Sep 26, 2008, 06:01AM

You Should Read Gene Wolfe

His incredibly nerdy sci-fi books rank with some of the best, most imaginative recent American writing.

Gene Wolfe, who now looks like the Walrus from Alice in Wonderland, writes novels that could be called science fiction but perhaps should not be. He is an engineer and a Catholic, and both of these qualities perfume his works. He fought in the Korean War, and this too informs his writing, although he does not necessarily show the expected horror for combat of his predecessors Pynchon and Vonnegut. Often Wolfe’s work eludes description. His most famous novel, for instance, re-imagines the New Testament with Jesus as a time-traveling professional torturer and occasional actor who possesses a voracious sexual appetite and a perfect memory.

This sounds like something Kilgore Trout would have written, but Wolfe’s style really isn’t like that of any other author. The science fiction community likes him very much. I suggest, in this brief gloss of his major works, that people who read literary fiction may really like him too.

Wolfe’s major work is The Book of the New Sun, an overarching title that wisely conceals the more genre-bound names of the four novels that comprise the tetralogy. Orb Publishing has recently reprinted this series in two sober, black volumes that wouldn’t be out of place on a coffee table. The original covers of the four component books bore lurid and literal sci-fi illustrations of major characters, including a blue-tinted man astride a rearing, monstrous horse, brandishing a shattered sword and what looks like an enormous Water Pik. He has the expression of a man who has been denied something at the department of motor vehicles; no wonder Wolfe is little read outside the ghetto of science fiction.

The man on the cover is Severian, the narrator of The Book of the New Sun and its batshit-crazy coda, The Urth of the New Sun. The narrative follows Severian from his boyhood at the Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence (more popularly called the Guild of Torturers) through his many utterly bizarre adventures and later changes of career. I will try not to spoil the plot twists unduly, although the narratives become so baroque that even a bald revelation of what happens at the end may not make any sense until the reader goes over the whole series twice. Wolfe, as I wrote, is an engineer, and though his plots may appear disorderly they actually fit together with machine-like precision. Most of the more abstruse explanations come when the story really goes off the rails in the novel-length coda. This involves a lot of time travel and religious blather and is not quite as good as the preceding works.

But the preceding works are really good. Wolfe has many flaws, but he writes indulgent, excellent prose, and he has a lust for unusual words that may irritate some readers but delighted me. The Book of the New Sun takes place on Earth, but tens of millions of years in the future. Epochs of technological development and bizarre genetic experimentation have passed and people are living in the hollowed-out hulls of old spacecraft. This requires a lot of new jargon for animals, social positions, and technology, and Wolfe supplies it by raiding the dictionaries rather than making up nonsense names (he explains this all plainly in the afterword of the first volume, although he quite unnecessarily pretends that he is translating Severian’s record rather that composing fiction). Tolkien, who was a philologist, generated names that induce fantasy-nerd boners to this day, but Wolfe has picked suggestive and arcane terms out of history. The technique works rather well since the terms are evocative without necessarily sounding silly or being specifically rooted in sci-fi; they sound right, actually much in the way Tolkien’s obsessively researched names do.

Those of us who received a liberal arts education may have learned that using lots of big words does not necessarily make you smart, but Wolfe backs up his lust for exotic terms with a gift for description (and for terse, sharp action). He has a very unusual, almost bashful way of describing the more bizarre features of his far-future landscape; often you don’t know if he’s speaking metaphorically or literally. This doesn’t come from fuzzy language or lack of precision. Take, for instance, his description of Severian’s memory of mountains at the beginning of the second half of the tetralogy:

Soon I was intoxicated with the thought of the mountains […]. How glorious they are, the immovable idols of Urth, carved with unaccountable tools in a time inconceivably ancient, still lifting above the rim of the world grim heads crowned with mitres, tiaras, and diadems spangled with snow, heads whose eyes are as large as towns, figures whose shoulders are wrapped in forests.

