Tue
May 7 2013 10:00am
Gene Wolfe: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Gene Wolfe birthdayDid you know Gene Wolfe, who turns 82 years old today, invented Pringles? Well, okay, okay, that is a smidge hyperbolic, but he did develop the machine that makes them. I like to imagine that their famously mustachioed logo is an homage to Wolfe—look at that twinkle in his eye—but that is strictly head canon.

That is just the sort of person Gene Wolfe is though; he’s not content with writing a science fiction epic, or revolutionizing the fantasy epic, or creating a science fantasy epic that bridges the subgenres. Or that Neil Gaiman called him “...possibly the finest living American writer.” Or that Michael Swanwick called him the “...greatest writer in the English language alive today[,]” or that the Washington Post called The Book of the New Sun “[t]he greatest fantasy novel written by an American.” Oh no. He has to take a detour and help invent a new kind of potato chip. Even his life has secret nooks and crannies for the wary reader.

If I had to use two words to describe Gene Wolfe’s writing—say it was my one chance to avoid the fate of being given to the apprentice torturer who is the protagonist of The Book of the New Sun—those words would be “unreliable” and “narrator.” If I had to compare him to a couple of writers—if, say, the mercenary Latro, suffering from amnesia ever since he took a knock on his head fighting at the Battle of Thermopylae, needed it in short-hand—I would invoke Jack Vance and Jorge Luis Borges. Gene Wolfe paints lush worlds with a sense of history, vivid worlds that convince you they exist even after you close the covers of the book. Mythgarthr, the fantasy setting of The Wizard Knight, must be just next door to Earth, and the Urth of the Solar Cycle certainly is the far future fate of our world, isn’t it?

If you were ever going to take my word for something, take it for this: you should read Gene Wolfe. I’ll help you pick something out. If you like “Dying Earth” science fiction or fantasy—they blur together, as I’m sure you know, and Wolfe can be the blurriest—you should start with Shadow of the Torturer, book one of The Book of the New Sun, collected in an omnibus called Shadow and Claw. If you like high concept science fiction, try out Nightside the Long Sun, the first book in The Book of the Long Sun, collected in Litany of the Long Sun. If historical fantasy is more your speed, Soldier of the Mist, in the omnibus Latro in the Mist, is where you should start. If high fantasy is what you crave, The Knight is the book for you; its companion, The Wizard, concludes The Wizard Knight. Short stories, you ask? Wow, there are a lot of collections, but I guess The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (yes, sic) is my favorite, but then I’m a sucker for “The Hero as Werwolf” (again, sic). In the mood for something less fantastic? Try Peace, or read my review of it if you aren’t convinced.

I’ll leave you with a few words from Neil Gaiman on “How to read Gene Wolfe”:

There are wolves in there, prowling behind the words. Sometimes they come out in the pages. Sometimes they wait until you close the book. The musky wolf-smell can sometimes be masked by the aromatic scent of rosemary. Understand, these are not today-wolves, slinking grayly in packs through deserted places. These are the dire-wolves of old, huge and solitary wolves that could stand their ground against grizzlies.


Mordicai Knode thinks Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix are Blue and Green; if not on a literal level than on a spiritual one. You can argue about with him about it on Twitter or see pretty pictures on Tumblr.

21 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai


I'll just leave this here: "Three Wolfe Moon."
Tim Buller
2. samzo77
Where can I order a shirt! That is splendid.
Ryan Labay
3. Drowned World
Happy Birthday, sir!

and yes, that shirt is divine.
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
I must confess, the blame for that shirt must fall squarely on my incredibly terrible MSPaint skills.
David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
Tiny nitpick: Latro lost his memory at the Battle of Plataea, not Thermopylae.

But Wolfe is a fantastic writer all around and almost everyone will find something they like in his catalog.
Aaron Singleton
6. Aaron Singleton
Long live the Wolfe!
Mordicai Knode
7. mordicai
5. DemetriosX

So noted! I probably just heard "Xerxes" & "Rope Makers" & my brain jumped to the obvious. I'm not the Hellenic scholar I wish I was.
Aaron Singleton
8. Gardner Dozois
If you're a historical fiction fan, you might also like Wolfe's nearly forgotten historical novel A DEVIL IN A FOREST. PIRATE FREEDOM is also pretty close to a historical novel with some fantastic elements added.

