Science fiction writer Gene Wolfe died on April 14 at the age of 87. Even though I consider it one the greatest science fiction novels ever written, I taught Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer (1980) for only one term, back when I was teaching my Introduction to the Literature of Fantasy and Science Fiction class. Like The Sound and the Fury and Swann’s Way, both of which it resembles in ways, it’s a hard book to teach to a general undergraduate class. And Shadow is one of the most accessible of Wolfe’s novels.
There is also Peace (1975), his amazing novel told from the point of view of a ghost. There’s the beautiful and strange A Soldier of the Mist (1986), the scroll journal of a Greek warrior with a brain injury that makes him unable to turn short-term recollections into long-term memories. This was written long before the movie Memento came out, by the way. The soldier has to re-read the journal every day. Yet it gets longer and longer.
Plus, his condition causes him to be peculiarly open to the Greek gods that surround him in a very physical way, and to be able to interact with them. He is Martin Heidegger’s man of pure being who existed before the advent of Western philosophy and our subsequent breakdown into bicameral mindsets that Heidegger and Julian Jaynes posit occurred after Aristotle and his damnable categories.
Wolfe was Catholic, and his writing is deeply affected by his faith. He was a convert greatly influenced, possibly even converted, by reading G.K. Chesterton. But he was a Catholic convert as an artist, as well—or perhaps his mind gravitated to where his imagination already dwelled.
Wolfe’s imaginative output teems with Catholic and early Christian symbolism. He called himself a writer who happened to be Catholic, but Catholic archetypes are baked into his stories and books at a deep and subtle level, like a cook’s signature spice you never notice until you do, then you can’t help but tasting in everything.
Wolfe was a veteran of the Korean War. He returned shell-shocked, ready to dive under a table at any loud noise, and exhibited other signs of PTSD. He credits his wife, Rosemary, whom he married soon after his return, with saving him and bringing him back to life.
Wolfe began a tradition of writing a sonnet to Rosemary each year on their anniversary. These were later collected and are very good, very precise in the way of an engineer with a poet’s soul, which is yet another facet of Wolfe’s work. What if possibly the greatest writer of science fiction was also the man who designed the machine that makes Pringles potato chips? Well, he was a key member of the team that invented Pringles.
Wolfe used the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Houston and became an engineer at Proctor and Gamble, where he worked on the development of Pringles. Eventually, he settled into a career as an editor at the trade magazine Plant Engineering, and began writing science fiction in earnest.
Wolfe was an instructor in the famous Clarion Writers Workshop put on by science fiction writer and editor Damon Knight and his wife, writer Kate Wilhelm. Through Knight and the Clarion Workshop, he was introduced to science fiction fandom and conventions, and, especially after he became a professional writer, he was a convention habitué. In fact, Wolfe claims that he wrote The Shadow of the Torturer in part to provide a distinctly dressed character whom fans would dress up as in masquerades. He certainly did that with Severian.
Wolfe was a political conservative and staunch anti-totalitarian—very much an anti-communist during the Cold War. He never let this get in the way of his friendships, however, which stretched across writers and readers of all political stripes. The books he produced in the 1970s, such as mainstream magic realist novel Peace and the science fiction novella “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” (1972) are tours de force, and with a string of great short stories established him as a writer’s writer.
Of course, my teenage self didn’t know any of this when I first encountered The Shadow of the Torturer at Gateway Books in Quintard Mall of Anniston, Alabama one summer in 1980. It had a wonderful cover by none other than the legendary Don Maitz (multiple winner of the Chesley Award, and the artist of the original Captain illustrations for Captain Morgan’s Rum, among many other works. Maitz has been the cover artist of several books I’ve edited at my day job, by the way).
The Maitz cover is a picture of a dude standing on some kind of dais or balcony. His face is covered by a strange, black mask, and he’s holding a peculiarly inscribed sword without a pointy tip. He’s wearing a swirling cape that seems somehow blacker than black in color. For a 16-year-old in 1980, it was utterly evocative.
