Science Fiction Studies

#46 = Volume 15, Part 3 = November 1988



Larry McCaffery

On Encompassing the Entire Universe: An Interview with Gene Wolfe


Gene Wolfe's earliest stories began appearing in various SF magazines and anthologies, notably Damon Knight's Orbit, in the late 1960s; and a generally undistinguished first novel Operation Ares, came out in 1970. The publication of The Fifth Head of Cerberus in 1972 abruptly signaled an end to Wolfe's literary apprenticeship. Displaying a blend of intellectual and aesthetic sophistication, an eloquent and poetic prose style, and masterful storytelling instincts, Cerberus established Wolfe as an eccentric but important new figure in SF. Its prismatic manner of exposition, its sure control of a variety of imaginative narrative voices and of an intricate web of symbolism and literary allusion, its ingenious reworkings of familiar SF motifs, and its exploration of complex moral, social, and epistemological issues are central features of all Wolfe's subsequent best work.

Today it is clear that Gene Wolfe has already produced a major body of SF, quasi SF, fantasy, and unclassifiable fictions. Displaying an equal facility with novelistic and short story forms, Wolfe's work is remarkably diverse. Particularly noteworthy has been his striking integration of formal innovation and thematic concerns, and his presentation of vividly imagined characters and symbolically charged actions that are placed within landscapes so rigorously drawn and rich in evocative details that they seem to rival reality itself in their diversity and vitality. Thematically Wolfe has developed a series of grandly ambitious themes that include: the nature and origin of the universe and of life's role within cosmic evolution; the meaning of Good and Evil (and of acceptable versus unacceptable behavior) in a morally and epistemologically ambiguous universe (significantly, the main character in Wolfe's four volume masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun is a torturer by profession—a role perfectly suited for examining the moral and psychological ambiguities this work focuses on); the nature of human memory and perception, and how this perception is transformed first into language and eventually into the larger structures of myth, fiction, science, history, and other cultural constructs.

The distinctiveness of his fiction owes something to his formal ingenuity and the intelligence he brings to bear on issues large and small, but it has even more to do with Wolfe's remarkable gifts as a prose stylist. In his best works—Peace (Wolfe's much neglected "mainstream" novel, 1975), The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories (a generous collection of short stories, 1980), and his four volume magnum opus, The Book of the New Sun (comprising The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch, 1980-82)—Wolfe's prose continually charms, amazes, and seduces us with its lyricism, its eccentric lingoes and vocabularies (as often drawn from arcane and ancient sources as from modern science), and its surprising use of metaphor.

This eclecticism of taste is equally evident in the authors who have influenced Wolfe's literary sensibility. Although his unusual methods of organizing his narratives are usually seen as evolving within the context of the experimental fervor of the 1960s New Wave, the effort to situate Wolfe's central formal and thematic concerns with a narrowly defined SF context is fundamentally misleading. Faulkner, Borges, Chesterton, Nabokov, Dickens, Proust, and numerous other non SF authors have all exerted influences on Wolfe's prose mannerisms and approach to issues of form and content; equally significant in the case of Wolfe's conception of New Sun are the examples of other masterworks of symbolic fantasy which similarly aim at presenting a justification of the ways of God to man: Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy," and (probably the work closest to New Sun in terms of its achievement) Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" cycle.

Finally, however, such lists of comparisons and influences are only moderately useful in locating the nature of Wolfe's literary sensibility. Sifting through the details of Wolfe's life and professional career for clues about his work seems to supply little help in this regard because at first glance his life seems so ordinary. Born in Brooklyn in 1931, and raised largely in Houston, Wolfe attended Texas A&M briefly, dropped out and was drafted into the Korean War (where he saw some limited combat duty). After he was discharged from the army, he married, worked until recently as a mechanical engineer in Barrington, Illinois (where he still resides with his wife, Rosemary), and gradually began developing his career in SF. The comments Wolfe makes in the following interview regarding his childhood and family background, his experiences in Korea, and other personal details reveal that the "ordinariness" of his life are somewhat misleading; nevertheless, one certainly cannot account for the sources of Wolfe's highly original artistic vision by a mere recounting of literary or autobiographical influences.

Classifying Wolfe's work with any taxonomical precision is further complicated by the allegorical cast of his imagination and his willingness to intermingle magic and fantasy elements together with scientific principles. Wolfe's sensitivity to the ambiguities and contradictions of human experience (and those of the physical universe, as well) makes it similarly difficult to reduce his thematic preoccupations to simple polarities ("optimistic/pessimistic," "liberal/conservative") or formulas. Like Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Stanislaw Lem, and Gregory Benford, Wolfe frequently plays with and eventually deconstructs SF's stock paradigms in order to question their assumptions. In a certain basic sense Wolfe's works oppose the usual principle guiding most SF in its emphasis on the subjectivity of human perception rather than on the assurances of rational thought and scientific methodology. An even more radical departure from SF norms is Wolfe's suggestion that it is religious faith, science, or any other system,

which provides our most profound insights about our relationship to the universe. This religious orientation—akin to a sort of cosmic mysticism but specifically associated with Catholicism—finds its most complete expression in
New Sun. Undoubtedly there will continue to be readers and critics within and without SF's boundaries who will be bothered or puzzled by many paradoxical features of Wolfe's literary imagination. But if it is true that a great man is one who never reminds us of someone else, then Gene Wolfe has the marks of greatness.

Larry McCaffery: Could you discuss what sorts of things have drawn you towards writing SF? Do you find there are certain formal advantages in writing outside the realm of "mainstream" fiction, maybe a freedom that allows you more room for exploring the issues you wish to develop?

Gene Wolfe: It's not so much a matter of "advantages" as SF appealing to my natural cast of mind, to my literary imagination. The only way I know to write is to write the kind of thing I would like to read myself, and when I do that it usually winds up being classified as SF or "science fantasy," which is what I call most of my work. Incidentally, I'd argue that SF represents literature's real mainstream. What we now normally consider the mainstream—so called realistic fiction—is a small literary genre, fairly recent in origin, which is likely to be relatively short lived. When I look back at the foundations of literature, I see literary figures who, if they were alive today, would probably be members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Homer? He would certain belong to the SFWA. So would Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare. That tradition is literature's mainstream, and it has been what has grown out of that tradition which has been labeled SF or whatever label you want to use.

LM: That's why I began by asking if you weren't attracted to the freedom offered by SF—it's only been since the rise of the novel in the 18th century that writers have more or less tried to limit themselves to describing the ordinary world around them....

