Friday, November 12, 2010

1970 Libertarian novel: Operation ARES by Gene Wolfe

Operation ARES (1970), a science fiction novel by American SF&F author Gene Wolfe.

Pictured below: Paperback original (New York: Berkley Publishing, 1970), a Berkley Medallion book, #S1858, 208 p., 75¢. Cover art by Paul Lehr. Here’s the promotional piece from the back cover:

The invasion from Mars came in the early years of the 21st century. And all over America people were praying for it to succeed...

For two decades, the United States had been slipping into a primitive past, turning its back on technology -- and abandoning its Martian colony. Its 'emergency' government was kept in power by repression, food was scarce, life grim... and killer packs of wild animals prowled at night, making curfews a vital need.

Then the 'Martians' came back. An obscure teacher, John Castle, was among the first to see the invaders -- and made a desperate try to aid them. He failed then, but there was a strange role waiting for Castle to play...

Wolfe’s first novel, Operation ARES was written in 1967 and cut heavily by Wolfe and Don Benson, editor of Berkley Books, before it was published in 1970. Unfortunately, many consider the novel an abysmal work. For example, in a scathing review published in the April 1971 issue of The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Joanna Russ wrote: 
Operation ARES by Gene Wolfe … is going to do the author's reputation a disservice someday. I know what Mr. Wolfe can do when he sets his mind to it; ARES is far below his best. It is a convincing, quiet, low-keyed, intelligent book which somehow fades out into nothing. The characters are surprisingly decent; time after time there are touches of good observation and well-textured realism, but in the end Mr. Wolfe doesn't really seem to care. The book uses an interesting technique of presenting things obliquely; big events happen offstage, and often the explanations of events will be given long after the events themselves — I don't mean that this is mystification but that the significance of many things only becomes apparent long afterwards. One of the best things in the novel is its intense concentration on the present moment — time after time one swallows stereotypes without realizing that's what they are (the rational, naive Martians, the emergency government that can only harass and annoy, the fear of scientific "heterodoxy"). But all in all, the novel is a failure, shadowy and inconclusive. Books like this are generally called "promising," but by the time you read this review, Mr. Wolfe will be as far above Operation ARES as Ares is above the worst science fiction hackwork.
Bruce Gillespie was less critical, writing in his Australian fanzine Scratch Pad 52 (2003): “There was a time in American publishing when promising new authors were allowed their apprenticeship novels. Operation ARES was Gene Wolfe’s. It doesn’t work; the plot, about a future war between humans living on Earth and those in space, is all over the place and quite forgettable; but Wolfe’s initial strength was his creation of interesting characters. Not interesting enough to save the novel, but they did have an independent life that one can’t find in the novel as a whole.”

One of the few positive critiques of Wolfe’s novel I came across was written by Matthew O’Keeffe, who noted in the November 1993 issue of Free Life: A Journal of Classical Liberal and Libertarian Thought that Operation ARES is "something of an undiscovered libertarian gem.”

And how does Gene Wolfe feel about his novel? In a 1997 interview published in the book Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing / Writers on Wolfe (2007), Wolfe told Peter Wright: "The publication of my first novel, Operation ARES, was an enormous high point, and I think that it is greatly inferior to most of my work. I try to keep it from being reprinted, actually."

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