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Gene Wolfe was Sci-Fi’s Most Enigmatic Writer
by Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy
Gene Wolfe was one of the science fiction field’s most respected literary craftsmen. On their podcast ReReading Wolfe, hosts James Wynn and Craig Brewer provide in-depth analysis of Wolfe’s masterpiece The Book of the New Sun.
“You have to talk about a Gene Wolfe story after you’ve read it,” Wynn says in Episode 535 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “There’s a reason why it’s called ReReading Wolfe. There’s a statement by John Clute, who said, ‘You can’t read a Gene Wolfe story, you can only reread a Gene Wolfe story.’ So you have to read it, and then you reread it, and then you still want to talk to someone about it.”
The Book of the New Sun is a dense, allusive work that initially presents itself as sword & sorcery, gradually reveals itself as planetary romance, then becomes increasingly concerned with theology and metaphysics. The book’s disjointed plot and dreamlike logic can make it a challenge for newcomers. “Wolfe breaks every rule that any kind of writing workshop is going to tell you,” Brewer says. “If you just jump in thinking, ‘Oh, people say this is a good book’ and you’re not prepared for it, it’s like reading James Joyce or something, where someone says, ‘Oh, Ulysses is important. I guess I should go read that,’ and they’re like, ‘What the hell?'”
Wolfe fans have spent four decades debating the meaning of Book of the New Sun, but still many of the story’s basic plot points remain in dispute. “This has really come home to me when we were doing this podcast, that there’s no consensus about these books,” Wynn says. “There is one little scene in the beginning of Claw of the Conciliator where Severian executes a woman, and when we got through it, we said what we thought, we got people writing in. It ended up that there’s probably at least four groups of theories about what happens in that event. And I changed my mind after the conversation about what’s happening.”
Brewer hopes that Wolfe’s papers, which have been donated to Northern Illinois University, will provide additional insight into the author’s work. “One thing I’m really looking forward to seeing is what his drafts were like,” he says. “When you look at a draft of a story, does it start off much more straightforward and then he complicates it over time? Or is it really that strange right at the beginning, and then maybe he tries to figure out some way to do something afterwards? I just don’t know. But that’s one thing that I’m hoping getting a chance to really dive into his papers at some point would show us.”
Listen to the complete interview with James Wynn and Craig Brewer in Episode 535 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
James Wynn on discovering Gene Wolfe:
I read [Book of the New Sun] and I really did just push through. My wife said, “You’ve sure been reading those books a long time.” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Well, is it good?” “I’m not sure.” “Then why are you reading it?” I said, “Well, I have to find out how it ends.” I did push through, and then I discovered that there wasn’t really an ending, and so that was disturbing. I told my friend that I think this Wolfe guy is a so-so writer, but he’s an amazing creator of worlds. And it really wasn’t until I read The Fifth Head of Cerberus that I “got” The Book of the New Sun. And then I said, “Oh, now I understand. He’s the greatest science fiction writer that ever lived.” And that’s literally what I told people after that.
James Wynn on interpreting Gene Wolfe:
The thing about Wolfe is that he is highly allusive. So it’s very hard to tell where the text ends and where the allusion begins. Obviously there are references to the life of Christ in The Book of the New Sun. You’re supposed to pick up on that. The Inca god Inti or Apu-punchau is a key aspect. And when you take a look at some of the mythology of Apu-punchau, you begin to realize, “Oh wow, there is some connectivity between this fellow Severian and that god of the sun in Inca mythology.” You can’t just read this story deductively, and that’s something that’s kind of a little drum I beat all the time. You have to read it inductively. You are invited to spin a story to connect the dots, because frankly, there are not enough dots for you to just eliminate all of the “impossible” and only end up with the “necessary.”
We talk to people all the time who are like, “I’ve listened to all the other podcasts, and I’m glad you guys started too, because it’s another one now I can go to,” and we still find new, different things to say. We all kind of have different approaches. The Alzabo Soup guys were kind of doing a non-spoilery handholding through your first time reading Book of the New Sun. Now they’re on to Book of the Long Sun. And the Gene Wolf Literary Podcast guys are going through his whole career chronologically. They started with his first stories and are still in the middle of his novel Peace right now. And then we came along and we’re like, “No, we’re going to pretend like you’ve listened to all that stuff and read it all a bunch of times, and we’re going to be deep in the weeds.” We didn’t know if we’d have ten people be interested, and so the fact that we’ve gotten so many people who are still interested now is kind of mind-blowing.
Craig Brewer on weird fiction:
I’ve often considered that Wolfe is actually a weird writer. And when you read weird fiction, you go in and the surreality and the strangeness of it is supposed to be taken at face value. It’s supposed to be something that—yeah, you puzzle through, you think about what the consequences of that are—but with weird writing, you don’t get frustrated if the answer doesn’t immediately clarify itself. I think that’s one issue sometimes that people have, is they’re like, “Well, Wolfe, if he’s writing science fiction, okay, I need the explanation. I need to know in the end how everything lines up perfectly, so that I can go back and map everything in there.” And I’m not positive it’s there, like that. The answers that you’re looking for may be there thematically, or they may be there on a more metaphoric level.