A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: the novels of Gene Wolfe

This man is considerably more clever than practically every one of us

Gene Rodman Wolfe (born May 7, 1931) has been described by people better qualified than me, many of them writers, as either ‘the best SF writer in the world’ or ‘the best writer in the world’. Whilst I wouldn’t presume to have the qualifications to proclaim such things, when people like Ursula Le Guin and Neil Gaiman say that, you sit up and pay attention.

I’ve been a fan of Wolfe since the early Eighties, and I have all but a handful of very rare books that he’s written, novels and short story collections alike. I first discovered him in the Seventies, flexing my imagination in SF and Fantasy in the wake of reading The Lord of the Rings: his short stories cropped up in several anthologies I borrowed from the library, and I was deeply impressed by the novella, The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Wolfe was always interesting, but at that point not compelling.

This changed in 1981, with the English publication in paperback of The Shadow of the Torturer, the first volume of Wolfe’s classic The Book of the New Sun quartet. I saw this advertised in the Guardian, in black and white, and was immediately attracted to the superbly moody cover painting by Bruce Pennington, and the laudatory blurb by Ursula le Guin.

I’d learned enough about author blurbs by that time to know that Roger Zelazny’s praise should be treated with caution, and Anne McCaffrey’s avoided like the traditional plague, but Le Guin’s recommendations should be taken very seriously. I went out that same week and bought the book. I have read it, and it’s three companions, on average every eighteen months to two years ever since, and I have three sets of the quartet, an indulgence I haven’t extended to any other books in my collection.

I have also purchased all of Wolfe’s books since.

What makes Gene Wolfe so great? For one thing, he is a fantastically subtle writer, who fills his books with puzzles and hidden relationships that the reader has to be very alert to discern. In this, he more than fulfills his own maxim for successful writing: “My definition of a great story has nothing to do with “a varied and interesting background.” It is: One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.”

To again take The Book of the New Sun as an example, on the surface this is a long, complex, involving story in which the narrator ascends from the lowly position of a parentless apprentice to the Guild of Torturers to the supreme ruler of a substantial empire, yet the true story that Wolfe is telling is a completely different and no less epic tale, in which its true protagonists and its calculated effects are merely shadows that rarely appear on the printed page, but whose actions and effects can be determined by a perceptive and careful reader.

This is Wolfe’s speciality: lacunae, unnamed characters, relationships never spelled out. Almost without exception, his books are related by unreliable narrators. Severian of the New Sun quartet has a perfect memory, but self-confessedly lies. Latro of the Soldier books has experienced a head injury that limits his memory to the last twenty-four hours: the scrolls he writes in are the only evidence of who he is, where he is and what has happened.

Other narrators are naive, or unintelligent, or young. The reader must balance out what he or she is being told with their own experience and judge how much of it can be trusted.

Reading a Wolfe novel is like walking a labyrinth with your eyes shut.

Which makes this a fascinating experience. And one which I am now going to repeat, reading all of Gene Wolfe’s novels in chronological order, trying to make sense of them and trying to work them out. Though he is such a brilliant writer, and one who can provoke endless mysteries, none of which he ever explains for his despairing readers, Gene Wolfe has never been a commercially massive writer at a level his work deserves. Perhaps I can tempt some of you to try his work where you have never before read, or I can introduce you to writing you have never before known.

I can promise you that that would be well worth your while.


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