On Gene Wolfe

On March 17th, I'm planning to attend a special event by the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame to honor the writer, Gene Wolfe. It's a pretty big deal--an especially satisfying deal for a lot of people, even if maybe not the greatest honor he's ever achieved. He's already been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, he's been acclaimed by writers you've heard of as the best living American writer, the best living writer in English, compared to Mozart, blah blah blah. All these laurels are insufficient to convince you of how good he is at what he does.

Imagine a friend told you about this little-known author who wrote stories about elves and hobbit-things and she tried to convince you that his work somehow transcended and redefined the medium. Or imagine this person tried to entice you to read this author of short stories mostly set in India--some of them about a boy raised by wolves and tutored by a panther and a bear. Now suppose she told you that this writer--who relatively few people had heard of-- that his name was William Shakespeare or James Joyce. That's the sort of the conversation I'm having with you right now.

But you still would not have heard of the guy and so you probably wouldn't be impressed. After all, had anyone made a movie of one of his books? To be convinced (without reading his stories yourself, that is), you'd have to somehow, improbably find yourself amid a small group of people like me: people who had their imaginations blown by his stories and never recovered. After an hour or so of listening to those fanatics, you'd sense that you've been missing out on something extraordinary. That is, you'd be enlightened.

But that would not prepare you for what a nice guy he is. Like misfortune, remarkable gifts are not bestowed according to merit. But sometimes the piano does land on just the right person. And so it happens in this case that the person with exceptional insight and ability is just the sort of person you wanted him to be.

Anyway, I received an email from Valya Dudycz Lupescu at the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. She said they were producing a commemorative program for the event and offered for me to submit a short message to Gene that would be included: "A message of congratulations, or perhaps share a special memory or account of how his work has influenced you." "How long?" "50-100 words". "Cool."

Unfortunately by the time I finished writing it, it was almost 600 words long. I put off sending it to her because editing things down is painful to me. She said I needed to have the text by February 15th, but, somehow, I got it in my head that it was the 17th. When I saw my mistake today, I quickly paired it down to a size I thought she would accept. I hope I wasn't too late. Either way, I'm going to publish here the entire text of what I wanted to say but didn't have the space for in the commemorative program. Consider this my own commemorative program:
In the early 90s a friend gave me four paperback volumes of “The Book of the New Sun”. He'd said that he’d never heard of this guy, but he’d made three unsuccessful attempts to start the books and had finally "pushed through" and was impressed by their originality and craftsmanship. When I got to the third volume, my wife remarked that I sure was "spending a lot of time on those books. What are they about?" I told her that I had no idea. "Then why are you reading them?"

"I have to find out how it ends!"

I didn't know yet that Gene Wolfe stories have no ending. Nor a beginning or middle.

It was disorienting to read an author who required from me a new way of reading a novel: To read it as people read the Bible or the poems of Blake or Cummings. It was as if an adult discovered a door in the house where he grew up that led to a new upstairs wing that he didn't know about.

Some years later, I finally got around to reading "Peace". I knew more by then. Half way through it, my wife asked, "Is it good?" "Oh, yes!" "What's it about?"

"Well, that's really the point of reading a Gene Wolfe story."

We are sometimes told that architecture is about Form and Function. That means an architect declares that he is going to build a house or an office building or whatever and then he creates a work of art beginning from the expectations of the user. Had Gene decided to be architect, his designs would not be like that. You would enter his structure and putter around and only after days of that, after multiple visits, after you had walked away from it for a week or two would you suddenly declare “Oh! That’s what he intended it to be!” And when others visited it, you would not be so presumptuous to tell them what it was for. You’d only smile knowingly as they fingered the knick-knacks and tried out the furniture. But you would be quite provoked if someone declared it was intended as a rustic summer cottage when it was obviously an apiary. “Well, okay, fine. If you want to use it as a house that’s your right I suppose but I can’t imagine why anyone would. There’s all those bees behind the walls and everything.”

Agatha Christie wrote a famous novel called Murder on the Orient Express. There is one corpse and twelve suspects all with motives and opportunities. There is also a detective to sort it all out, even though he ultimately doesn’t settle on a final solution. If Wolfe had written that novel, there would be no Hercule Poirot to divine clues from triviality. The reader would play the role of the detective. And the characters would seem strangely unfocused on the murder altogether. There would be an on-going debate among readers about whether there was a murder to begin with. And the story would unfold from the point-of-view of a red cap who was hopelessly smitten by a waitress in the dining car.

I'm grateful for Gene's stories: Not only for their identifiable characters, subversive settings, and mind-hanking plots--but, also for their Easter eggs and substrata and references to other literature and genre. They're an enclosed garden where you start by admiring the flora and then you start digging and weeding and then you fall into researching new plants to bring in until soon it's too dark to find the way back that you came.

Update I
Valya says I wasn't too late. Hurray!
Update II
I wonder if my dilemma inspired this flash fiction contest:

"THE CONTEST: Write a flash fiction story that features a wolf (or a Wolfe). This “theme” can be interpreted as broadly as you wish. The story must be at least 100 words but no more than 250 words (that includes the title). The story can be of any genre....Sometimes called sudden fiction, microfiction, or short shorts, the length of flashes can vary. For our purposes, the flash cannot exceed 250 words. Flashes should still contain classic story elements: protagonist, conflict, and resolution. The limited word length, however, dictates that some elements will remain unwritten or implied in the written story."

Other applicable essays

From Joanna Russ's unfavorable review Wolfe's first published novel, Operation Ares, but just before the publication of the novella The Fifth Head of Cerberus which Russ seems to have already seen:
"Books like this are generally called "promising," but by the time you read this review, Mr. Wolfe will be as far above Operation ARES as Ares is above the worst science fiction hackwork."
Daniel Petersen at The Silk & Horn Heresy makes his own attempt to explain Wolfe's fiction.


  1. Thank you, James. Great stuff!

    I trimmed my contribution until it was exactly 100 words long. I sit here surrounded by a rich detritus of enthusiastic adjectives, cut from the text.


  2. Nigel, I am now picturing orphaned adjectives swirling about your feet like hungry kittens.

    100 words was just a rough guideline. I don't want you to mourn those missing descriptives.



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