Monday, February 15, 2016

Three 1970s stories by Gene Wolfe: "Civis Laputus Sum," "The Recording" & "Morning-Glory"


I've said before that Gene Wolfe is my favorite writer, but there is a large proportion of his vast body of work which I have yet to read.   This weekend I flipped through my 1995 Orb edition of the 1988 collection Storeys from the Old Hotel and read three stories that were new to me; I read them in random order, but all turned out to have been published in the 1970s.

"Civis Laputus Sum" (1975)

This is a terrific story full of striking images, literary allusions (to Swift, Pound, Bradbury and Melville), science fiction ideas, human feeling and surprises.  It may also be a criticism of 20th century colleges and universities where, far too often, the tail (athletics) wags the dog (academics.)  Awesome!

British edition of Dystopian Visions
As with many Wolfe stories, this is a first-person narrative that is difficult or impossible to understand until we've read most or all of it, as Wolfe doles out the clues slowly instead of just describing the setting and background at the beginning.  Here is what (I think) is going on (remember MPorcius Fiction Log's spoiler policy!):  A scientific project to solve the problem of air pollution backfired fifteen years ago, covering the Earth in impenetrable cloud that eventually wrecked human civilization.  Recently developed anti-gravity machines were used to send aloft a number of flying islands (the title of the story refers to the flying island in Gulliver's Travels) upon which people could live above the clouds.  The flying island on which this eight-page story takes place is, or was, a university, with both a library and a stadium and a population of both academics and athletes.

Some time ago the athletes, who effortlessly bully the professors and grad students, burned the books in the fiction section of the library so they could use that room as a basketball court.  The bookish types have preserved the great American novel, Moby Dick, by memorizing it.

Like their island, which is listing dangerously as the anti-grav devices begin to fail, the people of the island are slowly becoming decrepit with age.  The plot of the story concerns an athlete who is becoming too old to pull his weight on the sports field.  He wants to start participating in the academics' readings and dramatic productions.  Will the booklovers accept him, or see this as an opportunity to achieve their revenge on one of the book burners?

Very, very good.  "Civis Laputus Sum" first appeared in Roger Elwood's anthology Dystopian Visions as "Civis Lapvtvs Svm," which all you classicists out there know is better classical Latin (our heroes Cato and Cicero had to struggle through their tragic lives without a "u.")

"The Recording" (1972)

This is a quite short (four pages in this edition) story about, I think, human greed and indifference, in the form of an old man's reminiscence of an event in his childhood "in those dear, dead days of Model A Ford touring cars, horse-drawn milk trucks, and hand-cranked ice cream freezers."  The narrator was fascinated by his parents' phonograph, but his parents would not allow him to handle the fragile records, so he wanted his own.  A fat uncle walks him downtown to buy such a record on a hot day, but this uncle falls ill and sits down to rest, telling the narrator to go get his doctor. The nephew agrees to get the doctor only if his uncle will first give him the money promised for the phonograph record!  Our narrator buys the record, and when he gets back to his uncle (without bothering to bring the doctor!), his uncle has died.  The child hides the record, and it is not until fifty years later, after his parents have died and he has long forgotten the title of the record, that he recovers the disk from its hiding place and listens to it.

The song on the record, Rudy Vallee's "My Time is Your Time," which I listened to on youtube, is presumably some kind of punchline.  I'm guessing that the punchline is that the narrator, who admits to having medical problems, is going to die soon, perhaps from the effort of retrieving the record (his doctor told him not to climb stairs, but he had to do so to get the record, and the climb lead to chest pains), perhaps at the same age his uncle died.

I enjoyed the story for Wolfe's vivid economical descriptions, and the dreadful central surprise, but wonder if perhaps I am missing something.  I tracked down one clue: As a little boy the narrator wore a French sailor suit including a cap with the word Indomptable emblazoned on it; one ship of that name was repeatedly defeated by the British during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and then was wrecked in a storm, while a later Indomptable was scuttled during the Second World War.  Presumably this is linked to the fact that our narrator admits to being a failure in life, and perhaps indicates he is bound for an unhappy death.

The fact that the word "time" is prominent in the song title, and that we are told the narrator, his father, and his uncles, all strongly resemble the narrator's grandfather, put me on the lookout for clues that the story was somehow about time travel (maybe that they were all the same guy like in a Heinlein story), but I couldn't find any further time travel clues.

"The Recording" was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

"Morning-Glory" (1970)

This one first appeared in Alchemy & Academe, apparently an anthology of stories about the relationships between wizards and their apprentices edited by Anne McCaffery of Pern fame.

Of the three Wolfe stories I read this weekend this was the least interesting and most conventional.  In the pessimistic world of the 1970s, a world of air pollution and nuclear proliferation, a college professor is conducting experiments on the "paraintelligence" of plants.  He has a bunch of vines, and encloess them inside plastic mazes; as the plants grow the vines come to intersections in the maze and have to "choose" which way to go; "smarter" vines will learn to devote growth to more brightly lit paths and let shoots in dim tunnels wither.  A student suggests that the plants are analogous to entire societies, and the scientist has a brainwave--maybe he can figure out a way to convince the human race to stop going down metaphorical dark tunnels, like polluting and risking nuclear war.  He decides to devote the rest of his life to this effort, enlisting in this quest the help of grad students looking for a thesis topic.

The story seems longer than necessary, with scenes about the scientist's psychology including descriptions of his dreams, a visit to the shrink, and anecdotes about his father.  This makes sense because the main character is a psychologist (a Watsonian behaviorist, we are told) but I didn't find it added much to the story.  Maybe all this additional information is supposed to make us skeptical of the protagonist's motives, because it reminds us of the callous "Little Albert" experiment and exposes the main character as deceitful (he habitually lies to his shrink.)  Maybe Wolfe is trying to tell us that some lone egghead manipulating our society is not necessarily the best way to solve our problems.  (I'd like to think "Morning-Glory" is a clever refutation of, or comment on, Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories and other SF in which some genius or cabal of geniuses molds society--Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is another example.)

I called "Morning-Glory" "conventional" because, like so many SF stories, at its heart is a scientist and science, and a banal criticism of our society.  It lacks the kind of images, human feeling, surprises and mysteries that characterize Wolfe's body of work as a whole.  This story is acceptable, but below average for Wolfe, who so often pulls off something unique or beautiful or shocking,    

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"Civis Laputus Sum" is obviously the standout here, but all three of these stories, even the somewhat disappointing "Morning-Glory," are worth reading.  Storeys From the Old Hotel won the 1989 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection (it tied with Harlan Ellison's Angry Candy) so it's not just me recommending it--the full weight of the speculative fiction community is behind it!  Buy yours today!

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