a web resource for the study of Gene Wolfe

Category: Interviews

a looking glass and a crucifix on a bible

Everything has to be true somehow

Wolfe scholar Marc Aramini talks to Ultan’s Library co-editor Nigel Price about the progress of his massive critical review of all Wolfe’s published fiction, his approach to unlocking that author’s meanings, and the current state of Wolfe studies.

Nigel: Hello Marc. I hope you are keeping well. Thank you for agreeing to do an interview for Ultan’s Library. I know that you have been working on a major critical review of all Gene Wolfe’s novels and stories. Could I start by asking you how that is progressing and what the publication status is of the project?

Marc: Hi Nigel. This was supposed to be a two volume work which was finished way back in 2015, but it grew a bit out of hand in the process. Right now the total word count is over 1.2 million words, something about the size of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. It will eventually be released in probably four hardback editions of about 830 pages separated by year, and I keep hoping the publisher will put out Volume 2 and 3 on Kindle.

I have not completed The Land Across write-up, as I wanted to approach a definitive reading for each of the post Short Sun major works, and I might do a short appendix on Interlibrary Loan. I may yet surrender on Land Across … I prefer to end the book proper with the treatment of A Borrowed Man, a write-up I do not plan to edit as it was written while Wolfe was alive and makes reference to his status as a living author at the twilight of his career.

The volume titles will be Beyond Time and Memory, Behind Sword and Spirit, and, I think, Terminus Non Est. (I am going to contact my editor to see if I can pressure him into some news). My consolation prize for the delay is that my editor has promised me one of two leather bound editions of the work.

Nigel: Perhaps we could retrace our steps a little here! I have a Kindle copy of volume 1, but could you remind me of the title, who published it, and whether it is available in print or just for Kindle?

Marc: Of course! Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951-1986, is still only available on Kindle or ebook from Castalia House. There might need to be some rearrangement of the groupings to ensure that the hardbacks are of relatively uniform length, so I think the actual print run of the entire work will be simultaneous. 

Nigel: For those who have not seen the first volume, could you explain how you deal with each book and story? And are you literally commenting on every novel and story Wolfe published? Have some been hard to track down?

Marc: It originally began as an internet project on the Urth Mailing List, in which I intended to write up a summary and my observations on Wolfe’s earliest stories in chronological order, with input from the group. I had recently been able to track down the vast majority, and save for a few rather minor ones which appeared in, say, convention program booklets, it was not as difficult as I had feared. Yes, I have written on every story and novel. I soon found that engagement was sometimes very limited, so the brunt of interpretive work for the more obscure stories often rested on my shoulders.

Nigel: How many short stories, novelettes and novellas are there? The number must be huge. Wolfe was very prolific.

Marc: I am going to group the novelettes with the short stories if you don’t mind so I don’t lose my mind – there are about 220 short stories which were not excerpts from larger works and 15 novellas if you include the three which comprise The Fifth Head of Cerberus. That does not include the individual entries in Bibliomen, which I think should be treated as a whole. 

Nigel: Reading through everything like that, what strikes you most about the way that Wolfe’s writing develops over time? Does his style change? What about his subject matter?

Marc: Yes, I think his style undergoes a remarkable transformation after the publication of The Book of the New Sun, when he abandons the baroque and long sentences and often strives for a more minimalistic surface text. However, in broad strokes, he moved slowly from science fiction to fantasy over the course of his career, especially in his short stories, though there was always a genre mix.

His subject matter began with a stronger investment in future social structures and politics, but eventually I think his work achieves a far more universal application when he starts to examine more essential questions of spirituality and human nature. There is a reason Operation Ares will never be considered one of his great works that is only somewhat related to the botched editing job by the publisher.

The other thing that I think is interesting is how utterly difficult getting to the bottom of his post Wizard Knight novels can be. The subtext tends to replace the text. I found The Book of the New Sun enjoyable reading it as a child, missing much of the subtext. I don’t know that the same could be said of Home Fires or The Land Across, though I appreciate as an analyst what Wolfe was doing in those late works.

He definitely exhibited different styles and themes, and would often vary his preoccupations from work to work. The Wolfe Archipelago stories, as they are commonly called, play with innocence and guilt, maturation and immaturity, isolation and socialization, and love or its lack in all kinds of interesting ways, and he has done the same thing with explorations of and variations on memory and identity. Towards the end of his career, he seemed obsessed with the mysterious house trope, for some reason.

Nigel: What about your own approach to writing about Wolfe? How have you structured your commentaries? You say that you give a summary of each work and your observations. Can you tell me more about the kind of things you cover and discuss?

Marc: It took me a while to get the format down in a uniform fashion, but, unless Tor or some other publisher does what needs to be done and releases all of Wolfe’s fiction in uniform volumes, like the short works of Zelazny or Sturgeon have been, then I think this is the easiest way for readers to get a fairly comprehensive glimpse of Wolfe’s thematic progression as a writer.

I provide a summary with “mostly” objective details, an analysis that focuses on deeper or symbolic connections, and then sections on pertinent historical, literary, or religious allusions as well as some unanswered or ambiguous questions that others might want to consider as well as connections to other published works. This is the structure I followed for the short stories.

For the longer works I usually chose a thesis that I felt got at the hidden structure or truth of the book, explaining much of what happened in it, and focused on that for the argument and the details I chose to present. Unlike Wolfe, I found that my earlier work was too brief for people to follow logically, so I opted for longer and longer explanations for his late works, which made the write-ups easier to follow and far more tedious to read in my opinion.  

Nigel: How does your approach differ from that of other critics who have written about Wolfe?

Marc: One of the things which is most fascinating about the critical work surrounding Wolfe is how little different writers agree with each other. In general, I find Michael Andre-Driussi to have a good approach that avoids taking major risks, while Robert Borski takes too many leaps to follow logically.

One of my starting principles was that Wolfe writes with the precision of an engineer, and that he often has a structural backbone for many of his mysteries that points towards a definitive solution that will make sense of the vast majority of the text in an objective way.

