Gene Wolfe is 83

by Henry Farrell on May 7, 2014

I’ve been reading my way through the New Sun tetralogy again over the last few months. In honour of the day, one of my favourite passages (as the protagonist, Severian descends a cliff, in a world grown so old that the object of ‘mining’ is not to find seams of raw minerals, but instead to discover the relicts of the past and convert them to use).

The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.

Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.

At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules.



Roy 05.07.14 at 7:17 pm

He really is magnificent isn’t he?

My high school, from which he graduated didn’t in my time there have his books in the library. Thankfully that was later remedied.


Sean Sullivan 05.07.14 at 8:36 pm

And as if by magic – and it may have been magic, for I believe America is the land of magic, and that we, we now past Americans, were once the magical people of it, waiting now to stand to some unguessable generation of the future as the nameless pre-Mycenaean tribes did to the Greeks, ready, at a word, each of us now, to flit piping through groves ungrown, our women ready to haunt as lamiae the rose-red ruins of Chicago and Indianapolis when they are little more than earthen mounds, when the heads of the trees are higher than the hundred-and-twenty-fifth floor—it seemed to me that I found myself in bed again, the old house swaying in silence as though it were moored to the universe by only the thread of smoke from the stove.

From Peace, one of the great books of its century.


JakeB 05.07.14 at 8:38 pm

I read those books through twice when I was going through a very bad time. Being able to appreciate the magnificence of his imaginative construction was one of the anchors I used to help pull myself out of that bleakness. I keep the two handsome black compendia on my bookshelf, even though I haven’t reread them, just to remind me of how thankful I am to him for that.

Coincidentally, I happened to see a reference to a musical called ‘The Lictor’s Sword’ in a LE Modesitt book last week.


Anderson 05.07.14 at 9:50 pm

I just was not smart enough for those books, I guess. Will have to try them again sometime.


Dr. Hilarius 05.07.14 at 10:04 pm

My first reading of “Shadow of the Torturer” was in a hospital for surgery following a climbing accident. Large amounts of narcotics mixed dreams and book. I re-read it later, unaided by drugs, and enjoyed it just as much. A real wizard that Wolfe.

For the uninitiated, “Fifth Head of Cerberus” is a good place to start.


DaveL 05.07.14 at 11:26 pm

I remember reading the first part of “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” in Damon Knight’s Orbit series of original SF back in the day, and later buying “The Shadow of the Torturer” at the Harvard Coop when it first came out. I’ve never looked back, but instead turned back to almost all of his books for many re-readings, each of which awakens new ideas.

I wish him many more birthdays and (selfishly on my part) many more productive writing years.


DaveL 05.07.14 at 11:36 pm

By the way, Gene is actually 83, not 82.


Henry 05.08.14 at 1:35 am

Thanks – fixed.


William Berry 05.08.14 at 3:29 am

I’ve only read a little of Wolfe’s stuff, mostly short stories; wasn’t familiar with the mining-of-the-past passage quoted in the OP. What struck me about it was how similar it is to some of M. John Harrison’s “Viriconium” material.


JakeB 05.08.14 at 4:04 am

I’ll add that if you can find a copy of _Castle of the Otter_, it’s a lot of fun for those who enjoyed the tetralogy. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of battlefield tactics and how Wolfe talked about his concern that someone would insist on giving one of the books a more science-fictiony name like _Star-Breaker_ or the like.


Niall McAuley 05.08.14 at 8:08 am

The first time I read that, the tiles reminded me of Penros tiles

I did not like Urth of the New Sun as much, but the Book of the Long Sun is terrific, more of a straightforward adventure story, but very good. I thought The Book of the Short Sun was very good, but I read it before TBotLS, which made it seem a lot more cryptic, and perhaps better, than it is if read in sequence.


Henry 05.08.14 at 11:36 am

DaveL – he got an oblique reference in GoT (TV a few weeks ago) – when Joffrey is asking for names for his sword, someone calls out ‘Terminus’ (this is almost certainly a deliberate reference to ‘Terminus Est’; someone else has just shouted ‘Stormbringer.’

William – both are masters of prose, although MJH sharply dislikes Wolfe’s books as best as I recall from hanging out on his message board back in the day.

Niall – I’m just the opposite – the Long Sun books leave me cold – for me the last consistently good Wolfe book is Soldier of the Mist (there are passages in ‘The Wizard’ that are lovely though).


Belle Waring 05.08.14 at 2:03 pm



JimV 05.08.14 at 2:22 pm

His plots are often hard for me to follow, like a three-dimensional being trying to perceive a four-dimensional shape, but all his characters are alive, which makes him a great writer in my book (and in his books).


