Gene Wolfe

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Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe, 2005.png
Wolfe during Nebula Awards weekend in Chicago, April 2005 (a 2004 "Nominee")
Born Gene Rodman Wolfe
(1931-05-07) May 7, 1931 (age 85)
New York City
Occupation Novelist, short-story writer
Nationality American
Period c. 1966–present
Genre Fantasy, science fiction
Notable works Solar Cycle[1]

Gene Rodman Wolfe (born May 7, 1931) is an American science fiction and fantasy writer. He is noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as the strong influence of his Catholic faith. He is a prolific short-story writer and novelist and has won many science fiction and fantasy literary awards.[2]

Wolfe is most famous for The Book of the New Sun (four volumes, 1980–83), the first part of his Solar Cycle.[1] In 1998, Locus magazine ranked it third-best fantasy novel before 1990 (after The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit) based on a poll of subscribers that considered it and several other series as single entries.[3][a]

Personal life[edit]

Wolfe was born in New York City, the son of Mary Olivia (née Ayers) and Emerson Leroy Wolfe.[4] He had polio as a small child.[5] While attending Texas A&M University, he published his first speculative fiction in The Commentator, a student literary journal. (ISFDB catalogs two 1951 stories.)[6] Wolfe dropped out during his junior year and subsequently was drafted to fight in the Korean War.[7] After returning to the United States, he earned a degree from the University of Houston and became an industrial engineer. He was a senior editor on the staff of the journal Plant Engineering for many years[8] before retiring to write full-time, but his most famous professional engineering achievement is a contribution to the machine used to make Pringles potato chips.[9]

Having previously lived in Barrington, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, with his wife Rosemary, Wolfe moved to Peoria, Illinois in 2013. He underwent double bypass surgery on April 24, 2010.[10] Wolfe also underwent cataract surgery on his right eye in early 2013. Wolfe's wife, Rosemary, died on December 14, 2013, after a series of illnesses,[11][12] including Alzheimer's disease. Wolfe said, "There was a time when she did not remember my name or that we were married, but she still remembered that she loved me."[13]

Literary works[edit]

Wolfe's first published book was the paperback original novel Operation Ares (Berkley Medallion, 1970).[6] He first received critical attention for The Fifth Head of Cerberus (Scribner's, 1972), which examines "colonial mentality within an orthodox science fiction framework".[14] It was published in German and French-language editions within the decade.[6]

His best-known and most highly regarded work is the multi-volume novel The Book of the New Sun. Set in a bleak, distant future influenced by Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, the story details the life of Severian, a journeyman torturer, exiled from his guild for showing compassion to one of the condemned. 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 1984, Wolfe retired from his engineering position and was then able to devote more time to his writing. 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), Caldé 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, 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) are often referred to collectively 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 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 Best Novella.


Wolfe's writing frequently relies on the first-person perspectives of unreliable narrators. He says: "Real people really are unreliable narrators all the time, even if they try to be reliable narrators."[9] The causes for the unreliability of his characters vary. Some are naive, as in Pandora by Holly Hollander or The Knight; others are not particularly intelligent[15] (There Are Doors); Severian, from The Book of the New Sun, is not always truthful; and Latro of the Soldier series suffers from recurrent amnesia.

Wolfe wrote in a letter:[16]

My definition of a great story has nothing to do with "a varied and interesting background." It is: One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure.

In that spirit, Wolfe also leaves subtle hints and lacunae which may never be explicitly referred to in the text. For example, a backyard full of morning glories is an intentional foreshadowing of events in Free Live Free, but is only apparent to a reader with a horticultural background, and a story-within-the-story provides a clue to understanding Peace.

Wolfe's language can also be a subject of confusion for the new reader. In the appendix to The Shadow of the Torturer, he says:

In rendering this book – originally composed in a tongue that has not achieved existence – into English, I might easily have saved myself a great deal of labor by having recourse to invented terms; in no case have I done so. Thus in many instances I have been forced to replace yet undiscovered concepts by their closest twentieth-century equivalents. Such words as peltast, androgyn, and exultant are substitutions of this kind, and are intended to be suggestive rather than definitive.[17]

This character of the fictional "translator" of his novel provides a certain insight into Wolfe's writing: all of his terms (fuligin, carnifex, thaumaturge, etc.) are real words.


Although not a best-selling author, Wolfe is highly regarded by critics[18] 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. Shakespeare was a better stylist, 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."[19]

Among others, writers Neil Gaiman and 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, 'All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it.' No comparison. Nobody – I mean nobody – comes close to what this artist does."[20] O'Leary also wrote an extensive essay concerning the nature of Wolfe's artistry, entitled "If Ever A Wiz There Was" at the Wayback Machine (archived June 16, 2010), originally published in his collection Other Voices, Other Doors. Ursula K. Le Guin is frequently quoted on the jackets of Wolfe's books as having said "Wolfe is our Melville."

