You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Gene Wolfe Was the Proust of Science Fiction

Out of the trauma of war, Wolfe found redemption in Catholicism and his voice in futuristic, philosophical novels.

Beth Gwinn/Getty

Near the end of Gene Wolfe’s 1980 novel The Shadow of the Torturer, the narrator, Severian, an exiled executioner, has what he thinks is a vision of a burning cathedral. “Hanging over the city like a flying mountain in a dream was an enormous building—a building with towers and buttresses and an arched roof,” Severian writes. “I tried to speak, to deny the miracle even as I saw it; but before I could frame a syllable, the building had vanished like a bubble in a fountain, leaving only a cascade of sparks.”

As Severian later discovers, what he took for a vision had a very material explanation: It was a papier-mâché cathedral maintained by a religious order, who then used flames to levitate the light structure like a balloon and have it burn up in the sky. It was in that cathedral that Severian earlier acquired a holy relic, a claw-shaped thorn with healing powers that is instrumental in his learning that all creation is governed by cycles of death and rebirth.

The burning cathedral, like virtually everything in Wolfe’s fiction, is multi-layered. Within the story, it’s meant to be seen both literally and metaphorically, as a thing that exists and also a thing embodies truths beyond its materiality. As such it is not unlike the Eucharist, which, to a believing Catholic, is both a ritualistic re-enactment of the last supper and the actual consumption of the body and blood of Christ.

Wolfe, a celebrated writer of science fiction and fantasy with a deeply Catholic imagination, died on Sunday at age 87. Wolfe was a writer who occupied a unique niche by fusing together three seemingly divergent strands: pulp fiction, literary modernism, and Catholic theology. His four-volume masterpiece The Book of the New Sun (of which The Shadow of the Torturer is the first tome) is an almost indescribable combination of speculative Christian eschatology with a Conan the Barbarian adventure story, written in a prose that can fairly be described as Proustian.

News of Wolfe’s passing spread on the internet on Monday morning, as the first images of the fire at Notre-Dame also started circulating. Many Wolfe fans were struck by the coincidence. “Gene Wolfe is dead and Notre-Dame is engulfed in flames,” the writer Michael Swanwick tweeted. “This is the Devil’s own day.” Swanwick’s grief is understandable. Yet Wolfe himself might offer more consoling counsel. Death and life, his work often showed, are not so much opposites but partners, with the passing of the old being the precondition for the birth of the new. Cathedrals can burn but they can also be rebuilt, and in fact all cathedrals are in a constant state of maintenance and repair.

The pulps were Wolfe’s earliest school. Born in 1931, he grew up in Houston, a lonely child, bedridden by polio, and an avid reader of tawdry pulp magazines that specialized in bug-eyed-monsters and Venusian princesses. He studied briefly at Texas A&M, where he wrote a few stories for a student journal, but dropped out. He was quickly drafted to fight in the Korean War, where he served as a combat engineer.

It was a life-changing experience that left permanent psychic wounds. Fellow science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson once speculated that the war had “a lasting effect on some features of [Wolfe’s] style, including irony, understatement, reticence, sidelong information, and the urge both to conceal and to reveal at once. I say this because all these characteristics, frequently mentioned by readers of his fiction, are evident in the letters he wrote to his mother during the war, which were published in the book Letters Home. In these it appears he wants to be able to tell his mom what is happening to him while at the same time wanting to protect her from any too vivid knowledge of the worst of what he is facing.” Robinson adds that in 1953, “after Wolfe witnessed American soldiers killing a pair of Chinese forward observers, he wrote two letters home that are among the most painful pages he ever wrote, their heavy, bitter irony his only defense against the event.”

War and the trauma of war are recurring concerns in Wolfe’s work. The Book of the New Sun is, close to its heart, the story of the ambiguous atonement of a torturer, a man who has committed unspeakable acts. After the war, Wolfe returned home and was, by his own words, “a mess.” His parents insisted that he stay with them when he resumed his studies as an engineer. “The fact that I still showed a marked tendency to drop to the floor at a loud noise may have had something to do with it,” Wolfe recalled.

Wolfe credits his marriage in 1956 to Rosemary Dietsch with his recovery of psyche peace. He said she “saved me.” Dietsch was a Catholic and shortly before the marriage Wolfe was received into the Church. His conversion was not a one-time event but a process. He steeped himself in Catholic teaching, and by the late 1970s, he experienced a fuller personal and intellectual acceptance of the faith.

“I’m a writer who is Catholic, as a good many of us are,” Wolfe told an interviewer. “I do not write Catholic books intentionally.” As with many of Wolfe’s reticent statements about his work, this comment has to be treated with caution. It’s true that Wolfe is no religious propagandist and that many of his strongest fans (fellow writer Ursula K. Le Guin and critic John Clute) are decidedly not Catholics themselves. Still, Wolfe had an intrinsically Catholic sensibility, akin to that lapsed son of the Church James Joyce or the devout Flannery O’Connor. Like them, he wrote analogical fiction: stories that worked at many levels as they fused the literal, the metaphoric, and the philosophic into the same narrative.

Wolfe’s career was slow to develop because he worked as an engineer to support his family. As an employee of Procter & Gamble, he helped develop the machine that makes the Pringles potato chip. As many have noted, Wolfe, with his walrus mustache and bowling ball head, bore an uncanny resemblance to the corporate avatar of those stacked chips, Mr. Pringles.

Wolfe’s tardiness in launching his career worked to his advantage. While he was incubating, science fiction itself was maturing with a new cohort of writers, notably Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany, who left behind the slam bam imperatives of genre fiction and wrote narratives that were indebted to literary fiction. By 1966, Wolfe started selling regularly and joined their ranks, assisted by the mentorship of Damon Knight, an important critic, editor, and writing teacher who helped elevate the craft standards of the genre.

It was through his reading of modernist literature, particularly Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, that Wolfe developed what Robinson calls “a characteristic Wolfe style, in which a syntax, sensibility, precision, and analytical power reminiscent of Proust are set on the clones, robots, six-armed monsters, and all the rest of the matter of his beloved pulp tradition.”

Once he found his voice, Wolfe became an immensely prolific writer, the author of more than 25 novels and 200 short stories. Almost all his work earned praise, with Le Guin describing him as “our Melville,” but by near universal consensus his masterpiece is The Book of the New Sun. The series is set in the far distant future, in an era where the sun is dying and the earth is covered by innumerable layers of human civilization, so much so that, as one critic observed, geology and archeology are inextricable.

The series can be read as a simple adventure story, tracing the journey of Severian as he goes from being an apprentice torturer to a political exile to his eventual rise to power in a future South American state, with many sword-wielding adventures along the way where he meets with man-apes and robots, aliens and witches. But Severian’s story has many levels and he’s by no means a reliable narrator. The books can be seen as a veiled confession and attempt at self-exoneration, an examination of the possibility and limits of atonement.

On another level, the books are an attempt to translate theology and eschatology into the language of futurist fiction. The Eucharist finds its startling and disturbing counterpart in an alien concoction that, combined and consumed with the brains of the dead, allows the identity of the deceased to live in us. The new sun that Severian hopes to ignite and renew the earth is a literalization of the new son that Christians await.

Like the theologian Teilhard de Chardin, Wolfe speculated that as consciousness itself evolves, humanity might come closer to the divine. In his concern for the possible reinvention of tradition in the face of radical technological and civilizational change, Wolfe was aligned with fellow Catholics that included not only de Chardin but also Hugh Kenner, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan.

Part of Wolfe’s genius was his realization that in science fiction, as in Catholicism, the literal and the metaphoric are intertwined. As Samuel Delany once noted, part of the protocol of reading science fiction is being open to taking startling claims literally. If a character says “my world exploded” in a realist novel, the statement is a metaphor. In a science fiction novel, the same words could be literally true while also carrying metaphorical import. No writer has exploited the ability of science fiction to literalize metaphors with the inventiveness of Wolfe.

Near the end of his journey, Severian has an epiphany about the relic (a thorn in the shape of a claw) that came from the cathedral that burned:

The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred sand because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But 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 traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Flannery O’Connor as a convert to Catholicism.