Gene Wolfe’s 2009 The Best of Gene Wolfe, billed by its publisher as “A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction,” is a collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories.
Back in 2009, I complained “I am not a particular Wolfe fan1 but I already own about half of these stories in the few Wolfe collections I do own. I did a quick check online and at least ¾ of these stories have already been collected; at least one of the collections appears to be still in print from St. Martin’s Press. It seems to me that a Wolfe fan would have already picked up the earlier collections and when I did some quiet asking around amongst my friends who are Wolfe fans, I found this to be the case.”
While the above is mostly correct2, it also misses the point. Of course, there’s overlap with earlier collections. It’s not likely his best work would not have been already collected. The fact the earlier collections are in print attest to the durability of his work. Also, readers new to Wolfe will appreciate the convenience of a clearly labelled best short works.
Rereading the collection almost fifteen years later…
I note that works from Wolfe’s earlier career form a larger chunk of this collection than works from his later career. Of the thirty-one stories in the collection, fifteen are from the 1970s, eleven from the 1980s and just five from the 1990s. None are from the 21st century. The tilt does not seem to be driven by a shift from short fiction to novels. A glance at the ISFDB shows that Wolfe produced short fiction at a fair rate throughout his whole career.
Wolfe’s short fiction is meticulously crafted, more suited for the careful reader than the binge reader. Whoever assembled this collection had a keen eye for notable works, as the quality is consistent throughout. I found that selecting a handful of stories for special notice to be virtually impossible. But there’s one notable feature: short afterwords from Wolfe appended to each story, afterwords with enjoyable anecdotes that fill in the background of the tale.
Wolfe fans will find many old favorites here. Wolfe newbies will find a representative sampling of Wolfe at his best.
The Best of Gene Wolfe won the 2010 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection.
1: Which is to say, I’ve only read nineteen or twenty of his novels and three collections of his shorter work.
2: I now see three of his collections at Tor.
Despite which, I had some difficulty actually acquiring a copy of The Best of Gene Wolfe. In fact, I failed. The copy the SFBC sent me fourteen years ago has vanished (might have been a manuscript), and both copies I bought online failed to materialize. I eventually had to borrow a copy.
Now for some details.
“The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories” • [Archipelago] • (1970)• short story
A young boy finds escape from deplorable reality in thrilling adventure stories.
I most recently read this story in my re-read of Orbit 7. It was very well received, which (I am told) inspired SF’s grognards to orchestrate a Nebula no-award for the short story category, rather than see whippersnappers like Wolfe rewarded for their temerity in writing so well.
“The Toy Theater” • (1971) • short story
A young man has an encounter with a famous puppeteer.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus • [The Fifth Head of Cerberus] • (1972) • novella
The coming of age of an unusual young man on an unpleasant human colony world.
At some point I need to track down and read the entirety of The Fifth Head of Cerberus, now that I know it’s not A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (which I read and enjoyed). The fact that one is by Wolfe and the other by Bishop should have tipped me off.
“Beech Hill” • (1972) • short story
The protagonist’s grandiose perception of himself may not be supported by reality.
“The Recording” • (1972) • short story
A young person’s precious record becomes a memento of the unforgivable act they committed to acquire it.
Hour of Trust • (1973) • novelette
America is torn between hippy radicals, able to learn from experience, and button-down management conformists, who cannot. Victory is assured!
This felt very 1968 for a story published as Nixon’s presidency was imploding.
The Death of Dr. Island • [Archipelago] • (1973) • novella
A young man discovers that he and his companion are mere expendable components of an important person’s therapy. An even worse fate awaits the young man.
Apparently medical ethics are a luxury long discarded in this setting. I hate this story a bit more each time I read it.
“La Befana” • (1973) • short story
A woman seeks the incarnation of her son on alien worlds.
Forlesen • (1974) • novelette
A conformist sleepwalks through his pointless salaryman life. He is kept on the narrow path by automated instructions.
“Westwind” • (1973) • short story
The beloved leader depends on top agent Westwind. Who is Westwind? The answer delights everyone!
“The Hero as Werwolf” • (1975) • short story
Humans are forced to extremes in the struggle to survive a post-human world.
The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton • (1977) • novelette
An attempt to recoup money spent on a fraudulent chess-playing machine ends in death.
“Straw” • (1975) • short story
A quest for fuel results in employment.
The Eyeflash Miracles • (1976) • novella
The last survivor of an ill-fated psychic research program struggles to elude hunters, despite the notable disadvantage of being blind.
Seven American Nights • (1978) • novella
A naïve Iranian man touring the polluted wasteland formerly known as America makes the dreadful mistake of falling in love with an American genetic degenerate.
I suppose this is an example how infatuation blinds one to the logical implications of known facts, such as this fellow’s prior awareness that almost all Americans are deformed in some way.
“The Detective of Dreams” • (1980) • short story
An investigator pursues a dream-invading miscreant.
“Kevin Malone” • (1980) • short story
A rich man poses as a servant, guided by memories of uncertain veracity.
“The God and His Man” • (1980) • short story
Divine judgement produces shocking results.
“On the Train” • [Redwood Coast Roamer] • (1983) • short story
A surreal vignette.
“From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton” • (1983) • short story
This is a series of letters between an agent and an enthusiastic and apparently naïve author. As the story progresses, it becomes obvious that the author is far more monstrous than he first appears and that his agent and publisher would do well not to annoy him.
“Death of the Island Doctor” • [Archipelago] • (1983) • short story
A deluded and doomed enthusiast turns out to be not so deluded after all.
“Redbeard” • (1984) • short story
A tale of gruesome murders. The story is told to a stranger by the son of the killer’s wife.
“The Boy Who Hooked the Sun” • (1985) • short story
A creation myth about the origin of the seasons.
“Parkroads — A Review?” • (1987) • short fiction
A review of a fragmentary (and non-existent) movie.
“Game in the Pope’s Head” • (1988) • short story
What appears to be a trivia game played between friends turns out to be something much darker.
And When They Appear • (1993) • novelette
A robotic house amuses a young man with visions of Christmas-related mythical figures of myth. This turns out to be a distraction from … some things that are not so comfy.
The house in this story should compare notes with the smart house in Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains.”
Bed and Breakfast • (1996) • novelette
Romance in an inn near the border to Hell is complicated by overthinking and indecision.
Compare this to the previously synopsized story, Seven American Nights. Romance is always a bad idea if one is a character in a story, because there’s no story in untroubled romance.
“Petting Zoo” • (1997) • short story
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a T Rex, must be in want of a (mostly harmless) saurian rampage.
Alas, the man seems to be a modern-day Jackie Paper.
The Tree Is My Hat • (1999) • novelette
Shark-god-worshipping island cults are bad news, even for visitors. Especially for visitors.
“Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon?” • (1999) • short story
A strong, dim-witted man fights for a woman.
“A Cabin on the Coast” • (1984) • short story
A husband saves his wife from the fair folk at great personal cost.
Presumably the desire to end the collection on a particularly strong note determined the placement of this story in a collection otherwise presented in chronological order.