Novella Review: “Memorare” by Gene Wolfe

(Cover by Mondolithic Studios. F&SF, April 2007.)

Who Goes There?

People generally fall into three camps when it comes to Gene Wolfe: they haven’t heard of him, they respect him but they find it hard to get into his work, or they really go to bat for whom they believe to be one of the best writers ever. I fall into that second camp. Wolfe was no doubt brilliant, being more literary and sophisticated than most of his New Wave contemporaries. He sold his first story in 1951 but did not start writing again with any regularity until 1966, from then on becoming more or less affiliated with the original anthologies like Orbit and Universe that were cropping up at that time. Nowadays Wolfe is most known for The Book of the New Sun, a series of four (or five, depending on how we count Urth of the New Sun) novels that are meant to be taken as one whole. Even though I struggle to get through The Book of the New Sun personally, it’s hard to deny its mixing of far-future science fiction and low fantasy has a unique appeal.

Today’s story, “Memorare,” is not a case of Wolfe playing with genre boundaries, though, being spacefaring sciennce fiction from start to finish. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has, over the decades, done several special author issues, typically involving a cover depicting the author, a tribue essay, and a short story or novella by said author which was specially commissioned for the issue. “Memorare” is a standalone novella that was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and for newcomers to Wolfe it may serve as a good introduction to his strengths—if also one or two of his weaknesses.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the April 2007 issue of F&SF, which is on the Archive. As far as reprints go, you have two options. “Memorare” got a chapbook release in 2008 from Wyrm Publishing, looking quite fetching due to the cover, which looks like a poster for a ’50s B-movie. That same year we got our second and final reprint, as part of Year’s Best SF 13 (ed. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer), marking its only anthology appearance. In other words, this thing has not been brought into print since 2008, which is a bit odd considering it was clearly an acclaimed work. Could we get a collection that focuses on Wolfe’s more recent short fiction maybe?

Enhancing Image

Gordon Van Gelder’s opening blurb for this story references Survivor (boy, what a dated reference that is), which is relevant because what follows is basically a survival adventure narrative. March Wildspring is a documentary filmmaker who at the moment is a bit down on his luck, trying to cobble together footage for a show on the asteroid memorials that are sprinkled around Jupiter and Saturn. He travels around in his ship, in a world where for some reason spaceships are called “hoppers,” with a “digicorder” which is basically a camera; I don’t know why Wolfe has a tendency to not call things as they simply are. This all sounds simple enough, even boring enough, since at first you might think that taking footage of mausoleums in space would be straightforward—but this is a Gene Wolfe story.

In the future, certains persons of the filthy rich and famous (and perhaps insane) variety have opted to enshrine themselves in space, specifically in the asteroid belt where they could say, “I wanna build a tomb inside that,” and they might actually get their wish. The logistics to build one of these things must be a fucking nightmare, but Wolfe and the characters don’t dwell on that part so much aside from noting that, at least as far as the materials needed, it could be done. But should it…? To make things worse, these memorials sometimes have traps set in place for those who wanna do some graverobbing, which on the one hand makes sense if you’re someone who has some really valuable loot placed in your tomb, but also, this all sounds a little bit insane. I don’t know what it says about March that he’s also crazy enough to be doing this shit (the tomb-raiding) regularly enough that he wants to make a whole documentary about his experiences.

Something that didn’t occur to me until just now is that world of “Memorare” is not that dissimilar from John Varley’s Eight Worlds series, in that the solar system has been more or less colonized entirely and people, more often than not, hop across moons and planets for the sake of tourism—of fighting off boredom. There are some differences. For one Earth has not been taken over by aliens in “Memorare” (indeed aliens are absent here, so cross that off the list), and also the solar system is a bit more dangerous in Wolfe’s story. In the Eight Worlds stories people are rarely in danger to the extent that their lives could end permanently; it’s actually quite hard to die for real in the Eight Worlds series, so conflicts not involving permadeath are preferred. But in “Memorare” people die permanently, and often violently. “Every year, five, or ten, or twenty don’t make it back,” says March when referring to fellow travelers among the planets.

