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Gene Wolfe: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted July 27, 2000, with multiple later edits

RIP: Gene Wolfe, 1931-2019

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Born in New York, raised in Texas, Gene Rodman Wolfe lived the majority of his later life in a suburb north of Chicago. He was a Korean War veteran and a graduate of the University of Houston with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. For many years he was editor of the trade periodical Plant Engineering, retiring from that position in 1984 and writing full-time since. With these credentials one might expect Wolfe to be among the leaders of the Hard-SF league, but almost the exact opposite is true. His work boasts some of the most poetic, but at the same time cryptic, use of the English language, both modern and archaic, and the closest literary models I can think of with which to compare him would be James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon, with a little bit of Proust thrown in for good measure. I consider him to be the best writer I have read. That does not mean he has written what I consider the best book I've ever read - that would be Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. Nor is he the most fun to read and reread - that would be most anything by Robert A. Heinlein. Wolfe is, however, consistently satisfying and challenging (and at times the most puzzling and frustrating), but most definitely the greatest literary stylist I have ever read.

Gene Wolfe was the recipient of the 2012 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award.

"Though neither the most popular nor the most influential author in the sf field, Gene Wolfe is today quite possibly the most important. The inherent stature of his work is deeply impressive and he wears the fictional worlds of sf like a coat of many colors." - [John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction]

Wolfe began writing short stories early, sometime in the early '50s, but his first professional publication did not come until 1965, a situation which should be encouraging to any hopeful writer. Once his career was established he became one of the most prolific writers in the genre, with 30 novels and nearly 200 short stories to his credit at last count. His personal writing regimen included two hours every morning before going to his engineering or editing job, and one hour in the evening proofreading and editing that morning's work. Wolfe also credited his first real editor, Damon Knight, and his agent, Virginia Kidd - both SF writers in their own right - with helping shape his style and perfect his craft. Other than these two mentors he had no formal writing education even though he has taught creative writing courses himself on several occasions.

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The best of his early work often appeared in Knight's Orbit, an annual series of original anthologies. His first novel, 1970's Operation ARES, proved to be an inauspicious debut due to the extensive editing imposed by the publisher, and it bore little evidence of the strengths his later work would exhibit. His next book, 1972's The Fifth Head of Cerberus more than made up for the deficiencies of the former however. It is actually a series of three linked novellas, each telling a related tale from a different character's perspective, but all exploring the major themes of identity and memory which Wolfe would return to again and again throughout his career.

The title story of this book is still my favorite short fiction of any genre after nearly thirty-five years of additional reading. It is a tale related in first person by a young man living on a distant world of a two-planet system. We slowly come to realize he is a clone, possibly only one of many, of his "father," whom he kills and, after serving time for the murder, whose work he attempts to recreate. It ends with the most haunting and (still to this day) puzzling line of fiction I have ever read. The second tale of the book ("A Story" by John V. Marsch) concerns the shape-shifting aboriginal culture native to the second world in the system, who may or may not have killed all of the human explorers on their world. The third (V.R.T.) tells of an anthropologist who returns to the first world to present his theory which postulates that the aborigines have recreated themselves in the image of humanity in order to expiate their guilt for the genocide of the colonists, although in retrospect it is still possible to assume it is the aborigines who were completely destroyed. One further possibility is that the anthropologist is himself an aborigine.

