Gene Wolfe: No Comparison

Gene Wolfe easily admits to being a supernatural being.  How else to explain his famous comment that editor Damon Knight, whose ORBIT series of anthologies helped launch Wolfe’s career, “grew me from a bean…”?  And so, with revealed knowledge of this uncanny birth, we finally get a sense of how Wolfe came to gift the world of literature with an unprecedented oeuvre of majestic novels and stunning short stories, utterly unlike those of any other writer. 

But maybe a fabulous origin story is not strictly necessary to explain Wolfe’s immense talent and accomplishments.  Those might just derive from a well-examined life, hard work, deep pondering, compassion, empathy, and an innate imagination and skill with words superior to that of most mortals.  

Whatever the source of his virtues, Wolfe has produced many landmark works that have thrilled and entertained thousands and thousands of readers.  His storytelling ranges from the historical past to the far future, from odd niches on Earth to the environments of strange planets.  Unless furthering a series, he strives not to repeat himself, especially of late, when each new novel (and they arrive yearly, a praiseworthy pace even for a young writer, which Wolfe no longer is) plumbs unpredictable fresh themes and territories.  

Whether you subscribe to the theory that Wolfe is some kind of hothouse-cultivated Ent, or “merely” a human genius, you’ll want to read his new novel The Land Across.  The author graciously took the time to speak with me via email about the genesis of his typically inventive new work, the state of twenty-first-century SF, and many other subjects.  An edited transcript of our conversation follows, below. — Paul Di Filippo


The Barnes & Noble Review: The Land Across is a multivalent novel, insofar as it’s a detective story, a ghost story, a Ruritanian romance, and so on.  It just now dawns on me that’s it’s also a kind of Grimm’s fairytale, which is particularly appropriate for its  Mitteleuropan setting.  Do you find ancient folk narratives of this sort particularly inspiring?

Gene Wolfe: Yes, I find folk narratives deeply appealing.  Grimm’s fairytales, don’t qualify, though.  Most of them were written by the brothers.  (Largely Wilhelm, I believe.)

BNR: Do you have one tale that’s a favorite which you’d like to share with the audience?

GW: One favorite folktale?  (I think that’s what you’re asking.)  The legend of the king of the cats.  Shall I tell it?

A troubled man and his wife once sat at their fireside, with no other company than their big black tomcat.  After an hour or more of silence, the wife asks her man what’s bothering him.  The man explains that as he walked to his work that morning, the rustling of the trees seemed words.  Nonsense of course.  And while he was at his work, an old woman came to him, lean close, and whispered.  He could not really understand what it was she said, but it seemed to him that it was the same thing — or almost the same thing — that the trees had said.  And as he walked home, it seemed to him that he heard a bird speak, those same words.

“What were they?” his wife asked.

“Just foolishness,” her man answered.

“Well, tell me!  I’d like to know.”

“You women want to know everything.”

“If you tell me, you’ll feel better.  It will stop bothering you so.  Try it and see.”

“All right.  All right!” her man said.  “But please don’t ask me what it means, because I don’t know.  Trees, old woman, and bird all said the king of the cats is dead.”

At this, their cat rose upon his hind legs, shouted, “Then I am King of the Cats!” and vanished up the chimney.

BNR: It seems to me that The Land Across aligns nicely with the “New Weird” movement of recent vintage.  In fact, to my eyes, you are an influential ancestor of this movement.  Yet I don’t find much critical linkage between your books and, say, those of China Miéville.  Do you feel any particular kinship with writers of this school, such as M. John Harrison and Jeff VanderMeer?

GW: I should read all three much more than I have.

BNR: The novel deftly conjures up the voice of a protagonist, Grafton, who’s much younger than you are, yet who also happens to be a writer, albeit of non-fiction.  Did you channel your younger self to bring Grafton to life?   Was the young Gene Wolfe a daring if somewhat bull-headed adventurer?

GW: The younger Gene Wolfe thought himself rather timid and cowardly.  Thinking back now, I’m astonished.  God only knows how he stayed alive.

BNR: Along those lines, do you feel that the necessity for a day job helped or hindered your work?  Do you recommend having a paying, non-literary occupation for other writers?

GW: Writers must live, and work is a big part of that.  In the book I’m writing now (I’d better tell you, since it may never sell) the hero watches a movie as he sit in a bus terminal.  It’s about a love affair between an editor and a writer, but neither of them ever seems to work. The editor does not edit and the writer does not write.

A good writer needs to know what it’s like, and “it” can be just about anything.  We have far too many writers today who have never ridden a horse, or fired a gun, or sharpened a knife, or fought with their fists, or been shot at.  And so on and so on.  They are like those professors who get a Ph.D. and a job teaching.  Clearly nobody can try everything, but it’s possible to try a lot. I’ve sailed on a small boat, for example.  Also a troopship, and a luxury liner.  I’ve been a waiter, worked in a factory, and flown in a light plane.  (No, I was not the pilot, but I wish I had been.)

BNR: How much of a role did any of your own foreign travels play in the creation of your imaginary country in The Land Across?  Did you blend any real-life observations, or was the place created through sheer invention?  Did you have some literary models perhaps?  Whatever its genesis, it holds up as an organic whole quite well.