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 0-9642795-9-2).

When asked the "Most overrated" and "Most underrated" authors, Thomas M. 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 Sound. Imagine a Star Wars-style space opera penned by 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."[21]

Early in his writing career, Wolfe exchanged correspondence with J. R. R. Tolkien.[22]


Wolfe won the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1996, a judged award at the annual World Fantasy Convention.[2] He was inducted by the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2007.[23] [needs update]The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named him its 29th SFWA Grand Master in December 2012; the annual Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award was presented to Wolfe during Nebula Awards weekend, May 16–19, 2013.[24][25][26]

He was Guest of Honor at the 1985 World Science Fiction Convention and he received the 1989 Edward E. Smith Memorial Award (or "Skylark") at the New England convention Boskone. In March 2012 he was presented with the first Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Fuller Award, for outstanding contribution to literature by a Chicago author.[27]

He has also won many awards for individual works:

Work Form Award[2]
"The Death of Doctor Island" Novella 1974 Nebula Award
1974 Locus Award
"The Computer Iterates the Greater Trumps" Long Poem 1978 Rhysling Award
The Shadow of the Torturer Novel 1981 BSFA Award [28]
1981 World Fantasy Award [28]
The Claw of the Conciliator Novel 1981 Nebula Award [28]
1982 Locus Award
The Sword of the Lictor Novel 1983 Locus Award [29]
1983 August Derleth Award
The Citadel of the Autarch Novel 1984 Campbell Award [30]
Soldier of the Mist Novel 1987 Locus Award [31]
Storeys from the Old Hotel Collection 1989 World Fantasy Award
"Golden City Far" Novella 2005 Locus Award
Soldier of Sidon Novel 2007 World Fantasy Award [32]
The Best of Gene Wolfe Collection 2010 Locus Award[33]
2010 World Fantasy Award[34]

He has also compiled a long list of nominations in years when he did not win, including sixteen Nebula award nominations and eight Hugo Award nominations.[35]


This is a partial list of works by Wolfe, focusing on those which won awards; for a more detailed list, see Gene Wolfe bibliography.


Story collections[edit]

Books about Gene Wolfe[edit]

  • The Wizard Knight Companion: A Lexicon for Gene Wolfe's The Knight and The Wizard: Michael Andre-Driussi (Sirius Fiction, 2009, ISBN 978-0-9642795-3-7), a dictionary of words and names from Wolfe's Wizard Knight novels
  • Lexicon Urthus: Michael Andre-Druissi (Sirius Fiction, 1994, ISBN 0-9642795-9-2), a dictionary of the archaic words used by Wolfe in The Book of the New Sun
  • The Long and the Short of It: More Essays on the Fiction of Gene Wolfe: Robert Borski (iUniverse, Inc., 2006, ISBN 978-0-595-38645-1)
  • Solar Labyrinth: Exploring Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun": Robert Borski (iUniverse, Inc., 2004, ISBN 978-0-595-31729-5)
  • Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice, and the Reader: Peter Wright (Liverpool University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-85323-818-9): Study of The Book of the New Sun and The Urth of the New Sun
  • Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing / Writers on Wolfe: Peter Wright (Liverpool University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1-84631-058-4)
  • Strokes: John Clute (Serconia Press, 1988, ISBN 0-934933-03-0)
  • Gene Wolfe: An annotated bibliography and criticism on Wolfe's science fiction and non-fiction writing: Joan Gordon (Borgo Press, 2008, ISBN 0-930261-18-6)
  • Gate of Horn, Book of Silk: A Guide to Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun: Michael Andre-Driussi (Sirius Fiction, 2012, ISBN 0-964279-55-X)
  • Shadows of the New Sun, an anthology of stories by other authors which are all explicitly based on Wolfe stories (TOR Books, 2013)
  • Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951-1986: Marc Aramini (Castalia House, 2015, ASIN B011YTDGY2), a comprehensive literary analysis of Wolfe's fiction from 1951 to 1986, volume 1 of 2.

Film adaptations[edit]

The Death of Doctor Island, 35 mm short, 2008.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Locus subscribers voted only two Middle-earth novels by J. R. R. Tolkien ahead of Wolfe's New Sun, followed by Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series. Third and fourth ranks were exchanged in the 1987 rendition of the poll, "All-Time Best Fantasy Novels", which considered as single entries Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer and Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, the first volumes of New Sun and Earthsea.


