Skip to main content

An Evil Guest (SF) - Gene Wolfe ****

Gene Wolfe is one of the world's greatest fantasy writers. He has also written some popular SF, notably the Book of the New Sun series. His SF has never really been my thing, as I prefer his fantasy work, but this is a real oddity that spans the two. Arguably it is science fiction, as the odd happenings all have 'science' explanations. And we've got some science fiction tropes such as warp drive, hyperspace and projected 3D TV. But the whole setting is a dream-like mix of periods.

So, though An Evil Guest is clearly set in a future where we have interstellar travel and have met one other intelligent race, a lot of the everyday technologies, such as the mobile phones, are distinctly early-twenty first century. Meanwhile the characters - both how they speak and act - are straight out of the 1940s. If that sounds weird, it really is - and yet, being Wolfe, it works wonderfully.

The central character Cassie Casey, a struggling actress, is thrust into a complex situation where nothing is quite what it seems. In classic Wolfe fashion the reader, like the central character, is rarely sure what's going on. This is helped by dialogue that is indirect even by Wolfe's standards - no one seems happy to give a straight answer to a question if they have an opportunity to reply obscurely.

If this sounds frustrating, it really isn't, as long as you are prepared to go with the flow and trust Wolfe. Things do mostly become clear eventually. And the ride is great.

However, don't expect total clarity when you get to the last page. Wolfe's endings are famously open - and this one feels as much a beginning as an end. In fact, the ending didn't quite work for me, which is the reason the book is only getting four stars. Even so, it was an excellent read. In the puff on the back, Neil Gaiman describes An Evil Guest as 'a twenty-first century pulp adventure thriller with SF and horror elements that nobody else could possibly have written'. He didn't intend that 'pulp' word as the insult it once was, and his assessment is quite true.

Best of all, this is a book that just won't get out of my brain, and I know I'll read it again. If you do try it, here's one puzzle to consider. Just who is the evil guest of the title?

Paperback:  

Kindle:  

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…