Ultan's Library

a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe


Me & Gene – by Stephen Palmer

Master Ultan asked Book of the New Sun enthusiast and SF writer Stephen Palmer how he first came across Wolfe’s work. This is his reply.

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Just published: A Borrowed Man

Cover image of A Borrowed Man by Gene WolfeWolfe’s latest novel, A Borrowed Man, was published this week by Tor/Macmillan in the USA. Copies have arrived here in the Library and we have already started reading them.

Ultan’s Library co-editor Nigel Price was amazed and delighted to discover that he is the object of the novel’s dedication. He does not know what he did to deserve this honour, though his best guess is that it was because he was critically ill in hospital for several months around the time the book was being completed. Though, even if correct, he would not recommend this method of attracting the author’s sympathy, his joy at being still here and able to read this work knows no bounds.

Meanwhile, word has reached the Great Library of Nessus that Wolfe is already hard at work on a sequel, the working title of which is Interlibrary Loan.

Here is the publisher’s blurb for A Borrowed Man:

It is perhaps a hundred years in the future, our civilization is gone, and another is in place in North America, but it retains many familiar things and structures. Although the population is now small, there is advanced technology, there are robots, and there are clones.

E. A. Smithe is a borrowed person. He is a clone who lives on a third-tier shelf in a public library, and his personality is an uploaded recording of a deceased mystery writer. Smithe is a piece of property, not a legal human.

A wealthy patron, Colette Coldbrook, takes him from the library because he is the surviving personality of the author of Murder on Mars. A physical copy of that book was in the possession of her murdered father, and it contains an important secret, the key to immense family wealth. It is lost, and Colette is afraid of the police. She borrows Smithe to help her find the book and to find out what the secret is. And then the plot gets complicated.

Links roundup:

Wolfe at Balticon 50

Maryland’s Balticon SF convention will be celebrating its 5oth anniversary in 2016. George RR Martin is the Guest of Honor (GoH) but as part of the celebrations, the convention has also invited back every living past GoH.

Gene Wolfe, who was GoH at Balticon 40, is due to be among those attending.

The convention runs on the USA’s Memorial Day Weekend, 27-30 May 2016. Further details are available on the Balticon website.

A Lexicon Urthus update

Cover image for Lexicon Urthus - A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle, by Michael Andre-DriussiWolfe scholar Michael Andre-Driussi recently got in touch to let us know that he has published a list of corrections and errata for his masterful “Dictionary of the Urth Cycle”, Lexicon Urthus.  

The ebook version has been updated in the kindle store, and recent copies of the hard and softcover editions have also been updated, and are marked “Second Edition 2008: corrected 2014” on the copyright page. Michael has provided Master Ultan with the following lists of corrections. He says:

“For hardcopy books, I think an acceptable method would be to write in the corrections, thereby personalizing the volume. Use of vermilion ink would be an added bonus!”

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Aramini on Wolfe on Youtube… again!

Our contributor, Marc Aramini, has posted more discussion of Wolfe on youtube:

Wolfe in 2015: A Borrowed Man

Ultan’s Library notes that Gene’s next novel, A Borrowed Man, is now listed on Amazon for publication in October 2015.

Gene discussed the novel in his October interview with the Barrington-Courier Review: 

“What I’m doing now is writing a sequel to a book that is not yet appeared, A Borrowed Man. “Interlibrary Loan” is the name of the sequel. “A Borrowed Man” is about a man who is a library resource and is treated as much like a library book. And in other words, you can go in and you can check this man out of the library, and pick his brains probably about whatever.

He is a clone from the DNA of a dead author, who has been given the memories of the dead author.”

Pre-order A Borrowed Man at Amazon USA

Pre-order A Borrowed Man at Amazon UK

Ultan contributor Marc Aramini’s new video on Gene Wolfe and Literature

Proving Veil’s Hypothesis: Variance Reduction Techniques, Larval Life Cycles on an East Wind, and Shadow Children Riding Mars(c)hmen in The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Marc Aramini

“I am exempt by reason of being a child and by reason of being an animal…” (“Marsch” on his unjust incarceration in the “V.R.T.” section of The Fifth Head of Cerberus, p.181)

In the wake of the postmodern explosion that decentralizes absolutes and puts universal meaning into question, it is at times difficult to approach Gene Wolfe’s work with the actual scientific rigor it demands.

