Wolfe, Gene

Tagged: Author

(1931-    ) US author, born in New York, raised in Texas, long resident in Illinois. He served in the Korean War; his experiences there, which haunted his depictions of War over the decades of his active career, are recorded in the correspondence with his mother between 1952 and 1954 assembled as Letters Home (coll 1991). He graduated in mechanical engineering from the University of Houston and worked in engineering until becoming an editor of a trade periodical, Plant Engineering, in 1972. Since retiring from that post in 1984, he has written full-time. Though never the most popular nor the most influential author in the sf field, Wolfe remains quite possibly its most important, both for the intense literary achievement of his best work, and for the very considerable volume of work of the highest quality. From the first, and with a prolific output that has not significantly ebbed for more than five decades, he has created texts which – almost uniquely – marry Modernism and Genre SF, rather than fixing them into rhetorical opposition; his ultimate importance to Fantastika as a whole and to world literature in general derives from the success of that theoretically precarious marriage. Though they never explicitly disassociate themselves from the devouring furnace of twentieth-century art (see Postmodernism and SF), they are not in fact propagandistic: his greatest texts are Modernist in a central understanding of the term: they are at one and the same time utterly present and implacably remote. There is no flirting with Equipoise in his relationship to the SF Megatext, the urgencies of fantastika govern every word, but it seems clear that Wolfe Makes It New in what one might call a forbidding silence. Unfortunately the taxing problematics of style and structure that govern access to his core meanings, and his refuse to tag what he is doing, make his work very nearly opaque to the simplistic theme-criticism whose dominant position sf academic work may only now be fading, giving some hope that younger critics will feel free to examine this elephant in the kitchen (see Critical and Historical Works About SF; SF in the Classroom). On the other hand, his use of thoroughly native sf patterns of tropes and storylines has inevitably ensured that any response to his work on the part of non-sf critics has been poverty-stricken. Furthermore, his relatively uneasy treatment of women has ensured cool treatment of his work on the part of Feminist critics.

Wolfe started writing early, but his first published story, "The Case of the Vanishing Ghost" in The Commentator for November 1951, did not lead directly to a career, which did not effectively commence until the publication of "The Dead Man" (October 1965 Sir!), years after he had begun to create fiction of some distinction; this material has been assembled as Young Wolfe: A Collection of Early Stories (coll 2002). In the early years of his full career, much of his best work tended to appear in various volumes of Damon Knight's Orbit anthologies, starting with "Trip, Trap" (in Orbit 2, anth 1967, ed Damon Knight) and climaxing with the superb Kafka-esque allegory, "Forlesen" (in Orbit 14, anth 1974, ed Damon Knight). In the middle of the series came "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" (in Orbit 7, anth 1970, ed Damon Knight), which was assembled – along with The Death of Doctor Island (in Universe 3, anth 1973, ed Terry Carr; 1990 chap dos), "The Doctor of Death Island" (in Immortal, anth 1978, ed Jack Dann), and "Death of the Island Doctor" (original to the coll) – as The Wolfe Archipelago (coll 1983). These four stories, each fully autonomous though each mirroring the others' structural and thematic patterns, comprise an intensely interesting cubist portrayal of the mortal trap (or coffin) of Identity, a problematic of ontology written in terms that are intrinsically sf in nature.

Though very little of his work is Young Adult or designed with younger readers even remotely in mind, Children – as very often in his larger tales – tend to be the viewpoint characters in the Archipelago stories, giving the texts a supremely deceptive air of clarity: for although the surface is nearly always described with precision in a Wolfe tale, the true story within is generally conveyed by indirection, revealing itself through the reader's ultimate decipherment and comprehension of the proper and hierarchical sorting of its parts. Contained within metaphorically fecund Island contexts, the Archipelago tales are particularly intricate. The first treats with assurance the shifting line that divides fantasy and reality as a young boy retreats from a harsh adult environment into the more clear-cut world generated by a pulp magazine. "The Death of Doctor Island" expands and reverses this theme in describing the treatment of a psychologically disturbed child constrained to an artificial environment (see Zoo) which responds to his state of mind. In "The Doctor of Death Island" a cryogenically frozen prisoner (see Cryonics) is awakened to find that his bound isolation has been hardened into Immortality. All three main protagonists must attempt – it is a compulsion that Wolfe would inflict upon many of his characters – to decipher and to penetrate the stories that tell them, and by so doing to leap free, perhaps. He won a Nebula for "The Death of Doctor Island".