This can lead to some odious disagreements, of course. Peter Wright takes a similar approach to The Book of the New Sun in Attending Daedalus, offering readings in terms of objective right and wrong … and, ironically, we disagree with each other significantly in terms of major themes and plot importance. He stops at a secular reading of The Book of the New Sun while I think it is a profoundly transcendent piece of theodicy in the spirit of Augustine or Milton, that God will make use of all things whether we choose good or turn away from it in the long run, and that there is no redemption without a fall, no immortality without death, and no transcendence without casting away the old. To borrow an image, Wright stops at the ugly and rotting masks of the Hierodules, while I think I get past that mask of rot, pain, fear, and death to see the transcendent and ethereal beauty beneath it. I will give you a few examples about the things that I emphasize in my write-ups:

I assume that Wolfe understands the motivations of his characters and that even if they are not entirely honest with themselves, something is true about almost every detail which is included in the text. He uses sophisticated techniques such as the mise en abyme, embeds tales which map allegorically to the larger story, grounds meaning through secular, theological, and literary allusions, and, perhaps most confusingly for some, creates symbols and metaphors to produce concrete plot conclusions.

So, for example, let’s take a fact from The Book of the Long Sun: the dogs running rampant in the tunnels are called gods. There are gods in the tunnels. From the perspective of my interpretation, many of the gods of the Whorl are actually stored in the tunnels, as repeating an unrelated fact in the text will objectively state.

That is a simple and straightforward example, but those instances abound. For a fecund union to occur in those texts, plant-named females must mate with animal-named males. A similar union is occurring throughout the Solar Cycle, ultimately producing the Vanished People and Hieros, and Wolfe already had that planned in New Sun, as can be seen in “The Tale of the Boy Called Frog” in which Spring Wind (Mars) is begotten on Early Summer (Juno) by a tree, in a riff on Ovid. 

However, meaning does not always or even most of the time depend on allusion. Sometimes Wolfe employs two confusing or mysterious things in a text that will explain each other.

In Home Fires, a protagonist seems to be involved in a gunfight that is entirely removed from all context within the novel. The “leader” of his enemies is shot. There is another scene in the novel where an investigator working for him is killed off-screen. There seems to be no way to solve that death … until we realize that the two mysteries explain each other. Then we have to explain why such a thing might occur and find possible explanations for that seemingly inscrutable behavior in the text – and when we can, we know we are on the right track.

Logic, small details, the literalization of metaphors, and the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated things repeatedly in a text are all means through which Wolfe controls his narrative, and I like to focus on these things in my write-ups in order to present a larger picture that attempts to make sense of as much as it possibly can.

Nigel: In my mind, I have a hierarchy of certainty as to the events, significance and meaning of what happens in a Gene Wolfe story. By this I mean that there are some things of which I am absolutely certain, some things which I think are highly probable, and other things where I have a working theory which I think is possible, but I am not absolutely sure. In most stories, there are also usually several things about which I have not a clue!

Even in this approach, there is a lot of ambiguity, though, because some of the uncertainty is mine, while I think some is deliberately left by the author. Just as an artist will paint some foreground objects in great detail but leave some background objects more hazy, so I believe that Wolfe has a hierarchy in which some details are important to him, while others are just fun and provide colour and context, but are essentially less important, so that he’s happy to leave many of their details undefined.

Would you agree, or do you think that is a lazy or negligent reading? I ask because I sometimes feel that other people’s readings of Wolfe seem over-specific and over-defined, asserting things as certain when to me they seem merely probable, possible, or sometimes even unlikely.

Marc: Here I have to admit that I will come across as a bit of an arrogant ass. I think I have good instincts for what I don’t understand after I read a Wolfe story two or three times in a row. If I don’t understand it, then that is where I need to explore. I have been extremely happy with my solutions for the late novels of Wolfe’s work. To the point of certainty, because they explain larger details that in my opinion only have one solution.

For example, the dreams in Wizard Knight. (Potential spoilers in the rest of this answer.) In my mind there is only one way to explain how these dreams are unified. Here are three presented back to back, with the surface explanation that Parka’s bow string brings dreams and visions from America. (Recall Parka told Able to “plant a seed” and when he looked back at the cave it was filled with a chaotic scattering of white doves):

I was a woman in a dirty bed in a stuffy little room. An old woman sitting beside my bed kept telling me to push, and I pushed, although I was so tired I could not push hard, no matter how hard I tried. I knew my baby was trying to breathe, and could not breathe, and would soon die.

Push!

 

I had tried to save; now I was only trying to get away. He would not let go, climbing on me, pushing me underwater.

 

The moon shone through pouring rain as I made my way down the muddy track. At its end the ogre loomed black and huge. I was the boy who had gone into Disiris cave, not the man who had come out. My sword was Disiras grave marker, the short stick tied to the long one with a thong. I pushed the point into the mud to mark my own grave, and went on. When the ogre threw me, it became such a sword as I wished for, with a golden pommel and a gleaming blade.

I floated off the ground and started back for it, but I could no longer breathe. (The Knight,  257-8)

At other times Able muses things like “How far to the dream my mother had?” or dreams that he is down in the hold with his mother and someone he cannot see while another person stalks him trying to kill him. (The land of Mythgarthr is made from the body of Ymar, whose name means twin).

There’s only one way to explain that first dream when you literalize it, and that has to include a mother whose child is going to die in utero. I won’t go further, but I am absolutely certain that Wolfe switched the dreams and the waking world in Wizard Knight, and the Jungian cyclic repetitions that involve metaphors for insemination, hunger, combat with allies, and assimilation are repeated over and over in the text with small changes and permutations.

Able was named for his ability to be born after a difficult pregnancy, according to the mother figure in the Room of Lost Loves, and on the last pages he declares with pathos, “I’m not Able!” as he returns what dropped off from Bold in the water so long ago. Any explanation of those dreams which does not include a mother losing her child, who can’t breathe, is an incomplete assessment of the work.

When Able meets the angel, the angel declares that his mother never knew him, and on the final pages we learn that the angel has found a way to deliver Able’s letter – through his mother’s dreams, so that she can know about the son she never knew. I view subtext as text when it is unified, and I find all of Wolfe’s late works to be puzzle box narratives with one solution. 

