When Larry McCaffery interviewed Gene Wolfe in 1985, his third question was, “Did you read a lot of SF as a kid?” In his answer, Wolfe told about a small book that changed his world:

Once when I was a kid in Houston[,] I fell off my bike and hurt my leg badly enough so that my mother had to drive me to school for a while in the family car. On one of those drives she had a paperback book lying in the front seat, and when I looked down at the picture on the cover[,] I saw a picture like the one I had seen in the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comics . . . It was a paperback collection of SF stories edited by Don Wollheim, who was about 22 in those days. My mother had bought it to read while she was waiting for me to get out of school (she was a big mystery fan but had bought this for a change of pace). I asked her if I could read this one when she was finished, and she said I could have it right away since she didn’t much care for it. The first story I came across was ‘The Microcosmic God’ by Theodore Sturgeon, which was my first real encounter with SF. It was at that point I realized these were not just stories I enjoyed—like those of Edgar Allan Poe, or the Oz books . . . but that they constituted a genre. From the Wollheim anthology . . . I worked backwards and discovered the SF pulps. (Peter Wright, Shadows of the New Sun, p80)

The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction

Photograph by Mark Van Slyke

This quotation shows with exacting clarity an early milestone in Wolfe’s development, the precise moment at the age of eleven or twelve when he discovered that many of his favorite stories were members of a recognized genre.

The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction (1943) was the first anthology to use the term “science fiction” in its title. Rather than including purely pulp SF, editor Donald A. Wollheim assembled ten tales from three different types of publication: six stories from contemporary pulp magazines, frontloaded by a pair of 19th century “classics” and two tales from contemporary “glossies,” the high-end periodicals of the period. This approach provides the collection (and the new genre for Gene Wolfe) with a historical pedigree as well as layers of upper and lower tiers. Wolfe explicitly states that this book was his gateway to discovering the science fiction pulps.

The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction

Fantastic Tales of Super-Science

  • “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) Stephen Vincent Benét
  • “Moxon’s Master” (1899) Ambrose Bierce
  • “Green Thoughts” (1931) John Collier
  • “In the Abyss” (1896) H. G. Wells
  • “The Green Splotches” (1920) T. S. Stribling
  • “The Last Man” (1929) Wallace G. West
  • “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) Stanley G. Weinbaum
  • “Twilight” (1934) John W. Campbell, Jr.
  • “Microcosmic God” (1941) Theodore Sturgeon
  • “—And He Built a Crooked House” (1941) Robert A. Heinlein

By the Waters of Babylon

“By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét was first published as “The Place of the Gods” in the glossy magazine The Saturday Evening Post (July 31, 1937).

Synopsis: The coming-of-age story for a young primitive in a post-apocalyptic world, a place where only tribal “priests” can safely take metal from spirit houses in Dead Places. (Enough time has passed since “the Great Burning” that some bones will fall to dust if touched, though this might be a side-effect of the apocalypse rather than a sign of time’s passage.) The hero reaches the age for his manhood journey, where he will go to a spirit house and return with metal from it, but his secret ambition is to break tribal taboo by going to the forbidden Place of the Gods. When he does this, he is rewarded with a powerful spiritual vision of life before the Great Burning, and then he witnesses the Great Burning itself. Through this experience he realizes that the “gods” were just humans, and he mentions the taboo name for the Place of the Gods is “new york.”

Context: A pre-atomic post-apocalyptic story. It treats the new tribes with sympathy rather than the ridicule found in John Ames Mitchell’s novel The Last American (1889), or the pro-brutality found in Jack London’s story “The Strength of the Strong” (1914).

