A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Operation ARES’


The first thing to be said is that, despite the presence of his name on the title page, this is not a Gene Wolfe book. It is a generic, ordinary, unexceptional Science Fiction book. It appears to be a book by someone who wants to write a Science Fiction book rather than a book that he wants to write. Gene Wolfe himself disowns Operation ARES.
Which is a mildly harsh but realistic appraisal. Wolfe’s debut novel, which appeared in 1970, is set in a future America in which societal structure is disintegrating in the face of a long term economic collapse brought about by a popular and short-sighted uprising against science. The Constitution has been suspended, the Army and Police (in name at least) disbanded, the Welfare programme massively expanded, and Science itself is confined to Mars, which is hated and feared and which is trying to get things to start improving on Earth.
The book concerns John Castle, who starts as a teacher and, in a manner that will become familiar as Wolfe grows into his greatness, ascends into a position of great influence based on his generally superior intelligence and tactical awareness. John, who is surprisingly only 22, is already a rebel against the way things are when the book starts. His personal adversary, a man we only know as either the Captain, initially, of the General, in the later stages, is convinced that Castle is a member of, indeed possibly the leader of ARES, the American Reunification Enactment Society (also the name of the Greek God of War, which is not a coincidence: this is an early example of a Wolfean construct/symbol, but definitely early because Wolfe spells it out for us: after this book, it is the reader’s job to make such connections, no matter how esoteric or specialised they may be).
The irony is that, in the latter half of the book, Castle does indeed become leader of ARES, an irony compounded by the fact that ARES does not, in fact, exist.
But though Operation ARES is set sufficiently far in the future that the USA has colonised Mars and withdrawn support for it for twenty years, it is indelibly enmeshed in the politics of its time. What blossoms is an unacknowledged Civil War, in which the Presidency Pro Tem, the ‘official’ government, is supported by the Communist Russians, and the Constitutionalists by the Communist China, all Maoist slogans, running dog capitalist imperialists and mutual suspicion between the two antipathetic Communist states, whose ultimate aim is control over the United States.
Indeed, the abrupt and entirely unsatisfactory ending to the book comes when the two opposing US ‘parties’ decide to collaborate in an effort to buy the time to rebuild America again, by playing off one Communist state against the other.
Yes, this is an unsatisfactory book on so many levels, though I admit that,on this time of re-reading, it gain an astonishing contemporary significance for me, at least in its first half, with its near prescient portrayal of a county whose economy and ability to maintain itself, let alone progress, has been destroyed by a comprehensively stupid decision taken to seize control of the country from its elected rulers, to divert money to the massed poor, by taking it away from Mars, science, manufacture, etc., etc., etc.
As a result, all systems, including power, are failing, the infrastructure is cracking up, wild animals roam at night making things incredibly dangerous, food is being rationed, clothing is shabby/pitiful, graft is rife, and an ineffectual government keeps pretending all is well, and the country is better and stronger for it by a combination of banal slogans and outright lying.
For someone who voted to Remain in the Referendum, the parallels with the Theresa May Party’s Government are too glaring to ignore.
One more glaring difference between Operation ARES and Gene Wolfe’s other books is the complete absence of an unreliable narrator. The closest we come to this staple Wolfean device is in the middle stages of the book where Wolfe simply leaves out sections of a more comprehensive, but unimportant progression. There is no seeming suggestion that the untold sequences have any fundamental bearing on the overall story, or that by these omissions Wolfe is doing anything more than avoiding clogging up the book.
In later books, it is vital for the reader themselves to determine what they’re not being told, as it will inevitably be of significance.
A banal, undistinguished story, told conventionally within the conventions, an inability to escape out of the present political setting despite being a good half-century into the future, if you’re being realistic, reliable narration: the only element of this novel that is consistent with the Gene Wolfe we love is John Castle, the tactically competent man, who knows how to analyse a situation and project a solution upon it.
