Gene Wolfe, death of a master

Gene Wolfe, Acclaimed Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 87. Wolfe’s prose could be challenging to read. I actually read The Book of the New Sun trilogy twice because of some elements of impenetrability in the style, though there’s a reason Wolfe was acclaimed. In general, I’m not a fan of “science fantasy” or the “dying Earth” genre, but Wolfe really made it work.

One thing about Wolfe that is of interest is that like J. R. R. Tolkien he was a Catholic convert, whose religion influenced his work. Arguably more directly and consciously in the case of Wolfe. But it is subtle enough that it doesn’t distract or warrant notice. In fact, I’d argue that Severian is much less clearly a Jesus-figure than Paul in the Dune series to the naive reader.

I’m not someone who minds authors telegraphing their viewpoints and ideologies into narratives, no matter what it is. But I think there’s no point in putting it into “speculative fiction” if it’s too direct. For example, I think one reason C. S. Lewis’ Narnia cycle is less popular than Tolkien’s work is that it reads as Christian fantasy, rather than fantasy with inflections from the author’s Christian viewpoint.

Wolfe, like Tolkien, had strong personal views. But he did not let them saturate his stories. The Christian outlines and themes in The Book of the New Sun are clear after someone points them out. But they aren’t salient at all when you are reading it without foreknowledge.

4 thoughts on “Gene Wolfe, death of a master

  1. Really sad news, as much as was expected. What to say about Wolfe:

    In his literary technique and the weight of his literary ideas and concerns, he is (was) by a good measure the giant of 20th century sci-fi, to me. There’s not much that is comparable – possibly LeGuin and maybe Iain Banks, from a markedly different perspective, but they’re not nearly as “deep” or “humanist” in their motivating concerns and the subjects they try to engage with (they’re a lot more overtly in the bag of sci-fi as political argument and statement on our political destiny as a species, as is Herbert).

    As a sci-fi author of course, though an engineer and inclined to try and shore up his conceits with as much weight as they would take, he was certainly not in the category of sci-fi where “ideas” (a set of intended to be novel “What Ifs” that have never seen print before) drive the story (rather than characterization, plot, moral and existential themes, etc.). I’d also say he was more interested in exploring engineering ideas, really than high sci-fi ideas. He also allows for spiritual elements that you don’t really find in sci-fi (you rarely find a sci-fi author who isn’t defacto atheist or materialist in their outlook).

    It’s a pretty unusual position then in that you find many of the readers who would appreciate his literary technique to be off reading mainstream literature, while the sci-fi readers tend to prefer work more directly concerned with “ideas”, so the Wolfe fandom is narrow but deep, and he’s in many ways a writers writer than influential on a broad audience.

    Like you suggest, I’d agree his religion does come more through in the inclusion of spiritual elements (as quite serious and literal parts of the narrative) and religious-moral concerns through the fiction, rather than being fiction which has a didactic or “tract” purpose to persuade / convert / justify his religion to the audience (though he may be doing this on a very deep level!).

    In terms of writing fantasy, I would actually barely call ‘New Sun’ science-fantasy; if the protagonist carried a gun rather than a sword with a cool name*, I don’t think anyone would ever thought of it as anything other than post-apocalyptic sci-fi! Most of whose work is in sci-fi (and New Sun is not necessarily the best of that!). His actual fantasy, in the form of Wizard-Knight** is certainly worth a read though. Arguably the Latro books could also be considered fantasy, but I’d really consider them historical fiction with spiritual elements. In general, I suppose I’d consider him an all purpose “genre” novelist, with an unusual amount of literary weight.

    *It’s seems like typical Wolfean trick to see how far the audience will go in a cross genre categorization by making his protagonist ostensibly look (in his self image as an unreliable narrator) as reported a bit like a fantasy hero; he likes his layers of understanding that a re-reading audience will pick up on.

    **It’s very suitable for a teenage or older reader, and IMO draws on, comments upon and enriches reading of the antecedents of whole Northern European traditional of fantasy – Arthur, Celtic and Norse myth, and all the 20th century work that draws on that (Lewis, Tolkien, Poul Anderson, etc.).

  2. Razib: In fact, I’d argue that Severian is much less clearly a Jesus-figure than Paul in the Dune series to the naive reader.

    That’s pretty accurate, I’d say. With Atreides, I think Herbert is more explictly referencing the figure of Christ (exiled, marginalized figure and messianic, special birth), but also combining with the related stories of Muhammad (unifier of the tribes under a religion of conquest) and Moses (man from outside, in a sense, a weak tribe through exile and disempowerment who draws them into a new position of a moral code, a special mission and authority, again, to justify their further conquest).

    This is all part of Herbert’s motive to (I think) talk about messianic heroic leadership and the destiny of civilizations. Wolfe isn’t really as much concerned with that, with Severian, as much talking about with a “bad man” who is spiritually awakening and an instrument being moved towards a higher purpose, on some level, and so there are some loose spiritual parallels with Christ (wandering in the wilderness, being confronted by temptations and evil) really blended with wandering adventure narrative. (Just as the protagonist from his Short Sun series has some parallels with Odysseus, but it’s not really that direct either.)

  3. a Jesus-figure than Paul in the Dune series

    Had a discussion about this on Unz. I thought it was clear to most that Paul wasn’t a messiah – he pretended to be one to co-opt the Fremen, as Herbert apparently stated explicitly in an interview.

    Herbert also refers to a hero “afflicting” Arrakis and the Fremen in the second book, which seems to confirm the above description.

  4. Got another internal server error when I tried to comment. Went back and re-commented. It appeared this time.

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