Acclaimed science fiction writer who also helped invent Pringles

Born: May 7, 1931;

Died: April 14, 2019

GENE Wolfe, who has died aged 87, was a writer, predominantly of science fiction and fantasy, who was described by Ursula Le Guin as the genre’s Melville and by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as “quite possibly the most important” author in the field.

Others, including Neil Gaiman, Michael Swanwick, Patrick O’Leary and Harlan Ellison, did not confine his status to the genre, but argued for him as the greatest living writer of English, tout court. His best-known work, The Book of the New Sun (1980-83) was described by George RR Martin, author of Game of Thrones, as “one of the greatest science-fantasy epics of all time” and in a poll conducted by Locus was voted the third-best fantasy published before 1990 (beaten only by The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit).

For all his critical acclaim – he won many honours and awards – Wolfe was never a particularly popular or influential writer, though his enthusiasts could be obsessively devoted. Nor was he chiefly notable for originality in science-fictional ideas, whether it was the effect of innovative technologies, as in the work of Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke or, like Philip K Dick, philosophically speculative “What Ifs?”.

Wolfe’s greatness rested in his fiercely controlled prose style, and in his ability to take and reshape literary models and devices so that his books, filled with dense and often almost subliminal allusions, fulfilled his stated aim of producing something “that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increasing pleasure”.

Gene Rodman Wolfe was born on May 7 1931 in New York City, but raised in Texas. He contracted polio as a child and became an avid reader; the Buck Rogers comic strips and pulp magazines such as Thrilling Wonder Stories were early enthusiasms.

After Lamar High School in Houston, he enrolled in Texas A&M University, where the college paper printed some of his early forays into fiction. He dropped out to serve in the Korean War (his experiences were recorded in Letters Home, which he published in 1991) and then returned to the University of Houston, where he studied mechanical engineering.

He worked professionally as an industrial engineer, where his most significant achievement was to contribute to the design of the machine which shaped the potato shavings that, when fried, became Pringles. In later life, Wolfe maintained that he could tell, from the shape of a broken Pringle, at which point in the manufacturing process something had gone wrong.

Writing became a career when he took over as one of the editors on the journal Plant Engineering, but it was 1965 before his fiction, rather than his technical writing, began to be published, with the short story The Dead Man. He wrote several stories for Damon Knight’s Orbit in the late 1960s, and then in 1970, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories.

Despite the title, that was one story; it was mistakenly announced as the winner of a Nebula award by Asimov and, when the error became clear, he jokingly suggested Wolfe try writing another one called the Death of Dr Island. He did, and it won the 1973 Nebula for best novella. For good measure, Wolfe then wrote The Doctor of Death Island (1978). The three were published, together with Death of the Island Doctor as The Wolfe Archipelago (1983).

His first novel, Operation ARES, appeared in 1970, though it was his second, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972), a fix-up of three linked tales, which brought him notice. It was, like much of his work, a meditation on identity, memory and truth, written in a confessional style by a highly unreliable narrator; it was also oblique and riddled with clues easily missed by the inattentive – though highly satisfactory and lucid on rereading. It was also richly allusive, and stamped with the influence of GK Chesterton. Wolfe, who was brought up Presbyterian, had converted to Roman Catholicism, which he had begun to study and by which he became convinced during his courtship of his wife Rosemary, and once cited Chesterton and Marks’ Handbook of Engineering as his primary literary influences.

Wolfe said that it was impossible to keep Catholicism out of his writing, though he wrapped his religious themes in highly personal symbols. Peace (1975) was a painstaking exploration of the afterlife and its implications (though not science fiction), as well as of the process of understanding lived experience, and of creating fiction.

The Book of the New Sun appeared in four volumes – The Shadow of the Torturer; The Claw of the Conciliator; The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch – and dealt with a member of the Torturers’ Guild, expelled for showing compassion, in a far-future Earth (Urth) which owed something to the post-apocalyptic sword-and-sorcery romances of Jack Vance. It also functioned as an allegory (with Severian, the chief protagonist, as a secular Christ or Apollo.

After retiring and focusing on fiction full-time in 1984, Wolfe published a number of sequels in the same universe; a quartet, The Book of the Long Sun (1993-96) and a trilogy, The Book of the Short Sun (1999-2001). Castleview (1990) translated the Arthurian legend to Illinois (where Wolfe lived most of his adult life, on the outskirts of Chicago); the Latro sequence, Soldier of the Mist (1986); Soldier of Arete (1989) and Soldier of Sidon (2006), was about a Greek soldier cursed by the gods with an inability to form new memories. There were several short story collections, most produced in the 1970s; other novels included The Knight and its sequel The Wizard (both 2004); The Sorcerer’s House (2010) and Home Fires (2011). His last published book was 2015’s blend of sf and noir detective fiction, A Borrowed Man.

A popular, affable figure, easily recognisable at conventions with his huge walrus moustache, Wolfe won numerous awards, including the World Fantasy Awards lifetime achievement award, the Science Fiction Writers’ of America and the Nebula Awards Grand Master awards, and induction in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2007.

Wolfe moved to Peoria in 2013, a few years after suffering serious heart trouble and shortly before his wife’s death. He died at home there on April 14.