"It was the first significant demonstration of the great difficulty of reading Gene Wolfe without constant attention to the almost subliminal - but in retrospect or after re-reading almost invariably lucid and inevitable - clues laid down in the text to govern its comprehension." - John Clute

During the 1970s Gene Wolfe, with the possible exception of James Tiptree Jr., was the most prolific short story writer in all of SF, with work appearing in every genre magazine and original anthology series imaginable. He has always exhibited a predilection for groups of stories that mirror each other both structurally and thematically, as witnessed by the aforementioned The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Another such series, again with the question of identity as its major concern and utilizing islands as the unifying metaphor, is known collectively as the Wolfe Archipelago. Although each story is fully autonomous and had seen publication separately in differing venues it is obvious there was a conscious intent for them to be viewed as parts of a whole. In "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" a young boy retreats from the reality of a harsh adult world into an imagined one engendered by the stories he reads in a pulp magazine. "The Death of Dr. Island" relates the psychological treatment of a disturbed child who is confined to an artificial environment which responds to his state of mind. The protagonist of "The Doctor of Death Island," a cryonically frozen prisoner who awakes to the realization of not only his isolation but also his seeming immortality, perhaps is the same character as in the first two stories, although with Wolfe nothing is ever certain.

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Original to this collection was "The Death of the Island Doctor." This book is no longer in print, in fact I have never seen a copy of it (except on Ebay at exhorbitant prices), but another Wolfe collection entitled The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories was subsequently published which includes the first three of this series along with eleven other unrelated stories. "The Death of the Island Doctor" appears in Storeys from the Old Hotel. Other great collections of Wolfe's shorter works are Endangered Species, and Castle of Days, which is a compilation of two previously published collections, Gene Wolfe's Book of Days (stories written around the themes of major holidays) and The Castle of the Otter (more on this one later), along with a third section of essays on writers and writing. Another collection, Strange Travelers, is a more recent publication. [Update: Since I first wrote this article there have been several other collections published - Innocents Aboard, Starwater Strains and The Best of Gene Wolfe.]

It would be a pointless task to attempt to identify Wolfe's best written work - I am tempted to say whichever of his books I happen to be reading at the time. Perhaps for the average reader his most accessible is The Devil in a Forest from 1976, which contains minimal fantastic elements. It is essentially a juvenile tale, set in medieval England, and one of the main characters is possibly the forerunner of the Robin Hood myth. 1975's Peace is perhaps his most personal and intricate story, and at times the most frustrating. Throughout the book the narrator - who on my second reading I realized is speaking to us from beyond the grave - quite often leaves you hanging in anticpation of promised revelations, only to drop them inexplicably and not return to them for many chapters. There are also passages that might at first be difficult to distinguish between the ravings of a senile old man, the revelations of dreams, or quite possibly the realization that ghosts and other fairy-like spirits actually exist in his reality. Wolfe first and foremost is an artist at word-play and names, and he is at times purposefully a trickster. He is a master at unobtrusively inserting hints throughout his works which in retrospect one wonders why they initially went unnoticed. In a review of Wolfe's On Blue's Waters, John Clute described him thus: "...an author who has never in his life told a straightforward tale, an author who has never in his life published an inadvertent word."

Sometime around 1975, Wolfe began writing a story with the working title of "The Feast of Saint Catherine." He had every belief and intention that it would be an approximately 30,000 word novella and hoped to place it with Damon Knight for one of his Orbit anthologies. It was to be the tale of an apprentice in the guild of torturers known as the Seekers for Truth and Penitence in a society of Earth's far future. His destiny would revolve around the life and death of a noblewoman consigned to the prison to which he is stationed. He falls in love with her, and against his better judgement and the rules of the guild, succumbs to her pleas for the means of suicide. As the story was nearing completion, Wolfe was faced with a dilemma. Not only did portions of the plot present some difficulties for resolution, he felt the fictional world he had created deserved a more extended treatment. He decided to expand it to novel length, but Wolfe was not the first writer to discover that at times stories have a way of writing themselves. After more than 150,000 words he was forced to conclude the story demanded to be a trilogy.

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As fate would have it, what eventually became known as The Book of the New Sun turned out to be a tetralogy, four volumes published separately over a three year period beginning in 1980 and totaling nearly half a million words. The individual titles are The Shadow of the Torturer & The Claw of the Conciliator (currently in print collectively as Shadow and Claw), and The Sword of the Lictor & The Citadel of the Autarch (Sword and Citadel). The copies I have are older book club editions no longer available, and unfortunately even the one-volume omnibus recently offered by the Science Fiction Book Club is also not available at this time, although you could probably find it used on Ebay. [Update: UK publishers Gollancz SF have released all four in one volume, entitled Severian of the Guild, and it is availble from amazon.co.uk and from international sellers on Ebay.]

