Gene (Rodman) Wolfe Essay - Critical Essays

Wolfe, Gene (Rodman)


Gene (Rodman) Wolfe 1931–

American science fiction and fantasy novelist and short story writer.

Wolfe blends the intellectual appeal of science fiction with the emotional appeal of fantasy to explore contemporary themes. Among Wolfe's major concerns are the isolation and alienation of the individual and the terrors of daily existence. Wolfe's stories are typically open ended, and his protagonists are often children or young men trying to make their way in the world.

Wolfe has only recently emerged as a popular storyteller, although critics have praised his writing since the publication of The Fifth Head of Cerberus in 1972. Cerberus, which explores identity and selfhood, and The Book of the New Sun, a tetralogy that examines a decaying planet and the myth of a new sun which may be that planet's only salvation, are ranked among the most important science fiction works written in the last decade.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 6; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)

Joanna Russ

Operation Ares by Gene Wolfe … is going to do the author's reputation a disservice someday. I know what Mr. Wolfe can do when he sets his mind to it; Ares is far below his best. It is a convincing, quiet, low-keyed, intelligent book which somehow fades out into nothing. The characters are surprisingly decent; time after time there are touches of good observation and well-textured realism, but in the end Mr. Wolfe doesn't really seem to care. The book uses an interesting technique of presenting things obliquely; big events happen offstage, and often the explanations of events will be given long after the events themselves—I don't mean that this is mystification but that the significance of many things only becomes apparent long afterwards. One of the best things in the novel is its intense concentration on the present moment—time after time one swallows stereotypes without realizing that's what they are (the rational, naive Martians, the emergency government that can only harass and annoy, the fear of scientific "heterodoxy"). But all in all, the novel is a failure, shadowy and inconclusive. Books like this are generally called "promising," but by the time you read this review, Mr. Wolfe will be as far above Operation Ares as Ares is above the worst science fiction hackwork.

Joanna Russ, "Books: 'Operation Ares'" reprinted by permission of Ellen Levine Literary Agency, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by Mercury Press, Inc.), in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 40, No. 4, April, 1971, p. 69.

Douglas Barbour

[Gene Wolfe] has shown a consistent growth in the understanding of his art. The three interconnecting novellas of The Fifth Head of Cerberus are his most multiplex work yet.

The title novella concerns a man's search for his selfhood. Like [Barry Malzberg, author of Beyond Apollo], Wolfe is fully aware of the many possibilities true speculative fiction offers. All three novellas are connected by their relationships to each other and to the twin planets of St. Anne and St. Croix where they occur. Yet all three are forms of documentation and not ordinary stories at all. The character who seeks some truth about his own life by writing it down is both protagonist and storyteller in "The Fifth Head of Cerberus"; Gene Wolfe is hidden behind him (is, in fact, well hidden behind all the fictional 'documents' that are all three novellas). This character is a cloned immortal (immortal insofar as the fact of his being a clone means he is in some fashion the same man as his father, grandfather, etc.). But is he quite the same person, or is he not? Wolfe uses the story to raise the deepest questions about identity. There is a dark heart of mystery to this story which is chilling in its integrity. By finding a new speculative approach to age old questions concerning selfhood and inheritence, Wolfe has created a truly gripping, if entirely open-ended story here.

Nevertheless, the other two stories ["'A Story' by John V. Marsch" and "V.R.T."] move further into dark areas of human knowledge, and self-knowledge. St. Anne and St. Croix were originally settled by the French and then, after some war, an English garrison took over, in very different ways on the two planets (there are certain subtle parallels with the conquest of North America implied). The social consequences of the double settlement are explored, but Wolfe is after...

(The entire section is 770 words.)

Gerald Jonas

One writer who has not neglected cultural variables in his flights of fancy is Gene Wolfe, whose The Fifth Head of Cerberus … draws great power from a deceptively simple device: the original settlers on his twin planets of Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne were French, not American. The societies that they founded are deliciously decadent, in a manner reminiscent of the French Algeria depicted by Camus….

Wolfe's prose is appropriately resonant, hinting at layers of meaning behind each apparently straightforward statement of fact. The reader who falls under Wolfe's spell soon learns to be as wary as the principal characters, who live in a culture where every "truth" is suspect because every "truth-teller" has something to conceal, for personal or political reasons. Under such circumstances, the search for self-knowledge—difficult at best—becomes truly heroic. Within a beautifully realized science-fiction setting, Wolfe shows what happens to those who dare to be heroes.

Gerald Jonas, "'Of Things to Come'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 12, 1976, p. 46.∗

Algis Budrys

[Gene Wolfe's The Devil in a Forest] may or may not be a fantasy; there is a passing reference to something that may have been a supernatural incident in objective fact, rather than simply something that haunted the troubled sleep of Mark, the weaver's apprentice….

