Soldier of Arete

by wjw on April 16, 2019

Gene_Wolfe,_2005Alas.  According to multiple sources Gene Wolfe has died at the age of 87 in his Illinois home.

I’ve been on a mini-binge of Gene’s books lately, mostly recently Home Fires, and I think the mini-binge will have to continue.

I admired Gene’s plain, clear style, which was an ideal surface beneath which to hide the machinations of his unreliable narrators, and to gracefully unwind his diabolically complicated plots.

(Not that all his unreliable narrators were deliberately trying to deceive.  Some just weren’t very bright, or had limited access to information.  One was dead.  Latro in the Soldier series lost his memory every time he went to sleep.  The point was that, for whatever reason, readers couldn’t fully trust the stories they were being told, and had to navigate Wolfe’s terrain with eyes open, just as his narrators did.)

And sometimes the readers were better informed than the characters were.  If you were paying attention, you’d know that Patera Silk in the Long Sun series had been enlightened by the God of Abraham.  Silk consorts with publicans and sinners, has a relationship with a prostitute, Hyacinth, and has an obligation to save the world, or at any rate the Whorl.  But he manages to sideslip the fate that is intended for him, marries Hyacinth, and slip-slides away to, apparently, live happily ever after.

Gene became a Catholic in order to wed Rosemary, but he must have had an unconventional view of his own religion.  The Long Sun books could be read as a long allegory of the Gnostic Heresy, for example.  (Not that this should deter you from reading the books, which are Gene’s masterpiece, as far as I’m concerned.)

In person Gene was amiable and erudite and willing to be amusing, though he also had a steely temper that would sometimes flare (though I never witnessed it in person).   He’d fought in Korea and also boxed— Gene and I once compared our boxing scars.  (Well, mine weren’t boxing scars, they were inflicted by a martial artist wearing boxing gloves, so they should count..)  Gene got his scars during the same bout, and so had I (though in my case it was supposed to be practice).

And Gene could be inspiring, sometimes when he wasn’t intending to be.  During a convention panel about workshops, when listening to Gene, the entire plot of Aristoi unfolded in my head, as if I were Patera Silk being enlightened by the Outsider.  I have no memory of what Gene was saying, except that I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about Aristoi.

Harlan Ellison said of Gene that he was “engaged in the holy chore of writing every other author under the table.”  A chore at which he succeeded, and mightily.

Derek April 16, 2019 at 1:02 am

Alas indeed. Color the day fuligin, for one of the great has passed.

Clyde April 16, 2019 at 9:57 am

Just damn. It comes for us all great and small.
Thank you for the stories, Gene.

mearsk April 16, 2019 at 11:11 am

I’ve only ever read “The Right Stuff” from him. Where would be a good place to start beyond that?

Privateiron April 16, 2019 at 11:40 am

“Fifth Head of Cerberus” is an amazing read, as are many others.

WJW: if you haven’t read the Short Sun cycle, then that is where you can see some of Silk’s “ending.”

Just one of the great, great authors of my life. Don’t know what else to say.

Geoff April 16, 2019 at 6:29 pm

Definitely a dark day, but happy to find places to celebrate him.

I’m surprised, WJW, that you prefer Long Sun to New Sun, which I (and I thought most others) think is superior.

I never read anything sub-par from him. Operation Ares and Peace are very different, but still great.

What I really loved from him were the occasional or accidental pieces, like the introductions to his short story collections. For crying out loud, he took the inside joke that was “The Castle of the Otter” and made it into a fun read, including my favorite quote from him:

Ever since The Shadow of the Torturer was published, people who like it have been asking, “Which words are real, and which are made-up?” And people who don’t ask, “Why did you use so many funny words?”

The answers are that all the words are real, and I used odd words to convey the flavor of an odd place at a odd time. Some fans seem to be able to tolerate any amount of gibberish, so long as it *is* gibberish; but let a hard-working writer venture some perfectly legitimate word like epopt, and–but I’d better stop before my tears get my typewriter all rusty.

wjw April 16, 2019 at 11:32 pm

Geoff, after I read Long Sun I decided to re-read New Sun, and I found it not as interesting by comparison. New Sun was a huge breakthrough for him, but he got better.

Or so I think anyway.

William Rubel April 16, 2019 at 11:45 pm

I keep ordering New Sun from the library and getting Long Sun. This has been going on for a couple years. (I get very distracted in libraries…). I even found the entire Long Sun series for $1/book in the thrift store… so now they sit (inches from my head right now) unread on my shelf. But dammit I still want to read New Sun…!

Geoff April 17, 2019 at 12:55 pm

Hmm. I’ll have to give Long Sun another chance, and I never got around to Short Sun. Guess I’ll be reading a lot of Gene Wolfe this summer.

John F. MacMichael April 17, 2019 at 4:31 pm

We have lost one of the great ones. Honor his memory and read his work.

wjw April 17, 2019 at 6:08 pm

William, I think they’re best read in order of publication.

And if you want to read New Sun, just order Long Sun from the library!

(I bet Gene never imagined his work would confuse librarians.)

wjw April 19, 2019 at 12:04 am

I found the New Republic eulogy, which calls Gene the Proust of science fiction.

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