Gene Wolfe would have turned eighty-eight years old yesterday. As some readers of the DMR blog may know, Mr. Wolfe died a few weeks ago on April 14. The man had lived to a ripe old age, and was suffering from various physical and mental ailments as a result of that, but it still hit me hard. A titan of literature had gone from our midst.
This was a man to whom Neil Gaiman, Steven Brust, David Drake, Joe Haldeman, George R.R. Martin, John C. Wright, Roger Zelazny, Michael Swanwick, Timothy Zahn and many other talented and prominent authors paid homage and gave praise over the years. He also won just about every award the SFF community could give. And yet... I kept track of the various encomiums and tributes that appeared in the two weeks after Gene's death. There were a fair number, I'll admit. We linked to some of them here in the "The DMRtian Chronicles."
Still, to me, it all seemed a little underwhelming. In my opinion, authors should've been coming out of the woodwork to write tributes. This was, by far, the most significant death to hit the SFF field since Jack Vance—one of Wolfe’s idols—left us in 2013. Then, I read this tribute from author, Brian Niemeier, who lives near the town where Wolfe spent his final years:
Gene Wolfe had less than thirty people attend his funeral.
Yeah, Neil Gaiman gave the eulogy, but... thirty people. Reading that, I decided to add one more tribute to what should be a much larger pile.
Gene Rodman Wolfe was born in Brooklyn, New York, but grew up in Texas. He came of good stock:
Wolfe spent his childhood attending Edgar Allan Poe Elementary School in Houston and his teens reading pulps like Weird Tales and Famous Fantastic Mysteries, which was his especial favorite. I can't blame him on that score. FFM may have been mostly a reprint magazine, but, pound for pound, its run contained more quality scifi and fantasy than any other pulp in history.
Gene was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He saw some action at the very end of it and had this to say about experiencing mass armed conflict:
Wolfe came back from the war, got married and earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Houston. That's the thing to remember about Gene: he had the mind of an engineer and the soul of a poet. Both of those traits played a huge part in his fiction. We also have his engineering expertise to thank for Pringles potato chips. No lie.
Gene started making some fiction sales in the 1960s, but it wasn't until the '70s that he really found his voice. He began winning awards soon after. At the end of the '70s, he commenced writing his now-famous The Book of the New Sun, the first volume of which was published in 1980. That's where I come in, sort of.
In my junior year of high school, I took my only study hall class ever. I took it to get out of a typing class where the teacher and I simply couldn't stand each other. Being in study hall, I spent quite a bit of time in the school library. One day I decided to give a battered paperback on a spinner rack a try. It was The Shadow of the Torturer.
The book had miles of glowing blurbs plastered front, back and inside of it. The Don Maitz cover depicted a masked guy with a sword. It looked worth a shot. I started reading it.
Wow. As I later found out, Wolfe usually just throws you in the deep end. No long expository stuff to start you out, just full immersion. Unlike some people whose reviews I've read, I never had a real problem with Wolfe's vocabulary/obscure words. I was raised on the American Heritage Collegiate Dictionary, Edgar Allan Poe and Clark Ashton Smith. What words I couldn't just guess from their Greek or Latin roots, I figured out from context. I kept on reading.
This was a world--our own Earth, a million years hence--where the Sun is dim and red, the Moon is terraformed and green, and the "money has run out." Like Vance's Dying Earth or Brackett's Skaith, there are lingering traces of high tech, but the situation is utterly stagnant. That doesn't mean there aren't wonders, however. Far from it. You can read an excellent review here.
I tracked down and read the final three volumes of The Book of the New Sun--The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch--over the course of the next two years. I was now a lifelong Gene Wolfe fan.
This post has begun to run to run a bit long and, yet, I have some more to say about Gene Wolfe. So, I'll paraphrase a line from the end of The Shadow of the Torturer and say that here I must pause. If you wish to walk no farther with me, reader, I cannot blame you. It is no easy road.