Henry 05.08.14 at 6:33 pm

Belle – now it’s my EVEN FAVORITER THAN BEFORE passage. I also really love the ‘all claws are sacred Claws’ bit towards the end, but that may be because: lapsed Catholicism, and anyways it doesn’t work nearly as well if you haven’t worked your way through all four volumes.


Shatterface 05.08.14 at 7:01 pm

Didn’t he have something to do withthe invention of Pringles too?


Anderson 05.08.14 at 7:15 pm

JimV, what a great simile, & my feeling exactly. I’m all Why are we here? reading New Sun.


Shatterface 05.08.14 at 7:30 pm

I’ve only read a little of Wolfe’s stuff, mostly short stories; wasn’t familiar with the mining-of-the-past passage quoted in the OP. What struck me about it was how similar it is to some of M. John Harrison’s “Viriconium” material.

A little like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker translated into, er, English.


Mikhail Glushenkov 05.08.14 at 10:36 pm

@JakeB “Castle of the Otter” is available for Kindle.


Doctor Memory 05.09.14 at 12:15 am

Sigh. The New/Long/Short Sun books are so amazing; it makes what happened in Wizard/Knight and the shockingly awful Home Fires all the more depressing.


John Rankin 05.09.14 at 1:21 am

“… In the final reckoning there is only love, only that divinity. That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin. Here I pause again, …”
oh, yeah


Belle Waring 05.09.14 at 2:48 am

Yeah, he sort of seems to have gone down the MRA rabbithole at some point. I just pretend all that shit is non-canon. I read one later short story of his and just–! The dude’s ex is planning to take him for all he’s worth by making her young daughters falsely plead on the stand that he sexually abused them, and since he loves the kids he’s rolling over without a fight. Then, separately, aliens have crashed in a nearby pond (it’s winter in VT or Maine), and they are brownies, really. The time you spend in the ship is short but when you get out hours have passed. The brownies get the adult daughter of the evil divorcing wife, and hero ex goes to save her, and torches the brownies ship (WHY DUDE? WHY?!) AND kidnaps one of them which he takes home to he his sex slave, since they’re sort of like human girl children, really. Which–DID YOU READ THE BEGINNING?! But this was not Wolfe being tricksy, this was Wolfe having lost his mind. Whatever, it doesn’t detract from his previous achievements.


Belle Waring 05.09.14 at 2:49 am

Now I feel bad that I even said anything bad about Gene Wolfe, so much do I love Gene Wolfe.


William Berry 05.09.14 at 3:07 am

Belle@22: Yeah, “The Ziggurat”, as I recall. A story so awkward and goofy I couldn’t help wondering if there might be something mental— I remember thinking: perhaps some sort of senile dementia, whatever— involved.


Henry 05.09.14 at 3:28 am

Weird thing is that Kim Stanley Robinson, whose taste is usually impeccable, really likes that story. I myself thought it was interesting that the Best of Gene Wolfe collection, which Wolfe picked himself, was very, very light on his later stories, suggesting that he himself knows they’re not his best work. As best as I can remember the only one that makes it in is The Tree is My Hat, which is not superb Wolfe, but not bad either.

Also, while I’m being grumpy. Shadows of the New Sun? Not so great. It’s undeniable that the guy himself is inimitable when he’s really on form – and that people with less tricky imaginations and more straightforward writing styles (Joe Haldeman, Nancy Kress) might not be playing to their strengths by writing Wolfe pastiches . But you don’t have to rub it in by temporarily lifting up so many third raters from their deserved obscurity (they must have been mates of one or both of the editors – that’s the only explanation I can come up with) to write stories for the volume. There were several pieces that were actively painful to read.

In fairness, it’s not all bad. Neil Gaiman does an excellent pastiche of a good minor Wolfe short story. Michael Swanwick’s piece is superb – both Swanwickian and Wolfean at the same time (riffing off of both The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and Swanwick’s own previous Cerberus-inflected book, Stations of the Tides). David Drake, to my surprise (maybe I should give his military SF a chance? opinions?) does a very decent re-imagining of what is, to be fair, perhaps the least tricky good story that Wolfe has written.

But there are a lot of wasted opportunities. I don’t know why e.g. David Moles and Paul Park, great writers who are obviously influenced by Wolfe weren’t there (perhaps they were asked and couldn’t do it). Or Paul McAuley, whose Child of the River is a very interesting and well-crafted secularist pushback against BOTNS. But above all else, I would have loved extravagantly and wholeheartedly to have seen what Cathrynne Valente could have done with an assignment for this book if she’d been willing – I could see her taking Wolfean themes, and completely reimagining them, remaking them and turning them to her own purposes. The similarities (love of fairy tales) and differences (Wolfe’s chilliness; Valente’s wildness) could have worked out well.


