It is perhaps in keeping with the spirit of his elusive prose and plots that the death of acclaimed science fiction and fantasy (SF&F) writer Gene Wolfe should pass with nary a whisper in the media, even in today’s environment where geek culture has gone mainstream.
That’s because, despite having written more than 30 books that have garnered numerous awards and accolades, he was a relative unknown within the wider SF&F fandom.
He was more a darling of the critics and his fellow writers, with Neil Gaiman and the late Ursula K. LeGuin citing him as an inspiration.
In fact, LeGuin once described Wolfe as SF&F’s Herman Melville (of Moby Dick fame), his dense and layered works making re-reads a must and a pleasure. A true “writer’s writer” in a field that sometimes lacks genuine literary lustre.
His Book Of The New Sun five-volume series is as much a genre icon as Frank Herbert’s Dune and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation.
Washington Post Pulitzer-winning literary critic Michael Dirda described it as “the greatest fantasy novel written by an American”, while LeGuin said it is “a major landmark of contemporary American literature”.
The books in the sequence are Shadow Of The Torturer, The Claw Of The Conciliator, The Sword Of The Lictor and The Citadel Of The Autarch published from 1980 to 1983, which make up the original tetralogy. The coda, The Urth Of The New Sun, was released in 1987.
They have collectively won British Science Fiction, World Fantasy, British Fantasy, Locus, Nebula, and Campbell Memorial awards.
In a 1998 poll, the readers of Locus magazine ranked the series No.3 in a poll of the best fantasy novels published before 1990, behind only J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit.
Wolfe himself won the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. He was also inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2007, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named him its 29th SFWA Grand Master in 2012.
Wolfe died in his home in Peoria, Illinois, on April 14 from cardiovascular disease. He was 87.
His early personal life gave no indication that he would make such a mark on the literary world … well, except for a short story published in his university’s literary journal.
He served in the Korean War, returned to the United States to pursue a degree in industrial engineering, and was part of the team that came up with the machine that made Pringles potato chips. (It was often said that he came up with the technique that made it possible to put the crinkles in those chips.)
Then he turned to full-time writing. His early books, Operation Ares (1970) and The Fifth Head Of Cerberus (1972), were easily classified as “science fiction”.
But he was at his best when he blended genres or just plain subverted them. He could lead you down the path of psychological horror, then with a twist, transform the story into science fiction-tinged fantasy, as he did with There Are Doors (1988), nominated for a Locus award.
Indeed, while many classify the New Sun books as fantasy, a closer reading shows otherwise. Just about all the fantastical elements have a science-based, underlying logic – if you can accept time and dimensional travel, that is.
Despite all this, he remained a relative unknown. Of the few who have heard of him, even fewer have actually read his works. That’s not surprising, because his books are difficult to read and parse. Wolfe is one of those writers who delight in challenging their readers and making them work.
The protagonist in the New Sun books is Severian, who starts off as a torturer on the planet “Urth”, is kicked out by his order, wanders the strange land of this far-future time, becomes the ruler of the world, and finally saves it from its dying sun by bringing in a new star from some other cosmos.
That plot synopsis makes it sound like a typical combination of space opera and planetary fantasy, but it is far from it. It’s a science fiction book served in a fantasy setting, and pulled off the way only Wolfe can.
The New Sun books are rife with Catholic symbolism that adds depth if you’re familiar with it. Don’t worry if you are not – it is a profound enough work on its own.
Wolfe uses obscure, archaic “olde English” words. There is no glossary – but he uses these words so evocatively that the reader gets a sense of their meaning anyway.
And he delights in messing with the reader’s peace of mind. Memory and truth can be quite chimerical, amorphous literary devices in Wolfe’s hands.
Severian of the New Sun series claims to have a perfect memory, but the astute reader will notice inconsistencies in his narration.
In Wolfe’s other famous series – Soldier Of The Mist (1986) and its two sequels, Soldier Of Arete (1989) and Soldier Of Sidon (2006) – the narrator is a Roman mercenary called Latro who is injured in battle.
He suffers from anterograde amnesia – where you can’t form new memories, as seen in movies like Christopher Nolan’s 2000 masterpiece Memento and the awful Adam Sandler vehicle from 2004, 50 First Dates.
Latro has to carefully write down what he needs to remember, and reads his diary every morning to catch up on his own life. There are gaps and sudden shifts in the narrative because he can’t record everything.
In terms of the reader experience, it feels like trying to put together the pieces of a fast-fading dream in those first few moments after you wake up.
The dream-like quality is further driven by sequences in which the gods seem to speak to Latro, but the reader is never sure if this is even “real” within the setting, or whether his head injury is producing hallucinations.
No wonder then that The New Yorker, in a 2015 interview, described Wolfe as “Sci-Fi’s Difficult Genius”.
But the pay-off is tremendous, as noted by Gaiman of Sandman and American Gods fame in writing about Wolfe in The Guardian in 2011: “He’s the finest living male American writer of SF and fantasy – possibly the finest living American writer.
“Most people haven’t heard of him. And that doesn’t bother Gene (Wolfe) in the slightest. He just gets on with writing the next book.”