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Gene Wolfe 1931 – 2019

“…that is to say, in all of this, I think, I believe in some sense much akin to the belief of faith, that I noticed, felt, or underwent what I describe—but it may be that the only reason childhood memories act on us so strongly is that, being the most remote we possess, they are the worst remembered and so offer the least resistance to that process by which we mould them nearer and nearer to an ideal which is fundamentally artistic, or at least nonfactual; so it may be that some of these events I describe never occurred at all, but only should have, and that others had not the shades and flavours—for example, of jealousy or antiquity or shame—that I have later unconsciously chosen to give them…” – Peace, 1975

Gene WolfeOn April 14, 2019, we lost one of the greats. Not just one of the key voices in genre fiction for the past forty years, but someone whose every work interrogates the power of storytelling. Gene Wolfe’s work kept coming back to narration. To narrate a story is to create a world; in doing so, what do we assume, what do we keep, what do we leave out? The act itself, this most human of urges, is intensely tied in to our own perspectives, the way we see the world is inextricable from the way we see ourselves. It is also inherently different from reality itself; every act of storytelling is to some extent fantasy. No one understood this better than Gene Wolfe, and the series of slippery, unreliable narrators who populate his tales.

“In ancient Greece, skeptics were those who thought, not those who scoffed.” – Soldier of the Mist, 1986

The Fifth Head of Cerberus (cover)I first encountered Wolfe’s work through The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which so engrossed me I read it over the course of a single day. Wolfe’s treatment of shapeshifters and identity is one of SF’s key explorations of colonialism and the violence it inflicts on the colonised and the coloniser. It’s also an incredible and unsettling exploration of identity. Across three linked novellas, different unreliable narrators show us the world as they see it, or at least as they think they see it, and it’s up to the reader to unpick what this might look like. This was something that before encountering this book I simply didn’t realise that science fiction could do. I was entranced.

These themes of identity and perception, and unreliable narrators, recur throughout Wolfe’s work. If science fiction and fantasy frequently place the reader at the mercy of a viewpoint character to show us the strange and alien worlds they inhabit, the reader would be well advised not to trust any of Wolfe’s viewpoint characters. In The Shadow of the Torturer, the opening volume in the iconic Book of the New Sun series, our narrator Severian informs us in the opening couple of pages that not only does he have a photographic memory, he suffers from hallucinations and is a compulsive liar. As Severian guides us through his strange and unsettling world, subtle hints inform the reader that we are really seeing our own Earth in its dying days far in the future.

The Shadow of the Torturer (cover)Fans have spent huge amounts of time and words trying to unravel and interpret every clue and piece of symbolism in Wolfe’s dense work of science fantasy, both in academic texts and fan websites, but every time you reread The Book of the New Sun, new subtleties and ideas are revealed. It is an astonishing example of what can be achieved in the genre, and its casual smashing of the boundary between SF and fantasy is still influential to this day.

“We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life—they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.” – The Shadow of the Torturer, 1980

All this suggests that Wolfe demands a lot of his readers, which is to some extent true. However, the challenges of engaging with Wolfe’s work are infinitely rewarding. Wolfe understood, perhaps better than most, that reading is always an act of collaboration between the reader and the author, in which the reader brings their interpretation to the author’s words. Wolfe made the most of this collaborative process, challenging his readers’ basic assumptions about the trust we place in those telling us stories, and unlocking the readers’ ability to explore a text beyond the limits of what is explicitly shown to them on the page. His books are frequently bizarre and disconcerting, but they are not forbidding or unapproachable. To read a Gene Wolfe story, one must be paying attention; this is no bad thing.

Nightside the Long Sun (cover)Much is made of Wolfe’s extensive and often obscure vocabulary. The fascinating thing about this is how quickly one stops consciously noticing this whilst reading his work. The unfamiliar words do not pull the reader out of it, but rather they provide another area in which the context of what we encounter in the text helps us interpret the unfamiliar. In the end, one understands why this word is the correct word for that part of the story. In a way, this is simply an extension to what we already do as readers of genre fiction—our job as readers is to interpret the unfamiliar and come to an understanding of it through the context of characters and events through which we encounter it.

The Land Across (cover)Over the course of his long career, Wolfe wrote an astonishing number and range of novels, series and short stories. From the Latro series, which is told from the point of view of a soldier suffering anterograde amnesia, who must write down the events he has experienced before he forgets them each day; to the Book of the Long Sun, his thoroughly Wolfe-ian take on the generation ship idea; to The Land Across, a travel guide to a land that doesn’t exist; his work never stopped being engaging and surprising.

Wolfe has left us a rich legacy of wonderful stories, with powerful images that linger in the imagination long after the book has been put down, and a challenge to those of us that write fiction of any kind in terms of both the quality and the kind of stories that we tell. He will be greatly missed.

“Each of us finds his way, his place; we rattle around the universe until everything fits; this is life; this is science, or something better than science.” – The Fifth Head of Cerberus, 1972

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