Henry 05.09.14 at 3:44 am

I should say (I didn’t say but I will now) that the KSR essay is the best single piece I’ve read on Wolfe’s fiction, and what is good about it.


JakeB 05.09.14 at 3:55 am


I really like David Drake’s sf work. That said, if you don’t like military sf in general, you almost certainly won’t like him. He’s one of the military sf writers who understands that every dead body was once a person; he’s really well read; and he’s a very good craftsman in that his plots have a tremendous amount of thought and well-hidden machinery in them. Personally I think _Redliners_ is the book that has the most weight to it, although I also really enjoy the whole Leary and Mundy series, given my love of the Patrick O’Brian books.


Belle Waring 05.09.14 at 6:46 am

Hm, I kind of like military SF but haven’t read any in ages, maybe I should try. Henry: I’m sort of flabbergasted at the idea of KSR as genius critic because…have you read his books? I have. I have this problem, where I read long series of books I don’t like. You guys may have heard about this. KSR…er, at first I was siced he was a chick who wrote hard SF, and then he wasn’t. There are memorable moments, but. Yeah, so, why, after reading all three Mars books, did I read Antarctica, which has got at least 100 pages of minutes from anarcho-syndicalist committee meetings? I DON’ EVEN KNOW. No, I know, it was before there was enough internet to entertain me with what I have measured as being 300-500 pages of genre fiction a day. (Zoë helped me/suggested I time myself to compare maybe twp years ago.) There was a bookstore here that used to have trade-ins.


Doctor Memory 05.09.14 at 7:01 am

Belle: oh god. At all costs avoid “Home Fires”, which manages to somehow combine MRA-style pearl-clutching about gender roles with a nice coating of nigh-Coulterian “Eurabia” Islamophobia. It’s really, really dire. (Hm, I’m probably making it sound train-wreck fascinating, and maybe it technically kinda is, but it’s also shockingly dull and plodding: I tore through the Long Sun books in a quick week because the words just sang. Home Fires is a brief ~250 pages and I gave up halfway through because there was just nothing to hang my hat on.)

In re KSR: I feel you. I mean, if ever there were a target market for scifi retellings of anarcho-syndicalist committee meetings, I’m pretty much it, but even so the Mars books were a grim slog by the end, and I never felt the need to try anything else of his.


Niall McAuley 05.09.14 at 8:50 am

A review of “An Evil Guest” at Strange Horizons begins: “I’ve now read this novel twice and I’m still not entirely sure what exactly is going on, or whether it’s any good or not. ”

Unfortunately, as with “The Sorceror’s House”, there’s less going on than you’d hope, and no, it isn’t very good. Readable, yes, and better than the woeful “Home Fires”, but certainly not even average by Wolfe’s high standard.


Doug M. 05.09.14 at 10:50 am

Belle — it has just occurred to me that the point of “The Ziggurat” might be that the narrator is, in fact, a sex abuser (and a deeply damaged human being). It would be consistent with Wolfe’s tradition of unreliable narrator.

Unfortunately I have a sad suspicion that this is not really what’s going on, and that it really is a tale dictated from somewhere down the MRA rabbithole. In any event I hated that story so much I can’t make myself reread it.

Doug M.


Henry 05.09.14 at 11:05 am

JakeB – thanks – that’s enough that I’ll give it a try. Normally, I’m with Cosma that “I have a special place in my heart for military SF, and it’s run by the ghost of Felix Dzherzhinsky,” but that’s because most of the stuff that I’ve read (not very much; perhaps a biased sample) wasn’t all that hot on the human being stuff (especially the non male, non heterosexual human being stuff). My surprise at Drake writing something good is likely unfair – it’s a hangover from the marketing of “Hammer’s Slammers,” (for my tastes at least, a singularly unattractive title for a book) a couple of decades ago.

Belle – I can see what you’re saying, but I still like KSR a lot (me; I really like 100 page descriptions of anarcho-syndicalist meetings if they are KSR written 100 page descriptions of anarcho-syndicalist meetings). If you want to give Icehenge a try, it’s shorter and pithier. And do read the essay – it’s really good.


Belle Waring 05.09.14 at 12:42 pm

Doug M: no, no; I read the story twice to give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt and because I apparently suffer from a rare form of literary masochism. It’s not the unreliable narrative of an abuser, it’s just nutcasery. There’s not enough content external to the stuff he’s being unreliable about, if you see what I mean. That’s not a sufficient explanation, though, because you can doubt a lot about the sanitized pre-History of Severian’s Imperial rule without having any non-propagandist information at all. Dag, I think I even went back and read it a third time later to be certain. Something is wrong with me. Just trust me, 100% nope on what would otherwise seem a natural Wolfe tale-telling mechanism.