So … I think there is one reading which explains everything in the vast majority of Wolfe, but that for the most part the great mass of readers can’t get there.

One of my starting principles is that everything has to be true somehow, literally or figuratively, so I do not read with suspicion. I have listened to commentaries where people have problems or doubt the veracity of certain things that I take at either literal or metaphorical value as true, so I don’t have to doubt, say, that “Eschatology and Genesis” is transcendentally true, or that the dream visions accurately reflect “the Truth” once we understand them. In that way, the task of interpretation is to make everything true SOMEHOW, and when I can do that and other things can be explained by it, then I know the reading is correct as Wolfe intended it.

Wolfe often works with substitution. There is a dream in The Book of the Long Sun in which Silk dreams that Mucor is mad at him after Marble is brought to the church by litter bearers, one of whom is blind. (Spoilers for Long and Short Sun follow until the end of this paragraph, of course). Marble was possessed by Echidna at one point, and one of Echidna’s children, Tartaros, is blind. If you count Mucor as a stand-in for Scylla, since she is in charge of the church, then the number of litter bearers and Mucor is equivalent to the number of Echidna’s children (or, quite literally, her litter), and we can see that Silk stands in for Pas/Typhon in that Scylla has been trying to delete him from Mainframe in the larger story.

It also resonates with the deadcoach dream in which the prostitute possessed by Mucor is being transported to her final rest, led by two horses, with Scylla’s tentacles eventually blossoming from the deadcoach in the dream’s repetition. Given the association of horses with Scylla, the fact that Scylla will eventually be put to rest on Urth, and the absence of Mucor at the end of Short Sun (as well as Marble’s muttered, “Oh, Scylla” when she thinks of Mucor), we begin to see a pattern: Mucor is a clone of Scylla, and both will be laid to rest by the end of the books (though of course on a larger meta-level the Whorl is also hurtling to the burial place of humanity whether we realize it or not). We understand then why Marble took care of Mucor, as a shadow of Echidna’s affection for her daughter.

Nigel: You hinted earlier that you’ve had problems finishing off your commentary on The Land Across. Why has that work proved especially difficult? Have there been other novels or stories that you’ve found especially tricky to interpret and write about?

Marc: Yes, his late work is his most difficult because he doesn’t provide as many metatextual repetitions and motifs pointing the way. Indeed, I feel he started to play less and less fair. All I had to do was literalize things in Wizard Knight, and the reading fell into place. There Are Doors was easy when I saw that three individuals were always together doing the same thing in key scenes, whether that be escaping from a mental institution or holding a gun in the climactic showdown. But Sorcerer’s House, Home Fires, Evil Guest, and A Borrowed Man required intuitive leaps to limit the realm of possible interpretations. Wolfe’s increasing minimalism and refusal to come out and say things makes those books far more frustrating to deal with, and in my opinion The Land Across is the most difficult of all.

While it was difficult to get to the bottom of, Sorcerer’s House is a perfectly structured work (and here are more spoilers). I could see where Wolfe was pointing, but the structure hinges on a very obscure allusion that explains small details like the stench of Lupine and Nick, why Nick is a “skinny torpedo,” why Nick is a blood drinker who existed at the time of John the Baptist and why there were records of him before Bax was born in the town newspapers, why the Corinthian coin has a male and female face, and even the implication of Ambrosius and the house and its servants – there is one allusion that explains all of that, and Bax’s fate, too.

But when I had all that information, at first I didn’t know it was related, and was trying to explain each of those things independently. Finally, I started looking up Greek blood drinkers and was astonished – I suddenly understood, between that and the kikimora spirit, the entire book (see the Lamia of Corinth and Apollonius). That flash of epiphany is something I have gotten with all of his late work, and while some might think it is confirmation bias, I know the difference. Otherwise I would be done with The Land Across.

Nigel: I know what you mean about Wolfe’s late works, but I still enjoy the surface narratives in their own right. Wolfe told me once that, having been told so often that he was considered “a difficult writer,” he strove in his later works to make his style simpler and more accessible.

In terms of his own reading at this time, I know that he did occasionally read contemporary works of SF, fantasy and weird fiction but, as far as I could gather, for pleasure he was mostly reading classic detective stories, and I think that they provided the stylistic model for his writing. He loved the Nero Wolfe mysteries and the Lord Peter Winsey stories of Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, and I find myself thinking that The Wizard Knight is Wolfe writing heroic fantasy as if he were channeling Rex Stout. I enjoy that blend.

Similarly, I regard The Land Across as Wolfe’s mingling of G. K. Chesterton with Dashiell Hammett, recreating The Man Who Was Thursday after the manner of The Maltese Falcon. Considered in those terms, I very much enjoy Wolfe’s stories in  their own right as ingenious late entries into earlier literary genres. I suppose I should add that there’s quite a lot of Kafka in The Land Across, too, and I enjoyed that. 

I’ll ask a fresh question in a moment, but first I ought to give you the opportunity to comment on my assertions. Does such a genre and stylistic approach throw any light on these works, or do you think that I too am guilty, as I have implicitly accused others, of superimposing my own unfounded imaginings onto these stories? It’s more than likely!

Marc: I think those models are likely and can shed light on some of the stylistic choices Wolfe made. I certainly agree Wolfe had a strong connection to his traditional models; indeed, it could be that his Kafkaesque stories are always the most difficult for me. I don’t think you are superimposing anything that isn’t there.

However, I still think that his late works are at their heart puzzles. I know if I can’t explain every dream sequence to my satisfaction then I simply haven’t figured out the work yet, and the dreams in Land Across are especially perplexing, especially when Grafton notes that the dream of his death and inability to ever leave the land across has the force of a prophecy.

Nigel: Marc, I was going to ask you finally about what you made of the current state of Wolfe criticism and discussion. The Urth List used to be the place where all the interesting debates took place, but recent years have seen the emergence of other forums, including social media and podcasts. Which do you think are the most significant?

