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 certainly 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.
Here’s the rest. Highly recommended. (Some spoilers, at least about THE FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS, possibly about the Book of the New Sun.)