Wolfe: It's a matter of whether you're content to focus on everyday events or whether you want to try to encompass the entire universe. If you go back to the literature written in ancient Greece or Rome, or during the Middle Ages and much of the Renaissance, you'll see writers trying to write not just about everything that exists but about everything that could exist. Now as soon as you open yourself to that possibility, you are going to find yourself talking about things like intelligent robots and monsters with Gorgon heads, because it's becoming increasingly obvious that such things could indeed exist. But what fascinates me is that the ancient Greeks already realized these possibilities some 500 years before Christ, when they didn't have the insights into the biological and physical sciences we have today, when there was no such thing as, say, cybernetics. Yet when you read the story of Jason and the Argonauts, you discover that the island of Crete was guarded by a robot. Somehow the Greeks were alert to these possibilities despite the very primitive technology they had—and they put these ideas into their stories. Today it's the SF writers who are exploring these things in our stories.

LM: Did you read a lot of SF as a kid?

Wolfe: Every chance I could. I had a very nice grandmother named Alma Wolfe who used to save me the Sunday comics so that when I visited her there would always be a huge stack of Sunday funnies. I read those with particular attention to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Once when I was a kid in Houston I fell off my bike and hurt my leg badly enough so that my mother had to drive me to school for a while in the family car. On one of those drives she had a paperback book lying in the front seat, and when I looked down at the picture on the cover I saw a picture like the one I had seen in the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comics, with a tremendous chrome tower and a rocket ship being launched. It was a paperback collection of SF stories edited by Don Wollheim, who was about 22 in those days. My mother had brought it to read while she was waiting for me to get out of school (she was a big mystery fan but had bought this as a change of pace). I asked her if I could read this one when she was finished, and she said I could have it right away since she didn't much care for it. The first story I came across was "The Microcosmic God" by Theodore Sturgeon, which was my first real encounter with SF. It was at that point I realized these were not just stories I enjoyed—like those of Edgar Allan Poe, or the Oz books by L. Frank Baum and the books by Ruth Plumly Thompson—but that they constituted a genre. From the Wollheim anthology, which was the very first American SF paperback anthology, I worked backwards and discovered the SF pulps—Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Weird Tales, Famous Fantastic Mysteries (that was my favorite) and Amazing Stories, all of which were still on sale for 20 or 25 cents. As a kid in junior high school, I used to walk six blocks or so up to the Richmond pharmacy, pick up one of those magazines, hide behind the candy case, and read until the pharmacist saw me and threw me out. Since I was usually interrupted in the middle of the story, I'd go away for a few days and then sneak back and take up where I'd left off.

LM: What kind of family atmosphere did you grow up in?

Wolfe: One important thing was that I had a mother who read to me, which is a great blessing I suppose just about everyone who writes has had. My father was a small town boy from southern Ohio who had been fairly adventurous as a young man but who eventually became a regional sales manager in New York City. He was assigned to Belhaven, North Carolina, where my mother had grown up in a family that was right out of a Faulkner novel; during the six months he was there they met, were married, and then he was transferred back to New York. My father was an almost ideal salesman, somebody everybody liked. I've lived here in Barrington, Illinois for 13 years now, but if my father were still alive and came to Barrington, within two weeks he would have more friends than I do. Neither of my parents ever went to college (I suspect my mother never graduated from high school) but they were tremendous readers. And that world of literature was very important to me while I was growing up because I was an introverted kid who spent a lot of time in his imagination. I had to because I was an only child and I was constantly sick. I had infantile paralysis as a small

child (I was so small I don't remember having it) and I was allergic to lots of things, like wheat and chocolate, that aren't good things for a kid to be allergic to.

LM: Did all those stolen hours reading behind the candy case make you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Wolfe: No, I'm afraid it was much more a cold, practical decision. I wrote my first stories while I was at Texas A&M studying engineering. The guy I was assigned as a roommate was connected to the college magazine as an illustrator and he thought it would be nice if I would write some stories that he could do the illustrations for. I wrote three or four forgettable pieces for the magazine, but eventually I dropped out of college (my grades were terrible), went into the Army during the Korean War, and then went back to college on the GI Bill. By 1956 I had married Rosemary, and was working as a mechanical engineer in research and development for Procter and Gamble. We were both making fairly good money but we didn't have any reserves, so as a result we were living in a furnished attic which we didn't much like—it consisted of two rooms, both of which were pointed so you could only stand up in the middle of them. It was then I decided maybe I could write something, as I had in college, and sell it so we could get enough money to buy some furniture, move into a house, and live like real human beings. I tried to write a novel but it was terrible—it never sold and it never will. But I was bitten by the bug. I discovered I liked writing; it had become a hobby; so I kept on writing other stuff until finally in 1965 I sold a little ghost story called "The Dead Man" to Sir, which is one of those skin magazines, a poor man's Playboy.

LM: During those eight years you were trying to sell your first piece, why weren't you selling? Was your work really that bad or were you already writing far enough outside the accepted genre conventions that it was difficult to find a home for your work?

Wolfe: It was a combination of everything. It wasn't just working outside the SF conventions—I'm still doing that today, of course, but I'm doing it better. Certainly one of my problems was that I didn't know anything about marketing when I was starting out. But mainly I was simply learning the art of writing. You don't go out, buy a violin, and then immediately get a job with a symphony orchestra—first you've got to learn how to play the damn thing. Writing is a lot like that. There are cases like Truman Capote who got his first five acceptances in one day when he was 17, but he was a very unusual and precocious writer. I remember vividly how afraid I was after I got that first acceptance that it was just blind luck and I was never going to sell anything else again.

LM: You dedicated The Fifth Head of Cerberus to Damon Knight, "who one night in 1966 grew me from a bean." I suspect there's an anecdote behind that dedication....

Wolfe: The circumstances behind that dedication to Knight are a little complicated but probably worth relating. I'll never be able to repay Damon Knight for his help and support, although I've made some stabs at it in the

past. I've received a lot of help from other people since I've achieved some recognition, but the only person who helped me with my writing when I really needed help was Damon Knight. After I had sold that story to the skin magazine, I sent a story called "The Mountains are Mice" to Galaxy; as I mentioned, I was very na´ve about marketing in those days, didn't know who was editing what; but it turned out that Galaxy was being edited by Fred Pohl. At any rate, I got back "The Mountains are Mice" with a simple rejection note, which was the way I got back everything in those days. I was working from one of those lists of SF markets published by The Writer, so when Galaxy rejected me the next magazine on the list was If. So I addressed another envelope, sent the story off to If, and I got an acceptance from Pohl (who was also editing If!) with a check. His letter said, "I'm glad you let me see this again. The re write has really improved it." My point is, of course, that there had been no re write. Once that story appeared I received an invitation from Lloyd Biggle to join the SFWA, which had a listing of markets that included Orbit, the anthology that Damon Knight was editing. I wrote a story called "Trip Trap" and sent it to Orbit, and I got it back with a letter from Knight saying something like: I like this story a whole lot but I think it needs to change here from viewpoint A to viewpoint B—and this is why—and then switch from B to C—with more explanations—and a long list of very sensible suggestions of that sort. After I read that letter I lay on the bed for a long while, and I suddenly realized: "By golly, I'm actually a writer now." I said something like that to Damon in my next letter to him, and he wrote back, "I didn't know I had grown you from a bean," which is the line I stole for my dedication to The Fifth Head of Cerberus. During the next few years Knight was buying my work, making a lot of useful observations about what I was doing, and basically giving me confidence in myself when no one else was.

