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A Q&A with Gene Wolfe

A Twelve Tomorrows exclusive: Science fiction legend Gene Wolfe looks back on his career.
July 25, 2014

Gene Wolfe was born in New York City in 1931 and spent his early childhood in Peoria, Illinois, where he lived near his future wife, Rosemary. He moved to Houston with his parents at the age of six, attended Lamar High School, and enrolled at Texas A&M. But when Wolfe dropped out of college, he was drafted into the Army, and fought in Korea as a combat engineer. He returned home, by his own account, “a mess”: “I’d hit the floor at the slightest noise.” Rosemary, whom he met again shortly after he was discharged, he says simply, “saved me.”

Black and white portrait of Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe

He married, attended the University of Houston and earned a degree in mechanical engineering, and then worked for Procter & Gamble, where he developed the machine that cooks the dough used to make Pringles potato chips. From 1972 to 1984, he was an editor at Plant Engineering, a trade journal. While working as an engineer and editor, he began writing in the margins of his daily life—publishing short stories, then an ill-received tyro novel, Operation Ares, before at last astonishing the world of science fiction with his first mature work, the novella The Fifth Head of Cerberus, a meditation on post-colonialism.

Published in 1972 as a book of the same name made up of three connected novellas, it begins, very beautifully:

“When I was a boy my brother and I had to go bed early whether we were sleepy or not. In summer particularly, bedtime often came before sunset; and because our dormitory was in the east wing of the house, with a broad window facing the central courtyard and thus looking west, the hard, pinkish light sometimes streamed in for hours while we lay staring out at my father’s crippled monkey perched on a flaking parapet, or telling stories, one bed to another, with soundless gestures.”

The Fifth Head of Cerberus was the first book Wolfe chose to preserve, and it is an introduction to his distinctive voice: rich, strange, allusive, reflective, and unlike any other in science fiction. His books have encouraged critical superlatives. Ursula Le Guin calls him “our Melville,” and Michael Swanwick says he “is the single greatest writer in the English language alive today.”

That reputation is based on 30 novels, including a mainstream volume, Peace (1975),and many short story collections and chapbooks, but mostly upon his masterpiece, the tetralogy The Book of the New Sun (1980–1983), which is set in a distant future when the sun is dying and humanity exhausted. The books tell how Severian, a journeyman of the Guild of Torturers, is exiled for the sin of mercy, takes to the road, fights in a war, and becomes the ruler of Urth.

After the commercial success of The Book of the New Sun, Wolfe became a full-time author, writing two additional series set in the same universe and three historical novels of ancient Greece, as well as many stand-alone books. But none have repeated the impact of the initial tetralogy, which is universally recognized as seminal by readers who care about science fiction and grudgingly accepted as a major work of American fiction by journals that ordinarily dismiss the genre.

I met Gene Wolfe at home in Peoria, where he returned in 2013 after many years in Barrington, Illinois. Although he had recently published a new novel, The Land Across, and was working on another, it was a melancholy visit. He had moved because his wife, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, wanted to go home. But not long after their return, she entered an assisted-living facility, and she died on December 14. Wolfe had been ill himself, his eyesight and heart troubled, and for a time he had also been confined to a facility. The day before I arrived, workers had found his dog, who had been missing for weeks: the animal had been hit by a car, and had crawled behind a garden bush to die. The house was nearly empty except for the author’s own books, some family photographs (including one of an implausibly young Wolfe in uniform), a little furniture, and a makeshift shrine, with a statue of the Virgin, rosary beads, and a Bible, in front of a window overlooking the back lawn.

In person, Wolfe is large, kindly, and unfailingly courteous. His hands are huge and spatulate. He sports an exuberant hussar’s moustache. He speaks carefully, in a higher register than the voice of the books might suggest. We talked the day after his 83rd birthday. 


Which writers have most influenced you?

It’s a difficult question. My first editor, Damon Knight, asked me the same thing when I was just starting out, and I told him my chief influences were G. K. Chesterton and Marks’ [Standard] Handbook for [Mechanical] Engineers. And that’s still about as good an answer as I can give. I’ve been impressed with a lot of people—with Kipling, for example; with Dickens—but I don’t think I’ve been greatly influenced by them.

What struck you about Chesterton?

His charm; his willingness to follow an argument wherever it led.

What of the founders of science fiction?