J Thomas 05.09.14 at 1:02 pm

MRA? Market Reduction Approach? Moral Re-Armament? Mutual Recognition Agreement? Men’s Rights Activist?

I didn’t like Home Fires at all. It’s a story where the government knows how to make you want whatever they want you to want. If they don’t notice you, then you can want whatever you happen to want, but if they care what you want then it will happen. Also they can do lots of biological things like brain transplants and partial brain transplants.

It might not be just the government. Maybe enemy spies have that technology down pat, to the point they can take a witness or whoever and quickly convince him of whatever they want.

We have known for a long time that when people do things and don’t know why, they make up reasons. That’s true with primitive hypnosis, with hypnotic suggestion that people are told not to remember, ask them why they do the suggestions and they come up with reasons the whole audience knows are not true.

In the story when people do things that make no sense, they come up with reasons the same way. But there is a reason, somebody made them. The characterization doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t matter whether their explanations make sense.

Occasionally the narrator believes things that are not compatible with physical reality. He knows this is because somebody made him believe it, and that doesn’t phase him. He privately without telling the reader thinks out what their purpose might be in persuading him of this, and reasons on from there.

His sympathies change from scene to scene, though he reasons to himself and to us that he’s still supporting the same things behind it all. He literally does double-think, he carefully avoids thinking things that would get him in trouble, but still comes up with rationalizations that get him the same results he would get if he thought those thoughts.

And so he finally solves a whole collection of mysteries and finds the spy/saboteur, even though he is getting manipulated by both sides or multiple sides all through the process. Success! In the process he demonstrates to the government that he is uncommonly valuable, so he volunteers to join the military and be subject to far-more-intense mind control, for utterly unconvincing reasons.

It’s the ultimate unreliable narrator. Anything he says could be a lie, and you don’t even know whose lie. Lots of characters who act like a clunky writer is making them do whatever the plot requires with no regard for their own character development. Lots of gaping plot holes. If an unpublished writer asked me to read it, I probably get past the first couple of chapters. But the plot holes are important pieces of the plot….

I hated it. He was trying to establish tiny islands of free will in a vast sea of mind control, and those islands were shrinking. Depressing and disgusting. Yuck.


Belle Waring 05.09.14 at 1:29 pm

Got in in…erm, four. Well, that sounds like a terrible story, so you should read a good book by Gene Wolfe in which you struggle to determine what the hell is going on as the narrator lies to you and…is he dead or what…nay, a great book: so, read Peace. Later I’ll tell you what really happened.


Bruce Baugh 05.09.14 at 2:03 pm

Henry, I agree with JakeB about David Drake. He’s a much better writer than his most visible fandom would lead one to believe, and he has much better values than a lot of mil-sf whiners and ranters (both authors and fans). He’s humane, and quietly elegant with his craft.

This thread makes me want to re-read a bunch of Wolfe.


Henry 05.09.14 at 2:17 pm

Bruce – thanks – I’ll definitely give Drake a try. It’s a perpetual challenge in F/SF both for readers within the genre and out – that the good stuff often isn’t marketed in any way that allows you to distinguish it from the so-so and the garbage, so that you have to rely on word of mouth from people whose taste you trust to distinguish the gems from the dreck.


Henry 05.09.14 at 2:21 pm

And Redliners looks to be available for free for Kindle …


Doug M. 05.09.14 at 2:33 pm

@Belle, I’ll take your word for it. I read it back to back with “Counting Cats in Zanzibar”, which is another one that makes no goddamn sense. (That’s the one where there’s a humanoid robot that can pass for human, and it seems AFAWCT to be likable and benign in an Asimov’s-Three-Laws sort of way. The female protagonist ends up committing suicide to frame the robot so that, IMS, people will turn against the whole robot thing?)

A problem with Wolfe is that because he’s Wolfe, it’s hard to tell when he’s actually writing a bad story as opposed to a story you’re not getting. There are several Wolfe stories that on first reading made me shake my head, scoff, or sneer… only to discover upon rereading that I had massively misunderstood (or missed entirely) one or more key plot points. “Wait, the narrator is actually the copy; the real guy died before the story started. Ohhhhh. Damn!”

But in this particular case, I’ll totally take your word for it.

Doug M.


Doug 05.09.14 at 2:36 pm

For those not into 100-page anarcho-syndicalist meetings, earl KSR is better: the three California novels, Escape From Kathmandu, The Planet on the Table. Mars, in my view, was sorta interesting and then a slog.

