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A Lesson Learned   Leave a comment

Gene Wolfe 1931 – 2019

As a writer, I’m not often troubled by the so-called impostor syndrome. I have enough confidence in what I do to move forward on the assumption that what I write will be worth a reader’s time and money. There are, however, practitioners of the art of storytelling who can leave me baffled by my own audacity. I read their work and find myself wondering what makes me think I’m in any way good enough to do this. (Mercifully, these spells always pass.)

One of those writers died on the day I started writing this piece (April 15, 2019). His name was Gene Wolfe.

Other greats in the science fiction world have passed in recent years, people whose work has entertained and inspired me, while also teaching me things through their work about how stories can be told. Like all science fiction fans, these losses sadden me, even as I reflect on their great legacies. But this loss comes closer to home. Gene Wolfe taught me something very important about storytelling, a thing that seems perfectly obvious when you hear it, but doesn’t always make itself plain while you work your way up the learning curve.

The lesson is this: there can be no deadwood in the story. Everything must contribute to the whole, whether it’s a detail in the world build, a major element of character development, or a twist in the plot. You don’t just drop things in and walk on, adding elements just because you think it will make the story trendier, for example. There needs to be a reason for it all, consistent with the internal logic of the story.

Obvious, right? It sounded so to me, but until Mr. Wolfe imparted that lesson, I’d never thought it through before. But it isn’t the soundness of that advice that makes his passing a source of personal sadness. It’s the memory of it. He told me this in person, using an element of one of my own stories by way of illustration.

This encounter took place at the World Fantasy Convention held in Tucson, AZ in 1991. The convention programming included a chance to have a completed short story critiqued by one of the published authors in attendance. I had a story ready to make the rounds, and delayed submission long enough to use it for that event. It was a pleasant November evening when all the participants gathered to see which pros we’d been matched with. As I recall, we were crowded into a hallway in the hotel, and one by one Big Names walked out of a room and called a lesser name forward. I was talking to a friend when someone said “Thomas Watson,” and turned to see none other than Gene Wolfe searching the assembled faces in the hallway. I made my presence known (I remember something simple, like saying “Here,” but my friend remembers me muttering “yikes” under my breath) and shook hands with him. We left the crowd behind and went out to sit at a table in the central courtyard of the hotel.

Many of the details from that conversation have faded from memory. I remember Mr. Wolfe being encouraging, but very honest. I still have the original version of the story. Today I can see that it needed a lot more work, but it was as good as I could make it, back then. There was no way I could recognize this in 1991, lacking as I was in essential feedback. The concept of beta readers was years in the future, and all the feedback I’d received for my fiction to that point had come from a small writing group (that had come to an end by then) and the rare personal response from editors as they rejected a manuscript. I was doing my best and hoping against hope that it would eventually be good enough.

That evening I received feedback in a big way. Mr. Wolfe found the story engaging but badly flawed. He enumerated the flaws and suggested new-to-me ways to look at storytelling that might help. He was direct in his criticism, but never let it become too personal. He didn’t come across as the seasoned professional talking to the wannabe; he did not talk down to me. It was a serious conversation between writers. Mr. Wolfe made it that by taking my desire to write seriously. Somewhere in that short conversation he brought up the concept that inspired this essay. Everything in a story should be in the story for a very good reason.

Beginning writers often leave deadwood scattered in their prose, anything from useless dialog that’s meant to be witty, to exposition that tells readers nothing they really need to know. In the years since, I’ve learned to recognize this, and such failings have made a number of books, for me, one-and-done for a given author. More to the point, I’ve been made more aware of the concept in my own fiction. Yes, it’s obvious, after you have it spelled out. Many things work that way. Anyone can swing an ax, but have someone show you the best way to hold and balance an ax and your chances of missing your foot go up significantly.

To illustrate the point, he asked a question about the story in hand. He asked why a particular character was an African-American.

