clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Gene Wolfe Turned Science Fiction Into High Art

He worked as an engineer developing the technology to make Pringles potato chips before embarking on a prolific writing career. Known as the Melville of science fiction and celebrated for his inventive and challenging work, Wolfe died on April 14 at age 87.

Ringer illustration

In Belhaven, North Carolina, there’s a girl who has trouble eating. Her name is Mary Ayers. Mary has a gastric ulcer, and Mary can only get a few bites down before it starts to hurt, so Mary stays thin. Mary’s father is a thug. He beats his wife and the other children, but for some reason he never hits Mary. To his sick daughter, he shows his own version of tenderness. He makes her take the medicine he uses to deworm his dogs.

In 1921 Mary’s old enough to get married and get away. Her husband is a man named Roy Wolfe. Roy does a little bit of everything, so they move around a lot. They’re in Texas for a while, where Roy works the oil fields. They’re in New York, where he works selling cash registers. They don’t have a lot of money, but they both love reading, so they always find money for books. Mary’s stomach gets better. In 1931, 10 years after their wedding, their only child is born. Mary and Roy name him Gene: Gene Rodman Wolfe.

For the first years of Gene’s life, as the country sinks into the Depression, Mary and Roy keep on the move. When he’s 4 or 5, they’re in Peoria, Illinois, where his best friend is his next-door neighbor, a little girl named Rosemary Dietsch. One day Mary finds 5-year-old Gene and Rosemary strolling up the sidewalk together, stark naked, holding hands.

The families become friends. When the Wolfes move away, they stay in touch. Gene and his parents head to Roy’s hometown, Logan, Ohio, where Grandmother Alma lives in a house that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. There’s a secret room where runaway slaves would hide. Grandmother Alma has piles of Sunday funnies stashed away. Gene spends hours paging through them, absorbing the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon cartoons, lost in bright, pulpy visions of ray-gun battles and spaceships.

After Logan, Mary and Roy move to Des Moines. Then Dallas. Then Houston. In Houston, they run a diner. Finally, they’re able to settle down. Gene goes to a school named after Edgar Allan Poe. At school, there are cockroaches longer than his fountain pen. He finds tarantulas in the schoolyard bigger than his hand. When a hurricane blows in from the Gulf, rattlesnakes move inland from the salt marshes. Gene finds them hiding in the grass.

War comes. Classes at the Edgar Allan Poe School are interrupted by air-raid drills. Gene’s uncles and some of his older cousins go overseas to fight. The family worries Roy will be drafted. The summer days are punishingly hot: Gene camps out directly in front of the fan. At night, Mary and Roy take him out to Galveston Beach, where the three of them spread out a blanket. The Gulf is full of German U-boats. Far out on the water, they see the flames from torpedoed oil tankers.

He’s a skinny kid, handsome but slightly waifish. One year he crashes his bike and tears up his left leg so badly it hurts him for the rest of his life. He’s never liked sports. Now he likes them less. He learns, the way children learn these things, what kind of child he is: He is strange, brilliant, and lonely. Often this makes him unhappy. One day he picks up a paperback his mother is reading: The Pocket Book of Science Fiction. He reads a story by Theodore Sturgeon, “Microcosmic God.” Then he reads another story. His father has always been a fan of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Now Gene, like many other strange, brilliant, lonely American children around this time, falls hard for science fiction. Soon he’s reading Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Famous Fantastic Mysteries. He finds himself in the trashy dime-store pulps that have always been incubators of left-field American genius.

He survives high school by making friends with a couple of other sci-fi nuts and trading books and magazines. He has an English teacher, Miss Collins, who tells him he has a talent for writing. That’s interesting to hear. When he graduates, his parents give him a typewriter. But he doesn’t think about writing as a job. Not seriously. He leaves for Texas A&M planning to become an engineer. Writing is only a hobby.

War comes again. This time Gene is old enough to fight. When he’s 21, in 1952, he’s shipped to Korea. He almost dies on the way, swept overboard during a violent storm. The war is brutal: barbed wire, pounding artillery, screaming. Gene does his bit, and he isn’t injured, at least not outwardly. When he gets home, loud noises make him fall to the floor. Mary and Roy tell him to move back into their house. He enrolls at the University of Houston, and his parents care for him while he finishes his engineering degree.