C. Valente doing Wolfe is an interesting concept! I have to admit that Circumnavigated didn’t really grab me until about 2/3 of the way through. The start was good, then there was a bunch of Shiny! Squirrel! Shiny squirrel! and then it got down to a story that was emotionally coherent but didn’t seem to require all the shininess that preceded it.

For some reason, more of Free Live Free has lodged in my poor brain than Peace. I’m sure the flaw is mine rather than Wolfe’s.


Neel Krishnaswami 05.09.14 at 3:30 pm

IMO, David Drake is pretty much the only mil-sf writer worth reading, though I can stand him only in small doses.

His war stories are basically horror stories — his protagonists are frequently pretty much the scum of the earth, and he does not shy away from the fact that their victory means that a bunch of human beings were turned into meat. In his essays, he has written in so many words that he thinks David Drake went to Vietnam, and someone different and worse came back. So you get this very odd effect in his writing — it comes through very clearly that he considers the butchers and killers “his people”, but despite his sympathy for them, he clearly sees that they are broken, criminal monsters.

It is not surprising, though, that Drake was able to write an effective Wolfe pastiche. He is fluent in Latin and an enthuasiastic amateur classicist (a lot of his plots are adaptations of the classics), and so is probably one of the few people able to come close to Wolfe’s density of reference.


J Thomas 05.09.14 at 5:53 pm

I like Peace. I haven’t so much liked discussing it because I ran into people who were sure they were right when I was sure the text didn’t really say but only allowed the implication, and then they’d say “Gene Wolfe told me I was right.”.

I like Free, Live Free better. To me it’s not nearly so bleak.

There was a short story, I can’t remember the name, in which the US government was falling and the insurgents were calling for suicide bombers exactly like NPR asking for donations…. It was worth a very careful reread if only for what Wolfe was saying almost directly and openly about US society.


Mark Pontin 05.09.14 at 7:31 pm

“Hour of Trust” is the title of the Wolfe story you refer to. It was published in the early 1970s and it’s indeed interesting for its criticisms of what a society run by HBS graduates, Mckinsey-style management consultants, PE asset strippers, etcetera would ultimately look like.


Niall McAuley 05.09.14 at 9:03 pm

Bah, the author and his opinions. I’ve had Ken McLeod tell me I’m wrong about what’s in one of his books, but I still see it! And his notion of what’s in the book is clearly wrong!

Which may imply that it was originally a Charlie Stross book, and then the Eschaton immanentized stuff so it became a Ken book (which then influenced Charlie).


MattF 05.10.14 at 10:11 am

Re: Pringles. Yup. Designer of the only snack food with negative curvature.


Francis Spufford 05.10.14 at 1:31 pm

Belle: I’m with Henry from the anarcho-syndicalist minute-taking point of view — I think one could get around the boring meetings objection to socialism, if it were possible to clone KSR as every commune’s secretary — but given that for obscure reasons you don’t seem to revel in these agendatastic qualities of his, can I recommend, as well as the early Three Californias novels, The Age of Rice and Salt and Galileo’s Dreams? The first is a metempsychotic alt-hist of a world without Europe, the second a beautiful and immensely good-hearted meditation on scientific history, plus stately planetary romance. You were a bit unfortunate with Antarctica. I think of it as a kind of dwindling literary aftershock of the Mars books, with the same materials producing smaller effects in the polar setting. Though it does have some very fine nature writing indeed in it.

Meanwhile I had better buckle up and apply myself to Wolfe at last. I’ve only ever tried The Wizard Knight, which I persisted with for what felt like forever, with everyone’s insistence that the true greatness only became clear on re-reading ringing in my ears, till I just couldn’t stand it any more. It’s a relief to hear that was a bad one.


Henry 05.10.14 at 2:26 pm

The best place to start is probably _The Fifth Head of Cerberus._ If you like the first of the three linked stories, you’ll certainly like the rest of prime Wolfe. If you like the way that the apparently-clumsy-seeming second and third stories fit with it, you’ll likely love it. And if you don’t like it, then it’s the best possible signal that Wolfe Is Not For You.

After that, _The Book of the New Sun_, _Peace_ and his vintage short stories (the ‘Best of” collection does a good job of collecting most of ’em). And _Free Live Free_ is very funny, even though I’ve never quite been able to figure out how it all fits together.


