Gene Wolfe Chosen as SFWA Grand Master

One of the perks of the job as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is that I get to select — in consultation with the SFWA board and its past presidents — the recipient of SFWA’s Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award. It’s an award that may be given annually, but should be given only when the time is right (I did not name a Grand Master in the first year of my presidential tenure, for example, for various reasons). This year, the time is right to name Gene Wolfe, one of our greatest living SF&F writers, as this year’s award recipient. I was delighted to be able to ask him to be our Grand Master, and even more delighted when he accepted.

Here is the SFWA press announcement on the award, with quotes from me, Neil Gaiman, last year’s Grand Master recipient Connie Willis, and of course, Mr. Wolfe himself.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America 2012 Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Awarded to Gene Wolfe

SFWA has named Gene Wolfe as the 2012 recipient of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for his contributions to the literature of science fiction and fantasy.

Gene Wolfe’s fiction first saw publication in the 1960s. He is best known for the novels The Book of the New Sun, Peace, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and received many awards, including the Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus.

Neil Gaiman: “It’s not that Gene Wolfe is, in the opinion of many (and I am one of the many), our finest living science fiction writer. It is that he is, in the opinion of the Washington Post (and of me, too) one of our finest living writers. He has been our uncrowned Grand Master for a long time, and now the rest of the world will know as well.”

In Gene’s own words: “There was a time – long ago to most of you, though it seems recent to me – when Rosemary, our children, and I were living from paycheck to paycheck and barely getting by. I’d had three not-terribly-good stories published in a college magazine before I went into the Army, and I thought I might just possibly write on the side and make us a little extra money. I sold a few stories. Then it was time for school to start again, and Rosemary began badgering me for money for school clothes. I would gladly have given it to her if there had been any. Another story, “Car Sinister,” sold, and instead of depositing the check I got the manager of the hardware store to cash it for me. I took it to Rosemary: ‘Here’s every dime I got for that story. That’s how much you have for school clothes.’  A few days passed, and I was sitting on the kitchen floor trying to mend a chair.  Rosemary came up behind me and said, ‘Shouldn’t you be writing?’

“That’s when I knew I was a writer.

“You’d better watch your step, folks; you’re raising me to a height I would never have imagined.  If you keep this up I’ll start thinking I’m a good writer.”

SFWA President John Scalzi, on choosing Wolfe: “You’d have to search far and wide to find a contemporary fantasy writer who has not been directly influenced by Gene Wolfe. His prose is a joy to read, his stories are dense and deep, and his worlds are dark and rich beyond compare. And to top it off, he is a genuinely delightful human being. It is well past time that his stories, his style and his contribution to our genre and to literature in general are recognized and celebrated with a Grand Master award. I am thrilled and humbled that Gene has graciously agreed to be our recipient this year.”

Connie Willis, 2011 Damon Knight Recipient: “Oh, how wonderful that Gene Wolfe is going to be a Grand Master, even though of course he already is in the minds of everyone who’s ever read his books or who’s ever known him!  He’s one of the loveliest people it’s been my privilege to know in science fiction–courtly, kind, frighteningly intelligent, and at the same time endlessly patient with us lesser mortals. I know everybody will be praising his books during the next few days, and deservedly so, but I also want to put in a word for his equally amazing short stories, like ‘The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories’ and ‘The Death of Dr. Island’ –even his titles are brilliant!– and ‘Golden City Far’ and ‘The Detective of Dreams’ and ‘Memorare.’ And especially ‘Seven American Nights,’ which served as my first–and staggeringly memorable–introduction to him.

“Congratulations, Gene!  SO well-deserved!  And such good news!”

The Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award is given by SFWA for ‘lifetime achievement in science fiction and/or fantasy.’ Wolfe joins the Grand Master ranks alongside such legends as Michael Moorcock, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. LeGuin, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Joe Haldeman. The award will be presented at the 48th Annual NebulaAwardsWeekend in San Jose, CA, May 16-19, 2013.

