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A Magus Of Many Suns:
An Interview With Gene Wolfe

An interview with Nick Gevers
January 2002

© Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe
Gene Wolfe is one of the most respected writers in the field, and one of the few authors in the genre whose stories have been accepted in mainstream publications such as The New Yorker. Nominated 19 times for a Nebula Award, he has received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. He is known for strikingly audacious novels such as The Fifth Head of Cerberus, but most readers will probably have learned to appreciate his writing in The Book of the New Sun series, and the associated Long Sun series. Wolfe lives in Barrington, Illinois, USA.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Shadow and Claw
SF Site Review: In Green's Jungles
SF Site Review: Free Live Free
SF Site Review: The Urth of the New Sun
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site
Gene Wolfe Tribute Site

Art: Jim Burns
The Book of the New Sun Volume I: Shadow and Claw
Art: Jim Burns
The Book of the New Sun Volume II: Sword and Citadel

Jim Burns
On Blue's Waters

Jim Burns
In Green's Jungles

Jim Burns
Return To The Whorl

Photo: Jayne Bidaut
Free Live Free
The Urth of the New Sun
The Fifth Head of Cerebus
Litany of the Long Sun
Epiphany of the Long Sun
Strange Travelers

Gene Wolfe (born in 1931, an engineer by training, and long resident in Illinois) has been described as the best or most significant of contemporary SF writers; and to those well acquainted with his work, the judgement is hard to fault. Since the mid-60s, he has contributed to SF and Fantasy a host of stories and novels of profound depth and provocative ambiguity; a Roman Catholic of Thomist inclination, he tests his readers' insight and attention to detail like the subtlest of theologians, weaving dense webs of allusion, implication, and sheer wonder. A master parodist, he possesses an extraordinary stylistic breadth, writing alternately with limpid simplicity and with a formidable baroque density of diction; and all this in the service of oblique, many-layered, endlessly surprising and beautifully structured fictions. He is simultaneously the Dickens and the Nabokov of the speculative genres: the author of huge, memorious novels of great psychological and spiritual penetration, and the ludic confectioner, the playful deployer of every trick in the literary compendium. Chesterton, Borges, and Kipling, John Fowles and Jack Vance and Damon Knight might equally be cited in analogy; but ultimately Gene Wolfe is sui generis, an ineffable magus of prose. Kim Stanley Robinson and Tim Powers may vie with him for supremacy as novelists within the genres of the fantastic; Lucius Shepard and Michael Swanwick may have his measure in the short fiction field; but across the full spectrum of textual length, Wolfe has no authentic qualitative equal -- his multi-volume novels and his intricately crafted short stories are all of a commanding piece.

This said, there are perhaps three distinct threads running through the Wolfe oeuvre, embodied respectively in the vast neo-classical novels, the contemporary fantasies, and the puzzles in miniature. The first bracket: Wolfe has a fascination with paganism and the rise of Christianity that eclipsed it, and has worked this into a series of related epics: The Book of the New Sun, made up of The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982), and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983), along with a sequel, The Urth of the New Sun (1987), collectively the account of the rise to power on a dying Urth of an itinerant torturer, Severian, messianic bringer of a New Sun; The Book of the Long Sun, composed of Nightside the Long Sun (1993), Lake of the Long Sun (1994), Caldé of the Long Sun (1994), and Exodus From the Long Sun (1996), relating the parallel reluctant ascendancy of an obscure priest, Patera Silk, on board the generation starship Whorl; and The Book of the Short Sun -- On Blue's Waters (1999), In Green's Jungles (2000), Return To The Whorl (2001) -- in which Silk and his biographer, Horn, achieve a mysterious communion on the colony worlds at journey's end. This huge twelve-volume cathedral of words is of infinite fascination, one of the most complex religious allegories ever set to paper; the incomplete Latro series, set in Ancient Greece and so far consisting of Soldier of the Mist (1986) and Soldier of Arete (1989), covers not dissimilar ground with no less ingenuity and focus. And the 1972 novella cycle The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Wolfe's first major book, hangs ominously in the background of all these series, an experimental foundation or doubtful master key.

