For a frequently maligned literary genre, science fiction has nurtured more than its fair share of major, generally acknowledged creative talents. Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, Christopher Priest, John Crowley: This is only a background sampling. In the last two decades, the flow has, if anything, accelerated: William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Kim Stanley Robinson, Lucius Shepard, Michael Swanwick and Jonathan Lethem are well established outside sf as well as in; and if Andy Duncan, Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffrey Ford, Kelly Link and others don't join them soon, justice will not have been served.

But doesn't this list omit a crucial individual? More than one, you might say. Still, the missing name that counts the most is Gene Wolfe. If any writer from within genre fiction has ever merited the designation Great Author, it is surely Wolfe. This Texas-trained engineer (he helped design Proctor & Gamble's original Pringle's potato-chip machine), born in 1931, a Korean War veteran, and a full-time writer since 1984, reads like Dickens, Proust, Kipling, Chesterton, Borges and Nabokov rolled into one, and then spiced with all manner of fantastic influences from H.G. Wells to Jack Vance, H.P. Lovecraft to Damon Knight.

His masterful style, alternately baroque and minimalist, is a vehicle for precisely calculated ambiguity, an ambiguity that so faithfully captures the texture of lived experience as to render his sf a sort of transcendent realism. A Roman Catholic whose subtlety recalls Aquinas and whose neoclassicism brilliantly conflates the simplicity of Homer with the labyrinthine complexities of Byzantine theology, Wolfe is comparable to John Fowles as a player of elaborate godgames, a setter of pilgrim protagonists on impossible but radiantly meaningful quests into the mind of God or gods. And so resonantly peculiar is Wolfe's vision -- so oblique to any diurnal norm -- that his settings and plots are unlike any others, a recontextualization of reality such as literature only very occasionally can offer. Any story he tells is made altogether new. And he has told many: Twenty-two novels and several hundred short stories bear his name, all wondrous and enrichingly strange.

But if Wolfe is so important, the Nabokov of speculative fiction, why does he not automatically qualify for that list of sf writers famed, or potentially famed, beyond genre borders? Twenty years ago, when the volumes of his masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun, were first appearing, he seemed on the brink of a breakthrough; indeed, in the 1970s, his extraordinary experimental short fiction was winning him acclaim in some quarters as the best author of his (exceptionally talented) generation. But somehow the praise has dried up, or at least receded; somehow, this trickster genius of fantastic fiction has fallen into critical, and popular, neglect. It is past time to remedy this, while accepting that the nature of Wolfe's oeuvre makes it hard to access.

Running the Maze

The first challenge: Wolfe makes demands of the reader that are at some points exorbitant. He has the instincts of a mystery writer: He erects mazes of practical and symbolic clues, including plentiful red herrings, that require acute detective faculties to decode, and he rarely explains himself at the end. His finest works are his short stories, where a sparseness of explanation is inevitable, and his multivolume novels, where the clues accumulate prodigiously; paths through the maze may sometimes seem lacking or may suspiciously proliferate, leading to a pronounced lack of interpretative closure -- Wolfe's admirers are notoriously at odds as to what his texts mean. By the same token, reading Wolfe is one of the greatest intellectual pleasures contemporary fiction affords.

A second challenge: length. Wolfe's great novels aggregate into a most formidable labyrinth of words, a meta-novel 4,000 pages and 13 volumes long; to ingest the whole takes time, which the 21st century does not afford in abundance. But there are subseries that can be read singly. And the whole, its four main sections resonating together, is a grand masterpiece to be set alongside the best of Crowley, Pynchon and Updike: the entirety of human spiritual, political and colonial experience is its theme, addressed with astonishingly versatile acuity.

Entering the Briah Cycle

The Wolfe meta-novel -- call it the Briah Cycle, after the Kabbalistic term describing the universe where it is set -- has four possible entry points for the reader. Perhaps, echoing the Kabbalah, these portals form an upward progression, a moral or divine evolution toward enlightenment; but Briah starts grimly, and the shadow never lifts too substantially from it.

1) The first portal: Wolfe's second novel, the much-praised The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972). Three novellas unite to tell, with a compelling bleakness unique in sf, of the ultimate darkness of the human heart. St. Croix and St. Anne are sister planets, colonized, like many others, by successive waves of Earth people; on St. Croix, the colonists chiefly victimize each other, while on St. Anne an intelligent indigenous species may have been driven to extinction. But Wolfe writes no ordinary account of colonial oppression; instead, he employs the speculative freedom of sf to describe, level by level, a process of radical deracination, of conquerors and conquered blurring into each other, of soulless societies ceasing to be human even as they flaunt the victory of the species.