LM: In looking back today, were there any stories that you would point to as being "breakthrough" pieces?

Wolfe: The real breakthroughs were taking place before I started selling anything. There was a point at which I wrote a story called "In the Jungle," that was never published, about a kid who wanders into a hobo jungle. At the time I wrote it, I thought it was a milestone in American literature. You know the way Romancing the Stone starts with that woman writer staring at the typewriter and crying, "My God, I'm so good!"? Well, I felt that way about that story, so I sent it out to about 18 places and then watched the rejection slips pile up. Two or three years later I pulled that story out, looked at it, and realized the story I had in my head had never gotten down on paper. What I learned to do in those apprentice years was make those stories run down my arm.

LM: Some of your works proceed in a relatively straightforward, linear manner, but many of them unfold in a more complicated fashion, with the events being filtered through memory, dream, unreliable narrators, stories within stories, different points of view. What draws you to these sorts of "refracted" methods?

Wolfe: First off, my intent in using these approaches is not to mystify my readers. My agent once said to me, "I know you thought no one would `get' this in your story but I understood what you were up to." I wrote back that if I thought no one would get it, I wouldn't have put it in there. There's no purpose for an author deliberately making things obscure. What I am trying to do is show the way things really seem to me—and to find the most appropriate way to tell the particular story I have to tell. I certainly never sit down and say to myself, "Gee, I think I'll tell a story in the first person or third person." Some stories simply seem to need a first person narrator, others are dream stories, another might require a third person narrator. What I try to do is find the narrative approach that is most appropriate to the subject matter.

LM: And since a lot of your work seems to deal with the nature of human perception itself—the difficulties of understanding what is going on around us—a straightforward approach would be inappropriate.

Wolfe: It's the hackneyed notion: "The medium is the message." As I work on a story, the subject matter often seems to become an appropriate means of telling it—the thing bites its tail, in a way—because subject and form aren't reducible to a simple "this or that." "That" and "this" are interacting throughout the story. That's what I meant when I said I'm trying to show the way things really seem to me—my experience is that subjects and methods are always interacting in our daily lives. That's realism, that's the way things really are. It's the other thing—the matter of fact assumption found in most fiction that the author and characters perceive everything around them clearly and objectively—that is unreal. I mean, you sit there and you think you're seeing me and I sit here thinking I'm seeing you; but what we're really reacting to are light patterns that have stimulated certain nerve endings in the retinas of our eyes—light patterns that are reflected from us. It's this peculiar process of interaction between light waves, our retinas, and our brains that I call "seeing you" and you call "seeing me." But change the mechanism in my eyes, change the nature of the light, and "you" and "me" become entirely different as far as we're concerned. You think you're hearing me directly at this moment but you're actually hearing everything a little bit after I've said it because it requires a finite but measurable amount of time for my voice to reach you. Fiction that doesn't acknowledge these sorts of interactions simply isn't "realistic" in any sense I'd use that term.

LM: Maybe because of your awareness of the interrelatedness of form and content, you seem to be among a relatively select group of SF authors (Delany and Le Guin would also come to mind) who appear to pay as much attention to the language and other stylistic features of their work as to the plot development or content (in the gross sense). I assume you do a lot of rewriting, but what sorts of things are you focussing on when you're doing these revisions?

Wolfe: I do a minimum of three "writes" for everything I do—an original and then at least two rewrites. A lot of stuff goes through four drafts, and some of it goes 15 or even more drafts; basically I'm willing to keep revising until I get it right. What I'm focusing on in these rewrites varies. It's certainly not all just trying to get the language right, although that's important, especially when I'm trying to capture a specific atmosphere or cultural attitude in a story. I remember that when I started "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" I completely rewrote those opening pages at least eight or ten times because it seemed essential to capture that certain flavor I wanted the story to have, the feeling of stagnation which affects a lot of what's to follow. I particularly remember struggling with that passage about the vine scrambling up the wall from the court below and nearly covering the window. But since character usually seems to be the single element in my works I'm most interested in, a lot of the rewriting I do involves me trying to fine tune character. This is especially true when I'm working on a novel, where character has more time to predominate, rather than in stories, where often the idea or plot twist seems more important. It's always a problem for me when I have a character like Malrubius in The Book of the New Sun, who shows up in widely separated places—I want to make sure he's the same person on page 300 as he was on page 10. Of course, sometimes I like the man on page 300 better than I had liked him earlier on, so then I have to go back and re write page 10 to make him match the way he appears later on.

LM: You exhibit not only a near encyclopedic knowledge of words and their origins but you obviously have a great feel for language and for inventing contexts in which different lingoes can be presented. And yet one theme which recurs in many of your works (and throughout The Book of the New Sun) is the limitations of words, the way language distorts perception and is used to manipulate others. Is this a paradox—or an occupational hazard?

Wolfe: Any writer who tries to press against the limits of prose, who's trying to write something genuinely different from what's come before, is constantly aware of these paradoxes about language's power and its limitations. Because language is your medium, you become aware of the extent to which language controls and directs our thinking, the extent that we're manipulated by words—and yet the extent to which words necessarily limit our attention and hence misrepresent the world around us. Orwell dealt with all this in 1984 much better than I've been able to when he said, in effect: Let me control the language and I will control peoples' thoughts. Back in the 1930s the Japanese used to have actual "Thought Police," who would come around and say to people, "What do you think about our expedition to China?" or something like that. And if they didn't like what you replied, they'd put you under arrest. What Orwell was driving at, though, goes beyond that kind of obvious control mechanism; he was implying that if he could control the language, then he could make it so that you couldn't even think about anything he didn't want you to think about. My view is that this isn't wholly true. One of the dumber things you see in the comic books occasionally is where, say, Spider Man falls off a building, looks down and sees a flag pole, and thinks to himself, "If I can just grab that flagpole, I'll be okay." Now nobody in those circumstances would actually be doing that—if you're falling off a building, you don't put that kind of thought into words, even though you're somehow consciously aware of needing to grab that flagpole. You are thinking below the threshold of language, which suggests there is a pre verbal, sub level of thinking taking place without words. Orwell didn't deal with this sub level of thinking, but the accuracy of his insights about the way authorities can manipulate people through words is evident in the world around us.

