(urth) May 2014 Wolfe interview in _Technology Review_

Antonin Scriabin kierkegaurdian at gmail.com
Sun Jul 27 18:58:08 PDT 2014

Awesome, thanks!
On Jul 27, 2014 9:57 PM, "Gwern Branwen" <gwern at gwern.net> wrote:

> TR has published a lengthy interview with Gene Wolfe. It asks plenty
> of standard questions, but also some interesting ones about some of
> the short stories which have come up recently, particularly "Tracking
> Song" and "The Hero as Werwolf".
> http://www.technologyreview.com/news/529431/a-qa-with-gene-wolfe/ "A
> Q&A with Gene Wolfe; A Twelve Tomorrows exclusive: Science fiction
> legend Gene Wolfe looks back on his career", Jason Pontin, 25 July
> 2014
> > ...when Wolfe dropped out of college, he was drafted into the Army, and
> fought in Korea as a combat engineer. He returned home, by his own account,
> “a mess”: “I’d hit the floor at the slightest noise.” Rosemary, whom he met
> again shortly after he was discharged, he says simply, “saved me.”
> >
> > ...I met Gene Wolfe at home in Peoria, where he returned in 2013 after
> many years in Barrington, Illinois. Although he had recently published a
> new novel, _The Land Across_, and was working on another, it was a
> melancholy visit. He had moved because his wife, suffering from Alzheimer’s
> disease, wanted to go home. But not long after their return, she entered an
> assisted-living facility, and she died on December 14. Wolfe had been ill
> himself, his eyesight and heart troubled, and for a time he had also been
> confined to a facility. The day before I arrived, workers had found his
> dog, who had been missing for weeks: the animal had been hit by a car, and
> had crawled behind a garden bush to die. The house was nearly empty except
> for the author’s own books, some family photographs (including one of an
> implausibly young Wolfe in uniform), a little furniture, and a makeshift
> shrine, with a statue of the Virgin, rosary beads, and a Bible, in front of
> a window overlooking the back lawn.
> >
> > In person, Wolfe is large, kindly, and unfailingly courteous. His hands
> are huge and spatulate. He sports an exuberant hussar’s moustache. He
> speaks carefully, in a higher register than the voice of the books might
> suggest. We talked the day after his 83rd birthday. [8 May 2014]
> >
> > ...Q: What struck you about G.K. Chesterton?
> >
> > A: His charm; his willingness to follow an argument wherever it led.
> >
> > Q. What of the founders of science fiction?
> >
> > A. When I was a boy, I read all the pulp magazines, which were still
> around in those days. You’ve no doubt seen collector editions, but in those
> days you could buy a pulp for 10 or 15 cents. One of my favorites was
> _Famous Fantastic Mysteries_, which reprinted good stuff from the turn of
> the century. Once, they did Wells’s _The Island of Dr. Moreau_ [1896] as an
> entire issue. And I read it, and I absolutely loved it, and when I had read
> the last page I went back to the first page, and I started again. And when
> I started my fourth reading I thought, “Well, I know everything that’s
> going to happen now and I’ll just put it aside for a while until I’ve kind
> of forgotten it, and then I’ll read it again.” And I never looked at it
> again until I was about 50. And when I was that age, somebody wrote to me
> and said he was putting together one of those books that honor the hundred
> best science fiction novels. It would have essays from writers like me, and
> this person wanted me to do _The Island of Dr. Moreau_. I thought, “Gee, I
> remember that fondly. I will take him up on that. But first, obviously, I
> have to get a copy of it and read it, since I haven’t read it since I was a
> kid.” And I did …
> >
> > Wonderful cover on that book, by the way—wonderful! The man was
> bare-chested—not quite muscular enough to be a hero, but muscular and
> good-looking—and behind him is this enormous, shaggy monster. And the
> monster has one hand on the man’s shoulder. In a most buddy-looking sort of
> way, you know. [Chuckles merrily.] I thought that was a lovely cover; I
> still do …
> >
> > Anyhow, I read the book and immediately saw there were things in there
> that had completely sailed over me that were now hitting me like a brick.
