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In Memoriam: Gene Wolfe

Everything Gene Wolfe wrote was weird.

I mean this in the best possible way. His worlds were expansive and strange. He had a gift for understanding how the man in the street felt and thoughts about the weirdness in his world. His passing means that something great has gone from sci-fi, though we will have his books always.

I have read and re-read two of Wolfe’s series: The Book of the New Sun and the Solider in the Mist series.

The Book of the New Sun starts with the adventures of a boy being trained as an apprentice professional torturer on a dying, post-space empire Earth and that is the most normal thing that happens from there on out.

I recently finished re-reading it for the second time. It is not a series you read once and figure out, or even twice. The timeline games put Doctor Who’s to shame. Often, the Book of the New Sun feels highly episodic, like someone telling a series of loosely connecting stories, but it works.

What’s truly brilliant is the narrative tricks Wolfe pulls. The work alludes to a great many things, some more obvious than others. Also, it is in first person, and…Severian’s world-view and understanding of himself is warped. Deeply, deeply warped. No modern writer has the wherewithal to pull off a character like that without a sneering nihilistic irony, giggling at the idea of redemption and wallowing in the filth. Wolfe went on record stating that Severian’s story is the story of a Christian. Not a gentle story, mind you.

Word to the wise: The Book of the New Sun is not an easy read. Don’t read it when you have the flu or can’t focus on it. It makes you work and some parts really make you work. I consider it worth the effort, though.

Latro of the Mist has its own version of semi-coherence built into its core concept: Latro, a pre-Roman mercenary injured during the Battle of Marathon, has amnesia and his memory only lasts a day. He must write everything down on the scrolls that serve as the books we are now reading.

He can also see gods and spirits that few to none can.

The Latro books are my favorites of Wolfe’s works and not just because I love Classical history. He makes the insane concept work very well and the scenes were Latro interacts with the gods are wondrous. Also, Latro is a likeable person, unlike the Book’s Severian, who is a monster so monstrous he does not truly know the depths of his monstrosity for a long time. The Latro series never felt finished, alas, and now we will never get the last one(s).

Wolfe wrote many books I’ve yet to get around to, including the Book of the Long Sun and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, all of which are highly recommended from many corners.

I hope someday we see his like again, that the genre can find masters of his mad, inspired caliber. He can never be replaced, but his example is an inspiration to many, including myself.

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