Commentary: I sense this story has a long shadow through the post-apocalyptic subgenre as perhaps the first to use the ruined ancient city of Babylon as an image of how our own civilisation might appear when viewed from the perspective of futurity. Its precedent was followed by Edgar Pangborn’s “Music Master of Babylon” (1955) and the most famous example of the trope, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959). But “Babylon” is a tricky metaphor in this usage. The titles for the Benét and Pangborn stories allude to Psalm 137 regarding the Babylonian captivity:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ (Psalm 137, v1-3, ESV)

In contrast, the title of Frank’s novel relates to the apocalyptic destruction of Babylon in Revelation 18:10. While Benét’s “Babylon” at times hints at Revelation’s Babylon with the witnessing of the Great Burning, the tale is set firmly in a Babylonian captivity, where the narrator looks to returning from exile in generations to come.

Wolfe Notes: I am strongly reminded of “’A Story’ by John V. Marsch” in The Fifth Head of Cerberus (all references to first edition, hardcover, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1972), which frames the vision quest within an anthropological romance reconstructed by a knowledgeable scientist. (Come to think of it, the framing of this Babylon tale is utterly absent!) One sharp detail: “They were singing the Star song in the outer chamber” (p3) recalls the singing of the Sky songs by the Shadow children abos. There is a named song, “The Bending Sky-Paths Song that none may come” (p87), and an unnamed one: “We have sung to hold the starcrossers back. . . . Suppose I now sing them in, and they come?” (p129). The meeting of the dead god in his home is like Wolfe’s hero making an offering to the dead priest in his cave. Another point of similarity is that of seeing “the end of the world,” where the vision of the Great Burning during Benét’s story is matched by the arrival of the starships near the end of Wolfe’s story.

There are also a few suggestions of this story’s influence in Peace, including the scattered reference to post-apocalyptic tribes in Den’s writing. The ghostly vision of life before the city died is echoed as the ghostly vision of life in the future city (and possible apocalypse) in the “Ghost Chasers” article by Den’s aunt.

The meeting with the wild dogs in Benét’s story reminds me of trouble in the dead city section of Nessus (The Citadel of the Autarch and “The Map”), while the spiritual time-travel links to the resurrection of the stone town in The Claw of the Conciliator.

Moxon’s Master

“Moxon’s Master” by Ambrose Bierce first appeared in The San Francisco Examiner (April 16, 1899).

Synopsis: A nameless narrator is arguing with an inventor called Moxon, who is expounding upon intelligence in unusual places. A sound from Moxon’s private workshop in the next room draws Moxon away, and he returns with four scratches on his cheek. The narrator, supposing this wound was dealt by a woman, leaves in a scandalized huff, but as he walks, he finds that Moxon’s strange philosophy has given him a profound change, “like that which fell upon Saul of Tarsus” (p23). Upon returning to Moxon’s place after this “road to Damascus” moment, he spies on the man playing chess with a robot. Maxon wins, and the robot throttles him. The narrator wakes up in the hospital, where Haley, Moxon’s workman, explains that he rescued the narrator from the fire that destroyed the workshop. The narrator says he saw the robot kill its inventor, but Haley questions that, and now the narrator has doubts.

Context: The story is clearly inspired by an historical pseudo-automaton, “The Mechanical Turk,” a fake chess-playing machine which operated from 1770 until its destruction by fire in 1854 (note the destruction by fire). Poe’s essay “Maelzel’s Chess Player” (1836) tries to solve the mystery of its operation.

Commentary: The story is short and wooly and has both a twist ending and a twist title. But this is Bierce, who is legendary for his twists, and this story shows him in top twisty form.

Bierce is also known for his atheism, so his heavy-handed use of Saint Paul’s conversion is cause for caution and suspicion.

The twist ending can go many ways, but I think the cleanest interpretation is that robotic life is real life, and therefore robots, like humans, can have murderous passions. Working back from this, the interruption was not a lover’s impatience, but a secret life-form alarmed that its secret was about to be divulged.

The twist title makes us ask who or what is Moxon’s “master”? In simplest terms, considering only Moxon and the robot, the robot is the master. Is this because Moxon is a slave to his own dreams, in a Pygmalion way? Or is the meaning chess oriented, in that a chess expert is a “master?” Moxon won against the robot but the robot killed him, achieving greater mastery in a horrible way. But the kicker is that Moxon seemed to see his death coming; his behavior with the narrator is retrospectively that of a man knowingly heading to his certain doom, like a “lamb to the slaughter.”

