Born in New York City in 1931, Wolfe survived polio as a child and attended Texas A&M University, where he began publishing speculative fiction in the university magazine in 1951. He was drafted to fight in the Korean War, returning home to become an industrial engineer.
His first full-length science fiction novel was Operation Ares in 1970. Wolfe had developed the concept (of a totalitarian, Luddite government being resisted) for a short story, but famed editor Damon Knight had felt the concept was under-explored in the medium and suggested Wolfe expand it to a novel. The resulting book was far too long and had to be heavily edited; Wolfe later stated that he felt the book wasn't very good, due to both it's difficult gestation period and also his own skills weren't quite up to the task.
"...we don't have to keep on doing what we've been doing. We can do something else if we don't like what we're gettin'. I think a lot of the purpose of fiction ought to be to tell people that."His second book was The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), although this was actually a collection of three novellas combined together. Famed SF editor Gardner Dozois later declared the titular story "the best science fiction short story of the 1970s." It put Wolfe on the map and led to an increasing fanbase for his work, which was dense, literate and intelligent, with a focus on unreliable narrators and multiple interpretations of the text. Peace (1975) continued in this vein and Neil Gaiman later declared it one of his favourite Wolfe books, mostly for wrong-footing him so completely he didn't even know what genre the book was in until his second reading. The Devil in the Forest (1976), a short novel, was also well-received.
These books had been promising and interesting, but in no way did they ready the literary SF world for what came next. Wolfe spent the end of the 1970s writing an enormous novel that melded science fiction, fantasy and literary fiction. Published in four volumes between 1980 and 1983 (due to publisher concerns over the length), The Book of the New Sun was immediately and lavishly acclaimed on release, and in the near-forty years since publication its cachet has only increased. It was once described by The Guaridan as "science fiction's Ulysses," but Wolfe was clever enough to make his work considerably more approachable than Joyce's daunting magnus opus.
"We think that we know a man or a woman, when so much of what we know is actually that man's or that woman's situation, his or her place on the board of life. Move the pawn to the last row and see her rise in armor, sword in hand."The book is set in the far future, when the world has seen multiple civilisations rise and fall and technology and magic have been indistinguishable. It tells the story of Severian, an apprentice torturer in the city of Nessus. When Severian falls in love with a prisoner and helps her, he expects to be executed. Instead, he is exiled to the distant city Thrax, which is in need of a new executioner. Carrying the sword Terminus Est, Severian embarks on a long journey, during which he makes fundamental discoveries about the world and his place in it. The book has been acclaimed for taking many of the tropes of epic fantasy (the magic sword, the quest, the chosen hero) and instead using them to tell a far more subtle and complex story about human nature and unreliable narrators.
The individual volumes of the book won World Fantasy, British Fantasy and Locus Fantasy awards along with a Nebula, although they missed out on a Hugo. Wolfe returned to the setting for a sequel novel, The Urth of the New Sun (1987), and then additional series set in the same universe: The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96, four volumes) and The Book of the Short Sun (1999-2001, three volumes). He referred to the entire twelve-book series as The Solar Cycle.
"It seems to me that you can almost define civilization by saying it's people who are not willing to hurt other people because the other people are different."Wolfe's other work has also been highly acclaimed, particularly the Soldier or Latro series (starting with Soldier of the Mist) and the Wizard-Knight duology. Wolfe's last-published novel was A Borrowed Man (2015).
Wolfe's work was restless, imaginative, refusing to be pinned down or minimised. His books were densely written and could be slow, but he always made sure they were understandable to casual readers and had firm concepts that he slowly interrogated and re-interrogated throughout his books. A devout Catholic, he seemed wary of messianic figures who promised to have all the answers and The Book of the New Sun can be seen as much of a deconstructionist riff on that central premise as Frank Herbert's Dune. He was also a huge fan of Tolkien (his essay "The Best Introduction to the Mountains" can be read as an eloquent dismissal of Michael Moorcock's "Epic Pooh"), and his ability to build a believable, vivid world (albeit in a much shorter span of time) seems to have been inspired by Tolkien. He also had a strong love of language, and of the things that language could do. He was influenced in this regard by Jack Vance, another of his favourite authors; Vance's Dying Earth series itself appears in The Book of the New Sun as the enigmatic Book of Gold (at least in Wolfe's eye; he later said that the book could be whatever volume the reader wanted it to be).
"The same authorities who insist upon beginnings, middles, and ends, declare that Great Literature (by which they mean the stories they have been taught to admire) is about love and death, while mere popular fiction like this is about sex and violence. One reader's sex, alas, is another's love; and one's violence, another's death."Gene Wolfe has been called "science fiction's James Joyce" and "fantasy's Herman Melville". He wasn't either of these things, he was very much Gene Wolfe: inventive, unsettling and rewarding. He wrote fiction that inspired the soul and the mind. The genre will miss him tremendously.