Marc: It is an interesting time to be a Wolfe fan. It is nice to see attention being paid to Wolfe’s work beyond The Book of the New Sun, and podcasts like The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast are providing a scholarly venue and genuine discourse that is not locked behind a paywall or hidden away in some inaccessible subscription library.

(Have you seen the resale prices on Wright’s Attending Daedalus or Shadows of the New Sun? Those prices were a factor in deciding that I wanted my work accessible to whomever is interested in it.)

For Urth List type discussion, the Rereading Wolfe podcast provides that. Reddit and Facebook and a few other forums have active Wolfe posts, but each has its own shortcomings. The Facebook Gene Wolfe Appreciation Society page has limited search functionality for old threads, so the Gene Wolfe subreddit, though it attracts a different demographic, has an advantage there.

The issue with frequenting the Urth List and these more contemporary discussion platforms is how often the same questions come up, and how often the same complaints or praises are produced. 

There are three podcasts now, and all are very different, as well as my own much more sporadic and brief YouTube channel, where I focus on what I feel to be the most important features of Wolfe’s books and his literary sophistication.

Craig Brewer, one of the hosts of the Rereading Wolfe podcast, and I have been attempting to get a collection of essays on Wolfe from various contributors published, and I know that there is going to be at least one academic journal with a Gene Wolfe memorial theme forthcoming.

I would like to see more academic work on Wolfe and have him achieve the recognition of a Joyce, Melville, or Nabokov (there are professors who devote their careers to the study of authors such as those, and it would be amazing to be a resident Wolfe professor, though that is but an empty pipe dream). I think his popularity will continue to grow, and while obviously I do not wholeheartedly agree with the general utility of the dominant critical paradigms in approaching Wolfe, I hope that future readers will find the magic and wonder that I did, so that his beautiful voice will never fall silent. 

I will close by saying I am always surprised by what observations and ideas survive in the popular consciousness. I think that I have made some important contributions to understanding or at least thinking about Wolfe, but there is one relatively minor discovery that seems to have percolated into collective knowledge far more thoroughly than my more important assertions. When I first read An Evil Guest, I found that the mountain with a washing woman for a wife resembled the set up for something in Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Every time An Evil Guest comes up I hear that bit of trivia regurgitated. As I said, I have written over 1.2 million words on Wolfe and argued some, to my mind at least, really neat things. Yet THAT minor detail and observation is what universally survives!

It is impossible to say what will stick, but I hope that people will continue to appreciate and love Wolfe and his work, whether it gains widespread critical respect in the academy or not.

Thank you for taking the time to ask these questions; I hope that Ultan’s Library will continue to be a platform for new and interesting takes on Wolfe and his work.

Nigel: Marc, thank you for that, and for taking the time to share your thoughts on Wolfe with us in this interview. Do make sure you let us know when the remaining three volumes of your study on Wolfe’s writing become available. I very much look forward to reading them.

An Homage to my Honorary Grandfather

C S E CooneyJust shy of eighteen, I met Gene Wolfe. My father introduced us, and then we all went out to dinner: Gene, his wife Rosemary, my father, my stepmother Terry, and me.

I’d been shy about meeting him—not because I’d read his books (I’d read one, The Shadow of the Torturer, just recently, not having any idea who the author was or who he’d be to me)—but because I was shy of new people in general.

Halfway through dinner, I found myself asking if he’d read my novel. I don’t know what brazen ghost possessed me. I could see the moment his face changed. Got very careful indeed. Gently he said, “I can read it, but I can’t promise to say anything about it.”

I remember backpedaling, saying I’d just send the first three chapters. He twinkled at me. (He has very twinkly eyes.)

And after I sent my chapters, I received a letter.

I don’t know if Gene ever read past the first chapter. But he wrote me a long letter about what he did read, what he’d observed, and it was a letter full of keen incite, encouragement, what I was doing well (Dialogue! Character!), and most importantly, stuff I needed to work on. For example, I had a tendency to interrupt my dialogue with long infodumps. He used the phrase “lumps of prose like uncooked dumplings,” which delighted me—and has stayed with me these many years.

I could feel my brain cracking open and horizon pouring in. I wrote him back. I thanked him. I asked him questions. He started teaching me about short stories.

The subject had come up at that initial dinner. “Write short stories,” he advised me. “Build your byline. Once you have a body of work and some name recognition, you’ll be ready to sell your novel. Learn your craft; novels are the easiest to write. Short stories are harder. Poetry is the hardest of them all.”

That made me feel smug; I was already a poet.

“How do you write a short story?” I asked. I’d never been able to write short. A teacher in high school had called me “prolific,” in a tone of voice that was half-admiring, half-resentful.

“Anything can be a short story,” said Gene. “Look around. This chair could be a short story. That waiter. How they interact.”

Immediately I had an idea for a sentient chair and its best friend, the waiter.

To this day, I still write long, often novella-length. But I marvel at the engineering behind a Gene Wolfe short story. How can he pack all that story into such a limited frame? I have to sit with his stories and sink in; they go down so deep. They resound.

Gene taught me how to write cover letters. How to submit. How to subscribe. “Writers who don’t subscribe to the magazines they submit to are cutting their own throats.” He was clear on that point.

I still overwrite my early drafts (Gene told me he does too), and I still have to watch out for “lumps of uncooked prose.”

He once advised, “Always tell a story as cleanly and as clearly as possible.”

I find myself coming back to that. I often garland my stories in gilded curlicues of language that I later sometimes want to slash back to the bone. But there was this one time, after I wrote “Three Fancies from the Infernal Garden” (Subterranean Magazine: Winter 2009) and showed it to Gene, telling him I’d probably need to cut much of the sing-songy rhythm and internal rhyme, he urged me not to take my knife to it.

So I remember that too: Not only “Tell the story as cleanly and as clearly as possible,” but also—remember that sometimes, the elaborate is beautiful.

