Science fiction like a Wolfe: Gene Wolfe, the best SF author you never heard of (audio).

David Barr Kirtley is joined by James Wynn and Craig Brewer, hosts of the ReReading Wolfe podcast, to talk about the Book of the New Sun fandom. Gene Wolfe, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 87, was a renowned American science fiction and fantasy writer known for his dense, allusive prose and strong influence of his Catholic faith. He was a prolific short story writer and novelist, and won many literary awards. He was even honored as a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Wolfe is best remembered for his Book of the New Sun series, a four-volume work published between 1980 and 1983, which is considered the first part of his “Solar Cycle.” In 1998, Locus magazine ranked it the third-best fantasy novel published before 1990, based on a poll of subscribers. The tetralogy, which was published between 1980 and 1983, inaugurated the “Solar Cycle” that Wolfe continued by setting other works in the same universe. The story follows the journey of Severian, a journeyman torturer who is disgraced and forced to wander in a distant future when the Sun has dimmed and Earth is cooler. The narrative is set in the Commonwealth, a nation ruled by the Autarch, in the Southern Hemisphere, which is at war with its northern neighbor, Ascia.

The novel was originally intended to be a 40,000-word novella called “The Feast of Saint Catherine,” which was meant to be published in one of the Orbit anthologies. However, as Wolfe wrote, the story continued to grow and eventually became a four-volume novel. Despite being published with a year between each book, all four books were written and completed during his free time without anyone’s knowledge when he was still an editor of Plant Engineering.

The tetralogy chronicles Severian’s journey as he travels through the decaying city of Nessus and encounters various characters, including Vodalus, a revolutionary leader; Thea, a noblewoman; and Hildegrin, a servant. Along the way, Severian falls in love with Thecla, a prisoner, and develops complicated feelings towards Agia, a twin sister of a rag shop owner. The novel also explores themes of power, identity, and the role of the narrator.

In a 1998 poll of its subscribers, Locus magazine ranked the tetralogy number three among 36 all-time best fantasy novels before 1990. The Book of the New Sun is widely regarded as a classic of science fantasy literature and is considered one of Gene Wolfe’s most notable works.

Wolfe himself was born in New York City, the son of Mary Olivia and Emerson Leroy Wolfe. As a child, he had polio and later moved to Houston with his family. He attended Texas A&M University, where he published his first speculative fiction in a student literary journal. He dropped out during his junior year to fight in the Korean War, but later earned a degree from the University of Houston and became an industrial engineer. He worked as a senior editor on the staff of the journal Plant Engineering for many years before retiring to write full-time.

Wolfe lived in Barrington, Illinois, with his wife Rosemary, where they raised four children and three granddaughters. He underwent double bypass surgery in 2010 and cataract surgery on his right eye in 2013. His wife, Rosemary, died in 2013 after a series of illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease.

His literary works include novels such as The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Peace, and The Book of the New Sun series. His writing frequently relies on the first-person narrative and often deals with themes of colonialism, memory, and the nature of personal identity. He has been compared to the likes of Herman Melville and is considered a master of the science fiction and fantasy genre.

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