Where to start with Gene Wolfe?
April 14, 2020 8:21 AM   Subscribe

What it says on the tin.

I’m an enthusiastic reader of science fiction and fantasy. While there are too many authors out there to try reading them all, one of the biggest oversights is Gene Wolfe—so say others when I tell them what kind of SF/F I like. (My book-related Asks will give you a solid idea of my preferences.) To sum up:

• Give me characters I can care about, however flawed and complicated. This may not be priority one, but it’s high on my list. I only have so much bandwidth anymore for stories boasting nifty ideas but no heart. And I have little patience for people who are flat and/or awful to one another.
• Well-wrought prose. I enjoy a good turn of phrase and vivid descriptions. Some of my favorite writers toe the line of rich/purple.
• A plot with momentum. I want something to happen. Characters need to act, though they don’t always need to be wrestling with catastrophe.
• I prefer soft SF to hard, and with fantasy I like anything that subverts common tropes and expectations. My tastes in fantasy are pretty broad. I can appreciate epic, I’m a sucker for fairy tale-esque and mythic-flavored riffs, and I find myself liking magical realism more and more.
• Hope and optimism are great. I’ll take struggles, but grimdark for the sake of being “realistic” or “gritty” isn’t my cup of tea.
• I don’t think a book is good just because it’s complex any more than a book is bad just because it’s accessible to a wide audience. Basically, I don’t care about reading Infinite Jest (or whatever) just to say I did, or not reading a bestseller because it’s beneath me. I read for pleasure and to (hopefully) broaden my thinking and feeling. If Infinite Jest (or whatever) promises to do that, I’m on board.

That in mind, where should I start with Gene Wolfe’s oeuvre? Even if nothing of his ticks all these boxes, please suggest me something that gets close to even some of these criteria. Novels preferred, specific collections welcome. I'd appreciate rationales for why it's a good read without veering into spoiler territory.

posted by xenization to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I’d start with his short stories, in particular Endangered Species.

Undoubtedly his masterwork is The Book Of The New Sun, but it helps to have some trust in an author before you tackle something that big.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:27 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Well, definitely do NOT start with New Sun. My main takeaway from it was "yes, you're very clever. Now tell a story." I understand this is borderline heresy in some circles, but that's my take.

I have HEARD people suggest Peace (a shorter novel) as a starting point.
posted by uberchet at 8:33 AM on April 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

Wolfe may not be for you, since his strengths don't line up that well with your preferences (except for "well-wrought prose"), but the work that fits your criteria best (among those that I know) is The Book of the Long Sun. The Book of the New Sun is of course his masterpiece, as you probably know, but the protagonist is hard to care about and the plot is quite leisurely. The Book of the Long Sun is much "better" on both accounts.
posted by dfan at 8:39 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

(I should point out that The Book of the Long Sun comprises four shortish novels, currently in print as two omnibuses, so it's a bit of an investment. But I still think that it meets your criteria the best.)
posted by dfan at 8:42 AM on April 14, 2020

I started cold with the Book of the New Sun. Was a kid, and fascinated eagerly anticipating each new books release.

It's a good place to start.
posted by Max Power at 8:55 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 'The Fifth Head of Cerberus' is a good place to start.

'Forlesen' is my favourite, but maybe not representative.
posted by ovvl at 9:43 AM on April 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Nthing Fifth Head of Cerberus. I reread it recently and I think it might be my favourite. But yeah based on your criteria I'm not sure you'll connect with Gene Wolfe. His style is more about ideas then about characters or narrative momentum. And I agree with the above about the Book of the Long Sun series - it is closer in line with your interests. Are you familiar with the essay on Wolfe by Neil Gaiman? He's right about Wolfe. He's worth the effort I think but I can understand people bouncing off of him.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:56 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’m going to differ and suggest Soldier of the Mist. It’s the journal of a soldier in ancient a Greece who has a memory-effecting brain injury. Despite its unusual style I found it easier to get a handle on than his other books.
posted by bq at 10:18 AM on April 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Given your criteria I would say Long Sun - it has a sympathetic protagonist, a colourful and fast-moving plot, and for Wolfe I would say it's fairly easy to read as a story. There is a hard SF backstory lurking in there, but the characters drive the plot, not the technology.
The short stories are also a good place to start.
posted by crocomancer at 10:30 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I like very similar things to you in books and I suggested "book of the new sun" in the metatalk Worst Books thread as the most disappointing read. So not those. I finished the first two and bounced so hard because the main character might as well have been cardboard.
posted by stillnocturnal at 10:39 AM on April 14, 2020

Best answer: I'd also say start with some of the books of short stories, many of which are very good.
posted by pipeski at 10:47 AM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Nthing the advice to start with his short stories. It will give you a good sense of whether you like him without making a bigger commitment. But allow me to gush: Gene Wolfe was a master of the short story. I'm partial to the Strange Travelers collection, but you also can't go wrong with Storeys From the Old Hotel or Endangered Species.

