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From: Michael Straight <straight@email.unc.edu>
Subject: Re: (whorl) Fallible Readers and Unreliable History
Date: Tue, 26 Jun 2001 14:02:00 

On Thu, 14 Jun 2001, Dan'l Danehy-Oakes wrote:

> > There's a big difference between Wolfe telling us Silk thought
> > such-and-such and Horn telling us Silk thought such-and-such.
> But is there? [...]
> In either case: we have Wolfe telling us Silk thought such-and-such,
> or we have Wolfe telling us that Horn tells us that Silk thought
> such-and-such; and I am not entirely convinced that the difference
> is quite as great as it looks at first. 

I think of it this way.  Imagine reading a story in which spaceships can
use a certain doohicky to move faster than light (not hyperspace, but
actually moving faster than light).  Now I might believe that such a
doohicky is impossible, yet accept it as the author's premise and see if
she writes an interesting story around it.  Now imagine that part way
though the book, the author gives you reason to believe the spaceships
aren't going faster than light after all, that the characters only think
they're going faster.  The whole story changes from one where FTL is
accepted as a given to one where the possibility of FTL is part of what
the story is about.

Put another way, when we read Tolkein, we don't get into a tizzy about
whether Morgoth and Sauron and other such supernatural creatures really
exist.  We just accept them as a given, as part of Tolkien's imaginary
universe.  Wolfe doesn't want us to think of the Outsider like that.

I think this is related to Wolfe's writing technique in the New Sun books.  
I've argued elsewhere that Wolfe baits us by making the series look
superficially like fantasy, but gradually luring us into reading it as
science fiction, with "scientific" explanations for the various marvels.  
So then, when he throws in some genuine miracles, they are genuinely
startling in the way that a miracle would be in the real world.  We don't
just think, "oh this is a fantasy universe where magic healing exists."

For Wolfe to tell us in third-person omniscient mode that Silk was
enlightened would make the enlightenment an objective fact of the
Lupiverse.  For Horn to tell us about it makes it a subjective belief of
one or more inhabitants of the Lupiverse.

> ...while at the same time, setting up the story so that you can only
> disbelieve the Outsider's reality (in the Lupiverse) by presuming 
> that Horn/the Narrator writes in extreme bad faith. To be

No, if the Outsider is all in Silk's head, then Horn isn't lying to
us; he's just mistaken.  The bits of "foreknowledge" that he writes into
the book would simply be Horn's mistaken notion of what the Outsider had
revealed to Silk.

> > moved by Silk's inner life, by the prayers he offers,
> etc., is to receive a kind of shock when we realize that Horn
> made it up. But how is this different from Wolfe making it up?
> Either way, it's a fiction; either way, a writer has told us
> imaginary events that move us.

It makes a difference because I thought I was reading a story about Silk's
faith in the Outsider, but then it turns out I'm really reading a story
about Horn's faith in Silk.  Horn believes that Silk was enlightened, that
he was a good man, that he would have prayed this way in those
circumstances. So not only do we get the story Horn tells us, but we, by
implication get to ponder the story of how Horn came to believe these
things, and whether he was right.

Either way, those beautiful prayers are no longer simply Silk's private,
inner life.  Either Horn made them up, which makes them part of
Horn's story--how he came to acquire such depth--or Silk taught them to
Horn, which means the prayers are part of Silk and Horn's relationship,
not just Silk's relationship with the Outsider.

> Or, in writer's-workshop terms (which are actually often very 
> useful from a critical standpoint): Wolfe has come up with an 
> interesting way to put into practice the age-old dictum, "Show,
> don't tell." By having Horn _tell_ us how he feels about Silk,
> Wolfe _shows_ us how Silk affects Horn; by receiving this, we
> feel some sense of Silk's actual goodness.
> The question, then, is why some readers find more-or-less the same
> technic unconvincing when Horn's sons tell us how they feel about
> the Narrator at the end of _Short_

The difference is that Horn does more showing and Horn's sons are just
telling.  Horn doesn't give us this big dissertation on how genuinely good
Silk is, he mostly just tells stories about what he thinks Silk said and
did.  When I got to that passage at the end, I was surprised, I wondered
what exactly made Hoof(Hide?) feel that Silk was so good, and why it
scared people.   I'd had a sense of Silk's goodness from Horn's stories,
but Hoof/Hide didn't give me a real sense of what it was like to be around
someone so good it was scary, they just told me as a statement.


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