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TAC Bookshelf: Dialing H-E-L-P for God

Here's what our writers and editors are reading this week.
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Emile Doak, director of development: Quarantine has forced us all to find creative ways to connect. So recently, my college friends and I decided to meet over Zoom to discuss a different short story each week. It’s allowed us to “see” those who have moved away, and also introduced me to writers I otherwise would have overlooked.

One such story is “Westwind,” by American science fiction author Gene Wolfe. I am no science fiction fan. But I make an exception for “Westwind,” for its themes are decidedly human. The story centers on a seedy inn, whose proprietor, a “lame old woman,” initially denies a room to a young man with a scar on his face. We soon meet another character, a blind woman, who is also looking for a room.

Lingering over the story is the presence of “the ruler.” We first meet him through a “magic portal” on the wall of the bar at the inn, where we’re told he is “fatherly.” Later, the blind girl says of the ruler to the young man, “He loves everyone. When we say that, it sounds like we’re saying he loves no one, but that’s not true. He loves everyone.” The young man replies, “Yes, but he loves Westwind the best.”

The short story concludes with the revelation that all three characters—the lame old woman, the young man, and the blind girl—each think of themselves as Westwind. They use a “communicator” to dial up the ruler, each reporting in as “This is Westwind.”

It’s here that the author’s background becomes relevant: Gene Wolfe was a Catholic and his faith was a strong influence throughout his work. So through this lens, is the “ruler” meant to be God? And if so, what is Wolfe saying about His nature? The seeming paradox of a God whose love is universal yet particular has prompted centuries of theological inquiry. The quirky, futuristic style of “Westwind” brings a whole new perspective to this paradox. Depicting God as a sort of secular “ruler,” whom a select few can dial up on an electronic “communicator,” is certainly strange. But in a way, it’s also strangely clarifying.

At the end of his nightly check-in, the last thing the ruler tells the young man is, “Just don’t pawn your communicator.” Perhaps that’s Wolfe’s message: God just wants to know us. Whatever the takeaway, “Westwind” far surpasses the superficiality I typically (wrongly?) ascribe to its genre.



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