Strange Travelers is a rich and exciting tapestry of eclectic tales sure to please, whether this is your first foray into the worlds of Gene Wolfe or a return journey. The story lines run the gamut from traditional science fiction with a twist to a delightful retelling of a Russian folk tale.
"To the Seventh" is a classic science fiction story about a chess game between God and the Devil. The pieces on the cosmic chessboard are represented by beings scattered across the universe. The hero of the story, Mack Chance, is asked by God, in the guise of a tactical war computer, to undertake a suicidal mission. His ship has the capability and fuel to jump 300,000 parsecs in two jumps of 150,000 parsecs each, but God asks him to accept an assignment 900,000 parsecs away, in the heart of enemy territory on the belief that miracles can happen:
"You answered without reflection. This time I want you to reflect, Captain Chance. Do you believe in miracles?"
Mack reflected, tussling with successive layers deceptively labeled "soul," "core," and "innermost being"--tearing each to bits and throwing each aside, only to find that it kept creeping back. At length he said, "Where you're concerned, yes sir. I do, sir. I mean--"
Those six jumps equate to the six moves a chess pawn would have to move forward to arrive at the last row of a chessboard and be subsequently "Queened." If you're familiar with chess and know the difficulty of queening a pawn you can almost guess the outcome of the story. But the path Chance takes, which meanders through the universe with a stop near Portland, Oregon, is one that will delight and titillate.
"And When They Appear" is a tale of a young boy who is being cared for by his parents' computerized house in a post-apocalypse world. Sherby, too young really to understand the evil in the world, is kept entertained by computer-generated holograms while a roving band of looters steadily approaches the house. With the power to override the house program, Sherby innocently creates a situation in which the house is destroyed and Sherby himself is "rescued" by a rather seedy and degenerate character. Thankfully, Wolfe spares the reader most of the details of Sherby's future.
The other strange tales in Wolfe's collection include a thought-provoking campfire horror story set in the far future; the story of the "mother" of intelligent robots being pursued by one of the beings she unwittingly helped create; and the adventures of three female time travelers, castaways on the shores of Earth. There's another horror yarn about a human boy who runs with ghouls and a tale about a boy who gets trapped in his sister's dollhouse each time he sleeps.
Strange Travelers is a broad and deep book by a master wordsmith. Like Wolfe's Castle of Days, Strange Travelers contains a few unclassifiable stories. This only enhances the rich landscape of this collection. Strange Travelers reaffirms Wolfe's adroitness and mastery in the short story genre. It's well worth losing a little sleep over. --Robert Gately