The best way to read The Best of Gene Wolfe is to open the book, read the first story, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories, and then close the book and put it away. Not only doesn’t it get any better from here, it gets much worse.
The cover blurbs on the book boast that Wolfe is Melville, Dostoevsky and Dickens all rolled into one. Truth be told he’s a second-rate Theodore Sturgeon and Avram Davidson rolled into one, and The Best of Gene Wolfe is his idea of what his best stories are. Which with authors is rarely a good thing.
I’m not a Wolfe hater. The man has written some great stories and most of them are in here, so are stories that should never have seen the light of day. If you’ve read the usual Best of the Year and Hugo and Nebula collections, then you’ve probably seen the good ones. You may have also seen some of the terrible ones like The Dream Detective, an upscale Catholic version of a Jack Chick tract.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus is in here, so is The Tree is My Hat and Seven American Nights. Unfortunately so is Forlesen, an endless story about how awful working for a corporation is, along with numerous stories that just aren’t stories. Take The Death of the Island Doctor, which Wolfe in his afterword mentions that he is pleased it is nothing like a story. But maybe it should have been.
The Best of Gene Wolfe is filled with stories that aren’t really stories, but probably should have been stories. Or the space taken up by them should have been filled by stories. Some like From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton, On the Train or The God and His Man are wankery, there’s no better word for it.
For every adequate story like Westwind, or And When They Appear, there’s a Game in the Pope’s Head or The Parkroads. And the rare good ones like Straw, are more than offset by all the rest. The average quality of the collection is not good, but anyone who’s a fan of Wolfe will eat it up. Those who aren’t, might want to consider just buying a couple of old Hugo and Nebula collections for a better overall quality mix.