puzzling over, and wrote it down: 'a blank ingot of satan embedded in the fractal of the gree'. Er, give me time.... Dop ... yes, Jerry Pournelle gloating over how he beat the Evil Empire (with a little help from Larry and not much from the US Government) was the bad sight of the month in June 1992, as recorded in Chris Priest's Ansible 60 write-up. Claire ... I giggled a lot at the meticulous recreation of life at Haworth Parsonage. All that was missing was an appearance by their beloved father to read one of his famous stanzas where the last line always fails to rhyme. REV PATRICK: Religion makes beauty enchanting; / And, even where beauty is wanting, / The temper and mind / Religion-refined / [Sisters visibly brace themselves] Will shine through the veil with sweet lustre. BRONTË SISTERS: Jolly good! But perhaps, Father, you have now delighted us enough. (Sorry, wrong author....)
Read in Reading I've had one of my periodic spasms (usually approached with vague resentment and concluded in abject gratitude) of reading things people have recommended. Yes, Paul, Steve Erickson's Tales of the Black Clock (1989) is every bit as dark, disorienting and strange as you've been remarking for years. Yes, Absolutely Everyone, the Patrick O'Brian books are truly ace stuff – and incidentally were the subject of a panel at the Worldcon last month, causing one fan to have hysterics as he noted the deep synchronicity of this being held in the room 'Patio B' ('Paddy O'B, geddit?'). Occasionally a plot turn can be seen coming if you recall a trace of history, or even C.S.Forester's version – e.g. anyone familiar with Hornblower and the Hotspur knows in advance that Captain Aubrey's Spanish 'prize' will prove to be fairy gold. I'm not complaining, though.... And I am not addicted. I've read only seven of the series. I can give it up any time I like. The Reality Dysfunction (1996) and The Neutronium Alchemist (1997) by Peter F.Hamilton ... gawd, 1,951 pages of continuous narrative and a third volume to come! Anyway, although Hamilton's prose is still nothing to write home about and rather demands to be taken at speed, this unusual mix of space opera and horror reads quite well. Lots of gut-busting action, yawning cliff-hangers and copious use of military boys' toys ... sort of Starship Troopers vs Unholy Cross Between The Puppet Masters and Night of the Living Dead. Exhaustingly long, though. Did I ever tell you how, when I was young and stupidly heroic, I read the whole of Battlefield Earth in a day? (Everyone: 'Yes, yes, you've reminded us every couple of months since 1984.) Tell that to today's youngsters and they won't believe you. Harrumph!
Commonplace Book. '... I was never a strict believer in objective journalism, the best definition of which I heard from a photographer in Little Rock who told me, "Before I go out to take a picture of someone, I just stop at the city desk and say, 'Do you want him gazing out toward the sunset or picking his nose?'"' (Calvin Trillin)
The Wolfean Oracle Speaks
It's like this. Whorl is the e-mail discussion list for Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, a tetralogy full of characteristic riddles and hinted connections. Michael Andre-Driussi, erudite compiler of Lexicon Urthus andone of Whorl's most diligent Seekers After Truth, persuaded Wolfe to answer a set of questions put together by baffled list contributors. You are advised not to read on unless you have either finished the Book or don't intend to start! Gene Wolfe quoted cryptically abbreviated questions as the basis for his replies; I've tried to restore the original sense throughout.
1. Who or what is Oreb? – Oreb is a night chough. [DRL: Needless to say, the questioner hoped for an answer concerning the bird's symbolism or significance....]
2. What is his [Wolfe's] attraction to [pretences or deceptions that turn out to be true]? – I'm sure it must be the unconscious hope that some of mine will.
3. What was Typhon's purpose in launching the Whorl and was the Blue/Green [solar] system the intended destination? – Knowing Typhon as I do, he probably had at least half a dozen purposes; but certainly one of the chief must have been self-aggrandizement – to return human kind to the stars would be a very great thing indeed. Yes, the Blue-Green system was the intended destination.
4. Was what Silk saw in the manteion Pike's ghost, or an aquastor, or what? – It was seen in the manse, not the manteion; it wasn't machine made. [DRL: See question 27.]
4a. [A rider attached for some reason to 4, about whether the once advertised series title was related to the game Starcross.] – I have not played Starcross, but then Starcrosser's Landfall was David Hartwell's title, not mine; so it seems likely enough that David has.
5. Do you care to enlighten us as to whether the Enlightenments are purely miraculous or are concurrent with activities of Mainframe or Pas? – They are purely miraculous.
6. What is the source of information for the auguries? The options that my soft little brain can come up with for the source of Silk's very accurate divination are: chance (lucky guess); divine (the Outsider); mechanical (Mainframe); mystical (the gods); or psychic (Silk himself). – Silk is. He is to some degree psychic and sometimes lucky; he also forms unconscious conclusions, as we all do. In other words, he foretells the future very much as others do with cards or crystals. What are the very accurate divinations to which this questioner refers?
