Did you know Gene Wolfe, who turns 85 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.
This article was originally published May 7, 2013.
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.