Ever hear of Gene Wolf? If not, you're in for a treat.
Gene Wolfe died last month. You may never even have heard of Gene Wolfe. That’s okay, because a lot of people haven’t. I confess that I find his lack of fame odd because he’s written one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, but fame is like a fickle sun ray on a cloudy day – you never know why some are graced with a bit of light and some remain cloud-shadowed. He did have a group of dedicated readers and has even been called the “Proust of Science Fiction,” but he never became famous in the way he really deserved.
Wolfe died at the age of 87 after a long, full life that included helping to develop the process by which Pringles were made. As a writer, he developed slowly and his work was rejected for many years by publishers, but in 1972 he finally broke through when his book The Fifth Head of Cerberus was published and won critical acclaim. A decade later, he wrote his masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, a sprawling tale about a torturer named Severian who lives in the distant future when the Earth’s sun is turning red and dying. Severian sets out on an epic journey that takes him to unexpected and fascinating places. I won’t spoil it, but initial appearances are deceiving and the tale unfolds like a puzzle being fit together.
I first read New Sun when I was in my early twenties. I’d heard rumors of how Wolfe was a secret genius and his novels are transformational. What I remember from that first reading was that his prose was profound and beautiful but never called attention to itself. The writing never showed off how smart the author was but always served to move the story forward. The world that Wolfe created was immersive and concrete, and the character of Severian was sympathetic. This is the book that I remember having read. At the time, I liked it and would’ve happily recommended it to someone looking for a good read. As it turns out, I completely misunderstood it.
To an outside observer, Gene Wolfe seems like a completely normal person with a normal life. He was an engineer, fought in the Korean War like many other men of his generation, got married, had four children, and lived in a mid-western town in Illinois. He wasn’t considered eccentric, outspoken, or unusual in any way. But all those decades, he wrote at night after work. And he got better and better, until finally it became clear that his writing is extraordinary. The secret of what makes Gene Wolfe so special is the secret I missed the first time I read his book.
This is what happened: In the early 1950s, Gene became engaged to his future wife, Rosemary. Rosemary is Catholic, so Gene studid Catholicism and eventually converted. Like most normal, young men who had returned from the Korean War, he was, as he later confessed, “A mess.” His relationship with Rosemary, he said, “Saved me.” His marriage and newfound faith affected him in subtle ways, and although he never became an overtly Catholic writer, preferring to call himself “a writer who is also Catholic,” it’s clear that he held his faith deeply. In an interview in 2014, a description of his home included “a makeshift shrine, with a statue of the Virgin, rosary beads, and a Bible, in front of a window overlooking the back lawn.” His Catholicism pervaded his writing in subtle ways, and the worlds that he created in his imagination were enchanted, not by magic or fantasy, but by an even more startling truth – the universe is a love note from God.
In New Sun, he writes about how the the Creator speaks a single word and the universe springs into being, how even the path of falcons through the sky traces a hieroglyph containing a hidden message. Severian has an epiphany about an ancient relic he carries with him, called The Claw, saying, “If the Eternal Principle had rested in that curved thorn I had carried about my neck across so many leagues … then it might rest in anything, and in fact probably did rest in everything, in every thorn on every bush, in every drop of water in the sea … everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic.”
Appearances are deceiving, and the truth is that no one is just like everyone else. Everything that we are, every single aspect of creation is sacred, a pathway to the heart of God. We are all dropped from his hand and are on a path to return to him. This is the secret that Gene Wolfe knew.