Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe

Infobox Writer
name = Gene Wolfe

imagesize = 184px
caption =
pseudonym =
birthdate = Birth date and age|1931|5|7|mf=y
birthplace = New York City
deathdate =
deathplace =
occupation = Novelist, Short story writer
nationality = United States
period =
genre = Fantasy, Science Fiction
subject =
movement =
influences = Jack Vance, G. K. Chesterton, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, Arthur Conan Doyle, Lewis Carroll
influenced = Neil Gaiman, China Mieville

website =

Gene Wolfe (born May 7, 1931, New York, New York) is an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He is noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as the strong influence of his Catholic faith, to which he converted after marrying a Catholic. He is a prolific short story writer and a novelist, and has won many awards in the field.

While attending Texas A&M University Wolfe published his first speculative fiction in "The Commentator," a student literary journal. Wolfe dropped out during his junior year, and was drafted to fight in the Korean War. [ Autobiographical sketch] ] After returning to the United States he earned a degree from the University of Houston and became an industrial engineer. He edited the journal "Plant Engineering" for many years before retiring to write full-time, but his most famous professional engineering achievement is a contribution to the machine used to make Pringles potato crisps.cite journal|title=Suns new, long, and short: an interview with Gene Wolfe|author=Lawrence Person|date=Fall/Winter 1998|journal=Nova Express|volume=5|issue=1|url=|accessdate=2007-06-24] He now lives in Barrington, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

Wolfe is possibly a distant relative of author Thomas Wolfe.


Wolfe's best-known and most highly regarded work is the multi-volume novel "The Book of the New Sun". Set in a bleak, distant future influenced by Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" series, the story details the life of Severian, an apprentice torturer, exiled from his guild for showing compassion to one of the condemned. The novel is composed of the volumes "The Shadow of the Torturer" (1980), "The Claw of the Conciliator" (1981), winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel), "The Sword of the Lictor" (1982), and "The Citadel of the Autarch" (1983). A coda, "The Urth of the New Sun" (1987), wraps up some loose ends but is generally considered a separate work. Several Wolfe essays about the writing of "The Book of the New Sun" were published in "The Castle of the Otter" (1982; the title refers to a misprint of the fourth book's title in "Locus" magazine).

In the 1990s, Wolfe published two more works in the same universe as "The Book of the New Sun". The first, "The Book of the Long Sun", consists of the novels "Nightside the Long Sun" (1993), "Lake of the Long Sun" (1994), "Caldé of the Long Sun" (1994), and "Exodus From the Long Sun" (1996). These books follow the priest of a small parish as he becomes wrapped up in political intrigue and revolution in his city-state. Wolfe then wrote a sequel, "The Book of the Short Sun", composed of "On Blue's Waters" (1999), "In Green's Jungles" (2000) and "Return to the Whorl" (2001), dealing with colonists who have arrived on the sister planets Blue and Green. The three "Sun" works ("The Book of the New Sun", "The Book of the Long Sun", and "The Book of the Short Sun") are often referred to collectively as the "Solar Cycle."

Wolfe has also written many stand-alone books. His first novel, "Operation Ares", was published by Berkley Books in 1970 and was unsuccessful. He subsequently wrote two novels held in particularly high esteem, "Peace" and "The Fifth Head of Cerberus". The first is the seemingly-rambling narrative of Alden Dennis Weer, a man of many secrets who reviews his life under mysterious circumstances. "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is either a collection of three novellas, or a novel in three parts, dealing with colonialism, memory, and the nature of personal identity. The first story, which gives the book its name, was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novella.


Wolfe doesn't generally follow genre conventions. He frequently relies on the first-person perspectives of unreliable narrators. He says: "Real people really are unreliable narrators all the time, even if they try to be reliable narrators." The causes for the unreliability of his characters vary. Some are naive, as in "Pandora by Holly Hollander" or "The Knight"; others are not particularly intelligent ("There Are Doors"); Severian, from "The Book of the New Sun", is not always truthful; and Latro of the "Soldier" series suffers from recurrent amnesia. The cause aside, this can make Wolfe confusing or disconcerting for the new reader, but some find this "difficulty" rewarding. Wolfe said, in a letter to Neil Gaiman: "My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure." In that spirit, Wolfe also leaves subtle hints and lacunae which may never be explicitly referred to in the text. For example, a backyard full of morning glories is an intentional foreshadowing of events in "Free Live Free", but is only apparent to a reader with a horticultural background, and a story-within-the-story provides a clue to understanding "Peace".