7. What are Quetzal's motives? – For what? He hates the Ayuntamiento and would like a thriving colony of human beings on Green. [DRL: Leading to question 23....]
8. How is Silk able to see these valleys filled with shadows [in the skylands at night, at the opening of chapter 4, book 1] if the Whorl is a cylinder with the long sun running approximately down the centre? – This one throws me completely. Where is the difficulty, unless all the valleys run parallel to the Long Sun? Naturally they don't. [DRL: I see a Wolfean trap here. The groundlings' references to the 'shade' of night strongly suggest a literal revolving shade around the sun. But there are later indications that night involves some sort of dark stuff sent in pulses along the axis to mask a certain length of the Long Sun.]
9. In the scene where Silk first meets Kypris, what is the 'beam' that she says has not yet been fixed? (This is before Silk remembers to complete the 'third circuit' and the rest of the exorcism. I can see it as a possible biblical reference – the quote about 'removing the beam from your eye', but a more literal interpretation might be a link with the rest of the Whorl/Mainframe network.) – It's the electron beam of the Sacred Window in the former manteion. Kypris is saying that she would have shown herself in the Window, had it been possible.
10. What are the dimensions of the Whorl? – I don't know.
11. In Horn's 'Defence', he writes: 'Fewer than I have expected have found fault with Silk's assertion that [Mint] took her warlike character from the Goddess of Love, although it seems implausible to me.' What did cause the change in Mint's character? – Kypris [Whorl Goddess of Love]. What I was trying to say is that there is more to love than doves and simpering.
12. Who was Blood's father? – Patera Pike. [DRL: This was a complete surprise all round, by the way.]
13. Was the live cargo of the Whorl only put on board to preserve the 'wild' half of mankind so the Typhon/Pas entity could establish a vital human vassal state on the destination world, or did the Inhumi (sic) require the 'wild' parts to satisfy their blood lust? – Neither. Typhon did not know about the inhumi [and] would have done everything possible to keep them out of the Whorl if he had. He could not be certain that the sleepers would not die before the Whorl reached its destination, or that they would be able to form viable societies when they were awakened. He coppered his bets by sending humans in three forms: cargo, sleepers, and frozen embryos. The first arrived largely intact. Some of the second and most of the third were lost.
14. Is there a member (current, former, future) of the Order of Seekers for Truth and Penitence on the Whorl? – I'm going to interpret this question in the broadest possible sense, since that seems to be what Parsons wants. Yes, there is. It is Silk.
15. Is the Outsider a form of Severian? – No. Severian is a form of the Outsider.
The first batch of questions ended here; a second was put together. Over to Michael Andre-Driussi: 'The bad news first – this was the last question train. Gene Wolfe doesn't want to answer any more. But he did answer the last questions....'
16. It's pretty broadly indicated that Silk was gestated from a frozen embryo as Mucor was. This has some nice symbolic effects ('virgin birth', the hero as having unusual origins, etc.). Does Silk have any human engineered, extraordinary abilities? Please pass along my compliments to Mr. Wolfe as one of the most creative, skilled, and theologically fascinating writers I've ever read. – Please thank Kieran Mullen for me for what he said about my writing. I don't believe it, which is a good thing. If I did, I'd be insufferable. He asked whether Silk had 'extraordinary abilities.' To quibble, it depends on what you mean by extraordinary. He has none comparable to Mucor's, although his are much more valuable. He is a born leader, with great energy and intelligence, and superior motor skills.
17. Who jumped or fell from the top of the airship, and why? – Horn, possessed by the mischievous, amoral Mucor, because Silk's conversation and behavior had suggested it.
18. Describe ... a voided cross and a gammadion. – A gammadion is any figure composed of gamma-shaped pieces. The most common gammadions are the swastika and the voided cross. (The swastika is ancient, by the way, and is found in both East Indian and American Indian art.) To make a voided cross, arrange four gammas, not touching, so that the points point toward a common centre. [DRL: Argh!]
19. What is the etymology of 'Mamelta'? – St. Mamelta was a Persian, but her name looks Greek to me. (It was common, of course, for the Greeks to pin Greek names upon non-Greeks.) Assuming that the name is Greek, my best guess is that it means 'Not Careless'.
20. Mint states that she had to give up many things, 'five of them very great,' to become a sibyl. Can you tell us what those five things were? – I can try, knowing I will be accused of banality. In no particular order: freedom, marriage, the right to own property, the companionship and support of her family, and motherhood.
