In Memoriam, Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe died yesterday, April 14, 2019 (Palm Sunday!) His loss strikes me hard, as hard as the death last year of Ursula K. Le Guin. Some while I ago I wrote that Gene Wolfe was the best writer the SF field has ever produced. Keeping in mind that comparisons of the very best writers are pointless -- each is brilliant in their own way -- I'd say that now I'd add Le Guin and John Crowley and make a trinity of great SF writers, but the point stands -- Wolfe's work was tremendous, deep, moving, intellectually and emotionally involving, ambiguous in the best of ways, such that rereading him is ever rewarding, always resolving previous questions while opening up new ones.
It must be said that for me Wolfe lived primarily through his fiction -- I can't really say I knew him, though I did meet him a few times, and I think (unless my memory betrays me) we shared a panel once at an SF convention. But we never spoke at length. I'll tell a couple of personal stories, though -- one of which isn't really mine.
This first story concerns his magnificent early novel The Fifth Head of Cerberus (curiously, originally published as "Three Novellas by Gene Wolfe".) I worked at Waldenbooks in 1976-1977, and I ran the SF section. My manager loved SF too, and she insisted we stock The Fifth Head of Cerberus, even though it was well past its sell-by date (it first appeared in 1972.) I certainly didn't complain -- but she told me a story. At her previous store, at the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, IL, she had kept the book on the shelves past when it would normally have been stripped and returned. And one day she saw a somewhat chubby middle-aged man looking at the book, with an expression of gratitude. This was Gene Wolfe, who then lived in Barrington, not far from Woodfield Mall.
My slightly more personal story concerns the first time I met Wolfe -- at an autograph table at Archon, the St. Louis area SF convention. I asked him to sign a copy of one of my first anthologies, Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2006 Edition, which included his story "Comber". He happily complied, then asked, with a certain sharpness (feigned, I think!) "Why didn't you put my story "Memorare" in the new book?" I didn't have an answer (though, really, "Memorare" is pretty long, and it wasn't easy for me to fit novellas in those first, slimmer, books.) I did reprint his story "Bloodsport" in my 2011 book.
The stories, though. The stories. He's best known, I suppose, for his novels, specifically the four volume Book of the New Sun, which completely wowed me when it appeared between 1980 and 1983. I remember voting book one, The Shadow of the Torturer, first in a poll run by the Champaign Urbana Science Fiction Association for Best SF Novel of all time, presumably in 1981 (after all, that's when I graduated from the University of Illinois.) The rest of his so-called "Solar Cycle" is also exceptional -- The Urth of the New Sun, and two more series, the tetralogy The Book of the Long Sun and the trilogy The Book of the Short Sun. There were a few short stories in that series as well, and one of them, "Empires of Foliage and Flower", is truly remarkable.
Other novels are unmissable as well. My personal favorites include the very early Peace, The Fifth Head of Cerberus of course, and the fairly late novel The Sorcerer's House.
Likewise he was wonderful at shorter lengths. Among the short stories I truly loved "La Befana", "The Other Dead Man", "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories", "How the Whip Came Back", "How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion", "When I Was Ming the Merciless", "Straw", "The Rubber Bend", "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton", "Suzanne Delage", "The War Beneath the Tree", and "All the Hues of Hell".
But, then -- there are the novellas. SF is home to many fantastic writers of novellas -- Ursula K. Le Guin, Damon Knight, and Kim Stanley Robinson come immediately to mind. But nobody matches Gene Wolfe. I'll just list them -- the three from The Fifth Head of Cerberus first ("The Fifth Head of Cerberus", "'A Story', by John V. Marsch", and "V.R.T."). Plus "Forlesen", "Seven Americen Nights", "The Eyeflash Miracles", "Silhouette", "Tracking Song", "The Death of Doctor Island", "The Ziggurat", "Golden City Far", "Memorare". I mean -- what a list, what an incredible list of fabulous stories.
I feel that I'm not getting to the heart of what made Gene Wolfe so great. For some of that, you just need to read him. But -- what was he about? Part of it was playfulness. Simple things, like his collection The Castle of the Otter, named after a Locus misunderstanding of the title of the fourth Book of the New Sun novel (The Citadel of the Autarch.) Or like his "Island Doctor" stories: "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories", "The Death of Doctor Island", "The Doctor of Death Island", "Death of the Island Doctor". Or the secret of the name of the family in The Fifth Head of Cerberus (and the cute nod to Vernor Vinge in that passage.) All that is fun -- sometimes serious fun, but fun. But what was he really after? Virtue. Identity. Truth. The slippery nature of truth. So -- the shapechangers in The Fifth Head of Cerberus. The various Silks in the Long Sun and Short Sun books. The secret of the life of Alden Weer in Peace. The quest of Able in The Wizard Knight.
I'll leave with a quote -- thanks to John Kessel for this -- from the end of "Forlesen", one of Wolfe's greatest, and least appreciated, novellas: The main character, having died, asks:
"I want to know if it's meant anything . . . if what I suffered -- if it's been worth it."
"No," the little man said. "Yes. No. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Maybe."