When I was a boy, I read all the pulp magazines, which were still around in those days. You’ve no doubt seen collector editions, but in those days you could buy a pulp for 10 or 15 cents. One of my favorites was Famous Fantastic Mysteries, which reprinted good stuff from the turn of the century. Once, they did Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau [1896] as an entire issue. And I read it, and I absolutely loved it, and when I had read the last page I went back to the first page, and I started again. And when I started my fourth reading I thought, “Well, I know everything that’s going to happen now and I’ll just put it aside for a while until I’ve kind of forgotten it, and then I’ll read it again.” And I never looked at it again until I was about 50. And when I was that age, somebody wrote to me and said he was putting together one of those books that honor the hundred best science fiction novels. It would have essays from writers like me, and this person wanted me to do The Island of Dr. Moreau. I thought, “Gee, I remember that fondly. I will take him up on that. But first, obviously, I have to get a copy of it and read it, since I haven’t read it since I was a kid.” And I did …

Wonderful cover on that book, by the way—wonderful! The man was bare-chested—not quite muscular enough to be a hero, but muscular and good-looking—and behind him is this enormous, shaggy monster. And the monster has one hand on the man’s shoulder. In a most buddy-looking sort of way, you know. [Chuckles merrily.] I thought that was a lovely cover; I still do …

Anyhow, I read the book and immediately saw there were things in there that had completely sailed over me that were now hitting me like a brick. The book starts when the narrator gets on a ship from some city in South America. On the third day out, they ram a derelict and their ship sinks. He spends three days in a lifeboat with two men, a fellow passenger and a sailor, and he mentions, just in passing, that he never learned the name of the sailor in the boat with him. And another thing: the sailor and the passenger fall overboard in a struggle, and the narrator is picked up by a boat carrying Dr. Moreau’s doctor, who gives him “a dose of some scarlet stuff, iced. It tasted like blood, and made me feel stronger.” That one, too, just whizzed by me. All this stuff, and I was too dumb to appreciate it as a boy!

You revisited your boyhood attachment to that book in The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories [1970]. Things whiz by Tacky, too. He doesn’t understand his mother’s relationship with her boyfriend, but he knows he doesn’t like it.

Tacky has only very vague ideas of sex, as boys do at that age. And, of course, his mother’s an addict, and the boyfriend supplies her with drugs.

It’s a wonderful short story.

Yes, thank you: I think it’s one of my better ones.

It begins, “Winter comes to water as well as to land, though there are no leaves to fall.”

If you live on the seacoast, you realize that’s true. The leaves don’t fall, but things change. The quality of the light changes.

The sea becomes grayer and colder, and the waves shorter and more rapid.

The wind whistles down the beach, blowing sand.

You are always generous to Jack Vance, recognizing his series The Dying Earth [1950–1984] as the inspiration for The Book of the New Sun. But inspiration is implicit criticism, too. Why did you feel compelled to depart from Vance’s idea of “remote antiquity”?

Because he had already done it.

I know you thought Algis Budrys a tremendous writer.

A. J. was a friend. I admired Who [1958] enormously. The plot of Rogue Moon [1960] is striking: Budrys tells us that if you destroyed a man here and reconstituted him somewhere else, you’re fooling yourself if you think that the reconstituted man is the same as the original man. The man who goes into the matter transmitter is going to go dark; he’s going to die. You can create a new man with the memories of the dead man; but that doesn’t mean that the dead man is still alive. The dead man is dead.

A copied man turns up in The Fifth Head of Cerberus: a robotic simulation of the narrator’s great-grandfather. Mr. Million says, helplessly: “He—I—am dead.”

Rogue Moon’s plot has tickled thinkers like Derek Parfit, who used it in Reasons and Persons as a thought experiment to prompt an entire field of philosophical speculation. Its conceit has been widely imitated. Why isn’t Budrys more read today?

I don’t know. People like a lot of people who aren’t very good at all, and they don’t like a lot of people who are very good.

Do you stay up with contemporary science fiction?