SusanC 05.10.14 at 4:06 pm

Re: The Ziggurat, my interpretation was that Emery had abused his step daughter. We know that Emery hopes to keep the woman from the future as a sex-slave; and she has a really suspicious resemblance to the step-daughter he was accused of abusing (possibly Tamar really is Aileen, and Emery is under a psychotic delusion; or Tamar is Aileen’s clone from the future, and the branch point she is in the process of altering — in the manner of Terminator etc. is Emery’s murder of his family). Other clues point in the same direction; and there’s a strong hint that he intended to murder his son (“Say that I was to try to kill you. …But you’ld love me afterward, just the same.”)

It’s a bit reminiscent of The Shining, with them snowed in with an insane killer. (Also: Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment is not quite so insane, but shares some qualities as a protagonist).

In any case, hardly men’s rights, as Gene Wolfe is going out of his way to suggest that Emery is the prime suspect.


Stephen Frug 05.11.14 at 3:07 am

I just wanted to endorse what Henry (47) said at Francis Spufford (46) about Wolfe reading order, although I don’t know which stories made it into the Best Of (I had all the various collections so didn’t bother to get that one). And I want to add that, while I’ve heard disagreement, I think that The Wizard Knight is definitely sub-standard Wolfe.

As someone who (TWK excepted) has read mostly early (i.e. better) Wolfe, I’m curious which of the later Wolfe novels (say, post-Long Sun) early Wolfe-fans liked.


Kevin J. Maroney 05.11.14 at 5:52 am

KSR’s introduction to THE VERY BEST OF GENE WOLFE is available in issue 300 of The New York Review of Science Fiction, which is available free at Weightless Books.

I’ve read pretty much all of Wolfe’s work through ~2004. Of the later work, I am very partial to The Book of the Short Sun, which is rawly emotional in exactly the way that most of Wolfe’s work is cool, and The Wizard Knight, which has one of my short bits in Wolfe’s work, when our protagonist meets an angel from the world above the world of the gods:

“It does not trouble you that your dog prefers me to you?”
“No,” I said, “I prefer you to me, too.”


J Thomas 05.11.14 at 5:25 pm

I liked Pirate Freedom and The Land Across and I sort of liked The Sorceror’s House. An Evil Guest had some flashes of brilliance that made it worth the trudge.

My hypothesis, backed by nothing but my reading, is that starting with Wizard Knight Wolfe felt like he wanted to be more accessible. He had this little group of elite readers who read his stories like sudoku puzzles, proud to believe they understood, and he wanted more.

So he started writing stories where you could mostly ignore the Wolfeisms. Pirate Freedom can read like a historical novel without very much subtlety. It may have been a strong bid for new readers. The Wizard books similarly, except that IMO they didn’t have the right tone to attract the new readers he would have wanted.

Home Fires was the Wolfeiest thing I’ve ever read, and I hated it. By the time the main character has his motives repeated replaced and his memories dramaticly tampered with etc, there isn’t much left of him except his skills and a general inclination to be nice to everybody when his compulsions let him. It’s like “Lord forgive us all for we none of us know what we’re doing.”. It’s an OK epiphany but I’d rather not get there that way.

Lots of Wolfe’s newer books are like diluted Wolfe. They tend to be very good but not what you’d expect from him. I think he’s trying to change his ecological niche, but it could be some other reason.


empty 05.11.14 at 6:16 pm

Err, anybody like Bujold?


Henry 05.11.14 at 9:13 pm

Oh yes. Although I’d like to see her do more light comedy. The disastrous dinner-party in A Civil Campaign is as finely teed-up as something from one of Wodehouse’s better Blandings novels.


Cosma Shalizi 05.11.14 at 9:45 pm

51: The original context for my crack about military SF was making an exception for Bujold, who I think is extraordinary.
By coincidence, if it is that, I am also re-reading the Book of the New Sun, but haven’t yet come to this passage.


J Thomas 05.11.14 at 11:52 pm

I like Bujold a lot. She’s funny.

She slipped into writing funny military science fiction because it sold well. I think she likes fantasy romance stories better, but she does a lot of things well.

As far as I know she never has her main character lie to the readers. But I could be missing things.


JakeB 05.12.14 at 12:49 am

Although the Sharing Knife books are as horrible in their own way as the worst of late Wolfe, unfortunately.


Marc Aramini 05.12.14 at 1:02 am

I think late Wolfe changed but it is still great. Soldier of Sidon is just as good as anything he has written, and Short Sun was an absolute masterpiece once you figure out exactly what is going on and who is speaking when. (When Horn says good-bye at the end of On Blue’s Waters under the tree, he is really saying good-bye, going to ride a beast with three horns, and from that point on, he is Silk in denial).

Home Fires has so much dialog and cross examination because ironically Skip is the sleeper spy who kills his own agent Zygment on page 285, controlled by his boss Chet Burton/Coleman Baum/Charles Blue. His walking stick might even be what sets off the bomb earlier. Re-reading Wolfe is ALWAYS worthwhile.

