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The Best Of Gene Wolfe

1/8/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy The Best Of Gene Wolfe in the USA - or Buy The Best Of Gene Wolfe in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 475 page hardback. Price: $27.95 (US), $30.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2135-0.

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'The Best Of Gene Wolfe' is a collection of thirty-one of his short stories, chosen by the author and covering the first thirty years of his writing career. Gene Wolfe is an award-winning author of literary Science Fiction. However, not having read any of his works before starting on this collection, I was unsure what to expect but was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

It is difficult to give a single characterisation of Wolfe's writing based on this collection, as the stories are so diverse in subject matter, length and style. However, the adjectives that came to mind most often whilst reading were strange, weird, funny and enjoyable. A few examples may explain why.

'The Marvellous Brass Chessplaying Automaton' tells the story of a supposedly robotic chess-playing machine in eighteenth century Germany. It is, of course, a con trick, the chess board being operated by a midget inside the machine. When the midget decides to start a new life and get his own back on his cruel boss at the same time, he sets in train a series of events that lead to tragedy for him and his newly acquired girl-friend. This story is funny and tragic by turns but is brilliantly told and hugely enjoyable.

'Death Of The Island Doctor' is one of three stories in this collection that are linked by references to islands and doctors, although their subject matter is otherwise unrelated. In this story, a retired academic decides to teach one last course on his great love, islands. For ages, no students register for this rather odd option. Eventually, however, a young man and a young woman come to see the 'island doctor' and what he shows them will change both their lives. This is a weird but touching and bittersweet tale, probably my favourite of the entire collection.

In 'The Boy Who Hooked The Sun', a young lad goes fishing in the sea off the ancient island of Atlantis and he hooks the Sun. Several of the locals try to persuade him to let the Sun go, scared of what will happen if the Sun never comes up again. He laughs at each of them and carries on trying to haul the Sun in. Finally, his mother asks him to stop, saving the Sun for another day. The story idea is strange, but it is wonderfully written and very witty. As a bonus, the afterword to this tale includes some great advice on how to write short stories.

I enjoyed most of the stories in this collection. There were just one or two that I didn't really get on with. Representative of these is 'Game In The Pope's Head', which follows a small cast of characters as they play a strange game, a loose amalgam of chess, Monopoly and various card games. The game seems to meld into new realities, ultimately ending with a violent and unmotivated murder. In the afterword to this story, Wolfe explains that it is based on a daydream. This seems eminently credible and may explain why I couldn't make head nor tail of the story, even on a repeated reading.

What comes through repeatedly from Wolfe's stories is a sense of strangeness. In most cases, things are not as they seem on the surface. Sometimes this is because the narrator is unreliable. At other times, it is because the story is more convoluted than it appears at first. You do, therefore, have to concentrate while you're reading these stories. On a couple of occasions, I put a story down half-way through, to go and do something else. In each case, when I tried to finish it off later on, I found myself confused and ended up having to read the story through from the start again. However, if you put the effort in you will be suitably rewarded. Wolfe takes his readers to strange and beautiful places and when each story is over, the world seems just that little bit richer.

'The Best Of Gene Wolfe' is a great introduction to his work for someone, like me, who has not read him before. It includes a wide range of stories, showcasing Wolfe's diverse skills as a storyteller. If you are already a fan, I doubt you will need much prompting from me to get this collection. If you're not but you are interested in SF that makes you think, I would urge you to give this a go.

Patrick Mahon

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