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A Brief Introduction To Gene Wolfe, My Favorite Contemporary Author

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.
| Mar 15, 2013 | No comments |

gene_wolfe___the_claw_of_the_conciliatorI’m not going to lie. I understand why my favorite science fiction author isn’t a household name. But I think he should be among Christian fans of speculative fiction.

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.

29sorcerershouse

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.

The_Knight_by_Gene_Wolfe_coverIf 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)?
———-
sword of six worldsMatt 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).

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Paul Lee
Member

Last summer, I read The Knight.  Gene Wolfe is truly a skilled mythopoet; he really embodies the Norse concept of a “middle earth,” as well as a fascinating portrayal of eternity.  There are some weird things in The Knight that seemed bizarre and unsettling to me, and I’m not really talking about the high literary meanderings.  Still, I’m looking forward to reading The Wizard when I get around to it.

Jonathan Lovelace
Member

He makes obscure references, linguistic, historical, and literary, and expects his readers to keep up.
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.
It requires patience and hard work and working through moments of confusion.

This sounds very much like Charles Williams (who’s still one of my favorite authors, and one of whose books I still include in my list of “books everyone ought to read”), only perhaps not quite as bad …
(Wolfe has been on my “to-find-and-read-one-of-these-days” list for a while now, but that list is a very long one, I’m afraid.)

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

OK, I’ll just say it, Matt. After reading your post and then these comments, I’m not sure why I should read any of Wolfe’s stuff. I mean, do I really read a story because I like being confused . . . at the end? No. Or do I want to read disturbing beastiality sex stuff? No again. Do I want meandering tales with obscure linguistic, historical, or literary references? No again. 

In other words, as much as I respect your opinion (which is a lot), I’m just not seeing it. What makes these “essential”?

Becky

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Perhaps if the chief end of reading stories (as with anything else man does) is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” one could enjoy Wolfe’s negative elements as a contrast to Biblical beauty and truth? I’m not sure, however, whether he casts such elements in that light or else enjoys the Grittiness of them — a flawed “art for its own sake” argument — because so far, I haven’t read any of Wolfe’s work.

Mirtika Schultz
Member

Bestiality is part of the human condition, so while I really don’t want a blow-by-blow of it (ick), I see no problem with a novel having it, especially if it’s related to the situation of a fantasy world. I mean, let’s say the reason we have Centaurs is that a human and a deity in horse form got it on? That’s legitimate for a fantasy world/myth world explanation. I read Greek myths as a kid, and Zeus was changing into a swan or cow to do his naughty business. It’s part of our literary heritage in the Western world, frankly. Like anything, it’s in the handling.
 
Just censoring it outright, well, then no Christian writer dare have any sin depicted in any book. We then ought not have theft, murder, gluttony, gossip, blasphemy, usury, idolatry, or any multitude of sins in a book. Sexual sin, including bestiality, is just part of what is fallen and misdirected in our world. And yes, people are having sex with sheep and goats and horses and dogs even as I type. I have no blinders on about that. But in a novel situation, it can certainly be a legitimate reality in that fantasy or science fiction milieu (in that case, it might be a human and an alien that is not specifically limited to humanoid in configuration).
 
One reads writers like Wolfe the way one reads Hemingway or Woolf or Steinbeck or Welty or Updike or any other highly esteemed writer in a field: Because he’s one of the best out there. Because his craft is impeccable. Because he’s a writer’s writer and a writer can learn from it. For readers–many of whom vote him one of the giants of SF–it’s for diversion or mental stimulation or whatever other reason a reader reads SF. 😀

Mirtika Schultz
Member

I think writers of speculative fiction should read Wolfe to see writing of LITERARY quality using genre to express itself. Wolfe is highly respected. His use of unreliable narrator brilliant.
There are folks who don’t read Ezekiel, for example, because they find it perplexing and confusing and weird. But God put it in the Bible, right? haha Well, if one is a lover of speculative fiction, and if one wants to see a writer of high calibre with a Christian worldview (Mr. Wolfe is a Catholic) who is highly respected in a genre where being Christian is kinda snidely looked down upon –in other words, he’s an ANOMALY in secular SF–then this is one to go to.
 
It’s about craft. And let’s face it, craft needs work in the CSF area. We can learn a lot from Mr. W. He’s got more than one novel in the list of 100 Best Science Fiction Novels and he’s won a boatload of awards. Locus magazine once ranked the Book of the New Sun as the THIRD best fantasy  work pre 1990. Writers such as LeGuin and Gaiman praise him in extraordinary terms.
IMO, if a person is wanting to learn the craft of writing for a particular genre, you look for those most respected in that genre, most award-winning, most lauded by peers. Mr. Wolfe qualifies for fantasists/SFers.
I still love Bed and Breakfast and reread it on occasion. Thanks for linking to that years-old blog post of mine. 😀

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I’ve read the Book of the Long Sun, and some of his short fiction. He is good, but like you said he’s dense, and a lot of Christians don’t really seem to read spec fic deeply enough to be comfortable with that kind of writing. It’s like the difference between mainstream fiction and literary fiction, and literary SF is kind of out of favor in the modern market. It’s a lot of bubblegum and blasters these days, or genre-of-the-month stuff like bizarro, slipstream, and witpunk.