LM: Your work often appears to rely on fantasy forms in order to find a means of dealing with these "pre verbal" aspects of consciousness. For instance, several scenes in The Book of the New Sun seemed to be dramatizing inner psychological struggles that aren't easily depicted in realistic forms. I'm thinking about, say, Severian's encounter with the Wellsian man apes in The Claw of the Conciliator or his later confrontation with the Alzabo. These scenes seemed to function very much like dreams or fairy tales in which our inner fears or obsessions—those non rational aspects of people that seem out of place in the mundane world of most realists—are literalized, turned into psychic dramas.

Wolfe: That's a good way to put it. One of the advantages of fantasy is that I don't have to waste a lot of time creating the kinds of logical or causal justifications required by the conventions of realism. I can have that Alzabo simply come in the front door of that cabin without having to justify his arrival (keep in mind that even in a standard SF novel I would have had to do something like have a space ship land and then have the Alzabo emerge from the ship). That's one of the limitations of forms restricted to descriptions of everyday reality or of events that are scientifically plausible. Of course I'd argue that while the Alzabo and those other creatures Severian meets may appear to be dream like, they also very much exist within a continuum of human potential—they're not really "fantastic" at all, but embodiments of things that lie within all of us. And it seems important for people to be able to occasionally confront these things (that's what dreams and fairy tales have always done for people). The Alzabo is a monster, sure; but it's something many people fear a great deal when they work for a major corporation: we fear we'll be swallowed by Procter and Gamble, become just a cog in its innards or so much a company man that we'll be just a voice coming out of its mouth. Its beastliness is also what people don't like to recognize when they look in the mirror. Now if you're a human being, you probably realize that it's possible for you to degenerate into a beast; people who don't acknowledge this have actually degenerated in a different way, have lost a certain amount of self insight. And you can regress into being an ape, if that's what you really want to do. When people want to bring out their animality, they usually do so by drinking, which helps them turn off their higher brain centers and become a lot like the creature we imagine the Neanderthal man was like (I hope I'm not slandering the Neanderthal man here!). People drink or use drugs to get rid of the pain of being a human being (maybe the pain of consciousness itself), to find ways of going back down the evolutionary ladder. Every once in a while in the Tarzan books, Tarzan gets sick of civilization and desperately wants to go back to being an ape. That desire may seem scary to most people, but it's inside all of us.

LM: Who were some of the writers you were reading back in the '50s and '60s who might have influenced the development of your work? I take it they weren't exclusively SF authors—your story The Fifth Head of Cerberus echoes Proust in various ways, for instance.

Wolfe: Reading anything exclusively is dumb. I had someone ask me once in a letter how long I could read SF before I would burn out. I replied by saying that I never burn out on SF because I never read it exclusively. I always mix my SF reading with ghost stories and mysteries and straight novels, what have you. At any rate, I recall that when Damon Knight asked me back in the '60s whom I was reading I wrote back and said "J.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton and Mark's Engineer's Handbook." Chesterton is not very popular these days, but in my opinion he was a great writer who will come back into vogue. The Man Who Was Thursday is a tremendous novel and The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a wonderful forgotten fantasy work. I was reading other people in those days as well—Proust, Dickens, Borges, H.G. Wells. Proust, of course, was obsessed with some of the same things I deal with in The Book of the New Sun—memory and the way memory affects us—except that he was writing his remarkable works 80 years before I was.

LM: This issue of memory is central to a lot of your work—Peace, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, each book of The Book of the New Sun, and a lot of your stories. Can you say anything about why you return to it so often?

Wolfe: Memory is all we have. The present is a knife's edge, and the future doesn't really exist (that's why SF writers can set all these strange stories there, because it's no place, it hasn't come into being). So memory's ability to reconnect us with the past, or some version of the past, is all we have. I'm including racial memory and instinct here ("instinct" is really just a form of racial memory). The baby bird holds onto the branch because of the racial memory of hundreds of generations of birds who have fallen off. Little kids always seem to know there are terrible things out there in the dark which might eat you, and that's undoubtedly because of hundreds and hundreds of little kids who were living in caves when there were terrible things lurking out there in the dark. This whole business about memory is very complicated because we not only remember events but we can also recall earlier memories. I allude to this in The Book of the New Sun when I make the point that Severian not only remembers what's happened but he remembers how he used to remember—so he can see the difference between the way he used to remember things and the way he remembers them now.

LM: Just now you didn't cite as influences any of SF's New Wave writers who were emerging during the 1960s while Michael Moorcock was editing New Worlds. Were you aware of those authors?

Wolfe: I was not only aware of what they were doing but I even placed one story in New Worlds. What was happening with the New Wave was that a lot of SF authors with literary backgrounds, rather than scientific backgrounds, were applying what they knew in their works in just the same way the people with engineering and scientific backgrounds—Heinlein, for instance, or Asimov—had applied those backgrounds earlier. This approach didn't work fundamentally; at least it never became popular. As art it worked in some cases, while in others it didn't—which is true about everything, I guess.

LM: Why didn't these "literary" approaches catch on with SF audiences?

Wolfe: Probably because a lot of experimentalism was handled in such a way that it alienated readers, many of whom were raised on the pulps and didn't give a damn about "literature" in any kind of elevated sense. I was personally sorry to see it not catching on since some of what it was trying to do certainly struck a responsive chord in me. When Harlan Ellison put together his Again Dangerous Visions, he included three stories by me, so I was associated with the New Wave. It was a time in which a lot of people were yelling at us for what we were doing, and we were yelling back at them. Actually, at various times I was put into both camps by different people, which was fine with me.

LM: In some ways, the three interlocking novellas of The Fifth Head of Cerberus operate like a Faulknerian novel, with each succeeding section revealing aspects of the larger puzzle which only comes into focus when the book is completed. Did you realize when you started out that you were going to develop this kind of structure?

Wolfe: Not at all. I wrote the title story for Damon Knight's Orbit, where it originally appeared. That same year I went to the Milford Conference and presented the story there. Norbert Slepyan of Scribner's was there at that meeting and he liked the story quite a lot—so that he said that if I could write two other stories of roughly the same length he'd publish them as a book. We agreed I'd write one of the pieces and, if it was good, he'd be able to offer me a contract at that point. So I wrote "A Story by John V. Marsch," and he was sufficiently impressed that he issued me a contract. At any rate, the specific interrelations that you see were developed as I went along.

LM: The opening sentence of "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" echoes Proust, you set the story in a place called Frenchman's Landing, and you draw various other French elements into the story. What prompted you to use all these references to France?