@51, J Thomas – well, you CAN work his stories out like puzzles. You just have to be scientifically and religious minded – for example, in the story “The HORARS of War”, it isn’t clear whether the main character is a human or an artificial android HORAR … he is able to kill a human to save other HORARS, but the resolution is quite simple symbolically: the star glowing in the sky at the beginning of the story is the star the magi follow when Christ is born, fully human and fully divine. The main character is fully HORAR and fully human both – redeeming the artificial with true feelings of concern and care even in war. In his earliest masterpiece, “The Changeling”, if you follow the chronology, you can logically explain why he isn’t in the fourth grade picture in 1944 – the boy who doesn’t grow up and is always in the fourth grade appeared in 1931 with his older sister, and in 1944 the narrator and the ageless boy wrestled, altering the narrator’s perceptions into believing that he was in the fourth grade that year – thus making the him born in 1931. His name is Pete Palmer. The real life actor who played Lil Abner was also born in 1931, playing a notorious oaf, and the word oaf implies an elfin changeling exchanged in a bad bargain – thus with external evidence we can prove that our narrator was actually born in 1931 and switched at birth.

In The Fifth Head of Cerberus, the third novella, VRT, in addition to the boys name, refers to Variance Reduction Techniques in engineering, in which a series of approximations gives a solution. The middle novella is an allegory of both the history of the aborigines and the identity of Marsch himself: Shadow children riding marshmen in the story shows us that Marsch is not an aboriginal at all, but actually infected by the small parasites who fly on the wind (the Shadow Children) (Eastwind sans testicles survives, but believes himself to be his brother, switched by the bite at the end of the story, and the same thing happens to Marsch – he is not the boy, but infected from the cat bite by the parasitic Shadow Children). The hands are a red herring – you need to look at their useless legs that dangle, like Aunt Jeanine. All the people on St. Anne and St. Croix are aborigines believing themselves to be human, save the cloned number five, the last real human left. This is why there have been no new buildings in so long. Port Mimizon is a hand, made up of Thumb and Fingers in its topography, and this is the useless hand we should be looking at. The Rue D’Asticot, the street of maggots, refers to the larval stages of the aborigines before they assume their adult imitative form. At first it seems that it is an aboriginal imprisoned by humans, but it is actually a shadow child parasite imprisoned by aborigines believing themselves to be human.

Gene Wolfe is amazing.


Marc Aramini 05.12.14 at 1:16 am

I hate to say it, but Wolfe is the one author where it is almost likely that his readers just won’t get the subtext, and enjoyment of late Wolfe, in my opinion, relies more on unearthing that subtext to get the full effect of his novels and short stories. He has written a few straightforward stories, but those are usually very short snippets. I hasten to posit that the vast majority of readers don’t realize who Silk’s biological father is, though the cogs that lead to his caldeship and much more start almost immediately after his enlightenment in that gnostic closed whorl.


J Thomas 05.12.14 at 4:48 am

Given the belief that a pattern is present, people will create patterns.

Gene Wolfe is very good at getting people to create patterns from his writing. Are the patterns really there? If you ask Gene Wolfe whether the pattern you discovered was the one he intended, will he say yes? Will he say yes if he hadn’t thought of that one before?

One of the nice things about a hall of mirrors is that you see yourself.


Marc Aramini 05.12.14 at 5:08 am

@ J Thomas above. Once upon a time Gene answered my questions. One met with a categoric no, no, no. He has an objective solution in mind at least for his major elided resolutions, though some interpretations are obviously crazy and fail to be rigorous. I always insist on textual evidence

Not to pick on some critics, but the patterns they espouse are sometimes asinine (navigator as j f k, cues as a story about taking a poop, for example – whimsical forced pattern – cues is a Faustian tarot story)


Marc Aramini 05.12.14 at 5:13 am

I have a rigorous thirty page paper on fifth head that does an extremely thorough textual job, but Ultan’s library has sat on it for about a year , though they said they were definitely publishing it. Wolfe is a Catholic symbolist with an engineering background. What is missing from our conscious reality is the just important structural principal, and it isn’t subjective. His writing reflects this. (Perhaps despite his fine reader-centric intro to Endangered Species)


Marc Aramini 05.12.14 at 5:24 am

When patterns explain major narrative mysteries and provide sense or overarching theme they cease to be arbitrary observations. (Spoilers for short sun) For example, in Return to the Whorl the creature Babbie is angered when Horn’s son is attacked, hugs Horn’s son and points at his two tusks saying huh huh huh. Even though this is all Babbie ever says, his reaction to the boy reveals the reality of the prophecy that Horn would ride a beast with three Horns, and the cannibalistic trees with their liana brides provide a mechanism through constant presence, personification, and outright juxtaposition with the Vanished People. Here at least Babbie is trying to get out the name Horn, and this is the structural excuse for Babbie to always make that noise – intentional authorial concealment from the passive reader.


