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Saturday, June 19, 2010

"A Solar Labyrinth" by Gene Wolfe

  1. F&SF Apr 1983
  2. Storeys from the Old Hotel, Kerosina 1988
  • If you're going to read Gene Wolfe, this may be a place to start as it may reveal his M.O., his modus operandi (indeed, Robert Borski links this title to the author's most famous series: Solar Labyrinth: Exploring Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun"--link includes additional commentary). Although the story is brief, it's probably not for the less enterprising, less adventurous. You may choose to walk through a close reading in order to model similar readings.
  • Students can often feel that close readings are random or arbitrary. You might try terribly mis-reading the story and see how students react: Any and all interpretations cannot fit a text. If you have religious students, have them compare what you're doing in class to what might be done by a preacher, priest, rabbi, etc.
  1. Explain the mystery of the first sentence: "Mazes may be more ancient than Mankind." How can that be? How does that support what the author constructs in this story?
  2. What's a "clew"? Pronounce it. What two things might the author be referring to at once? What's a denouement? Pay close attention to the word's origin: to un-knot or untie. How might that be closely related to what Theseus had to do? How does that relate to what you have to do with this story? He calls Theseus a "fictional detective." How does that term play two ways? Think about what we're doing now. How does this confirm our interpretation so far?
  3. Have students look up "Fayre [Fair] Rosamund." One critical resource makes the point that this is not true. In a fiction about fiction, is it necessary that it maintain fidelity with reality? What's a definition of "yarn" that aids our interpretation while also downplaying the importance of reality?
  4. With our interpretation in mind, how might the second paragraph play? What does the author feel is lost in current mazes (Hint: "the great days of...")? Why does the narrator seem troubled by "armchair adventurers solv[ing these] with a pencil"? Hint: Compare what's lost to how they are presently done. Have students point out the pun. What makes it a good pun as opposed to a slight one?
  5. Who is Daedalus? How might what he constructed for Minos mirror our interpretation? Why might the maze be located in the Adirondacks? Like the Catskills, the Adirondacks may be considered deeply iconic American geography.
  6. Why use the name, Smith? Give at least two reasons (see picture and first line of wiki entry).
  7. The maze is constructed of "charming if improbable objects." If we are talking fiction, what is usually considered "charming if improbable?" Speculative fiction. Obelisks, mysterious objects that denote timelessness and that memorialize, are common, possibly emblematic imagery in speculative fiction. The conjunction and misplacement of all of these objects, in fact, also denote speculative fiction. Moreover, what are the walls constructed of? The shadow is an even more common image in SF. The maze becomes something more of a mystery when it is "insoluble" at noon when the shadows are most short and, presumably, easier to solve. If the maze is constructed out of shadows, what happens to those shadows as the day progresses?
  8. One interpreter states, "When adults get stuck in the maze, it means that they cannot understand the message of the story," which must be referring to the following: "a maze from which the explorer can walk free whenever he chooses. And yet it is said that most of them--most adults, at least--do not." Explain how this follows the text. Explain how the text may be stating the opposite.
  9. What does the following suggest about interpretation: Mr. Smith, the maze builder, "invites his guest to discover paths of his own.... New corridors appear; old ones close.... Mr. Smith's path joins that of his guest (Mr. Smith knows his own maze well)... the guest leading the way.... As Mr. Smith talks, shadows shift."? How much will Mr. Smith help his guests?
  10. Interpret: "Most adult guests do not escape until they are rescued by a passing cloud. Some, indeed, refuse such rescue."
  11. What is the sinister aspect of the story that Wolfe mentions? How would you feel if you were a young child and an adult said that "the frowning figure of the Minotaur, a monster,... haunts the shadows."?
  12. Why must the children be young but not too young?
  13. Why would glasses help? What do glasses do?
  14. Who is Ariadne? Of what use is showing her picture?
  15. What's a gnomon? Check out the word's origin: Interpreter, discerner. Who survives the maze? What are they doing?
  16. If you have additional questions, please let us know.
  • Author's from Storeys from the Old Hotel: "'A Solar Labyrinth' is another favorite. Labyrinths fascinate just about everybody, and for a while I was almost equally interested in what used to be called dialing [Borski refers solely to television in order to maintain his theme's continuity, but one may also refer to the telephone, an object used to reach others at a distance]. I tried to keep the sinister element well in the background, and it seems I kept it so far back that few readers notice it at all; but I like it that way."
  • Sean Whalen (similar to this interpretation if a bit exacting)
  • Same site, different interpreter
  • A unit speculative fiction or close reading.

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