During the 1970s, Wolfe continued to publish short stories at a considerable rate, at least 70 reaching print before the end of the decade; in the 1980s, as he concentrated more and more fully on novels, this production decreased markedly; but from the beginning of the 1990s his output increased again, and he has now published over 200 stories. His short work has been assembled in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (coll 1980), Gene Wolfe's Book of Days (coll 1981; exp vt as Castle of Days with other material 1992), Bibliomen: Twenty Characters Waiting for a Book (coll of linked stories 1984 chap; exp vt Bibliomen: Twenty-Two Characters in Search of a Book 1995 chap), Plan[e]t Engineering (coll 1984), Storeys from the Old Hotel (coll 1988), Endangered Species (coll 1989), Strange Travelers (coll 2000), Innocents Aboard (coll 2004) and Starwater Strains (coll 2005). The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of his Finest Short Fiction (coll 2009; rev vt The Very Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of his Finest Short Fiction 2009), assembles much of his best work, though mostly from the first half of his career; a second volume may appear.

Short stories of particular interest include "Three Million Square Miles" (in The Ruins of Earth, anth 1971, ed Thomas M Disch), "Feather Tigers" (Fall 1973 Edge), "La Befana" (January 1973 Galaxy), The Hero as Werwolf (in The New Improved Sun, anth 1975, ed Thomas M Disch; 1991 chap), "Tracking Song" (in In the Wake of Man, anth 1975, ed Roger Elwood), "The Eyeflash Miracles" (in Future Power, anth 1976, ed Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann), Seven American Nights (in Orbit 20, anth 1978, ed Damon Knight; 1989 chap dos), "War Beneath the Tree" (December 1979 Omni) (see Toys in SF) and "The Detective of Dreams" (in Dark Forces, anth 1980, ed Kirby McCauley). In the 1980s Wolfe was increasingly inclined, in short forms, to restrict his energies to the composition of oneiric jeux d'esprit. More recent stories of interest include "The Ziggurat" (in Full Spectrum 5, anth 1995, edited by Jennifer Hersh, Tom Dupree and Janna Silverstein), a complex meditation on Aliens and alienation, and "Memorare" (April 2007 F&SF), a singular novella set in a sequence of funerary memorial sites scattered across the far reaches of the solar system, where Satire of modern media obsessions darkens into a death-haunted labyrinth-channeled meditation on death. Wolfe's influences are hard to trace – his own acknowledgement of Robert A Heinlein works better as homage than as literary criticism – though he clearly shares with Jorge Luis Borges (an undoubted influence) a love for writers like G K Chesterton and Rudyard Kipling; in "The Ziggurat" and "Memorare", however, it may be that Wolfe pays greatest heed to the work of Algis Budrys, who may be his most significant precursor as far as the "deep structure" of story goes: for both create labyrinthine works it is dangerous, for both protagonists and (aesthetically) for readers, to enter.