In a decade and a half of loving advice, encouragement, introductions, brilliant brunches, and road trips that Gene Wolfe has gifted to me, another moment sticks out. Early on in my submitting-short-stories process, I’d written him this letter—hyperbolic, tear-stained—about receiving yet another rejection. I’d thrown myself against a wall, I said, I’d wailed. And he wrote back, “Good on you! That means you care. It’s good to care.”

He wrote it better of course; but memory synthesizes our experience. And what a thing to remember! Especially for a young writer, addled by self-doubt, newborn-barefoot on the fierce terrain of the unknown. Rejection is a natural part of the process, and so is the artist’s reaction against it. It’s all right; we’re supposed to feel—even Gene Wolfe still gets sad at a rejection letter. It’s good to feel.

“And when it’s done,” he told me, “look at your story again. Scrub her face. Give her a new dress. And send her back out into the world.”

It’s because of Gene Wolfe that I view each new story as an intrepid daughter of Nellie Bly: suitcase in hand, checkered suit impeccable, head held high, heading off into the sky.


C. S. E. Cooney (csecooney.com/@csecooney) is the author of Bone Swans: Stories (Mythic Delirium 2015), the title story of which was nominated for the 2015 Nebula Award. Her novella “The Two Paupers,” second installment of her Dark Breakers series, is included in Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016. She is an audiobook narrator for Tantor Media, the singer/songwriter Brimstone Rhine, and the Rhysling Award-winning author of the poem “The Sea King’s Second Bride,” which can be found in her collection How to Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes. Her short fiction and poetry can be found at Uncanny Magazine, Lakeside Circus, Black Gate, Papaveria Press, Strange Horizons, Apex, GigaNotoSaurus, Goblin Fruit, Clockwork Phoenix 3 & 5, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, and elsewhere.

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.

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.

Shadows of the New Sun: Nancy Kress

Photograph of Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is the author of 26 books, including the classic Beggars in Spain, which won the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella in 1991.

Last month she deservedly won a 2013 Nebula award for her  novella After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall (Tachyon Publications).  Nancy also teaches at Clarion and other writing festivals and is the author of several books on writing. You can find out more on her website.

Her contribution to Shadows of the New Sun is a delight – an exploration of the pain and pleasure of being lost in books, inspired by one of Gene’s earliest classic short stories. We wanted to find out more about the origins of her story and what she thinks about the author who inspired it and were therefore delighted when she agreed to answer our questions…


You’ve known Gene a long time, but how did you originally come across him? Did you encounter the man or his writing first?

I first read Gene when “The Island of Dr. Death And Other Stories” appeared in 1970. I was enchanted. By 1980, when The Shadow of the Torturer was released, I was a firm fan. At that time I was teaching at the State University of New York at Brockport, and the English Department was running a week-long summer writing workshop in various genres: poetry, fiction, journalism, science fiction. Each faculty member (I was adjunct faculty at the college) was asked to invite one co-teacher, and I was astonished and delighted when Gene accepted. We hadn’t met before, and I was an unknown, having published only a handful of stories. Gene stayed at my house for the week, and we had plenty of time to schmooze.

During that workshop, my young son broke his arm at Day Care and I rushed him to the ER. That happened to be the same night I had invited all our students, plus some faculty, to dinner. So I’m calling from the hospital to Gene: “Could you please put the ham in the oven at 325 degrees?” And later, “Do you think you could get my big pot from the lower left-hand cupboard by the stove, fill it with water, and set it boiling for the corn?” Later: “Gene–do you know how to shuck corn?” Gene did it all, and both the kid and the dinner were fine.

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

My favorite is “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories,” which is why I leapt at the chance to add to the story for the Gene Wolfe tribute anthology. I loved it for two reasons. That little boy is so appealing, so clueless as to what is happening in his household, and so real. Creating a character that memorable in such a short space is not easy. Second, I was exactly that kind of child, bringing the characters from my favorite books into my “real” life—at least, in my mind.

Gene wrote a memorable introduction to your first collection back in 1985 (and it is reprinted in Castle of Days). If you were to introduce Gene, what would you try to say?

I would say that this is the science fiction writer that other SF writers aspire—or should aspire—to be. Incidentally, I am still touched and proud of that introduction he wrote for my first collection.

There’s also an extract from a letter to you in Castle of Days. Does Gene always write such wonderful letters?

Yes. We used to correspond regularly. Somehow when the Internet appeared and both our lives got much more complicated, we stopped doing that. It’s a shame, really.

Cover to Shadows of the New Sun

How did you get involved in the Shadows of the New Sun collection?

I was thrilled to be asked to contribute a story.

Some of the stories in Shadows of the New Sun play with Wolfean conceits and themes or re-examine earlier stories, but yours, “… And Other Stories” takes this process to a new level. Can you tell us the origin of the story?

I can’t ever identify the origin of any of my stories. I did know that I wanted to somehow use “The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories”, and so I reread it. And immediately my story popped into my head. There are gift stories, that come to you whole, and this was one. Although, of course, they’re not really unearned “gifts”—they come from years of unconscious fermenting of ideas, emotions, other authors’ work, daily experiences, imagined experiences, and everything else that roils away in the bottom of writers’ souls.

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

Its complexity and simplicity combined. The complexity is in the ideas, the plots, and the wonderful language. The simplicity comes in the characters’ desires. You are always clear what Tackie or Severian or Candy Garth need, and their humanity leads you through their sometimes convoluted plots.

 

Shadows of the New Sun: Marc Aramini

This August Tor will publish Shadows of the New Sun: Stories in Honor of Gene Wolfe.  We have  a copy here at the library, which Jonathan is poring over at the moment. Amongst the celebrated contributors like Neil Gaiman, David Brin and Nancy Kress, we spotted the name of Marc Aramini, a regular contributor to the Urth email discussion list, and soon to be a contributor to Ultan’s Library.

Marc Armani with Gene Wolfe at the Fuller Award ceremony

Marc Armani with Gene Wolfe at the Fuller Award ceremony

Hi Marc, would you mind introducing yourself to the readers of Ultan’s Library?

