Gene Wolfe - The Plot Thickens

The other day, I read an Interzone review of a Tad Williams novel. I did not read the actual novel you understand - I have better things to do with my time. In case you do not know his works, Williams writes huge bland fantasy novels grouped into the inevitable four volume trilogies. The review criticised the novel for the usual things - poor characterisation and lack of imagination being the most obvious. I did not have any argument with any of this. What I did find interesting was the charge that the book did not have enough plot to justify its overly large size (between 800 & 900 pages). The reviewer (who shall remain nameless) was clearly annoyed that a thin story had been written in a space filling fashion so as to make the book larger than it should be. He accused editors of not doing their job by letting writers away with this and probably even encouraging them. The attitude being that why sell one book when you can sell an entire trilogy at four times the price by adding a lot of meaningless padding.

The point behind recounting the above to you is that the attitudes of the Interzone reviewer are not unique. In fact, the opinions expressed about Tad Williams have been echoed by many people about works in all sections of the genre. In fact, many of you may have expressed similar condemnation about the ever fattening nature of tree-killer novels.

The point I want to make is that while big fat novels with minuscule plots are a blot on the literary landscape, they are not intrinsically the real problem. The real problem is the lack of good writing and editing. The works of Tad Williams and his ilk seem to consist mainly of padding - books extended to several volumes to match the marketing aims of the publishers.

For some of you, the obvious reply to my above position is: "If minuscule plots and fat novels are not intrinsically wrong then show me an example of a good one". For others, your reply will be: "but what about the works of...<generic fantasy writer>" and you will cite the name of some writer. The first group of doubter will laugh at the second - and with much justification. I do not really wish to offend you in the second group, but virtually all fantasy writers fit into the above pattern.

Finally, after much padding, I get to the point of this article. Gene Wolfe writes fat multi-volume novels which have almost no plot and they are quite superb. To read Wolfe’s work is to experience work where every word is carefully crafted and adds reading enjoyment. Make no mistake, lots happens in a Wolfe novel - its just that the story just does not advance very fast.

Actually, Wolfe’s latest work The Book of the Long Sun has more plot than is usual for his work. The story probably has enough storyline two full size books (or twenty Tad Williams Novels) spread over four volumes. Compare it with Wolfe’s most famous work - the four volumes of The Book of the New Sun. The similarities of title invite comparison and certainly the two works have much in common. The most obvious being the naive but charismatic hero - a character common top much of Wolfe’s work. In the earlier work, the hero spends most of his time wandering from encounter to encounter having experiences which shape him for his eventual apotheosis. In The Long Sun, the encounters have some direction to them.

The storyline may sound like something out of Davis Eddings, but there is a key difference. In the case of Wolfe, every encounter builds the picture of the hero and the world in its strange and minute detail. The more recent work is perhaps not as strange as the earlier work - to its detriment. The other worldliness of the Book of the New Sun was what made it one of the great works of the genre. The Long Sun is well crafted and a joy to read, but not truly great. No matter - roll on The Book of the Short Sun.

So what is this ramble all about. Well two things: first, read Gene Wolfe’s work and second, "Never mind the width, feel the quality". Oh well they can’t all be gems.