Having said all that, it should be made plain that the book as published is not as Wolfe wanted it or wrote it. After his publishers set a strict 60,000 word limit, Wolfe’s original submission was 103,000 words and the book completed some four years or so before publication. Furthermore, after Wolfe had edited down the first quarter of the book, the task was taken out of his hands and the word-length over the remainder of the novel achieved by cutting out whole paragraphs until the limit was achieved. Much of the criticism the work rightly receives is undoubtedly a reflection of this process.
No wonder Wolfe wants nothing to do with it.
His next novel would appear in 1972. The contrast between this and The Fifth Head of Cerberus could not be greater, as the title alone demonstrates. It is the true beginning of the career that the wily Wolfe has enjoyed ever since.

The Prisoner: episode 6 – The General – discursion


The General

The General was the sixth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, and the tenth episode to go into production. It stars Colin Gordon as Number Two, who impressed Patrick McGoohan sufficiently during filming to be invited to stay on for the next episode, the already broadcast and discussed A, B and C.
The episode was written by the experienced Lewis Greifer, under the pseudonym Joshua Adam (the first names of his children). There doesn’t seem to be any reason why Greifer should have used a pseudonym: McGoohan knew him as a friend of story editor and co-creator George Markstein, and indeed Greifer had introduced the pair.
By the time this episode was made, Markstein and McGoohan had long since parted ways in their vision of (and opinion of) the series, which offers the possibility that Markstein felt his friend needed to hide behind a pseudonym to avoid rejection by McGoohan. But Greifer was a good friend to both, which makes that theory highly improbable.
The theme of the episode came from Greifer, who was inspired by his sons’ boredom at school with rote learning: that Speedlearn is ultimately nothing more than rote learning on a very advanced plane may be the root of Greifer’s idea, but the idea could almost have been calculated to appeal to McGoohan’s belief in the series as a form of social criticism of the way the future seemed to be heading.
The General is, of course, the first example of a Revolt episode. There is a token mention of possible release in return for the Professor’s recorder, but Number Six is committed to a course that would exclude that anyway. Instead, he sets himself to oppose Speedlearn – once he understands fully what it comprises – for no other reason than that he believes it should be resisted as an intrusion into people’s lives and minds.
It’s also the first episode in which Number Six has a genuine ally, not that he trusts him at any time. But Number Twelve, played by a young and imperturbable John Castle, is also committed to resisting Speedlearn; it is he who enables Number Six to get into a position where he can wreck the scheme by broadcasting the Professor’s condemnation, though his desperate attempt to save the Professor’s life, which costs him his own, does blur the issue: the General has been destroyed, but an alive and intact Professor could rebuild him. Whose side was he ultimately on?
Overall, the episode is generally enjoyable and thought-provoking in the manner that McGoohan intended, which makes it a success, but there are a lot of issues surrounding it that detract from its general quality.
The first of these must be Colin Gordon as Number Two.
Let’s get a minor matter out of the way first: Gordon may be excellent in both episodes where he plays Number Two, especially given the contrast between the portrayals, but he’s absolute crap in the title sequence, where his voice lacks any force and his ‘derisive laughter’ at the Prisoner’s assertion that he is ‘not a number, but ‘a free man’ is horrible – a shouted out Hah! Hah! hah!
Inevitably, Gordon’s double appearance brings up the ever-lurking question of the true order of the episodes. On the face of it, The General should precede A, B and C, as it did in production: Gordon is a self-confident, undefeated ‘New’ Number Two in the first, and a nervous, quivering wreck who ‘is’ Number Two in the second. And the episodes were filmed in the logical order. But in The General, Gordon says that he and Number Six are ‘old friends’, and he refuses to waste time in pursuing answers that he knows that Number Six will not give, as you might expect from the broadcast order.
And then there’s the milk: the acidic, ulcerous Gordon of A, B and C continually drinks it: in The General, a milk jug makes a symbolic appearance to create a momentary allusion to the earlier-broadcast, but probably later set episode, further blurring the timeline. Uncertainty multiplies – which is only proper for the series, but it creates questions that are, literally unresolvable.
