Gene Wolfe and the Unreliable Narrator

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I went on a bit of a Gene Wolfe binge recently. If you like speculative fiction and haven’t read any of his books or short stories, give them a try. One of the things you’ll notice is that you can’t trust the narrator. This is true of his highly regarded longer works such as The Book of the New Sun and The Fifth Head of Cerberus and of (most of?) his short stories such as “The Ziggurat,” a disquieting and much-debated yarn.
      Even though I know Gene’s tricks, I almost always fall for them. When I start reading a new story, or even when I’m re-reading one I’ve read already, I slip into the mode of the trusting reader. Why? I suppose it’s just human nature to accept the narrative until enough contrary signals accumulate (especially when the narrative is captured in print). In Gene’s writing it usually takes time to become aware that something is amiss. In his case, it’s doubly challenging because each signal is wrapped in ambiguity, and the ambiguity typically persists through the end of the story; he’ll hint at unreliability but leave the “truth” embedded in vague and contrary clues—just like “real life.”1
      Actually, Gene leaves clues with much more intention than we find in real life. Real-life clues come at us from all directions, on many layers, and all at once; what’s more, there’s no cohesive narrative like the ones we find in most books, which, by the way, are themselves written by unreliable narrators.

      We often forget this lesson. The stories we hear, the accounts we read, the reports we watch—all are unreliable to one degree or another (and who’s the reliable judge who measures the degree of reliability?). All accounts involve bias. In some cases, intentional manipulation occurs, even though most manipulators would shudder at the term and defend their motives and methods vigorously. In many more cases, the manipulation is unintentional but no less dodgy for it.
      But here’s the rub: the stories we tell, the accounts we relate, the reports we compile—all are unreliable. Yes, we, too, are unreliable narrators . . . indeed, everyone is an unreliable narrator. No one can escape his or her own biases and agendas, not even the most credentialed thinker or the most respected red teamer. Even when we consciously try to shed our biases, we’re still wrapped comfortably and confidently in our unseen cultural assumptions; one-off personalities; and self-perpetuated operational codes. Are we more reliable than a Gene Wolfe narrator? Maybe, maybe not—though, without fail, we think we are.
      From the start, every narrative is skewed. For each red teamer who declares his or her intention to challenge assumptions and overcome bias, you have a red teamer firmly rooted in his or her own assumptions and biases (which, here in the West, are usually defined by norms of risk, probability, and “rational” decision making). So why don’t we just red team these assumptions and biases? Because they’re part of our deeply cherished personal narratives, and they “boot up” well before we unpack and deploy our red teaming toolkits. It’s a rare red teamer indeed who can perform effectively at this deeper level.2
      And lest we forget, allow me to remind us all (myself included) that our unreliability applies not just to the “now” but to the past and the future as well. Consider a few of the canonical examples of intelligence failure (Pearl Harbor, the crossing of the 38th Parallel, the Yom Kippur War, 9/11); the well-worn, widely published narratives we read tend to align on all major counts (itself a clue). We study these same (unreliable?) narratives, the explanations, and the lessons, yet the only surety is that we will make the same mistakes again. Are we too trusting of the narratives? Gene Wolfe would probably say “yes.”
      Where does this leave us? I’m not sure yet, but I plan to spend the next 20 years exploring this misty territory. Though it didn’t at the time we were creating it, the narrative of Red Team Journal‘s 20-year expedition now feels too comfortable. (Don’t get me wrong; I think we did a helluva lotta good.) It’s time to pack my kit, lace my boots, and go exploring. If you’re an adventurer, too, I just might see you on the other side of that far hill.

  1. I put the term in quotes because what is “real” necessarily involves what we perceive (and misperceive) and how we interpret what we perceive (and misperceive). No one ever perceives and interprets quite the same milieu of “real” things. Am I veering off toward solipsism? Maybe, but I argue that it’s often closer to what we experience than the related versions of “real” that we choose to share with like-minded colleagues. []
  2. And I suspect that it’s a profoundly intuitive skill that is difficult, if not impossible, to teach. []

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