It's hard to believe it's been seven years since one of the most remarkable nights I have ever experienced. On March 17, 2012, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame awarded its first Fuller Award to Gene Wolfe for outstanding contributions to literature from a Chicago author. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Gene is considered one of the masters of the science fiction/fantasy genre having influenced and mentored a generation of aspiring authors, most notably Neil Gaiman. I have been a devoted fan of Gene's since high school in the 80's when his masterpiece four volume The Book of the New Sun was recently published.Gene's works are rich with language, insight and wonder; he is able to connect vast cultural touchstones from ancient philosophy to modern space flight much in the spirit of Umberto Eco and Luis Jorge Borges. He is best known for his use of unreliable narrators, obscure vocabulary and hidden symbolism, requiring some effort on the part of the reader to reach understanding. These hallmarks of his style are all part of Gene's demonstration of the dynamic power of literature and the way words shape our understanding of the world. Of interest to readers of this blog is the fact that Gene was a combat veteran of the Korean War, having served with the US 7th Infantry Division at the Battle of Pork Chop Hill. His works reflect many of his experiences and observations from the ordeal of army life and war.
With Gene Wolfe at the Fuller Award
Sanfilippo Carousel Hall
When I moved to Chicago in the mid-2000's I was fortunate enough to strike up a friendship with Gene at one of his local convention appearances. Gene is an amazing personality as well as a writer. Those few times I was able to share with him will remain with me forever. Through a series of incredible coincidences, my wife's career in Chicago media had her promoting the upcoming Fuller Award for Gene Wolfe, so we were invited to attend the event due to both professional and personal relationships. The setting of the award ceremony was at the Sanfilippo Estate, the family home of Chicago's own nut barons who operate the Fisher Nut empire. The Sanfilippo Foundation opens the estate to notable events in the Chicago area in a venue that showcases their amazing collection of eclectic items ranging from vintage carousels to steam engines, circus art to antique electronic fortune tellers: a melange that could best be described as a steampunk-fairy-carnival. This was the perfect setting for an unforgettable night of music, stage-plays, readings and speeches from SF notables. The event was an intimate affair, perhaps a hundred guests, almost all of whom were people with a much stronger connection to Gene than I, ranging from his personal family to fellow writers and accomplished authors. I like to think of my symbolic identity there that ethereal evening as the one of the multitude of unknown admirers silently acknowledging the profound influence that the great authors such as Gene Wolfe have upon our lives.
Neil Gaiman presents the Fuller Award
Update: Gene Wolfe passed away on April 14, 2019, just a few weeks after posting this reminiscence. He will be dearly missed by all.