Even though the neo-classical novel cycles have probably attracted most attention, Wolfe's books with a roughly contemporary setting (call them, with minimal accuracy, his fantasies, his second career thread) are also of some note. Peace (1975), his early, vaguely autobiographical novel, is an intense sinister labyrinth of meanings; Free Live Free (1984) is the story of Oz retold with many a compelling bizarre spin; There Are Doors (1988) is a brilliant sexual fable in which nothing is what it seems; and Castleview (1990) is a weird Midwestern-Arthurian screwball comedy of recruitment... perhaps. It is always hard to pin Wolfe down. Indeed: his numerous stories, collected in The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (1980), Gene Wolfe's Book of Days (1981, later incorporated into the 1992 omnibus Castle of Days), Storeys From the Old Hotel (1988), Endangered Species (1989), and Strange Travelers (2000), form a third thread of entrancing formal deviousness, the most intellectually intriguing and exacting body of short fiction to appear since the heyday of Borges. In the Wolfe canon, all the mature texts, novels or tales, plainly or baroquely narrated, are rich with recomplicated significance; and even after many readings, the ferments of speculation they cause will never truly close.

When I interviewed Gene Wolfe by e-mail in January 2002, I came to the conversation aware that Wolfe the person is not unlike his books: genial (of course), accommodating, plain-spoken at times to a surprising degree; and yet a magician, a poser of paradoxes that, however simple on the surface, are in fact like the Labyrinth at Knossos, the mazes so many of his characters tread, as enormously involved and logically convoluted as reality itself. One cannot expect direct answers, at least about his books: they will speak for themselves, or not at all, and any candour is deceiving. But on certain practical topics (publishing, possibly engineering problems), all is clarity. For allowing me to be the latest interviewer errant to tilt at the windmills of his mind, a tourney of much fascination, I am very grateful to Mr. Wolfe.

With The Book of the Short Sun complete, and new, unrelated projects such as the fantasy epic The Wizard Knight underway, have you finished with the Urth/Whorl fictional universe? Or do you contemplate further novels -- or short stories -- set there?
In brief, no. At this point I have nothing planned beyond completing The Wizard Knight. Frankly, there is no point in planning that far in advance. I'll start planning when the end is a month or two away.

You've previously commented at length on the creative genesis of The Book of the New Sun -- its growth from novella into novel into trilogy into tetralogy. Did The Book of the Long Sun also burgeon, from a single-volume novel into a multi-decker one? And how, in its turn, did The Book of the Short Sun evolve?
No, The Book of the Long Sun was planned as a multi-volume work -- three or four. It turned out four. The Book of the Short Sun was always intended as three books, one for each planet.

You've remarked before that, in contrast with the baroque first-person narrative of New Sun, you shifted to a more transparent, or in your own term journalistic, style for Long Sun. Yet Long Sun has its fair share of wonderfully eloquent prose -- in many of its descriptive passages, in the speech of quite a few of the clergy, and so forth. How, precisely, does it seem to you that your style has changed since, say, the late 70s?
My style hasn't changed at all. I write in a voice appropriate to the story I have to tell, that's all. I may be doing it a bit better now, or a bit worse; but that's always been the idea.

Speaking currently, then: you're noted for the versatility of your prose style: you can write with deceptively simple minimalism, or in a folksy, expansive way, or in a rich, mythic register. Which mode do you like to use best, and which do you find most demanding?
There really aren't any answers. I use the style suited to the story. If it's the right style for the story, I like it. If it isn't, I change it. A style becomes difficult when it is not suited to what is being said.

Your command of dialogue is outstanding, and never so much as in Long Sun -- in your dialogue-intensive text, so many of your characters are defined by how they speak. As examples of your technique here, how did you fashion the priests Pateras Remora and Incus, and their idiosyncratic modes of speech?
I can't tell you a lot. I listen to people, what they actually say as well as what they mean, and how they say it. Both Patera Remora and Patera Incus speak as slight exaggerations of people I've met. Very few people really talk alike. Both my daughters were raised by my wife, so it would be reasonable to suppose that all three would speak pretty much alike. They don't. Their characteristic modes of expression are quite different.

