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Gene Wolfe (1931-2019)

(16 posts)
  • Started 6 months ago by C.C. Finlay
  • Latest reply from Mark Pontin

  1. C.C. Finlay
    Charles Coleman Finlay

    We are very sad to hear about the passing of Gene Wolfe. The best way to remember him is to read him, and in that spirit we offer "How to Read Gene Wolfe" by Neil Gaiman from our Special Author issue back in April 2007: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/2007/gwng0704.htm

    For more, see: https://www.tor.com/2019/04/15/gene-wolfe-in-memoriam-1931-2019/

    Posted 6 months ago #
  2. Ron
    Member

    Clearly, a giant in speculative fiction.

    The only personal connection I had with Gene Wolfe is that I shook his hand at WorldCon a few years ago.

    Posted 6 months ago #
  3. I'm crushed. This is not a good day. Met and spoke with him off and on over the years and loved his work. We've lost a giant in the field.

    Posted 6 months ago #
  4. Mark Pontin
    Member

    Dave T wrote: 'We've lost a giant in the field.'

    That, and one of the great writers in English in our time.

    Posted 6 months ago #
  5. Mark Pontin
    Member

    "That you and I ... if we are recalled at all, will eventually be thought of as contemporaries of Xenophon and Mark Twain. That this is a small world at the edge of its galaxy, tumbling through the night, a provincial and rural backwater."

    Gene Wolfe, decades ago. This was part of a contributor's note he tossed off for an anthology (probably Damon Knight's ORBIT) where he placed one of his early great stories (probably "Alien Stones"). I happened to copy it out because it struck me so.

    Posted 6 months ago #
  6. Mark Pontin
    Member

    "And as if by magic -- and it may have been magic, for I believe America is the land of magic, and that we, we now past Americans, were once the magical people of it, waiting now to stand to some unguessable generation of the future as the nameless pre-Mycenaean tribes did to the Greeks, ready, at a word, each of us now, to flit piping through groves ungrown, our women ready to haunt as lamias the rose-red ruins of Chicago and Indianapolis when they are little more than earthen mounds, when the heads of the trees are higher than the hundred-and-twenty-fifth floor -- it seemed to me that I found myself in bed again, the old house swaying in silence as though it were moored to the universe by only the thread of smoke from the stove.

    –PEACE by Gene Wolfe

    Posted 6 months ago #
  7. Mark Pontin
    Member

    "The past stood at my shoulder, naked and defenseless as all dead things, as though it were time itself that had been laid open by the fall of the mountain. Fossil bones protruded from the surface in places, the bones of mighty animals and of men. The forest had set its own dead there as well, stumps and limbs that time had turned to stone, so that I wondered as I descended, if it might not be that Urth is not, as we assume, older than her daughters the trees, and imagined them growing in the emptiness before the face of the sun, tree clinging to tree with tangled roots and interlacing twigs until at last their accumulation became our Urth, and they only the nap of her garment.

    "Deeper than these lay the buildings and mechanisms of humanity. (And it may be that those of other races lay there as well, for several of the stories in the brown book I carried seemed to imply that colonies once existed here of those beings whom we call the cacogens, though they are in fact of myriad races, each as distinct as our own.) I saw metals there that were green and blue in the same sense that copper is said to be red or silver white, colored metals so curiously wrought that I could not be certain whether their shapes had been intended as works of art or as parts for strange machines, and it may be indeed that among some of those unfathomable peoples there is no distinction.

    "At one point, only slightly less than halfway down, the line of the fault had coincided with the tiled wall of some great building, so that the windy path I trod slashed across it. What the design was those tiles traced, I never knew; as I descended the cliff I was too near to see it, and when I reached the base at last it was too high for me to discern, lost in the shifting mists of the falling river. Yet as I walked, I saw it as an insect may be said to see the face in a portrait over whose surface it creeps. The tiles were of many shapes, though they fit together so closely, and at first I thought them representations of birds, lizards, fish and suchlike creatures, all interlocked in the grip of life. Now I feel that this was not so, that they were instead the shapes of a geometry I failed to comprehend, diagrams so complex that the living forms seemed to appear in them as the forms of actual animals appear from the intricate geometries of complex molecules."

    - THE CLAW OF THE CONCILIATOR by Gene Wolfe

    Posted 6 months ago #
  8. MattHughes
    Member

    "That you and I ... if we are recalled at all, will eventually be thought of as contemporaries of Xenophon and Mark Twain. That this is a small world at the edge of its galaxy, tumbling through the night, a provincial and rural backwater."

    Yes, that's it, the sense of time, the recognition that we, feverishly living our lives, are faded denizens of other people's distant pasts. We come and we go, and are forgotten, becoming no more than vague wisps of memory among the mere few who bother to inquire.

    A sadness at once majestic and pedestrian. That's some of what I got from Wolfe. I must read him again before it's my turn to step off the bus.

    Posted 6 months ago #
  9. Mark Pontin
    Member

    For them what cares, links to a couple more Gene Wolfe obituaries, which actually were the two best IMO.

    John Clute dials down his more extreme obfuscatory tendencies -- or maybe the GUARDIAN's copy desk does it for him. At any rate, the end result is rather good --

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/29/gene-wolfe-obituary

    While this, 'Gene Wolfe Turned Science Fiction Into High Art' by Brian Phillips, is great and by far the best Wolfe obituary I've seen --
    https://www.theringer.com/2019/4/25/18515675/gene-wolfe-science-fiction-author

    I'd never heard of Phillips, but he seems to be a John Jeremiah Sullivan-style essayist who's had some of his stuff published at places like the NEW YORKER. Mostly, though, he seems to make his commercial way doing upscale sports writing. Hence, bizarrely, the outlet that he managed to sell his Wolfe obituary is something called THE RINGER, which, yes, mostly does upscale sports writing.

