no critical faculties polishes off the canon: gene wolfe’s operation ares

About two weeks after completing Gene Wolfe’s Operation Ares I challenged myself to recall its conclusion. I sat at my desk, staring at my hands, for perhaps five minutes before I gave up and picked up the book. Opening it to the final page, I read the last line

“Nonetheless,” John said, “I think it would be best if tonight you arranged to have the lights of Arlington blink three times.”

…and recalled my slight puzzlement on first reading them, my abortive attempt to suss out the meaning of something so specific. I did not, however, recall how the work led up to those lines.

Already it should be clear that Ares is some fiercely compelling stuff.

(Note: in rereading the first few pages, I came across the answer I was looking for. Apparently, Wolfe got into the “mention important details only once and it’s their fault if they don’t remember 200 pages later” habit early on.)

The book describes a future that is now, if my understanding of off-hand references and math work out, our recent past. America, after bankrupting itself colonizing Mars, experiences a backlash against the program and All Things Technological. The Martian colonists are told to fend for themselves while the country’s “emergency government” does general oppression-type things. The Constitution is suspended. There is an elected President, but he is merely a figurehead. Anyone with a background in the sciences, like our Main Man John Castle, are regarded with suspicion. Bands of wild, predatory animals stalk the night. The population is, of course, stripped of arms. Even the Peaceguard, Castle’s earliest nemesis and an analogue to the police of the recent past, are not given firearms. It’s a paranoid libertarian nightmare, a helpless populace kept under the heel of an anti-technological, unelected government.

And this government is receiving monetary aid from The Soviet Union

Oh shit.

But Mars is not going quietly into that good etc. No, they are regularly broadcasting instructions to willing persons, like John Castle, for laying the foundation of their return. Operation Ares is concerned with the events surrounding this return, this invasion from Mars, more or less. It follows Castle as he’s suspected, arrested, spends about two days as part of the terrible no-good emergency government, takes the hell off, and then somehow stumbles his way into a vaguely important role in the implied eventual (possible) victory of the Martians and a return to truth, justice, the American Way.

We’ll call this: an early gloss on backing one’s way into the throne. Modest beginnings.

There are interesting ideas scattered here and there (an offhand mention of the importation of African animals to the Americas to preserve them when their native continent became uninhabitable; the insistence of the acting government that animals like jackals and lions that prey on people at night are native to North America; a few inexplicable maladies Of The Future) in that casual way Wolfe has, the lack of straight exposition making them easier to buy. These incidental details liven up what boils down to a somewhat vague, episodic account of the political machinations behind the Martian invasion, where the major plot exposition is ladled out in huge, deliberate, show-stopping servings.

Narrative gaps abound. I don’t know how many of these I can attribute to intention, or the ruthless pruning of The Work before publication, so I hesitate to read them as style, evolving.One very Wolfean moment did stand out to me: Castle, marching cross-country with other prisoners of the state (cars being an extreme rarity in this terrible futurepast), has his column scattered by a Martian aircraft, which he later finds in the woods. After conversing with the Martian, who produces a “rifle laser”, he decides to try and cripple the column by destroying the only vehicle they have and, hopefully, the prisoners’ escort of freshly-armed militia.

There is a bit of a laugh at the Martian’s naivete:.

“Okay, see the truck down there? Follow the way my arm’s pointing.”

“I see it.”

“Then knock it out. Destroy it if you can.”

The Martian stared at him in disbelief. “But someone could be killed.”

“I sincerely hope so!”

“It could even be one of your comrades, a fellow member of the labor force.”

“That would be better than nothing, but if it’ll make you feel better I’ll broadcast a warning. Shoot as soon as I’m through.” Into the microphone he said, “Prisoners, leave the area of the truck. We are going to destroy it.”

The Martian had raised the strange-looking weapon to his shoulder in a way that was reassuringly competent. John Castle did not see him pull a trigger, and the laser rifle produced no sound, but a tree on the line between the Martians and the truck in the valley, suddenly smoked, then erupted in flames. “Shift to your left,” the teacher said urgently, “and try it again.”

“It will take two hundred and ninety-seven seconds for the capacitors to charge again.”


The Martian was apologetic. “You see, it operates by discharging a set of capacitors to obtain an almost instantaneous high voltage; but it will take…”

A rifle bullet glanced off a tree somewhere near them and went yelling off into the chill air.

“That’s nearly five minutes,” John Castle said bitterly, “You’re better make that next shot a good one.”

“Well, you see we didn’t really come here to fight. We feel that if we can take our case to the people they’ll see see the logic of our position.”

This statement is punctuated with an instance of of machinegun. Shortly after this quasi-comical anticlimax, Castle makes another attempt on their foes himself, and the focus abruptly switches to…

The Martian suddenly found himself alone… There was a new burst of firing, somehow sounding more purposeful than the others. He stiffened. From the end of the ridge, where the enemy must be, he heard shouts. Smoke from the fires started by the laser rifle had drifted over the area, making it difficult to see what was happening. It seemed probable, though, that the two friendly Earthmen would welcome a distraction. He whispered into the microphone, and his voice went booming among the trees: “Soldiers of the illegitimate government, lay down your arms. This is your last opportunity.”