This is Severian. He’s a junior torturer for a government-appointed guild about to graduate from apprentice to journeyman when we first meet him. Severian claims to have a photographic memory, and the four books of the Book of the New Sun series (it’s science fiction; there is always a series, if possible) are told in first person from his viewpoint, which we come to see is quite unreliable at times. This is the guy Wolfe wanted the fans to dress up like (and throughout the 80s, some did).
I don’t know what I was prepared for when I bought the book. Maybe for something like Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, which I was heavily into at the time and I find kind of funny in its earnestness now. What I got was utterly different from anything I’d ever read before (and by the age of 16, I’d read quite a lot).
First of all, although it had a plot, there wasn’t much of one. Severian is in charge of the upkeep of a noblewoman who is being tortured in the vast guild chambers, which, we find much later, are actually the vast halls of an immense, dormant space ship as big as a city. It was a peripatetic novel, with Severian on a coming-of-age journey away from the Citadel through the urban sprawl that has been built around it for miles and miles.
Severian falls in love with the young torture victim and, in an act he knows will end his time with the guild, exhibits mercy and helps her to kill herself. He is indeed terminated for this, in a manner of speaking, but he’s still bound to the guild, so his torturer’s license is revoked and he is assigned to be a lowly executioner in one of the city’s distant suburbs.
Away Severian goes, into a libertarian paradise and inferno of archetypes where baroque beauty blooms in all the cracks, and caveat emptor reigns to the nth degree. People and things in the city are not only out to use you and take everything you’re worth, they are sometimes trying (and quite able) to literally eat your soul and torture you for thousands of years.
While this may seem a fantasy world, it is not. It is actually a far, far future world of science fiction. It’s probably set on Earth—the planet is called “Urth” in the books—where the sun is sputtering and dying, and humanity has entered into a long, baroque decadence and mostly forgotten its ancient roots (you would too after a billion years or so).
It’s a world heavily influenced by Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, but less pure Vance and more like Vance processed through Jorge Louis Borges’ Labyrinths. People duel with enormous, deadly flowers. Vast libraries contain entire ecosystems within their depths. Giants, which are possibly uplifted apes or maybe genetic splices, and dwarves, who are perhaps aliens, travel together in caravans putting on mystery plays for a socially stratified populace, and robbing people blind behind their backs.
The world has a medieval feel, but we are not certain any of these characters are truly human in the first place, including Severian. It may even be a world entirely recreated eons in the future by a race who have discovered the smoking remains and archetypical artistic output of vanished humanity and sought to revivify it. The general lack of futuristic devices and weapons (although some show up at times) stems from the overall lack of energy and vital order in this exhausted far, far, far future.
There are secret societies putting deadly conspiracies afoot, guilds galore, strange gods who might be aliens or genetically transformed humans, gnostic cults of all sorts. Any world-building weirdness you encounter in “Game of Thrones” has an even weirder counterpart in Shadow of the Torturer. George R.R. Martin would be the first to admit he was influenced by Wolfe.
The sword Severian wields, named Terminus Est, is a mercury-weighted executioner’s blade made for beheadings, but Severian uses it at times as a fighting weapon. As the book continues, we slowly realize that Severian is groping his way toward a destiny—or rather that destiny, which is as palpable a force as Wolfe’s Catholic sense of fate and the unerring, unbending will of God can make it, is moving toward him. It’s bound to swallow him up like a wave swallows a surfer—that is, unless he can find a way to scramble into balance on his board. He acquires a gem-like item that heals him and is slowly remaking him into something beyond human.
This allows him to survive a poison flower “bite” that ought to have killed him. He pulls a dead girl from a swamp and is able to revive her, although her memory of the past is as faulty as his is certain. After Severian performs both a ritualized execution and plays the part of an executioner in a mystery play with shades of Scaramouche from Punch and Judy shows, the two escape an angry crowd and go forward together into an uncertain future that includes, we understand by the end, Severian eventually becoming the savior and ruler of this world, the next Autarch who will rule from the Citadel.