> The book starts when the narrator gets on a ship from some city in South
> America. On the third day out, they ram a derelict and their ship sinks. He
> spends three days in a lifeboat with two men, a fellow passenger and a
> sailor, and he mentions, just in passing, that he never learned the name of
> the sailor in the boat with him. And another thing: the sailor and the
> passenger fall overboard in a struggle, and the narrator is picked up by a
> boat carrying Dr. Moreau’s doctor, who gives him “a dose of some scarlet
> stuff, iced. It tasted like blood, and made me feel stronger.” That one,
> too, just whizzed by me. All this stuff, and I was too dumb to appreciate
> it as a boy!
> >
> > ...Q. I know you thought Algis Budrys a tremendous writer.
> >
> > A. A.J. was a friend. I admired _Who_ [1958] enormously. The plot of
> _Rogue Moon_ [1960] is striking: Budrys tells us that if you destroyed a
> man here and reconstituted him somewhere else, you’re fooling yourself if
> you think that the reconstituted man is the same as the original man. The
> man who goes into the matter transmitter is going to go dark; he’s going to
> die. You can create a new man with the memories of the dead man; but that
> doesn’t mean that the dead man is still alive. The dead man is dead.
> >
> > ...Q. Do you stay up with contemporary science fiction?
> >
> > A. Oh, I can’t. There’s too much to read, and I’ve had too many eye
> problems recently. I can read for maybe 15 minutes, and then I have to
> stop. At the time I was reading The Island of Dr. Moreau over and over
> again, I could read for eight hours a day, and sometimes I did....
> >
> > ...Q. Your father was lucky to have such a job during the Depression.
> >
> > A. Absolutely. We traveled from place to place, wherever my father could
> find work. But say this: we always had a place to live; we always had food.
> One time I said as much to Ben Bova, and he replied, “Well, we didn’t.” His
> father was a day laborer, and sometimes he just could not get work. And if
> he didn’t, the Bovas did not eat. All of us from that time grew up with the
> feeling that you shouldn’t waste anything: you don’t waste rags, because
> rags can be useful.
> >
> > ...Q. In the Soldier series [1986–2006], which begins shortly after the
> Battle of Plataea, are Latro’s gods real beings in the way that Silk’s gods
> are not? Latro has theophanies—or, at least, he has strange visitations
> that his friends interpret as theophanies.
> >
> > A. I’m assuming that the gods actually exist and are there, although
> from a Christian perspective they should not be worshipped. But on the
> other hand it’s foolish to think that they’re not there, because they are.
> >
> > ...I once met Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who we’re trying to get made a
> saint now. He looked at you and you felt that he knew all about you, that
> he had taken your worth, both positive and negative, and had formed a
> correct opinion about you, and that was it.
> >
> > Q. Did Sheen feel saintly? He was canny by your account; he had an
> intelligent eye.
> >
> > A. Sheen was a very intelligent man. He was smaller than I had expected.
> I suppose he was about five-five, five-six, or something like that.
> >
> > ...Q. But did Sheen feel saintly? Did he have a quality of holiness?
> >
> > A. He had a quality of something really quite extraordinary. I was at a
> party once for locally important politicians—a former governor of Illinois,
> for example. And Sheen came through as somebody who was actually on a
> higher level. A hundred years from now, he was the only one at the party
> who would still be important. The rest of us were lost.
> >
> > ...Q. How did you write when you had a day job and a young family? And
> how did that change when writing became your full-time job?
> >
> > A. I would write for about an hour before work on workdays, and then I
> would write on Saturdays and Sundays. That left my afternoons and evenings
> free to play with my kids or read to them. And then in those days—and
> believe me, I no longer do this—anytime I woke up after 4:00 a.m., I stayed
> up and I wrote. I stopped writing when Rosemary called down to me that
> breakfast was ready. When I left off editing, I increased the time I spent
> writing by a factor of three.
> >
> > ...Q. Your writing changed when you became a professional writer. When
> you stole time to write, your prose style was denser and more literary.
> _Peace_ and _The Fifth Head of Cerberus_ are very worked-over books, with
> echoes of Proust and other writers you admired. Since you became a
> full-time writer, your prose has become looser: the paragraphs are shorter,
> you rely more on dialogue, and the entire tone is less poetic.
> >
> > A. It’s not that, really. It’s that I’ve gotten so much criticism for
> being unreadable and overcomplex and hard to get into and all this stuff.
> And I thought, “Well, I’ll loosen up.”
> >
> > Q. I find that hard to bear. While I admire many of the books after _The
> Book of the New Sun_, your early and middle prose style is very original.
