Strange Travelers: New Selected Stories


Gene Wolfe is producing the most significant body of short fiction of any living writer in the SF genre. It has been ten years since the last major Wolfe collection, so Strange Travelers contains a whole decade of achievement. Some of these stories were award nominees, some were controversial, but each is unique and beautifully written.

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Strange Travelers: New Selected Stories

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Gene Wolfe is producing the most significant body of short fiction of any living writer in the SF genre. It has been ten years since the last major Wolfe collection, so Strange Travelers contains a whole decade of achievement. Some of these stories were award nominees, some were controversial, but each is unique and beautifully written.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Swanwick

The greatest writer in the English language alive today . . . there is nobody who can even approach Gene Wolfe for brilliance of prose, clarity of thought, and depth in meaning.
Orson Scott Card

Aladdin got three wishes from his genie. From Gene, you get fifteen, and they all come true.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, this collection of Wolfe's stories published in the 1990s contains death by overdose, suicide, Armageddon, cruelty to animals, abuse of children, children willing to falsely accuse fathers of sexual abuse and a plethora of vampiric female figures eager to suck the life out of men. Opening with "Bluesberry Jam," Wolfe (The Book of the Long Sun series, etc.) creates an intriguing speculative future in which an entire culture arises from people who have been stuck in a traffic jam for decades. This conceit is ultimately negated, however, by the most tired of clich s in the closing story, "Ain't You 'Most Done," which is set in the same world. Also included are two Christmas stories: "No Planets Strike," a relatively sweet tale in which genetically modified animals aid the next Christ child, and "And When They Appear," which is less sweet, involving wonderful, mythic figures who visit, but cannot save, a small boy from a world gone mad. While Wolfe's prose is exceptional and there are a few gems here, such as "Useful Phrases," which delights in how words lead us to and reveal mysteries, there are also several tasteless and misogynistic entries. Chief among them is "The Ziggurat," in which a mother coaches her daughters in the art of false accusation and the father--whose wife leaves him broke-eventually regains all by finding a woman he can dominate and a technology he can steal. All too frequently in this volume, even when women show men "the pleasures of Hell," biting them till they bleed, men emerge loutish and triumphant. (Jan.) FYI: Wolfe is a recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Two tales featuring a pair of musicians wandering down an endless highway filled with stalled cars ("Bluesberry Jam"; "Ain't You Most Done?") frame this collection of 15 short stories by the award-winning author of the "Book of the New Sun" series. Wolfe's eclectic talent runs the gamut from Russian folk tales to modern horror as he explores a landscape filled with ghouls, aliens, and chess-playing deities. Representing a decade of groundbreaking speculative fiction by a master of the genre, this volume belongs in most libraries. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Faren Miller
I've probably dealt with some of these 15 tales before, reviewing past anthologies, but the impact is far greater here. Sexuality, metaphysics, space opera, fable—there seems to be nothing Wolfe can't deal with in a masterful way...Strange Travelers is a moving, beautifully crafted gathering of works by a writer in top form.
From the Publisher
"The greatest writer in the English language alive today . . . there is nobody who can even approach Gene Wolfe for brilliance of prose, clarity of thought, and depth in meaning."—Michael Swanwick

"Aladdin got three wishes from his genie. From Gene, you get fifteen, and they all come true."—Orson Scott Card

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312872786
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Edition description: Revised
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Meet the Author

Gene Wolfe has been called "the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced" by The Washington Post. A former engineer, he has written numerous books and won a variety of awards for his SF writing.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


* * *

ONE OF THE YOUNGERS WAS rapping on a stick of firewood with another one, moving it up and down and listening to how the noise changed; and Jak—big, tough, blond Jak—yelled, "Don't do that!," sounding mad.

    That was how it started, and this is the story he told. It was hard to get it out of him, but if I told you about all that it would take until morning. What finally did it was Dik getting sticks, too, and tapping one with the other like the younger, and then I did it, and Jak told us to make us stop.

It was four years ago (he said) and I was hard for this one girl. I can't even remember her name, but back then I thought the worlds turned around and around just for her. You know how it is.

    On spring walk we went back to the old one, back to Earth. There's people digging there all the time, looking for stuff that might explain how people got to be the way they are. Or they think it will. Anyway, they say they do.

    I used to think it too, `cause the machines said so. If you know how an animal acted when there weren't any people, you can understand—maybe—why it acts the way it does now, so how'd people act before they got to be people? Only I don't believe it anymore. Now I think you ought to let dead stuff alone.

    But we were really loud for it then, this girl and me were, telling each other things we'd uploaded and pretending they were our own ideas `cause we'd changed a couple of words. You know how you do.