Mary is still in touch with the Dietsches, the Wolfes’ old neighbors from Peoria. Rosemary Dietsch, Gene’s childhood playmate, comes to Texas for a visit. Gene and Rosemary discover that they still like each other. Before long, they’re engaged. Rosemary is Catholic, so before the wedding, Gene starts studying Catholic doctrine. For a while now, maybe because of his war experience, he’s been thinking about suffering and compassion and how human beings can be better. Catholicism resonates both with his sense of humanity’s fallenness and with his sense of the dedicated, lifelong commitment required for each individual’s redemption. Eventually, he decides to convert. He and Rosemary get married in 1956, two clean-cut kids smiling postwar American smiles. He tells people she saved him.

He gets a job working R&D for Procter & Gamble. For the next 16 years, he’s an engineer in Ohio. He develops the process for cooking Pringles potato crisps. He thickens around the middle. He and Rosemary have four children. He starts losing his hair. He writes in his spare time, but for years he struggles to publish. There’s a paperback press, Gold Medal Books, that will pay $2,000 for a science fiction novel, and he thinks it would be nice to make that much money for a book, but Gold Medal Books doesn’t like his manuscript. Magazine after magazine turns down his short stories. No one wants his work.

Science fiction and fantasy writers of his generation are busy transforming the genre. J.G. Ballard publishes The Wind From Nowhere in 1961 and The Drowned World in 1962. Michael Moorcock takes over as editor of New Worlds in 1964. People are talking about the “New Wave,” about a revolution in speculative fiction. The ’60s are in full swing. Passionate debates rage over the proper direction of science fiction, whether it ought to be literary or popular, experimental or accessible, objective or symbolic. Whether it ought to concern science at all. Gene is not even on the periphery of this conversation. He’s nowhere.

In 1965 he writes a ghost story called “The Dead Man” and sends it out to magazines. The most prestigious, at the top of his list, is The Atlantic Monthly. The least prestigious, at the bottom, is Sir!, a nudie mag. Sir! buys the story. He gets a check for $80. This is how his professional writing career begins: in his mid-30s, as text filler in a jerkoff magazine. At this point, he’s been sending out work and having it rejected for eight years.

He’s on his way. He sends a story called “Mountains Are Mice” to Galaxy, and when it’s rejected, he sends it to World of If. Unbeknownst to Gene, Frederik Pohl, the celebrated editor of Worlds of If, is also the editor of Galaxy. Pohl shrugs, renames the story “Mountains Like Mice” and accepts it for Worlds of If.

With multiple publications under his belt, Gene joins the Science Fiction Writers of America. He strikes up a friendship with its founder, the writer-editor Damon Knight. Knight publishes his story “Trip, Trap” in his anthology Orbit 2. Suddenly Gene’s sharing space with New Wave giants like Joanna Russ and Brian Aldiss. Knight also brings him to the Milford Writer’s Workshop, an annual conference held in a Victorian mansion in Pennsylvania where SF stars and future stars (Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCafferey, Frederik Pohl) rub shoulders and critique each other’s work. Gene has never had writing peers before. Just to be taken seriously by this group is an experience that fills him with wonder. He says it’s like seeing Manhattan and the Grand Canyon at the same time.

1970 hits. He still hasn’t published a book. He’s still punching the clock at Procter & Gamble, solving whatever Pringles du jour process puzzle the execs send down to him. That year, at last, his first book appears. Operation Ares is a dystopian novel about a Martian colony’s rebellion against an oppressive left-wing government. No one likes the book. It’s dominated by what Gene himself will later dismiss as “doctrinaire conservative” politics, the squaresville ideology of a company man who’s had it up to here with these hippies. The hero’s name is John Castle, which probably says it all. Russ, not known for her gentleness as a reviewer, and politically worlds away from Gene’s grumpy allegory, gives the novel a lethally polite notice in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. “I know what Mr. Wolfe can do when he sets his mind to it,” she writes. “Operation Ares is far below his best.”

