Science fiction literature lost one of its leading lights this week. Gene Wolfe, the author of such acclaimed books as The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Book of the New Sun, died Sunday at age 87, “after his long battle with heart disease,” according to his publisher, Tor Books.
Since none of his books have yet been adapted for the screen, Wolfe is not well known in mainstream pop culture, but his work is beloved by fans of fantasy and sci-fi. After learning of Wolfe’s death, Game of Thrones mastermind George R.R. Martin wrote on Monday, “I learned so much from Gene, and his praise… not always easily earned… meant so much to me. He was a magnificent writer as well, one of the best our genre has ever produced.” Neil Gaiman, who has often told the story of meeting Wolfe as a young journalist and being blown away by the eminent author’s genial humility, wrote “he was the best of us” after the news broke.
Wolfe was born in New York City on May 7, 1931. He attended Texas A&M for a few years before dropping out and getting drafted to fight in the Korean War. After the war, he studied engineering at the University of Houston on the G.I. Bill. He put his engineering knowledge to use at Procter & Gamble, where he helped develop the technology that makes Pringles potato chips. For years Wolfe was the editor of the journal Plant Engineering, and he wrote some of his most famous books in his spare time.
The first of Wolfe’s books to attract attention in the sci-fi community was his 1972 novella The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but his best-known work is the Book of the New Sun series, which was published from 1980 to 1983. Though it consists of four books (each with their own indelible sci-fi names: The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch), The Book of the New Sun is sometimes considered as a single novel, much like The Lord of the Rings. It tells the story of Severian, who lives on a dying Earth so far in our planet’s future that even our conceptions of escapist sci-fi wonder are but distant memories in the light of a red sun. Despite abundant technology, society has regressed into a quasi-medieval state of artisan guilds ruled over by an all-powerful authoritarian known as the Autarch. Severian is a member of the shadowy guild of torturers, until he commits the unforgivable crime of showing someone “mercy” — that is, allowing one of his subjects to kill herself rather than spend years in excruciating pain. Expelled from the guild with nothing but his blacker-than-black cloak and great sword Terminus Est on his back, Severian sets out on an epic journey littered with anarchist rebels, apocalyptic performance pieces, magic gardens, time-traveling gems, and more.
One of Severian’s foremost attributes is his perfect memory, but that doesn’t mean he sets down his exquisitely recalled experiences in the most legible way. There are lines in the first chapters of Shadow of the Torturer that don’t make sense until you’ve finished The Citadel of the Autarch, and so The Book of the New Sun can require multiple readings to explore the layered meanings of Wolfe’s writing — especially since the text is littered with hard-to-discern words like “fuligin” and “cacogen.” Wolfe didn’t create new languages for his epic novel like J.R.R. Tolkien did, but he did reach back into the most archaic depths of English to decorate his prose. In a 2015 profile of Wolfe for The New Yorker, Peter Bebergal compared The Book of the New Sun to James Joyce’s Ulysses, in that “far more people own a copy than have read it all the way through.” But also like Ulysses, there is much in The Book of the New Sun that is exquisitely entertaining and powerfully thought-provoking.
It also shares themes with Wolfe’s other work, such as the persistence of memory and compassion. As Bebergal wrote, “his narrators may be prophets, or liars, or merely crazy, but somewhere in their stories they help to reveal what Wolfe most wants his readers to know: that compassion can withstand the most brutal of futures and exist on the most distant planets, and it has been part of us since ages long past.”
For those interested in reading Wolfe’s work, the first part of The Book of the New Sun is a good place to start. But for those who want something slightly more accessible, Gaiman also recommended The Best of Gene Wolfe short-story collection.