Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gene Wolfe Doesn't Get the Feminine Mind-Set

Warning: spoiler in the last paragraph.

An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe is a pulp thriller that includes aliens, South Sea gods, and two enigmatic men vying for the hand of a young actress on the rise. Imagine the results if Raymond Chandler, H.P. Lovecraft, and Walter B.Gibson (creator of The Shadow) all conspired to write a book together, set 100 years in our future. Despite how odd that sounds, the first two-thirds of the book is fairly straight forward. When you get to the last part, it suddenly takes off as if a rocket was lit under you and the reader is left hanging on for all they're worth to keep up.

It is a fun ride and one that I enjoyed. Except for a key part of logic, it all held together. Unfortunately that key logic is integral to the very last line of the book which sums it all up. Essentially describing the reasons for a complete change of heart, actress Cassie delivers a long monologue while walking down the street with a friend. It rang so false that I was convinced she was doing it to poke for reactions of possible betrayal from her friend. Not so. It turns out that the change of heart described, which rang so falsely, was intended to give Cassie the reason for every subsequent action she takes. It took me a long time to realize that but I was able to suspend my disbelief until reading the last line of the book, which depends completely upon our belief in that speech.

No takers here. If that is how Wolfe and his editors think that a woman can change her mind in the way described about a man who she loathes and fears, then they have another think coming. If one is going to hang an entire section of a book, indeed that book's denouement, upon one set of emotions entirely replacing another, then that part at least needs to be real and human and ring true. Perhaps few women read Wolfe's books. I don't know about that. However, as one who does I can testify that such a patently false shift in Cassie's motivation feels like a cheap, easy trick a la "a shot rang out and everyone fell dead." Certainly it makes me lose respect for the author and editors who simply seem lazy in retrospect. It's too bad because I really liked the book and was willing to overlook the false feel until that final line which tied everything to Cassie's faked feelings.


  1. Hello. This blog came up on a Google search and I decided to follow it. I am currently checking out Gene Wolfe as an author & deciding whether to get "in" to him or not. (I heard about him during my teens in the 80s but torturers weren't really my thing then!) Some of his later more fantasy work, such as Wizard Knight and House of the Sorcerer (?) sounds appealing to me.

    I have a feeling that if I read the novel you reviewed above, I would tend to think the same thing. I absolutely HATE poor or non-existent motivation in ANY fiction, or motivation that is patently false. You get this quite a lot in comics (so-called "modern, mature" ones) and various pulp fictions - not all, of course, by any means! As a general rule of thumb: anything written in 60s or 70s (incl Star Trek & James Blish's novelizations of original series, a childhood fave of mine!) tends to "make you think": lots of later stuff, not so much. Like in modern comics/movies, you tend to get given as a villain's motivation: "he did it because he.

  2. ..he is evil/a terrorist/nuts" ("not one of us, one of the inexplicable, detestable Other" being the real suggestion), which is given as a justification for any fictional atrocity Ho-wood can think up. A case in point would be the Joker (in several manifestations): most notably in the most recent Batman movie The Dark Knight: villain says: "I'm like a dog chasing cars: I just do" (believe me that is no RL terrorist in the world's motivation!) See what I mean? Lazy writing/deliberate moral/social obscurantism because writers don't really want to "make people think", for example about what would really make somebody go over the edge.

    Now I don't know about this An Evil Guest by Wolfe: however, I'm sure it's better than TDK - or anything by a mainstream comics house for that matter. (Have you read House of the Sorcerer or whatever, and what was your take on that?)

    But I have read negative reviews of the above on Amazon, mostly saying that he just doesn't write female protagonists very well. He seems to have..

  3. (sorry I'm doing this on a mobile phone); ..quite a lot of fans; most of them seeming pretty devoted: running the gamut from literary types (some of them making big claims for him) to massive hard SF aficionados. Not many of them seem as yet to be teenage fanboys who can't spell: that is one positive point! However: on most of these comments pages and message boards, I have yet to recall finding a female fan of his: you may be my first!(?) Strange isn't it: he's had at least one major female editor.

    I'm basically trying to "suss" this guy on the basis of having recently read a couple of short stories of his and one essay: the one on Tolkien.

    The Tolkien essay intrigued me and made me shake my head at the same time. (I guess this guy is a conservative? Whereas me, I'm a romantic lefty pagan: my twitter name is @oneoflokis: make of that what you will! Actually it means I tease conservatives when I get a chance!)

    Mr Wolfe seemed to be deliberately misinterpreting Tolkien/going in for an idealization of..

  4. ..feudal society, making it out to be an ideal society that didn't in fact exist, going by his comments about Frodo and Sam in LOTR. I seriously doubt actually that that was Tolkien's message: he was a lot more mischievous than someone like G K Chesterton! He didn't always think much of kings: just read his humour classic Farmer Giles of Ham! And his hobbits don't actually live in a feudal structure because they don't have any kings or lords: pre the War of the Ring their only treaty with a king is to keep a bridge in repair! I have read somewhere on the net that the geographical/social structure of the Shire was actually loosely based on that ofIceland, which was a medieval democracy..

    Glad to have put that straight, in case you were wondering! When in doubt, ask a pagan!

    Anyway. I've subsequently read his 1992 interview with James B Jordan on the net: and he does confirm himself as a definite conservative! He's also an engineer though, and progressive enough to believe in technology and in evolution.