Wolfe: It had struck me for some time that it is ludicrous to assume, the way practically every SF story assumes, that people who go to the stars and set up colonies there are necessarily going to be Americans. I saw I could counter this parochial notion by setting my story in a French colony. Frenchman's Landing is actually modeled essentially on New Orleans, which has always had a strong French influence. Somebody—I think it was John Brunner—did an SF book that opens with the words, "The Captain bore the good terrestrial name of Chang." When the first space captains go into outer space, there'll be a lot of Changs out there.

LM: Presenting the sections of Cerberus out of their chronological sequence forces the readers to re evaluate information received earlier. Did you ever give any thought to rearranging them so that they would appear in chronological sequence—that is, with the John Marsch sandwalker story appearing first?

Wolfe: No, because I didn't want to show what John Marsch had been researching—the material that make up his "story" in the second novella— until I had actually introduced John Marsch the researcher in "The Fifth Head." I decided to present the Sandwalker story as a legend or story that Marsch had uncovered, rather than as straight reportage, because I wanted to keep all three stories set in roughly the same time frame—the "present" of the opening novella. Since the period in which the Sandwalker scene was—in terms of the "present" found in the rest of the book—taking place in the distant past of the planet, it made more sense to say, "Here's a legend that has survived from that period" rather than simply jumping into the past and presenting it directly. In the last piece, "V.R.T.," I finish up by showing what had become of Sandwalker's world (this is only hinted at in "The Fifth Head") and by showing what eventually happened to Marsch.

LM: All this "showing" in "V.R.T." is made intriguingly ambiguous by the confusion about who "Marsch" really is.

Wolfe: In the end, of course, it's important that the reader not be confused about this, although part of the fun is supposed to be figuring out what's happened. I leave a number of clues as to who the narrator actually is. For example, both V.R.T. and the narrator are shown to be very poor shots, whereas Marsch is a very good shot, and there's other hints like that. If you hire a shape changer as a guide, there's a definite possibility that he's going to change into your shape at some point. Which is what happens.

LM: Could you talk about the way your stories or novels tend to get started for you? Is there any consistent pattern?

Wolfe: The only true answer I can supply is that I have a bunch of different kinds of things knocking around in my head until something jars me into realizing that these things can come together in a story. Typically I'll read something or see something or dream something and I'll think to myself: "Gee, that would be interesting to put into a story." It's usually later on that I think up a character or person who might fit into the context of that original "something" in an interesting way. Then at some point I recognize that I could incorporate all this material—I could take that and that woman and that ship and that situation, and put them all together in a story. There's a wonderful "Peanuts" cartoon that pretty much describes what I'm talking about: Snoopy is on the top of his doghouse and he writes something like, "A frigate appeared on the edge of the horizon. The King's extravagances were bankrupting the people. A shot rang out. The dulcet voice of a guitar sounded at the window." Then he turns and looks at the reader and says, "In the last chapter I'm going to pull all this together!"

LM: But I take it that you've usually pulled things together enough in advance so that you know, once you're actually sitting down to begin writing the story, where it's heading.

Wolfe: Absolutely. I wouldn't start a work unless I had at least a vague idea of where I was going to end up with it. Of course, sometimes I have a difficult time getting to where I'm heading. That's what happened, on a grand scale, when I began work on The Book of the New Sun—I knew roughly where I was going, but as I was trying to get there, I discovered there was a great deal more between "here" and "there" than I had anticipated.

LM: Where was it that you knew you were heading when you began The Book of the New Sun?

Wolfe: I knew I wanted Severian to be banished and then to return to the Guild in a position of such authority that the Guild would be forced to make him a Master of the Guild. And I wanted to have Severian be forced to confront the problem of Thecla and the problem of torture and the role of human pain and misery. At that time I had not yet read The Magus, so the thought didn't come from there, but I was very conscious of the horror not only of being tortured but of being forced to be a torturer or executioner. I didn't want my readers to be able to dismiss violence and pain with some platitudes about "Oh, violence—how terrible!" It's very easy to say how terrible it is to beat a man with a whip, or lock him up for 30 years of his life, or to execute him. These are indeed awful things. But when you are actually in authority, you find out that sometimes it's absolutely necessary for you to take certain distasteful actions.

LM: Severian makes the point somewhere that if he didn't execute some of the people he does, they would be out killing people themselves....

Wolfe: And he's right. What are you going to do with someone like John Wayne Gacy—who used to live about eight miles from where we're sitting right now—if you're not going to be willing to lock him up for the rest of his life? If you let him out, he's almost certain to start killing more innocent people. I wanted Severian to have to face at least the possibility that being an agency of pain and death is not necessarily an evil thing. That's one recognition he must come to grips with when he decides to leave a knife in Thecla's cell to help her commit suicide. He's partially responsible for the blood he sees seeping from under her cell door, just as every member of a society is responsible for the blood shed by people it decides to execute. Of course, when Severian later receives a letter from Thecla telling him the suicide was a trick permitting her to be freed unobtrusively, that creates all sorts of other dilemmas for him—and for me as well. I had started out assuming I was writing a novella of about 40,000 words whose title was to have been "The Feast of Saint Catherine," but now I began to see this material had greater possibilities. The writer has a problem when ideas, characters, and so forth don't seem to come, or when they aren't good enough when they do come. But when they're too good and too numerous, he has another. But the time I had finished with The Shadow of the Torturer, I had completed an entire novel but Severian was hardly started. Instead of winding up the plot, I had begun half a dozen others which needed to be worked out. Eventually I decided I needed to write a trilogy to be able to develop everything sufficiently; and when the third book turned out to be almost twice as long as the first two combined, I finally expanded things into a tetralogy. When I was done, I discovered that I had arrived where I had set out for—but the trip to that place was very different than what I had expected.

LM: What gave you the initial impulse to make Severian a torturer? Was it that abstract notion of wanting your hero to deal with the nature of pain and suffering?

Wolfe: No, the possibility of having a character who was a torturer was one of those initial ideas that wasn't tied to anything for a while. It first came to me during some convention I was attending at which Bob Tucker was the guest of honor. For some reason Bob felt obliged to go to a panel discussion on costume, and since he wanted someone to accompany him, I went along (otherwise I wouldn't ordinarily have gone since I'm not a costumer). So I went and heard Sandra Miesel and several other people talk about how you do costumes—how you might do a cloak, whether or not it's good to use fire as part of your costume, and so forth. As I sat there being instructed I was sulking because no one had ever done one of my characters at a masquerade. It seemed as though I had done a lot of things that people could do at a masquerade; but when I started to think this over more carefully, I realized there were few, if any, characters who would fit in with what Sandra and the others were saying. That led me to start thinking about a character who would fit—someone who would wear simple but dramatic clothes. And the very first thing that came to mind was a torturer: bare chest (everybody has a chest, all you have to do is take your shirt off), black trousers, black boots (you can get those anywhere), black cloak, a mask, and a sword! Here was an ideal, easy SF masquerade citizen. All this stuck in my head somehow: I had this dark man, the personification of pain and death, but I didn't yet know what to do with him. Then gradually a lot of things began to come together. For instance, I read a book about body snatchers that captured my fancy (body snatchers were the people who used to dig up corpses and sell them to medical schools for the students to dissect). And I also had in mind that it would be interesting to be able to show a young man approaching war. So I began to put things together: I could have my young man witness the body snatching scene that I was now itching to write; this same young man could be the guy who is pulled into the war; he could be a torturer, and so on.