Wolfe's first novel, Operation ARES (1970), in which a twenty-first-century America which has turned its back on Technological advance is propagandized and benignly infiltrated by its abandoned Martian colony, was heavily cut by the publisher, and reads as apprentice work. Nevertheless it is very characteristic of Wolfe that his protagonist, having pretended membership of the pro-Mars underground called ARES, should unwillingly become its effective leader. His next, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (fixup 1972), comprises three separate tales, the title story previously published (in Orbit 10, anth 1972, ed Damon Knight) and the others original to the book, but all so closely linked as to be significantly less effective in isolation; the book as a whole could technically be described as a collection of linked stories; but that would be misleading. Set on a distant two-planet system colonized by settlers of French origin, the book combines Aliens, Anthropology, Clones and other elements in a richly imaginative exploration of the nature of Identity and individuality. It was the first significant demonstration of the great difficulty of reading Wolfe without constant attention to the almost subliminal – but in retrospect or after rereading almost invariably lucid and inevitable – clues laid down in the text to govern its comprehension. As with all his most important work to date, the protagonist (in this case there is also a more elusively presented second protagonist) tells from a conceptual or temporal remove the story of his own childhood, in the form of a confession whose truth value is unrelentingly dubious, and whose Conceptual Breakthroughs, which might better be called recognitions, are almost invariably disguised. The parenthood of the clone who narrates the first part of the novel is problematical – or concealed – as is usual in Wolfe's work; questions of identity are poignantly intensified as it becomes clear – perhaps only upon a second reading – that, before the main action of the tale has begun, a Shapeshifting alien (the second protagonist) from the oppressed second planet has taken on the identity of a visiting anthropologist, the evidence for the transfer (as very frequently in Wolfe) being extractable through an examination of the manuscript that tells the story (his greatest novels tend to be written down). By the end of the novel, both protagonists – one a clone engineered into repeating previous identities, the other an impostor caught in the coffin of his fake self and literally imprisoned as well – have come to represent a singularly rich, singularly bleak vision of the shaping of a conscious life through time.

Peace (1975), an afterlife fantasy set in the contemporary middle America, is, word for word, perhaps Wolfe's most intricate and personal work; though not sf, it is central to any full attempt to understand his other novels; his sense of the great painfulness of any shaped life, of the huge cost (in this case) of a life so insufficiently shaped that it cannot truly be told, even to save a soul; or his methods in general. The protagonist of the book – who tells the story of his childhood and young manhood, all unknowingly, from beyond the grave – is both a self-portrait of the artist as a teller of stories (though significantly none here are finished) and a convincingly savage murderer in his own right. The Devil in a Forest (1976), a juvenile set at the time of King Wenceslas, with little or no fantasy element, shares some of the lightness of tone of the later Pandora by Holly Hollander (1990) (some critics feel it may have been written around this time), a non-fantastic detective novel which might also be described as a juvenile of sorts. He then focused most of his energy on multi-volume novels and series, a focus that continued into the twenty-first century.

His next and most ambitious work – the Books of the Sun sequences comprising three multi-volume novels and other work – occupied much of Wolfe's energy between 1980 and 2000, and finally brought him to a wide audience. Each of these novels is presented as a manuscript written down and presented to us by the protagonist of the tale, or a figure whose relationship to the protagonist is intimate; it is a structure of unreliable Recursive retrospect, as noted above, that Wolfe has employed for almost all his major book-length texts. The first (and still the most highly esteemed) instalment of the long project is the Book of the New Sun sequence, a single sustained four-volume novel, The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) broken into four parts for commercial reasons and published as The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). The first pair was assembled as The Book of the New Sun, Volumes I and II (omni 1983; vt Shadow and Claw 1994), and the second pair as The Book of the New Sun, Volumes III and IV (omni 1985; vt Sword and Citadel 1994); the whole novel was finally published in one volume as Severian of the Guild (omni 2007). Essays and tales in explanation of The Book of the New Sun were assembled as The Castle of the Otter (coll dated 1982 but 1983); tales supposedly extracted from one of the seminal books carried throughout his travels by Severian, the protagonist of the Book of the New Sun, were published as The Boy who Hooked the Sun: A Tale from the Book of Wonders of Urth and Sky (1985 chap) and Empires of Foliage and Flower: A Tale from the Book of Wonders of Urth and Sky (1987 chap); "A Solar Labyrinth" (April 1983 F&SF) is a metafiction about the entire Book; and the whole edifice was sequeled in The Urth of the New Sun (1987). The first volume gained a World Fantasy Award and the second a Nebula.

