Dear Mr. Wolfe,
We met in a used book store. I’ve met a lot of authors in used bookstores, you know. I hope you don’t mind. Sometimes a reader just needs something quick with no strings attached.
You turned out to be so, so much more. I don’t remember who mentioned you to me, but I picked up the first two volumes of The Book of the New Sun because I was running out of Moorcock to read. Talk about a change of pace! I mean, yes, there was a crazy sword and a black cloak, but Stormbringer and Terminus Est have about as much in common as stromboli and tiramisu. Severian’s fuligin cloak is as iconic a garment as my reading has ever revealed. I couldn’t just read your work and put you down, you know?
From Severian, I went to Latro and river gods and scribbled scrolls. I liked the movie Memento well enough, but in Soldier of the Mist you did most of the things it does better, without leaning on jump cuts or spliced narratives. I confess that sometimes your conceit of “discovered and translated writings” bothers me, but I only ever have to deal with it for the few pages of afterword. I think it says a lot about our relationship that I always read those afterwords despite knowing what they’ll contain.
The Book of the Long Sun didn’t capture me the same way your other books had, but still…you have this fantastic knack for building coherent worlds without explaining them to us all the time. I cannot think of another author who conveys more depth of field with less exposition. Part of that’s on your use of first person, but even there you give us narrators who want to talk about what happened rather than where it happened. Characters drive the stories; you use the characters’ choices as narrator to tell us about them and their world. Nothing is wasted. That extraordinary knack for worlds without exposition is the thing I try to steal from you. I don’t ever really manage it, but I’ve learned a hell of a lot about leaving things out just by hanging around your works.
Even if you’d written nothing but The Knight, Mr. Wolfe, I’d probably still write one of these letters for you. It’s like sculpture: perfectly balanced, changing as you walk around it, ready to spring into motion at a hat’s drop. It is as indebted to Old Stuff as Tolkien’s work is, but the use of it is astounding. Arthur/Able’s point of view keeps the reader grounded even when a valkyrie plucks him from the air after fighting a dragon in flight. It’s incredible. The Wizard couldn’t knock me off my feet the same way because I hadn’t really gotten up. In it, though, you managed one the hardest things in writing: a satisfying conclusion.
Pirates, horrors from beyond the world, magical houses, space ships, mutants…you’ve used them all, and deftly. You’ve been at this for four decades, and your work is as fresh as ever.
Thank you, so much.
Gene Wolfe won the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement award in 1996. Many of the books I mention above have been written since then. He’s racked up a variety of lifetime achievement and grand master awards, never mind the Locus and Nebula awards and nominations he’s won for individual works. I have yet to read a bad book penned by Mr. Wolfe. If you like post-apocalyptic settings and exotic language, start with The Book of the New Sun. Originally published as a tetralogy, you can find it in print as two, two-volume trades. (The ISBN of the first volume is 978-0312890179.) If you prefer fantasy, start with The Knight (ISBN 978-0765347015). Just go do it. You might as well pick up The Wizard (ISBN 978-0765350503) while you’re at the bookstore or library, because you probably won’t want to leave Sir Able behind when you finish The Knight. For Cthulhu-esque horror, try An Evil Guest (ISBN 978-0765321343). Do you like Pirates but wish Gore Verbinski had left them alone after one movie? Try Pirate Freedom (ISBN 0765318792).