Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520
Richly symbolic, allusive, and very literately written, this novella explores boundaries and borderlines: reality versus imagination or dream, free will versus fate, freedom versus constraint, lawfulness versus crime, human versus nonhuman, past versus future, childhood versus adulthood, and self versus other. The novellas most pervasive symbol among its many, the mirror, expresses several of these themes.
The fathers library, prohibited to the narrator, is mirrored by the public library, which allows free access. Its main central spiral ramp ascends to a magically suspended dome, suggesting the imaginative power of knowledge and the dome in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816). The “helix” housing the collection, which the narrator loves to climb and explore, suggests the upward spiral of knowledge and the basis of human life, DNA. The fathers laboratory is concealed behind the wall mirror of his library, in the same way that his motivations and cloning are concealed from the narrator. The viewplate image on the head of Mr. Million seems a mirror reflection of the father and the narrator, though it is actually the great-grandfather. The mirror in the slave warehouse invites the criminals to consider who they are and what they are doing, as well as later providing a weapon to kill a deformed mirror image of the narrator. The brothel, also nicknamed “Cave Canem” (referring to the Cerberus statue), is pervaded by spotted mirrors, reflecting the narrators central problem of finding out who he is. Even the costumes of the demimondaines or protegées, among the euphemisms that conceal the prostitutes identity, contain mirror surfaces, said to resemble the natural planetary mirrors of bodies of still water.
Even the twin-system planets of Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix are virtually mirror images, related to the issue of whether the inhabitants of the latter are human or “abo” (alien aborigine). Earth anthropologist John Marsch, on Sainte Croix to investigate the matter of abos, is accused by the narrator of being an abo impersonating a human from Earth.
The enigma of identity, particularly the narrators, is reflected in Sainte Croix, which has some affinities with early New Orleans and a history that in some respects mirrors that of its namesake in the Virgin Islands, with ironic comment on the narrators brothel. A mixture of eighteenth and nineteenth century anachronisms (sedan chairs, slave markets, multimasted sailing ships, ships towed from the harbor by oxen, and lamplighters) and the future (robots with one billion synapses, starcrosser spacecraft, holographs, an antigravity prosthesis for the narrators aunt, and cloning) create a disorientation in the reader that echoes that of the narrator. Balanced against such contemporary allusions as Gene Wolfes references to fellow science-fiction writers Vernor Vinge and Kate Wilhelm, the author of the astronautics text The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963), are allusions to classical literature and myth, including the character names of Aunt Urania, Phaedria, and Nerissa, as well as Davids panpipes. This combination of elements from different times ultimately suggests not only the problem of orientation but also the conflict of cyclicality versus linear advance, or whether, as humanity journeys into the far reaches of space and time, it will advance or merely duplicate its history.
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