Friday, March 13, 2015

Four stories from Orbit by Gene Wolfe:

When Joachim Boaz took to twitter and his blog to praise Gene Wolfe’s “Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee" I was inspired to seek out Wolfe stories I had never read before, including “Sonya….” These four first appeared in Damon Knight’s famous Orbit anthologies of original stories, though I read them in later Wolfe collections I own: “Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee" in Storeys from the Old Hotel and "The Changeling," "Melting," and "Many Mansions" in Castle of Days.

"The Changeling" (1968)

Right off the bat I got a story that had me furrowing my brow, trying to figure it out; I read it twice over two days.  As is often true with Wolfe, it makes sense to read carefully, as each sentence is valuable and could contain a clue.  This is no chore, because Wolfe's writing is quite fine, a pleasure to read.

The text of "The Changeling" is a manuscript hidden in a cave.  Wolfe often employs narrators who are unreliable and intellectually and/or morally suspect, and early on we get a sense that there is something villainous about the writer of this manuscript.  As a U.S. Army soldier the narrator was captured in the Korean War and defected to China, even though he had an opportunity to return to the United States.  When he got tired of living under communism and returned to America he was put on trial because of something he was accused of by his fellow U.S. servicemen.  On the fourth page of the eleven-page story the narrator describes how, as a child, he tortured a frog, and when a girl, Maria Palmieri, tried to stop him from pursuing this dreadful behavior, he "hit her in the eye with a stone."

After getting out of prison the narrator returns to one of the towns where he grew up (he left before starting fifth grade), Cassonville.  There he confronts numerous strange phenomena.  He seems to be living in a slightly different world than other people in Cassonville; in particular, the depth and breadth of a river seem different to him than to a childhood friend, Paul Palmieri.  When Paul throws a stone, he claims to have thrown it clear across the creek, while our narrator sees it plop into the water.

Equally strangely, a boy the narrator played with twenty years ago during his frog-torturing days, Peter Palmieri, has not aged--he's still a child.  Only one other person in the town seems to notice that Peter has been nine-years-old for decades, the boy's putative father, an old Italian immigrant.  Papa Palmieri tells the narrator the story of how the child appeared in the town and every body else simply accepted him as a member of the Palmieri family.  As the years went by and Peter's "siblings" grew, and he did not, people simply stopped talking about him as Maria's older brother and started calling him Maria's twin, and then Maria's little brother.

While apparently an alien presence, Peter is acknowledged by Papa, and Peter's actions in the story bear this out, to be a very honest and conscientious person ("he's a good boy--better than Paul or Maria.")  

When the narrator starts investigating old school records and old newspapers he finds no records of himself, even though he should be moderately famous after his defection to Mao's China, court-martial and imprisonment in the US.  He doesn't even appear in an old class photo he knows he was included in--in his place is the mysterious Peter.  On the penultimate page of the story we learn the narrator's name: Pete Palmer.

It seems to me that our narrator and the ageless Peter are one and the same person, somehow split into their evil and good components.  (It is significant that the narrator remembers that not only Maria but Peter Palmieri tried to defend the frog from him, and that Wolfe slyly uses pronouns to leave the reader unsure whether at the climax of the fight the narrator stabbed the frog or Peter with his knife.)  As Christian thinking would suggest, the good part of Pete(r) does not age, while the evil part suffers in places like Red China and an American military prison.

The narrator decides to live as a hermit on an island in the aforementioned river, surviving on fish and handouts.  Here he writes and secretes his manuscript in a cave. Some of the people who bring him fish hooks and sacks of potatoes tell him they wish they were him.  Were China and the prison Purgatory, and the island Heaven?  Maybe the island is just more Purgatory?

As the title suggests, this is a story about how people and their circumstances change over the course of their lives.  The narrator talks repeatedly about how he has been changed by such events as the early deaths of his parents, how as a kid he often moved, how he changed his mind about living a life of poverty and factory work in Communist China.  The title also, of course, refers to folklore about elves, trolls, the devil or whoever swapping a human baby for an inhuman one, creating the phenomenon of a person being raised in a society or world not his own, a phenomenon the narrator presumably felt in China and admits to feeling back in Cassonville.    

“Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee" (1970)

This is a story about the lonely lives of people in a decadent future utopia/dystopia which is paradoxically collectivized (everybody gets government handouts and there are police cameras everywhere) and radically individualistic (people need not leave their houses and those with money have relationships with organic sex robots instead of other people.)  If I had to guess at what Wolfe is getting at, I'd say it is that developments which many would regard as improvements, like a universal guaranteed income and high technology, could make human relationships superfluous, thus ruining the lives of many because it is human relationships that make life worth living.  I think we can call this one a satire of progress.

Wolfe writes “Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee" in a sort of folksy genial tone, reminding us repeatedly that it is a story about the future written in the present.  (This is somewhat similar to what he does in the introductory matter of The Book of the New Sun, the text of which he says is a translation of a manuscript from the future.)  Wolfe also includes lots of references to cultural figures like Julie Newmar, Debbie Reynolds, Harlan Ellison, the Kennedys, and even my beloved James Boswell.  The light-hearted tone masks a tale of sadness and horror.

The plot:  Sonya is an old poor woman with no family and no close friends who lives on the dole.  She is accidentally introduced to wealthy widower Crane Wessleman. Crane Wessleman finds her amusing, and for a period of a year he invites her to dinner (microwaved) every week.  Sonya hopes to marry Crane Wessleman, but when she visits he mostly talks about Kittee, his organic robotic "friend."  Wolfe makes it clear that Kittee is not a maid (the house is very dirty and Sonya puts her own dinner in the microwave) and that Kittee is disgusting, a smelly zombie sort of thing that doesn't talk or smile and was made from the "germ plasm" of a cat, monkey or canine, nobody is quite sure what.

The year of invites ends when Crane Wessleman dies.  Sonya investigates, finds that Kittee has started eating her "friend."  Sonya puts out food for Kittee and hopes Crane Wessleman left her something in his will.

Somewhat easier (for me, at least) to "get" than "The Changeling," and more emotionally affecting.

"Melting" (1974)

Well, I'm not in love with every Gene Wolfe story.  "Melting" is a discursive New-Wavish piece, just five pages, full of silly puns and tricks.  I think it is about a guy who has an elaborate dream of a party after using drugs and/or alcohol.  The party in his dream is attended by time travelers: apparently figures from books he has been reading like Joseph Bonaparte and a British Army officer who served in World War One, as well as one character who is based on his washing machine.  At the end of the story Wolfe reminds us that we are reading a story, and that the character in the story is unreal, a figment of Wolfe's imagination just like the people in the dreamer's dream were figments of his imagination.  Wolfe hints that we readers may similarly be figments of someone's imagination.

This story is OK, I guess, but not for me.  (For one thing, I hate "and it was all a dream" stories.)  It reminds me of "How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion," another Anglophilic pun-laden Wolfe story set in some kind of alternate universe.  "How I Lost the Second World War..." is perhaps the Wolfe story I like least, but I guess it is widely admired; Ben Bova, Gardner Dozois and Peter Haining all included it in anthologies.  "Melting" also reminded me a little of Joanna Russ's 1971 "Zanzibar Cat" and the background to Coleridge's "Kubla Khan."

"Many Mansions" (1977)

"Many Mansions" is about gender roles and colonialism and has at its heart a very cool SF idea.  On a planet colonized by humans some generations ago the wealthier colonists lived in houses that were essentially alive--though built of wood and such inanimate materials, the brains of human women were integrated into the houses. These living brains, kept alive far beyond a normal human lifespan, maintained the house, keeping it attractive and in shape in a way the narrator compares to how a woman keeps herself attractive.

When a war broke out between the colony and the metropole (called "the Motherworld" in the story, presumably the Earth) the armies of the Earthers, who won the war, destroyed most of the living houses.  (The war seems to have resulted from, or coincided with, a gender-based revolution on Earth; the Earth army consisted entirely of female soldiers, and it seems there are no men on Earth any longer, that Earth is inhabited solely by female clones grown in "bottles" who live some kind of militaristic lifestyle.)  The living houses were mobile, however, and it is said that some escaped destruction and still haunt deep forests and sometimes capture people for some unknown purpose.