Of course all of us speak differently to different audiences. Auk [a criminal turned messiah] talks like I do when I'm talking to the dogs. Almost no one seems to notice how Oreb [the night chough, a talking bird] talks, but Oreb can manage only two syllables: "Good bird! Watch out! Bad boy. Iron girl. Good Silk!"

Running right through the Long Sun/Short Sun sequence -- seven volumes! -- a fascinating relationship between your major characters, Silk and Horn, develops: that of teacher and pupil, original and mimic, subject and narrator, and ultimately, an overlapping of identities. When you began to trace these bonds (in the first scene of Nightside the Long Sun), were you yet anticipating quite how important and sustained they would become?
No, I had no idea. For about half the first draft, I didn't know who was writing The Book of the Long Sun, and considered various characters -- Maytera Marble, for example. I finally settled on Horn, and did the rewrites with that in mind. I did not plan to write Short Sun until Exodus From the Long Sun was accepted. I anticipated a big fight with [editor at Tor Books] David Hartwell over the ending; if that had happened there would have been no Short Sun. To my pleased surprise, he loved the ending.

If David Hartwell had disliked the ending of Exodus From the Long Sun, would you have tried to wrap up the entire Whorl sequence in Exodus? Would that have been possible, without leaving too many loose ends?
To begin with, if David Hartwell had disliked the ending I would have argued a lot. After that -- I don't know. It would depend in part on just what he disliked and why he didn't like it.

The scriptures employed by the augurs of the Whorl -- the Chrasmologic Writings -- of what are these meant to consist? Are they a melange of Biblical and classical quotations (for example, from Marcus Aurelius), plus later accretions, or are they more definitely structured than that?
A melange, as you say. Typhon [the tyrannical builder and chief "god" of the Whorl] has told some secretary to put together a sacred book that will leave him plenty of elbow room. The book is sacred to Silk, not to me.

Is Long Sun a political novel? Does the revolution in Viron follow a course you would practically sanction, the coercion of corrupt, unprincipled leaders into obedience to an original Constitution, and thus to the will of God and the People?
Yes, and yes. When the people rebel against a bad government (try to think of a revolution that unseated a good one) they need a unifying principle. For America in the Eighteenth Century, it was no taxation without representation. For the French, Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. For Viron [the city state where Long Sun is set] it was the Charter.

What does the female-dominated state of Trivigaunte represent, thematically speaking? The ability of people (here women), notwithstanding apparent disadvantages, to achieve anything they wish? The dystopian character of any lop-sidedly dogmatic (in this instance feminist) system? Or both?
I don't see Trivigaunte as a dystopia. I wanted to show that in a female state women will act pretty much like men. See Margaret Thatcher, for example. Or Catherine the Great. France once had a general who was a girl in her teens. She was a good general, too, but it was still war.

When I began reading Short Sun, I, like many others, was struck by the new work's resonance of location with earlier novels [The Fifth Head of Cerberus; New Sun]. Twin worlds, with respective blue and green associations: St Croix/St Anne; Urth/Lune; Blue/Green. Not that these are literally the same planets; but why this repeated pattern? (I should add that Joan Gordon, and I myself, have speculated on an allusion in Short Sun to Kim Stanley Robinson's colour-sequenced Mars novels...)
At the time I first brought in Blue and Green, I didn't know about Stan's books. Nothing of that kind was intended.

[Trying again:] Can your readers usefully view The Fifth Head of Cerberus as being set in the same science-fictional universe as New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun? Why does Fifth Head's pattern of blue/green sister worlds recur so tantalisingly in Urth/Lune, Blue/Green?
I don't know.

