The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

landacrossLately I don’t read much science fiction, though it was once a passion. I received this book as a gift, though, and found the cover information intriguing. “Wolfe is our Melville,” proclaims Ursula Le Guin on the inside jacket. She’s an author I admire, so started in, not looking for Moby Dick, exactly, but maybe Billy Budd.

Gene Wolfe is a well-known science fiction and fantasy writer who won the Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy awards many times. My idea of science fiction is Herbert’s Dune, and my idea of fantasy is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, so I may be a bit out of touch with readers who peruse those genres more extensively. But, if I had to assign a genre to The Land Across (Tom Doherty Associates LLC, 286 pages), it would be Mystery. In my view, science fiction stories are based on impact of actual or imagined science, usually set in the future or on other planets, and I think fantasy stories should have otherworldly settings or characters and invite suspension of reality. Mysteries, on the other hand, deal with the solution of a crime or the unraveling of secrets. Of course, there’s no reason an author who mainly writes science fiction and fantasy can’t walk down the mystery lane if he likes.

The Land Across is set in a small, obscure, Eastern European country in modern (post-USSR) times. The protagonist is an American writer who goes there to write a travel guide, there being none already, in any language. Lufthansa has service to the capital, but the flights are cancelled, so he takes the Orient Express from Vienna, heading toward Slovakia. He’s removed from the train by border guards and so the adventure begins.

Some of the elements of the mystery genre I find in this novel, besides the main one – the plot follows the unraveling of something mysterious – include:
(1) The narration is first person, protagonist. His name is Grafton and his voice is street-wise, levelheaded, the sort of hardboiled personality you expect in a detective novel, somebody with a gun in his pocket. Grafton soon has a gun in his pocket. He’s loyal to his friends, attractive to and attracted by attractive women, thinks about his mother and father occasionally, does well in fist fighting.
(2) The narrative includes piles of facts only peripherally important to the story, the sort of information that keeps the reader attentive, remembering, sorting, and speculating.

The third border guard took the front seat beside the driver. This third border guard was older than the other two. He had a black mustache, and in a lot of ways he looked like my father.

(3) The characters spend a great deal of time questioning each other and thinking through possibilities as they strive to find answers to their questions.
(4) The story concludes happily with bad guys dealt with and good guys rewarded.
(5) The narrator occasionally addresses the reader directly.

Everybody interested enough to read this book knows about the High Tatras and the Transylvanian Alps.

(6) The writing of the book is part of the narrative in the book.

So I have sublet my old apartment in New York again, and we have leased this one in Massachusetts. She goes to class most of the day, and I mostly stay right here in our apartment and write this book.

The novel also has a few fantastic elements, including a ghost, a mystic, a severed hand still living, supernatural agencies, and so on, some of them clever and interesting.

I read The Land Across cover to cover with pleasure although it’s not the sort of novel I normally pick up. The protagonist is likable, the story engaging, the writing competently done – a good, though not great, novel.

Dennis Vickers, author of Mikiwadizi Storms


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