I live in Kingman, Arizona. I have an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry from the University of Notre Dame, but realizing that my temperament is ill-suited to long hours of lab research, I decided to have fun and finished my Masters in English Literature from Northern Arizona University. I have spent much of my adult life in the corporate world, after one year of simultaneously teaching high school Biology and college English Composition. For the past two years I have been back teaching at the college level. I have been writing fiction for about eleven years, but with very little publication success. Until now.

Tell us about how you first encountered the fiction of Gene Wolfe.

I read science fiction and fantasy quite a bit as a young child – by the fourth grade I was reading Asimov and Zelazny (must have been starting at both ends of the bookstore shelf). My father’s friend gave me a whole box of SF books in 1988 or so from the Science Fiction Book Club, and one of the volumes was The Claw of the Conciliator. I had to find the other volumes in used bookstores or the library, but it quickly became one of my favorites. I think in the sixth grade a questionnaire at school asked what our favorite book was, and I wrote, for shock value, The Shadow of the Torturer, then resolved to go home to reread it. At that point I realized exactly how subtle and sublime Wolfe was, and time turned my “shocking” answer into definitive truth. My mother was in the Air Force, and though I have two older half sisters, I was raised as an only child, moving quite a bit in my childhood. Those books were more consistent and real to me than the people who came and went so often; they were the friends I never had to leave behind, the voices speaking in the silence of night.

Tell us about your favourite of Gene’s work, and what it means to you.

The Book of the Short Sun is definitely my favorite – I remember reading On Blue’s Waters in my senior year in college and just savoring it chapter by chapter. I have never been more rewarded from rereading a book – and it was really the first time I knew that “my” interpretation of the text was wholly and completely my own. There’s a lot of figuring out to be done in a Wolfe story, and that is the first time it all came together in such a way that I could point to a page and tell you – here – our narrator is Horn;  here – he is Silk. I could tell you why, as well, but I won’t do that now. Having said that, I really do love almost everything he has written. “The Changeling” (collected in Castle of Days) has a similar special place in my heart.

How did you get involved with the Shadows of the New Sun collection?

Way back in college, I found a database with authors’ mailing addresses. Of course, the only one I was interested in was Gene’s, and I wrote him a fan letter. To my surprise, he actually answered my letter, and we have corresponded for probably the last thirteen years, our letters becoming less about his work and more like those exchanged by friends. It is amazing to me that a childhood hero would take the time and effort to get to know a fan. He let me know that there were plans to do a tribute anthology, using his creations as jumping off points, and I asked for the editor’s email (to crash the party uninvited, of course). Thankfully for me, Gene obliged (and he also let me know the editor liked dogs – so I made sure to include Cautus from Soldier of Sidon in the story).

How excited are you that one of your first publications is in a tribute to Gene Wolfe AND in the company of so many noted authors?

It’s a lifelong dream come true. I am so grateful and feel unimaginably blessed. I rate Wolfe above any other creative artist, whether that be Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Proust, Sterne (I daresay I had to mention him to you), or even Shakespeare – he speaks to me as none of them do, and it is such an honor to be involved with a worthwhile project like this. No doubt Gene and the literary establishment would disagree with how highly I rate him, but that’s okay. [They’re wrong. Ed.]

Even though I have tried to get published unsuccessfully on and off for over a decade, more than being a writer, I am a Wolfe fan, and I have read his work with such care and devotion that I feel that this is the kind of project I am well suited to. Being in print with Gaiman, Swanwick, Nancy Kress, Brin, Haldeman, and so many other truly great writers is a wonderful feeling (and of course, Wolfe is under the cover as well!). I have read, pondered, and reread almost everything fictional Gene has written.

What else have you written?

I feel that about ten of my old stories and my first two novels are more or less publishable, so I’m tweaking them a bit to see if any will sell. I try to make everything different – some are highly stylized, some are overtly science fictional. Most of them seem pretty realistic, but they are all at the very least fantasy – my few readers have said my weirdest stuff is the autobiographical writing – go figure. I have two half-finished novels and about five short story ideas floating around in my head. One of the unfinished novels is sort of a homage to St Peter, Godzilla, and Death’s Head with a destitute future eugenic Chinese setting. The other is a historical Japanese fantasy set at the time of the Tale of Genji where the main character is a terrible poet and a cultural outlier, and when they find his younger brother’s tattooed arm in a tree, everyone suspects him of fratricide. My mother liked the first novel I wrote and said the second was unreadable and too complicated, but I rather think it is the best thing I’ve written. My writing process is a bit bizarre – I can’t write every day, and I can’t write sequentially, so when the inspiration hits me I will write 5,000 or 10,000 words at a time, choosing the scenes I want to write, and then rearrange them later. The final step is writing bridging material. Perhaps some day I will become more reliable and mature in my method. I might write 70,000 words in a week and then not write for a year.

I am satisfied that my Wolfe tribute is seeing the light of day in this collection, regardless of whether or not anything else gets published.

Cover to Shadows of the New SunTell us how your story, “Soldier of Mercy”, relates to Wolfe’s Latro novels.

I have always wished that the Soldier series sold well enough for Wolfe to definitively finish it as he had originally planned, because I think it is every bit as important and great as more celebrated works such as The Book of the New Sun and The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

Except for a few very notable exceptions, his endings are often melancholy, and I have always wondered where and on what note Latro’s wanderings would end. The first novel has one of the most sublimely ironic and finest endings in literature – our amnesiac narrator finally locates someone who knows him, dying there on the battlefield, and he can only give comfort. The long wait for Soldier of Sidon produced an ending that is far less than triumphant, and even less conclusive than Soldier of Arete, leaving Latro to look for his sword (perhaps fruitlessly?) and his destiny. In that regard, I wanted to definitely place my story as a possible ending in a philosophically high stakes struggle that fit the theme of Latro’s character progression. However, if this is contradicted by anything Wolfe decides to write, I also wanted to factor this difference into the frame tale, to be able to “explain it away”. So “Soldier of Mercy” is set some time after the end of Soldier of Sidon, but depending on the reader’s take on the frame tale, it doesn’t have to be a part of Latro’s canon at all.