Are the Neighbors, the indigenous, now largely departed, inhabitants of Blue, identifiable as Hierodules [the manipulative "Holy Slaves" in New Sun]? Or at least as conscious co-participants with the Hierodules and Hierogrammates in the (Divinely ordained) reshaping of humankind?
No, the Neighbors are certainly not Hierodules. Nor are they cooperating with them.

[This is where an interviewer grows a little desperate. I go for broke, with direct, literal questions regarding major textual enigmas in The Book of the Short Sun.]

Is Pig a godling?

Certainly. There are telltale signs all through the book. [Hooray! But...]

Are the Cumaean and/or Merryn inhumi? Possibly, or definitely?
No. The Cumaean is an alien but not an inhuma. Merryn is a human being. [All right. But many uncertainties remain...]

After the action of Short Sun closes, does Silk/Horn take an active part, via astral projection, in the events in New Sun? Specifically, as the "ghost" of Master Malrubius?
Yes, but not a leading part. [Hmmm...]

The narrative structure of Short Sun is extraordinarily complex, a very involved interweaving of past and present events, with some uncertainty as to the narrators' precise identities. Why did you choose this approach, and how difficult was it to execute?
This is one of those questions that are almost too simple to answer. I chose to do it because that was what I had to do to tell the story. Okay, I could have done everything in third person, but it would have been dead there on the page. The chief difficulty was balancing the stories -- not letting one storyline run away with the book.

A more specific question about narrative technique and agency: a large part of Return to the Whorl is an account of Horn's (or Silk's) experiences back on the Whorl, written in the third person, not by Horn/Silk, but by Horn's two younger sons and his daughters-in-law. How reliable is their reconstruction of events? On page 366 of On Blue's Waters, Horn states clearly that Quadrifons was a god he encountered and spoke to; the four make Quadrifons simply a figure referred to or invoked, almost as if they're deferring to Q's dislike of publicity. The godling in the four's chapters seems physically impossible, far too large for the Whorl's gravity field. Have Hoof, Hide, Daisy, and Vadsig got major details wrong, deliberately, or out of ignorance?
Daisy is the principal writer of the storyline back on the Whorl. She is basing what she writes on the others' accounts of their conversations with Horn/Silk. She has done her best to string the incidents together and make everything plausible. She has deliberately falsified nothing. As for the size of the godling, he is far too large if he is structured along familiar lines, but who said he was? As an aside, I am always suspicious of arbitrary limits put on living organisms. When I was young, we were repeatedly told that a condor was about as big as a bird could be and still fly. Then scientists dug up an extinct pterosaur as big as a light plane.

Speaking as an engineer, how might the godling be constructed so as to walk as a giant on land, where the undines [submarine giantesses] cannot?
There are a number of ways you could go. First, get rid of the notion that the godling is going to be proportioned like a human being. Changes in size always mean changes in build. (Dr. Crane touches on that.) A man fifty feet tall, proportioned like you or me, would sink into the ground a lot -- had you thought of that? Take a look at the really big dinosaurs. Bone density could be increased, and the legs and pelvis made more massive, and so on. The problem is a lot like the problem of making a really huge building of concrete or cut stone. If you don't watch out, the weight of the walls crushes the stones at the bottom. You fix that by making the lower walls very thick, and by using stone with a lot of compressive strength.

The undines are proportioned like normal women -- as long as they stay in the water, there's no problem with that.

[Going back to a larger issue:] Does Horn/Silk actually encounter the god Quadrifons, in some fashion that Daisy cannot report for want of information?
I'm not certain.

The Secret of the Inhumi is a complex matter, relating to how they breed, how they acquire intelligence, how humans interact with them. Apart from obvious precautions the humans of Blue and Green can take against inhumi attack -- safeguarding the elderly and very young, maintaining a vigilant outlook, becoming less sinful -- how is the Secret to be applied? Could bilocation [astral travel in dreams] be employed, to facilitate direct attacks on inhumi breeding areas?
If human beings did not prey on one another, the inhumi could not prey on us. That's all. It isn't complicated, and I thought that everyone would get it. Maybe the thought of human beings not preying on their own kind is just too foreign.

