Every time a speculative-fiction thread comes up around here, I am amazed how few people here are familiar with Gene Wolfe, one of the finest living writers, in or out of any genre, and a very serious Catholic convert and scholar. His ‘Book of the New Sun’ is considered by many to be the most important work of fantastic literature in the last 50 years, and is deeply (and never simply) concerned with matters of religion and philosophy. Not religion as we know it now, but as such matters may be in a far-future, Dying Earth setting, and the baroque and decadent society thereof. Wolfe’s erudition and craftsmanship continue to stun me every time I open it, not to mention his absolute confidence in the first-person narrative form, brought to us by Severian, an inconsistent, sometimes dishonest narrator, at once ferocious, kind and picaresque. He is a very strange Messiah, in a very strange reality.
Another of his works is known as the ‘Book of the Long Sun,’ which happens to be set in an immense generational starship encompassing entire nation states, and with many elements that will seem more familiar to Catholics (the main character is Silk, a charming and sincere young priest, and while his religion isn’t Catholicism as we know it, it is very clearly an altered version of Catholicism).
Lastly I would recommend the ‘Soldier’ books, which are set in the Ancient World, just after the Persian Wars and just before Periclean Athens is in full swing. Our narrator is a brain damaged mercenary, who cannot remember anything for longer than 24 hours, and this is the journal he writes in an attempt to hold on to what is left of himself. But he can see and speak with the gods, nymphs and other supernatural beings of Attic Greece. The first two (there has recently been an addition) are bound together as 'Latro in the Mist). Well researched and audaciously executed, I recommend these wholeheartedly.
Then there’s his slightly creepy ‘mainstream’ work, ‘Peace,’ which may seem rather calm in comparison to the fireworks of the works I have already mentioned – until the reader realizes that the narrator may, or may not be, a serial killer. It’s lyrical, chilling, and even more eerily, it may be partly autobiographical (probably not the serial-killing subtext, but still!)
I haven’t even mentioned his breakthrough novel, ‘The 5th Head of Cerberus,’ a huge wealth of utterly brilliant short fiction (if you’d like to read just one, I suggest Westwind, but just pick up ‘The Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories,’–you won’t be sorry), a host other novels, all of which are at least very good, and usually more than just very-good.
Wolfe’s most obvious influences are G.K.Chesterton, Robert Graves, Jack Vance and Jorge Luis Borges. If what I wrote above didn’t convince you, perhaps that might? I do hope so.
Edit: Oh hey, looks like Wolfe has another novel coming out in November, and indeed this one’s protagonist is a certain Father Christopher, during the age of high-seas piracy! It also sounds like there will be some odd temporal and headgame-playing, but I’d only expect that from this author. Wolfe has always loved tales of the swash and buckle, and it should be great fun to read his own take on that genre.