Gene Wolfe, a prolific science fiction and fantasy writer whose best works, full of inventive language, mysteries, and subtly conveyed themes, are considered to be among the genre’s finest, died Sunday in Peoria, Ill. He was 87.
His daughter Therese Goulding said the cause was heart disease.
Mr. Wolfe broke through in 1972 with “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” a novella (which he soon expanded to three novellas) whose narrator, an inhabitant of the twin planetary system of St. Croix and St. Anne, tells the story of how he came to kill his father.
His most acclaimed work was the four-novel series “The Book of the New Sun,” published from 1980 to 1983.
“The publication of his brilliant ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’ in 1972 earned him a place among the small band of accomplished stylists in science fiction, along with Samuel R. Delany, Thomas M. Disch, Joanna Russ and one or two others,” Gerald Jonas wrote in The New York Times when the final book of the series, “The Citadel of the Autarch,” appeared. “The completed ‘Book of the New Sun’ establishes his pre-eminence, pure and simple.”
Mr. Wolfe also wrote numerous short stories and published several collections. The most recent of his 30 or so novels were “The Land Across” (2013), an earthbound story about a travel writer who explores an obscure East European country, and “A Borrowed Man” (2015), a futuristic noir.
Mr. Wolfe was much admired by his fellow writers.
“He’s the finest living male American writer of SF and fantasy — possibly the finest living American writer,” Neil Gaiman wrote in 2011 in The Guardian. “Most people haven’t heard of him. And that doesn’t bother Gene in the slightest. He just gets on with writing the next book.”
Gene Rodman Wolfe was born May 5, 1931, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father, Emerson Leroy Wolfe, was a salesman; after the family moved to Houston in about 1937, he and Mr. Wolfe’s mother, Mary Olivia (Ayers) Wolfe, also ran a diner. In the days before readily available air-conditioning, the Texas heat made an impression on young Gene.
“I stood and read in front of an electric fan,” Mr. Wolfe told the MIT Technology Review in 2014. “That’s what we kids did in that hot weather.”
After graduating from Lamar High School in Houston, he enrolled at Texas A&M, where he wrote his first short stories while studying engineering. But his grades were poor and he dropped out; he then was drafted into the Army, serving during the Korean War as a combat engineer. He returned from Korea “a mess,” as he put it.
“I’d hit the floor at the slightest noise,” he later recalled. His marriage to Rosemary Dietsch in 1956 helped him find stability, he said.
After graduating from the University of Houston on the GI Bill he became an engineer at Procter & Gamble, where his accomplishments included developing the machine used to cook the dough for Pringles potato chips. (“I developed it,” he clarified in an interview in the 2007 book “Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing, Writers on Wolfe,” in response to the perception that he had come up with the concept. “I did not invent it. That was done by a German gentleman.”) He started looking for a side income and resumed what he had done at Texas A&M.
“If you have a wife and four children, as I do,” he told The Washington Post in 1983, “you tend to be scraping around for ways to make a bit of additional income.”
In 1965 he finally sold a story, “The Dead Man,” to “one of those skin magazines, a poor man’s Playboy,” as he put it. His fortunes began to improve when science fiction writer and magazine editor Damon Knight began buying his work.
His first novel, “Operation Ares,” appeared in 1970. “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” appeared two years later and was nominated for both a Nebula and a Hugo, the top awards in the genre. (He lost out on the Nebula to Arthur C. Clarke and on the Hugo to Ursula K. Le Guin.)
Despite the acclaim and more novels — “Peace” in 1975, “The Devil in a Forest” in 1976 and “The Shadow of the Torturer” (the first of the “New Sun” series) in 1980 — writing remained a sideline. From 1972 to 1984 Mr. Wolfe was an editor for Plant Engineering, a trade journal.
“We had a staff of 24, and all of us had several jobs,” he said. “It seemed to me that I had more than most. I was the robot editor; I was the screws editor, the glue editor, the welding editor. I was in charge of power transmission belts, and gears, and bearings, and shafts, and all sorts of stuff like that.”
With the success of the “New Sun” series, he became a full-time writer. The series, set in the distant future, involves the journeys of Severian, an apprentice torturer who as the saga begins violates code by showing mercy to a prisoner. He then proceeds to wander the land, encountering giants, cults, and more.
“A wise reader will keep a dictionary nearby, but it won’t always prove useful,” The New Yorker said of the series in a 2015 article about Mr. Wolfe. “Though Wolfe relies merely on the strangeness of English — rather than creating a new language, like Elven or Klingon — he nonetheless dredges up some truly obscure words: cataphract, fuligin, metamynodon, cacogens.”
Mr. Wolfe liked to employ the unreliable-narrator technique, keeping readers guessing about what was true and what wasn’t. His stories could be bleak, but they also had dashes of comedy.
“I have been told often enough that I have a sense of humor that makes strong men faint and women reach for weapons,” he said in the introduction to “Castle of Days,” a 1995 story collection.
He returned to the “New Sun” universe with two later series, but he also kept exploring. “The Wizard Knight,” a two-book series published in 2004, had a medieval-inspired setting. “The Land Across,” his recent book about a travel writer, explored a fictional land that, as Alan Cheuse put it in a review for NPR, “appears to have more affinity with Kafka country than any other.”
Mr. Wolfe won numerous awards, including two Nebulas, and in 2013 he was named a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America grand master, one of the field’s most prestigious titles.