"Many Mansions" takes place decades after the war, when the houses are apparently a mysterious legend and have been entirely forgotten by Earthers; we readers learn all this history in bits and pieces from a colonial man and woman in conversation with a cloned Earth woman who has never heard of the houses.  This Earth woman is investigating the disappearance of a colleague.  The story has the structure of a horror tale; we slowly learn the danger the clone is in, and the possible fate of her lost comrade.  After talking about the houses for eight pages it is not that surprising to find on the ninth and penultimate page that the old woman narrator and her husband reside in one of surviving sentient houses.  The clone flees in fear, and it is suggested that someday she will be, and the lost clone already has been, somehow integrated into a house, where, by helping maintain a house, she will be doing true women's work.

This is a well-crafted story; the plot and characters all work and the idea of brains integrated into walking houses feels both very original but also very natural for SF. The story's form is somewhat experimental, as it is entirely told in dialogue, that of the husband and wife.  Wolfe leaves the reader to wonder which character (if any) to sympathize with.  On the one hand the husband and wife and their house (animated by the wife's great-aunt's brain and personality) play the role of the monster in the story, and it is hinted that the colonists are bigots who look down on the natives (whom they call "autochthons," a word Jack Vance often employs) as well as the poor and clones. On the other hand 20th-century readers have much more in common with the colonial society depicted than with a cold unisex society of Amazonian clones, and it is suggested that the clones have treated the colonists pretty poorly, that they act as an occupying force and will one day run off the colonists.  Reading the story, I wondered if we were supposed to see parallels to the relationship between Great Britain and the Thirteen American colonies, or Britain and the Boers.

I expected "Many Mansions" to somehow refer to 16th-century Spanish nun St. Theresa of Avila's guide to spiritual growth, The Interior Castle, which envisions seven stages of growth as seven mansions within a crystal castle.  There is a reference to the number seven in an anecdote about a drunk guy climbing an ancient road in a snowstorm; above the road is one of the walking houses, and it seems to beckon him, to offer a place of rest.


These stories are all quite thought-provoking--at least they had me gritting my teeth trying to figure them out and casting about my memory and google, seeking literary and historical references.  And, with the possible exception of "Melting," they are very entertaining speculative fiction, with speculations about future societies, alternate worlds, and/or horror story elements.  Strongly recommended.


  1. Great review! I am very intrigued by the first story. What I found most disturbing about “Sonya, Crane Wessleman, and Kittee" (1970) was the fact that Sonya might dislike Kittee but doesn't seem terribly bothered. Also, the fact that Kittee is most obviously not sentient yet is dressed up in such a sexualized way -- mostly naked with some sort of apron. The entire thing, you're right the tone really makes it disturbing, is an incredibly unsettling experience.

    1. Thanks!

      When Sonya gets to Crane Wessleman's place the first time and sees the nameplate she immediately knows he has one of those weird sex animal things, and almost turns around and goes home. Those "friends" must be very common, and Sonya must know the creature's presence eliminates any chance she will marry or become mistress to Crane Wessleman. But she still goes to see him dozens of times.

      Because the government hands out money, the police are always watching, and you can have sex with an animal, Sonya and Crane Wessleman lead lives without the big hopes and big fears, the passionate loves and hates, that make life an adventure.

  2. You might be interested in my logical breakdown of The Changeling in my discussion of Wolfe here, paying attention to the dates in the text :

    Melting is the dying vision of a man studying a few texts, but it is also an enactment of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God in which we are loathsome creatures with a finite being purely at the whim of the true base of creation (john edwards is the main characters name).

    Many mansions plays with mimicry and symbiosis as well, which I highlight here at some length:

    1. Very cool; I didn't even think about the name besides noting the coincidence that it was the same as the politician's.

      Thanks for the interesting links!