Wolfe's language can also be a subject of confusion for the new reader. In the appendix to "The Shadow of the Torturer," he says:

In rendering this book—originally composed in a tongue that has not achieved existence—into English, I might easily have saved myself a great deal of labor by having recourse to invented terms; in no case have I done so. Thus in many instances I have been forced to replace yet undiscovered concepts by their closest twentieth-century equivalents. Such words as "peltast", "androgyn", and "exultant" are substitutions of this kind, and are intended to be suggestive rather than definitive. [cite book | last = Wolfe | first = Gene | title = Shadow & Claw | publisher = Tor Books | isbn = 9780312890179 | pages = 211]
Though this is in character as the "translator" of his novel, it provides a useful insight into the writing: all of Wolfe's terms ("fuligin", "carnifex", "thaumaturge", etc.) are real words, but their meaning should be implied by context. Knowing the words, or re-reading with a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary at hand, can offer further insight into the story.


Although not a best-selling author, Wolfe is highly regarded by critics and fellow writers, and considered by many to be one of the best living science fiction authors. Indeed, he has sometimes been called the best living American writer regardless of genre. Award-winning science fiction author Michael Swanwick has said: "Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today. Let me repeat that: Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today! I mean it. Shakespeare was a better stylist, Melville was more important to American letters, and Charles Dickens had a defter hand at creating characters. But among living writers, there is nobody who can even approach Gene Wolfe for brilliance of prose, clarity of thought, and depth in meaning."Patrick O'Leary have credited Wolfe for inspiration. O'Leary has said: "Forget 'Speculative Fiction'. Gene Wolfe is the best writer alive. Period. And as Wolfe once said (in reference to Gaiman), 'All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it.' No comparison. Nobody – I mean nobody – comes close to what this artist does." [ Interview with Patrick O'Leary] ] O'Leary also wrote an extensive essay concerning the nature of Wolfe's artistry, entitled "If Ever A Wiz There Was", found both in his collection "Other Voices, Other Doors", and on his webpage. []

Wolfe's fans regard him with considerable dedication, and [ one Internet mailing list] (begun in November 1996) dedicated to his works has amassed over ten years and thousands of pages of discussion and explication. Similarly, much analysis and exegesis has been published in fanzine and small-press form (e. g. "Lexicon Urthus" ISBN 0964279592).

When asked the "Most overrated" and "Most underrated" authors, Thomas Disch identified Isaac Asimov and Gene Wolfe, respectively, writing: "...all too many have already gone into a decline after carrying home some trophies. The one exception is Gene Wolfe...Between 1980 and 1982 he published "The Book of the New Sun", a tetralogy of couth, intelligence, and suavity that is also written in VistaVision with Dolby Sound. Imagine a Star Wars-style space opera penned by G. K. Chesterton in the throes of a religious conversion. Wolfe has continued in full diapason ever since, and a crossover success is long overdue." [From an article first published in "American Heritage" May-June 1999. Pg 211 of "Overrated/underrated: 100 experts topple the icons and champion the slighted", ed. by the editors of "American Heritage" magazine. 2001, ISBN 1579121632, 256 pages, hardcover.]

Wolfe was Guest of Honor at Aussiecon Two, the 1985 World Science Fiction Convention.


Wolfe has won the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement, the Edward E. Smith Memorial Award (or "Skylark"), and is a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. He was Guest of Honor at Aussiecon Two, the 1985 World Science Fiction Convention. In addition, he has won many awards for individual works; they are listed below.

He has also compiled a long list of nominations in years when he did not win, including sixteen Nebula award nominations and eight Hugo award nominations.



*"Operation Ares" (1970)
*"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" (1972)
*"Peace" (1975)
*"The Devil in a Forest" (1976)
*"The Book of the New Sun"
**"The Shadow of the Torturer" (1980)
**"The Claw of the Conciliator" (1981)
**"The Sword of the Lictor" (1982)
**"The Citadel of the Autarch" (1983)
*"Free Live Free" (1984)
*"The Urth of the New Sun" (1987)
*The "Soldier" series
**"Soldier of the Mist" (1986)
**"Soldier of Arete" (1989)
**"Soldier of Sidon" (2006) [winner of the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel]
*"There Are Doors" (1988)
*"Castleview" (1990)
*"Pandora, By Holly Hollander" (1990)
*"The Book of the Long Sun"
**"Nightside the Long Sun" (1993)
**"Lake of the Long Sun" (1994)
**"Caldé of the Long Sun" (1994)
**"Exodus From the Long Sun" (1996)
*"The Book of the Short Sun"
**"On Blue's Waters" (1999)
**"In Green's Jungles" (2000)
**"Return to the Whorl" (2001)
*"Latro in the Mist" (2003) - omnibus collection of "Soldier of the Mist" and "Soldier of Arete"
*"The Wizard Knight"
**"The Knight" (2004)
**"The Wizard" (2004)
*"Soldier of Sidon" (2006)
*"Pirate Freedom" (2007)
*"An Evil Guest" (2008)

