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Hugely subtle and deeply satisfying
on 31 May 2011
This is the most interesting book I've read in a long time. It's the first time I've read Gene Wolfe, but I've known for a while that he is thought by many to be the most influential science fiction writer alive today. I don't know enough about the genre to comment on that, but I will say that if you like superb writing that will make you think, you should give this a whirl, even if you are put off sci-fi by thoughts of gamma rays/singularities/force fields, etc etc.
The book consists of three very different but interlinked novellas, set on the twin worlds of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix; a coming of age narrative by the son (apparently) of a brothel-keeper/sinister scientist, an etheral, hallucinatory tale about the original, aboriginal inhabitants of Sainte Anne, who (possibly) are later exterminated by settlers from Earth, and (ostensibly) the tale of an anthropologist from Earth, who has made it his life's work to study the history of the aboriginals.
But, in all the above tales, nothing is as straightforward as it seems, or indeed straightforward in any way.
Wolfe's themes are myriad, but the most obvious ones are identity, existence and the fallibility of human perception, nature versus nurture, and rites of passage. Wolfe handles them with dazzling skill; there are a number of fairly clear ambiguities, none of which are directly answered, and any amount of others that are hinted at with a breathtaking subtlety. He is either a genius or a very, very clever conjurer - I can't quite decide which. He writes beautifully, too.
The filmmaker Michael Haneke has said that he wants to pose questions to his viewers, rather than give answers. If this is the kind of thing you like, then I urge you to read this.