The Catholic Culture Podcast: Ep. 77 – Gene Wolfe, Catholic Sci-FI Legend

Jun 12, 2020

After much popular demand, Thomas pays tribute to legendary
Catholic sci-fi writer Gene Wolfe, who passed away last year.
Though not known to the general public, Wolfe is a sci-fi author’s
sci-fi author—a number of his contemporaries considered him not
only the best in the genre, but in American fiction at the time
(Ursula Le Guin said “Wolfe is our Melville”). Among today’s
writers, one of his biggest fans is Neil Gaiman.

One critic described Wolfe’s magnum opus, The Book of the
New Sun
, as “a Star Wars–style space
opera penned by G. K. Chesterton in the throes of a
religious conversion.”

Wolfe also held the patent on the machine that makes Pringles.
That’s his face on the can.

In this episode, Fr. Brendon Laroche comments on Wolfe’s works,
while Wolfe’s friend, Catholic historian and sci-fi expert Sandra
Miesel, shares personal reminiscences.

Contents

[2:48] Why Fr. Brendon likes Gene Wolfe

[4:14] Cryptic yet entertaining, evocations of memory,
comparisons to Bradbury and Chesterton

[13:23] Wolfe’s status in the world of sci-fi and speculative
fiction

[16:50] Sci-fi treatments of medieval characters, discussion of
“Under Hill”

[22:57] The nature and possibilities of “genre” fiction

[32:03] Sandra Miesel’s involvement in the sci-fi world,
friendship with Gene Wolfe

[35:21] Wolfe’s unique and strange mind, wide reading and
vocabulary, writing Sandra into his magnum opus

[38:01] Wolfe’s conversion to Catholicism and devotion to his
wife, Catholics in the sci-fi world

[40:04] Wolfe’s magnum opus as Augustinian confession; the
spiritual function of fantasy

[46:00] Premise and themes of The Book of the New
Sun

[52:26] Sacramentality and treatment of symbols [spoilers
here]

[1:02:38] Sandra’s work as a master costumer, its influence on
Wolfe’s invention of Severian

[1:06:11] Sandra on Catholicism in Wolfe’s writings, his
esotericism

[1:10:05] Wolfe’s subtle allusions and puzzles

[1:20:44] Wolfe’s treatment of sexuality; torture and illicit
pleasure as two sides of the same coin

[1:27:58] Opening paragraph of “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”

[1:30:52] Colorful anecdotes about Wolfe and other sci-fi
legends; reflections on how the scene has changed

Links

Recommended starting point: The Best of Gene Wolfe

https://www.amazon.com/Best-Gene-Wolfe-Definitive-Retrospective/dp/076532136X

The Book of the New Sun in two volumes:

Read the short story “Under Hill” http://www.infinitematrix.net/stories/shorts/under_hill.html

 

Wolfe’s essay on Tolkien, “The Best Introduction to the
Mountains”
http://www.scifiwright.com/2011/05/gene-wolfe-on-jrr-tolkien-the-best-introduction-to-the-mountains/

Tolkien’s letter to Gene Wolfe
http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Letter_to_Gene_Wolfe#:~:text=On%207%20November%201966%2C%20J.R.R.,the%20footnote%20is%20in%20script.

Interview with Wolfe dealing with his Catholicism https://www.gwern.net/docs/fiction/1992-jordan.pdf

Sandra Miesel’s “A Conversation with Catholic SF Writers”

https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2009/08/10/a-conversation-with-catholic-sf-writers/

Two different (non-Catholic) podcasts which are quite helpful in
exploring Wolfe’s many and varied works: The Gene Wolfe Literary
Podcast (https://www.claytemplemedia.com/the-gene-wolfe-literary-podcast)
and Alzabo Soup (https://alzabosoup.libsyn.com/).

 

Follow-up comments from Sandra Miesel: “A recent book to learn
how the field operated in the Good Old Days is ASTOUNDING by Alec
Nevla Lee.

My novel was DREAMRIDER, later expanded as SHAMAN published by
Baen Books in paperback (1989). I co-edited with Paul Kerry an
academic book, LIGHT BEYOND ALL SHADOW on religion in JRR Tolkien’s
works. I co-edited with David Drake two anthologies about sf
writers influenced by Kipling, HEADS TO THE STORM and A SEPARATE
STAR. I edited or packaged books by Poul Anderson, Gordon R.
Dickson, and Andre Norton.

And how did I forget to mention my most successful publication,
THE DA VINCI HOAX coauthored with Carl Olson?”

 

Some other novels mentioned:

By Gene Wolfe: Latro (series), The Urth of the New
Sun
, The Book of the Long Sun (series)

Poul Anderson, The High Crusade

James Blish, A Case of Conscience

Frank Herbert, Dune

This podcast is a production of CatholicCulture.org. If you like
the show, please consider supporting us! http://catholicculture.org/donate/audio