Although Mr. Wolfe never broke into the literary mainstream, he was among the most revered science-fiction writers of his generation, adored by critics and peers such as Neil Gaiman, who once called him “possibly the finest living American writer”; Ursula K. Le Guin, who dubbed him “our Melville”; and George R.R. Martin, who described Mr. Wolfe as “one of the best our genre has ever produced.”
Mr. Wolfe wrote hundreds of essays, poems and short stories, several of them published in Damon Knight’s influential Orbit anthology series. He also wrote more than 30 novels, announcing himself in the opening lines of his second — “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (1972), a book of three interconnected stories — as a writer influenced as much by Proust as by the dime-store tales of Famous Fantastic Mysteries.
“When I was a boy my brother David and I had to go to bed early whether we were sleepy or not,” he wrote. “In summer particularly, bedtime often came before sunset; and because our dormitory was in the east wing of the house, with a broad window facing the central courtyard and thus looking west, the hard, pinkish light sometimes streamed in for hours while we lay staring out at my father’s crippled monkey perched on a flaking parapet, or telling stories, one bed to another, with soundless gestures.”
Mr. Wolfe took a circuitous path to a literary career. He had served as a combat engineer during the Korean War, an experience that left him shaken and startled by loud noises upon his return. Much of his work addressed themes of trauma, suffering and redemption, with echoes of Christian theology that reviewers linked to his conversion from Presbyterianism to Catholicism in the mid-1950s, so that he could marry his fiancee in her church.
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For years, he wrote occasional stories in the mornings and on weekends while working as an industrial engineer at Procter & Gamble, where he helped develop the frying process for potato shingles that are used to make Pringles. (In time, he came to bear a striking resemblance to the cartoon figure on Pringles cans, a broad-faced man with a bushy handlebar mustache.)
Mr. Wolfe later served as the senior editor of a trade journal, Plant Engineering, but kept his day job until 1984, just after completing his masterwork, a sweeping four-volume novel titled “The Book of the New Sun.”
Set on the futuristic planet Urth , the novel revolved around an apprentice executioner, Severian, who is exiled after he grants leniency to a prisoner, allowing her to die by suicide in lieu of torture.
Presented as a document from the future, “translated” by a scholar known only as G.W., “Book of the New Sun” featured obscure words like peltast (a type of light infantry) and fuligin (a color that is blacker than black), seemingly plucked from the pages of an unabridged English dictionary.
“Thrilling adventures abound in the four volumes, but Wolfe’s prose always remains serenely, gravely measured, even if its surface smoothness is that of quicksand,” wrote Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. “These books require an attentive reader to be not only suspicious but downright Sherlockian: Observe, remember everything, then deduce, if you can, the unspoken reality.”
In 1998, the readers of Locus magazine voted “Book of the New Sun” the third-greatest fantasy novel published before 1990, following “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” both by J.R.R. Tolkien. Mr. Wolfe went on to write two companion series, “The Book of the Long Sun” (1993-1996) and “The Book of the Short Sun” (1999-2001).
“I tried to put in just about everything I thought important in human life,” Wolfe told The Post in 1983, describing the original novel’s origins. “You know the story about Leo Tolstoy the night after he sent the manuscript of ‘War and Peace’ to his publisher? He is supposed to have sat up in bed, slapped himself on the forehead and said: ‘My God, I forgot the yacht race.’
“I don’t have a yacht race in ‘The Book of the New Sun,’ ” he continued, “but I tried to talk about children, war, love and death, God, heaven and hell and all these things that are really pivotal to the human condition. I would like to have put in a lot more that I couldn’t manage. Music for instance.”
Gene Rodman Wolfe was born in Brooklyn on May 5, 1931, according to an obituary placed by his family. (Most biographical sources say he was born two days later.) His father was a traveling salesman, and the family moved frequently before settling in Houston, where his parents ran a diner.
Mr. Wolfe studied at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University) and served in Korea after dropping out of school. He was “a mess” when he returned from war, he told the MIT Technology Review in 2014, but was “saved” by reconnecting with Rosemary Dietsch, whom he had met at the age of 4 or 5 while living in Peoria.
They married in 1956, and Mr. Wolfe received a bachelor’s degree that same year from the University of Houston. He joined Procter & Gamble soon after graduation.
Mr. Wolfe’s other works include the novel “Peace” (1975), a fictional memoir with elements of a ghost story, and his three-part “Soldier” series (1986-2006), about a Roman warrior whose memory is wiped clean each time he sleeps, forcing him to chronicle the day’s events on a scroll he reads in the morning.
He received a host of literary honors, including two Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. In 2012, the group named him a grand master, a lifetime achievement award considered one of the genre’s highest honors.
Mr. Wolfe’s wife died in 2013, and he is also predeceased by a son. Survivors include three children and three granddaughters.
Like many of his colleagues, Mr. Wolfe pushed back against critics who viewed works of science-fiction and fantasy as lesser literature — the stuff of pulp mags and paperback-book shelves, unworthy of serious attention.
“The books and stories I write are what are usually called escapist, in the pejorative sense,” he once said, according to the reference work Contemporary Authors. “I have never understood what was wrong with escape . . . My work is intended to make life — however briefly — more tolerable for my readers, and to give them the feeling that change is possible, that the world need not always be as it is now, that their circumstances may be radically changed at any time, by their own act or God’s.”
Correction: An earlier version of this obituary misspelled the given name of one of Mr. Wolfe’s admirers. He is Neil Gaiman, not Neal Gaiman. The story has been revised.
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