The General itself is another major point. In a series built upon futuristic aspects, the 1967 version of a supercomputer, no matter how consistent it may be with the contemporary technology, is the single most badly dated aspect of the entire series, a complete failure of foresight as to how things would develop. In a series that so successfully anticipated so many aspects of our present day, the General unfortunately yanks at our suspension of disbelief and sends it crashing to the floor.
The storyline is not without its holes, one of which appears in the opening scene: the tannoy summons’ students to a second lecture of a series for which there is already an almost 75% uptake, for which posters appear publicly around the Village, and Number Six is completely unaware of what is going on until this point? It’s highly improbable: an illogical contrivance intended to facilitate an explanation for the audience.
And later, when Number Six infiltrates the Administration building, whilst he’s clearly established as getting the relevant pass from Number Twelve, there is another improbability when he turns up in black overcoat, white gloves, black top hat and dark glasses – the Education Board uniform. How does he know what to wear? Where does he get it from? It can’t be Number Twelve, who barely had time to get him to agree to go ahead, and give him the microspore and the pass.
Ah yes, the pass. In amongst the advanced underground security of this mysterious orgamisation that has set up the Village and its surveillance/control systems, we may be forgiven for doubting our eyesight when the pass system into the Administration building appears to be a children’s toy. It’s a ‘snatch box’, a Japanese toy of the period, which McGoohan himself asked to be included. It’s undeniably cute, though its charms are exhausted on the first use. The pass – a small circular token – is placed in a slot. A lid on a box lifts very slowly, a plastic arm with a tiny gripping hand extending oh so slowly towards the token until, at the moment it grasps it, the arm shoots back out of sight and the lid slams down.
Yerrrssss.
And the ending. Number Six beats the General with the unanswerable question, ‘Why?’ It is indeed unanswerable, but it’s also very sophomorish, and something of a pseudo-impressive method of winning the game that, after the bells, whistles, smokes and explosions, looks a little unconvincing.
After my recent post about location filming, this is an instructive episode to consider. At first glance, it seems – especially in its opening sequences – to be full of external filming in Portmeriron. But it doesn’t take too much of a closer look to realise just how much of this is stock footage. The overhead shots of the Village, the shots of the helicopter criss-crossing the Village, even the ‘street scene’ showing the approach to the Administration building, are all stock or repeated footage (the last of these was originally shot for Arrival as part of the Prisoner’s first visit to the Town Hall: it’s probably a consequence of that featuring two top-hatted figures that the black uniform for the Education Board was required).
The only purpose-shot filming at Portmeirion features extras only, chasing the Professor’s double along the beach, with McGoohan’s double shot from behind in the foreground. Everything else, the beach scenes, the café, are exterior sets constructed at Borehamwood.
It’s also unfortunate that John Castle’s part should be as Number Twelve, the very next episode after The Schizoid Man. Two as-yet-undealt-with episodes had been filmed since that Number had assumed prominence: hardly enough for John Castle’s character to have become an established Village inmate, but far more plausible than the seven days that would have separated these episodes on original broadcast.
This is another factor to be considered in trying to fathom out the proper order of episodes.
Harking back to The Schizoid Man, this episode explains the then Number Two’s reference to reporting to The General, a rare example in the series of inter-episode continuity.
According to Robert Fairclough’s The Prisoner – The Original Scripts Volume 1, The General was the episode which underwent the least changes between page and performance, and indeed, except in details, Greifer has captured the entire story in his script.
One change, made on budgetary grounds, does blur the storyline: in Act 2, in the Professor’s home, the several busts uncovered by Number Six were originally to be wax effigies, which makes his subsequent decision to batter the Professor’s skull in to be far less shocking. Deduction from evidence already offered to the audience is always a better option than left-field guesswork. Admittedly, the moment offers a televisual jolt, which is usually good, but it’s at the expense of the logic, and therefore the credibility, of the story.
