Gene Wolfe, one of the best and most under-rated writers around – and, apparently, the inventor of the machine that makes Pringles – died on Palm Sunday. His Book of the New Sun is a challenging and beautiful read, focusing on the journey of an ex-torturer named Severian as he travels through the vast wasteland of a dying earth eons into the future. I read it about ten years ago and am desperate to read it again, a rare desire on my part since I re-read very few books.
One of Wolfe’s biggest fans is Neil Gaiman, who tells about meeting his hero:
I was as impressed and delighted by the Book of the New Sun as I was intimidated by it. Wolfe’s use of language, the grand sweep of his story, the way he used science fiction to illuminate ideas and people and to stretch my mind in ways it had never been stretched before, the way he played with memory and gave us a perfectly reliable unreliable narrator – all these things thrilled me…
I was a young journalist, and I asked for and was given an interview with Wolfe. I do not know what I expected, but whatever I imagined the author of those glittering, dangerous stories to have been, I was not expecting the genial gentleman I met.
Not only did Wolfe have a reputation as being a quiet, humble genius, he was also a committed Catholic who converted at the behest of his wife during their engagement. He made the faith his own and it shows in his work how deeply a Catholic worldview impressed itself upon him. Jeet Heer at The New Republic has an excellent write-up I highly recommend. After calling Wolfe, “The Proust of science fiction,” he comments that, like Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce, “[Wolfe] wrote analogical fiction: stories that worked at many levels as they fused the literal, the metaphoric, and the philosophic into the same narrative.” Perhaps this is why one reader describes New Sun as, “a Star Wars–style space opera penned by G. K. Chesterton in the throes of a religious conversion.”
New Sun is a novel for our disordered age. The distant future Wolfe foresaw descended upon us far more quickly and chaotically than anticipated, or perhaps it’s simply that the future is the same as the present which is the same as the past. In every age man is beset by evil. Severian was raised in the Guild of the Torturers from his early age and trained to become a passionless, disinterested killing machine. He worked without morals, and yet his disordered, stunted heart maintains a glimmer of humanity. His journey is that of a growing awareness of virtue and transcendent faith. His journey might even be compared with that of Dante through purgatory.
A torturer learns the imitation of Christ. Wolfe himself notes,
It has been remarked thousands of times that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was “a humble carpenter” that we feel a little surge of nausea on seeing the words yet again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer; that the man who built the cross was undoubtedly a carpenter too; that the man who hammered in the nails was as much a carpenter as a soldier, as much a carpenter as a torturer. Very few seem even to have noticed that although Christ was a “humble carpenter,” the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table or a chair, but a whip.
I’m going to read Book of the New Sun very soon. I hope you all will read it with me and marvel at the talent and craftsmanship of a man who was a master at the art of writing. Even if you can’t read it soon, take a minute to offer up a prayer for a brother Catholic who is now on a heroic journey of his own.
PS Here’s something controversial for all of your who like to argue about the definitions of sci-fi and fantasy, a parting gift from Gene Wolfe:
Should there be Catholic SF? Absolutely! Suppose we change that question just a little and say, “Should there be Catholic art?” Answer NO, and a lot of the world’s greatest art vanishes. Humanists would say the Divine Comedy is fantasy, but they are wrong. It is SF, based on the soft science of theology. Theology has just as much right to that word science as sociology and the rest do.