The tale is narrated by the torturer Severian, who is exiled from his guild for his crime but given the assignment of Lictor, or executioner, for the town of Thrax some hundreds of miles north of the Citadel of Nessus where the story begins. Along the way he meets a host of intriguing characters, some of whom we later discover to be part of his family - we are earlier led to believe he is an orphan. Severian is plagued with an eidetic memory, and thus we are privy to his every thought and feeling and witness to every sight and sound along his journey. One aspect of the tale that is not as evident is the fact that Severian is quite capable of lying. At first glance, and perhaps even on first reading, it would be easy to classify this work as one of heroic fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien, Eddison, or Peake, but make no mistake about this, it is science fiction. Careful study of the text reveals many clues that tell us this story takes place many years, possibly a million, into our future. This is Earth, not an imagined planet light-years distant, only in Severian's time it is known as Urth. The action takes place in what is in our time South America. There are many mentions of technologies of which Severian at first is not knowledgeable, or at least that is what we are led to believe. The noble class has access to flying machines, genetic engineering has coupled the strains of both terrestrial and off-world species into new creations, and intelligent alien beings are so commonplace Severian barely deigns to mention them. One of Severian's main allies turns out to be a robotic construct, part of whose body has been damaged in an accident and replaced with a fleshy equivalent, sort of a reverse cyborg if you will. It was not until my second reading, and after mention of it in a review by Algis Budrys, that I became aware that the Matachin Tower in which Severian has spent the majority of his early years is actually the remnants of an ancient spaceship.

I could devote many more pages to this subject, citing many incidents and describing many of the characters, and still the complexities and intricacies of the plot would not be exhausted. I can not stress strongly enough how awe-engendering I feel this work to be. I have read the whole series four times so far and I know I will return to it again, and I haven't even mentioned Wolfe's afterthought on the subject, 1987's The Urth of the New Sun, which is another 130,000 word novel with the prospect of even further works to come. [Clarification: I reread each book in preparation for the next in the series, so really I have only read Shadow of the Torturer that many times, and the subsequent volumes once less in sequence.] For now a quote from Algis Budry's review of the second volume of the series, published in the June, 1981 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, would seem to be in order.

"As a piece of literature, this work is simply overwhelming. And mind you, as craftmanship and as literature, what we're talking about are attributes that are world-class as prose, not 'just' as SF; we are in no further need of proof that 'genre' SF is not essentially limited to genre standards. There's no question any longer but that all we were waiting for was practitioners smart enough and gifted enough."

In April of 1981, shortly after the publication of the second part of the saga, The Claw of the Conciliator, a news column in Locus, a small circulation magazine devoted to SF news and criticism, reported that Wolfe had just delivered the third volume, The Sword of the Lictor, to the publisher and was feverishly editing the fourth and final book, The Castle of the Otter. Of course this was an incorrect title and the following month a retraction was issued (still wrong though; this time the title was listed as The Castle of the Autarch). Wolfe, player with words that he is, was intrigued by the title as originally reported. Naturally he had made and kept copious notes and outlines in order to better organize and control the expanding plot, and since he had already been approached with demands for background information on his writing habits and the creation of this story, he decided to produce a book of essays devoted to the genesis and evolution of Severian's tale. The Castle of the Otter: A Book About the Book of the New Sun was completed in 1982 but not published until the following year after the fourth volume, The Citadel of the Autarch, had been released.