At this point I need to commit a digression and offer spoiler warnings. First, the warnings. If you have a copy of my short story collection 179 Degrees From Now and have not yet read the story “Crossing the Pond,” be aware that I’m about to spoil it for you. Can’t be helped, so read on at your own risk.

Now, the digression, one that in our unsettled times is surely necessary to avoid readers turning away at this point. It has to do with Mr. Wolfe’s singling out that one character with his question. I was relating my experience to a group of fellow sci-fi fans and writers at a science fiction convention not long ago. I got as far as Mr. Wolfe’s question regarding the African-American character, and found myself handed a textbook example of “triggering.” A person in the group cut me off with a burst of outrage directed at the fact that the question had singled out the African-American character. “He shouldn’t have done that!” When I said there’d been a good reason for the question, I was told in no uncertain terms by a second person that there couldn’t be a good reason for singling out that character by his race, that it was wrong and racist. I repeated that there was indeed a good reason and that racism, to the best of my knowledge, had nothing to do with it, and was ready to explain why their shared assumption was off base. But the echo chamber around them was impenetrable by that time, and the explanation was never heard.

Listening to the world around you for the purpose of responding, instead of understanding, is a bad habit. Others have pointed this out before me. It clearly requires reiteration.

But perhaps you will reserve judgment and read on, spoilers or no. The question was asked in the context of all elements of the story serving a purpose, and adding up to a story that means something. In this particular tale (of which “Crossing the Pond” is a significantly rewritten version) the African-American character is a scholar who specializes in the life and times of Henry David Thoreau. The scholar is terminally ill and visiting Walden Pond one last time. Thoreau appears and asks the scholar if they have met before. (These elements were in the version of the story Mr. Wolfe read.) The answer is that they have not, and that Thoreau may be thinking of an ancestor of the scholar.

Mr. Wolfe knew enough of Thoreau’s story to know the man was an Abolitionist, and in fact was a “conductor” on the “Underground Railroad.” Somewhere in his writings, Thoreau mentions briefly encountering an African-American headed north. He gave the man some food and sent him on his way. It isn’t known whether or not this man was actually an escaped slave, or if he found his way to life as a free man. Reading of this encounter, my mind concocted a daydream that in the course of time became a short work of fantasy. Mr. Wolfe was looking to see if I’d been aware of these things while I wrote the tale. Had I chosen to make the character in question African-American because of this history and quietly woven this connection into the story? My answer of “yes” was what he hoped to hear; he was evidently pleased and favorably impressed, which certainly gave my confidence a much needed boost. The shade of Thoreau was there in the role of the Ferryman, helping yet another soul to a different sort of freedom. That very idea had been the germ of the original story. Mr. Wolfe picked out that character because the man’s fate and Thoreau’s history were the elements that gave the story its meaning. He wanted to hear me say I’d done this deliberately. The character’s race was important to the story, but was not in and of itself the reason the question of race was brought up.

I asked if I had failed to make the reason for the character’s race and Thoreau’s appearance obvious enough. He smiled and warned me against being too easy on readers, unless I wanted to deliberately insult their intelligence. I can honestly say reading Gene Wolfe has never insulted my intelligence, and those of you familiar with his work know exactly what I mean by that. To those who have not read this author, his fiction is frequently “no easy road,” to quote one of his own characters. I’ve endeavored to avoid belaboring the obvious in my own work ever since. Making sure each element of the story carries its weight is one way to accomplish this.

In every life there are moments that, when you look back on them, are revealed to be turning points. That all-too-brief conversation with one of the Grand Masters of the genre was one of mine, although it took the perspective of time passed to make this clear to me. Until that night, writing fiction had been a matter of shooting from the hip and hoping it sounded right. After that night I started looking at writing fiction as a controlled process. It was never again quite the act of unbridled spontaneity it had been, even if I never did start using outlines. I may still be writing by the seat of my pants, but these days I have a much better sense of direction. My conversation with Gene Wolfe made me think about how I do this thing I do, instead of just putting my head down and going for it. Once I started down that path, things were never the same again. I will always be grateful to him for that.

