Book Review: Return to the Whorl (The End of the Solar Cycle)

by Gene Wolfe.

This is how the world ends, not with a bang, but with a recursive whimper.  “Somebody tell me what that was all about.”

I’ve been reading trying to keep up with the Gene Wolfe Solar Cycle Book Club for the last year.  RTTW was the last book.  I put it down and said, “I feel like I missed something.”  To the Internet!  Ten minutes later, my head hurt.  The Neighbors were what?  The narrator was who?  Those two slaves in the basement were…really?  When did she die?

But I didn’t go into the books thinking it was going to be easy.  I’d read the first two books and was completely lost, but liked them.  So when someone (on Tor.com?) mentioned the start of the book club, I jumped in.  Finally, a chance to find out WTF was going on.

Normally, I have a low tolerance for WTF mysteries.  That is, I like them, but I tire of most of them quickly, because they’re essentially boring.  Alias, Lost – that kind of thing – meh.  A couple of episodes, and I can tell the ending isn’t going to pay off.  Things are just going to get more and more complex, until the effort to track down what’s going on is going to totally outweigh the ending, which I can guess at already.  (I’m not very good at figuring out whodunnits.  I’m pretty good at figuring out WTF mysteries, because I am the Theme Master, and WTFs often rely on theme.)

But the Gene Wolfe books are pretty impressive, because the core of the WTF mystery isn’t something he hides, really.  The world is more complicated than we know, than we can know, and a creator is behind all of it.  There are so many coincidences and loops in time and place and character that you’re not sure who is whom by the time you’re done.  Narrators lie or misreport, and you only find out about it books and books later.  You meet old friends and don’t recognize them, because the narrator has changed.  Vocabulary is a problem.  Dialect is a problem.  Timelines are a problem.  Hidden clues are a big problem.  And who is the narrator, anyway?  Everything is a problem…

Why would you subject yourself to this kind of thing?

I did it for fun.  I like mysteries, and I like to be around people who are smarter than I am.  I like to read Agatha Christie  for whodunnits, and I like to read Gene Wolfe for WTF.

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1 Comment

  1. Percy

    I’d always thought that having the narrator lie to you was outright cheating. But thinking about it, I can see how in some situations it’d be not only acceptable but advisable.

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