The Essential Gene Wolfe
By Seneca Rōka
“Reality is a crutch for people who can't handle science fiction.”
— Gene Wolfe
April 14th marked the passing of Gene Wolfe, a writer described as the Melville of Science Fiction. Nearly universally hailed as the greatest writer in speculative fiction of his generation, and by many as among the best stylists in the English language generally, Wolfe’s fiction has acquired for itself a reputation as a “final boss” of literature; stories feature twisting, labyrinthine plots, invented languages and fickle narrators of questionable sanity. Though a favorite of critics in recent decades, a “writer’s writer” who’s fiction is often placed on a pedestal and roped off from the common rabble of the low-minded sci-fi/fantasy fans, it’s important to note that Wolfe has always and only considered himself a “reader’s writer”.
In his own words:
For new readers, Gene Wolfe’s towering bibliography may seem like an impregnable fortress, surrounded with barricades set up by critics, but behind the facade of Sci-Fi’s Difficult Genius rests Sci-Fi’s Gentle Genius; a high stylist who respects his readers and never once condescends to them, a seasoned storyteller whose only motivation is to enthrall and entertain.
For Wolfe, the reader is a collaborator upon whom he relies to truly complete every story, as he himself has said, “…the real story is a thing that grows between the teller and the listener”. Every Wolfe story is then, in one sense, unfinished, eagerly awaiting your valuable input to complete it. In that spirit, consider the following works in progress during your next book haul— all you need to do is pick them up and read.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972)
A collection of three interconnected novellas, or a single novel pretending to be three interconnected novellas. Set on the twin planet colonies of Sainte Croix & Sainte Anne, populated by a cast of siblings, clones & a native species with the ability to perfectly imitate their human colonizers, the narrative that emerges from these stories with confront the reader with questions of identity & personal freedom.
A Proustian ghost story hiding within a gentle midwestern memoir written beyond time & space. Alden Weer, an unassuming man, tells his life story in a series of fragments & tangents, often digressing into stories told to him as a child & stories within stories as the narrative progresses. This novel of pure memory is at once Wolfe at his most ordinary & his strangest.
Wolfe’s first story collection established him as a master of the short story, with classics such as “Seven American Nights” & “The Hero as Werwolf" included is this volume of mind bending fiction.
The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983)
Wolfe’s Magnum Opus, ranked by Locus Magazine as the 3rd best fantasy novel of all time behind only the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, follows the journey of the torturer’s apprentice Severian who is expelled by his guild for the unforgivable crime of showing mercy to a “client”. Equipped with an executioner’s sword and an ancient relic that raises the dead, Severian encounters time travelers, a mad scientist, revolutionaries, & nobility.
The Soldier of the Mist trilogy (1986-2006)
Presented as the diary of a Roman mercenary suffering from anterograde amnesia, this series continues exploring Wolfe’s favorite themes of memory and unreliable narrators as the protagonist Latro attempts to navigate the world of ancient Greece as a solider & as a slave gifted with the ability to converse with the gods.
Endangered Species (1989)
Described by R.A. Lafferty as the best single author collection of the ‘80s, Endangered Species displays Wolfe and his Borgesian best. Featuring a generous selection of over 30 stories published throughout Wolfe’s career before the ‘90s, the reader will find the author has mastered an alarming breadth of genres & subjects. Space opera & pulp thriller, fantasy & myth, war & comedy— these only scratch the surface of what Wolfe has to offer.
The Wizard Knight (2004)
Frequently recommended as the entry point for new readers into the fiction of Gene Wolfe, this duology of books is about a young boy transported into a fantasy world where Norse myth is blended with Arthurian legend & the veil between reality and fantasy is more tenuous than your first reading would lead you to believe.