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.
Stephen is the author of nine science fiction novels, including Memory Seed (1996), Urbis Morpheos (2010), Hairy London (2014) and, most recently, Beautiful Intelligence (2015). His last piece for Ultan’s Library was an interview with Bruce Pennington.
Like so many, I started to read SF and Fantasy when I was a teenager – in my case during the 1970s. I began with John Wyndham, Tolkien and HG Wells, then moved on to JG Ballard, Frank Herbert, M John Harrison and (dare I say it) Stephen Donaldson.
In the early 1980s, when I was finishing university in London and heading out to my first proper job, I would read Dave Langford’s book reviews in White Dwarf magazine. As many SF fans will know, Dave was then, and still is, a stalwart of the SF scene, with many books to his name (including the hilarious The Leaky Establishment) and a world-wide reputation in fandom. His White Dwarf book review column was required reading. Much later, I bought the collected edition of the first fifty, entitled Critical Assembly.
I’m fairly sure that Dave’s reviews of The Book of the New Sun were the first places I saw Gene Wolfe’s name mentioned. Dave was much enamoured of the quartet, as his review of the final volume makes clear:
…its style, wit, inventiveness and fresh atmosphere set it far above today’s endless output of mediocre fantasy novels – or rather, sf novels, for virtually every fantasy trope in this tetralogy has an sf rationale behind it… It’ll do until perfection comes along.
So I bought the four novels, which had been published in Britain with the classic Bruce Pennington covers. I was instantly smitten. The world was deeply imagined, complex, haunting and evocative. I devoured the books, then began recommending them to my SF-loving friends. But then one of those friends, who had already read the novels, said to me, “Steve, you do realise Severian is the Conciliator?”
Like an idiot, I stared at him and said, “Uh, yeah…”
I hadn’t realised that, of course.
So began my second reading of the books, then a third, during which I began to tease out some of the mysteries of the novel. When, a few years later, The Urth of the New Sun was published, I bought it as soon as I could.
Those were great days. Gene Wolfe published more amazing novels, including Free Live Free, which I loved, the Soldier novels, The Devil in a Forest and There are Doors. I began to collect volumes of his short stories too, most of which I enjoyed – especially The Island Of Dr Death and Other Stories and Other Stories.
The Book of the Long Sun I just about managed to finish, but I didn’t enjoy it much. It didn’t seem to have the magic of the original sequence; ditto for The Book of the Short Sun, though I did enjoy that a lot more. Much later I bought Michael Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus and Robert Borski’s Solar Labyrinth, both of which were thought provoking.
A decade later I began describing The Book of the New Sun to anyone who’d listen as “the greatest genre novel of all time.” In my capacity as an employee of Waterstones the booksellers (1998-2005) who for a while ran the SF section, I placed a hand-written card under copies of the novel describing it thusly. Sales were excellent, and as I recall only one person returned the book for a refund.
Inevitably, when in 1986 I began writing genre fiction, Gene Wolfe was an influence. I didn’t copy his style – even then I was not interested in copying anybody, and anyway I knew it would have been impossible – nor did I copy his techniques, but there was something about the way his narratives held numerous mysteries that appealed to me. My favourite books are usually the ones where only a proportion of the meaning is on the surface. I like hidden depths. So The Book of the New Sun was like manna to me, and endlessly fascinating. I wanted my novels to have many hidden depths, not in imitation of Gene Wolfe but because that was what interested, indeed, compelled me.
The first draft of the novel that eventually became my debut Memory Seed was written in 1988. It was rubbish, and once it was finished I moved on to the next one. But four years later something about the characters and the scenario made me write a second, better draft (something that until then I’d never done), which led a couple of years later to a third draft. By then, Tim Holman at Orbit Books had plucked the work off the slush pile and made a mental note to get in touch with me should he ever be asked to find new British SF authors.
Memory Seed is undoubtedly influenced by Gene Wolfe’s narrative mysteries. Who is deKray? Why is he named after the city? What happens inside the Clocktower? What happens to deKray at the end of the book, and why? And so on and so on… But people enjoyed the tale and the setting, which was a relief. The sequel Glass wasn’t so widely reviewed and didn’t do as well as hoped, so later Orbit dropped me.
The other one of my novels that is much influenced by Gene Wolfe is Urbis Morpheos, published in 2010 by PS Publishing. For quite a while I’d not been able to write anything because of events in my personal life, so it was great in 2010 to have a new novel out – the first for five or six years. I had been experimenting with a style of writing which used characters both as human beings and as archetypes, a technique I’d also used in The Rat and the Serpent. Not everyone liked it, and the mannered style was not to everybody’s taste – far from it. But Urbis Morpheos turned out to be the last of my novels written in that way, in which a great proportion of the meaning is concealed and has to be teased out by the reader. There’ll always be hidden mysteries in my novels, yes, but not in quite so labyrinthine a way…
One crucial point about the great man of course is his religious faith. I’ve been asked a few times – including by belligerent Christians – how I reconcile my own atheism with considering The Book of the New Sun the greatest genre novel ever. My reply goes thusly: as a humane atheist I accept that individuals are and can be religious, as is their right. One of my best and closest friends is a Christian. My fire is reserved for religion itself, which is fair game, as is my atheism. People are religious for all sorts of reasons, and usually it’s not their fault; Richard Dawkins, amongst many, has pointed out the inhumanity of indoctrinating children via culture. So I expect religious people to be as skeptical about my atheism as I am about their faith… but they never are, of course. Therefore it’s perfectly fine for Gene Wolfe to do as he sees fit, and if I much enjoy that, well, who cares? Reading his novels doesn’t make me spit and choke, whatever Christians, on the basis of no evidence, would like to believe.
I do still think The Book of the New Sun is at the top of genre fiction, although these days I usually place Brian Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy beside it.
As a footnote, I recently stumbled across a photograph on the internet of Gene Wolfe signing a book at an American convention, and I was surprised, and delighted, to see that he is left-handed (as am I). I think that explains some of his extraordinary creativity.
So, long live Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun, and all who sail in her!