    We set down and each of us got a bot, and our bots told us we could dig anyplace we wanted and they'd show us whatever they found and let us touch it if we wouldn't hurt it and be real tappy. They had suggestions, too—you know how they do. Places where somebody else found something a hundred years ago. Places where everybody else had dug already. We said no, show us the map.

    They did, and there was a big hill on it where some city'd been. I forget the name. We said let's go there, and the bots said nobody goes there `cause it's too recent, only about eight hundred years. Nobody digs there.

    That settled it, we made them take us there and they were right, there wasn't anybody else for a long, long way, just dry grass and the wind blowing dead bushes around. Jo An and me—that was her name, I remember now—thought it was swell. We had the bots set up our jifhuts and started digging, each of us picking a place for our bot. Mine was a couple hundred meters from hers. My bot found some buttons and bones, and those big pins they used to use to fasten wood. I kept the best buttons and threw the rest away.

    Pretty soon Jo An started yelling for me, so I came over and she had this bent thing with some square buttons where it bent. I still see it every time I shut my eyes. It's black, and the square buttons are in sort of a square, too, three wide and four high, if you know what I mean, and when we scraped the dirt off them, there were numbers on them, like somebody that couldn't count had to see the number on each of them to know what to do. The first three across said one, two, three, and the next row, four, five, six. Like that. Zero was in the middle of the last row, sort of like it was really ten, only it didn't say ten, it said zero. The ones on each side had other stuff on them. One was a star, I remember that.

    Jo An said listen, and she pushed in the first one, and the bent thing made a noise sort of like hitting together two sticks, not loud. She pushed in the second one, the one with a two on it, and it made a noise that was almost the same, just a little bit higher up. Then she pushed the three button, and it got a little higher again.

    I said it was probably for some kind of lab demonstration, but her bot said it was for calling people who weren't there, and was well known to science and all that. So we asked what the buttons were for and the bot said they were to say who you wanted.

    "That's crazy," Jo An said, "why not just say who you want, like we do?"

    And the bot said that back then people mostly thought they were too good to talk to machines unless to call them names, so they did this. "You may keep it if you wish," it said. "It is without scientific value."

    She wanted to know who she'd been calling when she pushed the buttons so I could hear it, but the bot didn't know. Then Jo An said she'd keep it awhile and maybe fool around with it some more, and she put it in her jifhut with the rest of her stuff. We found a lot more after that, some pots and wire, and a skull, only I don't think they matter.

    After a while it started getting dark, so we told the bots to quit digging and fix us something to eat, and we ate and sat around talking and listening to the wind, and I said how about it tonight and she said no, not tonight. You know how it goes when you're a younger. I got kind of mad then and went into my jifhut and told my bot to wash me and lay down, only I couldn't sleep.

* * *

Jak wanted to stop talking then, and I wish we'd let him, just started talking about something different. But we didn't. We kept after him till he started again. We knew he hadn't really told us about the sticks and why they bothered him so much.

I lay down awhile, he said, only I couldn't go to sleep. And I got to thinking maybe she wasn't asleep either, only I didn't want to go over and talk or anything `cause I was still pretty mad. But I put on my clothes, most of them, and went outside and looked around and listened to see if I could hear her asleep or talking to herself or anything.

    Only I couldn't. It was pretty cold, I remember that, and you could see a lot more stars than the machines ever show you. I turned up the heat on my coat and walked around, and finally started climbing the hill, the big hill that had been some kind of crazy city before people knew how to really build them and where to put them. I shouldn't tell you naifs this, but I was thinking maybe she'd wake up and buzz my jifhut and I wouldn't be in there. You know what I mean? Then she'd think where is he and look all around and finally see me way off on the top of the hill watching the stars and maybe come up there with me.

    It didn't happen—I guess it never does. I climbed and climbed and finally got up to the top, and when I did I felt like I'd been climbing that hill all night, so I didn't want to go down right off. So I looked at the stars awhile just like I'd planned to, and there was this big white planet real close, with most of it blacked out by the one we were on. That was kind of interesting.

    Mostly I was thinking about the city I was standing on, and how it had probably been all spiky the way you see them on a terminal, with those little narrow towers held up with iron, and probably they'd thought it would always be there. There'd been birds, a lot of them, cause my bot had said a lot of the bones we found had been bird bones. So I thought about birds flying around the towers, white birds, and the people walking around not paying a lot of attention, but thinking about the sort of stuff I was just about always thinking about, what's for dinner and how'm I going to do on the KUTT. And I decided I was going to slow down a little bit and stop going on all the time like that stuff mattered. Sometimes I forget, though.

    My legs were hurting a little and I was pretty tired, so after a while I turned around and climbed back down. I was up there half an hour, maybe. You naifs really want to hear this?

    All right. It isn't anything, I guess. Only when I got close to the bottom where our jifhuts were, somebody came out of hers, somebody not as tall as she was. There weren't any lights inside, and that made it way darker than out where I was, and I saw the door open and somebody come out.