This might seem like a simple simile: the mountains are like massive figures. Later Severian climbs these mountains and we learn that Wolfe was not writing metaphorically—at some point, past tyrants actually carved the mountains into enormous statues. Severian doesn’t find this all that extraordinary, because Severian has never seen normal mountains.

Wolfe, unfortunately, does not show an equal deftness with his characters. They seem to do whatever Wolfe needs them to at the time, rather than what they would do if they were people. His dialogue, which sounds much the same as his descriptive prose, doesn’t flex to the different characters who speak it. Severian and everyone he meets sound much the same (with a few, almost uniformly irritating exceptions, like Hethor the sailor who speaks in stream-of-consciousness babble). Wolfe’s dialogue further reveals his engineering background—Severian and his friends all spend an inordinate amount of time talking through simple logical puzzles, trying to figure out how and why people around them did things. By logic puzzles I don’t mean actual puzzles, but things like “could this person have seen me from this particular window?” or “who was the masked officer who challenged me to a duel in the costume shop?” Occasionally this becomes annoying, but then again Severian leads a very complicated life and sometimes the reader is grateful that he and his friends are explaining it.

A distressingly strong current of misogyny runs through Wolfe’s work—hardly surprising when it comes to science fiction. Severian narrates The Book of the New Sun, so some of his more baldly anti-woman statements can be excused as the voice of a character, not the author. But it’s still there—the nicest thing he has to say about women is that it’s impossible for them to injure their genitals when riding a horse.

Less excusable are the female characters who Severian meets. He has sex with practically all of them, apparently by default. Severian is tall and attractive, although he is also a professional torturer, which many people find a big turn-off. Most of the women in the story have very little personality—there’s a noble woman who sleeps with Severian because she’s bored and frightened; a shrew who spends most of the narrative trying to kill Severian; a doormat; a sexy doormat who received so much plastic surgery that she has become the most desirable woman in the world and can barely walk because of her creepily-described thighs; an older woman who sleeps with Severian because she’s frightened; a native girl who serves Severian as a slave and then sleeps with him; and I’m probably forgetting some. The women do have some decent dialogue, but only some, and without exception Severian is stronger and smarter than them

I dwell on The Book of the New Sun both because it is Wolfe’s most complete vision and because it represents his other works rather well. Wolfe wrote another major series (this one four novels long, plus a three-novel coda) called The Book of the Long Sun, which deals with many of the same issues as his earlier opus. Wolfe has a central and obsessive concern with the idea of people who are more than one person; not people who have multiple personalities, but people who through scientific or supernatural means fuse several personalities into one. I don’t really know why Wolfe finds this interesting. He handles it excellently and makes it serious, rather than pure fantasy wanking, but it nonetheless doesn’t seem to say much. Perhaps my background in social science has dulled my imagination to the point where I can’t relate. Anyway, the first four novels of The Book of the Long Sun are at least as entertaining as The Book of the New Sun, and in fact they take place in the same fictional conceit, although at a far remove from Severian’s place and time.

Wolfe’s first (and possibly best) book, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, may also take place in the same universe, and definitely deals with the same subject matter. It tells several interconnecting stories, the first of which is the narrative of a boy growing up in a bordello on a strange planet; he has a robotic tutor and a (morally) monstrous father. Later we learn of aboriginal aliens from a neighboring planet who apparently can take the shape of humans, and for the rest of the book it’s a constant guessing game of whether the different narrators are human, aboriginal, or some fusion of the two. Like the best science fiction, The Fifth Head raises more mysteries than it answers—we don’t get a full, coherent picture of the technology and society that has flung its colonists to these bizarre worlds, and the story is richer for not revealing everything.

Wolfe is still writing his Latro novels, a series of thoroughly researched historical stories about a Roman mercenary who gets conked on the head and gains the ability to see the gods in exchange for his short-term memory. I’ve found these works incredibly boring, devoid of the weird spark which animates the rest of Wolfe’s corpus. Also avoid Wolfe’s Castle of Days, a collection of unbelievably pompous essays. These include a straight-faced argument that genetically engineered animals will replace motor vehicles in warfare.

