Author Topic: RIP Gene Wolfe  (Read 120 times)


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RIP Gene Wolfe
« on: 16 Apr 2019, 09:45 »

Gene Wolfe, 1931–2019

It feels somehow appropriate that on the day the Notre Dame burns, we also learn that science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolfe has died (at 87, of heart failure). Wolfe's work was deeply influenced by his Catholicism, and one of his most frequently recurring theme was how we as individuals and societies relate to our past through memory and monuments. His most famous work, The Book of the New Sun, is set among the ruins of past ages.

Wolfe was perhaps the finest writer in the genre, turning out reliably beautiful sentences pregnant with meaning. The TOR obituary quotes from the opening of his breakthrough novella, The Fifth Head of Cerberus:

When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early whether we were sleepy or not. In summer particularly, bedtime often came before sunset; and because our dormitory was in the east wing of the house, with a broad window facing the central courtyard and thus looking west, the hard, pinkish light sometimes streamed in for hours while we lay staring out at my father’s crippled monkey perched on a flaking parapet, or telling stories, one bed to another, with soundless gestures.

That’s just good writing!

His stories are unmistakeable: strange tales where the true significance is often hidden under the surface for readers to discover, and that are filled with puzzles that can only be partially decoded. Figuring out what’s going on in one of them is fun in the same way outsmarting a murder mystery, solving a particularly ingenious adventure game puzzle or suddenly realizing a plot twist in a movie is. His works have inspired intense scrutiny, with several published books of essays, analysis and speculation seeking to explain the secret histories of his worlds.

While he worked for many years as an engineer (he devised the machine to make Pringles) and editor of an engineering magazine, he did not write “hard” SF focused on meticulously depicted technology or speculative scientific phenomena. Such concepts may lurk in the background, but the focus is always on the people and the cultures portrayed.

Wolfe treated the sci-fi and fantasy genres as serious literature, writing about loss, faith, the compromises and disillusionments of adulthood and the stinging blows of childhood. He wrote about people struggling to understand themselves while hiding from who they are. He wrote about the trauma of war, having himself fought in Korea. He wrote about failure and falling short, about friendship and forgiveness. He used symbolism and allusions extensively. He was the sort of writer people would point to in order to prove that science fiction is Not Just For Kids.

But in that seriousness, he never lost sight of the pure pleasures that had attracted him to the genre in the first place, when he was reading pulps as a kid and writing fan mail to JRR Tolkien in the sixties (and getting a reply). Robots, dragons, space ships, monsters, aliens, ghosts, clones, prophecies and mad scientists with inventions that could destroy the world fill his books, though they may sometimes be hard to recognize. He said he created the main character in Book of the New Sun (Severian, a renegade journeyman torturer with a black cloak and long executioner’s sword, Terminus Est) because he thought he would make for good cosplay.

Severian with Terminus Est, ill. Bruce Pennington

He was one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors, and unlike many other faves (Tolkien, Frank Herbert, Ursula Le Guin, J.G Ballard, Iain M. Banks, Jorge Luis Borges, Terry Pratchett… all now gone as well) which tend to be ones I read as a teenager, I discovered Wolfe late, at around 30. (I also found out that I’d been practically driving by his house on my way to work every day for years.) While he lived quite a long life, and seems to have had a tough time of it since the death of his wife, Rosemary, in 2013, I’m sad that he’s gone. Rest in Peace.

If you’d like to try reading some of his books, I recommend The Fifth Head of Cerberus (make sure you get the full book with all three parts – the first part is also printed separately in some collections under the same title), The Book of the New Sun (four books, later extended with an additional book and two related series), Peace, and the short-story collections Endanged Species and The Best of Gene Wolfe.

(Edit: Fixed quote that was mangled by TOR.)
« Last Edit: 19 Apr 2019, 12:02 by Snarky »