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But though Operation ARES is set sufficiently far in the future that the USA has colonised Mars and withdrawn support for it for twenty years, it is indelibly enmeshed in the politics of its time.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.