Meta: isfdb. This only 5 pages long SF short story by Gene Wolfe was published 1971 in Damon Knight’s Orbit 9.
An unnamed puppet player visits planet Sarg for a few days, where he wants to learn from a master player called Stromboli. Their marionettes are life size and don’t have threads but are remotely controlled. He lives there with the master and his wife. He is transported back to the spaceport by Lili, an attractive woman he’s never seen before. Lili tells him of her relationship to Stromboli and even tries to seduce him. But the unnamed narrator winds out of the offer after he sees that Lili is a puppet: “the delicately tinted cheeks beneath the cosmetics showed craquelure”. Finally arriving at the spaceport, he meets Stromboli’s most famous puppet Zanni, a comic butler which brings him a lost pair of shoes.
Which of the persons are dolls and which are real humans? The question reflects Wolfe’s basic task to uncover humanity. The answer is simple for a couple of actors – Zanni and Lili are obviously puppets. But who is the puppet player? I found a very interesting article discovering the fact that Antonio – a helping hand of Stromboli – is in fact the player. As usual with Gene Wolfe, names are most important: This Antonio is from planet Sarg, i.e. Tony Sarg who was a famous German American puppet master. Other roles are uncovered in the WolfeWiki.
Setting aside those riddles, I found the story nicely told, noting especially the prose. In only five pages, Wolfe builds an interesting relation, and a small world.