Earlier this month, celebrated sci-fi author Gene Wolfe died. Wolfe may not be as well-known as other genre authors, but he might be one of the most acclaimed — if not the most acclaimed since J.R.R. Tolkien. Wolfe was beloved by many of his fellow authors, including Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, and George R.R. Martin.
Following his death, a number of remembrances and obituaries have been posted. My favorite is from The Ringer’s Brian Phillips, and it offers a poignant look at not just Wolfe’s work, but his entire life — including his marriage to Rosemary Dietsch (who was instrumental in Wolfe’s conversion to Catholicism) and his career as an engineer (Wolfe developed the process for cooking Pringles chips).
Wolfe’s masterpiece is the four-volume series The Book of the New Sun, which was published between 1980 and 1983. As Phillips describes it:
The tetralogy is one of the great, weird triumphs of American imaginative literature, a story that fuses science fiction with pulp fantasy, then fuses both with modernist narrative technique, Catholic theology, and Proustian meditativeness. (The New York Times will add “Spenserian allegory, Swiftian satire, Dickensian social consciousness, and Wagnerian mythology,” for good measure.)
For decades people will say it’s strange that a book this visionary and bizarre was written by someone with Gene’s background. But what does that mean, since The Book of the New Sun is a work virtually without precedent? If Henri Bergson and St. Augustine had collaboratively edited a 1930s issue of Weird Tales, this is the text they might have produced. It’s strange that it was written by anyone. That it was written by the guy who figured out how to cook Pringles is no more startling than any other possibility.
The language of the book is rich, strange, beautiful, and often literally incomprehensible. New Sun is presented as “posthistory” — a historical document from the future. It’s been translated, from a language that does not yet exist, by a scholar with the initials G.W., who writes a brief appendix at the end of each volume. Because so many of the concepts Severian writes about have no modern equivalents, G.W. says, he’s substituted “their closest twentieth-century equivalents” in English words. The book is thus full of fabulously esoteric and obscure words that few readers will recognize as English — fuligin, peltast, oubliette, chatelaine, cenobite. But these words are only approximations of other far-future words that even G.W. claims not to fully understand. “Metal,” he says, “is usually, but not always, employed to designate a substance of the sort the word suggests to contemporary minds.” Time travel, extreme ambiguity, and a kind of poststructuralist conception of language are thus all implied by the book’s very existence.
Writing for The Atlantic, Jeet Heer calls Wolfe “the Proust of Science Fiction” and explores how Wolfe’s Catholic theology worked itself into his writings:
“I’m a writer who is Catholic, as a good many of us are,” Wolfe told an interviewer. “I do not write Catholic books intentionally.” As with many of Wolfe’s reticent statements about his work, this comment has to be treated with caution. It’s true that Wolfe is no religious propagandist and that many of his strongest fans (fellow writer Ursula K. Le Guin and critic John Clute) are decidedly not Catholics themselves. Still, Wolfe had an intrinsically Catholic sensibility, akin to that lapsed son of the Church James Joyce or the devout Flannery O’Connor. Like them, he wrote analogical fiction: stories that worked at many levels as they fused the literal, the metaphoric, and the philosophic into the same narrative.
The series can be read as a simple adventure story, tracing the journey of Severian as he goes from being an apprentice torturer to a political exile to his eventual rise to power in a future South American state, with many sword-wielding adventures along the way where he meets with man-apes and robots, aliens and witches. But Severian’s story has many levels and he’s by no means a reliable narrator. The books can be seen as a veiled confession and attempt at self-exoneration, an examination of the possibility and limits of atonement.
On another level, the books are an attempt to translate theology and eschatology into the language of futurist fiction. The Eucharist finds its startling and disturbing counterpart in an alien concoction that, combined and consumed with the brains of the dead, allows the identity of the deceased to live in us. The new sun that Severian hopes to ignite and renew the earth is a literalization of the new son that Christians await.
A week before Christmas, a padded envelope arrived in the mail for me. Inside, there was a book-shaped object in wrapping paper, with a label reading: DO NOT OPEN BEFORE CHRISTMAS OR YOU WILL BE CROTTLED BY GREEPS. FIAT! FIAT! FIAT! There could be only one person who would write such a label, but I obeyed the directive and didn’t open it until Christmas Day. Gene Wolfe had sent me a copy of Universe 7, an anthology featuring stories by Fritz Leiber, Brian W. Aldiss, and himself. On the title page of Wolfe’s story, “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton,” he had written in blue ink, “For Jon Michaud” and signed his name. It was the greatest gift of my short life.
With that, I began a correspondence with Wolfe that lasted about two years. He was kind and generous and patient and encouraging. He answered my questions about his books, and offered reader’s advisory services, directing me to the seminal Harlan Ellison-edited anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions as well as the work of an up-and-coming writer named Nancy Kress. I asked him for his 10 desert-island books and his answer was an index of his influences: The Bible, Shakespeare, Remembrance of Things Past, The Pickwick Papers, and The Complete Father Brown. (He also included a practical volume, How to Be a Hermit by Will Cuppy.)
Along the way, Wolfe taught me what it took to be a writer. Here he was, the winner of the Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and he still worked a full-time job as an editor at the trade journal Plant Engineering. Wolfe did his writing early in the morning, before going to the office. He wrote at least five drafts of his books, a number that was daunting for a teenager who had trouble finishing first drafts. At one point he noted that his latest book was on hold while he did his taxes. Wolfe was a devoted husband and a father of four children. His example was a welcome counter to the romanticized notion of the philandering rebel artist. Regular habits, a strong work ethic, and a love of revision were the secret ingredients to a successful writing career.
I can’t claim to be a Gene Wolfe expert. I’ve only read the first two books in The Book of the New Sun, The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator. But I can safely say that they’re unlike anything else I’ve ever read: sometimes maddening and frustrating with their dense, convoluted language and storytelling, but Wolfe’s world-building and imagery is never less than fascinating and inspiring, even beautiful.
Set millions of years in the future, where the Sun is dying and Earth has seen countless civilizations come and go, The Book of the New Sun follows the adventures of a young man named Severian who is training to be a torturer in good standing with the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. But when he shows mercy to one of the Order’s “clients,” he’s exiled and begins a mind-bending adventure that blurs the usual lines between fantasy and science fiction. Adding another twist is the fact that Severian is an unreliable narrator of the series’ events; he claims to have a perfect memory even as he admits that he might be insane.
But Wolfe’s death, and the moving tributes that he’s received, has inspired me to re-read and complete the series, and explore some of his other considerable works.