A Wolfe Among Sheep

A Wolfe Among Sheep

Science Fiction author Gene Wolfe has left this mortal realm.

Ages ago I had a coffee-table book titled something like "Worlds of Fantasy" that, while it also unfortunately introduced me to Earthsea and Gormenghast, also introduced me to Covenant, Elric, and best of all, Conan, Jack Vance's "Dying Earth," and Severian.

An unassuming boy, a member of a torturer's guild on an Earth so far in the future that, like Vance's, our sun was on the verge of bloated red death, where technology that may as well have been magic was discovered and lost, and aliens still dropped by at the starport to trade. He takes pity on a prisoner, giving her the means to take her own life, and is not quite banished, but sent off as an executioner.

By the end of the first book, he has barely even gotten out of the sprawling city.

From there, his travels take him across the lands, and back, to the Emperor's court. Along the way, ideas that lesser writers would turn into entire stories - take the conceit of an entire language that is nothing but metaphors - are but stops along the way to his greater mastery of himself and rise in the world.

It is utterly remarkable, both for the literary use of language, and yet still being a high-concept story that doesn't fall prey to the failures that most wannabe literary sci fi falls to.

His faith is obvious, even more so in the protagonist for the Long Sun books, set on a spinning cylindrical colony ship or "whorl" populated by a mix of humans and androids, where the "gods" are the transcended original officers of the ship living on within the computer systems. Patera ("father") Silk is a priest struggling to save his impoverished church, when a god visits his altar. He also has a vision of a god he calls the "outsider" - who he begins to realize may be a true god unlike the ones living in the computers. The trappings of the church and service have a distinct Roman Catholic air.

The two series are linked - with the Whorl being a colony ship sent from Earth before Severian's time, if I recall. In both series, a number of important moral questions are brought to light, and examined, including that of the nature of humanity. In both cases, the end is drawing nigh - with Severian having to go on a quest to save/renew our own sun, and for Silk, to prepare the Whorl for the end of its journey, to colonize a new system.

These are not light reading. Especially in the New Sun books, a lot of archaic language is used, and the work is very metaphorical. I was not kidding when I said that these were literary in the truest sense of the word, stuffed with beauty and poetry in prose, vice the false sophistication of modern "literary" work. They reward a close read.

Rest in peace, Gene Wolfe.

About Last Redoubt

Ex nuke mechanic, jack of all trades.