Despite having lived within easy driving distance of Gene Wolfe’s home for the last quarter century — and having read compulsively in those seriously addictive novels he keeps writing — I hesitate to say I know Gene Wolfe. He’s one of those people whom you think you know really well, and then, without warning, some new side of him shows up that you never suspected was there and all of a sudden you discover there are important parts of him that you’ve never known at all.
In the case of Gene Wolfe, I thought I had him pegged as a literate and gentle guy who just had this strange writing trait of making the nicest character in one of his greatest novels a full-time professional torturer whose skill was measured by how much agonized screaming his clients produced. All right, that’s a facet of his character that I could accept; because literary people are expected to explore contradictions in the characters they invent.
But I wasn’t aware that he invented other things than storybook characters until I learned that one of his inventions was a critical part in the machine the Pringles people use to make their potato chips. And then the most unexpected insight of all that came when he and I were invited to discuss our military experiences. My own report wasn’t very exciting, but when Gene’s turn came, he spun this scary yarn of the kid he was when the Korean War took him away from aiming to be an engineer at Texas A & M and repackaged him as a teenaged Marine swept from basic training to the south side of a Korean hill whose north side was populated by a large number of Chinese troops whose main mission in life was to kill everybody on the other side.
He’s a treasure, this Gene Wolfe is, and not just an admired writer but a useful asset to the human race.