tory collections

*"The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories" (1980) (Not an error but a literary joke; the title story is "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories". Among others, the collection also includes "The Doctor of Death Island" and "The Death of Doctor Island", winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novella.)
*"Gene Wolfe's Book of Days" (1981)
*"The Wolfe Archipelago" (1983), consisting of:
** "Death of the Island Doctor" (1983)
** "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" (1970)
** "The Death of Doctor Island" (1973)
** "The Doctor of Death Island" (1978)
*"Plan(e)t Engineering" (1984)
*"Bibliomen" (1984)
*"Storeys from the Old Hotel" (1988) [winner of the World Fantasy Award for best collection]
*"Endangered Species" (1989)
*"Castle of Days" (1992)
*"The Young Wolfe" (1992)
*"Strange Travelers" (2000)
*"Innocents Aboard" (2004)
*"Starwater Strains" (2005)


Wolfe has published a number of short chapbooks, many published in very small quantities by Cheap Street. Some of these have been reprinted in his collections, as when "Starwater Strains" reprinted "Empires of Foliage and Flower".

*"At the Point of Capricorn" (1983)
*"The Boy Who Hooked the Sun" (1985)
*"Empires of Foliage and Flower: A Tale From the Book of the Wonders of Urth and Sky" (1987)
*"The Arimaspian Legacy" (1988)
*"Slow Children at Play" (1989)
*"The Old Woman Whose Rolling Pin is the Sun" (1991)
*"The Case of the Vanishing Ghost" (1991)
*"Talk of Mandrakes" (2003)
*"Christmas Inn" (2005)
*"Strange Birds" (2006)
*"Memorare" (2008) (novella, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2007, as a signed limited edition hardcover in 2008)

Other works

*"The Castle of the Otter" (1982) (a companion to "The Book of the New Sun", later collected into "Castle of Days")
*"Letters Home" (1991) (collection of letters Wolfe sent home to his mother while he was fighting in the Korean War)
*Introduction to Neil Gaiman's "Sandman: Fables and Reflections"
*"A Walking Tour of the Shambles" (with Neil Gaiman) (2002)
*Introduction to Vera Nazarian's "Salt of the Air" (2006)
*"Shadows of the New Sun: Essays" (2007)

Books by others about Gene Wolfe

*"Lexicon Urthus": Michael Andre-Druissi (Sirius Fiction, 1994, ISBN 0-9642795-9-2), a dictionary of the archaic words used by Wolfe in "The Book of the New Sun"
*"The Long and the Short of It: More Essays on the Fiction of Gene Wolfe": Robert Borski (iUniverse, Inc., 2006, ISBN 978-0595386451)
*"Solar Labyrinth: Exploring Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun": Robert Borski (iUniverse, Inc., 2004, ISBN 978-0595317295)
*"": Peter Wright (Liverpool University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-85323-818-9): Study of "The Book of the New Sun" and "The Urth of the New Sun"
*"Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing / Writers on Wolfe": Peter Wright (Liverpool University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1846310584)


External links

*isfdb name|id=Gene_Wolfe|name=Gene Wolfe
* [ Ultan's Library, a journal for the study of Gene Wolfe]
* [ Bibliography of Gene Wolfe's work in the Locus database]
* [ Paul Duggan's Wolfe site]
* [ Gene Wolfe's online fiction] at "Free Speculative Fiction Online"
* [ The Urth Mailing List] , for discussion of Wolfe's work
* [ Overview of Wolfe's work in Washington Post Book World by the SF critic Nick Gevers]
* [ Wolfe and Pringles]
* [ How to Read Gene Wolfe] by Neil Gaiman

Interviews with Wolfe

* [ Interview in Science Fiction Studies in 1988 by Larry McCaffery]
* [ A long 2002 interview at]
* [ "Suns New, Long, and Short: An Interview with Gene Wolfe", conducted by Lawrence Person in Nova Express Volume 5 Number 1 (Fall/Winter 1998)]
* [ 2002 interview by Neil Gaiman] in Locus magazine (excerpt)
* [ Patrick O'Leary interview in which he expounds at length on Gene Wolfe]
* [ PDF file of a scanned 1993 Barrington Courier-Review, under the letter W]
* [ Page with a Wolfe audio interview from World Fantasy Convention 1993 by Dave Romm]
* [ Interview by Jeremy L. C. Jones] in Clarkesworld Magazine, August 2008

Works available online

*" [ The Case of the Vanishing Ghost] "
*" [ Easter Sunday]
*" [ Paul's Treehouse] "
*" [ Castaway] "
*" [ Copperhead] "
*" [ Under Hill] "
*" [ The Best Introduction to the Mountains] "
*" [ Unrequited Love]
*" [ The Arimaspian Legacy] "
*" [ Memorare]

NAME=Wolfe, Gene
SHORT DESCRIPTION=American novelist
DATE OF BIRTH=May 7, 1931

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