More information on the award’s history and the Nebula Award Weekend can be found at:

56 Comments on “Gene Wolfe Chosen as SFWA Grand Master”

  1. I’m sure this will be a common reaction, but I had no idea he wasn’t *already* a Grand Master. Which of course is exactly why making him one makes sense…

  2. There is no writer who deserves this honor more. I was first introduced to Wolfe about a decade ago in a college survey of SF literature. Since that day, I have been a voracious fan of Wolfe’s, tracking down and buying every novel I could find (there are still one or two short story collections I lack). When I hear that Wolfe has released a new novel, it is the highlight of my year, moreso than any other author.

    I consider Wolfe to be one of the greatest writers, if not the very greatest writer, of the past century, bar none, and am incredibly thrilled at the accolades he is receiving.

  3. Which reminds me that The Book of the New Sun has been on my reading list for about 30 years. I guess now’s the time. Thanks for the reminder, and congrats to Mr. Wolfe.

  4. It’s about time! *impish grin* Mr. Wolfe is quite possibly the finest writer–of any genre–writing today. The fact that he’s also humble, hard-working, and generally a wonderful human being only adds to his excellence.

    Congratulations, Gene! I’m only sad that they decided to give this to you after the years the Awards Banquet was in DC and I could have come to see it!

  5. LIke Tim H., I’ve had The Book of the New Sun sitting around for YEARS. I have no idea why I haven’t read it. The only thing of Mr. Wolfe’s I’ve read is an anthology of short stories, all of which I loved.

    Well–I guess I know what I’ll be reading next.

  6. Embarrassed to say I’ve never read his work. At least not in the last 30 years. Recommendations for where should I start?

  7. @Alan

    The Book of the New Sun (actually four books, usually collected into two volumes) is probably what most people will recommend, as it’s by far his best known work. I would probably recommend starting with some of his short stories, though, to get a feel for his writing and how he crafts a story. You can pick up pretty much any collection of his stories–they’re pretty universally excellent–or you could check out the Best of Gene Wolfe collection Tor put out a couple years ago:

  8. Well, what hole have I been living in that I have not read his work? I have read the works of every other Grand Master listed at the end of the article.

    My “to read” list expands once again.

    Congrats Mr. Wolfe. I look forward to being a first time reader very shortly.

  9. Congratulations to Mr. Wolfe.

    This reminds me that really should read something by him, other than The Book of the New Sun, at some point.

  10. This pleases me to no end. Mr. Wolfe is the first writer I turn to any time a reader of “literary” leanings asks me what SF to try…and I know they will likely enjoy the recommended books but also be a bit surprised that it’s likely more rich and challenging than even the non-genre literary fiction they’re accustomed to. And the writing! I just started re-reading Shadow of the Torturer, and I’m in awe.

    But the real pleasure in this news comes from the affirmation that so many other people simply love his work. The Book of the New Sun, the Latro books, Fifth Head of Cerberus, Wizard/Knight–no other books in the last decade have possessed me quite so much as these. Congratulations, Mr. Wolfe. Well done, Mr. Scalzi.

  11. Many folks in the thread are saying start Gene Wolfe with “Book of the New Sun” or the short stories. However, a caveat: those all require a lot of reader investment in attention and time before the big, joyous payoff.

    I think in some ways his later works, are more accessible while being nearly as delightful. I’d recommend starting with “Pirate Freedom” and “The Wizard Knight”. If you like those, you’ll hasten to take the plunge and read the earlier masterworks.

  12. @ B Mac
    into the caverns of tomorrow with just our flashlights and our love
    we must plunge, we must plunge, we must plunge

  13. I’ll add my voice to those who were surprised that Mr. Wolfe was not *already* inducted as a Grand Master. His Book of the New Sun series is nothing short of brilliant! And, like another commenter, if you haven’t read his work somehow, I agree that The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories is a great place to start. I know because that’s how I found his work, oh so many years ago.