Right, one more thing. Certain tomb owners can cheat death (but not really) by reproducing their likenesses with a hologram or even an android; this is not the same as cloning and memory backups in the Eight Worlds, but it’s the closest people can get to life after death. The uncanny result of all this is that March can (and indeed does) interview what are effectively the ghosts of the owners of these tombs, as hologram projections or droids.

The first half of “Memorare” is pretty episodic, with March hopping around before meeting up with his business partner and love interest, Kit, whom he desperately wants to marry but can’t—at least partly, according to Kit, because of their careers. I don’t wanna dwell on Kit too much because I’m not really a fan of her character—or the other leading lady of the story, for that matter. I’ll explain why in a minute, but let’s say Wolfe is setting up a love square that detracts from the narrative more than it adds. Few authors, even the good ones, do romance well, and Wolfe has yet to convince me he’s one of those few who can make it work. We’re soon introduced to Robin, Kit’s friend and, as it turns out, March’s ex. We had heard before that March is a divorcee, but apparently he’d been divorced twice, one of those times with Robin. Indeed Robin used to go by the name of Sue, but she had it legally changed.

March and Robin’s relationship was not a happy one.

Robin whispered, “He’s my ex. Kit.”

“Jim?” Kit goggled at her. “I saw Jim. It was Wednesday night.”

“Not Jim. Oh, God! I hate this!”

March said, “It’s been years since the final decree, Kit, and the proceedings dragged on for a couple of years before that. I had abused her—verbally. I had said things that injured her delicate feelings. Things that were quoted in court, mostly inaccurately and always out of context. I had persecuted her—”

“Don’t! Just don’t! Don’t say those things.”

“Why not?” March was grim. “You said them to a judge.”

“I had to!”

Jim, by the way, is Robin’s current partner, a gaping asshole who for some reason talks like a 1930s gangster; we’ll get to him in a minute. The thing about Wolfe that tends to keep me at arm’s length with him is that he is basically never direct with the reader, opting instead to hide behind characters who are rarely honest with anything, even themselves, plus his thing for shrouding plot details in ambiguity. As far as the plot goes “Memorare” is actually straightforward for Wolfe, there’s surprisingly little in the way of narrative trickery, but that part about unreliable characters is still there—for what purpose I cannot say. The relationship between March and Robin is arguably the dramatic focal point of the story, yet it’s also the murkiest: for one we’re never sure how trustworthy either’s side of the story is, but Robin’s frazzled demeanor implies that her side of things is to be taken with a grain of salt. I have issues with this situation.

Another problem I have with Wolfe, which I really do think is a shortcoming of his and not just a matter of personal taste, is his blind spot for writing female characters who are both sympathetic and three-dimensional; or rather he has a hard time doing either when it comes to women. I know, it’s not a unique criticism, especially for a man of Wolfe’s age, but what separates Wolfe from, say, Harlan Ellison, is that it’s not hard to figure out why Ellison has a misogynistic streak: he’s an angry short guy who went through one messy divorce too many. With Wolfe, however, the man’s writing is so controlled and so meticulous that I have to assume his light but conspicuous misogyny is there for a reason—only I can’t fathom what that reason is. Of the four main characters March is the only one who is allowed to never sound like a cartoon, but he’s also the only one who’s never framed as all that untrustworthy. Protagonist bias? Then again he’s very much not a perfect person; he makes mistakes and it’s his own personal hell, namely his relationship problems and more implicitly his crisis of faith (of course he’s Catholic, if only lapsed), that drives the plot.

Wolfe is known for several things, among them his devout if also pessimistic Catholicism which crops up in his fiction, often only subliminally. Secular readers have less of an issue with Wolfe than, say, Flannery O’Connor, because unlike O’Connor Wolfe is never trying to convert the reader. For the record I do like O’Connor, despite not being Catholic or even Christian, because she’s so damn good at what she does (“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is a Catholic horror story, and one of the greatest horror stories ever written), but Wolfe’s worldview is despondent enough that he’s much more on the side of Graham Greene than O’Connor; or to put it more in the context of genre fiction, think of Walter M. Miller, Jr., although Miller was despondent enough to despair in the end. “Memorare” is certainly dark, though, with its constant imagery and talk of death, never mind the muddy relationships between the four main characters, with love and life itself on the line. About half the “characters” we read about are people who are already dead, their specters merely lingering in the dark rocky vaults of space.

