Books of Gold: Reading Gene Wolfe

"Fantasy is nearer the truth, that's all. Realistic fiction leaves out far, far too much. How old is realistic fiction? How old is fantasy?" -- Gene Wolfe


"[Gene Wolfe's] work will be read as long as SF endures, I believe." -- George R.R. Martin

In my last post, I discussed Gene Wolfe's life, his funeral and how I came to be a fan of his work. Now, I'd like to take a look at Gene's writing style, as well as recommending some of his novels. As I've said, he had the mind of an engineer and the soul of a poet--he won the Rhysling award for poetry, by the way. His stories are "engineered," in that seemingly inconsequential details will have consequences later on. They are in there for a reason. Wolfe was a fan of mystery stories. Virtually every tale of his from the '70s-on should be read in that fashion, though the mystery in each is usually not of the "whodunit?" type.

This brings up the fact that all of Wolfe's narrators are "unreliable." You simply cannot take everything at face value when reading what a Wolfean protagonist tells you. When confronted with this, Gene said, "They’re all unreliable. Well, we all are, aren’t we?" That is nothing but natural fact. Try as we might, none of us can be depended on to recall or interpret every event exactly as it happened. Wolfe makes this a very strong part of his fiction.

Wolfe's style has also been called "allusive and elusive." He does make many allusions. He was an amazingly erudite man. I'm fairly well-read myself, and there are allusions in his stories that I didn't pick up on until the second or third reading. That never interfered with my enjoyment. Gene doesn't present his allusions as a "Figure this out/spot this now!" sort of thing. They simply add another layer of depth to the narrative. They're "easter eggs," on a basic level. You're not required to "get" any of the allusions to be entertained.

Gene's fiction has been called "challenging" many, many times. In my opinion, what is required to read Wolfe's fiction is a decent vocabulary and a willingness to actually read it closely. Skimming won't work. Not nearly as well, anyway. Neil Gaiman wrote an essay, "How To Read Gene Wolfe," which can be read here. His nine points can basically be boiled down to "Read the text. Closely." 

All of this talk of "density" and "difficulty" can obscure the fact that Gene was a true fan of the pulps and genre literature. While two of his main influences were Rudyard Kipling and G.K. Chesterton--both of whom were reprinted in the pulps--he was also a big fan of some of the pulp greats. Chief among those greats was Jack Vance. Wolfe stated that The Book of the New Sun is basically his version of Vance's The Dying Earth. The Book of Gold, which is referred to in The Shadow of the Torturer--and from whence this post takes its title--is a book of wondrous tales from deepest antiquity. Wolfe said that The Dying Earth was his Book of Gold.  

Ten years ago, Wolfe wrote an effusive introduction to Clark Ashton Smith's The Return of the Sorcerer collection. The ties between Wolfe's Urth and CAS' Zothique are definitely there in The Book of the New Sun. Wolfe, a poet himself, had a high regard for Smith's poetry. Their rich vocabularies and uses of such are similar.


Only a small percentage of Wolfe's stories are straight-up horror, but he was quite good at writing horrific scenes in his non-horror tales. The chapter with the alzabo attack in The Claw of the Conciliator is quite chilling, as is the necromantic scene in Soldier of the Mist. These betray Wolfe's debt to Lovecraft, of whom he was a fan. The hand of Lovecraft can also be seen in Abaia and Erebus, two gigantic alien entities who are shadowy menaces in The Book of the New Sun. Gene's "Lord of the Land" in Lovecraft's Legacy is easily one of the finest stories in that anthology.

Now we get to Robert E. Howard. Wolfe was a fan. He discussed REH in the Clark Ashton Smith intro I mentioned above, displaying a good knowledge of Howard's life in Cross Plains. In his essay, "The Best Introduction to the Mountains," Gene judged the verse which begins REH's "The Pool of the Black One" as being one of the best things he'd ever read. Period. Something to keep in mind about that PotBO reference: in 1954, which is the year referred to in the essay, "The Pool of the Black One" had only been published twice. Once in Weird Tales--when Gene was four years old--and once in The Sword of Conan. My guess is Gene bought the Gnome Press hardback. A not-negligible investment for a young, struggling engineer with a family. 

In 2006, Wolfe contributed "Six from Atlantis," his only true sword and sorcery tale, to Cross Plains Universe. The book was an anthology in honor of REH. The contributing authors were all Texans, or at least authors who lived in Texas, such as Moorcock. Gene was almost seventy-five when he wrote "Six from Atlantis." He no longer lived in Texas. Yet, he took the time to write up a tale for very little remuneration to honor a fellow Texan whose work he admired. Gene Wolfe took a stand and he delivered. That should not be forgotten. 

So, if I haven't run you off yet, what books by Gene Wolfe should you consider reading?  Neil Gaiman suggested recently that first-time Wolfe readers ought to start with The Best of Gene Wolfe, a short story collection. Gene was a master of the short story form, but--for readers of the DMR Blog--I think other options are better. Wolfe's short stories rarely stray into the realm of heroic fantasy. His novels often do.

My personal choice--and that of Dave Ritzlin--would be to start with The Shadow of the Torturer. Yes, it's the first volume in a four volume work--you can read Gene's views on multivolume works here--but it is a frikkin’ great book that plays to most of Gene's strengths. As a whole, The Book of the New Sun is considered Wolfe's masterwork. Matthew Keeley has some good tips on how to approach The Book of the New Sun here. All I can say is, if a seventeen year-old farmboy, such as I was, could roll right through all four volumes, other people can too.


However, I think that there's another good candidate for "first Wolfe novel": Soldier of the Mist. This is the first novel in Gene's Soldier/Latro series. Unlike The Shadow of the Torturer, which is "science-fantasy," Soldier of the Mist is straight-up heroic fantasy, albeit told in a Wolfean manner. It tells the story of Latro, a Roman mercenary in Greece not long after the Battle of Thermopylae. Latro is a bad-ass who likes his wine and women. Unfortunately, a head-wound has left him with retrograde and anterograde amnesia--and the ability to see into the supernatural realm. Wolfe came up with this idea well over a decade before Nolan made Memento. I personally love this series.

Wolfe's Wizard Knight duology has a little more of a "high" fantasy feel to it, but there is plenty of combat and the Norse mythology elements are very prominent. I especially liked the scenes set in the Jotun city of Utgard.

Pirate Freedom is a cool pirate adventure novel with a time travel twist. I found it quite accesible and fun to read.

Finally, there is Devil in a Forest. I wouldn't come to it first, but I think it's cool. A historical novel--with fantasy elements--set in central Europe. It was one of Gene's first novels and isn't quite as accomplished as his later works, but you can definitely hear echoes of elements that made it into The Book of the New Sun. I think the foreboding ending has an almost Howardian feel to it.

Well, that almost wraps it up. I hope none of the Gentle Readers of the DMR Blog think I'm telling them that they have to read Gene Wolfe or else forever hang their heads in shame. Gene has his own, very unique way of telling a tale. It is unlike almost anything else that I usually read. I've read mainstream authors that Wolfe has been compared to--Faulkner, Proust, Joyce--and I have no desire to read more of them. Wolfe does what they do far better. His protagonists are much more interesting. They are capable men with a wry sense of humor, much like Gene himself. They go to exotic places and do exciting things. Wolfe is much more interested in telling a true story than a "real" story, which is where the literary realists trip up. As far as his method of telling that story being "difficult"...I guess you need to ask yourself if you only like to watch movies like Oceans Eleven or Taken. If you also enjoy films such as The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs and Memento, then maybe you should give Gene Wolfe a try.