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Review of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun

Shadow and Claw, Gene Wolfe, Orb, 2002, 413 pp.

This omnibus contains The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator, which were originally published in 1980 and 1981 respectively.

Few genre writers have the reputation of Gene Wolfe. He's known for the intelligence and formidable nature of both his science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as a fairly prolific output over the last thirty years. His books generally get quotes from the other big names in the field, mostly praising his writerly qualities. How do his books match up to the reputation that proceeds them?

I should mention up front one way in which his books are most often a letdown: their cover art. Obviously, this has little to do with Wolfe himself, but I would recommend his books more often if the covers were better. Regarding genre covers, there is a spectrum that runs from too trashy to too classy; if your book is about exploding spaceships and brainsucking aliens, you don't want something upscale! But somehow Wolfe gets stuck with covers that are, on balance, too trashy. As I'll discuss in greater detail, these covers fit the flamboyant nature of his picaresque plots… but if that’s all that registers on you as you read Wolfe's work, then you will become more and more baffled. Unfortunately, these Orb omnibuses (which now make available the four books of The Book of the New Sun in two companion editions) carry on the artwork from the original editions, eye-catching in their ugliness. In no way do they match what's inside.

So, what is The Book of the New Sun? All four books are written exclusively in the first person, from the point of view of someone named Severian who lives on the planet Urth. He starts off in the first book as a young boy apprenticed to the guild of torturers and we follow him as he grows up physically, emotionally, and morally. He's a classic unreliable narrator, although this isn't easy to keep in mind since he mentions, as often as once a chapter, that he has an eidetic memory and is cursed to remember everything. Like most everything related to the New Sun, the reader recognizes that there is something else going on but it's hard to see what.

For example, we are so submersed in Severian’s point of view that it takes an enormous amount of time to realize the nature of Urth and the strange occurrences on it. Urth is clearly a planet from the distant past or far future, with inhabitants who are suffering due to the entropy-related decay of their sun. The old sun is dying. How can people who have lost spacefaring knowledge deal with such a cosmic event? This has been the subject of many other books, most of them obvious science fiction like Banks' Feersum Endjinn. But even with all the blurbs about science fiction plastered on the front and back covers, the first two books in Wolfe's quartet feel much different.

In fact, the first book, The Shadow of the Torturer, feels like nothing so much as Peake’s fabulous Gormenghast series. As patient readers will know, Peake’s massive trilogy was an exercise in introspection and suffocating ritual, all taking place within a single castle. There’s no link to the outside world; the royal apparatus and its ceremonies has become divorced from reality a long time ago. This could have been a heavy-handed and cynical lesson about human nature, but what I liked about Peake was his refusal to moralize. Like the best genre work, he focused on the detail of the story at hand and let the meaning grow organically from that.

Similarly, Severian's story starts in the Citadel, a brooding, ancient, and massive castle that dominates the city of Nessus. Severian knows that there is a city out there but he never sees it, enmeshed as he is in the ritual and ceremony of the torturer's guild. Unlike Peake, however, Wolfe makes constant asides on the nature of the story and what's going on. Or more properly, Severian makes these comments, so I suppose that Wolfe continues to build character in this way. This makes for a very different feel to the narrative.

In the first 100 pages of The Shadow of the Torturer, Severian has not stepped outside of the Citadel grounds once. But a beautiful prisoner named Thecla and some mercy on Severian's part lead to his expulsion from the guild. Now he's in the city, and intriguingly, the tone of the book does not change that much. In fact, Severian doesn't leave Nessus until the end of the first book, so that the first fourth of the story feels constrained in the same way as Gormenghast.

That constraint is mirrored in another way: there is no escape from Severian's personality and his point of view. His memory might be perfect but he's not always understanding of other people and their quirks, and he relays a great deal of information with an accompanying layer of metaphysical commentary but without much in the way of explanation. Wolfe's intent is clear: he has stated in numerous interviews that he never wanted to give a clue more than once in The Book of the New Sun, and this necessarily reflects in Severian's character, since he is the protagonist and narrator. So we're left with a compulsive talker who lives through many vivid events but refuses to explain them or connect them. It's an odd combination that I will return to.

