Is The Best of Gene Wolfe the best there is? Critic John Clute says yes.

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

We do not enter a story by Gene Wolfe without knocking, because the door to the inner rooms is never open. What many potential readers have wrongly assumed over the years, however, is that a door that is not open is door that is locked, that everything Wolfe writes needs a key—probably inscribed with runes—to get inside of.

This sense that Wolfe thwarts his readers may ring true when some of his less-good stories, none of them collected here, are encountered. And of some of his non-Euclidean, gnomic, aleph-like short-shorts, some of which do appear in The Best of Gene Wolfe (Tor, $29.95), it may be fair to say not only that they do not open to any keys we may have on hand (clues from our understanding of history, literature, the human heart, previous stories by Wolfe and by a slew of other writers he admires), but that they do not open to any keys we are likely to possess, because they are more than the sense they seem to make; they work best as flavors of something ineradicable, daedal epiphanies of immurement (see below), oneirisms shaped like dreams you dare not remember.

They make me feel as though I've read or wrestled with a story way outside my grasp, that I've somehow been translated to the innards, and that once inside find myself clinging to the inside walls of a building by Escher built of Braille. But the great stories, usually of novella length, though they may be difficult, are not locked.

So for anyone who does not know his work like the back of his hand, the best way to read The Best of Gene Wolfe is to focus first on those longer stories. Not all of Wolfe's great long stories and novellas can be found here—those left out include "'A Story,' by John V. Marsch" (1972), "Tracking Song" (1975), "The Doctor of Death Island" (1978), Empires of Foliage and Flower (1987), "The Ziggurat" (1995) and "Memorare" (2007), and there are certainly others I haven't yet read—but most of the central canon of great long tales is present. They really must be read by anyone who wishes 1) to know Wolfe, 2) to embrace or to quarrel with the sweet terror he fastens within your skin, 3) to understand for sure that fantastika (a term which includes everything he writes: horror, gothic, fantasy, SF, metafiction) is realer than the real world. These great long stories are "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" (1972), "The Death of Dr. Island" (1973), "Forlesen" (1974), "The Eyeflash Miracles" (1976) and "Seven American Nights" (1978), plus a few slightly shorter tales like "The Hero as Werewolf" (1975), "The Detective of Dreams" (1980), "A Cabin on the Coast" (1981) and "The Tree Is My Hat" (1999).

If this choice is weighted towards the earlier years of his career, that may be due partly to the fact that Wolfe selected the contents of this collection himself, and that he may have wished to bring some work from the miraculous '70s back into focus. It may also reflect the truth of an assumption his readers tended to make in the 1980s: that he had moved his intensest gaze from short forms to the novel. And as to the 75 or more stories dating from 1990 on, Wolfe may have felt they were too close to judge correctly, and that they would have been recently read.

We are left with the controlled explosions of the miracle decade, a period during which those of us who felt simultaneously invaded and translated by his work began gradually to learn how to begin to read the man. The first thing to understand, I thought then (and now), was that every word he wrote was meant. There could be no slurring over of sentences in the reader's mind. As Wolfe did not create metaphors in his text—or if he only created metaphors to which a literal meaning, a literal architectonic, could be attached—there were no easy copouts for the reader, no schizo paraphrasing of what he said into story and meaning, for story and meaning were one thing. This is in general how the texts of fantastika must be read, I think: as though the most outlandish images were glimpses of the truth.

In the '70s, certainly, it was as though Wolfe had learned to tell the truth more intensely than we readers had thought possible: he did not write thematics, he did not write allegory, he wrote the thing itself. Which may be one of the reasons (another being that he is indeed difficult) that academics have notoriously tended to shun him for decades: because you cannot strip-mine Gene Wolfe for "meaning," you cannot abstract themes from stories that only make sense when it is understood how they have been told. (The edginess some of us used to feel about Ursula K. Le Guin lay in a suspicion that she could almost fairly be paraphrased by academics excavating their wee nuggets of wisdom about good and evil and gender and governance and stuff. I, for one, by the way, no longer feel edgy about her work, which is to say I no longer feel impelled to take from her: for now she carries me away.) All of which is to say that Gene Wolfe only makes sense when he is read.

Here is an example.