The creative ambiguity here reminds me of Bester’s “Fondly Fahrenheit” (1954), where the connection between master and android is something more symbiotic, and the story “Farewell to the Master” (1940), inspiration for the film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but the twist in the end of “Farewell” is that robot Gort is the master, and Klaatu is the biological slave.

Wolfe Notes: The identity ambiguity in this story feeds directly into The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) and elsewhere in Wolfe’s work. The creator/monster ambiguity goes straight to Baldanders and Talos in The Book of the New Sun. Robots that behave badly are especially strong in The Book of the Long Sun.

Wolfe wrote his own take on “The Mechanical Turk” in “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton” (1977), set in a post-apocalyptic USA.

Green Thoughts

“Green Thoughts” by John Collier first saw print in the glossy Harper’s Magazine (May 1931).

Synopsis: An orchid fancier named Mr. Mannering obtains a unique specimen. Through mishap, he discovers that it eats and absorbs the memories of animals: first a house cat, then Cousin Jane, and then Mr. Mannering himself. Upon his disappearance comes the complication of his heir, a nephew of bad character who looks forward to squandering his inheritance as soon as possible. Through a twist, however, the base young man avoids being absorbed, and when he kills the monster plant in a fit of pique, it screams like the legendary mandrake.

Commentary: This story from the thirties might be the unacknowledged ancestor of the motion picture The Little Shop of Horrors (1960). The predatory plant is a cross between the legendary mandrake and the Wolf from “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Wolfe Notes: The memory absorption aspect of this story is an obvious inspiration for the dread alzabo in The Book of the New Sun.

In the Abyss

“In the Abyss” by H. G. Wells initially appeared in Pearson’s Magazine (August 1896).

Synopsis: An engineer designs a spherical metal vehicle with which to explore the ocean bed five miles down. He undertakes the descent and returns with news of having discovered another civilization. The people living at the bottom of the sea take the visitor as a god. In a postscript, the hero visits the ocean bed a second time . . . and is never seen again.

Wolfe Notes: The idea of undersea people has obvious relevance to Severian’s narrative, with its undines and monstrous submarine villains Erebus and Abaia. The religious interpretation of those who cross barriers to visit other worlds or dimensions also appears in the Urth Cycle, as noted below in the discussion of Theodore Sturgeon’s story “Microcosmic God.” Then there are the layered worlds of The Wizard Knight, wherein the denizens of lower levels worship those from higher levels, with all sorts of complications.

The Green Splotches

“The Green Splotches” by T. S. Stribling first appeared in Adventure (January 3, 1920).

Synopsis: A mysterious area of South America turns out to be the landing site for a spaceship. A geographical expedition encounters a galactic expedition.

Wolfe Notes: The alien humanoids have green blood, the source of the “green splotches” of the title, because their bodies use chlorophyll. Wolfe deploys this idea in the green man from The Book of the New Sun. The expedition that gets increasingly spooky evokes the field notes portion of Wolfe’s “V.R.T.” in The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

The Last Man

“The Last Man” by Wallace G. West saw first publication in Amazing Stories (February 1929).

Synopsis: “M-I” is the last man, an exhibit in the woman-dominated world of the future. He is contacted by an atavistic woman, also an exhibit, and together they explore the world’s forgotten history. Ultimately, they destroy the hive-like society of their era and become a new Adam and Eve.

Wolfe Notes: The “Hive Queen” in this story is a totalitarian result of the so-called “War of the Sexes.” Wolfe’s “The Doctor of Death Island” (1978) is set in a future where inter-racial conflict has been succeeded by a violent war of the sexes, while “In Looking Glass Castle” (1980) posits a future where men have been outlawed. The female captain in “Silhouette” (1975) is also a Hive Queen type.