As a synthesizing work of fiction – a type of creation which tends to come, for obvious reasons, late in the period or genre it transmutes – The Book of the New Sun owes clear debts to the sf and fantasy world in general, and in particular to the Dying-Earth (see Far Future) category of Planetary Romance initiated by Jack Vance. Though it is a full-blown tale of cosmogony (see Cosmology), the entire story is set on Urth, aeons hence, a world so impacted with the relics of humanity's long residence that archaeology and geology have become, in a way, the same science: that of plumbing the body of the planet for messages which have become inextricably intermingled over the innumerable years (see Ruins and Futurity). The world into which Severian is born has indeed become so choked with formula and ritual that early readers of The Shadow of the Torturer could be perhaps forgiven for identifying the text as Sword and Sorcery, though hints that the book was in fact fully arguable in sf terms were – in the usual Wolfe manner – abundant. Apparently an orphan, Severian is raised as an apprentice Torturer (see Crime and Punishment) in the Matachin Tower which nests among other similar towers in the Citadel compound of the capital city of Nessus, somewhere in the southern hemisphere (one of the easier tasks of decipherment Wolfe imposes is that of understanding that the Towers are in fact ancient Spaceships). Severian grows to young adulthood, falls into too intimate a concourse with the imprisoned Thecla, an exultant (a genetically bred aristocrat) due to be tortured to death, is banished, travels through the land, becomes involved in a war to the far north where he meets – not for the first time – the old Autarch who dominates the world and who recognizes in Severian his appointed heir, and whose memories (which include the memories of previous Autarchs) he ingests, just as he has previously ingested Thecla. He then himself becomes Autarch and in a memorable Slingshot Ending announces his intention to bring the New Sun.

It is a classic plot (see entries on the Hidden Monarch and linked motifs in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy), and superficially unproblematic. But Severian himself is very distant in conception from the normal sf or Science-Fantasy hero he seems, at some moments, to resemble. In narrating the story of his childhood and early youth from a period some years later, in a tone deceptively serene, he makes it clear that he has an infallible Memory (which does not mean that he is incapable of lying); he also makes it clear that he has known from an early age that he is (or has been, or will be) the reborn manifestation of the Conciliator – a Messiah figure from a previous, or through Time Paradoxes, a possibly concurrent reality – whose rebirth is for the purpose of bringing the New Sun to Urth. At this point, sf and Catholicism – Wolfe is Roman Catholic – breed together, for the New Sun is both White Hole and Revelation. The imagery and structure of The Book of the New Sun make it explicitly clear that Severian himself is both Apollo and Christ, and that the story of his life is a secular rendering of the parousia, or Second Coming. His cruelty to himself and others is the cruelty of the Universe itself; and his reverence for the world constitutes no simple blessing. His family is a Holy Family, lowly and anonymous, but ever-present; and their absence from any "starring" role – Wolfe refuses in the text to identify any of them – has religious implications as well as aesthetic. (Much attention, some of it approaching the Talmudical, has been spent on identifying this Family, which does clearly include: Dorcas, Severian's paternal grandmother; his unnamed though Charonian paternal grandfather; his father Ouen; his mother Katherine; and – almost certainly – a sibling, who may be an encountered member of the witches' guild or may be the homunculus found in a jar in The Citadel of the Autarch.) The sequel, The Urth of the New Sun, takes Severian through reality levels of the Universe to the point – ambiguous in time and space, though related to the Omega Point posited by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) – where he will be judged as to his Autarchal fitness to bring the New Sun home. By this point, having now died at least once, he is a Shadow inhabiting an entity; he is in more than one time at once; he is both human and (in Teilhardian terms) Posthuman. As foreordained, this Creature passes the test. Urth is drowned in the floods that mark the coming of the White Hole, the rebirth of light. Some survive, to begin again; or to continue in their ways.

