Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Land Across, by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is one of the most literary writers that speculative fiction has ever had, and he has probably been the subject of more literary criticism than any other SF writer.  This is a good thing.  He is getting toward the end of his time as a writer, so he is starting to go deeper into his own mind in his writing.  That can make him a little hard to follow, but I think he's still pretty interesting. I've read several short stories and The Book of the New Sun,  In The Land Across, he works on a smaller scale than the ambitious series volumes set in outer space.

Grafton (we don't find out his name until over halfway into the book) is a travel writer looking for a really obscure place to visit.  We don't ever find out the name of this country, it is some vaguely eastern European place run by a dictator.  We know one city name, Puraustays, which is a name really elegantly constructed not to indicate where it is.  The closest analog I can think of would be pre-Aung Son Suu Kii Myanmar.  He has a difficult time getting there, and when he finally does he is immediately arrested and has his passport taken away.  Thus begin the adventures.  Grafton generally rolls with the punches and manages to take everything in, even as he's imprisoned and drafted into the JAKA, the "secret" police.

Wolfe is by now a complete master of voices.  Grafton is literate but relatively plain spoken.  The people of the unnamed country have German as a second language, so their voices are translations of somewhat stilted German into English.  Some can't get into it, but I was intrigued and enjoyed it all the way through.

Wolfe's more ambitious works try to say something relatively deep about humanity, and give you a real insight into the very complex inner workings of the protagonist.  I can't say that happens here--Grafton definitely is a complex person, but one doesn't see all of it.  Wolfe seems to be making a more concrete point about people living under dictatorships, and their essential humanity.  He makes that clear in an appendix.  The dictator in this story does play a role, though it's rather unusual and otherworldly.  Reminds me a bit of Philip K. Dick.

In any case, I can solidly give The Land Across three stars and recommend it for those who enjoy good writing. 

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