Why did you choose in Short Sun to have your characters cross over into the milieu of New Sun? In particular, do the meetings of Horn/Silk and Severian have a decisive impact on the destinies of both?
Because the books would have been lame if they had not. Once you see that Pas is or was Typhon, and know the Rajan can travel by astral projection, he's got to do that. There's a wonderful bit in the Roger Rabbit movie nobody seems to get. Roger goes around with handcuffs on his wrists for half an hour. Then he pulls one hand out of the cuffs and does something with it, and sticks it back in. Bob says, "You mean to tell me you could get out of those whenever you wanted to?" And Roger says, "No, only when it's funny." That is a profound expression of the law that governs all writers and performers. The audience doesn't have to think about that, but writers are bound by it. If there's a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired before the end of the play. Etc.

Your output of short stories has become quite prolific again in recent years. How, typically, do you construct these precisely-honed tales, with their wealth of subtle clues -- how, for example, did you put "In Glory Like Their Star" together? And: is another collection in prospect?
Thanks. Thank you! I really can't tell you a lot. I have one or more ideas, and an ending -- a space ship takes off, and the blast fries someone who's been waiting outside. Who was that? What was he waiting for, and why did the ship take off? Did the pilot know he was out there? When I had answered those questions, I could write the story, and I did.

No new collection is on the ways, I'm afraid. I've got an awful lot of uncollected material to put into one, sometime.

You're very good at parody, as witness recent stories like "The Walking Sticks" and "A Traveler in Desert Lands". How deep does this parodic streak of yours run? Many of the stories in Strange Travelers appear to be homages on some level, some obvious (Borges in "Useful Phrases") but others more fugitively so (John Crowley in "The Haunted Boardinghouse", M. R. James in "One-Two-Three For Me")...
I'm amazed that you saw M. R. James in "One-Two-Three For Me." You're very perceptive. [Actually, this was pointed out by somebody else, whose name presently escapes me...--NG.] I'd say that the depth of my parodic streak is about five and half feet.

Your current work, The Wizard Knight, is rumoured to be a big High Fantasy novel. Can you say something about the conception and writing of this book, and the likely time and format (several volumes?) of its publication?
It is a big fantasy novel. I'm not sure I would call it high fantasy. Let's get real -- I don't know that it will sell. Nobody's seen it, and that includes me because it doesn't exist in final form. I'm hoping for two big, thick books. I'll settle for what I can get.

More generally, now: who are your favourite contemporary SF and Fantasy writers? Are there any authors you see as your conscious disciples?
No disciples that I'm aware of. For the rest -- I hate the question. I always leave somebody out. Neil Gaiman. Harlan Ellison. Kathe Koja. Patrick O'Leary. Kelly Link.

And the wider, the "real world"? You had corrective laser surgery on your eyes recently, and the state of America apparently worries you...
My doctor says I'm not going to go blind. I pray to God he's right. America is in trouble (as it always is). The chief problem is that it is ruled by an elite that is out of touch with the mass of the governed. It's a fairly recent problem, and will be fixed in one way or another. America is still the greatest nation on Earth.


For a relatively -- and especially for an entirely -- uninitiated reader, the work of Gene Wolfe can seem forbidding and inscrutable, like a Clarkean monolith. As a precursor to reading the many interlinked volumes of the Urth/Whorl Cycle, three short and more readily digestible books are strongly recommended, all available as Orb trade paperbacks: The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, Wolfe's brilliant first collection, a systematic guide of a kind to his narrative technique; The Fifth Head of Cerberus, his early novella cycle, which anticipates The Book of the New Sun on many levels; and Peace, his intricate, explosive autobiographical novel (or is it?). Later collections, Endangered Species and Strange Travelers, also have good introductory potential. Primed by visits to these shrines, the pilgrim should be at least somewhat prepared for SF's greatest literary cathedral, the realm of the three Suns -- New, Long, Short, best read in that order...

Copyright © 2002 Nick Gevers

Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue of which he co-edited), Locus Online, Foundation, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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