  14. Certainly beyond time for Mr. Wolfe to receive this honor. Just an amazing artist.

    I did not know that the stars had to align in the proper formations for a Grand Master to be announced. Hopefully, John is not also required to practice haruspicy to fulfil his SFWA functions.

  15. I have so many wonderful memories of Gene Wolfe, Grandmaster at last, mostly from his gentlemanly behavior and brilliant conversations, at worldcons since a decade before AussieCon in Melbourne 1985 through Chicon 7 this year. He is also arguably the biggest name Science Fiction poet in such olympian rank. As an example:Burning with a Vision: Poetry of Science and the Fantastic ed. Robert Frazier (Owlswick 0-913896-22-5, Aug ’84 [Jul ’84], $14.75, 139pp, hc); Anthology of poetry by authors including Brian Aldiss, Michael Bishop, Thomas M. Disch, Joe Haldeman, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, and Roger Zelazny. Also available in tp (-23-3, $8.75).

    Phyllis Gotlieb (who passed away later) the Mother of Canadian Science Fiction, had 3 peoms in the anthology; I had one.

    Other authors therein who have since died include:

    John Ciardi. American poet and critic, born June 24, 1916, Boston, Massachusetts, U.S. died March 30, 1986, Edison, New Jersey

    Thomas Michael Disch, born 2 February 1940, Des Moines, Iowa. Died, July 4, 2008 (aged 68) New York City, New York

    Loren Eiseley (3 September 1907 – 9 July 1977) American anthropologist, educator, and natural science writer.

    Roger Joseph Zelazny (13 May 1937 – 14 June 1995) prolific American writer of fantasy and science fiction short stories and novels. He won the Nebula award three times (out of 14 nominations) and the Hugo award six times (also out of 14 nominations), including two Hugos for novels.

    Major figures in the book who are still alive include:

    Edwin George Morgan OBE (born 27 April 1920) Scottish poet and translator who is associated with the Scottish Renaissance. He is widely recognized as one of the foremost Scottish poets of the 20th
    century. In 1999, Morgan was made the first Glasgow Poet Laureate. In 2004, he was named as the first Scottish national poet: The Scots Makar.

    D. M. Thomas, a Cornish novelist, poet, and translator

    The inimitable Jane Yolen…

  16. What a fabulous choice. His work haunts me. His world building and story telling that takes me to places, ideas and, more amazingingly, new points of view, I never dreamt of.

  17. Totally deserved. I freely admit that a fair bit of what Wolfe writes goes right on over my head; I can tell there’s stuff there and I’m missing it. But the stories are awesome enough that I enjoy them anyway. Lots of people can write Deep Literature. Not that many can write Deep Literature that’s actually fun to read even if you aren’t utterly devoted to literary criticism as the only true artform.

    He also gets credit for being one of the few science fiction writers to have an idea from one of his stories used as a standard D&D item; 3rd Edition had a “mercurial greatsword” in which there’s a blade with mercury in it to give it momentum. :)

  18. Awesome choice!

    Wolfe taught me that the line between fantasy and SF was a LOT more blurry than I had thought.

    Also, for those who haven’t read The Shadow of the Torturer and the three novels that follow it in The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, bring along a dictionary. A big, heavy dictionary.

  19. Congratulations to Gene! We always attend his readings at cons and are delighted that he lives around Chicago. Good choice, John!

  20. First, add me to the list of those carrying the ‘About Time!’ sign. Other writers, don’t think I don’t love your work – but Gene Wolfe is just brilliant! I have occasionally found his fiction …challenging. Afterward, though, it was always worth it. I confess to a touch of envy for all of the posters who have the chance to read a Gene Wolfe story for the first time.

  21. Last night I was looking through the list of Grand Masters (and the SF Hall of Fame). I came up with three names I felt were missing for the GM list. One of them Was Gene Wolfe.
    The only problem I have with this nomination is that it increases the male bias in the list, only four of twenty-nine are female. (John did however appoint one last year).

