RIP Gene Wolfe, 1931-2019
Gene Wolfe was born in New York on May 7, 1931. He studied at Texas A&M for a few years before dropping out and fighting in the Korean War. After his return to the US he finished his degree at the University of Houston. He was an engineer, and worked as the editor of the professional journal Plant Engineering. He was also instrumental in inventing the machine that cooks Pringles potato chips.
…Wolfe went on to write over 30 novels, with his best best-known work, The Book of The New Sun, spanning 1980-1983. The series is a tetralogy set in the Vancian Dying Earth subgenre, and follows the journey of Severian, a member of the Guild of Torturers, after he is exiled for the sin of mercy.
Last night, I fell asleep listening to Chapter 15 of the audiobook version of Gene Wolfe’s 1980 novel The Shadow of the Torturer, the first book in The Book of the New Sun.I have been falling asleep to Chapter 15 of this particular audiobook for about three nights now. Before that, I was falling asleep to Chapter 14. There is nothing particularly boring about the book. I put headphones in my ears take sleeping pills and fall asleep to an audiobook every night. There’s something about plugging into a narrative that’s not my own life that takes me out of all the anxieties that creep out at bedtime. I get through 15, maybe 20 minutes, and I’m out. I restart a few minutes before the last bit I remember. Anyway, I fell asleep to Chapter 15 — “Baldanders” — last night. I might’ve even made it a little bit into Chapter 16. I’ll find out tonight.
I first read The Shadow of the Torturer as a young teen. I was too young for the book—I don’t think I fully appreciated its scope. I read the next book in The Book of the New Sun series, but I don’t remember if I finished it out. In a year or two, I had abandoned fantasy, a mistake that I corrected years later. Youthful indiscretion. I reread a chunk of The Shadow of the Torturer again in my twenties and found it more complex than I remember. Then I mistakenly left the mass market paperback copy I was reading at a beach condo we had conned from someone’s friend’s grandmother for the weekend, and that was that—until this February, when a brief Twitter conversation prompted me to get the audiobook. I’ve been listening to it every night since, and at the rate I’m going through it I’ll probably be done by the end of the summer. I’m digging it.
Will Wolfe now gain a wider audience outside of the sci-fi/fantasy cult audience now that he has died? Maybe. I mean, that happens sometimes, right? His work is challenging though, employing strange diction and proffering only the smallest crumbs of exposition. Ultimately, it’s clear that Gene Wolfe was a writer’s writer, as evidenced by a 2015 profile of him in The New Yorker which proclaimed him “sci-fi’s difficult genius”—
Wolfe has published more than twenty-five novels and more than fifty stories, and has won some of science fiction and fantasy’s most prestigious awards. But he has rarely, if ever, been considered fully within the larger context of literature. His books contain all of the nasty genre tropes—space travel, robots, even dragons—and he hasn’t crossed into the mainstream on the strength of a TV or movie adaptation. Wolfe himself sees the trappings of science fiction and fantasy, the spaceships and so on, as simply “a sketchy outline of the things that can be done.” But even within fantasy fandom, Wolfe’s work presents difficulties. His science fiction is neither operatic nor scientifically accurate; his fantasy works are not full of clanging swords and wizardly knowledge. But ask science-fiction or fantasy authors about Gene Wolfe and they are likely to cite him as a giant in their field. Ursula K. Le Guin once called Wolfe “our Melville.”