    Posted 5 months ago #
  10. Thanks for both of these, Mark.

    Posted 5 months ago #
  11. Ron
    Member

    Interesting reddit thread about Gene Wolfe and Pringles:

    https://www.reddit.com/r/Fantasy/comments/6qmart/gene_wolfe_helped_invent_pringles_i_dont_even/

    Posted 5 months ago #
  12. JohnWThiel
    Member

    2019--the date of his demise. He lived a long life and created many wonderful stories.

    Posted 5 months ago #
  13. CarlGlover
    Member

    For some (perhaps many), Wolfe was the Joseph Conrad of science fiction, masterfully probing the murky depths of the darkest human heart. For others (myself included), he created more confusion than enlightenment. At some remove, I could admire his way with words, but they ultimately had little meaning for me. I always regretted this. I wanted to see what others apparently saw. I really tried hard to understand "Seven American Nights." I finally decided that it was my own lack of literary intelligence and perception and not a defect in his writing. After all, the best minds of the genre sang his praises. Who was I to say that nay?

    Posted 4 months ago #
  14. dolphintornsea
    Member

    My experience of Wolfe is the same as Carl's. Quite a large percentage of his short works went right over my head. "Seven American Nights" is actually a relatively straightforward one.

    When I connected with his stories, which sometimes happened, they were great. "Forlesen" is my favorite. Another one that is so sweet and simple that it's almost a guilty pleasure is "Death of the Island Doctor" — perhaps the least heralded of the "archipelago" stories, but I loved it more than the others. "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is good, too, and I've read it twice, but I still feel I'm missing something.

    I have the whole Book of the New Sun, and I'll get to it. Someday ...

    Posted 4 months ago #
  15. Mark Pontin
    Member

    dolphintornsea wrote: '"The Fifth Head of Cerberus" is good, too, and I've read it twice, but I still feel I'm missing something.'

    I think there is no bottom to THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS -- no final, definitive reading of everything going on in that book

    And if you appreciate "Forlesen" you're doing fine in regards to reading Wolfe.

    Posted 4 months ago #
  16. Mark Pontin
    Member

    Also --

    Nobody ever says this, but there _was_ a falling-off in the quality of what Wolfe wrote after he finished the BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, quit the day job at PLANT ENGINEERING, and went pro.

    I was a Wolfe admirer from when as a kid I read -- as they were published -- the brilliant early stories that went into the anthology THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR DEATH AND etc, and the novels PEACE, THE DEVIL IN A FOREST, and THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS.

    Once he went pro, the first novel Wolfe wrote was FREE LIVE FREE in 1984, IIRC. Maybe it's still an interesting book, but it's looser -- for good and bad -- and _far_ less persuasive than anything he'd done before. It doesn't even start to compare to PEACE. Subsequently, things slacken further with novels like THERE ARE DOORS and PANDORA BY HOLLY HOLLANDER. And by the time of AN EVIL GUEST and HOME FIRES, those are both a mess -- though AN EVIL GUEST is a fascinatingly bizarre mess I'm glad I read.

    Two things happened.

    Firstly, Wolfe stopped working so hard on the sentence-to-sentence, stylistic level of his writing after the NEW SUN books because he decided it was a waste of time -- unprofessional now he was a pro, I guess -- since it went over most of his readers' heads. And I know this because someone I know interviewed Wolfe and asked why his style had changed, and that's the answer Wolfe straightforwardly gave.

    Secondly, it's unclear that he ever learned to construct stories with plots in the normal way even back in the beginning -- or, at least, was ever much interested in constructing them in the normal way. However, the early Wolfe style was brilliant; while the stories' construction was quirkily brilliant, and they worked. Then the style ceased to be so brilliant, and the construction was just increasingly quirky, sometimes as if Wolfe was merely doing mashups of disparate components.

    Mostly, nobody said this. Because by now he was The Gene Wolfe. And he was still interesting and still sometimes brilliant. Nevertheless, the cognitive dissonance between, on the one hand, people's memories of the early Wolfe and his reputation and, on the other, the work he was by then producing grew.

    I mentioned AN EVIL GUEST from 2008. Here's an Adam Roberts review --
    http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/an-evil-guest-by-gene-wolfe/

    Roberts begins: "I've now read this novel twice and I'm still not entirely sure what exactly is going on, or whether it's any good or not."

    That's fair. But read the rest of Roberts's review, where he summarizes fairly accurately what the the novel's component elements are -- it's a noir/golden-age-scifi/Lovecraft/Damon-Runyon/musical-theater/romance mashup. What the hell Wolfe was thinking if he thought that all these elements could thematically work together, beyond the shared 1930s-40s retro styling?

    (Not that the 1930s-40s retro thing itself has any apparent purpose or justification, or even works itself.)

    The above said, I read A BORROWED MAN, the last novel Wolfe published before his death. I didn't _believe_ in its science-fictional future as more than a thin pastiche or conceit. But I quite enjoyed it and there were a couple of scenes where Wolfe did something unexpected and interesting. So I will read its sequel, INTERLIBRARY LOAN, which Neil Gaiman reports that Wolfe turned in to his publisher before his death.

    https://twitter.com/neilhimself/status/1122994610811412481

    Posted 4 months ago #

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