Science Fiction Grand Master Gene Wolfe, the author of more than two dozen novels—most famously the four-volume Book of the New Sun—has died at age 87.
The multi-award winning writer of science fiction and fantasy masterworks passed away on April 14, 2019 due to complications of cardiovascular disease. A Korean War Veteran and for years an industrial engineer, relatively late in life he devoted himself fully to writing, producing a diverse and extraordinarily literate range of novels and short stories—a peerless body of work that earned him faithful fans and many awards, if not the fame enjoyed by some of his contemporaries.
As a science fiction voice, his career bridged the later years of what we often think of as science fiction’s golden age into the modern era. He published his earliest stories in the 1950s and ’60s before making a bigger splash with his debut novel, 1970’s Operation Ares, and “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” a parable on colonialism that won him his first significant critical notices. He was by then already 41, and only just getting started—if you don’t count his non-writing work developing the machines that make Pringles potato crisps possible (on anyone else’s resume, such an achievement would be a highlight rather than a footnote).
Within a decade of his debut, he produced the first book in the series for which he would become synonymous: The Shadow of the Torturer, inaugurating the world of The Book of The New Sun. The four books that comprise the main sequence of the series follow the journey of Sevarian, a torturer with a perfect eidetic memory who nonetheless serves as a somewhat unreliable narrator (a favorite device of the author) as he wanders a dying earth. Beloved by many, bewildering to others, the cycle has been called, by Neil Gaiman, the best science fiction novel of the last century, but its challenging use of language, complex digressions, allusions, metaphors, and nested and sometimes psychedelic imagery have, perhaps, kept the book—and its author—from becoming a household name.
Ursula K. LeGuin likened Wolfe to Melville, and the comparison is apt: like Moby Dick, Wolfe’s books often reveal themselves only gradually, but the rewards, for patient readers, are innumerable. Wolfe’s fans (including famous names like Gaiman and the tough-to-please Harlan Ellison) take tremendous pleasure in digging into the hidden worlds and deeper meanings in his works—some of which relate to an early conversion to Catholicism that suffuses his work, which often includes veiled Christian imagery.
The variety and complexity of his work forbids any easy analysis, however. The Sun Cycle books (including The Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun) combine elements of science fiction and fantasy, while 1975’s Peace (Wolfe’s favorite of his works) is, on the surface at least, a ghost story. 1986’s Soldier of Fortune stars a Roman Empire-era mercenary named Latro who is unable to form new memories. His most recent work, 2015’s A Borrowed Man, is a near-future noir. Though the themes are often dark, his works speak to ideas of redemption, exemplified by the life story of his one-time torturer Sevarian, who ultimately leads humanity to a new home.
His spouse of more than 60 years, Rosemary, died in 2013 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease, bringing an added poignance to Wolfe’s work, which so frequently focuses on the failings of memory. By all accounts, the two were devoted—if six decades together doesn’t already tell that tale rather clearly.
The loss of a writer of Gene Wolfe’s caliber is staggering, all the more because it’s never seemed as though he was quite as appreciated in life as he ought to have been. Science fiction and fantasy have lost a giant, a man whose works spans genres and generations.
Gene Wolfe, 1931-2019. Explore his work here.