Two of the more rewarding essays offered were Words Weird and Wonderful, a glossary of the obscure and archaic words utilized (many of which a lot of readers had assumed to be Wolfe's fabrications), and Onomastics - The Study of Names. Also clearly deliniated was the history of the writing itself. Wolfe, along with his agent Virginia Kidd and editor David G. Hartwell, had been accused of having the series in total completion before publication commenced, and thus manipulating the release schedule for maximum monetary returns. Wolfe reports, though, that he had the four volumes completed in second draft only before he went back to the first book and gave it its final polish. This was done in order for all the intricacies of the plot to work out to his satisfaction in the final book. One of the most amazing aspects about the whole ordeal is the confidence shown in Wolfe's ability to "deliver the goods" by both Kidd and Hartwell. Contracts for the tetralogy and a short story collection were signed by all parties before either agent, editor, or publisher had read one word of the work in question.

I hope I have been able to convey just a hint of the grandeur and majesty of this masterwork Wolfe has created. I would be remiss, however, if I left you with the impression that his is a completely original concept. The astute reader may be able to notice echoes of other writers and ideas that Wolfe has assimilated and transmogrified into his futuristic narrative. I do not think it would be spoiling the effect intended if I reveal to you that Severian ends his travail by being crowned the new Autarch, the supreme monarch of the Commonwealth, nor that this is a destiny of which he seemed to be aware all along. As I have read the saga multiple times, along with all of the appendices and as many reviews and analyses as I have been able to find, I now know that Severian had provided many clues as to this outcome if only I had been intelligent enough to have noticed them originally.

One of the major influences on Wolfe's life and his writing is his Catholic faith, so it is fitting that Severian in no small way can be construed to be a Christ-like figure, whose return to the power and glory of the throne was foretold by the ancients. The new sun of the story is a physical manifestation, not just a figurative and spiritual concept, however. It is a white dwarf star whose close passage to the Urth will bring both cataclysm and rebirth, not only to those who survive the upheaval it will bring, but also to our slowly dying sun. As the fourth volume closes, Severian is preparing for the ordeal to come; a space voyage to capture that awesome power and return with it to The Urth of the New Sun.

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Only time will tell, but it is quite possible Gene Wolfe has already written his greatest masterpiece, the work that will always be regarded as the pinnacle of his career, that being The Book of the New Sun. Using that as a benchmark, it was inevitable his other novels of the '80s and '90s would suffer in comparison, which means they are merely very good novels, on a level of sophistication equal to any of the rest of the genre. This is equivalent to comparing the films "Citizen Kane" and "Casablanca." The former is almost universally praised as a masterpiece and the greatest film ever made, whereas the other is "merely" one of the most entertaining and beloved films Hollywood has ever produced.

A long-time reader of genre SF himself, Wolfe also has a definite interest in its sister genre Fantasy. Other than the capstone of the Severian saga, The Urth of the New Sun, and the four volume series known as The Book of the Long Sun, the only other one of his novels of this period that could in any way be described as science fiction is Free Live Free. It is a complex time-travel tale which, since I have only read it once, I will not attempt to relate as I am sure I was not able to decipher all of its various meanings. For example, John Clute's article on Wolfe in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes it as a retelling of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a novel which I did not think of once while reading. What I did think of was the fabled "Philadelphia Experiment" of World War 2, wherein SF authors Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp, working in research and design at the Naval Air Experimental Station, were rumored - erroneously of course - to have been conducting experiments in time travel and matter transmission.

