Solar Labyrinths

by Henry Farrell on October 24, 2003

I’ve been meaning for days now to put up a pointer to “John Holbo’s”: nice post on Gene Wolfe, which has an interesting comments-thread. A statistically improbable proportion of the politically-inclined blogosphere “are”: “Gene”: “Wolfe”: “junkies”:, and a fair few of them have commented on this thread. And if you haven’t read Wolfe, shame on you. The field of science fiction/fantasy has two standout candidates for great authors who’ll be read in 100 years, and Wolfe is one of them. His masterpiece is “The Book of the New Sun” series (collected in the US in two volumes, _Shadow and Claw_ and _Sword and Citadel_ (with a sort of coda, _The Urth of the New Sun_). It’s a wonderful book; shadows of Kafka, of Borges, of Chesterton. Wolfe’s prose style is ornate, without being baroque; _BOTNS_ is thick with archaisms, loanwords and other exotica, but they’re employed with precision and economy, and even a sly sense of humour. It’s grave, and chilly, but it sings .

bq. We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life – they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.

Go read.



Chun the Unavoidable 10.24.03 at 6:52 am

I guess it’s obvious who I think the other candidate is.

I should point out that there’s an on-line journal of Wolfe studies, and a very active mailing list, both of which I’m far too lazy to link to.


Doug 10.24.03 at 3:30 pm

I think that Henry thinks the other is John Crowley, and I think that Crowley ought to be for the fineness of his invention, but I think it’s more likely that Wm Gibson will be the other, for having shaped the world that will then be all around us.

Any ideas on the roots of the correlation between Wolfe appreciation and blogging?


Mike Kozlowski 10.24.03 at 5:38 pm

While it’s probably futile to predict who’s going to be read in 100 years, if I were a betting man, I’d be putting money on Tolkien.


novalis 10.25.03 at 12:00 am

I’m betting on LeGuin for the 100 years thing. At least The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.


Greg 10.25.03 at 2:34 am

Fritz Leiber and Mervyn Peake would surely be two other candidates for this honour.


E. Naeher 10.25.03 at 5:20 pm

It pains me to do so, but I’ve got to agree with Chun — if I had to choose one, it would be Vance. But to say that there are only two is pessimistic — Mervyn Peake certainly belongs there, and Tolkien despite his detractors, and maybe some of the excellent Soviet writers like Jablokov. Crowley is intriguing but often unreadable.


chun the unavoidable 10.25.03 at 10:25 pm

Actually, Lem is much more likely to last than either of them, now that I think about it.


Ian 10.26.03 at 6:29 pm

I would think Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ the most likely. It is truly a remarkable achievement – both writing and plotting are light years ahead of C S Lewis for example. As for Tolkien I’m not sure. There have been so many copies that to some extent the currency is devalued.


Gary Farber 10.27.03 at 4:43 am

Nomination: Samuel R. Delany.

And, yeah, the idea that there will be only two skiffy-type writers from the 20th/early 21st century read in the 22nd strikes me as quite unlikely. What’s more to the point is that most often this sort of thing doesn’t become clear for at least fifty years, or more. Shall we look back at when Captain S. P. Meek and A. Hyatt Verrill were all the rage in the field?


chris hall 10.27.03 at 4:04 pm

three letters: PKD


Todd Hanson 02.27.04 at 11:44 pm

I was glad to see Chris Hall’s brief but extremely well-spoken three word posting on this topic. I would add that Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Word for World Is Forest” remains one of the best novels I have ever read on the subject of racism, and unlike much writing in this field, it becomes less, not more, dated as time goes by. Tolkein is another no-brainer in this discussion, even though some would find him too obvious a choice. But getting back to Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” (which from what I can tell should now be properly viewed as a five-part novel, rather than a tetralogy w/ a coda/sequel added on) — I ‘d have to describe it is possibly the most ambitious literary achievement of its entire genre. It reads like a cross between heavy-duty archaic literature masters like Chaucer/Milton/Spenser/etc. and the similarly heavy-duty modernist/postmodernist literary masters like Joyce/Pynchon/DeLillo/etc. … in fact, TBOTNS is about as hard to read as either “Beowulf” or “Ratner’s Star,” which is saying a lot. In other words, it reads almost exactly NOT like any kind of scifi/fantasy ever written. For that reason, I’d hesitate to even recommend it to fans of those genres. Difficult, hard-slogging reading because of the archaic diction, emotionally draining because of the constant and overpowering sense of melancholy and sorrow, it is almost entirely unrewarding on the Escapist Pulp Paperback level so many fans turn to scifi/fantasy for, but utterly and profoundly rewarding for those who put out the effort required to absorb the cumulative, profound impact that resonates long after the book has been fully absorbed (which will probably take even the devoted reader at least two full reads.) The fact that scifi/fantasy’s publishing origins were almost exclusively in the pulp, lowest common denominator realm make transcendant, literary works like those of Wolfe even more fascinating (in that he has chosen a field that will alienate many serious literary readers from the get go, then written on a level sure to alienate those loking for easy entertainment that make up the fan base of that genre; in effect, double-alienating himself from a potentially appreciative audience before he even begins) but to me all the more special for it: Gene Wolfe is clearly not an author who will EVER recieve the true recognition he deserves, but doesn’t seem to mind. (In fcat, he seems to acknowledge this fact allegorically in TBOTNS several times, eg. when Severian the Lame, having completed the normous tome he calls The Book Of The New Sun at the end of part four, proceeds at the beginning of part five to literally hurl the completed manuscript, sealed in lead, into the gulf between the stars, where the chances are astronomically against it ever being seen or read by any lifeform ever again. Rather than being depressed by these and other extremely melancholy themes that pervade TBOTNS, I found myself ultimately uplifted by them: though Wolfe’s primary theme is, clearly, death (and the equally inevitable human pain that precedes and follows it in life) his embrace of this theme is, in the end, paradoxically life-affirming. Thank you for posting this thread and encouraging people to appreciate the work of this all too little-known modern American master.

Comments on this entry are closed.