America Opinion & Features

Gene Wolfe: a Catholic from the far future

Wolfe never hesitated to profess his faith

Gene Wolfe, who died last week at the age of 87, imagined vast, strange worlds in his fiction – and revealed them in flickering glimpses. His stories were slow revelations, indirect and incomplete. Readers learned the significance of their accumulating hints per speculum in aenigmate: through a glass, darkly.

Wolfe, a veteran of the Korean War, earned his living as an engineer and was an engineering trade journal editor until his mid-50s. For many years he wrote science fiction and fantasy in his spare time – an hour here, two hours there. He regularly sold short stories from 1965 onwards, and in 1971 he was nominated for a Nebula Award for The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories – the first of nine Hugo Award nominations, 20 Nebula Award nominations (two wins) and 14 World Fantasy Award nominations (five wins). The following year he published the novella The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which catapulted him into the front rank of American science-fiction writers. He wrote more than 30 novels and 200 short stories.

Wolfe’s works reflected his own wide reading. His highly original fiction married pulp subject matter – monsters, rocket ships, robots, genetic engineering – to a deep moral seriousness and an artistry that was by turns Chestertonian, Proustian and Nabokovian. His prose was lucid and precise, endowing his imagined worlds with an almost hallucinatory clarity. His complex plots were often seeded with riddles that a casual reader might not notice, let alone solve, until a second or third reading. Peace (1975), Wolfe’s first major novel, at first appears to be the rambling, idiosyncratic memoir of a sick old man. Artfully planted clues lead the careful reader to facts its narrator will not openly disclose, and to a new, more terrible story.

Darkness – which is to say, evil – pervades many of Wolfe’s tales. Yet within that darkness – often concealed, just as the darkness itself had been – lies the hope of redemption. Raised a nominal Presbyterian, Wolfe converted to Catholicism after taking instruction in the faith to marry his childhood friend Rosemary Dietsch. Wolfe never hesitated to profess his faith, and he was deeply conversant in Catholic doctrine and tradition, but his theological views were not always strictly orthodox and he resisted being called a Catholic writer. In many ways, Wolfe seemed to embrace what CS Lewis called “mere Christianity”. He once remarked that “people tend to have a very limited, stereotyped view of what it means to be a Catholic”.

A few of Wolfe’s short stories were forthrightly Christian, though sometimes in unexpected ways: in “La Befana” (1973), for example, a new birth of the Christ-Child brings salvation to a distant planet. More commonly, as in his four-volume magnum opus The Book of the New Sun (1980–1983), Wolfe’s religious sensibility was less overt but no less present. Set on a far-future earth beneath a dying sun, the series tells the story of a torturer’s apprentice, Severian. Exiled from his guild for an act of mercy, Severian comes into possession of a powerful holy relic and, after many adventures, fulfils his destiny as the redeemer appointed to restore light and life to a dwindling world.

In the last of the four novels, The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian at last understands the role God has played in his story: “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. I drew off my boots, that had travelled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground.”

Wolfe wrote many more novels after The Book of the New Sun. Among the best were the three-volume Soldier trilogy and the two-volume The Wizard Knight. The former blended sophisticated historical fiction with fantasy: Wolfe rendered ancient Greece and Egypt from the perspective of a brain-damaged mercenary who can see and talk with the pagan gods. In the latter, a late 20th-century American boy becomes a hero in a strange multi-level universe compounded from Norse and Arthurian myths.

Wolfe received effusive praise from his peers, including such luminaries as Ursula K Le Guin and Neil Gaiman, and he won the intense devotion of his many fans. Yet he never became a household name: his ornate vocabulary and difficult, riddling plots limited his popular appeal. Even readers with a taste for Wolfe’s riddles sometimes became frustrated, since he seemed to create riddles without solutions – or solutions so obscure no reader could ever discover them.

But such despair is unjustified. Peter Wright’s Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader (2003) cited Seven American Nights (1978) as an example of a Wolfe story whose mysteries could not be solved. In November 2009, blogger David Auerbach issued what he called “the Gene Wolfe Challenge”, to provide “a coherent and defensible account” of the events of this story, which, in Auerbach’s words, “collapses into obscurity and narrative indecipherability”. In August 2010, Auerbach happily acknowledged that a reader had met his challenge: “I can’t imagine a better explanation.”

Wolfe’s worlds, like our own, sometimes seem unfathomable or dauntingly incomplete. Yet the limitation is that of our own understanding. The truth is there, however skilfully concealed, and in the fullness of time it will be known. Wolfe never doubted that God, for all His reticence, exists.

David Randall is the author of the young adult fantasy series In the Shadow of the Bear. Christopher Welser teaches classics at Colby College in Maine