If I could, I would like to talk here about some of the features of the Latro stories. I have always believed that Wolfe is a modernist who merely pretends to create inconclusive subjectivity; his elided structures point at “correct” conclusions that are often implied. Sometimes this is indeed thematic. In the first two Soldier books, I was certain that Latro’s sensibilities were developing away from bloodshed. Too many deaths, such as the murder of the slaves at the hands of the Spartans in the manumission ceremony in Soldier of Arete, and the death of his Amazon lover, have created a soldier weary of war. What other option does he have in the pre-Christian world?

There are other subtexts there as well, including the implication that Latro is in some way becoming the embodiment or incarnation of Ares, the god of war. You have these grandiose challenges like that of the Maiden (Persephone) in chapter XIX (“In the Presence of the Goddess”) of Soldier of the Mist: “Do you not know that I cannot be harmed by a common mortal?” To which Latro responds: “No, I don’t know that. Nor that I’m a common mortal. Perhaps I am. Perhaps not.”

There are even scenes in Soldier of Arete where Latro is actually called by the name Pleistorus, (“A name under which the War God is worshiped in Thrace”, according to the Glossary at the end of Soldier of Arete). Readers can explore for themselves the relationship posited between Ares, Pleistorus, and Ahura Mazda in Soldier of Arete. It is very enlightening. Latro wins combat like the Olympic competition at the end of Soldier of Arete, unless instructed to “throw the match”. He pushes the boulder of Sisyphus up the hill when Sisyphus can’t do it, though Sisyphus is a demigod. Nike or some victory follows him around, though always at his back. He is a gateway for the gods: they are unreal to others until he touches them. Latro falls for an Amazon girl, and the Amazons are called “daughters of Ares”. The traditional enemy of Ares is the boar, and Latro flushes him out. And Latro makes love to Aphrodite, in some stories the wife of Ares, but also the goddess of love, not war.

So the first two books seem to be building up to a theme of turning away from war, as the concluding poem in Soldier of Arete shows (chapter 40, For the Sake of Days Past):

You quench the bolt, the lightning’s fearful fire,
The eagle rests his wings, that never tire;
To hear you shaken by your song,
Fell Ares quits the spear-proud throng.

In this culminating poem, Ares is tired of war and leaves it behind, or at least this particular conflict: he has quit the warmongering crowd. I feel this is vital to understanding the Soldier series and Latro’s character progression, and I tried to show the end of this transformation.

There is one more subtext I wanted to explore: the tension between the Achaeans, the Dorians, and the Romans. In the original books, the Achaeans have been replaced by the Dorians (Spartans), who have gained ascendance. If I’m not mistaken, this angers the ghost of Achilles, and he wants the Spartans to be vanquished. Thus I wanted to place a Dacian or Getae presence in Rome to continue that particular line of tension. Something must rise in every power vacuum, and in my mind Latro represents the burgeoning triumph of Rome that looms over all Greece (he is the seed of Rome, as has been said). I have made more definitive conclusions about those struggles and Latro’s identity on the Urth list, but I feel this encapsulates many of the wonderful conflicts lurking in the backdrop of the Soldier series.

How difficult was it to write in that voice? Can you tell us about the challenges of writing this way?

There was a reason I selected Latro as a first person narrator, and not Severian, Weer, Horn, Marsch, or the casuist Father Chris.

Of all Wolfe’s characters, Latro is the one who will almost invariably act according to sound moral judgments. It is not Latro who can’t be trusted, it is his perceptions of the world. Severian might jump in to save a child, or he might stand back and claim that he was suddenly overcome with fear. Weer might or might not bury someone who tried to steal from him. Of all Wolfe’s characters, Latro is the one who looks at the facts he has and tries to act justly. The progression of his character in the first two novels (a bit different than in the third, after the passage of so much time between their composition) made him a being of action who is slowly but surely becoming weary of killing, but who still believes in right and wrong. He is unreliable only insofar as people try to use his lack of memory against him, turning his blade to their purposes. One of Wolfe’s most primitive characters behaves more nobly than the Catholic priest who narrates Pirate Freedom – why? Wolfe is not a naturalist: environment is only the excuse Father Chris uses, as Latro proves.

Having said that, I am not the artist Wolfe is, and I am sure Latro’s voice is a bit off, though I tried my best to actually portray his simple nobility and the mystery of the ancient spiritual world. It was more difficult to decide what to call the various gods and places, for Wolfe’s knowledge of history, ancient languages, and culture is far superior to mine. Thus sometimes I opted for Greek names, divinities, and words, especially when the character Isokrates was concerned.

What aspects of Gene’s writings did you try to capture in your story?

I feel like the themes of memory, identity, free will and salvation are always lurking in Wolfe’s fiction, and I think my story plays with these themes as well. Whether or not it actually evokes Wolfe will be up to the readers. While I think my writing can often be intellectual, I am still not entirely confident concerning the aspects that actually make it readable. Indeed, the sum total of input I have received on my writing before this is just a plethora of form rejection letters. Perhaps we should end this with the dominant metaphor: hopefully my style succeeds in being at least a pale shadow of a Wolfe.

 

Shadows of the New Sun will be available in August

Detail from Bruce Pennington: The Shadow of the Torturer, (c) Bruce Pennington

An interview with artist Bruce Pennington

Many British readers first encountered Wolfe’s novels through the stunning cover artwork of Bruce Pennington. His artwork was used on the first hardcover and paperback editions of the Book of the New Sun, The Island of Dr Death and Other Stories and Other Stories,  Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days, The Fifth Head of Cerberus and The Devil in a Forest.

Visually striking, the art seems to perfectly capture the blend of the futuristic and the fantastic that characterises the Urth cycle. Bruce’s work was a fixture of any bookshop with a good SF and Fantasy section in the 60s, 70s and 80s. His work could be seen on the covers for Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and many more. It has been said that Gene considers Bruce’s cover for The Shadow of the Torturer to be one of his favourites. It has also been suggested that in chapter 26 of The Urth of the New Sun (“Gunnie and Burgundofara”), Severian’s remembrance of his youth in Nessus is a direct reference to Bruce’s painting:

“As clearly as if he were in that chamber of tears with us, I saw the young journeyman striding along, his fuligin cloak billowing behind him and the dark cross of Terminus Est rising above his left shoulder.”