In any event, this tale of a catastrophic few days in a Medieval English hamlet is told so beautifully, and gathers power at such a nicely controlled pace, that there is no getting out of it once you get into it.

Wolfe is just amazing with milieu…. [He makes] real people out of personalities formed in no world of ours, clothing and housing them, causing them to move and speak with absolute fidelity to verisimilitude. In addition, every board has its creak, every footpath its heelmarks, every tree its leaves. The guy is just an unbelievably effective writer, and a hell of a researcher to boot. (pp. 28-9)

In addition to all that, Wolfe holds your interest throughout, using the viewpoint of young, unsophisticated Mark to tell you what appears to be a simple tale of a time when outlawry and ordinary life were not at all distinct from each other. Only toward the end does it develop that what he has been telling you all along was an inexorable buildup to events of such power, based on such profound superstition, and just possibly on one of the most central of all supernatural events, that you do, indeed, achieve that rare moment when mere words on paper can make your scalp prickle. (p. 29)

Algis Budrys, "Books: 'The Devil in a Forest'," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1978 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), Vol. 54, No. 5, May, 1978, pp. 28-9.

Algis Budrys

Gene Wolfe is, I think, without peer at his own kind of story, and has a particular gift for the depiction of cataclysmic events through the eyes of a naive central character, usually an adolescent boy. In [the case of The Shadow of the Torturer], he's Severian of the Torturers' Guild….

The narrative is done in the style of an old man, a potentate, inscribing an account of his passage through a convoluted life in a decadently subtle culture of enormous complexity….

[The] culture of Severian's world reflects occasional touches of contact with interstellar technology. But in the main it is a blend of medievalism underlain by references to an earlier Hellenistic view of life, which makes sense in terms of actual Terrestrial anthropology, and overlain by a Victorian prurience which differs sharply from the innocent bawdiness and casual violence of the Middle Ages but also makes a kind of sense given the proposed circumstances. (p. 26)

[With] its references to DeSade, Plato and Jack the Ripper, this is a fully realized culture, utterly strange and utterly believeable, as might be expected from the author of "The Fifth Head of Cerberus."

Severian, considered as a character, is handicapped by the fact that we know we are meeting only one-fourth of him; considering that, he does better than well enough. The Chatelaine Thecla, his prisoner and first love, puts me in mind of...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

James Gunn

[The Shadow of the Torturer is] not quite science fiction and not quite fantasy. The distinction between science fiction and fantasy is seldom clear even to long-time readers and critics…. Without going far into definition, one might suggest that fantasy appeals to the emotions and science fiction to the intellect. Fantasy asks to be accepted on its own terms; science fiction, in terms of the real world….

Today, in response to the growing popularity of fantasy (at one time publishers thought fantasy didn't sell), as evidenced by the success of Tolkien and Stephen King, much sf is appearing in the guise and emotional stance of fantasy…. [The Shadow of the Torturer takes] place in a...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

Thomas M. Disch

The Claw of the Conciliator is the second volume of a tetralogy-in-progress, The Book of the New Sun, which already seems assured of classic status within the subgenre of science fantasy. This alone would be faint praise, for science fantasy is a doubtful sort of hybrid in which the more decorative elements of science fiction proper—Star Wars hardware, dinosaurs, apemen, etc.—cohabit with the traditional chimeras of myth and legend. Characteristically, writers of science fantasy set windup heroes in quest of some grail across a bedragoned landscape quite as though Cervantes had not long since laughed picaresque romance off the literary map. Even when practiced by writers I ordinarily...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Algis Budrys

[You] will be missing a major—a seminal—event in the development of SF if you don't allow yourself the pleasure of reading [The Claw of the Conciliator] and its predecessor [Shadow of the Torturer],… as long as you do so in the privacy of your mind, the enjoyment will not count against you socially.

As a piece of literature, this work is simply overwhelming. Severian is a character realized in a depth and to a breadth we have never seen in SF before; of all unlikely tin things, a detailed, likeable portrait of the skilled artisan as a young man is emerging here; courageous, professional—distasteful of the slavering onlookers as he breaks his victims' thighs deftly—rather wise...

(The entire section is 769 words.)