LM: It was a bold stroke to make your hero into a man who's both a professional torturer (with all that this implies) and yet also a man who possesses the capacity for passion, love and tenderness. That reinforces your point about the multiplicity of selves existing within us all.

Wolfe: And I was particularly interested in the way that multiplicity points out the potential lying within everyone for good and evil. Whether we like it or not, that potential is part of what makes us people. We tend to look at somebody like the death camp guards in Nazi Germany and think to ourselves, "Thank God I'm not like that! Those guys weren't people—they were fiends in human form." But those guards weren't "fiends." They were human beings who became pulled into a certain game whose rules said it was okay to be a death camp guard in Nazi Germany. Later on we came along and changed the rules on them. It was important for me to be able to show the way evil expresses itself in people because I think it's essential that we recognize the existence of this potential within us all. This recognition is the only way we can safeguard ourselves from this sort of thing. As long as we go around saying, "I'm not capable of doing anything ugly, I'm the guy in the white hat," then we're capable of doing just about any damn ugly thing. If you're watching a man on his way to the scaffold and you can't realize "this could be me," then you've got no right to hang him. I dealt with a similar idea in "The Island of Dr. Death," where at the end of the story I had Dr. Death tell Tackie that if he starts the book again then (as he puts it), "We'll all be back." If you don't have Dr. Death, then you can't have Captain Ransom. You can't have a knight unless you have the dragon, a positive charge without a negative charge.

LM: Once the scope of The Book of the New Sun became obvious, you must have sat down at some point and developed some kind of detailed outline.

Wolfe: Actually I never use an outline when I work. Even with something like The Book of the New Sun, where there's an elaborate structure, the outline exists only in my head and not on paper. The only exception to that was with a book I did a while back called Free Live Free, in which a lot of the action took place in an old brick house on a city street. For that book I had to draw a floor plan of the two storys of the house because otherwise I found myself getting tangled up in such details as: Could you see the street from this window? Could you see from this room to that room? When Ben Free is in his room, can he hear the steps of someone walking overhead in their room? So I had to figure out where the bedrooms and bathrooms and stairs all were. But of course a floor plan isn't really an outline in the usual sense.

LM: In a sense all four volumes of The Book of the New Sun form a single novel in the same way that the individual books that comprise Proust's Remembrance of Things Past form a single work. But as you were working on the volumes individually, were you aiming at different formal effects that would be more appropriate to what you were talking about? For instance, when I went from Shadow to The Claw of the Conciliator, I felt that The Claw was presented by means of more peculiar effects—it seemed less direct, to rely more on stories within stories (and there's that long play inserted into the text)....

Wolfe: I saw the book falling into four distinct segments: a presentation of Nessus, getting from Nessus to Thrax, Thrax, and the war. And despite some slop over, you'll find me pretty much focussing from book to book on those areas, each of which required me to develop a way of story telling that would be appropriate for my focus. For instance, when I finished Shadow —and keep in mind that I didn't complete a final draft of the first volume until I had all four already in second draft—I was very conscious that in Claw I was going to get outside of Nessus and show the atmosphere and surroundings of that world outside. In order to do that I needed to show cultural elements of this world which would allow the reader to understand it: What kind of clothes did people wear? What kinds of stories do they tell, jokes do they make? That sort of thing. That required a slightly different approach, maybe gives the book a different texture from the others.

LM: I was constantly struck in all four volumes by the richness and variety of textural detail—I'm not just referring to physical details but to your meticulous attention to a wide range of cultural, anthropological, and linguistic elements.

Wolfe: From the very onset one of the things I had in mind was to show a big, complex civilization, an entire society that I would make plausibly complex. I've always been irritated (and usually bored) by the Simple Simon civilizations you find presented in most SF novels, where you have a galactic empire spread over umpteen light years but which turns out to have a culture that's as uniform as, let's say, Milwaukee. Except for instances in which a culture's liveable area is small—essentially one island or an equally isolated area—and those in which there is a small population possessing a high technology, this assumption of a simple, uniform culture covering an entire world is simply incredible.

LM: You mentioned earlier that one of the first ideas you had for The Book of the New Sun was presenting a young man approaching a war. Did your own experiences going to war in Korea serve as inspiration for this?

Wolfe: Very much so. When I dropped out of Texas A&M I had gone through that rite of passage in which war at first seems impossibly remote and then you find yourself gradually pulled into the actual fighting. At the time I was drafted I didn't think I would ever end up fighting, maybe partly because the war seemed so distant. Oh, my father was worried and wanted me to join the Air Force or something, but an enlistment was a six year commitment, whereas the draft was only two years, which seemed a lot more attractive. Keep in mind that the Korean War was much more remote to the American people at the time than the Vietnam War was to your generation. You didn't have the live TV coverage and all the constant media barrage. Anyway, I can vividly recall watching myself being slowly sucked into this vortex. When I got to Korea I rode a train all day and all night up to the front lines, a slow train which gave me a lot of time to think about what was happening. When I stepped off the train, I could hear the guns firing in the distance; and at that moment it came to me: "My God, I didn't miss! Here it is! Here I am!" You can find a similar kind of progression in The Red Badge of Courage, but I wanted to develop mine within an SF setting.

LM: Despite the SF setting, I was often reminded of the Civil War or World War I while reading your battle scenes. Did you do a lot of specific research for these scenes?

Wolfe: I didn't research anything specifically for them, but they probably came out of a lot of reading I've done about the Napoleonic Wars, the Civil War, the two World Wars, and so on. In presenting the war itself, I was trying to guess what war might be like for a decadent society in which there was still some high technology left but most of it was unavailable. There was an actual time here on planet Earth around 1960 in which there was a civil war being fought in what used to be the Belgian Congo. In that war, there were tribesmen with spears who were being led into battle by European officers with submachine guns, supported by jet planes. I wanted to show what that kind of war might be like, not taking the Belgian Congo situation as a literal model but simply as the kind of thing I was interested in. So I showed some people riding animals at the same time that others are using laser canons and all kinds of advanced weaponry.