J Thomas 05.12.14 at 9:21 am

Marc, I don’t want to tell you you’re wrong. Wolfe has deliberately written in a style that’s so obscure that his readers writhe thirty page papers arguing that they have uniquely figured out what he means.

This is all good fun and nobody goes home with broken bones, and I’m not complaining. I like to read Wolfe too.


Henry 05.12.14 at 1:53 pm

Gene Wolfe is very good at getting people to create patterns from his writing.

The one speculative reading I’m prepared to lay my hat on is that his short story “A Solar Labyrinth” is about exactly this.


Marc Aramini 05.12.14 at 2:07 pm

I am only saying that for the most part even if Gene doesn’t provide direct plot closure he had a solution in mind during construction of the story – whether it is ultimately discernible to any reader or not.


Marc Aramini 05.12.14 at 2:31 pm

The only admission I heard from him that actually acknowledged the obscurity was at breakfast at the Nebula awards at which he was named Grand Master. He complained about blurbs and synopses being extremely inaccurate for books in general, paused, then said “especially for my work”. He is more like a kabbalistic modernist than a true relativistic postmodernist, and stories like “Trip, Trap” have a theme which shows individual subjectivity and ego fall to universal objective spiritual communion even if it is physically impossible. (The two different different characters join in the spirit world to become the third billy goat and destroy the troll- and the pointless sword in the spirit world overrules the physical laws of the waking world with it’s pointed sword such that there are cuts but no stabs on the body). This is the furthest thing from a destabilization of objectivity that you can get.


Marc Aramini 05.12.14 at 2:32 pm



Patrick McEvoy-Halston 05.13.14 at 2:31 am

Marc Aramini hugely helps to decode it all, just lay it all out straight. Then afterwards we can talk about what’s going on in all his famil(y)iar relationships with friends, family, and pets. I’m wondering if he made his work REQUIRE so much work decoding, so that no one would explore how his relationship with his mom was worked out in his works — I’m talking YOU, gigantic sea-mother thing from New Sun; I’m talking YOU, whomever-matera Blood-killer in Long sun — or at least feel under the allowance to deal it optional.


J Thomas 05.13.14 at 5:25 am


Marc, again I don’t want to tell you that you are wrong. It’s possible that the patterns you find have objective physical reality independent from what anybody thinks.

My own experience from doing science and from playing eleusis, is that surprisingly often people create patterns and then test them in ways that unconsciously bias the results.

I have noticed that people find Christian symbolism wherever they look hard enough for it.

For example, my wife found a whole lot of Christian symbolism in Slan, even casting Jommy Cross as Christ!

It’s possible, in fact extremely likely, that Gene Wolfe writes by creating lots and lots of Christian symbols for readers to discover. How would you tell which of the ones you find are Wolfe’s, and which of them are just the normal background Christian symbols you will see wherever you look? It might be helpful to try writing a story of 5000 words or more which has some human interest but does not contain any Christian symbolism….

Again, I do not say you are wrong. But I ask you, because you could have even more fun than you do now, think it possible you may be mistaken.


Marc Aramini 05.14.14 at 5:19 am

Just one more point I wanted to make on a slightly different note is that while some of his short fiction is less dense in recent years, a lot of it is very good and does not deal with the ideology people find problematic in Home Fires. Since 2000, “In Glory like their Star”, “From the Cradle”,”monster”,”the little stranger,” “the hour of the sheep,” “innocent”, “why I was hanged,” “dormanna”, “josh”, and “the giant” have all been pretty strong short stories written into 2013, though obviously they are not quite as sublime as his Island stories or Seven American Nights.


Marc Aramini 05.14.14 at 5:31 am

At 68 Patrick there are lots of creepy things with mom going on. (Spoilers for long sun) When the dream sequences equate hyacinth and kypris and chenille and Mamelta and mother … The only way it can be true is if Kypris, the goddess of love, who possesses all of them save Mamelta , a sleeper from the Urth, is really literally that maternal role … And who is she a scan of? And the first thing Mamelta says to Silk is “we will be lovers” then later he looks at her naked groin going up the ladder. The same with Severian and Dorcas and the whole grandson grandmother stuff… But silk as the heir Typhon/pas always wanted with his consort blue eyed Mamelta/kypris makes the family relationships all kind of messed up. And what’s up with that blond catachrest? Lots of strange family stuff.

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