Now then. Let's say you like his stories and you want more. You say you like fairy tales, myths and magical realism. Try Soldier of the Mist. Read the other two books in that series if you dig the character. And then I would say go for The Book of the New Sun. At that point, you will either be a convert or it will break you. Have fun!
posted by Shoggoth at 11:25 AM on April 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Strong second everyone suggesting start with the short stories - I personally got interested in Wolfe via The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories.
posted by soundguy99 at 11:45 AM on April 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

He seems to absolutely excell at both ends of the spectrum - his short stories/novellas and his multi-volume epics. His weaker stuff seems to be his regular novels. So 25 pages or 2500 pages, not 250 pages.
posted by rtimmel at 11:58 AM on April 14, 2020

Best answer: Soldier of the Mist and its two sequels, definitely. I've read them three times. I also like the Wizard Knight books. Shadow of the Torturer is good.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:16 PM on April 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

The #1 requirement for enjoying Gene Wolfe is a willingness to enjoy something that you don't completely understand. If that's not how you like to read, then all of his great works (including his wonderful short fiction) are going to annoy the heck out of you. Gene Wolfe is on the record saying that what he likes most is books that yield new appreciation with each reading, so if you read his work looking for the satisfying moment where you "get it" and solve his puzzle, you'll hate it.

This is also why everyone in this thread is so fanatical about him, though. If you DO enjoy the book the first time you read it, you'll find something new to like about it the second time. And the third time, and so on, and then you're one of the nutters like us who's read Book of the New Sun five times, twice with a companion codex.

The short stories are legitimately great, so that's a good place to start. I agree with ovvl: "Forlesen" is a great story, and a good example of Gene Wolfe doing his thing that isn't a huge commitment. I also started with _Fifth Head of Cerberus_, but I've had friends who bounced off that one.
posted by billjings at 2:49 PM on April 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Start with Soldier of the Mist, it's quite "straightforward" and Latro is a sympathetic protagonist, but still very Wolfey with lots of mysterious hidden depths.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 3:35 PM on April 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

You might want to delve into the Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast. It's two chaps having rambling conversations about Wolfe's stories and other peripherally-related things. They're up to 95 episodes now and have reached about 1980, so they're just coming up to The Shadow of the Torturer. Their insights aren't always that profound, but they seem to have a good feel for what Wolfe was trying to do in his writing.
posted by pipeski at 5:55 AM on April 15, 2020

Best answer: I think that either Fifth Head of Cerberus or Peace would serve as a good introduction, since they give you a sense of the kinds of tricks he plays.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:49 AM on April 15, 2020

Pipeski's comment reminds me there's also the Alzabo Soup podcast too. Similar setup, they've already gone through New Sun - I've listened to some of it and found it interesting, mainly I think because it forced me to slow down and pay more attention. I mainly mention it because they did a good episode about Forlesen which is one of the stories a couple of folks have mentioned.
posted by crocomancer at 8:08 AM on April 15, 2020

I'd start with The Knight or Pirate Freedom, which are reasonably self-contained fantasy novels with a lot of historical depth.

Wolfe as a writer is very interested in exploring a virgin/whore dichotomy. I personally found this a lot easier to take in the novels mentioned above, where he's riffing on expectations created by historical literature, than in the New Sun and Long Sun books.
posted by yarntheory at 8:17 AM on April 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

And the third time, and so on, and then you're one of the nutters like us who's read Book of the New Sun five times, twice with a companion codex.

Companion codexes are cheating*, and I'm a lot beyond five -- Shadow Of The Torturer came out in 1980 after all -- but one development I've really enjoyed is having the books on an e-reader so I can quickly look up words. Someone needs to make a Book Of The New Sun crossword puzzle so we can all show off our new vocabularies.

Another thing that can be difficult for some people is Wolfe's use of the unreliable narrator. As he said in an interview:
"It's the other thing—the matter of fact assumption found in most fiction that the author and characters perceive everything around them clearly and objectively—that is unreal."
It's something that makes for great re-readability for me. My changing understanding of the narrator has a great effect on my experience of the story.

*Okay fine they're not cheating. They are not to my taste.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:23 PM on April 15, 2020

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