There Be Spoilers Here

The latter half of “Memorare” is concerned with what is supposed to be one of the most dangerous tombs in the solar system: Number Nineteen. This is a strange, even surrealistic place, host to a crowd of people and founded by someone whose name is somehow unknown, though he must have been unspeakably wealthy to have such an elaborate tomb constructed. Number Nineteen is basically a world unto itself, despite being only an asteroid; this naturally means that footage of the interior would go for a lot of money—if March and company can make it out in one piece. By this point Jim has caught up with the rest of the party and joined in the festivities. I really hate Jim. That’s okay, because Jim is the only character we’re unequivocally supposed to dislike. Everything that comes out of this dude’s mouth is bullshit, be it what he’s saying or how he’s saying it—never mind that, regardless of Robin’s testimony, it’s clear that Jim is an abuser and almost proud of it; his offscreen death at the end is a little satisfying.

What’s far less satisfying, even horrifying, is Kit’s abrupt and violent death just as she and March are about to escape. It’s one of the most effective and disturbing little pieces of writing I’ve seen in a while, regardless of how I had felt about Kit’s character up to that point, made only more shocking because March does not react to it immediately. Robin chooses to stay behind so that March can escape, and sacrifice affects him deeply. The only good thing here is that the footage March got is, at least according to his boss, incredible, with his company buying it pretty much on the spot. Sure, his personal life may be ruined, but at least he’ll be all set financially. That’s gotta mean something, right? Obviously there’s some cynicism on Wolfe’s part about the exploitative nature of reality TV, which after all is documentary filmmaking taken to a more sensationalist level—ya know, like those shitty and problematic “true crime” documentaries that get popular on Netflix.

But then we get to the very end.

We get a list of credits for the documentary March wanted to make, with dedications to Kit and Jim. We also find out with these credits, however, that not only did March go back to Number Nineteen and rescue Robin (okay) but that they also… remarried in the time between the rescue and the documentary’s release? They’re both listed as editors with Robin taking March’s last name (again). Now, documentaries are mostly made in post-production; it could take a year or a damn near a decade to cobble together a documentary in the editing room. Regardless, there’s a whole story here with March and Robin getting back together that’s hinted at but which goes untold. The real issue I have is that everything we’ve seen up to this point indicated that no matter how much they might forgive each other and reconcile, getting back together would be a bad idea for both parties. Like obviously these two are a toxic couple—whether that toxicity is mutual or one-sided doesn’t matter ultimately. I suppose this is meant to give of us a ray of hope at the end, but as far as bittersweet endings go I find the sweet half far less convincing than the bitter.

A Step Farther Out

I’m a bit mixed on this one. The good news is that I went in worried that “Memorare” would be Wolfe in typical cryptic mode, and it actually ended up being more accessible than I expected. Despite being a pretty late work of his, “Memorare” is something you can recommend to someone who has not read Wolfe before and they probably won’t bounce off of it. Wolfe’s Catholicism is a bit more overt here than in much of his fiction (that I’ve read, anyway), but like any good storyteller he uses his worldview to enrich his work thematically and emotionally, which is very much the case here. The downside is that Wolfe’s blind spot when it comes to writing women rears its head with a vengeance in “Memorare,” the misogyny being turned up a notch or two for reasons I can’t fathom. I’m also not sure what Wolfe’s deal is with the anachronistic dialogue; given the chapbook’s cover there’s this running theme of “retro” science fiction, a sort of throwback, but I don’t understand what the purpose of that connection is. Despite my gripes, though, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to wanna see this, and some of Wolfe’s more recent short fiction, preserved in a new retrospective collection.

See you next time.


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