The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1965

For the first time since beginning this series of essays, I find myself dealing with a new-to-me book. In the early 1980s I made it a project to read Hugo-winning novels (and short stories) in an effort to better understand the genre that inspired me to write fiction. During that earlier effort, I was unable to locate a copy of the 1965 winner. The book had apparently gone out of print (I was working in a bookstore at the time and couldn’t special-order a copy for myself), and the few copies I found in used bookstores were either too expensive, or in such bad shape that I passed them by. I always meant to bridge this gap, and this time around was determined to do so. Fortunately, during the intervening years the book was brought back into print, and so tracking down a copy through an online source proved no challenge. At long last, I could read the eleventh novel to win the Hugo Award. After all that time and effort, I suppose it sort of figures that this book doesn’t measure up to those preceding it.

The Wanderer is a tale of disaster on a planetary scale. During a lunar eclipse, a rogue planet suddenly appears in the solar system, so close to the Earth and the Moon that tidal forces are able to tear the Moon apart. The same tidal forces devastate Humanity, creating flood tides of Biblical proportions, triggering massive earthquakes, and setting off super-volcanic eruptions. As civilization is hammered by catastrophes, survivors on Earth and a lunar base seek to unravel the mystery of the Wanderer, as they all come to call the rogue planet. The hardships experienced on Earth are seen through the eyes of survivors scattered around the globe.

As interesting as the premise of this novel surely is, I had quite a bit of trouble getting into the story. There are a lot of points of view used, but there is a lack of consistency in the way they are developed. Three subplots are strongly developed and a number of others weave in and out of the main flow, apparently to add details to illustrate the horrors being inflicted on the people of Earth. Many of these subplots appear and disappear sporadically, and only those that involve the deaths of the characters involved are resolved. One of the throw-away subplots ends with what stands as the worst sex scene I’ve ever encountered as a reader of science fiction. These partially developed subplots ultimately failed to support the story, and left me feeling more distracted than informed. It’s as if the author (and the editor) couldn’t quite decide which story to tell. Two such subplots could have accomplished the job; a less-is-more editorial approach would have greatly improved the structure of the book.

Improved it, but perhaps not rescued it from the cardboard, heavily stereotyped characters that inhabit this tale. Remember how people reacted to the dialog between characters in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones? The characters and their interactions in this novel have that sort of awkwardness. And then there are the aliens responsible for the mess who, when the reader gets to know them, come across as little better than cartoonish.

By the time I was finished with The Wanderer, my reaction was one of puzzlement. This is not what I would call a very well-executed novel, especially when I compare it to Way Station, the previous year’s winner, or with either Dune or This Immortal, the winners (in a tie) of the best-novel Hugo the following year. Was the year in which The Wanderer first saw print a poor year for science fiction? That’s frankly hard to believe. And yet this imperfect book, written by an author who has done much stronger work (including The Big Time which brought a Hugo award to Leiber in 1958) took the honors in 1965. Fame is a fickle thing, and the ways in which it is bestowed often make little sense in retrospect. This is apparently as true in science fiction as it is with any form of entertainment.

This one disappointed me. I expected more of Leiber, being familiar with his work, and felt that The Wanderer fell short of the mark he usually hits. It isn’t a book I’ll ever read again, and as this review makes plain, isn’t one I’d recommend unless you share my desire to read all of the Hugo winners. Or unless you’re curious to see what it is about this book that makes it seem like such a train wreck to me. In which case, read it! I will never, in any of these reviews, tell you that a book is “bad,” or worse, heap venom and scorn on a work just because I don’t like it. If the book fails for me, it might be me and not the book at all. It may be that many others see this book the way I do, but in 1965 readers of science fiction saw The Wander in a very different way. They bestowed upon it the highest honor we have for science fiction. Who was right? Does that even matter? All I can tell you is that the book didn’t work for me and why I felt it failed. In other words, I didn’t like it. To go from saying “I didn’t like it,” to the conclusion that it’s a “bad book” that no one else should read has always seemed to me to be a step too far.

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