Examples of Bruce’s work can be seen in the gallery above and on his website.

Novelist Stephen Palmer, author of Urbis MorpheosMuezzinland, Memory Seed and Glass, to name a few, interviewed Bruce for Ultan’s Library in April 2013. Steve’s article on religion in the Book of the New Sun is reprinted on Ultan’s Library.


How were you first approached about the four covers to the UK (Arrow) edition of Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book Of The New Sun’ quartet?

The editor and art director of Arrow Books decided to try me out with “The Shadow Of The Torturer” in the early 1980s. They liked the result enough to use my talent on several more Gene Wolfe covers.

Did you get to read any of the text before you began work? Did the publishers perhaps give you a summary of the scenario and characters?

I was always given the text to read through of each book before tackling the picture.

Would you agree that many of your paintings, including those not for SF book covers, seem to mix the ancient past with the distant future? The cover for “The Citadel Of The Autarch” in particular seems to epitomise this feel.

Both ancient and futuristic themes hold a fascination for me personally. It is the polarity of both extremes that has a certain impact I suppose.

Was there a specific real-world inspiration for the bird-creature holding a flaming torch depicted in the painting for “The Claw Of The Conciliator”?

Throughout my school days I was obsessed with ornithology. This took the form of creating my own ‘bird club’ at school, with lectures and bird-watching expeditions into the countryside. The bird-like creature that you mention wasn’t drawn from any particular fowl. The pin-tail duck is about the closest I can think of.

In many of your paintings lifeless environments seem to take on the forms of living things; is this a phenomenon, imaginary or otherwise, that particularly interests you?

During my ornithology days I took up taxidermy, which involved working on the lifeless forms of dead birds. This meant removing the bones etc to make room for wires and sawdust stuffing. Maybe all of that influenced me subconsciously.

I have found that many Gene Wolfe fans who discovered him when he was becoming better known as an SF author associate your four paintings with the work. Has this been borne out by your own experience since painting them?

It was gratifying to receive a letter from Gene Wolfe to the editors of Arrow Books, in which he believed that he and I were in danger of forming a mutual admiration society (praise indeed). I also received letters from fans endorsing the same opinion. All I can say is that I’ve been extremely fortunate to be given such atmospheric tales to illustrate.

How do you think about your cover art for Gene Wolfe’s books? Do you see your pictures as being illustrations of episodes in the books, or do you view them as images inspired by the books? In other words, are you trying to capture a scene or event, or you trying to express the mood and feel of the book in a visual medium?

The atmosphere and iconography of Gene Wolfe’s books already existed in my own imagination way before I read them. If you take a look at the section of my website titled “Migraine Monochromes” you’ll see what I mean. They were done back in the 1970’s – prior to 1980 when I was given the first in the Urth series to illustrate. The mood and environment were paramount above any particular scene, although I tried to keep as close as possible to the text.

Tell us about the colour palette you use for your depictions of Urth. Why those particular colour combinations for a world under a dying sun?

Regarding my choice of colour schemes, I tried to keep them sombre and solemn, as opposed to bright and vivid.

Many of your illustrations of Urth prominently feature stone and bone, particularly skulls. What are the significance of these materials for your conception of how Urth looks and feels?

Those familiar with my imagery know that I have a liking for fossilised remains and bones, particularly skulls. This stems from my early childhood when I discovered a horror comic in my school desk – that, along with seaside ghost trains, were to blame, I’m certain.

Did you read all the Gene Wolfe books you illustrated? If so, what was your reaction to them?

I’m a slow reader, so I have to confess that I tend to ‘skip-read’ books that I have to illustrate. With the Gene Wolfe books though I got really engrossed. From the very first description of them before I had a chance to read them I knew that they were meant for me. I’d like to thank all those who made it all come together.


We’d like to thank Bruce (and Steve) for their time in putting together this interview. All of the images above are the property of and copyright Bruce Pennington.

To see more examples of the art of Bruce Pennington, try the following links:

“The Lupine Scholar” – an interview with Michael Andre-Driussi

“The Lupine Scholar”

By Scott Wowra

Michael Andre-Driussi is a courageous sort. After all, only a handful of brave scholars gleefully plummet into the literary mazes of science fiction’s Daedalus, American author Gene Wolfe. In this endeavor, Mr. Andre-Driussi has few peers. Michael’s painstaking research produced LEXICON URTHUS, the Rosetta Stone of Mr. Wolfe’s award-winning tetralogy THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN and coda THE URTH OF THE NEW SUN.

For the uninitiated reader, THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN is full of bizarre and seemingly counterfeit words like omophagist (an eater of raw flesh) and cherkaji (Persian light cavalry). In the early 1980s, frustrated readers accused Mr. Wolfe of deliberately fabricating unusual words to confuse them. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of the strange words that appear in THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN are real. And they remind us just how odd language can sound without science fiction authors inventing new words that lack inherent meaning.

In response to his critics, Mr. Wolfe produced the essay “Words Weird and Wonderful” in THE CASTLE OF THE OTTER (1982) to demonstrate that, in fact, all the words he used in THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER were genuine. The brief essay was an incomplete dictionary covering the first book in his tetralogy. Mr. Wolfe wisely left the rest of the work up to the reader.

And that leads us to Michael Andre-Driussi, the lexicographer of THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN and a science fiction writer in his own right. What sort of person tirelessly tracks down the definition of obscure words, creating hundreds of 3×5 index cards in the process? Undoubtedly, the same sort of person crafty enough to pen them in THE BOOK OF THE NEW SUN. In a series of email interviews, I set out to learn more about Michael Andre-Driussi, a leading Lupine scholar.

“Tell me about the Lexicon Urthus”: an interview with Michael Andre-Driussi

Delighted by the recent publication of a new edition of the Lexicon Urthus, Master Ultan tracks down Wolfe scholar Michael Andre-Driussi to find out how he came to write this invaluable reference work.

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