This is the story about how Gene Wolfe saved my life. The summer before eighth grade, a summer that is now almost twenty years past, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. What followed was a long chemotherapy protocol that involved lots of complications and secondary infections, spinal taps, blood transfusions, and extended hospital stays. Not the way you plan to spend a good portion of junior high school.
In the midst of this I retreated ever more into books, primarily fantasy and science fiction. I had always been a big reader, but being sick gave me an additional excuse to lose myself in secondary worlds. I was particularly fond of long, multi-volume epics like Shannara and the Wheel of Time. Eventually I heard (maybe through the Science Fiction Book Club?) of this author called Gene Wolfe who also had a few multi-volume epics. I asked my mom if she could go to Borders and try to find some of his stuff.
At that particular time, the only books she could find were the two pocket Tor paperbacks of Calde of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. So I was dropped directly into the middle of the Whorl, with Silk captured and Auk stumbling around in midnight tunnels beneath the city. It didn’t matter. I was instantly enthralled. There was something about the characters themselves: Quetzal, Inca, Auk, Chenille, and of course especially Silk. Suddenly every other fantasy novel I was reading seemed childish.
The character of Silk and his relationship with the Outsider resonated with a Christian pre-teen who felt very much on the outside of everything at the moment. I moved directly from the second half of the Long Sun to the omnibus edition of the New Sun (the SFBC edition that had all four volumes in one) and read it through twice in a row. I hadn’t experienced literature like this before, and I was reading Severian’s meandering travels in the midst of some pretty heavy medication. I remember reading chapters and then going back when my mind was clearer and wondering how much I missed or how much I was simply too ill to have captured entirely. I started keeping a notebook— my first— of words, clues, and gorgeous phrases I wanted to capture.
When the first two volumes of the Long Sun were released as a combined trade paperback, I was thrilled. I think they were the first book I ever ordered online, and I don’t know if I’ve ever waited to read a novel with such anticipation. And then there was the Christmas where Gene started it all over again, and I received On Blue’s Waters as a gift. I forced myself to read it slowly, bit by bit, buying time before the rest of the Whorl books were released.
I don’t know if these books literally kept me alive during my encounter with leukemia (and subsequent secondary malignancy of Hodgkin’s lymphoma). But I know they were very bright spots in an otherwise very dark time.
And then I discovered Wolfe’s short fiction, and I realized what I wanted to do with my life. Sure, I’d still need to get a career and do something that would earn a living, but I realized the thing I’d measure myself by. I had always wanted to be a writer, but Wolfe’s stories brought this into focus. They showed me what it meant to tell a story that had beauty and depth. They gave me something to emulate and something for which to aim.
I started writing.
I haven’t really stopped. The cancers went into remission, and I finished high school and left for college. The writing endured, always being worked on in the margins of my time as much as possible. College became graduate school, and the writing intensified. I began a correspondence with Gene and what had been imitation and emulation became to a certain (small) extent a mentored process. Finally, after graduate school (round one), the constant stream of rejections turned into a few acceptances. Then a few more.
Now, with almost twenty short stories published and one novel I’m still a very, very long way from the output or the quality of the Wolfean corpus. And whether I achieve anything like his depth and his beauty remains to be seen, though I no longer attempt to emulate him quite as sharply as I used to. So it was rewarding to read a review of my first collection of short stories that said things like this:
“There’s a richness of the imagination here, a calmly-measured pace, a solidity. . . . There’s a vivid quality to his writing, and an underlying ability to evoke wonderment at the worlds or tableaux pictured within these pages. There are echoes, too, of a Golden-Age- anything-is-possible kind of sensibility to many of these stories. . . . Case has produced a collection in which almost every story reads like a fable, the moral of which is a secret the reader may hope to discover before the end. There’s an easy acceptance of the fantastical, a hint of the impossible.”
And then of my novel: “The world-building in First Fleet is truly top-notch . . . rich and complex. ”
So I owe Gene’s writings a lot, almost as much as I owe Gene for writing them. I’ve come a long way from a hospital bed and meeting Patera Silk for the first time. But I’m still writing, still trying to infuse wonder and awe into what I do.