If you're a fan of mainstream novels of depth and complexity, try PEACE, one of his best, although, being Wolfe, it's very tricky, and turns out to be a good deal more than that.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
8. Gardner Dozois

I must confess to the hope that the re-issue of Peace spells good news for Devil & Pandora...
Alan Courchene
10. Majicou
Pringles? Hyperbolic? I see what you did there.
Aaron Singleton
11. Eugene R.
Majicou (@10): Nice, nice catch! Pringles chips and hyperbolic planes, yes! You win the "Three Wolfe Shirt".
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
10. Majicou & 11. Eugene R.

(can't decide if he should admit that glorious pun was unintended, or let people believe that he's a pun genius.)
Colin Bell
13. SchuylerH
@12: Nonetheless, what a Wolfean way of putting it. (I half expect to find out that the article was unreliably narrated and, if interpreted, turns out to be about crisp manufacture) I haven't read much Wolfe yet but my most recent is The Fifth Head of Cerberus (he even predicted Vernor Vinge!).
Aaron Singleton
14. Joe BT
"If you were ever going to take my word for something, take it for this: you should read Gene Wolfe." There it is in a Pringles tube.

The man and his work are Living Treasures.
Mordicai Knode
15. mordicai
13. SchuylerH

I really, really, really like Fifth Head. As I allude to in my sign-off, I like to pretend it directly & factually prefigures the Solar Cycle; while I realize that is probably not entirely accurate, it is hard not to see how it directly prefigures it literally-- as in, from the stand point of literature-- with shapeshifting aliens, mated worlds, ghoul bears, & all that jazz. The Lexicon Urthus speculates that the nearness of the Moon-- Lune-- in New Sun would have created tidal patterns matching those in Fifth Head...
Colin Bell
16. SchuylerH
@15: Imagine the effect it had on me: I hadn't even heard of Gene Wolfe and picked it up in a hurry because it seemed short and was in the SF Masterworks line. I spent the next week re-reading it.
Aaron Singleton
17. Stephen Early
Wolfe's writing style: haunting and hypnotic. Even if I have no idea what in the world is going on or who to trust, I find the story always irresistably compelling. A couple favorite short stories (or are they Novellas?): Forlesen; Tracking song.
Aaron Singleton
18. Jonnyten
You do not read Gene Wolfe stories. They happen to you. Then later, even when you are doing other things you begin to figure out what exactly happened to you and why. Re-reads shorten the cognitive louping.
Mordicai Knode
19. mordicai
16. SchuylerH

Ha ha ha oh man now I am cracking up. I remember when I figured out that the protagonist's name is a pun on "gene" & that his last name starts with a "w" & isn't "dog"...

...& then reading about how when there is just one Shadow Child alone, it's name is "Wolf"...

17. Stephen Early

I just finished reading The Moon Pool-- stay tuned to Tor.com for a forthcoming review-- & if you liked "Tracking Song" you might like The Moon Pool.

18. Jonnyten

...until at some point the re-read finds the hidden gem that makes the 2d loop into a 3d sphere...
Aaron Singleton
20. Marc Aramini
Thanks for the article, Mordicai. Gene Wolfe is a great, great artist. (For what it's worth, St. Anne and St. Croix, while blue and green, seem to have been somewhat thematically inspired by the Virginia Woolf volume mentioned in the libary scene in Fifth Head - the story "Blue and Green" by Virginia Woolf, in which green represents fecundity, plants, and life while blue is the death of a rotting sea creature contrasted with a maddona's veil from a cathedral). Sol can be seen in the sky from St. Anne and St. Croix, and Earth is actually a location that they can travel to and from. For many many reasons, that simply cannot be the case of Blue and Green in the Solar Cycle. The theme of the Short Sun book is that when you are trying to go home, both you and the home will have changed so much that you won't recognize it anymore. Green is the hell in Short Sun, Blue the new chance. In Fifth Head, green St. Anne, named after the Virgin Mary's mother, (associated with the immaculate conception) is a paradise lost, and blue St. Croix (the cross, named after the crucifixion of Christ (a parthenogenetically reproduced God-man, by the way)) a decadent, decayed, and over administrated society that no longer functions. Despite the city under the sea in Blue, the symbolic association would have reversed. The four armed man in St. Croix, another failed Wolfe clone, is the product of science and is definitely not a hybrid. The four armed creatures in Short Sun are biological in origin. The (not so) coincidental relationship between the two settings is authorial misdirection.
Mordicai Knode
22. mordicai
18. Jonnyten

A month later & I finally get "cognitive louping."

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