Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Explicated Gene Wolfe


I get free books in the mail now and then, and my reaction to them varies from an elated "Hey, look what I got!" to a sullen, "Life is too short to read stuff like this."

Today, I opened a package from Sirius Fiction and said, "Oh my God!' I'd just gotten a copy of the second (expanded) edition of Lexicon Urthus, Michael Andre-Driussi's dictionary of the strange and wonderful words in Gene Wolfe's Urth cycle (the Book of the New Sun quartet and related texts), and a reviewer's copy of the spanking-new The Wizard Knight Companion, subtitled A Lexicon for Gene Wolfe's The Knight and The Wizard.

Then I showed Marianne the new book and she took it out of my hands and did not give it back.

There's a lot of scholarship, both true and faux, attached to science fiction and fantasy books nowadays, but such efforts are particularly rewarding when applied to Wolfe's oeuvre, because he puts so much more into his works than almost any other writer.

As an example, here's a Lexicon Urthus word which, because I once worked for the National Solar Heating and Cooling Information Center, I was able to shed some light upon. In the Book of the New Sun, Severian has a fuligin cloak, blacker than black, whose warmth he several times praises. The word is derived from fuliginous, meaning sooty or soot-colored:

fuligin a sooty color, powdered black (1, chap. 4, 39).
Commentary: the descriptions of this color as being "blacker than black" (aside from the powerful sin aspect) indicate to Michael Swanwick that it is actually "selective black," a black that absorbs light beyond the visible spectrum and into the ultraviolet. Selective coatings are used on solar collectors to maximize absorption of radiation. It is a notion that engineer Wolfe would definitely be familiar with, and the seeming paradox of having a practical explanation would fit his sense of humor. Presumably a fuligin cloak would be unusually warm.

What I want to point out about this is that it's the literary equivalent of what programmers call "Easter eggs," hidden messages or treats placed into games or programs for the lucky (or canny) person to find, which are not necessary for your enjoyment of the experience.

People who seek these things out tend to make Wolfe's books sound like a riddle inside in an enigma wrapped in something that's too much work to be much fun. Not true. Okay, there are a couple of his books which are not for the weak-minded. But you can do a fast and superficial reading of The Knight and The Wizard (originally submitted to Wolfe's editor as a single book, The Wizard Knight, but broken in two for reasons of publishing economics) and not only have a good time but get everything that's most important about it: The examination of what qualities make a man a knight and the ending, which could hardly be clearer in its meaning. Nobody literally needs The Wizard Knight Companion.

But some of us -- and we know who we are, we happy few, you and I -- want it anyway. Simply because when we love a book, we want to understand it better. Also because we have a weakness for Easter eggs.

For us, there is Michael Andre-Driussi's book. For which I am duly grateful.



David Stone said...

I re-read this novel again recently, pretty amazing stuff, although deceptively simple at first glance. I can't help but wonder what this book brings to light about the novel.

Neil_in_Chicago said...

A small astonishment for me, in The Wizard Knight, was a little joke of a *kind* I'd never noticed Wolfe making before.
{no spoilers} Somewhere in the middle, there's a character whose trade is painting shields for knights, and there's a little discussion of is pricing, which is per object, not per shield. He mentions that one of the most expensive jobs he'd ever done was three hearts and three lions . . .

((“Three Hearts and Three Lions”, Poul Anderson, novella, Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1953; Three Hearts and Three Lions, novel expansion, 1961))

Michael Swanwick said...

Hah! How could I have forgotten that?

Gene's done that at least once before, though, in the Book of the New Sun, where the Autarch's library has a book misfiled in the W's, which is actually by one V.Vinge.

Bruce said...

Hmmm...I do think that the V. Vinge gag was in 'The Fifth Head of Cerberus'...not that I'm an obsessive-compulsive nitpicker!

Thanks for the tip on the new Sirius lexicon, Michael!



uman said...

Bruce is right. It was in Fifth Head. Though I've read Head several times, I think all of them were before I became familiar with Vinge. Wild that Wolfe put that reference to Vinge in 1972 or earlier!