By the time The General and A, B and C, were finished, only two episodes of the original ‘series 1’ remained to be filmed. The next episode broadcast would be the last to be made by the original production team, and was intended to provide a pointer towards the style of ‘series 2’.But, as we know, things didn’t work out that way at all.

The Prisoner: episode 6 – The General – synopsis


Thunder crashes. The credit sequence runs. It is the same Number Two as in A, B or C but this time he says the traditional line, “The New Number Two”.
The daily helicopter flies over the Village, showing its lay-out below. Number Six is sat alone, outside a café, drinking coffee. All around him, people are talking animatedly. Number Six senses he is being watched and finds that a young, intense, dark-haired man, wearing Number Twelve, is staring at him intently.
The scene is interrupted by a tannoy announcement from ‘The General’s Department’ warning all students on the Three Part History course to return home as the next lecture from the Professor will be broadcast in thirty minutes. The crowd immediately get up and leave. The Prisoner asks the waiter for another coffee, but the café is closing, for the lecture.
Puzzled and suspicious, Number Six goes over to study a poster on a wall, showing the Professor. Under the heading  100% entry, 100% pass, it claims that Speedlearn provides a three year historical course in three minutes.
Number Twelve engages him in conversation about Speedlearn. Number Six’s only educational interest is in getting out of the Village. Number Twelve hints that he approves.
They are interrupted by the helicopter sweeping above in the direction of the beach. A man is running away with a crowd of Villagers chasing him. Number Twelve says that it is the Professor, and leaves. Intrigues, Number Six descends to the beach, intending to follow, but kicks something half-buried in the sand. It is a portable recorder and it is playing something recorded by the Professor.
Before Number Six can listen to it further, a Mini-Moke approaches. He conceals the recorder in the sand and allows the two men to give him a lift home. The Professor is caught and brought back.
In his cottage, the television is on and the lecture is about to start. The Professor is momentarily delayed and time is filled in by his wife, an anxious looking, elegantly dressed woman in her late thirties. Number Six pours himself a tomato juice and sits down to watch.
When the Professor comes on screen, he is avid with praise for the General, who has shown him the miracle of Speedlearn, a revolutionary education tool that makes teachers such as himself obsolete, and destroys the need for long, boring years of school, by impressing knowledge directly on the brain.
The ‘lecture’ is simply a close-up of a photo of the Professor, over which electronic music plays: the camera zooms in to show an intense, pin-point green light within the image.
Number Six finds he has dropped his glass, and that he feels half-hypnotised. He is then visited by Number Two (who is suave, self-confident, almost arrogant, in complete contrast to his previous appearance) and a man carrying a portable detector, who begins investigating the cottage. They are looking for the recorder: Number Two suggests that the Prisoner might be released in return for handing it over.
He then asks Number Six about the lecture, but Number Six says that history is not his subject. Number Two then fires a series of questions at him, all of which the Prisoner answers, word-perfectly, to the point where Number Two joins in and recites the answer along with him.
Number Six is shocked and disturbed. As soon as Number Two leaves, grinning smugly, he calls the operator, who answers the same questions in the exact same words.
Shortly before curfew that night, and after dark, Number Six slips out and returns to the beach. The recorder has gone, but Number Six finds Number Twelve in hiding, with the recorder. Number Twelve wants Speedlearn destroyed and wants to enlist Number Six’s assistance. Number Six makes it plain he doesn’t trust anyone but himself.
Number Twelve asks a variation on one of the standard questions, “What (not When) was the Treaty of Adrianopolis?”. Number Six answers with the date. Having made his point, Number Twelve leaves. The Prisoner plays the recorder. It has the Professor denouncing Speedlearn as an abomination.
The following morning, Number Two is found on the phone to his superior, reassuring him that all is well. As the Butler brings him a jug of milk, Number Two testily says they are conducting one of the greatest human experiments known to man, and it is being treated like a military exercise.