Before I discuss more of plot, I will mention one more thing, partly related to our submersion in Severian’s point of view. As Severian puts it in the fifth book, he has a persistent desire for women’s flesh. In other words, he’s constantly having sex. Fine, except that he’s also the world’s biggest jerk (and worse; he admits in the fifth book that at least one of his conquests was as much as rape). Part of Wolfe's point is to show Severian's progression as a person -- if only he would change! -- and partly to show that Severian is not perfect. I have nothing against an author picking a repulsive trait as a marker for a character. Fair warning, though.

As I've said, Severian grows up in the torturer's guild. But before we learn much about the torturers, the book opens with a scene in a nearby graveyard, as the young Severian comes across a party of grave robbers. We don't know much about Severian or the world he lives in, but we know that he chooses to defend the grave robbers, in particular a man named Vodalus, against attackers, and then commits to Vodalus' rebellion against the Autarch, the ruler of the land.

Then he sits on this commitment for quite some time. Life in the guild intervenes, then life in the city. One of the first things that happens to him in Nessus is a transportation mishap that sends him literally flying into the shrine of the Pellerines, a religious order dedicated to the Conciliator. In a not-so-accidental accident, he somehow finds the Pellerines' most holy artifact, the gem known as the Claw of the Conciliator, in his pocket. This is, of course, the name of the second book in the series, and it's a memorable one because the Claw has the power, at least in Severian's hands, to raise the dead.

He also raises a woman named Dorcas from the waters of the Botanic Garden, meets a giant named Baldanders and two companions, survives the intrigues of an evil brother and sister pair named Agilus and Agia, and fights a duel against an unknown opponent who stabs him with a leaf.

The Claw of the Conciliator begins with a disconcerting leap ahead in the chronology of the story. Severian and Dorcas are now separated, and Severian is doing freelance work as an executioner. It's through a job as executioner that gets back in touch with the rebellion and Vodalus. Vodalus has dug up the body of Thecla, and through the use of a potent drug, the rebels all eat portions of Thecla's body and gain access to her memories. Wolfe calls this a diabolical eucharist when he talks about this scene in interviews, and that's about as clear as you can get.

A few scenes later, Severian has been captured on his way to the House Absolute, the underground palace of the Autarch, and thrown into a communal prison there. The palace of the Autarch is an extremely odd place, and Severian is glad to get out. The second volume of The Book of the New Sun ends with a bizarre encounter in a deserted house in the middle of a desolate area. Again, we don't know of the significance of this encounter until much later.

Sword and Citadel, Gene Wolfe, Orb, 2002, 411 pp.

This omnibus contains The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch, which were originally published in 1981 and 1982 respectively.

The second half of The Book of the New Sun finishes the story of Severian. He continues his adventures, and then with little in the way of warning, he’s the Autarch, the ruler of Urth, and the chosen one who will bring the New Sun to Urth and save the planet from entropy. It's all a bit strange; I pointed out in my review of the first two novels that the significance of some events can only be known later in the series, but Wolfe deliberately skimps on the connective material. Is it the unreliability of Severian's narration or Wolfe’s hidden plan? Those are the same thing, of course, but it's a tribute to Wolfe's writing skill that Severian seems like such a distinct individual.

So naturally, during The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch, I started getting worried about not following what Wolfe meant all along the way. The surface of the plot is a picaresque, but somehow it’s all adding up to something.

Simultaneously, we also start to learn a bit more about the science fiction underpinnings of the story. The people who live on Urth might be ignorant of their surroundings and live their lives as if in Gormenghast, but gradually Severian starts to see clues about what is really going on. For one thing, he meets several people from space, including Jonas (who came in a bit earlier), an artificial being, and several other odd things. You could say his eyes are opened.

That doesn't mean, however, that Severian begins to think like a rational 21st century inhabitant of Earth. When something especially advanced happens, scientifically speaking, Severian still observes through his Urth eyes. Many of the metaphysical passages in The Book of the New Sun are ones that we have to parse as SF events through Severian's own version. In this vein, there's never any gesture in the direction of a detailed SF explanation.

