Gene Wolfe, a devout Catholic, wrote the Book of the New Sun, a science fantasy tetralogy (currently packaged as Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel) which explores themes of transformation, resurrection, re-creation, identity, humanity’s relationship to God and God’s plan to save humanity. It’s beautifully written, imaginative, entertaining and devoutly, in-your-face, gorgeously Christian. The individual books in the tetralogy won the BSFA award for best novel, the Locus award for best novel, a Hugo award, the August Derleth award and the Campbell Memorial award for best novel. Some of the greatest writers in the world of speculative fiction have lavished Wolfe with praise, and he’s recently been awarded the title of SFWA Grand Master.
I won’t give away too much, but here’s a little taste of some of the Christian themes … there’s an ancient God called the Increate (the uncreated one) who sent a representative called the Conciliator to Earth to prepare humanity for the coming of the New Sun. It’s a million years in our future, and our current sun is about to die. A young man from the torturer’s guild sets out on a journey during which he finds an artifact of God’s ambassador … the Claw of the Conciliator. He then seeks out his destiny. To rule the world? To save it? Is he the Conciliator? Or someone else? And who will bring the new sun? It’s an amazing science fantasy.
Having said that, Wolfe can be frustrating. He likes to use unreliable narrators. He makes obscure references, linguistic, historical, and literary, and expects his readers to keep up. He often has key action scenes take place “off stage.” I’ve finished some of his books (like An Evil Guest) and had no idea what I just read. I could tell something deep and important was going on, but felt like a five year old sitting at the dinner table listening to the adults talk about politics. The beautiful writing carried me to the end, but I still had no idea what happened. His recent novel, The Sorcerer’s House, reveals at a certain point that the reader could reconstruct the novel in another order if they chose, a complicated invitation to a puzzle that delights some readers and frustrates others. It’s the sort of writing that allows for scholastic exploration and debate.
I know this is the frustration people have when I try to convince them to read a four novel series as an “introduction” to Wolfe. It requires patience and hard work and working through moments of confusion. The patience pays off with dazzling moments of pure joy, but I understand that four books is a lot to ask. So I thought I would list a few of Wolfe’s more overtly spiritual shorter works. This isn’t comprehensive. I list these in the hope that you’ll read one, love it, and then read everything Wolfe has written.
Perhaps the easiest thing would be to point you to the recent The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction. Here are four stories from that book:
- “La Befana.” An old woman comes to a hostile planet in search of redemption for her sins, committed long, long ago.
- “Westwind.” A chance encounter reveals two people, deeply connected to God through technological means.
- “Bed and Breakfast.” A man spends the night in a bed and breakfast near Hell, and crosses paths with both a demon and a fugitive from Hell. Is this all part of a plot to ensnare him? Mirtika [Schultz, one of the founding contributors] has blogged about this one here on Spec Faith.
- “And When They Appear.” A dark (this one is pretty disturbing) Christmas ghost story about faith, innocence, family, and the loss of all three.
If you’d like to try a novel, but don’t want to start with the New Sun books, the one book I’ve found a wide variety of people to enjoy is Pirate Freedom. The speculative element is slight … it’s mostly a fun and painstakingly accurate pirate novel. The Wizard Knight duology [Book One, The Knight] is fun and accessible as well.
If you love speculative fiction, either as reader or writer, Wolfe is worth your time. If you’re a Christian wanting to improve the quality of the books you’re reading or improve your craft as a writer, Wolfe is essential.
I’ll be sure to hang out in the comments to answer questions about Wolfe and his work. I’ve read all the novels but one, and all the collected stories … I’ve missed a few uncollected works, I’m sure. He’s the sort of author whose work rewards multiple re-readings.
Clearly, I am a fan of Wolfe and I hope you will become one, if you aren’t already. For those Wolfe fans already out there, would you list different entry points into Wolfe’s work? Which is your favorite novel (or cycle of novels)?
Matt Mikalatos is, most recently, the author of the fantasy novel The Sword of Six Worlds as well as the ridiculous comedy theology novels My Imaginary Jesus and Night of the Living Dead Christian. Feel free to follow him on Twitter or visit his blog. You can also check out his podcast, the Storymen (most recently interviewing Julliana Baggott, author of post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel Pure).