Oh, I can’t. There’s too much to read, and I’ve had too many eye problems recently. I can read for maybe 15 minutes, and then I have to stop. At the time I was reading The Island of Dr. Moreau over and over again, I could read for eight hours a day, and sometimes I did. I grew up in Houston, and in Houston in the summer it is ferociously hot and humid. It has the climate of Calcutta. I grew up before air conditioning, you realize. We moved there in 1937, something like that. I stood and read in front of an electric fan. That’s what we kids did in that hot weather. If we stayed in, we’d play Monopoly or something, with the fans going around. The only places in those days that had air conditioning were movie theaters and the big department stores, like Sears. My family went to the matinees of movies that nobody particularly wanted to see, just to get in out of the heat. And we would come out and my father would wrap his hand in his handkerchief so he could open the car door.

What did your father do?

At the time we moved to Houston, he was a traveling salesman. He covered Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana by car. And think about that: it’s a territory about the size of Western Europe.

Your father was lucky to have such a job during the Depression.

Absolutely. We traveled from place to place, wherever my father could find work. But say this: we always had a place to live; we always had food. One time I said as much to Ben Bova, and he replied, “Well, we didn’t.” His father was a day laborer, and sometimes he just could not get work. And if he didn’t, the Bovas did not eat. All of us from that time grew up with the feeling that you shouldn’t waste anything: you don’t waste rags, because rags can be useful.


You left college, were drafted, fought in Korea. How does war figure in your writing? One way to read The Book of the New Sun is that as much as it tells how Severian “backed onto the throne,” it’s also the story of a young man’s induction into the military.

It’s a real wake-up call. What military service does is rub off a lot of the pretense and self-deception from a person. You have to keep going, knowing that there are people over there who are trying to kill you. You’re right: they are.

What self-deception did the war strip away from you?

Oh, that I was smarter than other people.

Well, I’m sure you were.

[Emphatically] No. I wasn’t.

There’s a suggestive set piece at the beginning of the last volume of The Book of the New Sun where Severian writes, “I had never seen war, or even talked about it at length with someone who had, but I was young and knew something of violence, and so believed that war would be no more than a new experience for me, as other things … had been new experiences. War is not a new experience; it is a new world … Even its geography is new, because it is a geography in which insignificant hills and hollows are lifted to the importance of cities.”

You learn to look at scenery from a standpoint of defensive positions.

I see you often called a Roman Catholic writer. Once, even, “a very subtle but also very emphatic Roman Catholic propagandist.”  Is this identification unfair?

I think it an oversimplification. I’m a writer who is Catholic, as a good many of us are. I do not write Catholic books intentionally. I’ve never been published by a religious publisher.

In The Book of the New Sun, religion is only fleetingly seen, perhaps because Severian isn’t a religious person. He’s a rationalist who treasures the little scientific learning he has, and he’s slow to realize—slower than anyone else—that he possesses miraculous powers. Yet in the successor series, The Book of the Long Sun [1993–1996], religion is everywhere, and the hero, Patera Silk, is a priest who believes in a false religion. What were you doing?

In The Book of the New Sun, I wanted to show a man who was raised to do terrible things and who reforms himself from inside. And so I thought up the Guild of Torturers and made the man a torturer. And in The Book of the Long Sun, I wanted to show another kind of man, brought up in a bad religion, working his way through it. So I came up with a fake religion in which the personalities of a long-ago tyrant and his family have been elevated to godhood in an artificial world.

In the Soldier series [1986–2006], which begins shortly after the Battle of Plataea, are Latro’s gods real beings in the way that Silk’s gods are not? Latro has theophanies—or, at least, he has strange visitations that his friends interpret as theophanies.

I’m assuming that the gods actually exist and are there, although from a Christian perspective they should not be worshipped. But on the other hand it’s foolish to think that they’re not there, because they are.

You once said that pain tends to prove God’s reality rather than the opposite; that pain was not a theological difficulty for you.

No, it isn’t. If you catch a dragonfly and bend the end of its body up, it will eat itself until it dies. When people have had their mouths numbed for dentistry, they must be warned not to chew their tongues. I think if we assume that pain is simply an evil we’re oversimplifying things.

[Thinks a moment.] You’re saying that pain may be a necessary design feature that the Divine Engineer—

Yes, absolutely.

—put into his animated machines.

If you had living things without pain, they would have a very rough time surviving.

If it’s not too personal a question, do you consider yourself a professing Catholic?

Certainly I am. I go to mass; I receive Communion; I pray.

Were you born a Catholic, or was Rosemary?

No, I was a convert.

Like Chesterton.

