His Favourite Tool

Gene Wolfe: Straw – A review

Straw is a piece of speculative fiction much in the same vein as other Wolfe-stories, that is to say, a short story that is fun to re-read and puzzle over.

In Straw, we are told of a past adventure by Jerr, the narrator, once a novice mercenary who travelled in search of employ and straw with his companions, the ‘Faithful Five’ in search of straw and employ. These mercenaries are floating swords, soldiers who travel in straw-fuelled hot-air balloons; this particular squad chances upon a settlement and a job opportunity when they run out of straw to keep their balloon afloat and are greeted by the local Baron after their almost-crash landing.

This short story is set in an approximate late-medieval or early renaissance world, that developed technologies further or earlier that could have potentially been realised with then present craftsmanship, like hot-air balloons and spring-powered projectile - and melee-weapons . The Faithful Five, who use all these inventions are airborne swords for hire – Miles is the captain of Jerr, Derek, Clow and the single female mercenary of the squad, Bracata. After running out of fuel, they meet Baron Ascolot near his mansion and are invited to spend the night and share a meal there. Unbeknowst to Jerr, Miles negotiates a contract with Baron Ascolot for the defense of the mansion against an advancing unknown enemy force.

Although the story is told to the audience by an older Jerr, much of the happenings in it must be inferred from what is told, since Jerr is an unreliable narrator who tells the story from his own perspective, much like an ordinary person would; the same goes for the relationships between the characters – the reader can only speculate why Jerr is not afraid of Clow when the formidable Bracata is, and why Jerr thinks she does not care for him when there are indications that she actually harbours feelings for him.

The main theme of this story might be soldiering, or even what a novice’s experience in their craft can be like; it might also be how perspective can influence the perception of certain events . In any case, Wolfe throws the reader scraps of seemingly straight-forward information that can be deciphered for additional layers of significance.

Wolfe’s target audience clearly are readers who enjoy chewing on information for a while before swallowing it; those who read Straw as a straight-forward tale may not find it to be special or thought-provoking in any way whatsoever. If one is of the mind to think further on what is told, Straw is great fun – how, for instance, is it that one can infer that Straw’s world is approximately late medieval or early renaissance? Why does Baron Ascolon insist there is now straw at his mansion when his stables are laden with it?

Straw is speculative fiction not only for inserting future technologies into a past time period and asking what would happen, but also in asking the reader to speculate themselves. This is the aspect I personally enjoy most about Wolfe’s stories. He creates interesting settings and leaves the readers to explore them with their own imagination. His favourite tool appears to be the unreliable narrator, in this case someone who simply is a novice and not too mature, an experience I am sure we all can relate to.

All in all, this story is a recommended read to get into the world of Wolfe’s fiction; the hurdle to enjoying it is not as high as in some of his other early works and the language used is fairly simple; that said, Straw still is a typical Wolfe-story that encourages re-reading and using your own imagination.