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Aaron Allston 1960-2014

It was with great sorrow that we learned last week of the passing of novelist and game designer Aaron Allston. Best known for his work on novels set in the Star Wars universe, Wolfe fans will remember him for his fine story “Epistoleros” in the recent Shadows of the New Sun collection.

Many of the authors in that collection chose to write stories woven tightly into the story-space of Wolfe’s works, but Aaron chose to write a story that just felt Wolfean. He skilfully crafted a metafictional western in the epistolary style that examined the relationship between story and history. We recommend that you seek it out.

I contacted Aaron about an interview for our series talking to the writers collected in Shadows of the New Sun. His health, writing, and convention commitments prevented us from completing the interview at that time. When I contacted him again I found that he had already written a comprehensive set of story notes about “Epistoleros” which answered many of the questions I’d hoped to ask him.

We send our condolences and sad best wishes to all of Aaron’s family and friends.

You can read “Epistoleros” in Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe edited by J.E. Mooney and Bill Fawcett, available from Tor Books.

You can download the story notes free from Aaron’s website:


Shadows of the New Sun: an interview with Judi Rohrig

Photo of Judi Rohrig, Gene and Rosemary Wolfe, writer C.S.E. Cooney, and Bekah Rohrig (Li'l Pirate).

Judi Rohrig, Gene and Rosemary Wolfe, writer C.S.E. Cooney, and Bekah Rohrig (Li’l Pirate).
Photo by Byron Rohrig

Judi Rohrig is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, and an editor who has been honored with the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award (2004) for Non-Fiction (for editing Hellnotes, a weekly newsletter for writers of dark fiction). She also edited the electronic anthology Stones. Her stories have appeared in Masques V, Spells of the City, Pandora’s Closet, Furry Fantastic, Dreaming of Angels, Extremes V, and Cemetery Dance magazine. Forthcoming are stories in All-American Horror and Shadows of the New Sun.  According to her website, Judi makes her home in tornado vulnerable, flood-prone, and earthquake-shaken Southern Indiana.

Tell us how you first encountered Gene’s writing?

It might come as a shock and surprise to those who have enjoyed the delicious worlds and deft prose and poetry of Gene Wolfe all these many years, but every day opens the possibilities to new readers. I know because in 2002, I became one of those newbies. That year I was the publicity coordinator for the World Horror Convention in Chicago, and Gene was one of the Guests of Honor. Honestly, I knew nothing about his writing except that one of my good friends spoke highly of his books (and said friend owned and had read every single one of them multiple times).

Fair enough. I dove right in, pinged Mr. Gene Wolfe via email, introduced myself and function, and requested an interview. He said he’d already done enough interviews – people were tired of hearing about him. Please understand he was never curt or rude, just, well, challenging. So I backed up and punted. That’s what I told him. I said I needed to publicize his attendance at the convention, but I wanted to engage him in something fun. So he insisted on interviewing me, and I wound up writing about the back-and-forth.

By the time the convention was over, we (including his lovely wife, Rosemary, and my husband and daughters) were friends. And I had learned to think in a whole different way. He’s not just deep in print, let me tell you.

Tell us about your favourite story or novel by Gene and what it means to you.

This is a hard question to answer. It’s akin to asking what’s my favorite kind of cheesecake. But I’ll give it a go.

I don’t think there is a better short story writer, so I love his collections. Starwater Strains especially. But whenever I come across one of Gene’s short stories in a magazine or anthology, I have to read it first. He absolutely nails just how long the story should be. Heck, the crafty devil managed to include a brief tale in the introduction he wrote for Brian A. Hopkins’ new collection, Phoenix. I don’t know anybody else who could pull that off.

My favorite short story is “Frost Free,” which Gene wrote for the new anthology. If I would read another short story in the next few hours, I’m certain it would be a contender for my favorite. But, for now, it’s “Frost Free.”

As for novels, Pirate Freedom is hands down my favorite and not because he dedicated it in part to my younger daughter, Bekah (known to Gene as the Li’l Pirate). When I finished that book, I turned around and read it all over again. Captain/Father Chris truly snagged my heart and managed to drag me into the fray all over again. Gene does that, though, all too easily. Most often it’s because Wolfe worlds involve numerous  dimensions and layers. Reading any of his books or short stories just once can’t possibly provide  any reader with the full force and impact. His tales are like those Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls. There’s more and more and more and . . .