Two years later, he tries again. This time he sets his mind to it. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a collection of three interlinked novellas about twin colony worlds of Earth, Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. Sainte Anne was once the home of a race of technologically primitive shapeshifters whom the human colonists wiped out. You can see the “...or did they?” coming from 10 light-years away, but the book has ambiguities and layers far more sophisticated than anything in Operation Ares, and its exploration of difficult postcolonial themes puts it in an entirely different vein from Gene’s first novel. The book as a whole gets nominated for a Locus Award, and the title novella is nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula, the two biggest awards in science fiction. It doesn’t win, but that makes no difference. In his early 40s, 15 years into his writing career and seven after his first story ran in Sir!, Gene’s finally been accepted by the SF community. He’s a success.

He quits his job at Procter & Gamble. Not to write full time—that won’t happen for a while—but to take a job at least notionally closer to writing. Rosemary misses Illinois, so the family moves to Barrington, where Gene finds a post as a senior editor at a journal called Plant Engineering. He’s put in charge of stories on power transmission (“hydraulics, gears, pneumatics, belts, et cetera,” as he’ll later tell an interviewer) and fastening and joining (“welding, glue, screws, et cetera”). He’s also the editor for robotics, cartoons, and letters to the editor. He likes the work. Twice a year or so he writes an article for the magazine. He takes the pictures himself.

He produces a Nebula-winning novella, “The Death of Doctor Island,” then two more novels. For years he’s been reading voraciously, reading far outside the boundaries of fantasy and science fiction. He’s read Proust. Shakespeare. Homer. He’s thought about how their work might inform his. He’s also continued to deepen his study of Catholicism. Another writer might have followed The Fifth Head of Cerberus with a straightforward science fiction novel designed to capitalize on the critical success of the novellas. Instead, Gene gets stranger. He gets more experimental. He starts feeling his way toward a kind of writing that will combine his phenomenally disparate influences into a single unified work.

Peace appears in 1975. It’s a fictional memoir set around the first half of the 20th century. But the story is odd, nonlinear, hard to piece together. The narrator’s status is elusive. Is he real? Is he insane? Is he a ghost? Neil Gaiman, who will fall in love with the novel many years later, will say that it’s a gentle memoir the first time you read it and a horror novel the second time. The Devil in a Forest, which comes out in 1976, is in some ways even odder. It’s about a tiny peasant village caught in a conflict between Christianity and paganism during the Middle Ages. It was inspired, Gene says, by a stanza from “Good King Wenceslas.”

His next book is a masterpiece. The Book of the New Sun, written during his free time from Plant Engineering, is published in four volumes during the early ’80s. Gene is 49 when The Shadow of the Torturer arrives in 1980, 52 when the fourth book, The Citadel of the Autarch, appears in 1983. 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.

New Sun is a story narrated by Severian, an apprentice in the guild of torturers who lives with his guildmates in a mysterious fortress called the Citadel. At first, the book appears to be set in a medieval-style fantasy world. Slowly, however, it becomes clear that Urth, the world of the book, is in fact a far future world whose current civilization only happens to approximate medieval technology in some respects. (And not, it becomes clear, in others.) This civilization is built on the bones of countless others. The Citadel itself appears to be some sort of ruined spaceship. There are hints that aliens have tampered with human history. Or perhaps the tampering is ongoing? The sun is so old that it is dying. Stars are visible in the daylight sky.

Severian commits a serious crime. He shows compassion to a prisoner the guild is supposed to torture. As a result, he’s quasi-exiled, sent away to be the torturer of a faraway city. He’s given a fearsome black cloak and mask, and a terrifying sword called Terminus Est. His journey has all the hallmarks of epic fantasy—he fights monsters, falls in love, encounters a variety of colorful and fascinating characters, acquires magical artifacts, is plotted against by villains, and rises to a position of immense power.

But the conventional narrative keeps slipping at the edges. Why, for instance, does Severian spend so much time talking about his perfect memory? If his memory is so perfect, why are there inconsistencies in his account? Why do so many things that happen seem to have no explanation, yet seem, at the same time, to have happened before? What is the source of the persistent sense that the pieces of the conventional quest narrative—Severian as the chosen one sent to save the world—are being moved into place by forces beyond his, and our, understanding?