A Martian Odyssey

“A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum was first published in Wonder Stories (July 1934).

Synopsis: The hero tells his fellow explorers a picaresque series of wonderous vignettes about his long walk across Mars after an unexpected crash. In the end it turns out the natives who fought him with such fanatic ferocity were only trying to keep a miraculous artifact, which has subsequently healed him, from being stolen from their temple.

Wolfe Notes: The key ingredient here is the stolen alien dingus that miraculously heals, a motif that Wolfe uses, among other places, in The Claw of the Conciliator, and in the green box of Interlibrary Loan.


“Twilight” by John W. Campbell, Jr. first appeared in Astounding Stories (November 1934).

Synopsis: In 1932 a man tells of a hitchhiker he picked up, a fellow who claimed to be a time traveler from 3059. The traveler is trying to get back to his own time, after having first shot into the future by seven million years. He tells the driver in 1932 about that distant time of little, bewildered men, and the machines that could not stop. It is a vista of vast melancholy, the twilight of humanity.

Wolfe Notes: This story has its parallel in Cyriaca’s tale of the library in The Sword of the Lictor, where the machines continue after humanity has fallen into barbarity. Wolfe uses the “overshooting” accident of time travel in The Urth of the New Sun.

Microcosmic God

“Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon first saw print in Astounding Stories (April 1941).

Synopsis: A scientist, in his quest to push beyond human ability, creates intelligent, microscopic lifeforms, the Neoterics, who live at an accelerated pace. He becomes their god, pressing them to advance technologically. When the banker who finances this project tries to steal the scientist’s work, the Neoterics answer their god’s request to throw up a shield, an impenetrable force field. The Neoterics continue on at their accelerated pace, and, as many years have gone by since the shield went up, the narrator worries about the fate of humanity whenever the Neoterics take down their shield and emerge.

Wolfe Notes: I find it curious, perhaps telling, that Wolfe started reading The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction with this novelette located near the end of the volume. It is the one story which he mentions by name in his interview with Larry McCaffery, and it seems to have especially caught his imagination. He would go on to write his own microscopic adventure, “Peritonitis” (1973). The tension between inventor and investor found in “The Doctor of Death Island” (1978) may also have had its roots in Sturgeon’s tale. Be that as it may, Wolfe’s fiction certainly contains various “god games.” They feature in short stories such as “The God and His Man” (1980) and “Procreation” (1983), but they are central to the concerns of the Solar Cycle.  The godlike Hieros create the Hierogrammates to go back and steer human history so as to ensure that it results in the Hieros’ own evolution. Severian is a tool in their hands, but in the narrative’s convolutions he himself is put into various god-roles, first in the dawn time as Apu-Punchau, and later in Ushas as The Sleeper. And, just as in “The God and His Man,” there is tension between the god and his subjects.

—And He Built a Crooked House

“—And He Built a Crooked House” by Robert A. Heinlein initially appeared in Astounding Stories (February 1941).

Synopsis: A kooky architect builds a tesseract house, and a Californian earthquake makes it real.

Wolfe Notes: Space-bending architecture occurs frequently in Wolfe’s writing, from room “expanders” in “Slaves of Silver” (1971), to Father Inire’s botanic gardens in The Book of the New Sun, to theoretical room expanders expounded by a scientist in A Borrowed Man (2015). But there is also the Last House of Master Ash in The Book of the New Sun, a “tower at the edge of things” like the Starkness observatory in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920).


In conclusion, I hope this study will blaze a trail for others. Just as we are familiar with the threads of Dickens and Proust shot throughout Wolfe’s oeuvre, so perhaps The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction might become a common touchstone in Wolfe studies. The ten stories in the Wollheim anthology could have been purely pulp, but I find significance in the 19th-century/glossy/pulp mixture, which seems to map to Wolfe’s own output, and I find in each of the ten stories elements that Wolfe used to memorable effect.