The period occupied by The Book of the Long Sun – comprising Nightside the Long Sun (1993) and Lake of the Long Sun (1994), both assembled as Litany of the Long Sun (omni 1994), plus Caldé of the Long Sun (1994) and Exodus from the Long Sun (1996), both assembled as Epiphany of the Long Sun (omni 1997) – seems to have its roots some thousands of years earlier, and shares much of the large-scale sf mythopoeisis that so profoundly characterizes the earlier novel. Like Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun is a single narrative, written down this time by a disciple of its protagonist, and this Book, like its predecessor, is a book that must be deciphered. The entire tale is set within a vast Generation Starship (of sufficient immensity to be experienced by readers as a World Ship), a closed universe called the Whorl; the protagonist, Patera Silk – having had a vast Infodump of memories epiphanically given him on the first page of the story by a god or AI who seems to be the avatar of some figure from Urth, and perhaps a proclaimer of Christ – gradually becomes a central figure in the destiny of the decaying cultures of the ship. Eventually it becomes clear that the Whorl has reached its destination, a two-planet system which will be the main venue of the Book of the Short Sun, and that the disturbances to life within the Whorl have been generated by the pantheon of gods (and/or AIs dwelling in the Whorl's "Mainframe") which has ruled the world for centuries. It becomes equally clear that Silk is a Moses figure: he is destined to point his people(s) to the Promised Land, but himself never to emigrate there.

The final novel, the Book of the Short Sun – comprising On Blue's Waters (1999), In Green's Jungles (2000) and Return to the Whorl (2001), all three assembled as The Book of the Short Sun (omni 2001) – offers perhaps the greatest challenges to decipherment of any of Wolfe's larger works. The book which constitutes this Book is a kind of continuation of the disciple Horn's life of his master, Patera Silk, who does not seem himself to manifest in the text until the final volume, though in fact (in a way not entirely dissimilar to the assumption/ingestion of another's body and self in The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which Wolfe has stated is not set in the solar system that dominates this final Book, though both feature twinned planets) it seems that it is Silk, or an incarnation of Horn and Silk conjoined in Silk's body, who is ultimately writing the tale down. Having been asked to return to the Whorl in an attempt to persuade Silk to visit his troubled colonizing folk and save them from fatal dissension, Horn undertakes a kind of Fantastic Voyage through the planets Blue and Green, visiting various Cities and societies, some being Utopias and some Dystopias, and eventually seems to liberate Silk (or himself) from the literal blindnesses that afflict the final volume. In the meantime, readers' suspicions are confirmed that time-dilation (see Relativity) effects within the Whorl place all three Books at the same Urth time. Indeed, Horn/Silk travels back to Urth and visit(s) the young Severian, who says that Horn/Silk is too extraordinary for him ever to mention (see Mysterious Stranger): which he himself never does in the confession which comprises the first Book. In the end, Silk (perhaps wholly himself at last) travels into interstellar space, where – in a Slingshot Ending that echoes and amplifies that which closes The Book of the New Sun – he will fish for men.

