Last Updated on February 14, 2024
Full disclosure: I have been a Gene Wolfe (1931 – 2019) fanboy for more than thirty years. Specifically, I think Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, which has won numerous World Fantasy, Locus, and British Fantasy awards, as well as a Nebula, is the greatest piece of literature ever written, and I think his Book of the Long Sun, Book of the Short Sun, and Soldier series, winner of a World Fantasy Award and a Locus Award, are almost as good. Wolfe is a SFWA Science Fiction Grand Master, has won the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. That said, his latest and likely final posthumous short story collection, The Wolfe at the Door (Tor – 31 October 2023) is a bit of a mixed bag.
The Wolfe at the Door covers Wolfe’s entire career, and though it is billed as “an all new collection,” only one of the pieces, “Archangel Gabriel,” a religious poem, has not been released before. The stories range from fantasy and dark fantasy to science fiction and even a couple of very engaging detective stories, which I didn’t expect. One of Wolfe’s few acknowledged influences, Science Fiction Grand Master Jack Vance, also wrote mysteries under different pen names including as Ellery Queen. In its best stories, The Wolfe at the Door captures the genius intellect and visionary imagination of Wolfe at the height of his powers. Some of the other stories are merely interesting and some others are just puzzling. Nevertheless, all the stories contain deep personal conflicts nested in strange and vivid situations.
Perhaps my favorite story in The Wolfe at the Door is the novella “Memorare,” which I first read in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2007 and which was nominated for the Nebula Award for best novella that year. (Nancy Kress won the award that year as she has several times.) The story follows a filmmaker, March Wildspring, and his reporter girlfriend to the atmosphere of Jupiter, where it has become fashionable for rich people to create floating memorials to themselves after they die. However, his girlfriend has brought a friend with her who is fleeing an abusive relationship. When the friend’s abusive spouse shows up, things get very tense since they must leave her alone in the ship or take her with them into a reportedly very dangerous tomb.
Other engaging science fictions stories include “The Sea of Memory,” in which travelers on a space ship find themselves dying in their pods on the way to their destination, “Leif in the Wind” in which travelers looking for life on a faraway planet become haunted by strange birds, and “Thou Spark of Blood,” in which a murder takes place on a space ship, and an ending twist turns the story on its head.
Although most of the stories are based in science fiction, some grim fantasy, which may be particularly interesting to readers of Grimdark Magazine, include “The Hour of the Sheep” in which a famous swordsman, Tiero, is finagled into a protecting a rich aristocratic woman, “Easter Sunday,” in which a reverend and an exiled aristocrat engage in a conversation about religion and politics that takes a strange twist, and “The Gunner’s Mate,” in which a woman finds herself vacationing and then wanting to stay on a remote island that may be haunted by pirates.
And as I have said above, there are some unexpected and surprisingly good mystery/detective stories in The Wolfe at the Door, including “Volksweapon,” about a murder in the woods, and “The Largest Luger,” a thoroughly engaging and detailed tale about the provenance of a rare pistol that may have been used in a murder.
On the other hand, there are some old clunkers like “The Grave Secret” that I didn’t enjoy as much. Originally published in 1951 and updated for the collection The Young Wolfe in 1992, it tells the story of a man who murders his wife. The story is a short mystery/horror tale, but instead of Wolfe’s more mature style of leaving the reader guessing, Wolfe tells the ‘secret’ in the last line of the otherwise opaque story. Another is “The On-Deck Circle,” a totally befuddling tale about boat baseball. (Yes, you read that right.) But to each their own.
What ties all these diverse stories together is the deep human conflict in all of them, even the ones with robots. Wolfe is a master at pitting characters against one another in ways that put readers on edge. And all the stories packed into this 500+ page tome do that. Wolfe is truly master storyteller, but whether these diverse and often bizarre tales satisfy the casual reader might be a question of taste. However, for Gene Wolfe completists, it is a must have.
I would not, however, recommend this collection to readers who are new to Wolfe. Do yourselves a favor and check out The Book of the New Sun (Shadow & Claw, Sword & Citadel), which has been called “a masterpiece of science fantasy comparable in importance to the major works of Tolkien and Lewis” by Publishers Weekly, and “one of the most ambitious works of speculative fiction in the twentieth century” by The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. For Wolfe’s best short work, I recommend the collection The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories.