Today is the 83rd birthday of one of SF & Fantasy’s most extraordinary voices. ‘Genius’ is an overused word in modern life (as is ‘celebrity’ – don’t get us started!) but I’m prepared to go out on a limb and say that it’s absolutely merited on this occasion. Having already written glowingly about Gene Wolfe here and here and here, I think it might be best to take a deep breath and hand the megaphone over to m’learned colleague, Simon, for his thoughts on the great man . . .
How best to celebrate the birthday of a much loved writer?
Give people the present of one of his books.
How best to recommend one of his books?
Quote from it.
So, in celebration of the amazing Gene Wolfe, let me recommend my favourite work of his to you by quoting randomly from it. Letting you read some brief excerpts from the first two volumes of The Book of the New Sun, seems to me a lovely way to hint at the extraordinary of richness of imagination and prose style that Wolfe employs to trap you in the wonderful vision that is the story of Severian the torturer and his world. A world of gates, doors, dreams and books. A world like ours then? Not really . . .
“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.”
“Memory oppresses me. Having been reared among the torturers, I have never known my father or my mother. No more did my brother apprentices know theirs. From time to time, but most particularly when winter draws on, poor wretches come clamouring to the Corpse Door, hoping to be admitted to our ancient guild.”
“In a dream I walked through the fourth level again, and found a huge friend there with dripping jaws. It spoke to me.”
“As far as the candlelight flew there was only row upon row of books stretching from the floor to the high ceiling. Some of the shelves were disordered, some straight; once or twice I saw evidence that rats had been nesting among the books, rearranging them to make snug two- and three-level homes for themselves and smearing dung on the covers to form the rude characters of their speech.”
So, welcome to what George RR Martin thinks is ‘One of the great science fantasy epics of all time’, what Kim Stanley Robinson says are ‘the first two volumes of one of the greatest novels ever written’ and what Ursula Le Guin would maintain is ‘a masterpiece. Totally original, new, incomparable.’
Welcome to The Book of the New Sun (Volume 1: Shadow and Claw). Once you’re in you may never want to get out.
Happy birthday Gene Wolfe. And thank you. Again.
The Book of the New Sun Volume 1: Shadow and Claw is available as a Fantasy Masterworks paperback, a Gollancz 50th Anniversary hardback and as individual eBooks: The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator. You can find more of Gene Wolfe’s works via his author page on the SF Gateway website, and read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.