No more Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe has died. This annoys me, though.

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.

Every few years, I pick up and reread The Book of The New Sun, because it is amazingly well-written, subtle, clever, and deep. Wolfe was a phenomenal writer, while Tolkien was a plodder who tapped into a well of mythology and told fairy tales. It is a tragic injustice that Wolfe was ranked third after that guy.

Also, if you thought Lord of the Rings was going to be tough to turn into a movie, Severian’s story is even more impossible, so Wolfe isn’t going to get a post-mortem surge in popularity after translation to a new medium. No one is cosplaying his characters. I wouldn’t say there’s no slash fiction about them, Rule 34 and all that, but moral ambiguity and unreliable narrators aren’t easily dragged into simplistic storytelling.


  1. alkisvonidas says

    It’s a “tragic injustice” that Wolfe’s books came 3rd in a poll? You mean, people should adjust their taste in literature to match yours?

    You can praise and recommend Wolfe without hating on Tolkien, you know. My curiosity is sure piqued to read his books, since I love Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, but fortunately I don’t have to ditch Tolkien to do that.

  2. mcfrank0 says

    Sad news, but perfect timing as I was about to look for my next set of books to read.

    Thanks again PZ for recommending something that I was previously unfamiliar with. The complete “The Book of the New Sun” series is already being downloaded to my Fire tablet. (“Annihilation” is already patiently waiting in my video queue.)

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Yeah, Book of the New Sun qualifies as an authentic masterpiece.

    Oddly, the linked obit omits Wolfe’s friendship and fruitful collaboration with Neil Gaiman.

  4. hunter says

    I almost wish someone had the nerve and ability to turn “New Sun” into a film — or series, more likely., since everything seems to be a franchise these days.

    But I can’t think of anyone who could pull it off without making it into a travesty.

  5. leerudolph says

    Rule 34 and all that, but moral ambiguity and unreliable narrators aren’t easily dragged into simplistic storytelling.

    Actually, I have good reason to suspect that the vast majority of erotic fiction (and erotic purported autobiography) is simplistic storytelling with nothing but unreliable narrators. (In the autobiography part of my claim, you could also substitute “heroic” for “erotic”.)

  6. raven says

    I’ve never even read The Book of the New Sun.
    It’s still a tragedy though.
    Gene Wolfe wrote a lot of good novels and short stories and I remember some of them well.

  7. microraptor says

    I remember reading a couple of The Book of the New Sun novels when I was young, but didn’t really get what was going on.

    I should retry them now that I’m older.

  8. aziraphale says

    I loved the books, but I was worried by the suggestion that experience with handling the rigging of sailing ships on Earth’s oceans would qualify one to handle solar sails on interstellar ships. If a solar sail has human beings hauling on ropes it’s far too heavy to work. That bit would be impossible to film.

  9. ikanreed says

    Normally I like that you’re angry about the same things I am.

    But Tolkien didn’t just “tell fairy tales”. He analyzed what made the timeless ones so timeless and published what would now be considered bland schlock only because everyone blandly copied him for years.

    It’s like complaining about the Dying Earth genre just because it’s now non-fiction.

  10. brutus says

    Whenever I wander over to this blog, I know I’ll be greeted with some travesty or injustice I didn’t already know about accompanied by PZ shitting on someone. The gratuitous swipe at Tolkien here is not just unnecessary to heap some praise on Wolfe, it flies in the face of considerable critical judgment, not to mention the judgment of readers who are the every author’s audience. Tolkien’s work may be derivative of ancient mythologies, but he single-handedly established a literary genre that has been copied and imitated ever since — decades before Wolfe. Not so bad for a “plodder.” Wolfe’s tetralogy (never even heard of it, which probably reflect more on me) may also be a terrific work. Good for him. Tragic injustice being ranked third? Pshaw. Were all those bronze medal Olympians’ efforts “wasted” for not winning gold?

  11. mnb0 says

    And right now PZ produces a quiet but evil laugh, while stroking his equally evil black cat like Blofield, because of the predictable reactions of the Tolkien fans.
    Disclaimer: I think Tolkien the best fantasy writer ever as well (Martin only is good in two of his novellas, which contain very little fantasy elements). Just no way Tolkien or any other author is important enough to me that an old grump can annoy me in such a superficial way. He’ll have to try much, much harder.

  12. typecaster says

    Oddly, the linked obit omits Wolfe’s friendship and fruitful collaboration with Neil Gaiman.

    I just flashed on what “Anansi Boys” would have been if Gaiman had collaborated with Wolfe instead of Pratchett. I want a library card in that timeline.

    The loss is more than just his writing talent. He was an amazingly nice guy, and always a delightful convention guest. And discussing his work can fill a great many empty hours. The archive of one such email list at is worth visiting.

  13. terminus est says

    Wolfe penned the greatest name ever given to a sword in the history of the genre – definitely one of my favorite books of all time.

  14. pacal says

    I really like Tolkien but there is no way in the world I would consider him a major literary talent. Tolkien’s gift was world building not story telling. The story in The Lord of the Rings has problems. The rather dull, long!!!, endings to the Lord of the Rings are not good writing. Both the scouring of the Shire and Tom Bombadil need to be erased from existence. And don’t get me started on how utterly annoying the “cute” abominations known has Hobbits can be.

    So despite my liking for Tolkien I do get where the people who have problems with Tolkien are coming from. A really wonderfully funny / caustic and unfair view of Tolkien is Michael Moorcock’s essay Epic Pooh. It has the line “Sauron can’t be all bad. He hates Hobbits.” I agree.

