In Looking-Glass Castle


Wolfe's Comments from the Introduction to Storeys from the Old Hotel

"'In Looking-Glass Castle' harks back to one of the earliest science-fiction ideas: the human society modeled on that of bees or ants. It got me an unasked-for grant from the Illinois Arts Council, the only grant I've ever received."

Wolfe's Comments from the Introduction to Top Science Fiction: The Authors' Choice edited by Josh Pachter.

In Looking-Glass Castle

By Gene Wolfe

I wrote this story in 1979, after my agent, Virginia Kidd, told me that TriQuarterly, Northwestern University's literary magazine, planned to devote an entire issue to science fiction—an issue to be edited by David G. Hartwell, my editor at Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books. That news made me stop work on the novel I had been tinkering with, and start trying to dream up something that would make Hartwell proud of me.

Joanna Russ and Alice Sheldon (the latter writing as 'James Tiptree, Jr.') had recently done stories about societies populated entirely by women, but it struck me that I had never read such a story written by a man. I decided to be the man to do it, and laid my story in Florida, near the spaceport at Cape Canaveral, an area I had recently visited. My central character would be a visitor, too, and thus able to see the place with fresh eyes; obviously, then, an engineer or scientist of some sort, coming to work at the Cape.

I visualized the woman as being serious, intellectual, vulnerable (as all intellectuals must be), neither unattractive nor particularly attractive. When I saw her at her desk, pushing buttons on the computer terminal, scribbling a few notes, chewing her pencil and pushing buttons again, I knew she was a mathematician—mainly concerned with set theory, I think. She could not possibly have been anything else.

As things turned out, Hartwell liked the story, and TriQuarterly paid a respectable, though not a lavish, price for it. The special issue, Number 49, was published as planned, and was indeed the stellar production intended. There were stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, Thomas M. Disch and Samuel R. Delany: middle-initial writers whose places in the front rank are unquestioned. But most of the critical attention was directed—and rightly so, I think—towards 'Paradise Charted', a penetrating analytical and historical essay by my friend Algis Budrys.

Ordinarily, that would be the end of this story, and it would now be time for you to begin reading the real one. Issues like TriQuarterly 49 and stories like 'In Looking-Glass Castle' cause a stir for a while—about a year, if you are very lucky—and then are forgotten. The time when the reading public could become and remain excited by stories and issues is, unhappily, long past.

But one day in 1981, as I was going through my mail, cursing as is my wont and flinging things into the very tall wastebaskets our post office provides for that purpose, I stopped in mid-fling. The envelope I had so nearly cast away carried the return address of the Illinois Arts Council and, though I was nearly certain it was a request for a donation, I paused to rip it open, 'In Looking-Glass Castle' had brought me a grant from the People of the State of Illinois (which is where I live). And since that is the only such grant I have ever received, I treasure its memory.


In a future all-female society, a space-programme mathematician moves into a house in Florida to find that a man is hiding there. She takes up a post on board the seaboat supporting the mission, only to find that the man has stowed away on it.


  • The title seems likely to refer to Through the Looking-Glass, as there's an internal reference to the White Queen from that book. Robert Borski developed an interesting theory relating Daisy to the White Queen living backwards, which can be found in the URTH Archives.
  • It's possible that the man doesn't actually exist and is just the product of Daisy's frustrations, as no one else ever sees him, notably the police who search her home. Some possible corroboration of this theory is that the candy laced with rat poison remains uneaten.
  • There is a possible parallel to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer, in which a ship's captain hides a fugitive in his cabin.
  • "Go to the old, gray window-maker" is a misquotation from Rudyard Kipling's 'Harp Song of the Dane Women': in the women's society the word "widow" no longer exists.
  • Frances Alda was an opera singer.
  • Borski theorizes that Daisy's supervisor, Dr. Edith Berg, is a reference to Alban Berg, who composed Wozzeck, an opera in which the title character suffers from hallucinations and ends up drowned.
  • The Cradle of the Deep is by Joan Lowell.
  • There is a diagram at the beginning of Through the Looking Glass that relates various characters in that book to chess pieces:
TweedledeeDaisyHumpty DumptyDaisy
W. QueenLilyR. QueenTiger-Lily
W. KingFawnR. KingRose
Aged ManOysterCrowOyster
W. KnightHattaR. KnightFrog
  • "Daisy" appears as a pawn four times, as does "Oyster" (related to the name "Pearl" in the story and connected to the fat, over-eating Walrus). The white Daisy pawns are in front of rooks Tweedledum and Tweedledee. This suggests that Daisy is one of a set of clones herself, as Pearl IV was. The mishearing of "the cistern got her" as "her sisters got her" may show that Daisy is afraid of her sister clones, or of her society in general.
  • The character name Char Cavallo = "black knight".
  • One of the man's gifts to Daisy is Pillow Problems, a book of mathematical puzzles which is also by Lewis Carroll.
  • When Daisy first sees the man, he is eating strawberry preserves, but she doesn't join him. This recalls the White Queen's rule: "The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday -- but never jam to-day." Queens are bees that are fed only royal jelly in their early development.
  • Bee queens are the only ones that mate with the male drones. Daisy, a worker bee, has the opportunity to become a queen bee when she meets the fugitive. In chess terms, she is a pawn to has a chance to reach the castle (the eighth rank) and become a chess Queen, associated with the King. But because of her social conditioning against men this never comes to pass.
  • Which of the four pawns is the Daisy of this story? The most interesting possibility is the Red King Rook's pawn, which starts in front of the Lion. The fugitive man has long black hair and a beard, giving him a lion's mane. The lion is a symbol of Christ, as in the "Lion of the Tribe of Judah." He offers to stay out of her way if she choses to believe he isn't there.
  • The nursery rhyme The Lion and the Unicorn relates to the joining of the English and Scottish coats of arms when James I became joint king of England and Scotland. "The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown..." is quoted in "Through the Looking-Glass" and by Wolfe in the story The Woman the Unicorn Loved. According to that story, unicorns are symbols of masculine purity.
  • Hidden in the bookshelf were two books written by men: The Collected Short Fiction of Guy de Maupassant and Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis and Other Stories.
    • In the Metamorphosis book there is another story, In the Penal Colony. (Starting the title of this story with the word "in" may not be a coincidence). It tells of a hideous torture machine that kills by inscribing words in its victim over and over. This parallels the fascist feminist society in this story, which punishes any toleration of men. In Kafka's story the machine breaks down while killing the officer who was the strongest advocate for its use. The society of this future America is breaking down also, with the population dwindling and being replaced only by clones.
    • The Guy de Maupassant story that seems most relevant is Mademoiselle Pearl, in which an old maid chosen as Queen for Twelfth Night is revealed to be the secret love of the husband of the family, a love that was never openly acknowledged by either person. The Pearl in that story didn't kill herself, but she buried her appearance with an unattractive hairstyle and clothing.
  • "In Looking-Glass Castle" is a strange love story. The former inhabitant of the house, Jane, probably fell in love with the hidden man and drowned herself because her society would not tolerate this. Daisy is possibly headed for a similar fate. The man woos Daisy with gifts, but she runs away to sea. But like the Red Queen, she runs as fast as she can to stay in the same place. The man (or a hallucination of him) follows her. It seems likely that she will drown herself at sea, because she cannot escape any other way.

Unresolved Questions

  • Is the man a figment of Daisy's imagination?
  • The man says he killed Daisy's predecessor "indirectly and unintentionally" -- what is he hinting at?

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