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Gene Wolfe

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Well, after re-reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (and a change of mind about the notion that those two authors are the "only" viable Christian fantasy writers) I'm ready for another work of fantasy fiction. Particularly Gene Wolfe has been recommended on the 'net as an outstanding, genre-transcending author of SF/Fantasy who is known for his literary ablities and his mastery of the English language. Another factor is him being a practicing Catholic; It's been said that his worldview has an apparent influence on his works (Catholic symbolisms, motifs of redemption/search for salvation etc.)

What are your thoughts, and what would be a good starting point for his oevre? I've heard that his critically acclaimed "The Book of the New Sun" is very good, but not easy to comprehend, especially on the first read. I fear that it might be too difficult for me as a non-native speaker (full disclosure: My father was Irish, but I did not grow up bilingually).

Some further concerns about "The Book of the New Sun" (spoiler alert):

1. "Unreliable Narrator": The story is told from a first-person viewpoint. Severian, the protagonist, tells the story of what he's done in his younger years, but unreliably, and sometimes he is flat-out lying. Did you have any problems with this kind of storytelling? It's obviously integral to the plot and theme of the books, but I'm not used to it.

2. There's one scene in the books where Severian, the protagonist, eats the brain of a wise man in order to obtain the memory of the deceased. That's putting me off a bit.

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Great to see a thread about this amazing writer who recently turned 80 and is still working, but it seems to step off in the wrong direction with its quasi-spoiler "concerns."

Gene Wolfe is one of the greatest of all science fiction/fantasy writers, a modernist (indebted to Borges, Kafka and Nabokov) who brings heavy doses of unreliable narration, subjectivism, and psychological complexity. He's a devout Catholic but also a fervent admirer--and direct descendent--of the tradition of Christian genre writers from G.K. Chesterton to Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Fritz Leiber, Cordwainer Smith, et al. But like most of them, he doesn't write direct allegories or feel any compunction to indoctrinate his readers, so don't expect his imaginary worlds or speculative ideas to be religious statements or to convert anyone.

You shouldn't hesitate to read the 12 volumes of his Solar Cycle (Book of the New Sun, probably his masterpiece, and its tangentially related Book of the Long Sun and its sequel, Book of the Short Sun) but if you have less time, his short fiction is equally engrossing. Folks here might be especially interested in "The Detective of Dreams," which is in The Best of Gene Wolfe collection. His three-part novella (structured similarly to A Canticle for Leibowitz), The Fifth Head of Cerberus, is a classic SF work; his own favorites range from the short story "Seven American Nights," which I recommend, to Peace, his non-SF novel from 1975 that will be reprinted later this year with a forward by Neil Gaiman, one of his most devoted fans.

Be forewarned, reading Wolfe is like stepping off a precipice where you might encounter scenes, chapters and entire narratives in which it isn't entirely clear what is happening until much, much later, or encounter explanations of scenes that completely reconfigure your initial reading of them. Wolfe is fascinated by how we perceive and make sense of the world around us, and unless you're willing to do certain mental gymnastics along the way, his writing isn't going to make much sense or be that much fun for you.

Wolfe is a writer's writer, you'll find plenty of famous admirers, including Ursula Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson and many others. Audible.com has released an audiobook of the Book of the New Sun last year that is well worth your time.

Edited by Doug C

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A new article on Wolfe in the New Yorker:

 

"Partly what readers are excavating is Wolfe’s Catholicism, which he is quick to say figures into his writing. “What is impossible is to keep it out,” he told me. “The author cannot prevent the work being his or hers.” Flannery O’Connor, in her essay “Novelist and Believer,” cautions novelists to use religious concerns in ways that do not alienate the reader, to render encounters with the ineffable so that even those who might not understand or care for a particular metaphor—Aslan the Lion as Christ, for example—can still be moved by it."

 

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sci-fis-difficult-genius

Edited by Doug C

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