  15. willj says

    We can’t ignore our roots. I liked Tolkien. Not so much the Hobbit, but The Silmarillion was poetic worldbuilding. I have to admit though, I’m an utterly shallow and superficial person. It’s fashionable these days.

  16. blf says

    I liked Tolkien. Not so much the Hobbit…

    Similar here. In my case, the reason I disliked — almost hated — The Hobbit was rooted in it being assigned reading in class. With very few exceptions, I despised just about everything which was assigned reading; I still cannot stand Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, even after watching an RSC production when I lived in London. Why being assigned reading tended to make me dislike whatever was assigned I don’t really know…

    Anyways, yonks ago, not to long after, in fact, moving to London, I decided, largely (as I now recall) out of impending boredom during the upcoming end-of-orbital-period holidays, to try reading this LotR I’d always heard about. (This was a long time before the famous movies.) Up until then I’d always avoided it due it being connected with the The Hobbit.

    I wound up being so fascinated I read the entire thing over the course of three days — one book a day — and have reread it so many times since that that volume, which I still have, has literally broken its spine and pages are falling out. (I keep meaning to get a replacement high-quality edition.) But I still avoided The Hobbit until, years later, here in France, again out of boredom, I purchased a copy. And… it’s Ok. Not one of my favourites, but I no longer loathe it and do reread it every now and then… (I haven’t see The Hobbit movies, and from the excerpts / trailers I have seen, am not too interested in doing so.)

  17. starfleetdude says

    FYI, Gene Wolfe, like J.R.R. Tolkien, was a devout Catholic and that informed his writing:

    Moments like this have turned many of Wolfe’s fans into something like Biblical exegetes, who dig deep into his texts in the hope of finding clues not only to the plots and the characters but to Wolfe’s larger intentions. Partly what readers are excavating is Wolfe’s Catholicism, which he is quick to say figures into his writing. “What is impossible is to keep it out,” he told me. “The author cannot prevent the work being his or hers.” Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Novelist and Believer,” cautions novelists to use religious concerns in ways that do not alienate the reader, to render encounters with the ineffable so that even those who might not understand or care for a particular metaphor—Aslan the Lion as Christ, for example—can still be moved by it. Many critics have speculated that Severian is a Christ figure: he brings the New Sun and puts an end to the cruelty of torture. But Wolfe wraps his Catholicism in strange language and cryptic images. Truth of any kind, no matter how closely you read, is hard to come by in Wolfe’s books. And yet, over time, it does seem to emerge.

    Sci-Fi’s Difficult Genius

  18. flex says

    I would call Wolfe one of most brilliant stylist authors of the 20th century. His command of language was exquisite, but beyond that significant skill, what he did with unusual plotting was phenomenal. My favorite was not The Book of the New Sun but one of his earlier works, The Fifth Head of Cerberus. The book is three novellas, all telling the same story but from different perspectives and in completely different styles.

    Even knowing that Wolfe played around with structure, I missed the key element of Castleview until someone else pointed it out to me. None of the action happens on the page. All the significant events in the book happen off-screen. The story jumps to another character just before some even happens to the character you were following, and when the narrative for the original character picks up again, the event is in the past and you learn about it through the dialog. Its not all that great as a novel, but from an experiment in structure it is brilliant.

    And he was consistently brilliant. I would call Catch-22 one of the great works of the 20th century, but Heller never reached that level of writing again. So I wouldn’t call Heller one of the greatest authors of the 20th century as I do with Wolfe.

    Without intending any ranking, I would say that Wolfe is in the same rank as Umberto Eco and Jose Luis Borges, a top-tier author who invariably illuminates something new every time I re-read them. The next level would include several dozen authors including, but not limited to; Terry Pratchett, Jack Vance, Fredrick Brown, John Brunner, Rex Stout, G.K. Chesterton, P.G. Wodehouse, George McDonald Fraser, Dashiel Hammet, Robert Sheckley, George Orwell, Roger Zelazny, and J.R.R. Tolkien. All of whom I can read for enjoyment anytime, but rarely do they make me see my life differently.

  19. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ray Ceeya @ # 21 – No, start with Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance.

  20. says

    Wolfe was a phenomenal writer, while Tolkien was a plodder who tapped into a well of mythology and told fairy tales. It is a tragic injustice that Wolfe was ranked third after that guy.

    Wolfe was indeed one of the great writers of the genre. You are being too kind to Tolkien.

  21. Rob Grigjanis says

    And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores swarming with literary critics. “Fuck that noise”, said Frodo. “The Blessed Realm has gone to the dogs. Turn the ship around”.

  22. tardigrade says

    Whole lot of Tolkien apologism in here. Let’s be honest, Tolkien was a linguist first and foremost and the work he put into the languages shows, but the rest is familiar, simple fairytale structures. It’s comforting and easy to stick to a world where good and evil are clearly separated, where good is Anglo-Saxon and evil is represented by the “least lovely Mongol-types”. Which is why it was copied by a million fantasy franchises afterwards – the real world is too complicated. And I will defend with my last breath the fact that The Hobbit (the book) is far better than LOTR (the book) for that reason.

  23. Bruce Fuentes says

    I have been reading scifi and fantasy since the mid-70’s when I was a teenager. How did I never know Gene Wolfe? Thank you PZ, I just finished The Shadow of the Torturer. I have the Rothfuss novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things waitng for me at the library. It will need to wait. I am going to be on a Gene Wolf kick for a while. Thank you. BTW I have read Tolkein dozens of times, but he is a bit of a plotter. The story is better than the writing. A simple story of good vs evil is always appealing.