He is then joined by Number Twelve, reporting on the Professor’s progress. Number Twelve offers his opinion that ‘they’ are being too lenient with the Professor, that he is a crank and should be treated more sternly. Acidly, Number Two advises him to keep his opinions to himself.
In the Control Room, Number Two requires surveillance. This shows the Professor at work, typing notes that are fed into some form of duplicating machine that converts them into long metallic punch card strips. He is interrupted by a Doctor and Nurse, who sedate him so he can rest. Meanwhile, his Wife is conducting an art seminar on the garden terrace of their surprisingly a home. Number Six is present, completing a rather good, if unflattering coloured crayon portrait of the Wife, in military uniform. He challenges her about various odd activities that she interprets as creative acts. Presented with his sketch, she tears it up.
Leaving, the Prisoner sneaks into the house, whose curtains are all fully drawn. He finds it well-appointed, full of art, including a room of busts, covered by dust sheets. The Wife finds him there and orders him to leave, but Number Six ignores her and starts removing the dust covers, whilst questioning her about their position here and the Professor’s health. The busts include that of Number Two from The Chimes of Big Ben, another of the current Number Two, and, as Number Six talks about wanting to meet the General, a prominent one of himself. It is implied that the Wife is the sculptor.
Number Two, still urbane and smiling, emerges from an inner room, where the Professor is asleep in bed, under the charge of the Doctor and Nurse. Number Six is unconvinced: he uses a walking stick to smash the Professor’s skull, showing it to be a wax effigy.
Number Two advises that the offer of release is no longer available. Number Six tosses him the recorder.
That night, when he returns to his cottage, the electricity shorts out. An electrician is dispatched to fix this and finds a deliberate short-circuit. A member of Administration – Number Twelve – also arrives, threatening him with action over sabotage. It is, however, a ruse to enable him to speak to Number Six without surveillance. He asks if Number Six wants the Professor’s lecture from the recorder broadcast. Warily, the Prisoner agrees. Number Twelve gives him a biro pen concealing a micro-spore recording, and tells him to go to Administration tomorrow.
The next morning, the Education Committee gathers at the Administration building. All wear black overcoats and top hats, with dark glasses. Number Six is among them. He uses the pass given him by Number Twelve to enter the building but avoids the Boardroom, where Number Two is outlining the importance of Speedlearn. He finds his way to the Projection Room, where the operator has just loaded the official micro-spore into a gyroscope-like piece of equipment called the Simulator. Number Six knocks out the operator, who stabs him in the arm, and replaces the micro-spore.
Final checks are being carried out from the Boardroom. The blood on Number Six’s arm gives him away and Number Two recognises him. He is knocked out, and the original broadcast goes out.
Number Six is interrogated by Number Twelve over who he is working with, but Number Two knows he will not reveal anything. Instead, he proposes to find the truth via the General. Given the facts, the General can answer any question.
They march to the General’s office. Inside, the Professor is silently typing notes. At Number Two’s request, he types out various points, including the facts that passes are issued by the Administration Department and Number Twelve works in Administration.
The sheet of paper is fed into the duplicator, which disgorges a punch card strip. The Professor takes this and crosses the room. A curtain slides back to reveal the General.
The General is a massive computer, taking up one whole wall of the office.
Number Six interrupts, saying he has a question the General cannot answer. Number Two is suspicious, but allows it to go ahead. Number Six types four characters onto a sheet of paper. This is turned into a punch card and fed into the computer by the Professor.
Immediately, the computer starts to overheat. The Professor anxiously adjusts dials and switches, but to no avail. Number Two orders him to shut it down, but he cannot. Suddenly, he is paralysed by an electric charge. Number Twelve rushes forward to help him, but is similarly electrocuted. When the computer explodes, both are thrown clear, dead.
An aghast Number Two demands to know Number Six’s question. It is the unanswerable question, “Why?”
The final scene is on the garden terrace. The Professor’s Wife is waiting, anxiously. She reacts fearfully when she sees Number Six approach, and sits down. We are too far away to hear what he says. She lowers her head and he leaves.