  22. Add me also to the list of the “about time” sign-carriers. everything I could say here has been said .. the book of the New Sun is his masterpiece, you can start with the short stories, etc.

    I do especially like the collection which includes the story “The Island of Dr. Death And Other Stories” and then adds others stories to it, resulting in the title that looks like a misprint…

  23. Great! I have loved Gene Wolfe’s work since reading the Book of the New Sun back in the 80s. As far as where to start, I know I fell in love with Wolfe’s writing right off the bat in Shadow of the Torturer. I would guess that most readers who are going to love his writing might as well dive in right there. I also really enjoyed the Book of the Long Sun series which is set in the same “whorl” as the New Sun books and is not quite as deep. And, yes, his short stories are generally excellent as well. Congratulations, Gene!

  24. I can’t say I enjoy Wolfe’s work – maybe it’s specific to the novels I tried to read (Pirate Freedom and The Wizard Knight) but his characters had a sort of naive credulity that grated on me – but I can’t deny that he’s influential. Dude deserves his Grand Mastership.

  25. @Theophylact: I have an eye for mechanics, and one of the things that infuriates me (in the best possible way) about reading Gene Wolfe is that you never know if it’s a typo or a CLUE.

  26. I’ll echo what others have said. The Book of the New Sun is a great work of literature. It was an eye-opener for me as to what the genre could be when I first read it. I’m a huge fan of Wolfe’s and as a few other people have said, I am delighted when I see he’s releasing a new work.

  27. The things you think you know that are not so. Well, this one will be so soon. Congratulations, Mr. Wolfe; a most well-deserved and over due honor, and thank you for all of the hours of pleasure you’ve given me.

  28. The Book of the New Sun is a vastly under-read landmark of SFF. For those that hadn’t noticed, the eBook editions of it were only made available within the last year. It’s really unfortunate, but I hope this will gain Mr. Wolfe the visibility his work deserves.

    Congratulations, Mr. Wolfe!

  29. Thank you so much for the lovely news. I’m going to read “The War Beneath the Tree” to my family tonight.

  30. This is wonderful news, and far too LONG overdue! Gene Wolfe is one of the greatest living authors of our time, and he should have been honored decades ago. In the meantime, congratulations dear Gene!

  31. Great news. Wolfe replied to my first ever fan letter to any writer with a signed copy of Strange Birds and a wonderful letter thanking me for reading his work. What a generous and thoughtful man. Way to go, Mr. Wolfe, and way overdue.

  32. Because of the order of my blog bookmarks, I had already seen a few announcements.
    I had *not* known it was done by you personally.
    Well done, sir, well done.

  33. I happened across The Fifth Head of Cerberus in 1977, and it changed my brain. Since then, I have fallen upon every available scrap of Gene Wolfe’s writing, devoured it and looked for more. Examples of his wisdom and discernment are abundant, but it still bears noting that Gene Wolfe also deeply understands what is great about R. A. Lafferty. Where the gods live, there is no envy. Congratulations, Mr. Wolfe! We, your readers, will continue trying to be worthy of you.

  34. I’ve long been a fan of Mr Wolfe, so I jumped at the chance to see him in person when he came to town a couple years ago. He wasn’t the Guest of Honor–that title belonged to Harlan Ellison–but he was certainly the most distinguished guest.

    When I told him I was a fan of his work, he was gracious and gave me a couple minutes of his time, but what really struck me was his love for his wife. She was in poor health and confined to a wheelchair. Even though us fans were at his panels to see him read and talk, he made her health and comfort his priority. And she’s his biggest fan. When he finished reading a chapter from an upcoming book, she was the first to start clapping and the last finish. If she was able, I think she would have stood. What a wonderful relationship.

    As best I can remember, when someone in the hall commented on the crowds there to see Harlan Ellison, Gene responded, “He’s Harlan. He’s immensely popular. Immensely.”

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