Science Fiction

Gene Wolfe, R.I.P.

The science fiction writer appealed to traditionalists with tales of far-flung futures.


Gene Wolfe, one of the more thoughtful and complicated writers gifting the field of science fiction, has died at age 87. His most enduring works will doubtless be three series set in the same world of a decadent far-future Earth, the tetralogies The Book of the New Sun and The Book of the Long Sun, and the trilogy The Book of the Short Sun (and the curious standalone addendum The Urth of the New Sun) His publisher Tor provides some of the life basics in an obituary; The New Yorker did a smart profile in 2015 giving hints of the richness of his writings for a non-genre audience

Wolfe had a powerful hold on me as a reader all my life, remaining the only living fiction writer who I'd without question buy and read in hardback on release or shortly after. (As I explored the copious and brilliant literature surrounding Wolfe, published and all over the internet, I learned he has such a special hold on many, many readers.) Yet explaining his virtues is remarkably difficult for me, someone clearly a few levels of brilliance below the man himself.

While not necessarily reading as experimental or avant-garde on the surface, his love of sly revelations, unreliable and often un-self-aware narrators, and telling readers very important things only once—and sometimes to dimmer readers like me, seeming to not tell them important things at all—allowed me to consider his Book of the New Sun tetralogy one of my very favorite works of fiction as it was unfolding when I was 13 years old, while discovering later from the smart and obsessed exegetes Wolfe attracted like magnetism attracts shimmering particles that form visible signs of its occult existence, that I didn't even understand half of what happened in the narrative. That didn't effect my pleasure and insight from it at all, weirdly.

Wolfe's vocabulary was unusually deep and rich, his concerns eternally human and divine and not sociological or political, his prose rich but always appropriate to the nature of his characters and narrators. His best works read like chimeric wonder-beings formed of ancient tradition and spellbinding modernism and futurism.

He had a special appeal to readers of a traditionalist or conservative bent because of his evident love of G.K. Chesterton and his own Catholic vision. He dramatizes the grand adventures, physical mental and spiritual, of men who don't understand everything about how the world around them works or how it got to be the way it is or who they themselves truly are, who stumblingly try and and sometimes succeed in doing their duty toward their work, their people, their families, their worlds, or their God.

He's almost never treacly or sentimental yet his work pulses with love and fascination with man and the creatures animal and alien we must struggle along with; mercy and sacrifice snake through his novels like a faint mist through the fenceposts of a cemetery, sometimes comforting, sometimes disturbing, always at least vaguely detectable but tricky to grasp.

One fascinating detail on how he weaved his Catholicism into his work—a detail that many readers could easily miss or just not care about—is why he made his narrator Severian of The Book of the New Sun a torturer. He thought about how Jesus the "humble carpenter" was tortured and killed by wood, nails, and a hammer, and that "the man who built the cross was undoubtedly a carpenter," as Wolfe wrote in his essay "Helioscope" on the genesis of the New Sun tetralogy. He concluded that if Christ—who Wolfe notes is explicitly only said to have made "not a table or chair, but a whip"—"knew not only the pain of torture but the pain of being a torturer … then the dark figure is also capable of being a heroic and even holy figure."

All those abstract generalizations about Wolfe's merits are word made flesh by the marvelously talented popular storyteller within pulsing adventure narratives. Wolfe used, better than anyone else, such science fiction tropes as dying decadent earths in which space travel has become near-forgotten myth, mutated giants, mysteriously all-powerful beings from literal other universes, time travel, generation starships, computer programs as deities, trying to co-exist with possibly malevolent and hideously frightening aliens, all with a depth of feeling and character, a palpably resonant sense of fallenness and grace, rare in genre work.

Wolfe was an engineer before he was a full-time professional writer, a man of matter as well as words, and was key in the invention of the machine that makes Pringles potato chips, a strange detail beloved by his fans though applying metaphorical meaning from it to his work would require a thinker closer to Wolfe than to me to spell out. He is already missed, and his work may survive to perplex a mankind completely disconnected from most things cultural and material that make us what we are now, yet who will still be us, perplexed, questing, bedeviled and buoyed by family, state, and culture. Those beings from the far future he wondered about will likely be as delighted and confused by him as were those of us who loved Wolfe while he lived.