Master of Mazes: Remembering Gene Wolfe (1931-2019)

With the passing of Science Fiction Writers of America Grandmaster Gene Wolfe (1931-2019), literature has lost a unique writer who embraced fruitful paradox. He was at once traditionalist and rebel, metaphysician and realist, trickster and pontiff, experimentalist and conservative, the consummate professional and the most endearingly heart-on-his-sleeve fan. He married the pulp tropes of science fiction and fantasy and horror to the stringent esthetics and techniques and multivalent worldview of echt modernism to produce works which both camps felt did honor to their respective lineages. Readers of “The Death of Doctor Island” or The Fifth Head of Cerebrus could discover all the thematic density and narrative complexity they might seek in a work by Pynchon or Nabokov in tales fully alive as visionary works in SF. In 2014, writer Michael Swanwick, himself a master craftsman, dubbed Wolfe “the single greatest writer in the English language alive today.”

I began my adoration of Wolfe’s work as a teenager in the 1960s and 1970s, omnivorous for all things fantastical. Reading across the spectrum–from the purest whizbangery of E. E. Smith to the frosty deracinations of J. G. Ballard–I was always on the alert for both undiscovered classical work in the field and new voices. When I began to encounter the short stories of Gene Wolfe in the magazines and original anthologies of the era–especially in Damon Knight’s Orbit series–I felt I was satisfying both my hungers at once. Here was a writer obviously steeped in the protocols of the genre, yet doing almost unfathomably new things with them. Never precisely identified as one of the “New Wave” writers–the company of Ellison, Moorcock, Aldiss, Spinrad, et al–Wolfe nonetheless embodied that same spirit of pushing the field as far beyond its accepted boundaries as it could go.

When his first major work in book form appeared–The Fifth Head of Cerberus, three subtly interlocking novellas–his ability to conjure up stylish, eerie, emotionally resonant scenarios that were hallucinatory yet grounded in sensory detail, stood out in a field where most writing privileged unambiguous nuts-and-bolts plotting in plain prose. The fact that Wolfe’s books required deep attention and intricate parsing secured for him the not totally unwarranted reputation of a “hard” read. But he had many more fans than doubters.

Wolfe’s work during the rest of the 1970s–both in long form and as short stories, for unlike many writers he never abandoned short fiction when his novels found favor–was well received. But in 1980, with the arrival of The Shadow of the Torturer, first entry in the Book of the New Sun, Wolfe’s reputation blew up to new and tremendous proportions. Dubbed “the best novel of the last century” by Neil Gaiman, Wolfe’s baroque, horror-inflected saga of a far-future Earth, fusing archaisms with speculative novelties, was instantly recognized as an embryonic classic. Over the next twenty years the series would be extended by many volumes and pendants, meeting varying degrees of interest and acclaim, but the impact of that first salvo was immediate and powerful.

The rest of Wolfe’s oeuvre, right up to his whimsical final novel, A Borrowed Man, which appeared in 2015 when the author was a mere eighty-three, rarely flagged, even if it did not often reclaim the heights of the Book of the New Sun and its cousins. But his Wizard Knight duology and Latro trilogy were undeniably brilliant – standouts even in a career marked by the regular production of fresh marvels.

Perhaps critic John Clute summed up Wolfe’s accomplishments best in his entry for the man in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia:

From the first, and with a prolific output that has not significantly ebbed for more than five decades, [Wolfe] has created texts which–almost uniquely–marry Modernism and Genre SF, rather than fixing them into rhetorical opposition; his ultimate importance to Fantastika as a whole and to world literature in general derives from the success of that theoretically precarious marriage…Wolfe’s importance for the field lies in a spongelike ability to assimilate generic models and devices, and in the quality of the transformations he effects upon that material.

Wolfe received much admiration from his peers. The novelist and critic Algis Budrys once confessed that while he could fathom most of the trickery by which his fellow imagineers produced their wonders, he was unable to penetrate Wolfe’s seamless, dense, organic forest of language, often delivered by unreliably multiplex narrators, to learn how Wolfe accomplished his specific effects. This uniqueness of presentation and construction ensured that no knockoffs or imitations of Wolfe ever manifested. But there are nonetheless younger writers who overtly followed at least partially in Wolfe’s footsteps, figures like Paul Park, Elizabeth Hand, Richard Calder, Michael Swanwick, Jeffrey Ford, Jeff VanderMeer, Lucius Shepard and China Miéville. Enough adherents and acolytes to ensure that Wolfe’s achievements were diffused across the genre.

None of this acclaim, including the bestowal of Grand Masterhood in 2013, seemed to go to Wolfe’s head. At conventions–I relished talking with him and being empanelled with him at one of his favorite hangouts, Readercon, every year until his health forbade his attendance–he was an affable presence, a cosmopolitan Brigadier uncle, ensconced in a chair in the lobby talking to all and sundry, from youngest fan to most revered contemporary. He always seemed fully grounded, a man of the earth, while at the same time secretively gestating his otherworldly visions.