Gene Wolfe’s time at Plant Engineering

After his time as a process engineer for Procter and Gamble and before becoming a full-time science-fiction writer, Gene Wolfe worked (1972 – 1984) as an editor for the technical magazine Plant Engineering. He is usually described in biographical sources as “the editor” but, as he explained to Lawrence Person in an interview published as long ago as 1998, he was actually “an editor” rather than the sole or chief editor of the magazine:

LP: For quite a while you were the editor of Plant Engineering magazine. Do you think that doing so gave you any special insights into how the pace of technological change is reshaping society?

GW: Yes, I was an editor, actually, on the staff of Plant Engineering magazine. I was lucky enough to be the robot editor, so I got to work with modern, real world robotics. I actually have two diplomas from robotics schools I attended. So that was very nice. I guess I’m branching off into other things, but I also got to be the Letters to the Editor editor, which was good and fun and taught me a lot of stuff, and I was the cartoon editor. (laughs) Basically I had a real good job.

This interview, entitled “Suns New, Long, and Short: An Interview with Gene Wolfe”, was originally published in the Fall/Winter 1998 edition of Nova Express. It is currently available on the web here. It is also reprinted in Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on writing/Writers on Wolfe, edited by Peter Wright (Liverpool University Press, 2007), where the above quotation may be found on pages 173-174.

Intrigued to know more about this “real good job”, Ultan’s Library co-editor Nigel Price recently asked Wolfe about his time at Plant Engineering and the persisting description of him as the magazine’s editor. Wolfe replied as follows:

There is no revising print. When it’s out there, it’s out there for all time. I have never been able to catch and correct the assertion that I was editor of Plant Engineering. I was actually a senior editor on the staff. Senior editors had to supply cover articles, “supply” meaning write the articles and take the pictures, including a cover picture that could make it past the art director. Two or three of those a year, depending.

We had other responsibilities as well. I was the editor for power transmission (hydraulics, gears, pneumatics, belts, et cetera) and fastening and joining (welding, glue, screws, et cetera), and also the editor for cartoons and letters-to-the-editor. There was an electrical editor, a construction editor, a materials-handling editor, a maintenance editor, a safety editor, and so forth. It was hard at times, and easy at others.

Oh yes… How in the world did I forget this? I was also robot editor. I went to robot school twice, once for hydraulic ‘bots and once for all-electric. And I wrote or developed the robotics articles.

The revelation that Wolfe was once robotics editor for Plant Engineering provides an interesting insight into the background of the creator of Ossipago, the chems and taluses of the Whorl, and all the other various robots, androids and automata which we encounter in the Solar Cycle and elsewhere in his writing. Those wishing to read Wolfe’s non-fiction articles, however, will have a hard time finding them, unless they have access to back issues of Plant Engineering, as the author confirms that…

To the best of my knowledge none of my magazine articles have been reprinted anywhere. Sorry to disappoint you, but very happy to find that you will be disappointed.

Posted in Articles, Gene Wolfe.

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