LM: Did your war experiences have the kind of permanent effect on your sensibility as it apparently had on other writers, like Mailer, Hemingway, and Vonnegut?

Wolfe: I'm sure they did, but it's difficult to say exactly how. I only caught about the last four months of the war—I was there for the cease fire and for quite some time afterwards. I saw just enough action to realize what it was like. I got shot at a few times, shot at a few people, was shelled. You don't go through those experiences without getting a different outlook on life than you would have had without them. Just before you arrived this morning, I was talking on the phone with Harlan Ellison about a recent incident in which he wound up decking Charles Platt, and he mentioned how many of his friends had censured him for his violent reaction. Well, it would never occur to me to rebuke Harlan because I accept that if you're not violent at certain times you're going to wind up being the victim of violence. The fact that you stand there and let someone hit you in the face doesn't do anything to eliminate violence (it may even contribute to further violence) —which is one of the underlying themes in The Book of the New Sun.

LM: What kind of research was involved in The Book of the New Sun?

Wolfe: The main research was on Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire, which was a stagnant political entity that had outlived its time in much the same way that the Urth of the Commonwealth had. One of the things that bothered me about the reviews I got on The Book of the New Sun was how often they compared my world with that of Medieval Europe. Insofar as I was trying to create any kind of parallels with an actual historical period here on Earth—and obviously I wasn't aiming at developing an exact analogy—I was thinking of Byzantium. Incidentally, I also got into trouble with some reviewers over my presentation of the Ascians, who were my equivalent of the Turks. If you read the book carefully, it's clear that the action is taking place in South America and that the invading Ascians are actually North Americans. What I didn't anticipate was that nine tenths of my readers and reviewers would look at the word "Ascian" and say, "Oh, these guys are Asians!" This confusion got me accused of being an anti Asian racist—which I'm not. Actually, the word "ascian" literally means "people without shadows." It was a word used in the Classical world for people who lived near the Equator, where the Sun is dead overhead at noon and thus produces no shadow. I felt it would be an interesting touch to show that the ordinary man in the street in the Southern Hemisphere wasn't even conscious that their attackers are coming down from the Northern Hemisphere (they aren't even aware that there is another hemisphere).

LM: That kind of suggestive use for archaic or unfamiliar words is evident throughout the tetralogy. I'm sure a lot of readers had the same mistaken impression I did that you were making up these wondrous, bizarre words—especially since the use of neologisms is so common in SF. Could you talk about why you chose to use mainly "real" words rather than inventing your own?

Wolfe: I should clarify the fact that all the words I use in The Book of the New Sun are real (except for a couple of typographical errors). As you know, in most SF about unknown planets, the author is forced to invent wonders and then to name them. But that didn't seem appropriate to what I was doing here. It occurred to me when I was starting out with The Book of the New Sun that Urth already has enough wonders—if only because it has inherited the wonders of Earth (and there's the alternate possibility that Earth's wonders have descended to it from Urth). Some SF fans, who seem to be able to tolerate any amount of gibberish so long as it's invented gibberish, have found it peculiar that I would bother relying on perfectly legitimate words. My sense was that when you want to know where you're going, it helps to know where you've been and how fast you've traveled. And a great deal of this knowledge can be intuited if you know something about the words people use. I'm not a philologist, but one thing I'm certain of is that you could write an entire book on almost any word in the English language. At any rate, anyone who bothers to go to a dictionary will find I'm not inventing anything: a "fulgurator" is a holy man capable of drawing omens from flashes of lightning, an "eidolon" is an apparition or phantom, "fuligin" literally means soot colored. I also gave the people and other beings in the book real names (the only exception I can think of is the Ascian who appears in The Citadel—"Loyal to the Group of Seventeen"). "Severian," "Vodalus," and "Agilus," for example, are all ordinary, if now uncommon, names for men. And if you'd like to call your baby daughter "Valeria," "Thecla," or "Dorcas," she'll be receiving a genuine name many women in the past have had (and some in the present). As for the monsters' names, I simply named them for monsters. The original Erebus was the son of Chaos; he was the god of darkness and the husband of Nox, the goddess of night; furthermore, Mount Erebus is in Antarctica, the seat of Erebus's dark and chilly power.

LM: I noticed you gave one of your creatures—Baldanders—a name from Borges....

Wolfe: Yes, I took the name of Baldanders, the giant who is still growing, from The Book of Imaginary Beings, which may not be Borges's best work but which I have felt free to steal from disgracefully (even second rate Borges is still very good indeed). Borges is capable of making up much better books and monsters and authors than anyone can find in libraries.

LM: Did you find working on your non SF novel Peace to be different in any fundamental sense from creating your other works?

Wolfe: Not at all, perhaps because the subjective nature of the book gave me so much freedom. It was the book I wrote after The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and there was enough continuity—Peace is also a book about memory and about the meaning of stories, story as a thing—that it seemed simply like the obvious next book for me to write. It remains my favorite book of all the novels I've written.

LM: On what basis?

Wolfe: By asking myself how close the book came to being what I wanted it to be when I started it, how close I came to my own goals, which have naturally been different in each case. You never reach those goals 100%, but some books wind up being closer to your initial ideal than others. So far, Peace is the book which seemed to wind up closest to that ideal.

LM: Was Peace's main character, Dennis Weer, someone you personally identified with?

Wolfe: I identify with all my main characters, but certainly Weer is very much modeled on me, with his engineering and food industry background, his introversion, his sense of isolation. My mother's middle name was Olivia, which is probably a dead giveaway. The house on the hill is basically modeled on my mother's father's house, which I visited when I was a child. My grandfather was an absolutely incredible man who made a tre mendous impression on me—he was one of those types of guys who was a Scottish seaman as a kid, jumped ship in Texas, fought Mexican bandits as a US cavalryman in the 1880s, became a circus performer, and wound up as an old man with a wooden leg, a pitbull, and a lot of corn whiskey which he'd drink out of a jug. The grandfather in Peace who lights the candles on the Christmas tree is pretty much based on him, while the town in the novel is largely a fictive representation of Logan, Ohio, where my father was raised. So there's a lot more direct autobiographical material I'm drawing on here than in my other books.

LM: The Book of the New Sun, maybe especially The Citadel of the Autarch, deals with the nature of death and the afterlife, the role of human beings in the scheme of the cosmos, all sorts of grand issues. Are the basic insights Severian eventually achieves into these issues essentially ones that you personally share?

