Every year or two I come across a Gene Wolfe novel or collection of short stories that I haven't tried to read before and give it a shot. I say "tried to read" because my success rate at finishing Gene Wolfe's long fiction is pretty poor, well under 50 percent.
I keep trying because a lot of writers whose work I do enjoy seem to hold Gene Wolfe in awe. Check out his Wikipedia entry. The guy has oodles of respect from the speculative fiction writing community and is one of the writers who has earned praise from outside the genre walls as well.
So I saw Soldier of Sidon sitting on a bookshelf in the library. This book won the 2007 World Fantasy Award. I recalled finishing an earlier book telling the story of the same main character, Lucius or Latro, called Soldier in the Mist. Soldier of Sidon wasn't too long, so I gave it a shot.
On the bright side, I finished the novel and it didn't take me terribly long to do so. Unfortunately, I found myself puzzled as always by the Wolfe conventions of a random, meandering plot, an exotic setting where more is hinted at that explained, and an unreliable narrator to guide the reader through.
Here's my metaphor for reading a typical Gene Wolfe novel. Imagine that you go to a party and everyone there is marveling at a new chair in the living room. They call it a masterpiece. You examine the chair closely. You admire the quality and the grain of the wood that was chosen and the craftsmanship with which it was made. Clearly every joint and curve was carefully worked out to produce the final result. You have to agree that it took talent to make this chair.
And you have no idea how you are supposed to sit comfortably in it. Or really sit in it at all.
Soldier of Sidon is about Latro, a warrior cursed to forget the majority of what happened the day before every time he goes to sleep and wakes up. The story is told entirely through the device of a papyrus scroll (the longest in history, apparently, or else Latro is writing in microfiche--but hey, that's a quibble) on which Latro records the events of each day as best he can.
Latro keeps asking the same people the same questions over and over again throughout the novel, not always getting the same answer. Latro also has a special gift for seeing the supernatural where others cannot--he sees gods and spirits moving around in the world and does not realize most of the time that no one else can see them. He is clearly a protagonist with a Destiny.
But I have no real idea what his Destiny might be, and neither does he. He just wanders along through Ancient Egypt and the Nile Valley, where everything is described using the terms of the day, so it is very hard to follow the geography or languages or place names provided. (There is a helpful glossary at the end of the book.) He needs to recover a shield for some purpose that we're never told and has to deal with the interference and assistance of various gods, some of whom are identified and some of whom aren't. Their motivations are never really clear, usually because we're simply not offered any motivations, but in some cases because contradictory explanations are offered.
Those explanations that are offered, such as the desires of the magical woman made of wax who appears partway through the story, are told again and again and again as Latro interacts with these people.
The descriptions of Ancient Egypt are interesting for the most part. The dialogue is sometimes crisp and sometimes confusing. It never transports me the way good dialogue by Michael Chabon or Guy Gavriel Kay can. The plot never makes much sense, though it winds around a great deal. The characters are mostly surfaces that reflect their intentions and motivations poorly.
There's a great line very late in the book where Latro writes, "Nothing could be more useless than continuing this scroll." I wonder if the irony was intentional. Had I come across that line halfway through the book, I might have just agreed with it and stopped.
All in all, it's not a book I could rate as more than mediocre. It feels like it ignores some of the most basic principles of storytelling and communicating with the reader. But all of Wolfe's long fiction reads like this to me, so I clearly just don't appreciate his style.
(As an aside, this is the sort of problem that makes me so skeptical of the arguments to be found in places like this post on Adam Roberts' blog and its comments. Arguments such as "the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing." and "No, Kevin, it is possible to distinguish good writing from bad without being elite. It's just something that most fans never bother to or want to learn how to do. Some good books are popular, some not."
If I can't follow the story and don't care about the characters, it matters not a whit to me how new or challenging it might be in a literary sense. Bewilderment is not the same as wonder.)
All I can say is that normally when I read something that strikes me as a work of genius, I find myself wishing that I could write that way myself, or trying to figure out how to learn something from the example. However much I can recognize his technical skills, I never really feel that way about Wolfe. He's writing novels whose ultimate purpose I can't really fathom and have no interest in trying to emulate.
Postscript: I want to look through some more of his short fiction to see if this problem persists in that format: it has in the last couple stories of his that I have read in anthologies.
Second Postscript: I was recently reading through part of A History of Warfare by John Keegan and noted that his description of the military situation of Ancient Egypt completely contradicts what Wolfe describes here. Wolfe refers to a kingdom that is all borders, surrounded by enemies. Keegan notes that the most significant feature of Egypt's borders was that nobody could approach from the east or the west and that the terrain of the delta also limited assaults from the north. If you could seal the northern and southern entrances to the Nile river valley, you could protect Egypt, and the Egyptians barely developed their military technology for centuries as a result. So essentially the exact opposite of what Wolfe says. Given Keegan's credentials as a military historian, I put vastly more stock in his interpretation than I do Wolfe's description. Which is too bad, because that was one of the aspects that interested me.