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“I do not write Catholic books intentionally.”

MIT Technology Review interviews Gene Wolfe

January 28, 2015 10:54 am | 5 Comments

This is an interview from last year, but why should time matter? Especially when it involves the notoriously tricksy, almost unclassifiable science fiction writer Gene Wolfe. When many lament the state of Catholic literature these days, they almost always forget and leave out the great Catholic writers working in genre fiction such as sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery. This is a shame. As anyone who has read Gene Wolfe can attest, his writing is every bit as artistically rich as many other acclaimed novelists. But since most of his writing falls into the world of speculative fiction, it gets pigeonholed as being somehow less serious.

In this wonderful and fascinating interview with Gene Wolfe from the MIT Technology Review, he covers a lot of ground. The interviewer sets the scene: “The house was nearly empty except for the author’s own books, some family photographs (including one of an implausibly young Wolfe in uniform), a little furniture, and a makeshift shrine, with a statue of the Virgin, rosary beads, and a Bible, in front of a window overlooking the back lawn.”

On which writers influenced him: “It’s a difficult question. My first editor, Damon Knight, asked me the same thing when I was just starting out, and I told him my chief influences were G. K. Chesterton and Marks’ [Standard] Handbook for [Mechanical] Engineers. And that’s still about as good an answer as I can give. I’ve been impressed with a lot of people—with Kipling, for example; with Dickens—but I don’t think I’ve been greatly influenced by them.”

On being a Catholic writer: “I’m a writer who is Catholic, as a good many of us are. I do not write Catholic books intentionally.”

On Fulton Sheen (!!): “I once met Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who we’re trying to get made a saint now. He looked at you and you felt that he knew all about you, that he had taken your worth, both positive and negative, and had formed a correct opinion about you, and that was it… He had a quality of something really quite extraordinary. I was at a party once for locally important politicians—a former governor of Illinois, for example. And Sheen came through as somebody who was actually on a higher level. A hundred years from now, he was the only one at the party who would still be important. The rest of us were lost.”

And I love this exchange:

Q: “Many people say that science fiction matters because it is about contemporary society—that it is a kind of satire.”

A: “Unfortunately. It’s true that a great many people think that it must be.”

Q: “You mean: it needn’t be so.”

A: “You could write a book about a landing on Mars in which a landing on Mars is a metaphor for something that is going on now. You could also write a book about a landing on Mars that’s a landing on Mars.”

You should read the whole thing. And find out how Wolfe also helped invent Pringles.

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children.

Tags: Catholic writers fantasy fulton sheen gene wolfe genre fiction science fiction speculative fiction


  1. January 28, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    Sadly, Scifi has almost no entry from Catholic or even Christian writers. When we elected to create “Search for the Alien God,” we sought to remediate this. What we discovered was closed doors from Catholic books studies who only use things written by a past pope, and even colder shoulders from the Atheist and Agnostic crowd that predominates the genre. Incredibly, we have found a nitch, w/o the help of either group.

  2. John Herreid

    January 28, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    Hm. I wouldn’t say that it’s almost empty of writers who take religion seriously. Off the top of my head, current sci-fi / fantasy writers who are professed Catholics that I know of include the aforementioned Gene Wolfe, Michael Flynn, Jerry Pournelle, Tim Powers, John C. Wright, and Dean Koontz. Expand that to writers who write upon themes that are sympathetic to religion and I would add Jack McDevitt, Dan Simmons, Ted Chiang (an atheist, but nevertheless interested in themes of belief), Orson Scott Card, and J. Michael Straczynski. There’s many more that I could probably come up with if I had more time to think about it. Given that sci-fi as a genre is inclined toward positing scenarios that invoke philosophical ideas, it’s somewhat inevitable that a lot of stories also draw upon theological themes as well.

    Of course, there’s also no shortage of writers who dismiss and denigrate belief. But I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the positive elements that can be found in the genre.

  3. January 31, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    There is a huge difference between a catholic writer and a catholic who writes about Catholicism. Of the writers you list – please name one who has an explicitly catholic book. For instance, “the force” was the explicit faith of the star wars genre. Faith was predominate in C S Lewis, who was Anglican. But Enders Game isn’t remotely catholic (Orson Scott Card), John C Wright made his mark in fantasy and scifi, then converted. I am always baffled by Catholics who ascribe Catholicism to “The Hobbit” just because Tolkien was catholic. My point is pretty easy to crystallize by saying, “those who profess their faith in their writings OBVIOUSLY take it seriously.” Not that others don’t, we just don’t see it in the book shelves and cinemas. We created “Search for the Alien God” to fill that void, and remove any doubt.

  4. John Herreid

    February 2, 2015 at 10:51 am

    I don’t think it’s all that helpful to try to separate fiction into Catholic or Christian vs non. For example, how would you classify the works of Dante? Or Dickens? Or Chesterton? All of them wrote works that come from a creativity informed by faith, and some of their works explicitly reference that. As Joseph Ratzinger once said, “All true human art is an assimilation to the artist, to Christ, to the mind of the Creator.” So in that sense, there’s a large range of art that is Catholic.

    But as for themes that explicitly make reference to Christianity, I could name several of the authors above. In Tim Powers’ “Declare” the hero is saved from demonic forces by the fact that he was baptized. The Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz makes frequent reference to Catholic themes, and one of the books takes place in a abbey. Michael Flynn’s “Eifelheim”, with its protagonist being a medieval Catholic priest, is largely about the question of whether alien life could include ensouled beings.

  5. February 2, 2015 at 11:38 am

    A best answer would be to say, “If you have no horse in the race, you’re not racing.” Yes, there are many books that elude to our values, because our faith has shaped the world. Catholics are experts at re-saving the saved. Most Catholic books, ministries and outreaches are targeted to friendly audiences. If there’s a knock at my door, it’ll be from a Mormon before it’s a Catholic. So most Catholics stay out of hostile crowds or audiences, the same ones Jesus entered. Recall 3 stories in the bible; the woman sweeping for the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the prodigal son which all show God’s heart for the lost. We need to broaden our footprint, rather than persist in re-saving the saved. As of now, other than Ignatius Press “Voyage to Alpha Centari”, and My books which preceded it, we know of no current Catholic scifi that can be bought at any price. That’s a sad commentary. When was the last time you saw someone put down a book, and say, “I wonder if I should be catholic like the characters in that story decided to be?”

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