"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" begins like Marcel Proust, as Kim Stanley Robinson points out in his superb introduction to PS Publishing's The Very Best of Gene Wolfe, a collection (it's due for release later this year in the U.K.) that differs from the volume under review mainly through the addition of Christmas Inn (2007), which Wolfe wrote for PS as a Christmas booklet; plus of course Robinson's long piece. "When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early ...", begins the tale, informing us immediately that (as with so much of Wolfe) we are reading a memoir, one that—like the one by Marcel that comprises Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time—we are meant to understand has actually been written down: like the author of this memoir, though we are forced to feel our way into his skull from somewhere outdoors, we are in search of lost time.

In the second paragraph, we learn that the narrator (his name is never given, but Wolfe acknowledged long ago to Robinson that it is Gene Wolf, which is to say a cloned Cerberus) is attempting to recall his early years as a kind of prisoner within a house whose roof is surfed over, like so many other houses in Wolfe's work, where the home of the narrator is likely to combine the features of a prison, a "pleasure garden," and a tomb: but more than any of these aspects, the home of the narrator of a typical Wolfe tale also tends also to serve as a literal analogue of the skull of the narrator, seen from inside. It is also very likely that the home of a Wolfe narrator will also serve as a laboratory, whose subject is that narrator. I don't know how often Wolfe namechecks B.F. Skinner, the author of Walden Two (1948); certainly he does so at least once in The Best of Gene Wolfe; the effect is minatory, ironical, grating: like prison bars. After John B. Watson, Skinner was, of course, the central advocate in America of psychological behaviorism, and was notorious for experimentally subjecting small children to immurement in boxlike enclosures where their exposure to any form of input was strictly controlled, in order to engineer men and women free of what one might loosely call engrams. Stories of Skinner's extremism may have been exaggerated; but cruel, funebral echoes of the Skinner Box have haunted Wolfe's work for decades. Gene Wolf grows up in one.

He is an experiment.

What kind of tomb Gene inhabits we gradually learn: that the house truly encompasses his past and his future; that he is a clone, fifth in a line, imprisoned in the mask/model of his predecessors (and is slightly "smaller" than they are, as far as any freedom to outgrow his engineered condition is concerned); that his "servitors" are in reality versions of his earlier selves intent on fining him into a more successful version of themselves; that he somehow smells of formaldehyde; that he has actually spent time in an actual prison; and more. The venue—more deeply explored in The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), an intricately connected array of three novellas, each independent, each inextricably interwoven, of which this story makes up the first long section—is a twin planet system colonized by humans, who have either eliminated the aboriginal inhabitants, or have been eliminated (abos are shapechangers) by them. Within and without Gene Wolf's battered skull, twins hover ubiquitously, as do mirrors, and masks, and lies: the closest Wolfe normally gets to metaphor is when he allows one of his protagonists to tell a lie.

"The Fifth Head of Cerberus", which is all about guarding (and attempting to escape from) the hell within, is written in a fluent, seemingly translucent style that may distract the reader from realizing that it can only be understood when every word is adhered to literally, for the words of the building of the tale, the tale of the wording of the house, the carapace of the tale built of Braille, are bricks and mortar only graspable through the most delicately obedient touch: that only when the tale is obeyed literally can the lineaments of this life, this prison, this face, this edifice, this skull, this planet, this murder, be understood: understood as a blind man sees God. There is nothing else like it in the literature.

Nor is there anything else in the literature like "The Death of Dr. Island", the most Skinner-haunted of all of Wolfe's tales; or the astonishing "Forlesen," which captures an eternity of office life (as does Kafka) in a day; or "The Eyeflash Miracles," whose protagonist is literally blind, except when his eyes are opened to the Yellow Brick Road that makes it possible for him to Escape from Prison. Each of these tales, and almost all of the other work assembled in The Best of Gene Wolfe, expands like fractal origami under the gaze; there is no room in a review (which must stop before it properly starts) to do more than point.

What is pointed at is each word. The only way to read Gene Wolfe is to knock first, to glue your eyes to the carapace and peer into the world inside, like a blind man suddenly gifted with sight. The only way to read Gene Wolfe is to read Gene Wolfe.

John Clute is a writer, editor and critic. His first novel in 25 years, Appleseed, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. He co-edited The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and wrote Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in various journals in the UK and America. Much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986, Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003, which includes most of the first 75 "Excessive Candour" columns, and other pieces. Canary Fever: Reviews, which is due later this year, will contain most of the next 70 or so "Excessive Candour" columns, plus other work. The Darkening Garden: a Short Lexicon of Horror appeared in 2006; he is working on a much enlarged third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, due to go online in late 2009 or so.