Gene Wolfe (born May 7, 1931, New York, New York) is an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He is noted for his dense, allusion-rich prose as well as the strong influence of his Catholic faith, which he adopted after marrying a Catholic. He is a prolific short story writer as well as a novelist, and has won the Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award twice each, the Campbell Memorial Award, and the Locus Award four times. He has also been nominated for the Hugo Award multiple times. In 1996 Wolfe was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
While attending Texas A&M University Wolfe published his first speculative fiction in "The Commentator," a student literary journal. Wolfe dropped out during his junior year, and was drafted to fight in the Korean War. After returning to the United States he became an industrial engineer, receiving his degree from the University of Houston. For many years he edited the engineering review "Plant Engineering", before retiring to write full-time. One little-known engineering achievement of Wolfe's is a contribution to the development of the mass production machine used to make Pringles potato chips, specifically the part which cooks the chips. He now lives in Barrington, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois.
Wolfe is possibly a distant relative of author Thomas Wolfe.
Wolfe's best-known and most highly regarded work is the multi-volume novel "The Book of the New Sun". Set in a bleak, distant future (similar to that of Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" series, which Wolfe has acknowledged as an influence), the story details the life of Severian, an apprentice torturer, exiled from his guild for showing compassion to one of the condemned, as he rises to power. The novel is composed of the volumes "The Shadow of the Torturer" (1980), "The Claw of the Conciliator" (1981, winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel), "The Sword of the Lictor" (1982), and "The Citadel of the Autarch" (1983). A coda, "The Urth of the New Sun" (1987), wraps up some loose ends but is generally considered a separate work. Several Wolfe essays about the writing of "The Book of the New Sun" were published in "The Castle of the Otter" (1982; the title refers to a misprint of the fourth book's title in "Locus" magazine).
In the 1990s, Wolfe published two more works in the same universe as "The Book of the New Sun". The first, "The Book of the Long Sun", consists of the novels "Nightside the Long Sun" (1993), "Lake of the Long Sun" (1994), "Cald of the Long Sun" (1994), and "Exodus From the Long Sun" (1996). These books follow the priest of a small parish as he becomes wrapped up in political intrigue and revolution in his city-state. Wolfe then wrote a sequel of sorts, "The Book of the Short Sun", composed of "On Blue's Waters" (1999), "In Green's Jungles" (2000) and "Return to the Whorl" (2001), dealing with colonists who have arrived on the sister planets Blue and Green. The three "Sun" works ("The Book of the New Sun", "The Book of the Long Sun", and "The Book of the Short Sun"), generally thought to be his most popular writing, are often collectively referred to as the "Solar Cycle".
Wolfe has also written many stand-alone books. His first novel, "Operation Ares", was published by Berkley Books in 1970 and was unsuccessful. He subsequently wrote two novels held in particularly high esteem, "Peace (novel)|Peace" and "The Fifth Head of Cerberus". The first is the seemingly-rambling narrative of Alden Dennis Weer, a man of many secrets who reviews his life under mysterious circumstances. "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is either a collection of three novellas, or a novel in three parts, dealing with colonialism, memory, and the nature of personal identity. The first story, which gives the book its name, was nominated for the Nebula Award for Nebula Award for Best Novella|Best Novella.
Wolfe frequently creates an unreliable narrator to tell his stories. According to Wolfe, "Real people really are unreliable narrators all the time, even if they try to be reliable narrators." Sometimes this is a person who is simply nave ("Pandora by Holly Hollander", "The Knight"), or is not particularly intelligent ("There Are Doors") or is not always truthful ("The Book of the New Sun"), or is suffering from serious illness (Latro in "Soldier of the Mist", who forgets everything within 24 hours).
Some readers have found Wolfe's use of the unreliable narrator confusing, on the grounds that, if the reader cannot trust the narrator, there is no way to determine the "meaning" of the text. Others find that, while it requires more work on the part of the reader, this trope creates a wider and deeper space of possible meaning for the reader to discover and explore. Thus, Wolfe's texts encourage multiple readings. Wolfe himself has said, in a letter to Neil Gaiman (Gaiman 2002): "My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure."
Although not a best-selling author, Wolfe is highly regarded by critics and fellow writers, and considered by many to be one of the best living science fiction authors. Indeed, he has sometimes been called the best living American writer regardless of genre. Award-winning science fiction author Michael Swanwick has said: "Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today. Let me repeat that: Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today! I mean it. William Shakespeare|Shakespeare was a better stylist, Hermann Melville|Melville was more important to American letters, and Charles Dickens had a defter hand at creating characters. But among living writers, there is nobody who can even approach Gene Wolfe for brilliance of prose, clarity of thought, and depth in meaning."[http://www.themodernword.com/features/interview_swanwick.html Michael Swanwick interview]
Among others, writers Neil Gaiman and Patrick O'Leary (writer)|Patrick O'Leary have credited Wolfe for inspiration. O'Leary has said: "Forget 'Speculative Fiction'. Gene Wolfe is the best writer alive. Period. And as Wolfe once said (in reference to Gaiman), 'All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it.' No comparison. Nobody I mean nobody comes close to what this artist does."[http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/nonfiction/intpol.htm Interview with Patrick O'Leary] O'Leary also wrote an extensive essay concerning the nature of Wolfe's artistry, entitled "If Ever A Wiz There Was", found both in his collection "Other Voices, Other Doors", and on his webpage.
Wolfe's fans regard him with considerable dedication, and one Internet mailing list (begun in November 1996) dedicated to his works has amassed over ten years and thousands of pages of discussion and explication. Similarly, much analysis and exegesis has been published in fanzine and small-press form (e. g. "Lexicon Urthus" ISBN 0964279592).
When asked the "Most overrated" and "Most underrated" authors, Thomas Disch identified Isaac Asimov and Gene Wolfe, respectively, writing: "...all too many have already gone into a decline after carrying home some trophies. The one exception is Gene Wolfe...Between 1980 and 1982 he published "The Book of the New Sun", a tetralogy of couth, intelligence, and suavity that is also written in VistaVision with Dolby Laboratories|Dolby Sound. Imagine a Star Wars-style space opera penned by Gilbert chesterton|G. K. Chesterton in the throes of a religious conversion. Wolfe has continued in full diapason ever since, and a crossover success is long overdue." From an article first published in "American Heritage" May-June 1999. Pg 211 of "Overrated/underrated: 100 experts topple the icons and champion the slighted", ed. by the editors of American Heritage magazine|"American Heritage" magazine. 2001, ISBN 1579121632, 256 pages, hardcover.
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