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
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
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
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.