“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.”
The moment I read those words, as I sat on the deck of my college house cracking open my first copy of The Shadow of the Torturer the summer after sophomore year back in 2006, I knew in my gut and in my heart this cat could never be put back in the bag. Gene Wolfe’s monumental Solar Cycle was already old then – it was originally published in the 1980’s – and Mr. Wolfe had been on my radar since I was a kid, when I saw the below illustration of the Alzabo in Wayne Douglas Barlow’s Barlow’s Guide to Fantasy. But I knew from the instant I opened the first volume of Book of the New Sun that I would never read another work like it, or come to know through his words another author like Gene Wolfe.
So much digital ink has been spilled over the years attempting to interpret Wolfe’s dense and mind-boggling opus that I will spare spilling more of it here. To the uninitiated, Book of the New Sun is the fictional autobiography of the supreme ruler of an Earth (stylized as “Urth”) so far in the future that the sun is dying. The hero of the story is Severian, and the prose acts as his personal confession booth for his long and zig-zagging path from lowly orphaned torturer tasked with murdering the political enemies of his government, to traveling headsman famed for his mercury-veined executioner’s sword, to short-lived stage-actor, to war hero, and eventually, savior of all mankind.
Needless to say, Severian is not always a good man… much less an honest narrator. He’s an asshole. He hand-waves away any number of violent crimes (sometimes without even an attempted justification). He lies to the reader about a ton of shit, and portrays himself as the best thing since sliced Lembas bread in pretty much every situation he retells. He uses big words and obscure words and words that have been retired from the English language altogether for no goddamned reason other than to confuse and derail you. He leaves out important details of events, and leaves it up to you to read between the lines (or rather, reread between them) and find out what is really going on.
Yes, he was written this way on purpose, although that purpose changes depending on who you ask.
To me, aside from being a complex and deeply flawed character, Severian is a masterful exercise in the age-old idiom that “the villain is just the hero of the other side;” he is a clever deconstruction of the “Chosen One” archetype, a self-confessed bad man who ultimately turns it around, though his redemption is far from total, and comes at a high cost to those around him.
For many of us, this series was our first exposure to an unreliable narrator, and opened up worlds within worlds we never thought possible concerning the power of storytelling; it gave us a glimpse behind the magician’s curtain, and there was not a Great and Powerful Oz, but turtles, turtles all the way down. For others, Book of the New Sun is a maddening, unreadable, problematic slog that one would be better off throwing against a wall before that infamous traffic jam in the portcullis that closes the first book.
Book of the New Sun isn’t an easy read by any means. I’ve since read the series four times cover-to-cover, and I still find it difficult. I am still finding new secrets and cooking up new fan theories to explain the murkier and more vile parts of the story with each successive read-through. Those of us who love this series, and the rest of Wolfe’s work, may indeed be crazy for loving it. I don’t know.
What I do know is how it changed me, not only during that first read-through that summer after sophomore year on my favorite sunny spot on the deck of my college house, but upon every subsequent reread.
I can cleanly divide my life both as a reader and a greater individual into two distinct eras: before Book of the New Sun, and after. It was the gateway drug that hooked me on the author who would eventually become my favorite of all time, whose every word I would one day cherish. It was the story that convinced me villains are more interesting than heroes. It was the masterful lesson to an immature and undisciplined pupil that a writer does a far greater service to their audience when they assume that audience to be intelligent, and write their stories accordingly.
Gene Wolfe was the writer who taught me to say fuck you to my lingering doubts, and to put my own stories out there. Because I realized that if even one reader out there enjoyed the stories I wrote and found some meaning in them, it would be enough.
Gene Wolfe’s readers don’t number in the single digits, though. From at least the 70’s on, when his breakout novella The Fifth Head of Cerberus was published, he was a household name in science fiction and fantasy literature. As far as I can tell, he was considered a “writer’s writer” almost from the beginning – which is not to disparage people who don’t try to write fiction, only to say that for those of us who do attempt this typically punishing and only sometimes rewarding hobby, every one of Wolfe’s novels dually acted as a master class on technique, as well as a plethora of renewed inspiration. Ursula K. LeGuin called him “Our Melville.” George R.R. Martin sought his advice. Neil Gaiman wrote an extremely flattering essay about how to read Wolfe’s work with an open mind (and a dictionary at hand), and the New Yorker even named him “Science Fiction’s Difficult Genius.”
But I don’t really care about any of that anymore. Maybe I did, once. Maybe seeing those platitudes attached to a writer whose stories I was head over heels for did cause some psychological transference on my part and make me feel cooler or better at books for having read him, not to mention a bottomless envy at a level of skill and imagination I was (and am) certain I could never possess.
On top of all that, you will find no excuses that “we must separate art from the artist” here. No one I have ever read or heard from ever had a negative word to say about him. By all accounts, Mr. Wolfe was a kind man and a gifted teacher; a devoted Catholic, loving husband, decorated veteran of the Korean War, and a regular of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop who helped countless up-and-coming science fiction and fantasy writers find their own voices. He not only wrote the books other writers wish they could write, he was the writer other writers aspire to be.
Although I never met him, as I process the news today that he is gone, at the age of 87, I feel like I’ve lost someone I knew deeply and personally, a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. Someone whose voice guided me through the years and rekindled my imagination when the winds of pain and hard times threatened to extinguish it… for whatever one person’s imagination is worth. Maybe it isn’t much, but I know I’m not the only one.
I will never forget reading The Shadow of the Torturer literally to pieces. It was the first book that I read so hard it fell apart, not least because it (and I) pretty much lived on that deck that summer. Well, technically it was the omnibus edition of Shadow & Claw – the first two books in the series – but whatever.
I will never forget the lyrics to the cheesy love song about Severian and Thecla that I wrote and played to a few of my college friends, who I was disappointed to discover had no idea what the hell I was so poorly singing about.
I will never forget the first time I discovered the Urth.net newsletter and stayed up until 7AM reading it with my mouth agape in despair to learn that all my perfectly-dotted theories about the last twelve Gene Wolfe books I’d read were completely and utterly wrong.
I will never forget how much Pirate Freedom rekindled my love of seafaring, swashbuckling adventures after spending five years of my video game career in the doldrums of making games about pirates whose main concern was experience points.
I will never forget what it felt like waking up early for weeks on end while traveling through Europe to read and reread On Blue’s Waters and In Green’s Jungles because I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. My kindle spent so much time plugged in during that trip I was worried it might kick the bucket and explode.
I will never forget rolling my eyes and laughing out loud at all the weird, perfectly Eastern European bureaucratic nightmares in The Land Across, which I read while living in Poland, where it took the government the better part of a year to issue me a work permit.
I will never forget the impact these stories had on my life, the compass they became for me, and at times, the spark.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Wolfe, and thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
Sincerely, a fan.