Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Wolfe, Gene

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(1931-2019) US writer, one of the central figures of 20th-century sf and an important author of fantasy. The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983) is a difficult text which has a pervading fantasy "tone", though its underpinning is sf; it may nevertheless be treated as a tale depicting that which the secular world cannot offer (i.e., as a Christian Fantasy) if the protagonist Severian's true identity is deemed to be that of Christ reborn. The Universe described in The Urth of the New Sun (1987 UK) could be read literally as that depicted in the Cabbala. The meaning of the sequence as a whole is intricately layered, and not easily amenable to genre downloading; but in the end it does seem primarily to conduct itself in terms of Science Fiction. That said, it is interesting how often in this encyclopedia The Book of the New Sun turns up as a cited example of fantasy: it is an important Crosshatch. Some of the short volumes published separately – and presented as constituting tales from The Book of the Wonders of Urth and Sky, one of the fictional Books central to the main sequence – are fantasies. They include The Boy Who Hooked the Sun (1985 chap) and Empires of Foliage and Flower (1987 chap). The latter in particular is a tale of strong interest, featuring a God-like Father Thyme (see Cycles; Seasons) who travels westward over the world, always older; if he turns eastwards, he becomes younger. The girl he takes with him undergoes a complex Rite of Passage, but is eventually returned to childhood.

GW began publishing work of genre interest with "The Dead Man" for Sir in 1965, and concentrated on sf for the first decade of his career. His first fantasy novel, Peace (1975), may be his finest. Intricately told through nests of interconnecting Stories – none, significantly, is ever concluded – and seemingly from the viewpoint of a man in late middle age reflecting with some amiability on his life in a small town somewhere in the US Midwest, it is in fact a Posthumous Fantasy whose implications are complexly appalling. Dennis Weer, the narrator, who when his narrative begins has been dead for many years, turns out to have been at the epicentre of an unknown (but not small) number of deaths, and may have actually murdered several of the novel's characters, whose lives are anyway truncated by the failure of any of the embedded stories actually to end. The elegy evoked by the novel has, therefore, a singularly uneasy affect; and any peace obtainable by the protagonist is very much that of the grave.

The atmosphere of The Devil in a Forest (1976) is consistent with fantasy, and echoes of the story of King Wenceslas generate a sense of the Twice-Told throughout, but there are no supernatural elements. Though echoes of L Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) permeate Free Live Free (1984; rev 1985 UK), the tale is perhaps best understood as an sf exercise in the intricacies of Time paradoxes. Soldier of the Mist (1986) and its sequel Soldier of Arete (1989) make up the open-ended (and perhaps incomplete) Latro sequence, set in pre-Classic Greece. It is narrated by a warrior who has been punished – by a goddess or the Goddess – for a sin which he cannot remember, and which the reader cannot decipher. His Curse is to have his memories wiped at the end of every day or waking period; his response is to write down everything he can remember at the end of each day – these scripts make up the text of the two novels – and to use what he has written as an aide mémoire. Eventually he is given some godly assistance, and seems on the verge of creating a universe of memory by treating all the events he lives through – and therefore the text of the novels – as a theatre of memory.

The protagonist of There Are Doors (1988) is again haunted by the Goddess, travelling between Alternate Realities in his search for her, visiting increasingly bleak versions of the same city (see Urban Fantasy) which constitute a series of Recognitions that he must travel through; in the end, it seems he is given a chance to emigrate, finally, in her direction. (The novel can instead be read as a fantasy of Perception, with the alternate realities being born from the mind of the protagonist.) Castleview (1990), set in present-day Illinois (see Contemporary Fantasy), unfolds a complex Crosshatch with a Faerie occupied by Morgan Le Fay, who is in search of an Arthur to end the Thinning of Faerie and to continue the great Story. Neither of these last fantasies has attracted the attention given to The Book of the New Sun or to GW's more recent sequence, The Book of the Long Sun (see below), but each constitutes a significant contribution to modern fantasy. As in sf, his influence on other writers is pervasive, but hard to pinpoint. The clearest influence – in fantasy and in sf both – is almost certainly the model of the first-person confessional memoir presented in The Book of the New Sun; recent fantasy novels which unmistakably show the effects of this model include Assassin's Apprentice (1995 UK) by Megan Lindholm (as Robin Hobb) and The Mask of the Sorcerer (1995) by Darrell Schweitzer.

Several of GW's best-known stories – including The Hero as Werwolf (in The New Improved Sun anth 1975 ed Thomas M Disch and Charles Naylor; 1991 chap) and "The Detective of Dreams" (1980) – are fantasy, as are some of the tales incorporated into Bibliomen: Twenty Characters Waiting for a Book (coll 1984 chap; rev vt Bibliomen: Twenty-Two Characters in Search of a Book 1995 chap). Other fantasy titles include At the Point of Capricorn (1984 chap), The Arimaspian Legacy (1987 chap), Slow Children at Play (1989 chap) and The Old Woman whose Rolling Pin Is the Sun (1991 chap).

In fantasy, as in sf, GW's originality lies in the sense that – more thoroughly than almost any of his contemporaries – he is in the process of finishing the stories he tells. His work signals the late maturity of the genres he graces. [JC]

other works (sf): Operation ARES (1970); The Fifth Head of Cerberus (fixup 1972); The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (coll 1980), not to be confused with The Death of Doctor Island (in Universe 3 anth 1973 ed Terry Carr; 1990 chap dos); The Book of the New Sun, being 4 main titles making up one novel, The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) and The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), both assembled as The Book of the New Sun, Volumes I and II (omni 1983 UK; vt Shadow and Claw 1994 US), and The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1982), both assembled as The Book of the New Sun, Volumes III and IV (omni 1985 UK; vt Sword and Citadel 1994 US), plus The Castle of the Otter (coll dated 1982 but 1983); Gene Wolfe's Book of Days (coll 1981); The Wolfe Archipelago (coll 1983); Plan[e]t Engineering (coll 1984); Storeys from the Old Hotel (coll 1988 UK); For Rosemary (coll 1988 chap UK), poetry; Endangered Species (coll 1989); Seven American Nights (in Orbit 20 anth 1978 ed Damon Knight [1922-2002]); Pandora by Holly Hollander (1990), associational; Letters Home (coll 1991), nonfiction; Castle of Days (coll/omni 1992), containing Gene Wolfe's Book of Days, The Castle of the Otter and additional matter; The Young Wolfe (coll 1993); Orbital Thoughts (coll 1993 chap); The Book of the Long Sun series, so far comprising Nightside the Long Sun (1993), Lake of the Long Sun (1994), Caldé of the Long Sun (1994) and Exodus from the Long Sun (1996).

Gene Rodman Wolfe


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.