In 1972, Fifth Head's first readers were mesmerized by this triptych of identities and paradises lost; the book's effectiveness is probably greater now, as it chimes additionally with postcolonial truths. Fifth Head diagnoses the insanity of amorality Earth may yet export to the wider universe; it is a cruel prologue to punitive and redemptive actions, which begin at the second portal.

2) The second portal: the four-part Book of the New Sun, composed of The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). The Earth that so callously colonized the galaxy has fallen on hard times. Now called Urth, it is depleted of everything, resources, population, technological prowess, manifest destiny; the Sun is dying, victim of some unspecified stellar parasitism. A Judgment is upon Urth, unless it can find a savior. In an ornate first-person narrative of deep eloquence and rich ambiguity, a cathedral of dark dreams, exemplary tales, allegorical adventures and historical allusions, an unlikely figure, the torturer Severian, rises willy-nilly to power as Autarch. He is Christ and Legion at once, ambivalent but aspiring; perhaps he can bring a New Sun to replenish the solar fires, and be a New Son of sorts to the Increate, the God who presides over Briah. "Perhaps" is the word to use; in Wolfe's literary universe, there are no certainties. If a torturer is needed to save the world, the redemption he brings will be as double-edged as his sacramental sword; and so it is, in a remarkable sequel, The Urth of the New Sun (1987). Should any reader be searching for an equal to Umberto Eco, look no further than the Gene Wolfe of the New Sun series.

3) Portal number three: The Book of the Long Sun, a tetralogy composed of Nightside the Long Sun (1993), Lake of the Long Sun (1994), Calde{acute} of the Long Sun (1994) and Exodus From the Long Sun (1996). Here the atmosphere is initially less intense than before; aboard the Whorl, a generation starship dispatched on a mission of colonization by one of Severian's less savory predecessors, life has a sedate pagan rhythm. But as the tale of the insurgent priest Patera Silk unfolds, playful narrative gambits drawn from clerical comedy (Anthony Trollope?) and detective fiction cannot conceal another huge, and hugely successful, creative gamble on Wolfe's part. He is retelling The Book of the New Sun, but in inverse terms: Now a saint (with echoes of the torturer) will, in a third-person account that is also slyly first-person, rescue an artificial world by evacuating it. Resonating opulently with the decline of paganism and the rise of Christianity, a 1,300-page tableau of humanity turning from the wall of Plato's Cave to look with courage into a higher light, Long Sun is copious, devious, luminous, a chorus of artfully contrived voices forsaking one world for another. The tetralogy's plot, massively complicated, is a march to disillusionment and fragmentation, but there are hints of mercy (by God, by author) at the end.

4) At the fourth portal, warning signs: The Book of the Short Sun (On Blue's Waters, 1999, In Green's Jungles, 2000, Return to the Whorl, 2001) is located on twin planets that ominously recall St. Croix and St. Anne, Urth and its satellite, Lune. If the arena is so similar, will the errors be repeated? Colonists departing the Whorl have settled the worlds Blue and Green; on Blue as on St. Croix, they wage fratricidal war, and on Green, as on St. Anne, there are aliens who can usurp the appearance of humanity, putting everything human into fundamental question. Just as Long Sun rewrote New Sun, Short Sun rewrites The Fifth Head of Cerberus. The narrative is once more tripartite, and identities are as fluid. Sadly yet selflessly, Silk, the protagonist of Long Sun, has become someone else, in a conflation of narrator and subject, Self and Other, that is one of the boldest, most sacrificially generous authorial gestures in postwar American letters.

Wolfe weaves intricately together the different strands of his planetary-romance plot, thereby achieving an inclusiveness of texture that, contrasting with the resolute separateness or autonomy of the Fifth Head novellas, has more than a hint of utopian promise. And so: Short Sun is not concerned with facile resolutions, but it is an expansive work, and, amid its pyrotechnics of uncertainty and loss, there is a sense of openness and altruism that is at least a partial antidote to the despair of Fifth Head. But Wolfe is not telling whether the antidote will be administered. He is ambiguous to the last.

In his Briah Cycle, or his saga of three Suns, or whatever one chooses to call it, Gene Wolfe has taken science fiction to its highest artistic pitch, transcending genre, creating a literary monument unlike any other. He is sf's greatest novelist, and overall one of America's finest; he may at times be obscure in his writing, but his public obscurity is wholly undeserved. Modernist or postmodernist, formal allegorist or anatomist of the deepest complexities of the human soul, he is a wonder, yes, a genius, with a crooked lupine smile. *

Nick Gevers, a resident of Cape Town, South Africa, is a columnist for Locus, and has also published critical work in Interzone, Foundation, SF Site and the New York Review of Science Fiction.