Wolfe's concurrent novels of the 1980s and 1990s were very various, and usually fantasy. Free Live Free (1984) is a Time-Travel tale, extremely complex to parse, through which shines a retelling of L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). There Are Doors (1988), set in a bleak Parallel World redolent of America during the Depression, most ambivalently depicts a man's life-threatening exogamous passion for a goddess. Castleview (1990) implants very nearly the entirety of the Arthurian Cycle [for Arthur and Matter see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] in contemporary Illinois, where a new Arthur is recruited for the long battle. Most interesting perhaps is the Latro sequence, comprising Soldier of the Mist (1986), Soldier of Arete (1989) and Soldier of Sidon (2006), with further volumes theoretically possible. Set in ancient Greece about 500 BCE, and somewhat later in northern Africa, it is narrated in short chapters that each represent a day's written-down recollections on the part of Latro, a soldier whom a goddess or some other being has punished by removing his capacity to remember anything for more than 24 hours (see Memory Edit). The sequence thus works, on every possible level, as a mirror image of The Book of the New Sun, with Latro's memory-loss reversing Severian's inability to forget, with ancient Greece reversing Urth – being at the start rather than the end of things – and with the series as a whole being conspicuously open-ended rather than shaped inexorably around Severian's Coming. The Wizard Knight – another single novel broken into two on initial publication and comprising The Knight (2004) and The Wizard (2004), both assembled as The Wizard Knight (omni 2005) – is again fantasy set in a matryoshka-like set of world-spheres enclosing world-spheres, all ontologically and theologically ordained, and featuring another Arthur figure. Pirate Freedom (2007) is a Timeslip tale; a priest in an Alternate World version of our own near future writes down his seventeenth-century experiences as a pirate. It is yet another confession, though more defiant than usual. Home Fires (2011), set in an energy-impoverished punitively Dystopian Near Future America, is told through the viewpoint of the husband of a soldier whose tours of duty on distant planets fighting Aliens have through time dilation (see Time Distortion) compromised her Identity. The highly coloured adventure sequences that dramatize their attempts to make sense of things do not much obscure the underlying, prophetic darkness of this example of Wolfe's later work. A Borrowed Man (2015) is set in a significantly emptied distant Near Future America whose government applies Eugenic principles to its radically diminished population; its protagonist, a Clone who bears the personality of a long-dead author, is in legal terms a book, who/which can be borrowed, and burnt. In a sense A Borrowed Man climaxes Wolfe's career-long focus on interplays between medium and message: for in this case the medium and the message are identical.

It may be that Wolfe has never had an original sf idea, or never a significant one, certainly none of the calibre of those generated by writers like Larry Niven or Greg Bear. His importance does not reside in that kind of originality. Setting aside for an instant his control of language, and his intensely applied control over structure in general and the paced revelation of story in particular, it is possible to claim that Wolfe's importance for the field lies in a spongelike ability to assimilate generic models and devices, and in the quality of the transformations he effects upon that material. Wolfe's actual language is at times visibly parodic, and many of his short stories are designed deliberately and intricately to echo earlier models, from the whole pantheon of Genre SF. But the relationship between current and previous texts is not only in the "music" of the words themselves. A further musical analogy might be the Baroque technique of the Parody cantata, in which a secular composition is transformed by reverent transfigurations (some recondite) into a sacred work (or vice versa); such parodies, in the case of the greater composers, can often only be deciphered after long study. Wolfe's importance has been, therefore, twofold: the inherent stature of his work is deeply impressive, and he wears the fictional worlds of sf like a coat of many colours. An homage assembly, Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe (anth 2013) edited by Bill Fawcett and J E Mooney, amply registers the range of his influence on other writers. In 1996 he was given a World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement; he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2007 and again honoured for life achievement with the SFWA Grand Master Award for 2012. [JC]

see also: BSFA Award; Chess; Colonization of Other Worlds; ESP; Fabulation; Fantasy; Gods and Demons; Gothic SF; GURPS; Hornblower in Space; Identity Transfer; John W Campbell Memorial Award; Linguistics; Metaphysics; Mythology; Optimism and Pessimism; Pocket Universe; Rays; Series; Skylark Award; Sun; Timescape Books; Werewolves; Writers of the Future Contest.

Gene Rodman Wolfe

born New York: 7 May 1931




Books of the Sun

Book of the New Sun

Book of the Long Sun

Book of the Short Sun


Wizard Knight

  • The Knight (New York: Tor, 2004) [Wizard Knight: hb/Gregory Manchess]
  • The Wizard (New York: Tor, 2004) [Wizard Knight: hb/Gregory Manchess]
    • The Wizard Knight (London: Gollancz, 2005) [omni of the above two: effective first publication of the novel as a unit: Wizard Knight: hb/Gregory Manchess]

individual titles

collections and stories


  • Letters Home (Weston, Ontario: United Mythologies Press, 1991) [nonfiction: coll: pb/]

about the author


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