Home Fires is like that, too: It’s Science Fiction! It’s a mystery! It’s a thriller! I totally enjoyed peeling away those layers. The first time I heard Neil Gaiman talk about Gene’s writing, he said he’d read Peace and then turned around and read it again because he didn’t know until the end that there was so very much in that story. I’d already read Home Fires three times when the editor called me about the anthology. That was the world I wanted to explore more fully, so I reread it twice more.

But Peace does hold a special place in my heart.

That brings us to Gene’s essays. Castle of Days includes some of the finest essays on writing I’ve found. See? There’s so much to consider, and I haven’t even hit on Letters Home. (Be patient.)

What is it about Gene and his work that has inspired you and so many other writers and readers?

He spins one heck of story. I don’t know anybody else who writes like he does. His words grab me by my collar, whoosh me into whatever world he’s created, and fold me into his story immediately. There’s no warm-up. No hesitation. Just here it is and here’s what’s happening. I haven’t figured out how he does it. Maybe I really don’t want to know, and I’m a writer who reads the end to mysteries, not to kill the suspense, but because I want to see how the writer gets to that end. I don’t do that with Gene’s works though. I plunk my keister down with my dictionary and open all my senses. I think it’s a lot like savoring twenty-year-old fine Kentucky bourbon. I sip; I consider; I marvel. And in the end, I feel mighty fine!

But there is more to Gene Wolfe than his writings. I have the extreme privilege of knowing Gene as a person. Our emails and letters and conversations generally revolve around our families and things in the world other than writing. Lots of silly things. Silly songs. Poems. Remembering things from our pasts. And yet having swept away his writings, I have to say his Letters Home, a collection of his correspondence with his family when he served in the Korean War, is the one book I treasure most. Li’l Pirate is now older and married to a Marine. Gene’s letters have helped me to understand a bit of what my son-in-law must be feeling being so far from his family. I try to read something from it right before I go to bed at night.

Your story in Shadows, “Tunes from Limbo, But I Digress” is related to Gene’s novel Home Fires. What was it about this recent book that inspired you? Can you tell us how you came up with the story?

My tribute in the book touches a bit on explaining this. I came up with that title a long time ago. Gene told me then I better hurry up and write a story to go with it or he was going to steal it. But no matter what I wrote, no story of mine seemed to be the right fit. Then when the editor called and said Gene requested a story from me for the book, lots of things suddenly fell together: Home Fires; a comment Gene made about pencils and my obsession with Palomino Blackwing 602s; his many stories where he wrestles with memory; Mark Roth’s TED talk about suspended animation. And once I got out of the way of the narrator, lots of other things popped up.

Storytelling is always a surprise. It’s part of the fun of writing. But besides wanting to tromp around in a Gene Wolfe world, I also wanted to write a story for Gene and Rosemary, so there are things in the story that only Gene will understand. Names he will recognize. Lines from poems we shared. I knew from the beginning the story would begin with “Dear—.” I mean how many of Gene’s stories begin just like that? And I said I was a junkie for his letters. “Tunes . . .” is my letter home. Gene Wolfe forced me onto a spaceship bound for who knew where. It was fun finding out.

There has never been a story that I have worked on harder or have sweated over more because how do you pay homage to a man like Gene? As long as he likes the story that’s all I care about.

Home Fires is another of Gene’s tricksy books. I was astonished that you felt safe to write a related story. Were you at all worried that you hadn’t “got” the story beneath *Home Fires*’s surface (because I would be terrified)? But your story oozes confidence as it builds on the novel’s foundations. I am curious to know how you felt about it?

Thanks for those kind words. They truly mean a lot. Yes, the pressure at first was daunting, but that spring when I first met Gene, he asked that I be one of the speakers at his tribute luncheon. At that time I had read very few of his works, but I agreed. (I mean, what an honor!) I talked about how bowled over I was with his writing. How he was like drinking champagne in a paper cup. Or was it beer in Waterford crystal? The point was I was a new reader. Brand-spanking new!

Gene Wolfe as a writer is all about being brand-spanking new. He grows as a writer with every new project. He keeps his eyes and ears open, his imagination cranked up to high. Maybe that’s the most important thing to take away from Gene Wolfe as a writer. He forgets the stuff that came before and embraces the possibilities of the future. The man is ageless, and some people need to catch up.

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