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Wolfe, Gary K

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Critic.

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(1946-    ) US academic and author, associated with Roosevelt University in Chicago since 1971; as Dean of University College between 1981 and 1990; married to Dede Weil from 1997 until her death in 2000. Some of his earlier essays, like "The Known and the Unknown: Structure and Image in Science Fiction" (in Many Futures, Many Worlds, anth 1977, ed Thomas B Clareson), prefigured the typology of sf he presented in full in his most significant scholarly work, The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (1979), in which sf texts and their essential icons are defined according to their relationship to the permeable membrane separating us from the unknown, which Wolfe feels all sf attempts – or pretends to attempt – to pierce. The discussion is arranged around a lucid disposition of icons – the Spaceship, the City, the wasteland, the Robot and the Monster – and the book has served as an admirable mapping of its thesis (see Conceptual Breakthrough; SF Megatext). In Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Glossary and Guide to Scholarship (1986) Wolfe made a first attempt – a revised edition is now required – to describe the critical vocabulary used by scholars in their attempts to encompass this protean genre. Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (2002) with Ellen R Weil is an informed study of the work of Harlan Ellison, acutely focusing on a small number of indisputably significant stories. The essays grouped together as Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (coll 2010) coherently present the literatures of the fantastic as mutable and interpenetrable from their beginnings, arguing that they can now be described as a "set of post-modern rhetorical modes that would [gradually] supplant ... the notion of genre itself".

Since 1992, Wolfe has published a long monthly book review column in Locus, the first years of this enterprise being assembled as Soundings: Reviews 1992-1996 (coll 2005), followed by Bearings: Reviews 1997-2001 (coll 2010) and Sightings: Reviews 2002-2006 (coll 2011). As a whole, this unbroken succession of reviews constitutes the most reliable, mature, sustained, ongoing response to the field at present (along with the sharp but less penetrating Reference Library column contributed to Analog by Thomas A Easton between 1979 and 2008), and may never be matched in the future, either in duration or quality.

Wolfe's American Science Fiction Omnibus series for The Library of America – beginning with American Science Fiction: Four Classic Novels 1953-1956 (anth/omni 2012), subsequent volumes extending to works published in 1969, with further volumes possible – sagaciously showcases for a wide audience the American Genre SF novels within its remit. Because publication by the Library of America inevitably bestows something approaching canonic status on titles selected, it is relevant to note Wolfe's choices; it is of interest to note as well that over the fifteen years covered in the first four volumes of the sequence his selections have tended to treat "literary" sf as increasingly central, though at the same time all but five of the seventeen novels picked were first published in Genre SF magazines. Some seemingly obvious choices were omitted for cause: Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1954) was not available, nor was Thomas M Disch's The Genocides (1966); neither Arthur C Clarke nor A E van Vogt were Americans. Authors given volumes of their own in the Library of America, like Philip K Dick, Ursula K Le Guin, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, and Octavia E Butler (forthcoming), were excluded. If these exceptions are taken into account, Wolfe's ample exercise in canon-building can rightly be expected to be influential.

The novels in the first two volumes were The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953) by C M Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl, More Than Human (fixup 1953) by Theodore Sturgeon, The Long Tomorrow (1955) by Leigh Brackett, The Shrinking Man (1956) by Richard Matheson, which seemed less than canonical, Double Star (February-April 1956 Astounding; 1956) by Robert A Heinlein, The Stars My Destination (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy; 1956) by Alfred Bester, A Case of Conscience (part 1 September 1953 If; exp 1958) by James Blish, Who? (April 1955 Fantastic Universe; exp 1958) by Algis Budrys and The Big Time (March-April 1958 Galaxy; 1961) by Fritz Leiber.

The novels in the second two volumes were The High Crusade (July-September 1960 Astounding/Analog; 1960) by Poul Anderson, Way Station (June-August 1963 Galaxy as "Here Gather the Stars"; 1963) by Clifford D Simak, Flowers for Algernon (April 1959 F&SF; exp 1966) by Daniel Keyes, ... This Immortal (October-November 1965 F&SF as "... And Call me Conrad"; exp 1966) by Roger Zelazny, Past Master (1968) by R A Lafferty, Picnic on Paradise (1968) by Joanna Russ, Nova (1968) by Samuel R Delany and Emphyrio July-August 1969 Fantastic; (1969) by Jack Vance.

For his work as criticism in general Wolfe was given a Pilgrim Award in 1987; and for his work overall he received an IAFA Award for distinguished scholarship in 1998. The Coode Street Podcast, on which he has long collaborated with Jonathan Strahan, received a 2021 Hugo in the best fancast category. [JC]

see also: Critical and Historical Works About SF; Definitions of SF; Eaton Award; Greenwood Press; Planetary Romance; Speculative Fiction.

Gary Kent Wolfe

born Sedalia, Missouri: 24 March 1946


works as editor


American Science Fiction

individual titles

  • Science Fiction Dialogues (Chicago, Illinois: Academy Chicago, 1982) [nonfiction: anth: text heavily edited by publisher: pb/nonpictorial]


previous versions of this entry

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