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.