    No, I knew it wasn't her. It was too little and didn't move like her, and if it had been her I'd have been able to see her face, a little bit anyhow. And I couldn't. It was like it was all covered with hair or something.

    I just saw it for a minute and it was gone. It came out and shut the door, and then I don't know. Maybe it went into the shadow of the jifhut or something, but it was gone. When I got there I looked all around. I didn't find anything, and pretty soon I went into mine and went to sleep.

    In the morning I was up eating, and Jo An came in just in her robe. She was kind of dancing around, and she said "Look what I found!" and held it out. It wasn't anything much, just a little bit of white powder in a bag. Not real white, even, but sort of yellowy-brown and dirty-looking, like somebody'd dropped it on the ground and scraped it up.

    "It's wonderful!" she said. "Here, you want to taste it?"

    I said it was probably salt, and I'd tasted it already.

    She held it out and laughed a lot, showing it to me and then pulling it back like I wanted to take it away from her, and jumping around. "You know how I feel? I feel like I've been dead my whole life, and this is the, you know, what makes you alive and I am but you're still dead and I feel wonderful!"

    I asked her where she got it, and she said she found it. "I'll put a little bit on my hand," she said, and she did, just a couple grains. "There! Lick that! Lick it up!"

    She kept after me, but I wouldn't, and all of a sudden it wasn't Jo An and me anymore. I was alone over here and she was alone over there, and there wasn't anything I could do about it even if I wanted to. She licked her hand herself, finally. I remember how clean it was, and how bright her eyes were, so bright it sort of hurt to look at them, and how her spit strung out till she wiped her mouth on her sleeve.

    That was when I called my bot and said we were leaving, to pack up all my stuff and we'd go back as soon as it was ready. I just wanted to get out of that whole place, and I don't ever want to go back there again, either. If any of you want to go, that's fine. It's up to you. Just don't try and get me to go with you, all right?

    Oh. Well, I sort of had to push her out of my jifhut so my bot could pack and I could finish eating. And when it was done I looked around for her so I could tell them when I got back how long she'd said she was going to stay. They could've left it on her terminal, sure, only I had an idea she wouldn't send much back. Probably nothing.

    We looked around thinking maybe she'd gone back where she'd been digging or something, but she wasn't there and didn't answer when I buzzed her jifhut. Finally her bot went inside and found her in there, and she was dead with that powder on her hands and face and sort of dusted on the floor around her. I don't know how much more she'd licked up, but there was a lot left.

    So I went back, and after a while they let me come back here. It was a long time before I could think about it `cause it hurt so much. I kept thinking I should've done something, about all the things I could've done, you know, and not much, really, about what had happened.

    Even when I did, it took me a while to see it. But she'd called. She'd called, using the bent thing her bot found for her, and whatever it was she'd called had come just like it was supposed to. And it left her the powder, left it beside her bed `cause that was what it was supposed to do.

Jak wouldn't talk much after that, so somebody said, "You think it'll come again? Come here, because we were making the same kind of noise?"

    He sort of sighed and shook his head. "I just don't like to hear it, that's all. You wouldn't either if you were me."

    I wanted to know what had happened to the bent thing that Jo An's bot had found, and he said he had it. "But I've got it in a box that locks up good, and I won't let you touch it or even look at it. I didn't want it, but I guess her bot must've put it in with my stuff, `cause when I got home and unpacked, there it was."

    Nobody said anything after that, and Jak got up and put more wood on our fire. Dik pulled two sticks out and started rapping them together like the younger had, trying to get the noise right. He did it two or three times, and then we heard something, an animal or something, moving around in the dark, down where the blowpipe cane grows ten or twelve meters high, rattling and rattling, and Dik threw them in the fire.

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Table of Contents

Bluesberry Jam 11
One-two-three for Me 41
Counting Cats in Zanzibar 49
The Death of Koshchei the Deathless 69
No Planets Strike 87
Bed and Breakfast 99
To the Seventh 127
Queen of the Night 151
And When They Appear 169
Flash Company 197
The Haunted Boardinghouse 209
Useful Phrases 239
The Man in the Pepper Mill 249
The Ziggurat 269
Ain't You 'Most Done? 353
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 1, 2000

    A Fabulous Collection

    Readers familiar with Wolfe's short fiction will be most impressed by this major new collection. Readers who only know his superb 'New/Long/Short Sun' novels will be amazed by the breadth and variety of these dark tales. Everyone else will be dazzled. STRANGE TRAVELERS reads like an artifact of magic--something hidden, stumbled upon, irresistible and dangerous. A book of nightmares too beautiful to be true, too real to be denied, too vivid to be forgotten. Why doesn't everyone know Gene Wolfe is the best writer alive?

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