Wolfe: They're very close indeed, which is why The Citadel is my favorite of the four books. (Everyone else seems to like The Shadow best.) I tried to prepare the reader for some of these insights by earlier placing Severian within that immense backdrop of war. Severian is a soldier, and like any soldier in any war, the immediate parts of the battlefield he's in seems vitally important, essential, whereas it's really just a very small part of a very large picture. Having established Severian's relationship to the larger picture of what's going on around him, in the latter part of the book I wanted to suggest that, "Look, this is just a small backwater planet—one of many, many planets—and this isn't even a particularly interesting or pivotal period in its history; and the Solar System to which this planet belongs is part of a galaxy similar to quite a number of similar other spiral galaxies; and all this exists in a universe that is just one of a whole series of recurring universes. What any individual human being sees, no matter how vast the vista, is just a tiny corner of what is happening in creation."
There's a scene in C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce that made a lasting impression on me. That book is about a one day bus excursion for people who are in Hell and want to go to Heaven for a visit to see what's there; towards the end of it, everyone is saying, "Wow, everything here is so beautiful, look at these gorgeous trees and waterfalls and animals—but where is the infernal city we just left?" At this point the angel who's leading them around says, "It's right there in that crack between those two rocks— that's the infernal city you've come out of." I wanted my readers to experience a similar shock of recognition at their own insignificance at the end of The Citadel.

LM: The outlook expressed at that conclusion seems fundamentally religious in orientation.

Wolfe: I don't scoff at religion the way many people do when they look at anything that has to do with speculations about things we can't touch. I am a practicing Catholic, although I don't think that designation would give people much of an idea about what my beliefs are. People tend to have a very limited, stereotyped view of what it means to be a Catholic, images taken from movies or anti Catholic pamphlets; but there is much more to it than that. I know perfectly well, for example, that priests can't walk on water, that they are merely human beings who are trying, often unsuccessfully, to live out a very difficult ideal. But I certainly don't dismiss religious or other mystical forms of speculation out of hand. I read it and try to make my own judgments about it. And in The Book of the New Sun I tried to work out some of the implications of my beliefs.

LM: Who are some of the contemporary writers you most admire?

Wolfe: Among SF writers I'd include Algis Budrys, Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, Michael Bishop, Brian Aldiss, Nancy Kress, Michael Moorcock. And Theodore Sturgeon, Clark Ashton Smith, and Frederick Brown, who are dead now but not forgotten. One other SF writer I greatly admire is R.A. Lafferty, who writes very strange stuff that's hard to describe (the St Brendan's story in Peace is my version of an R.A. Lafferty story); he's an old man who's developed a cult following, a much neglected figure I think. Among the non SF writers I most enjoy are Nabokov (Pale Fire is a truly amazing book) and Borges. Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association is one of my favorite novels. I love a novel called The Tar Baby by Jerome Charyn, a writer I know nothing else about. Of course, there are a great many earlier writers I'm fond of. Proust, Dickens, E.M. Forster (whom I'm just now reading). Chesterton, whom I've already mentioned. George MacDonald, Poe, and Lovecraft (Lovecraft is usually regarded as an SF writer but to me he is the real successor to Poe's line of horror, though there really can't be a successor to Poe). I've read a lot of Arthur Conan Doyle. And I grew up with Kipling, which is one reason I used his lines from "The Dawn Wind" as an epigraph to The Citadel of the Autarch.

LM: You've grown up in an age which has seen both the development of nuclear weapons and the landing of men on the Moon. The use of science and technology seems to be leading us to two different futures, one unimaginably awful, the other filled with marvels and wonder. Which path is technology taking us?

Wolfe: There are more than two paths we can head down. I feel both optimistic and pessimistic about what we've been doing with technology. As you say, it has already been used to produce both wonderful and terrible things. The greatest ecological disaster to yet hit this planet has come from technology—the invention of plastics. (If I could go back into the past and repeal a single discovery of mankind's it would be the discovery of plastics.) On the other hand, we're getting into space now and doing some amazing things with the life sciences, including cybernetics and robot development. Technology is like a punch or a gun: it's good or bad depending on what you do with it. The world is full of people who assume you can get rid of evil if you can just get rid of the punch in the jaw or the gun.

LM: But if that gun is firing nuclear weapons or that punch in the jaw is going to destroy an entire nation....

Wolfe: I don't believe we're heading for a nuclear holocaust. (If I did, I wouldn't be living this close to Chicago!) Using nuclear weapons is too much of a clear no win situation for both sides, so I don't think they'll be used in a war, at least not under the present circumstances. War usually starts when one side feels it can achieve a quick, clear cut victory—Iraq invading Iran recently is a classic example of this because Iraq thought it could simply march in and win an immediate victory. Hitler had sold himself so completely on the idea that the Germans were strong and pure, while the rest of the world was weak and degenerate, that he was able to convince himself and a great many other people that Germany could achieve an easy victory in Europe. It's difficult for me to see how anyone in Russia or the US could convince themselves they could use nuclear weapons to achieve that kind of easy victory. Of course, there's another scenario that's much more dangerous—the one where one side feels pushed up against a wall and decides they've got to fight now or they'll eventually be destroyed. That situation worries me a lot more than the other possibility.

LM: But even assuming there is no nuclear holocaust, it seems essential for people to do some basic rethinking about the management of our resources; otherwise the issue of how technology is going to evolve will simply become moot. Once we exhaust our resources, we'll be left in the kind of world you're describing in The Book of the New Sun.

Wolfe: That possibility was very much on my mind when I was creating the Urth of The Book of the New Sun. I was trying to come to grips with the end result of the do nothing attitude so many people on the street have about the future. These people seem to feel that space exploration is a lot of bullshit ("there's nothing really out there we can use"), that undersea exploration is a lot of bullshit ("there's nothing down there for us"), that we should just go about our business the way we are and be "sensible." But what is going to happen if we keep on being "sensible" in the way they're suggesting? If we keep clinging to our old home (the planet Earth) and sit around waiting for the money and resources to run out? The Urth I invented in The Book of the New Sun is the world which has followed that course, a world in which people have been so limited in their vision of the future that they saw no other option except what was immediately in front of them.

They've been practical and down to earth, they've gone on planting their cabbages. Well, there's nothing wrong with planting those cabbages, God knows; but when you ignore any possibilities except those cabbages, you wind up living in a world something like Urth, with its exhausted mines and exhausted farmlands. You get a land which may have had a long period of relative peace and stability, but it's a period of slow decay. I keep tropical fish, and I remember there used to be a fad among fish owners about trying to keep a perfectly balanced environment in the tanks—they'd seal everything up to see how long it was until the fish died out. Sometimes it would take 18 months or more, but eventually the last fish always died and you were left there staring at a tank full of scummy green water. That's what the Urth of the Commonwealth has become (and what we're headed for unless we look to the future more adventurously)—a tank full of scummy water.


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