A Tunnel in the Sky

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Operation ARES
by Gene Wolfe

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 9, 2022

Out of Print. Check Amazon, eBay, or BookFinder.com for a used copy. A purchase through that Amazon link may earn us a commission.

If I'm not mistaken, Operation ARES was only the second thing I ever read by Gene Wolfe, after the novella The Fifth Head of Cerberus in Terry Carr's Best SF of the Year #2 anthology (still one of my favorite stories ever, and my next re-read). In my original Wolfe article I said he began writing sometime in the mid 1950s, but his first short story wasn't published until '65. [Correction: 1965 was for his first professional sale, but he had a story printed in a Texas A&M student magazine in '51.] I suspect Operation ARES was written several years before its first printing in '70, possibly even before his first short story was published. The contrast between this and Cerberus, published just two years later, is remarkable. The edition pictured here is the one I read then, but not the one I just finished reading. I was not impressed with it, and not yet obsessed with Wolfe, so I probably traded in the Berkley paperback at a used bookstore. It's possible I didn't even finish it the first time, since a lot of the novel sparked no memories. A few years back I decided I wanted to read it again (and everything by Wolfe), so the used copy I got at that time was from Fontana, a UK publisher. In case you're also interested in sampling his full oeuvre I wish you luck in finding a reasonably priced copy. But I don't recommend it.

Also mentioned in my original article, and taken from John Clute's entry in the SF Encyclopedia, ARES was supposedly heavily edited by the publisher, and maybe for good reason. We'll never know if that hindered or helped, but the result is a poorly written, poorly conceived story. Dialogue is stilted, and descriptive exposition is awkward, the opposite of what one would expect from Wolfe. It's also a good example of how some SF authors were not good predictors of the future, many not anticipating the fall of the USSR. However, there are a few things that resonate as more believable now than when it was published. The premise is that space exploration was considered by many to have been financially disastrous for the US, the Mars colony is abandoned, and an anti-science faction becomes dominant enough to take over the government and rescind the Constitution. In its place, a Pro Tem Goverment is established, which has lasted for twenty years. Descriptions of their methods and tactics resemble those of mob enforcement. A small segment of the population is old enough to remember the past, remember science and technology, and long for its return, but they have to refrain from saying so. John Castle is employed as a teacher, mainly reading and math for younger students, but he is also allowed to conduct his own after-hours classes for adults, as long as he steers clear of mentioning science. Because of this backwards policy, manufacturing is reserved for essential goods and tools, for farming and the like, while cars and other vehicles rust and deteriorate, since parts are not being made, and few would know how to service them anyway. This also included military hardware. Poverty is rampant, food is scarce, and curfews are maintained to protect against the ravages of wild animals, some of which had been previously imported from Africa and other countries. Hyenas for example.

John Castle lives in a civic center with many other single men, although he spends quite a few nights at a nearby farm. His activities there lead a local official to suspect him of being a member of Operation ARES. He's not, but he wants to be. ARES of course refers to both the Greek god of war, and as a symbol of Mars, but it's actually an acronym; the American Reunification Enactment Society. It's not clear at first whether ARES is allied with Mars, or if it is in fact an organization created and controlled by Mars. Also not clear is conditions in other countries, but it is implied the US was solely responsible for the Mars colony, and apparently the only one to reject science. Mars might have been better off cultivating contacts with other countries, although helping the US out of its decline was a top priority. Something that I think is new in the Wolfe article at SFE is the notion that Heinlein was an early influence, which surprises me in one way, but it makes sense in relation to this book. More than once while reading I thought of "If This Goes Onó." In Heinlein's tale the US was transformed into a reactionary theocracy, whereas here it is more or less just a power grab, the leader of the Pro Tem government more closely resembling our 45th president. That analogy is strengthened by the PTG's reliance on Russian assistance. Through a circuitous route, John Castle actually becomes the head of ARES, its military commander, and Secretary of Defense in the proposed restoration of a Constitutional government. The comparison to "If This Goes Onó" is also very strong during the Battle of Arlington.

In summation, this is strictly for Wolfe purists, those who want to read everything by and about him. My suspicion it was written much earlier in his life is the style is more reminiscent of '50s SF, if not earlier. Another book it reminded me of was Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow from 1955. Brackett's is better, and so is Heinlein's novella. I hope you understand how difficult that is for a devout Wolfe fan to say, but I have to be honest. My recommendation is to skip this one, start with Fifth Head of Cerberus, and don't look back.


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Gene Wolfe


Out of Print. Check Amazon, eBay, or bookfinder.com for a used copy.

A purchase through our links may earn us a commission.