The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

"Castaway" by Gene Wolfe: An Appreciation by Spencer Pate

There is little that I can say about Gene Wolfe that has not already been said, but it is probably sufficient to repeat Michael Swanwick's assertion that "Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today." This may seem to be an exaggeration at first glance, but anyone who has read one of Wolfe's amazing novels or short stories would probably be tempted to agree. I've read just about everything that Wolfe has written and loved all of it, but "Castaway" remains one of my favorite stories by him. "Castaway" is lyrical, subtle, surprising, moving, and deceptively simple--in other words, a typical Wolfe story. I actually first read it in David Hartwell's Year's Best SF anthology at the neighborhood Kroger store. But a noisy grocery store is perhaps not the best place to savor Wolfe's brilliant use of language. The lovely imagery of an alien planet in the story haunted me, and I was overjoyed to find "Castaway" on SCI FICTION so that I could reread it.

Gene Wolfe is not just a writer but a magician with words. Like a conjuror, Wolfe always evokes a sense of wonder and awe, but he never reveals how he does it. That's why I'm finding it difficult to explicate "Castaway" right now--as another critic has said, "I feel a little bit like a musical contemporary attempting to tell people what's good about Mozart." "Castaway" is a perfect example of Wolfe's multilayered approach to fiction. In this story, he uses the well-worn theme of a person stranded on an alien planet and turns it into a commentary on beauty and longing. And like Wolfe's best work, "Castaway" deals with the power of memory and perception. Wolfe's themes are always like the swift currents that flow beneath the river ice. We can sense that they are just beneath the surface but can never truly pin them down. All I can really say is that Wolfe's work is absolutely essential and will reward careful reading and rereading.

Any appreciation of a story on SCI FICTION is also necessarily an appreciation of the immense talents of its editor, Ellen Datlow. Datlow is one of the most experienced, and certainly the best, editors in the field of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Her discerning eye for great fiction can be seen not only on the SCI FICTION website but also the many excellent anthologies she has edited, especially the invaluable Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series. I think all of us are a bit shocked that the award-winning SCI FICTION website has been terminated by the SciFi channel, and I encourage everyone who has enjoyed the stories it has published to send emails of protest. I wish the best of luck to Ellen in finding editorial jobs in the future. Even if SCI FICTION is gone for good, the stories it has published will endure.

Link to story.


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