21. There are scenes in the series that are hard to imagine Horn hearing about from witnesses (e.g. Musk training the hawk, Quetzal's thoughts and actions before and after meeting with Remora, Silk's beautiful prayers to the gods and to the Outsider). Are these ...(a) Extrapolations by Horn (possibly including hagiography of Silk)? (b) Examples like the very last chapter of Exodus of material in The Book of the Long Sunthat is not from The Book of Silk? – (It's an eagle.) Horn's information on the first came from 'the kite builder', who asked that his name not be used. Silk's prayers (etc.) were written by Horn and Nettle, who had heard him pray many times. Please reread Exodus, p. 371.
21a. How trustworthy a narrator is Horn? – Horn and Nettle are doing their best to tell you what happened, what probably happened, and what must have happened, in dramatic form. They are human beings, however, and make mistakes. (We all do, especially me.) Their account is subjective, necessarily, as all accounts are.
21b. Who is the narrator of the very last chapter ...? – I think you mean the Afterward. It was written by Hoof, Hide, and their wives – but mostly by Hide.
22. Why did Auk ... kidnap Hyacinth, and why, subsequently, did he let her go? – Because Tartaros had told him to bring a woman. He released her as he recovered from his brain injury, was able to think more clearly, and realized that Hyacinth was not the woman he should bring. (Putting it another way, he released her because Tartaros told him to. These answers are not as disparate as they may appear.)
23. What was Quetzal's motive in wanting a thriving human colony on Green? – You will have to read The Book of the Short Sun.
24. Why does the monitor, having given the passengers in the lander a choice between Blue or Green, overrule their (Quetzal's) choice of Green? Or maybe why were they given a choice in the first place, if the monitor already knew where to go? Or was the fact that it was Quetzal (an inhumi) who made the choice cause the monitor to change from the Green (the inhumi whorl) to Blue? – Because the choice had been Quetzal's and the monitor, seeing his body, realized that he had not been a human being. (You already knew the answer, and gave it yourself. Why ask me?) [DRL: I too thought the question needless. It is specifically stated that the lander monitor has a 'glass' in the sickbay and thus sees the details of Quetzal's unclothed body which cause the laying-out women to scream. However, having missed points just as 'obvious', I shouldn't complain.]
25. Does Green/Blue have anything to do with The Fifth Head of Cerberus? – No.
26. Who was Hyacinth's mother? – I don't know how to answer that. She was not a character you have known in some other connection, if that's what you mean. She was the wife of Hyacinth's father, and the mother of her sisters and brothers.
27. Is Pike's ghost really Quetzal? – No. [DRL: Which blandly leaves the possibility that the 'ghost' might still be another of the alien inhumi.... See question 4; also, below.]
28. Near the end of Exodus there seems to be confusion about the whereabouts of Mint and Marble (they seem to have exchanged places). Is this deliberate, or is it merely an auctorial or editorial mistake? – You're right, and they are my mistakes. I try hard to stop such things from getting into print. Often I fail. If I told you how bad I feel about these, you would accuse me of grandstanding. [DRL: You can't imagine how relieved this made me! We read subtleties into Wolfe's least typos....]
Finally, just for tidiness, here's a little more Q&A from the on-line chat into which Wolfe was inveigled not long ago.
About how far, really, is the New Sun series set in our future (or the future of the previous universe)? How much time elapses between Typhon and Severian? – That is never specified in the books. My offhand guess is between 1000 and 2000 years. I would have to reread the books with care to perhaps trim the estimate up a little bit. [DRL: If the Whorl's 300+-year flight was at relativistic speeds, Silk and Severian may yet prove to be contemporaries – as Michael Andre-Driussi has suggested.]
Can you comment on the peculiar vampiric twist at the end of the Book of the Long Sun series; and in particular, is it leading to a new series? – I'm not sure what you mean by the vampiric twist.... It is leading to the Book of the Short Sun. It will deal with the colonists, and will take up about twenty years after the ending of Book of the Long Sun, when Horn is asked to return to the Whorl to bring Silk to the colonized world of Blue.
In the Long Sun books, is Quetzal the only one of his kind on the Whorl? Was he an original passenger or a late arrival? – He was a late arrival. He is not the only one of his kind, but the Inhumi are rare on the Whorl.
Is the Outsider a spiritual God? Or another virtual being? – The Outsider is a spiritual God.
In the Long Sun series, is the Cargo intended to be delivered to someone, or are they just very unlucky (since Blue is already inhumi, I mean inhabited)? – They are intended to colonize uninhabited worlds. Blue's inhabitants have very largely left it, but I'm not sure why you'd say what you could have read in Exodus, why you'd say it was inhabited – except for the inhumi. They are fundamentally from Green, which is where they can reproduce ... on Blue they are tourists.
In the Long Sun books, is Quetzal a being who shifts from one shape to another, or one who can mould his appearance? – Yes in both cases.
Did you conceive of Horn as the narrator of the Long Sun books, or did this come to you as you were working on them? It struck me as rather a shock. – It's supposed to strike you as rather a shock! The narrator of the Long Sun books is not Horn alone but Horn and Nettle, working as collaborators.
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