It’s a bad thing in that born Catholics tend to look down on you. But being looked down upon has its advantages.

Like what?

You don’t put yourself forward as an expert. You understand other people who are in similar situations, and not only in religious matters. I once met Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who we’re trying to get made a saint now. He looked at you and you felt that he knew all about you, that he had taken your worth, both positive and negative, and had formed a correct opinion about you, and that was it.

Did Sheen feel saintly? He was canny by your account; he had an intelligent eye.

Sheen was a very intelligent man. He was smaller than I had expected. I suppose he was about five-five, five-six, or something like that.

John XXIII was a little man, too.

Well, size only counts with football players, really.

But did Sheen feel saintly? Did he have a quality of holiness?

He had a quality of something really quite extraordinary. I was at a party once for locally important politicians—a former governor of Illinois, for example. And Sheen came through as somebody who was actually on a higher level. A hundred years from now, he was the only one at the party who would still be important. The rest of us were lost. 


After the Korean War, and a spell as a mechanical engineer, you were an editor at Plant Engineering. Was it just a day job?

It was meaningful to me. I enjoyed it.

What did you do?

I wore many hats. We had a staff of 24, and all of us had several jobs. It seemed to me that I had more than most. I was the robot editor; I was the screws editor, the glue editor, the welding editor. I was in charge of power transmission belts, and gears, and bearings, and shafts, and all sorts of stuff like that.

A good job!

It was. I was the letters-to-the-editor editor. I was even the cartoon editor.

How did you write when you had a day job and a young family? And how did that change when writing became your full-time job?

I would write for about an hour before work on workdays, and then I would write on Saturdays and Sundays. That left my afternoons and evenings free to play with my kids or read to them. And then in those days—and believe me, I no longer do this—anytime I woke up after 4:00 a.m., I stayed up and I wrote. I stopped writing when Rosemary called down to me that breakfast was ready. When I left off editing, I increased the time I spent writing by a factor of three.

With what do you write?

In the early days, I used a typewriter. When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me one. That was my graduation gift: a wonderful gift, really. And then I went on to an office machine, an electric typewriter, a word processer, and finally a computer.

What kind of computer do you use now?

I have two. I have a desktop Mac and a laptop Mac—a MacBook, I think they’re called. It’s not really a book.

Your writing changed when you became a professional writer. When you stole time to write, your prose style was denser and more literary. Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus are very worked-over books, with echoes of Proust and other writers you admired. Since you became a full-time writer, your prose has become looser: the paragraphs are shorter, you rely more on dialogue, and the entire tone is less poetic.

It’s not that, really. It’s that I’ve gotten so much criticism for being unreadable and overcomplex and hard to get into and all this stuff. And I thought, “Well, I’ll loosen up.”

I find that hard to bear. While I admire many of the books after The Book of the New Sun, your early and middle prose style is very original. Nabokov would have recognized you as a being like himself. Yet this feeling that “Wolfe is too difficult” is not uncommon. When I asked the MIT Science Fiction Society what I should ask you, they wrote, “How should a science fiction reader who is more accustomed to [Larry] Niven, [Orson Scott] Card, or [David] Brin start reading Wolfe?”

I think it’s probably The Sorcerer’s House. It’s an epistolary novel, and that seems to help people along. So long as they don’t get bothered by the fact that the style changes from one letter writer to another.

See? You’re incapable of being simple.


With your narrators, you set yourself difficult technical challenges.

If you make everything easy for yourself as an author, you bore the reader.

Sometimes those challenges can seem eccentrically difficult. In the Soldier series you created a narrator who forgets everything at the end of every day.

Yes, I came across an article about a brain injury that is perfectly real [anterograde amnesia]. People have short-term memory and long-term memory. One of the things you do in your sleep is transfer certain short-term memories into long-term memory. Unconsciously, you decide what’s really important: if it’s not, you forget it; if it is, you put it into long-term memory. If you destroy a certain portion of the brain, short-term memory is just overwritten. And I thought, that’s very interesting. In Severian, I had created a character who forgot nothing. And I thought: let’s do one of these guys who forgets everything.

Is Severian’s memoriousness a sign of his identity as the redeemer of the world?

I think it is.

A persistent theme of your writing is the unreliability of narrators.

They’re all unreliable. Well, we all are, aren’t we?

Everyone’s story is necessarily subjective.

