Book Review: ‘Starwater’ Strains by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe's 'Starwater Strains'

‘Starwater Strains’ by Gene Wolfe (UK PBK 978-0765312037, Tor Books, new edition July 2006)

A naïve woodsman comes to the city to take part in what he believes is a reality-television gameshow, and discovers it’s not as clear-cut as he thought. A rescue-centre dog has a curious ability to warp through normal space. A circus strongman is searching for his manager, who has disappeared while in search of a possibly-mythical moon that the FBI are interested in. A man meets an old genetically-engineered dinosaur, and both cast their minds back to the freedom of their youth. A keen huntsman shoots what he thinks is a bear, but which turns out to be something far more terrifying. A high-school nobody starts having strange dreams, and the lines of reality begin to blur.

Starwater Strains is subtitled ‘New Science Fiction Stories’, but readers in search of sweeping space opera or detailed scientific extrapolation will find themselves out of luck. They might well find much to enjoy in Wolfe’s short fiction despite themselves, however, thanks to the wide range of ideas deployed. From playful sketches like ‘Calamity Warps’, to sf thrillers like ‘Try and Kill It’, by way of Jungian horror-fantasy yarns such as ‘Castaway’ and a gamut of others that defy easy categorisation, this collection has only one unifying theme.

That theme is Wolfe’s mastery of voice, his skill at picking the right narrator for each tale and becoming them, utterly. Add to this a whimsical ability to give the deadly serious a subtle edge of humour, and to treat almost throw-away themes as if they were high-concept, and the result is a set of fiction that showcases a writer at the top of his game, able to turn his hand to any facet of the craft and perform flawlessly. A reader might not find every story to their taste, or even be able to label them all as sf, but they would be hard pressed to dismiss them as poorly written. If it is possible to set benchmarks for diversity in short story writing, this collection has surely done so.

{NB: This interview originally published in Interzone #206, republished here with the permission of the editor.}

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