> Nabokov would have recognized you as a being like himself. Yet this feeling
> that “Wolfe is too difficult” is not uncommon. When I asked the MIT Science
> Fiction Society what I should ask you, they wrote, “How should a science
> fiction reader who is more accustomed to [Larry] Niven, [Orson Scott] Card,
> or [David] Brin start reading Wolfe?”
> >
> > A. I think it’s probably _The Sorcerer’s House_. It’s an epistolary
> novel, and that seems to help people along. So long as they don’t get
> bothered by the fact that the style changes from one letter writer to
> another.
> >
> > A. See? You’re incapable of being simple.
> >
> > ...Q. Sometimes those challenges can seem eccentrically difficult. In
> the _Soldier_ series you created a narrator who forgets everything at the
> end of every day.
> >
> > A. Yes, I came across an article about a brain injury that is perfectly
> real [anterograde amnesia]. People have short-term memory and long-term
> memory. One of the things you do in your sleep is transfer certain
> short-term memories into long-term memory. Unconsciously, you decide what’s
> really important: if it’s not, you forget it; if it is, you put it into
> long-term memory. If you destroy a certain portion of the brain, short-term
> memory is just overwritten. And I thought, that’s very interesting. In
> Severian, I had created a character who forgot nothing. And I thought:
> let’s do one of these guys who forgets everything.
> >
> > ...Q. Alden Dennis Weer, the narrator of _Peace_, is unreliable in this
> particular sense: he’s dead, and doesn’t know it.
> >
> > A. He’s a ghost. Ghosts often don’t realize they’re dead. That’s the
> explanation of much of the behavior of ghosts that we find puzzling.
> >
> > Q. In _The Fifth Head of Cerberus_, does John Marsch understand that
> he’s really V.R.T., a “shadow child,” one of the aboriginal inhabitants of
> the colony planet, who is aping a man?
> >
> > A. Yes, he does. He knows he’s not a real Earthman, but he’s trying to
> talk himself into believing that he is. That’s what he wants to be.
> >
> > ...Q. You’re very interested in anthropology. In _Peace_, one of the
> suitors of Weer’s Aunt Olivia, a Professor Peacock, is an anthropologist.
> Marsch in _The Fifth Head of Cerberus_ is one, too. "Tracking Song"
> imagines different types of intelligent-speaking hominids alive on the same
> planet at the same time, as Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans
> once coexisted.
> >
> > A. If intelligence is just a matter of evolution, what happens when a
> bunch of species get to a similar point at the same time? We are unhappy to
> find ourselves the only intelligent animals on our planet. It would be so
> interesting if we could find others. We can’t. But suppose we could:
> suppose the lion was intelligent and the deer were also intelligent. It’s
> very hard to imagine. You have to have sympathy with both. The lion cannot
> eat grass no matter how much you would like him to. But the deer do not
> wish to be eaten, and who can blame them for it?
> >
> > Q. In many of your fictions—the short story "La Befana" [1973], for
> instance—you imagine intelligent species coexisting on the same planet, who
> can talk to each other after a fashion but who are fundamentally different.
> >
> > A. Another intelligent species, but fundamentally different: the amazing
> thing would be to get to some foreign planet and discover people already on
> it, and now you’ve got to say, “How in the world did that happen?”
> >
> > Q. There’s a similar, eerie idea at the heart of "The Hero as Werwolf"
> [1975]: you imagine a future where humans have diverged into separate
> species after one population has evolved through biotechnology and another
> remains fixed as modern Homo sapiens.
> >
> > A. Some fool said, “If human beings evolved from apes, how come there
> are still apes?” But I always think about that from the ape’s standpoint.
> So I imagined two human races: some people who’ve evolved into something
> superior, and a few who haven’t. I wondered: well, what would it be like
> for them?
> >
> > Q. For the old-fashioned humans in "The Hero as Werwolf", what it’s like
> is a shamed scuffling around in the shadows, forced to live off the meat of
> Homo superior.
> >
> > A. That’s the hero as werwolf.
> >
> > ...Q. Do you have a favorite amongst your own children? Is it _Peace_?
> Or is your “Book of Gold” _The Book of the New Sun)?
> >
> > A. Oh, it changes. Peace is a favorite, yes. But it floats around and
> around, you know....
> --
> gwern
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