Happy 80th Birthday Gene Wolfe

This is how I met Gene Wolfe the actual person:

My very first science fiction novel, Reclamation, had just come out.  To help promote and celebrate this (to me) monumental event, I went to Confluence, a Pittsburgh area science fiction convention.  There, I got to participate in a book signing for the first time.  A set of signings was to run throughout the convention, and they set up their authors alphabetically, so there I was, Zettel sitting at the same table at the same time as Wolfe.

I was awestruck.  And tongue-tied.  By that time, I’d known Gene Wolfe the writer for years, and Gene Wolfe the writer was really, really good.  Stunningly, astoundingly, frighteningly good.  I mostly knew his short fiction at that time, because I’d grown up reading his stuff in the anthologies that populated my SF-loving father’s bookshelves.  Gene’s work stood out in a fundamental way from a lot of the fifties and sixties SF that surrounded it in those anthologies.  Like Bradbury and Le Guin, Gene Wolfe had a lively facility with language.  He could play with it and have fun with it and make it do tricks for him, but mostly he painted with it.  His word paintings were created in deep, lush, disturbing colors and produced ideas that I didn’t always understand at first glance.  But they felt real, and sound at a fundamental level.

His stories also always focused on the human.  Oh, he created fully realized worlds, and when he writing SF, the tech was sound and the ideas followed through, but the focus was (and is) always the people within those worlds — complex, vulnerable, faithful, fallable, strange, unpleasant, brave, deeply, intensely human individuals trying to make it through their day, even while that day is shifting and twisting all around them.  By the time I met him in Pittsburgh, he’d been leading characters and readers through his beautiful, powerful, somewhat perplexing worlds for decades.

And there I was sitting next to him.  I’d managed to shake hands all right, but was totally tongue-tied after that.  Thing was, I had a bunch of friends at the convention and they kept coming over to say hi, and at last to make lunch plans, and…I don’t know what made me do it.  Maybe in-born Midwest politeness, I turned around and said.  “Would you like to join us?”

He would, and he did.  Walked right out to lunch with a group he’d never met before.  And this was where I found out this very big man with a very big moustace and a walking stick, was also a delight.  He had an easy-going manner, a fantastic sense of humor (if you haven’t read his “A Walking Tour of the Shambles” which he wrote with Neil Gaiman, you really should), and was an old-school gentleman in the best sense of the term.

Today, he turns 80.  A very happy birthday, Gene.

Now Available from Sarah Zettel and Book View Cafe:

The Paths to Camelot Omnibus

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Happy 80th Birthday Gene Wolfe — 1 Comment

  1. A Gene Wolfe anecdote:
    As folks possibly know, in his day job Gene did research on refrigeration. Because the machinery to do this is fairly large and heavy, they put his project in the basement and gave him an assistant. He wore a white lab coat at work, but because of the condensation generated by the refrigeration apparatus his assistant shed shirt and pants and worked in shorts.
    One day a group of VIPs came to tour the facility. As they passed through the basement Gene and his lab tech were going out. A cloud of white condensation filled the air, through which a bald scientist in his lab coat could be discerned, flanked by a hunched, nearly naked figure. Without missing a beat Gene declaimed,”No, Igor! There are people here!” They turned and retreated into the lab, closing the door behind them. One wonders if the VIPs ever recovered.