What’s going on here is a darker, but still very Christian, version of Pilgrim’s Progress. Severian is an even more fallible Christian, if a Christian were a journeyman torturer on the way to heaven (or, in this case, actual outer space by the end of the series. And yes, the giant rocket ship everyone thinks is a palace does figure in this). He is also Christlike, with the ability to raise himself and others from death or near death, including his eventual traveling companion and future girlfriend.
Wolfe says of his main character: “He is a man who has been born into a very perverse background, who is gradually trying to become better. I think that all of us have somewhere in us an instinct to try and become better. Some of us defeat it thoroughly. We kill that part of ourselves, just as we kill the child in ourselves. It is very closely related to the child in us.”
‘The Best Science Fiction Writer of Them All’
I didn’t know what it was I was reading: science fiction? High fantasy? Some kind of unknown genre that was yet to be invented? All I knew was that I couldn’t put The Shadow of the Torturer down that summer. A lot of other young science fiction readers who later became writers and editors have felt the same way over the years.
It seemed to me (and still does) that this creation of Wolfe’s is what the far future might really be like. Or rather it is what the far future might feel like if you were transported there with no preparation and told to fend for yourself. Strange, deadly dangerous, almost unfathomable—yet somehow also still shaped by basic universal morality. Also, it’s a place where a guy could become a hero—albeit, in this case, a hero with the rather telling flaw of also being an executioner for a callous dictator who seems not to give a whit about any of his subjects.
Wolfe throws in all sorts of archaic and almost-words, such as “chrism,” “avern,” “mensal” and “nidorous,” plus the color of Severian’s blacker-than-black cloak: “fuligin,” a word for which I searched every dictionary I could get my hands on in those pre-internet days, and never found. Wolfe’s other big influences are undoubtedly William Faulkner and Marcel Proust. There is the same baroque richness, decadence, and underlying Christian imagination to Faulkner’s work.
Plus, like Faulkner, Wolfe loves an unreliable narrator. As for Proust, Wolfe’s great theme throughout his work is how memory of events and built-in human symbols (Wolfe would probably say they were put there by God) combine to create a meaningful present reality, how the remembrance of things past makes today into a thing at all.
Another aspect of Wolfe’s long career was his writing about writing. This can be found in his nonfiction The Castle of the Otter (1982) and elsewhere. He didn’t do this a lot, but every word of what he did say is invaluable—and I’ve included it in every writing class I’ve taught.
My favorite Wolfean admonition is his peculiarly medieval method for getting over writer’s block. Wolfe suggests imprisoning your muse in a blank room, as it were, and cutting her off from all muse food including books, television, movies, walks in nature—whatever feeds the soul—until she gives you something. Presumably, this would include all of social media, Netflix, YouTube, podcasts, and the rest, these days. He excuses this rough treatment by reminding us that our subconscious, muse, or whatever you want to call it, is just us in the end, and we are not actually torturing anyone other than ourselves when we do this.
In the past couple of decades, Wolfe’s reputation has declined. His output waned as he spent many years caring for his wife Rosemary as she coped with Alzheimer’s disease. She died in late 2013. Even though he sought to mitigate the dense, allusive prose of his work in the 1970s with Shadow, it is still a book that’s difficult for some to get into. It might help to be 16, in desperate love with an unattainable object of desire, and still believe you might turn out to be the Emperor of Earth before you’re done.
I’m quite sure that Wolfe’s reputation will recover and grow in the coming years. He’s as good as the best we’ve had in American letters, and, though there are many great contenders, he’s my pick for the best science fiction writer of them all.
Author correction: Gene Wolfe was an instructor, and not a student, at the Clarion Writers Workshop.