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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Ep. 77—Gene Wolfe, Catholic Sci-Fi Legend—Sandra Miesel, Fr. Brendon Laroche

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 12, 2020 | In The Catholic Culture Podcast

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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:

https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Claw-First-Half-Book/dp/0312890176/

https://www.amazon.com/Sword-Citadel-Second-Half-Book/dp/0312890184/

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. 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

Theme music: “Franciscan Eyes”, written and performed by Thomas Mirus.

Thomas V. Mirus is a pianist living in New York City. He is the director of audio media for CatholicCulture.org and hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast. See full bio.

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