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Bewildering Stories

Gene Wolfe, An Evil Guest

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

An Evil Guest Cover
An Evil Guest
Author: Gene Wolfe
Publisher: Tor, 2008
Length: 301 pages
ISBN: 13-978-0-7653-2133-6
Does anyone remember how often those distorted mirror fun-houses showed up in the old movies? They were practically a staple of the old Charlie Chan series and a number of the early Twilight Zone movies. Evil fun-house mirrors even showed up to distress a modish Emma Peel and John Steed (at a Christmas mind-game party, no less).

Perhaps thrills and chills were more simply obtained back then. It was worth the price of a few coins to gawk or giggle at one’s vastly distorted image, now rotund as a Buddha or skinny as a witch, in a simple frame of glass.

I was reminded, somehow, of those distorted reflections, those off-kilter mirrors, while I read Gene Wolfe’s latest, An Evil Guest. We have a setting, which is somehow weirdly past, but definitely the future, too; we have events warped out of sequence, so that the future visits the past... or, maybe it’s the past visiting the future. We have two men that seem to be sort of the same man, but just as clearly, can’t be. Or is one turning into the other? Which one’s the hero, and which one the villain?

Such wonderful fun-house distortions. Ye who like to see in a glass clearly, don’t pick up this mirror.

The story is fairly simple on the surface. The U.S. government (and there is still a government) has its eye on Bill Reis, its former ambassador to the Woldercan, the only aliens humans have reached visiting terms with. The government would like to get their hands, or rather their handcuffs, on Mr. Reis, but he proves remarkably, indeed, seemingly supernaturally elusive.

So the government enlists another elusive figure to help with the handcuffing. Their agent is Gideon Chase, who some say is a wizard. And he, in turn, enlists the aid of an alluring actress as bait for Mr. Reis.

Only the thirtyish, never-quite-a-star Miss Cassie Casey isn’t quite Venus flytrap material yet. To get there, she agrees to a deal. The wizard brings out her latent superstar quality, in return for her agreement to allure, and possibly betray, the elusive Mr. Reis.

But as usual in supernatural deals, there’s a somewhat misleadingly worded downside. As Mr. Chase remarks, it’s hard to go up, but so easy to go even further down again...

An Evil Guest, I am glad to say, shows Gene Wolfe back in top form again after the glacial Pirate Freedom (which could have used an infusion of Captain Blood, or some similar dose of much needed piratical action).

Few authors other than Wolfe can give us glimpses of futures where space and what we meet out there so profoundly alters our humanity. Space isn’t just stars to Gene Wolfe; it’s a moral and spiritual metamorphosis. If understanding of the metamorphosis he depicts is sometimes elusive, well, it would be, wouldn’t it? How can who we are now truly comprehend what we might become?

But I love the hints Wolfe gives us. To paraphrase the dead man, what a long strange trip it might be. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2008 by Danielle L. Parker

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