Thursday, August 08, 2019

Two-Thirds of Castle of Days by Gene Wolfe

So I read Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun" again recently -- for what I think is the third time, with at least a decade and a half in between each one -- and wanted to keep that line of thought going.

Wolfe wrote a follow-up novel, The Urth of the New Sun, which I have and might get to sometime soon. But he also wrote a small book of essays about "Book of the New Sun," and I have a known weakness for the essays of fiction writers. (I weirdly gravitate to them even when I have the same writer's fiction available -- sometimes even as the first thing I read by that writer, as with George Saunders recently.)

That book, The Castle of the Otter, is long out of print on its own, but it lives on in 1992 portmanteau Wolfe collection Castle of Days. Days combined the story collection Gene Wolfe's Book of Days with Castle of the Otter and then bolted on about a hundred and fifty pages, in a third section of uncollected essays called "Castle of Days."

That's what I just read: not the fiction, which I might get to again some day. [1] But the non-fictional two-thirds of Castle of Days.

Castle of the Otter contains eleven essays, all but one of which originally appeared in that book. From internal evidence, Otter was written and assembled and possibly even published before the last "New Sun" book, Citadel of the Autarch, which seems odd. But "New Sun" was a big success, so clearly Wolfe wanted to capitalize on that with this small-press book -- he might have thought he'd never get a similar chance again. It would have been better to have more of a look back, and a collection that treats the "New Sun" text more comprehensively, but Otter is what we do have -- and it's rare to have any published secondary sources from the author. It's all interesting, in that crookedly erudite Wolfe manner.

"Castle of Days" is loosely divided into sections called "Writers," "Writing," and "Books," with a total of twenty-nine pieces (with an asterisk, since one "piece" is four separate letters to different people) originally from 1978 through 1992. There are a couple of speeches, some introductions, the aforementioned letters, general essays for reference books and other places, a couple of stories snuck in the middle, and some of the obligatory let-me-stake-out-the-boundaries-of-this-fictional-genre pieces that every writer has in his head and many put down on paper.

Wolfe was an occasionally grumpy writer, always opinionated and often not willing to probe the bases of his opinions. (Particularly if it hit anywhere near teleological or religious questions: Wolfe was Catholic, and that was it for him.) He can sometimes come across as smug, or maybe just self-satisfied. But his thinking was powerful and often deeply convoluted, which makes the stray moments of and-here-I-declare-I-am-right easier to take.

Many of these essays are about a SF market that is long dead: no wannabe writer should read the essays here as a model for a modern career. (I snorted at the assertion that editors read a lot of unsolicited submissions. Sure, maybe they did in 1982, and even in 1992.) The pieces about writers -- Budrys and Kress and the cyberpunks and the field in general -- are timeless, even with occasional moments of Wolfeanism.

I doubt anyone reading this will pick up this particular book anytime in the next five years, so this is very much not a recommendation either way. This is a book that still exists, and I recently read two-thirds of it. If you are weird in your reading in ways that line up with the ways I am, that may be of interest to you.

[1] I know I read this package for the SFBC back in 1992, and might have even bought it for them then. That was a long time ago.

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