  1. ^ a b Solar Cycle series listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB). Retrieved 2012-04-24. Select a title to see its linked publication history and general information. Select a particular edition (title) for more data at that level, such as a front cover image or linked contents.
  2. ^ a b c "Wolfe, Gene". The Locus Index to SF Awards: Index of Literary Nominees. Locus Publications. Retrieved 2012-04-23.
  3. ^ The Locus Online website links multiple pages providing the results of several polls and a little other information. "The Locus Index to SF Awards: 1998 Locus All-Time Poll". Locus Publications. Archived from the original on 2004-01-13. Retrieved 2012-04-24. 
    • See also "1998 Locus Poll Award". ISFDB. Retrieved 2012-04-24.
  4. ^ "Gene Wolfe Summary". 2010-11-02. Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  5. ^ "Larry McCaffery, "On Encompassing the Entire Universe: An Interview with Gene Wolfe"". Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  6. ^ a b c "Gene Wolfe – Summary Bibliography". ISFDB. Retrieved 2013-04-03.
  7. ^ Autobiographical sketch
  8. ^ See the article "Gene Wolfe's time at Plant Engineering", on the Ultan's Library website.
  9. ^ a b Lawrence Person (Fall–Winter 1998). "Suns new, long, and short: an interview with Gene Wolfe". Nova Express. 5 (1). Retrieved 2008-12-17. 
  10. ^ Locus Publications (April 27, 2010). "Locus Online News » Gene Wolfe Recovering from Heart Surgery". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  11. ^ Michael Swanwick (2013-12-16). "Flogging Babel: A Farewell to Rosemary". Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  12. ^ Rosemary Wolfe (b.1931) (2013-12-16). "SF Site News » Obituary: Rosemary Wolfe". Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  13. ^ Bebergal, Peyter (April 24, 2015). "Sci-Fi's Difficult Genius". The New Yorker. Retrieved 27 January 2016. 
  14. ^ "Gene Wolfe (Gene Rodman Wolfe) Biography - (1931– ), (Gene Rodman Wolfe), The Fifth Head of Cerberus, The Devil in a Forest". Encyclopedia of Literature via JRank ( Retrieved 2013-04-03.
  15. ^ "Shadows of the New Sun", p. 112 – "I wanted to present a protagonist who isn't very intelligent. Green isn't."
  16. ^ "From a Chain letter to George R. R. Martin and Greg Benford", 10 July 1982; as published in Gene Wolfe, Castle of Days (1992) [italics in source]
  17. ^ Wolfe, Gene (1994). Shadow & Claw. Tor Books. p. 211. ISBN 978-0-312-89017-9. 
  18. ^ Such as John Clute; his The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction writes: “Though neither the most popular nor the most influential author in the sf field, Gene Wolfe is today quite possibly the most important. The inherent stature of his work is deeply impressive and he wears the fictional worlds of sf like a coat of many colors.”
  19. ^ "Michael Swanwick interview". 2003-09-26. Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  20. ^ "Interview with Patrick O'Leary". 2000-11-11. Retrieved 2013-12-30. 
  21. ^ 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. 2001, ISBN 1-57912-163-2, 256 pages, hardcover.
  22. ^ The Annotated Hobbit, 2002 revised and expanded edition, p. 146 n.9; see also Wolfe's "The Best Introduction To The Mountains"
  23. ^ "Science Fiction Hall of Fame to Induct Ed Emshwiller, Gene Roddenberry, Ridley Scott and Gene Wolfe" at the Wayback Machine (archived October 14, 2007). Press release March/April/May 2007. Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame ( Archived 2007-10-14. Retrieved 2013-03-19.
  24. ^ "2012 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Awarded to Gene Wolfe". SFWA press release. December 13, 2012. Retrieved 2012-12-13. 
  25. ^ Alison Flood (December 14, 2012). "Gene Wolfe wins grand master award for science fiction and fantasy". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-12-14. 
  26. ^ "Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master". Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Retrieved 2013-04-03.
  27. ^ Valya Dudycz Lupescu (February 3, 2012). "What is the Fuller Award? | Honoring Gene Wolfe". The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  28. ^ a b c d "1981 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  29. ^ a b c "1983 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  30. ^ a b "1984 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  31. ^ a b "1987 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  32. ^ a b "2007 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  33. ^ "2010 Locus Awards Winners". Locus Online. Locus Publications. June 26, 2010. Retrieved 2010-06-27. 
  34. ^ World Fantasy Convention (2010). "2010 World Fantasy Award Winners & Nominees". Retrieved 2011-02-04. 
  35. ^ "Gene Wolfe | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Authors | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  36. ^ a b c "1982 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  37. ^ "1985 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  38. ^ "1986 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  39. ^ a b "1988 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  40. ^ "Soldier of Arete | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  41. ^ "1989 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  42. ^ "1994 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  43. ^ "1996 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  44. ^ "2001 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  45. ^ "2002 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  46. ^ a b "2005 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  47. ^ "2008 Award Winners & Nominees | Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Books by Award | WWEnd". Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
  48. ^ "Locus Magazine Announces Award Finalists". May 11, 2011. Retrieved 2012-05-27. 

External links[edit]