Thomas D. Clareson

Gene Wolfe has scored again with The Claw of the Conciliator…. Successful as it is, however, it differs in tone from The Shadow of the Torturer. That first volume introducing Severian had a special intensity—in large part because Wolfe had to concentrate upon his protagonist in order to make him a convincing individual whose awareness acted as the catalyst giving significance to the novel. For that reason, Wolfe focused upon those events which led to Severian's exile; if one looks at the narrative carefully, one finds that most of the action takes place within a period of several days, while the setting is limited to the City Imperishable In contrast, the effect of The Claw of the Conciliator...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Somtow Sucharitkul

[Sword of the Lictor is the third volume of the Book of the New Sun tetralogy] and it is a shattering tour de force. Those readers who have somehow avoided the previous two episodes in this elegant, comic, searing Bildungsroman of a deeply sympathetic young torturer, have done themselves an unconscionable disservice. (p. 16)

The tetralogy folds out like one of those endless Chinese wallets, always different, always seamless, always one…. To summarize [Sword of the Lictor] is absurd, but images of wonder and weirdness linger long in the memory: the monstrous alzabo, half vampire, half soul eater; the mad two-headed king; vast statues like the Memnons of myth whose arms...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Peter Nicholls

Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun is masterly. In the swampy landscape of the 20th-century fantastic epic, it towers solidly like a mountain….

It is rather difficult to say exactly what sort of novel The Book of the New Sun is, for Wolfe has quietly and without any fuss invented a new literary form, the continuously recursive picaresque. He has done for picaresque fantasy very much what Escher did for architectural drawing. Just as in an Escher picture, what seems at first to be a wall appears after the onlooker blinks to be a roof or a floor, while downhill stairways mount ever higher, so in Wolfe the surface elements of the picaresque (the hero sets out on a quest and has a...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Paul Granahan

The Sword of the Lictor is the penultimate book in that striking science fantasy [tetralogy, "The Book of the New Sun"], and continues the adventures and revelations of its protagonist, Severian of the Order of Torturers. Sentenced to demean himself as a jailmaster and executioner in a backwater town for the crime of showing mercy to a "client" whom he had loved, Severian is our focus for discovering the mystery and richness of the "Urth" of a million years hence. Beyond this, he himself plays a pivotal role in a world swiftly approaching a little understood Eschaton. For Severian is the wielder of the archetypal jewel, the Claw of the Conciliator, the full significance of which is yet to be revealed…....

(The entire section is 227 words.)

Thomas D. Clareson

While [science fiction fans] may continue to debate whether or not [The Book of the New Sun tetralogy] should be regarded as science fiction or fantasy, its recognition as a major work in the field has already been established. Its influence … should at least equal that of Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.

To begin with, Wolfe has created Urth, an imaginary world which matches, in the richness of its detail, those worlds of The Left Hand of Darkness, Dune, and Lord Valentine's Castle. His accomplishment cannot be too highly praised. The basic texture of the society centering upon Nessus, the City Imperishable, seems to be medieval, so that, coupled with a first person narrator, the...

(The entire section is 1052 words.)


[The Citadel of the Autarch] concludes Wolfe's masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun. Severian the Torturer completes his travels on Urth by becoming Autarch and preparing to embark on a journey to the stars. It is possible that we have not seen the last of Severian, but it is not necessary that we see any more for this series to loom as a major landmark of contemporary American literature. Once again, there is hardly a word out of place or an ill-chosen detail. And also once again, there is no purpose in even beginning this book without having read the first volumes of what is, in fact, a single gigantic novel. Wolfe has wrought a genuine marvel here….

R. G.,...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

Bob Collins

In The Citadel of the Autarch, Wolfe's hero indeed comes to the end of his narrative, though neither his life or career…. Severian, as Autarch, sees himself as "an ancient buzzing with antiquity as a corpse with flies," and the description is apt as well for the narrative, in which Wolfe reveals a cyclical theory of time and space, not incompatible with Plato's, and the myth of the New Sun is at last adumbrated.

Wolfe's achievement, though, is nothing less than the mythic conflation of the whole of human drama, something the "first reader" of such a book may sense, but no review can possibly summarize.

Let me say, instead, that the conclusion of Severian's story is both...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Faren Miller

["The Book of the New Sun"] is a curiously elusive work. Throughout the tetralogy, the reader recognizes Wolfe's intelligence, questing spirit, and superb mastery of language. These attributes have earned the books praise as literary masterworks. The praise is deserved. And yet….

From my first encounter with Volume Two, The Claw of the Conciliator, I've made my way through the tetralogy like a baffled amnesiac. Who are all these characters? What was it Severian the Torturer did in those towns he passed through? How have his experiences served to shape his life and its tale? The answers lie somewhere in the recesses of the hero's all-encompassing memory, but Severian's casual references to...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

John Clute

[If] Gene Wolfe is to be taken seriously—and however thrilling or pleasing [The Book of the New Sun] may seem, there is simply no point at all in thinking of its author as a creator of mere speculative entertainment—then he must be taken as attempting something analogous to Dante's supreme effort [The Divine Comedy]. With great urgency, layer after layer, he has created a world radiant with meaning, a novel that makes sense in the end only if it is read as an attempt to represent the Word of God. How intimate—how dizzyingly remote—how comforting or alienating that Word can be, each reader will of course discover.

We are on Urth, millennia upon millennia hence. So densely...

(The entire section is 802 words.)