GW: Much of it was from foreign travel, as you say.  Much too was from reading.  I was with another, better known, writer in London once when he remarked that everything was foreign and alien.  I was stunned.  It was, as I tried to explain, wonderfully homey and domestic.  My gosh, Big Ben!  Windsor Castle!  Piccadilly Circus!  Trafalgar Square.  I felt almost that I been born there.  Everybody spoke English.  It was no more alien than Canada.  The difference was, I think, that I had been in Japan, where one meets a sumo wrestler on the street and wizards practice on street corners.  Also in devastated Seoul, where two thirds of the buildings downtown lay in ruins and the cops were lovely young girls with carbines slung across their backs.  Little boy:  “Where you from, GI?  Brooklyn?  Texas?  Want meet my sister?”

BNR: Your military service seems a secret subtext to much of your work.  Do you regard that period as an essential part of the formation of your adult sensibilities?

GW: “An essential part of the formation of your adult sensibilities” is way outside my range.  That’s for others to judge, if they’re qualified.  I know that I am not.  Certainly I would be a different writer if I had not been a soldier and actually taken part in a war. 

BNR: I don’t think anyone has ever characterized you as a polemical or social-activist writer.  In fact, your works could be seen on the surface to be almost the antithesis of any kind of Dreiserian or Zola-esque template.  Yet you do deal with issues of power and social justice in many of your books, and your afterword to the latest is explicit about the challenges of maintaining a democracy.  Do you feel fiction is a good mode for exploring such issues if such matters are not blatantly foregrounded?

GW: Yes, certainly.  Fiction, and science fiction particularly, allows us to explore every sort of thing.

BNR: Your opinion on Dickens and the other great Victorian social commentator-type novelists, please.  I find your own work highly Dickensian.

GW: I’ve read a good deal of Dickens, but not much of the other.  When Dickens consciously tried to reform society, he was at his worst.  When he simply told a story, he did a lot to improve society. 

BNR: Your newest books — the last five novels since 2007 — have been unconnected singletons.  Yet you remain best known for a massive series of some twelve volumes, beginning with The Shadow of the Torturer.  Do you prefer one mode to the other?  Any more linked works on your horizon?

GW: No, I have no preference.  The matter dictates.

BNR: Practically speaking, are you still psyched for the long haul effort that another series would necessarily involve?

GW: I’m not sure that I could write another series, but it certainly would not bother me to try.

BNR: On an allied note, I would observe that your latest work seems more streamlined and less densely involuted than much of your earlier work.  Do you feel this to be true?  If so, was the change a conscious one, or simply a gradual maturing of style and paring away of any formalistic excess?

GW: It results from choice of subject matter.  Suppose I wanted to deal with the conception, first failures, eventual triumph, inevitable decay, and demise of a political party.  Clearly that would take a series of books.

BNR: Would you say that writing has gotten easier for you, or harder, or the degree of difficulty remains unchanged?  I look at the recent work by two of your Grandmaster peers, Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock, and get the impression that they now write with an almost unconscious, instinctive facility born of decades of achievement–much like you.

GW: Both.  I write more readily now, but I’m harder on myself and on what I write.

BNR: Let’s talk a bit about life in the twenty-first century.  As a venerable gentleman of some eighty-two years, you’ve seen a lot of history.  Even approaching sixty, I myself sometimes feel swamped by experiences and the sheer passage of time.  First off, what are the biggest changes you’ve noted in the literary world since the publication of your early story “The Dead Man” in 1965?

GW: The emergence of epublishing, certainly.  

BNR: Do you think the state-of-the-art in fantastika—to use John Clute’s all-embracing term—has improved or deteriorated or not significantly changed?  Are we living in a new Golden Age of SF/F/H, or has real storytelling died?  Is it silly perhaps even to try to compare average books or masterpieces across generations?  Do you see the same passions and ambitions among young writers as you shared with your peers?

GW: Comparisons are always odious.  It’s not our business to decide whether this is a high point.  We are to make it as good as we can.

BNR: And what about the world at large?  Are you optimistic or pessimistic or just realistic about the future of humanity?  You continue to write science fiction, a genre which, I think, always assumes at least that mankind will endure in some manner, however challenged.

GW: Optimistic, really.  We made it through the Cold War without the deaths of billions.  This is a brighter age.

BNR: Are you a fan of the Singularity, with its promises of a post-scarcity era of miracles just around the corner?  Or do you see this as typical pie-in-the-sky thinking?

GW: No, I’m no fan of the Singularity.  If I said more I would anger a good many good people.

BNR: What new technologies appeal to you?  Are you a big user of social media, for instance?  I think of Fred Pohl taking so readily to blogging as an example of a writer adapting eagerly to new forums and means of communicating.

GW: I wish my life were interesting enough for me to blog.  If it were half as interesting as Neil Gaiman’s, I would do it.  I’m just an old guy cooking for himself and trying to find time in which to write.

BNR: Just last year  you received the Grandmaster Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America, placing you on an honor roll that includes such luminaries as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance and Ursula K. Le Guin.  How did it feel to join that pantheon?  Did you ever envision this happening during your wildest dreams of literary success?  Has the benediction proven stimulating to your work, or perhaps a little nerve-wracking, in the sense of having to meet new expectations?

GW: I felt unworthy, and I still do.  No, I have never envisioned one tenth of the success I’ve had.  If you had been at the party at which I received the Fuller Award, you’d understand.  Fantasy can be much more realistic than science fiction.

BNR: Which of your books do you predict will still find an audience one hundred years from now?  And does your prediction tally with the books you wish would endure?

GW: The first is easy.  The Shadow of the Torturer.  The second…  I won’t tell you.  The critics would ignore everything else here to snipe at my choice.

And that’s it.  Excuse me while I make lunch.