Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #89 of 107: “All the Hues of Hell” by Gene Wolfe
I’ve only read a handful of stories by Gene Wolfe, but the ones I have read impressed me immensely, and I’m afraid “All the Hues of Hell” paled in comparison. One problem is Wolfe’s most famous stories are rather long, so maybe the VanderMeers didn’t want to include any of those because of length. But there are many to choose from, and like the Willis story, I wonder why “All the Hues of Hell” got the nod.
I hate to keep nagging about the selections in The Big Book of Science Fiction. Partly, it’s because I wonder how anthologies are put together. I assume some anthologists love to promote underdog stories hoping they will become more famous. However, I find it very hard to imagine not picking the very best stories from each author, especially for a retrospective volume that covers a whole century. I’m afraid I would never buy a Gene Wolfe book after reading “All the Hues of Hell,” but I have after reading some of his other stories. My running assumption with this volume is the VanderMeers’ taste in science fiction is just different from mine. And “All the Hues of Hell” is on the horror side of things, and they seem to like horror science fiction.
In the VanderMeers’ introduction, they quote Wolfe: “My definition of a great story has nothing to do with ‘a varied and interesting background.’ It is: One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.” I don’t know if I’m a cultivated reader, but I have learned that rereading often brings increased pleasure. This is my first reading of “All the Hues of Hell,” so it might improve when I read it again in the future. But for this first reading, I found it confusing.
I think I got the gist of it. A scout ship, the Egg, leaves the mothership, Shadow Show, with a crew of a husband and wife team, L. Skinner “Skip” and Marilyn Jansen (Jansen 1, Jansen 2), along with an android/robot/cyborg named Kyle, and his pet macaw, Polyaris. Marilyn is pregnant. They are under the command control they call the Director. I don’t know if this is a person or a computer? Their mission is to capture a being from a mostly invisible world they call the shadow world. While Skip is on an EVA to capture the creature he goes insane and claims he’s dead and the world he’s visiting is Hades. Kyle and Marilyn go through various activities to rescue Skip and he is restrained when he is brought back with the captured being. [On second reading I realized that Skip never left the Egg, but was jacked into some kind of virtual reality that let them see the shadow world.]
All of the action takes place inside the Egg, and all the characters float in microgravity. There is a black sphere, maybe a magnet torus, in the room, to hold the alien when it’s captured. Much of the conversations deal with Skip’s insanity and descriptions of what he’s seeing. I never knew why he went insane, other than the exposure to the shadow world, or the fact, that’s what Wolfe wanted. Like a Philip K. Dick story, there is a fair discussion of mental illness and insanity.
At one point Kyle tells Polyaris that it’s raining frogs and fish and asks the bird if it remembered Charles Fort. Few people today know who Charles Fort was, so why would someone in the far future know about him? He collected odd stories that people claimed were evidence for the occult, but his popularity was decades before I was born, and I’m seventy. The reference amused me but thought it was jarring. I also considered it a writer-ly thing to throw out. I assume Wolfe wanted to connect the odd goings-on in this story with the occult, but it didn’t need a reference to Fort.
All the descriptions of the actions within the Egg, and the events of the virtual EVA were very confusing to me. I assume Wolfe saw clearly what he created in his mind’s eye, but I never saw the scene clearly. That hurt the story for me.
I guess the ending is supposed to be significant. The alien, the shadow creature, evidently possesses Marilyn’s fetus. Oooh, all scary, but not! In retrospect, that means Skip’s insanity was due to possession. I just didn’t see that at the time.
For the sake of this story, and this review, I just reread “All the Hues of Hell.” This time I pictured the setting much better. I was wrong about Skip, he never left the Egg. He went insane while inside the scout ship with Kyle and Marilyn. They all were observing the shadow planet with some kind of AR, or some kind of computer sensing device. None of them ever left the Egg. Marilyn took control of a tractor beam, or force field, or magnetic waldoes, and grabbed up the shadow creature.
On the second reading, I don’t think Skip’s insanity had anything to do with the shadow being. I think the stress of the mission drove him nuts, and he characterized everything with his own fears.
Even though the story was clearer on the second reading, I didn’t like it any better. Actually, I was horrified they grab a possible sentient being for scientific study. Made me think of little green men in UFOs abducting Whitley Strieber.
I now wonder if this 1987 story was inspired by the 1986 film Alien? Kyle is an awful lot like Bishop, especially since he might be an unreliable narrator and was intentionally putting the mission at risk to capture the creature. And in the end, Marilyn has an alien inside of her.
James Wallace Harris, 2/12/22