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.

The Book of the New Sun is immediately, and correctly, hailed as a major literary work. From the moment Shadow of the Torturer is published, everyone understands two things about the cycle. First, it’s brilliant, a work even anti-genre snobs (who are more numerous in 1980 than today) can’t pretend isn’t serious literature. In Gene’s hands, the raw materials of pulp fantasy—giant sloths, reptilian aliens, dark-cloaked men on parapets—take on the quality of images in an avant-garde poem. The amalgam of literary sophistication, messianic-Catholic mysticism, and sheer dime-magazine weirdness makes for a story that seems simultaneously ancient, futuristic, and timeless, which is exactly the point:

If the Eternal Principle had rested in that curved thorn I had carried about my neck across so many leagues, and if it now rested in the new thorn (perhaps the same thorn) I had only now put there, then it might rest in anything, and in fact probably did rest in everything, in every thorn on every bush, in every drop of water in the sea. The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred sand because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic.

The other thing everyone understands is that The Book of the New Sun is difficult. If you can follow it, it’s a great adventure story. But it’s also experimental, ruthlessly self-questioning art. Every volume of the tetralogy is nominated for major awards. Gene is hailed as one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, perhaps the greatest. He’s hailed as a great American writer, full stop. It’s because of New Sun that Ursula K. Le Guin later calls him science fiction’s Herman Melville. It’s because of New Sun that Neil Gaiman says he’s “possibly the finest living American writer.”

Yet the books don’t sell in large numbers, possibly because many people can’t make sense of them. He doesn’t inspire a wave of copycat writers, like William Gibson does around this time. He doesn’t conquer the bestseller lists like other creators of large-scale fantasy series. He doesn’t become a convention superstar like George R.R. Martin or a cultural icon like Le Guin. He’s written a work that proves (if you needed proof) that SF can be high art, yet not many people even within SF read it. He’s written one of the all-time masterworks of science fiction, and it’s hard to say whether he influences the genre at all.

He keeps writing. In 1984, after 12 years editing articles on hydraulics and glue at Plant Engineering, he finally quits to write full time. After that, he produces a book every year or two. Sometimes two books in a single year. He writes sequels to The Book of the New Sun—the series as a whole becomes known as the Solar Cycle—some almost as highly regarded as his great work. He writes more series. He writes stand-alone novels. Essays. Dozens of short stories. He publishes with major houses and tiny independent presses. For a writer whose success came late, he becomes astoundingly prolific: more than 30 novels, a dozen story collections, poems, chapbooks.

He gets fat. He goes completely bald. He starts wearing an enormous handlebar mustache. His friend Joe, a librarian at the Library of Congress, carves him a cane with an Italian village scene on the handle, and he starts walking everywhere with it. He turns 80. His literary career enters its sixth decade. He finds that a number of younger writers revere him, and they revere him for all the things that have kept him from becoming more popular: his uniqueness, his ambition, the wildness of his ideas and his willingness to follow them where they go. Some younger readers revere him, too, although he never does become famous. It’s among writers that he’s most loved.

In 2012, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America name him a Grand Master. The next year, Rosemary dies after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. So many of his books, New Sun included, have explored the nature of memory. Rosemary, whom he’s known for nearly 80 years, forgets his name. She forgets that they’re married. “She still remembered that she loved me,” he tells The New Yorker two years later. He publishes his last book, the sci-fi noir A Borrowed Man, in 2015.

On April 14, 2019, at the age of 87, Gene Wolfe dies of heart disease at his house in Peoria, Illinois. The obituaries are appropriately admiring. But there’s an undertone in some of them similar to the undertone that sometimes creeps into reviews of his books. His books are so singular, so challenging, and so out of sync with any conceivable mainstream that critics sometimes seem to be asking “What kind of great book is this?” His life is so quiet, so meandering, and so far removed from literary grandeur or drama that eulogists sometimes seem to be asking “What kind of life is this for a great writer?”

I know the answer to both questions. It is this kind.