While I agree that for the writer it’s good to read him as well as others, this site is also targeted towards the reader, and it’s a harder case to sell him. Each reader has their own comfort or tolerance level, and going past that can lead to things you’d rather unsee and maybe even spiritual harm. I think most people know their tolerance levels. The guys who read Neil Gaiman should read him by all means, and those that  don’t trust the secular market would probably get turned off by Gene.

Elijah David
Editor

I’ve read the first two books of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, but I had to force myself to finish them and I did not feel the need to continue with the quartet. I felt like he was being obscure and cryptic for far too much of the text and constantly trying to confuse the reader. I’ve enjoyed several of Charles Williams’ novels, and there’s no comparison. With Williams, I at least have some understanding of plot, even if the mechanics are obscure (particularly in Place of the Lion, much less so in Descent into Hell). With Wolfe, I’m doing well to understand a given scene, if that much. He doesn’t seem to want his readers to understand the text. That’s a failure on his part. Perhaps the Book as a whole is a great work, but the individual ones are not that great, and as Becky said, the fact that he’s trying to confuse me that much makes me not want to read him. I realize that not all fiction has to be fully understood on the first read (in fact, it’s likely weak if you do), I still expect to have at least a basic understanding of it on the first read. With Wolfe, I don’t have that.

Marc
Guest
Marc

Wolfe is a sublime artist, and the greatest author I have ever read.  So many people who write with a spiritual or faithful perspective are either divorced from reality or oversimplify – Wolfe’s work is challenging but highly structured, as is the real world.  The elided bits often point somewhere that can be rigorously deduced.
My caveat to recommending Wolfe to those used to banal oversimplifications of faith is that he is complicated, and his engineering background makes the construction kind of gnostically sealed from real intervention. 
Take the “divine” enlightenment of Silk in Long Sun (spoilers, but not really) – it’s (kind of) pretty clear when you look at the dream sections of the text and what happens later that this good man is the planted love child of the most satanic figure in New Sun, Typhon, with his mistress Kypris.  He is the child Typhon wants to replace him, and that enlightenment he experiences has two voices, the male and female, whispering in his ear .  As a grown embryo, the message had been planted in him with physical means by his father and mother (who is also Mamelta with her blue eyes and black hair).  This realization, and Hyacinth’s tryst with Saba, lead him to contemplate suicide … and he actually does probably commit it later, when Horn’s spirit is used to save him in Short Sun by “rebooting” him.  His spiritual message is extremely tricky.  There are other very sinister implications of the New Sun coming, and we should always keep in mind the Chanticleer story in New Sun  – that even the angels and amschaspands are infinitely remote from the Increate, though they are far above man. Pas has stolen the identity of the Outsider, but in so doing they all serve a purpose. 
He is a symbolist on the level of Melville, and should be infinitely important to art, as he really is a genius.  I’ve never been more rewarded than by sitting there and actually pondering over the minutia of a text. 

Marc
Guest
Marc

My favorites are definitely Short Sun and the Latro Books, followed by Peace, New Sun, and Fifth Head of Cerberus wow, talk about negative religious imagery in that one!!! some of the street names imply corruption, maggots, being a mountebank, the house number 666, etc) .  His short fiction is brilliant; I love the collections The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, as well as Endangered Species. 
As far as individual stories, Trip, Trap, The Changeling, Suzanne Delage, In the ginger bread house,  Seven American Nights, and Westwind are pretty awesome, and from his later work, probably From the Cradle.  I think there usually is a thematic “solution” to most of the mysteries. 
 
For example, in Trip, Trap the two individuals put aside their subjective understandings and come to an objective “real” sprititual communion that creates the third billy goat to kill the troll under the bridge (the sword is broken in the spirit world, so there are no piercing wounds on the body because that is MORE real than their individual subjective realities).  In The Changeling, paying attention to when the unaging boy shows up (when the girl Maria is a child) leads us to understand why Pete Palmer isn’t in the 4th grade year book picture – he was born in 1931 instead of his erroneous mind altered assumption of 1934.  There is also external evidence to corroborate this: the actor Pete Palmer who played Lil Abner was born in 1931, as was Gene Wolfe. Lil Abner was a notorious oaf, and the origin of that word implies a changeling … so our narrator was actually switched in 1931 and wrestling his changeling in 1944 or so altered his memories.   So many awesome features to almost every Wolfe story when you sit down and approach it systematically; amazing.

Marion
Guest

Matt,
I’ve been wanting to read Gene Wolfe for many years. I finally read Pirate Freedom and post a review on my blog:
http://kammbia1.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/book-review-36-pirate-freedom-by-gene-wolfe/
I understand that Pirate Freedom is one of Wolfe’s more straightforward novels with a somewhat reliable narrator.  As you will read in my review, I felt it was more closer to a Robert Louis Stevenson novel than the science fantasies he is known for.
I thought it was engaging and readable…but could tell it was not his best work.  However, Pirate Freedom is a keeper on my bookshelf.
I’m going to try Book of the Long Sun series and There are Doors as my next Wolfe novels.  The Book of The Long Sun intrigues me a lot and I’ve read Nightside of the Long Sun and liked it.
Marion
 

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