In 1986 Wolfe published Soldier of the Mist which was followed by a sequel, Soldier of Arete in 1989. Set in the 5th Century B.C., these tales follow the journeys of Latro, a soldier of one of the many Greek city-states, injured and separated from his regiment following a battle. Whereas Severian had been the beneficiary of an unfailing memory, Latro has been cursed by a goddess into recurring amnesia. He is plagued with the dilemma of forgetting everything each day, and the story is related in short chapters which are his written-down recollections of things he feels necessary to remember in order to continue his search for his comrades. The individual titles have been out of print for a while, but they have been reissued again in a combined volume - Latro in the Mist. There have also been rumors of other forthcoming books in this sequence. [UPDATE: Rumor confirmed, as Soldier of Sidon, has now been published, but I have yet to read it.] Two other fantasy titles are 1988's There Are Doors and 1990's Castleview. The former is about portals to parallel worlds, one of which is inadvertently opened for an unsuspecting man who meets the woman of his dreams on the other side, and he is prepared to sacrifice everything, perhaps even his own life, to win her love. Castleview transposes the Arthurian legend to modern-day rural Illinois, and concerns the search for a new champion to wield Excalibur.

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1993 saw Wolfe's return to science fiction, and to Severian's universe, with the beginnings of another series, The Book of the Long Sun, a tale of clergyman Patera Silk and his journeys across the Whorl, a giant, cylindrical starship, whose inhabitants have long forgotten both its origin and its mission. The story-teller this time is Horn, one of Silk's parishoners and students, who records Silk's adventures across a strange landscape filled with birds and beasts with the gift of speech, intelligent cyborgs bent on the destruction of humanity, and gods who speak to them through "Sacred Windows," computer terminals programmed by the ship's long-dead creators. The long sun of the title is the source of the Whorl's illumination, a thin tube of light that transverses the central axis of the ship. The Individual titles in this series are Nightside the Long Sun & Lake of the Long Sun (collected as Litany of the Long Sun), and Calde of the Long Sun & Exodus from the Long Sun (Epiphany of the Long Sun). As the series concludes, the Whorl has finally reached its destination, and Silk bids farewell to Horn, who travels down to Blue, one of the two planets destined to be colonized by the ship's bewildered passengers. Late in 1999 Wolfe sequeled this series with On Blue's Waters, which was followed in 2000 by In Green's Jungles, with Return to the Whorl being released in February, 2001, to complete another complex saga, The Book of the Short Sun.

The last section of this essay, beginning with the title Free Live Free, was less detailed than previously mainly because, with the exception of Soldier of the Mist, I have only read these titles once each, and as I hope I have made clear, this is hardly enough to thoroughly understand the full impact of Wolfe's work. I felt it best to wait until the third volume of the Book of the Short Sun was published before reading it. I am glad that I did wait for this series, because the Science Fiction Book Club offered it in a one-volume omnibus edition (unfortunately, no longer available directly from them). I have recently finished it, after a re-read of the Long Sun series, and I will return with my thoughts on these books as soon as I can. [Done that - read that review HERE] Hopefully I will also be able to flesh out my analysis of all his books in the near future. For now, I have intended this piece to be a general overview of Wolfe's career to date for those not knowledgeable of his work, and to hopefully make it evident that I consider him to be the greatest stylist the SF genre, and perhaps any genre, has ever seen.

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[Update:] The Knight, which is Book One in The Wizard Knight series has recently been released, and you can read my review of it HERE. The second half of this story, The Wizard, is also available, but I did not care for it as much as the first part, but I will probably read it again one of these days and may review it then. There have been other novels and stories since then, but I have not had much time for reading lately so I haven't gotten around to them yet either.

[Another Update:] 10/27/15 - I review Wolfe's most recent novel, A Borrowed Man.

Sadly, Gene passed away on April 14, 2019 from complications of heart disease. We shall not see his like again.

[LATEST UPDATE]: The posthumously published Interlibrary Loan is a sequel to 2015's A Borrowed Man.

Related Links:
ultan.net - this page translated into Japanese by Tadashi Tago
Ultan's Library - comprehensive critical essays on Wolfe's work (makes my efforts pale in comparison)
Wolfe's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com


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May 7, 1931

April 14, 2019

2 Nebulas
3 World Fantasy +
Lifetime Achievement Award
John W. Campbell Memorial (Citadel of the Autarch)
SF Hall of Fame (2007)
SFWA Grand Master (2013)

No official website, click other links at end of article