You see things from your standpoint and not from the standpoint of someone else.

Alden Dennis Weer, the narrator of Peace, is unreliable in this particular sense: he’s dead, and doesn’t know it.

He’s a ghost. Ghosts often don’t realize they’re dead. That’s the explanation of much of the behavior of ghosts that we find puzzling.

In The Fifth Head of Cerberus, does John Marsch understand that he’s really V.R.T., a “shadow child,” one of the aboriginal inhabitants of the colony planet, who is aping a man?

Yes, he does. He knows he’s not a real Earthman, but he’s trying to talk himself into believing that he is. That’s what he wants to be.

You’re also very given to young narrators. Is there a reason why you find the child’s point of view so beguiling—why you like to imagine what Maisie knew?

I think a naïve observer is more interesting to read because he’s just giving you what he has seen. If you’ve ever listened to people giving testimony at a trial, they are almost incapable of distinguishing between what they have actually seen or heard and their opinions of what it means.


You’re very interested in anthropology. In Peace, one of the suitors of Weer’s Aunt Olivia, a Professor Peacock, is an anthropologist. Marsch in The Fifth Head of Cerberus is one, too. Tracking Song imagines different types of intelligent-speaking hominids alive on the same planet at the same time, as Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans once coexisted.

If intelligence is just a matter of evolution, what happens when a bunch of species get to a similar point at the same time? We are unhappy to find ourselves the only intelligent animals on our planet. It would be so interesting if we could find others. We can’t. But suppose we could: suppose the lion was intelligent and the deer were also intelligent. It’s very hard to imagine. You have to have sympathy with both. The lion cannot eat grass no matter how much you would like him to. But the deer do not wish to be eaten, and who can blame them for it?

In many of your fictions—the short story La Befana [1973], for instance—you imagine intelligent species coexisting on the same planet, who can talk to each other after a fashion but who are fundamentally different.

Another intelligent species, but fundamentally different: the amazing thing would be to get to some foreign planet and discover people already on it, and now you’ve got to say, “How in the world did that happen?”

There’s a similar, eerie idea at the heart of The Hero as Werwolf [1975]: you imagine a future where humans have diverged into separate species after one population has evolved through biotechnology and another remains fixed as modern Homo sapiens.

Some fool said, “If human beings evolved from apes, how come there are still apes?” But I always think about that from the ape’s standpoint. So I imagined two human races: some people who’ve evolved into something superior, and a few who haven’t. I wondered: well, what would it be like for them?

For the old-fashioned humans in The Hero as Werwolf, what it’s like is a shamed scuffling around in the shadows, forced to live off the meat of Homo superior.

That’s the hero as werwolf.

You’ve joked that stories of leprechauns and hairy giants are race memories of Paleolithic hominids that survived into the modern era, hiding from us in the back of beyond and in cowsheds at the bottom of fields. You were joking?

We must worry about hairy giants, because they keep showing up again and again, although we can’t find any physical evidence for their existence. If we get reports of Sasquatch now—and by God, we are, we’re getting lots of them—think what it must have been like a few hundred years ago.


Why does science fiction matter?

I think it matters a lot, because it’s mind-opening. That’s its great virtue. Ordinary fantasy opens minds, but not nearly as much. The Oz books [1900–1920] may open someone’s mind a little bit. Alice in Wonderland [1865] is kind of mind-opening. But a lot of science fiction is much more so. For instance, I could write a story in which a man has a conversation with his gun. I might do that sometime. Prince Valiant had his singing sword, and I always thought they could have done more with that than they did.

Many people say that science fiction matters because it is about contemporary society—that it is a kind of satire.

Unfortunately. It’s true that a great many people think that it must be.

You mean: it needn’t be so.

You could write a book about a landing on Mars in which a landing on Mars is a metaphor for something that is going on now. You could also write a book about a landing on Mars that’s a landing on Mars.

You’ve written, “If we are remembered at all, it will be as the contemporaries of Herodotus and Mark Twain.” How will you be remembered?

Oh my God. I probably won’t be. I don’t know: “God’s fool.”

Do you have a favorite amongst your own children? Is it Peace? Or is your “Book of Gold” The Book of the New Sun?

Oh, it changes. Peace is a favorite, yes. But it floats around and around, you know.

Is there anything I should have asked but did not?

I have no idea. You’re writing the piece, not me.

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