Monday, January 11, 2010

Readings — Sailing to Byzantium/Seven American Nights

Sailing to Byzantium/Seven American Nights
by Robert Silverberg and by Gene Wolfe

One of the Tor double-novels from a few years back, these two novellas at first blush seem to make sense as a package — but, upon reading, present very different experiences. Silverberg’s story is a well-written, swiftly-paced tale that moves efficiently through several science-fiction tropes: in a far future where a small group of bored immortals play with the world on a scale we can barely imagine, a man is brought forward from our time and falls in love with one of the immortals who hides a dark secret. It’s all nice enough, with some cute nods to Michael Moorcock (whose Dancers at the End of Time books trod similar ground), and some interesting thoughts on cities (the immortals create fake cities, based on real cities in a specific era, mixed with myth and fiction, in which to spend their days). The Yeats quote feels forced, a grasping after symbolism, but then again it also points to some of the ambition the story at least intermittently displays. Overall, a solid piece of genre work, competently done.

Wolfe’s story, though ... ostensibly, it’s the diary of an Iranian prince coming to America in a future where the United States has been reduced to third-world status, and the many strange things he finds, and the terrors he comes across that sends him away from the decadent future city of Washington, D.C., and into the forests of the continent’s interior. Look closely, though, as the story invites you to, and it becomes something entirely different. Only what exactly it is, is difficult to make out.

Wolfe has two recurring tricks — or ‘techniques’ might be a better word, as he usually deploys them not merely with dexterity but with a depth that probably could not be reached any other way. Firstly, he plays with his character’s perceptions. Particularly in first-person stories, he has no hesitation at all in having his characters describe something about which they are completely mistaken, or having them assume things without even realising that they’re making an assumption. They think they see something, but then it turns out they don’t. What they presume to be concrete reality is actually a dreamscape or hallucination.

Secondly, Wolfe is a master at using narrative lacunae to enhance a story. He has an awful lot of things happen in gaps — gaps of consciousness, gaps of awareness, gaps torn in the fabric of story like (in this case literally) pages torn out of a journal. In other words, often the essence of a Wolfe story resides in what is not told. It is in what is implied; or, what the reader can tease out from the hints embedded in what seems a simpler or even superficial story. The introductory page to the WolfeWiki (a valuable resource to me as I thought about this story) sums things up quite well.

So in this story there is a hallucinatory drug, which may or may not be ingested during the course of the story. There’s a story-forging machine, which may or may not have written chunks, or a chunk, of the story. The story as a whole seems to collapse in on itself; nothing is certain. I think this is deliberate, but I’m not certain. The prose is well- and tightly-written, but the narrative seems to subvert itself so thoroughly that you end up questioning whether it hangs together at all.

Which may mean the title of this novella points back to its source, as well. Wolfe nods to the fabulation of the One Thousand and One Nights while trying to go in a different direction, and create something almost beyond narrative. I don’t know if he’s wholly successful. To say the story requires a close reading suggests that a close reading would clarify it in some way; it may be, in the end, a story about the gaps in stories.

But I’m not at all sure about that. So, like much of Wolfe’s work, it is a tale that invites cogitation. It’s something you have to think about, and successful insofar as it’s something worth thinking about. I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece in any way, or if it is, I suspect it’s a flawed masterpiece. But it is a useful example of Wolfe’s sensibility and techniques, an intelligent work in prose that twists in the reader’s mind.

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