So Wolfe’s writing has its flaws, but as the year winds down into winter you might like to curl up with the tale of a time-traveling executioner, or the planet of the sex-vampires who absorb human thoughts, or the space-anthropologist who runs afoul of the colonial powers and may or may not be a disguised alien. At the very least you will learn a lot of pretentious new words.

  • "The nicest thing he has to say about women is that it’s impossible for them to injure their genitals when riding a horse." These books sound very exciting. How did you first come upon him?

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  • Thank you, Ari, for warning me about this trash. I'll stick to the classics like Jane Austen and Henry James.

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  • I think I may have failed to communicate that, despite Wolfe's many flaws, his novels are absorbing and imaginative; he makes his totally bizarre worlds seem plausible and consistent and interesting. Iris, I think I first ran across Wolfe while reading about Jack Vance (a very similar sci-fi/fantasy writer who takes himself much less seriously and on whom I would love to write another article). Science fiction nerds love their extremely specific categories, and Wolfe and Vance both fall into the "dying earth" genre. Alison, I don't think these books are trash and I would urge you to give them a shot despite their problems. They may not measure up to the Golden Bowl in emotional depth, but they have way more decapitations and gigantic mermaids. In fact, Wolfe's novel Peace is an excellent place to start if you're turned off by swords and explosions - it's an emotionally complex portrait of several generations of a southern family (seriously!) and reminds me somewhat of Cormac McCarthy's Suttree.

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  • I more or less accepted Jack Vance's misogyny because it was of a piece with his blithe amorality. However, I often find it unsporting to march joylessly through something otherwise interesting because it may offend one's refined sensibilities. I like to believe that you can have it both ways--a clear-eyed assessment of the moral failures of the work in conjunction with unabashed geeky glee because HEY vampires and spaceships and fun words.

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  • While I thought the article was good in spots, your ignorance of modern SF shows. I also cannot tell, even after reading, what your final take on Wolfe was. At times you say positive things about his works, then you say demeaning things about the man on a personal level. Rather immature. Let me guess: Are you a failed fiction writer? Something tells me you might just be. Oh, for those of you who are just visiting the "ghetto" of SF, go back to your stories of college professors having affairs and leave the interesting stuff to us literary bottom-feeders.

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  • Aaron, you might take a look at a few of my other articles in which I review additional SF ("Jeffrey Ford's Alternate Worlds") and in which I call into question the distinction between "good" literature and science fiction ("My Life With Bad Books"). My final take on Wolfe is that he's an excellent writer who occasionally gets in his own way.

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  • In all fairness, the "misogyny" is vastly exaggerated in this article, as is mostly the case for the sake of writing an article. While writing women satisfyingly may be seen as one of Wolfe's weaknesses (I would even count his Catholicism to this, although it may be one of his driving motivations for his fiction), there is no real hate of women, and in a novel like this it is essential not to mix up the narrator's voice with that of the author's opinions. Let us not forget that unreliable narrators are Wolfe's specialty, and that although women may not make an equal standing in some of his works, they are nevertheless complex, sympathetic, and usually innocent human beings, which are independent in so far as they are also "different".

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  • Alone the "praise" that all the obscure, quaint words in the books are merely a "pretentious" game, shows how all the criticism here could be handled with a little bit more sensitiveness.

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  • I know this is crazy late for this post, but I think this article really helped me gain a deeper appreciation of these books. Think of it this way, if you were a guy telling a story of your life, wouldn't you embellish it and say that every woman you ever met threw themselves at you? Severian's depiction of women's reaction to him specifically is entirely unbelievable. Either the writer is a hack, or it is the beauty of the unreliable narrator. Think about your comment about all of the dialogue sounding similar, wouldn't that be how the voice of past events would end up if you were recalling it years later? All the voices in the narrative are supplied by Severian's recollection. Is it lazy writing, or is it genius? You decide. Maybe a different look at the text might elevate your opinion.

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