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Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works

  Science-fiction & fantasy literature: a critical list with discussions.

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Gene Wolfe

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Standard Disclaimer:

This is a brief discussion of Gene Wolfe and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Wolfe.

This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Wolfe: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)

I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Wolfe tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Wolfe worthy; in sum, to help you rank Gene Wolfe (and the works by Wolfe listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.

A Few Words About Gene Wolfe

The brief article below is what some sites call a “stub”—an admittedly incomplete and possibly inadequate discussion set forth as a sort of placeholder, on the theory that something is better than nothing at all, till such time as I am able to set forth a more fully rounded analysis.

Gene Wolfe has not made a secret of his chief organizing element: the protagonist of the Torturer books has an eidetic memory; the protagonist of the “Sidon” books is a man who can remember nothing at all from one day to the next.

“A man is the sum of his memories.”
    —The Doctor

Human life is not a home movie, neatly unrolling from the day of birth to the day of death. As Augustine (a thinker Wolfe must surely be well familiar with), among many others, has noted, we are our memories, nothing more and nothing less. And our memories are not neatly sequential scrolls of the things that happened to us, each event remembered in no greater or lesser detail than any other. What we don’t remember effectively never happened; what we falsely remember effectively did happen. When we consider ideas and events happening now, the memories that may be relevant, that occur to us in consequence, do not come up in our heads neatly organized and tabbed. They rush in willy nilly, as this or that odd detail happened to stick in our minds at the time. And the strangest things may bring up long-unconsidered memories (as in Proust’s famous work).

Moreover, our lives are never complete till the day we die. Things we learn can completely alter everything that we thought safely interred in that ground we call the past. Imagine a widower who recalls his loving wife with longing and pain at his loss, but who, when he is 83, discovers that throughout their “happy” marriage she was earning pin money as a hooker. His entire life is instantaneously and retrospectively rewritten.

Wolfe writes tales about people, but almost always in the form of journals: he is giving us his protagonists’ lives as they themselves are experiencing them, with all the tricks and quirks of memory—their memories—making the narratives untrustworthy both to us and to the characters themselves (though they often don’t grasp that). We, and they, can only await later events that will cast light back through time and show us the earlier events in a new and—possibly—now correct perspective. Or maybe we, and they, will never really know the “truth” of what once happened to them. (Rashomon, anyone?) Moreover, some of Wolfe’s characters deliberately lie in their tellings, certainly to us and probably to themselves.

In a way, the further forward we go in a Wolfe tale, the further back we go, for the events happening now are, in effect, revising the events that happened then.

Reading such works, and understanding what is happening in them and what we may take away from them, is not simple, but neither is it the “jigsaw puzzle” that is often suggested. We need only abandon the convention, and an artificial one at that, that the author of a tale must always be telling us what “really” is happening: what Wolfe is telling us is what “really” is happening inside his protagonists’ minds. How “real” that is in an objective sense is left for us (and them) to work out (or not!) in the fullness of the tale’s term.

That’s the bottom line: listen to Wolfe’s characters tell their tales, but believe their tellings no more, or less, than you would a story from any stranger. Then, when the telling is done, make your own judgements.

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Other Gene Wolfe Resources

Gene Wolfe Resources on the Web

There are two (at least) dedicated web sites: Ultan’s Library, “a journal for the study of Gene Wolfe”, which has boatloads of useful, informative, and—dare I say it?—thought-provoking essays; and the now-defunct but still utile Gene Wolfe (which includes the Lupine Nuncio) [archived copy]. There is the Urth List, a Wolfe email discussion group that also now looks moribund.

Besides those resources, there is Nick Gevers’ Washington Post Wolfe appreciation, and a very nice (and very useful) Wolfe appreciation, “How To Read Gene Wolfe”, by Neil Gaiman, the title of which is self-explanatory.

As to blogs, a few entries of more than passing relevance include Waggish’s entries at The Book of the New Sun and its follow-up at More on Gene Wolfe; those provoked an equally interesting essay from Spurious, Literature and Artifice.

That is not an exhaustive Wolfe-on-the-web list, but it’s a good start. And, of course, there are numerous interviews and individual-book reviews, not separately linked here.

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Gene Wolfe Resources in Print

There are at least two books of Wolfe analysis and criticism:

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Notable Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books by Gene Wolfe ****

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