The quick-firing missile projector sounded. It was not destroyed, then.

As he tried to locate it, new flames spurted up in the same area. That would be the blond Earthman’s shot, and he too had missed. There was another uneven flurry of rifle fire. “Lay down your arms,” he said again.

Someone was coming toward him, forcing a path through the crackling growth. He tensed himself, to make a dash for the LBV. Then he saw them; it was the blond Earthman, and he was supporting the older man as the two of them stumbled forward. Blood was staining the older one’s coat. He ran forward to help.

What many would treat as an action beat, Wolfe draws away from, filters through the perception of a character distant from the action. This seems characteristic of his later work, with its deliberate narrative gaps, influenced by a devotion to point of view. It’s just that, in this case, he goes to the somewhat bizarre, jarring length of a single-page switch to the point of view of someone who’s never given the distinction again.

Something insulting about Stephen King goes here.

After being framed for sabotage, John is given the option to work as a sort of welfare case-worker, a PRESTman, rather than go to prison. They offer these jobs to educated convicts because sane, free people don’t want them. Why? The PRESTmen are hated. Why are they hated? We soon find out:

And because the Pro Tem Government Government remembered very well that it was the dissatisfaction of the “economically deprived” that had destroyed the constitutional government, the PRESTmen, as well as the free civil service welfare administrators, were paid in privileges and autonomy for keeping the “economically deprived” quiet. […] When a PRESTman obtained a new benefit for a client he withheld the first payment in its entirety, keeping half for himself and passing the other half up to his Group Leader, who in turn retained half and passed the remainder higher up. Thereafter, he kept a quarter. “Inherited” clients, those whose benefits had previously been obtained by some other PRESTman or social worker, paid only ten percent. […] With capital accumulated from his percentages a PRESTman could enter the money-lending business as long as he adhered to the unwritten agreement governing the competition between PREST and the out-and-out loan sharks: a PRESTman lent only to his own clients and (this was important) never charged less than ten percent a week.

So, it is the policy of the Evil Welfare State to actively Keep the Populace Down, using them as a means to amass personal fortunes under the guise of civil service. Must be the influence of those Goddamn Russians.

At least, we are assured, they don’t sell drugs (“chem”). “These things were the prerogatives of the street gangs.”

During this episode we’re treated to an encounter with a sort of awkward hippy manque, introducing a forced slang recalling hollywood presented hepcats, and anticipating the future atrocities of Pandora by Holly Hollander.

“Won’t no cat like him warm himself for himself, you know. Don’t you care if he gets pneumonia?”

“No, not much.” John was cleaning the wound as well as he could with his handkerchief.

The answer was plainly unexpected. The curly-haired man straightened up. “If you don’t care, square, what’re you doin’ here? Somebody’s got to help him, don’t they?”

“You’re here now. You help.” For a moment John played with the idea of actually leaving before the young man’s wife returned, but he knew he could never forgive himself if he did. To give himself an excuse for staying he asked, “What was all that about a lion, anyway? Was that supposed to mean anything?”

“He’s a hunter, man. Least his woman is, an’ she makes him go to the meetings sometimes. Those Hunters don’t like no one blowin’ ol’ happy bubbles on chem cubes, so Mama Mona figures maybe it’ll catch on him.”

“Do you have to talk like that?”

“No man, I like to. I’m pullin’ in the station, man, but my trip is not run out. When you’re all feather inside an’ this world looks so good, you like it. You think I’m a square ol’ Hunter with a spear in my closet to carry ’round at night?”

Well, maybe Wolfe was always a bit “square.” Someone told me that Wolfe works best when his stories are entirely removed from reality. Maybe. He has a gift, exhibited in works like the collected Books of the X Sun, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, or the Latro novels, for taking the distant, the detached, the alien and making them relatable. The closer he comes to a world the reader is actually familiar with, the more off, awkward, alien the proceedings seem. Operation Ares, with its blatant Cold War paranoia and alleged proximity to our own times, dates itself in ways his historical fantasies or projections into a distant future don’t. Ares’ style is plain, and not deceptively so. Little is hidden; the characters are often ciphers, mouthpieces. The broad ideas come before everything else, which is just barely diverting dressing. Wolfe’s next, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, is an astonishing leap beyond this book, in technique and intention. It was, is, literature, not polemic.

Someone on these here internets called it something like(I am unable to find it now, for precision) his “apprenticeship novel.” This will do. It’s nothing offensive, but nothing remarkable. He keeps a raft of cliches afloat with a certain immediacy, with moments of interesting observation, suggestions of his future skill. The seeds of his future narrative tics are in evidence, but they’re hardly worth the effort in their nascent state. I understand why the man tries to keep it firmly under the rug.


~ by ironcupshrug on 04/23/2010.

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