The science fiction and fantasy community has lost a beloved icon. We are extremely sad to report that author and SFWA Grand Master Gene Wolfe passed away on Sunday, April 14, 2019 after his long battle with heart disease. He was 87.
Gene Wolfe was born in New York on May 7, 1931. He studied at Texas A&M for a few years before dropping out and fighting in the Korean War. After his return to the US he finished his degree at the University of Houston. He was an engineer, and worked as the editor of the professional journal Plant Engineering. He was also instrumental in inventing the machine that cooks Pringles potato chips. He pursued his own writing during his editorial tenure at Plant Engineering, but it took a few years before one of his books gained wider notice in the sci-fi community: the novella that eventually became The Fifth Head of Cerberus. The whole tale was finally released as three linked novellas in 1972, and this is the beautiful opening passage:
When I was a boy my brother and I had to go bed early whether we were sleepy or not. In summer particularly, bedtime often came before sunset; and because our dormitory was in the east wing of the house, with a broad window facing the central courtyard and thus looking west, the hard, pinkish light sometimes streamed in for hours while we lay staring out at my father’s crippled monkey perched on a flaking parapet, or telling stories, one bed to another, with soundless gestures.
Wolfe went on to write over 30 novels, with his best best-known work, The Book of The New Sun, spanning 1980-1983. The series is a tetralogy set in the Vancian Dying Earth subgenre, and follows the journey of Severian, a member of the Guild of Torturers, after he is exiled for the sin of mercy. Over the course of the series the books won British Science Fiction, World Fantasy, British Fantasy, Locus, Nebula, and Campbell Memorial Awards. In 1998 poll, the readers of Locus magazine considered the series as a single entry and ranked it third in a poll of fantasy novels published before 1990, following only The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Wolfe’s fans include Michael Swanwick, Neil Gaiman, Patrick O’Leary, Ursula K. Le Guin, and many, many more, and he was praised for his exciting prose and depth of character. Asked by editor Damon Knight to name his biggest influences, he replied: “G. K. Chesterton and Marks’ [Standard] Handbook for [Mechanical] Engineers.” In 2015 The New Yorker published this profile of Wolfe by Peter Bebergal, in which the two discussed his decades-long career—it’s well worth a read.
Wolfe won the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award in 1989, the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1996, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2007. In 2012, The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named him its 29th SFWA Grand Master.
Wolfe is survived by his daughters Madeleine (Dan) Fellers, Mountain Home, Arkansas, Teri (Alan) Goulding, Woodridge, Illinois, son, Matthew Wolfe, Atlanta, Georgia and 3 granddaughters, Rebecca (Spizzirri), Elizabeth (Goulding) and Alison (Goulding).
He leaves behind an impressive body of work, but nonetheless, he will be dearly missed.