That's a pure thing, and one that is very hard to do. It's a type of project that many literary SF writers do (a good example would be Maureen F. McHugh's Nekropolis). Remove all technobabble and Godlike explanation, and focus, with complete exclusion of all else, on the experience of the protagonist.

But as I've mentioned, this approach has not made any of the New Sun books easier to read. In fact, I would say that they are much more difficult (as is the experience of reading Nekropolis). If you are reading a hard SF book, and you are a physicist or a scientist who keeps up with a certain amount of speculation (a small percentage of readers, but not insignificant), you will be able to understand the goings on. For the New Sun, everyone is starting from scratch. Sure, some readers might have more aptitude for these kinds of involuted literary shenanigans, but the material here will be new for everyone all the same.

As is sometimes my suspicion with metafiction and books that you are supposed to puzzle out, my first reaction is: the emperor has no clothes. Does Wolfe present a puzzle that can be pondered? Or one that is worth being pondered? I don't have conclusive answers for the first question, but I would say that the second question can be answered in the affirmative. In my own reading preferences, I have come to see the most value in work that is as clearly and entertainingly written as possible, yet still possesses some higher qualities worth thinking about later. Understandably, that's a rarefied selection. Yet I am cognizant of Wolfe's project here -- to never repeat a clue, to layer the stories, to build the structures of meaning slyly -- and I appreciate the difficulty of completing the project in such a pure way. Your mileage, as they say, may vary, as mine did. It's still an interesting achievement.

The Sword of the Lictor opens with Severian in the position of authority he ostensibly left Nessus for: executioner for the city of Lictor. He stays there for a few chapters with Dorcas, but he has to leave in a hurry (as he has to leave many situations in the series) when he refuses to execute a woman. Chapter XIII is entitled "Into the Mountains" and that is descriptive of the next section of the book, in which Severian has many adventures in the nearby mountain range.

Most disturbing among them is his stop at a widow's house on a lonely plateau; he stays the night and befriends the woman and her young son, only to find that a monster called an alzabo prowls the area. Severian and the young boy barely escape with their lives.

Within a few chapters, Severian and the boy (who he has called Severian) find a gigantic statue in a strange deserted town. Of all the bizarre and vividly narrated episodes in these four books, for some reason it's this statue that has lodged in my memory most firmly. The two Severians see a ring on one of the fingers of the statue, and climb up to look at it or grab it, with disastrous results. Just as disturbingly, Severian has an encounter with the supposedly long-dead monarch who caused the statue to be built. A few chapters later, Severian has a fight with the giant Baldanders that closes the book.

The Citadel of the Autarch features war most prominently. All along in the series, we have heard about a war with the Ascians that is sapping the strength of the Autarch's realm. Now Severian experiences it first-hand. I don't want to give away too much about this section of the series, since it caps all that has preceded. Suffice to say that war on Urth is just as deadly and unusual as many of the other events that have happened to Severian.

While Severian is recuperating in a rough military hospital, we get the clearest example of a strong tendency in Wolfe's style: small side stories. A convalescent woman has three suitors, and she says she will pick the one who has the best tale to tell, with Severian as her chosen judge. Each story is about a chapter in length. Many of the other stories along the way, before this point and after, are shorter, but some considerably longer. For the longer example, I'm thinking of one of the things in the second book, a transcript of a play that Baldanders, Severian, and some friends put on. This play ties in more directly to the plot than many of the other side stories (although we don’t find out about this until much later).

I liked the unrelated stories. They fit in with the antiquated style of Wolfe's prose in this series, and the unusual way the people have of thinking about events. I'm reminded, in fact, of Cervantes' Don Quixote, a book with innumerable tales on the side. Cervantes set about to poke fun at certain medieval/romantic notions and somehow came to embody much of that cultural history. Wolfe's side stories too often have an ironic turn that becomes serious in retrospect.

Once Severian has undergone his sudden transformation to supreme ruler, he heads back to the city of Nessus, the Citadel, and the torturer's guild for a few scenes that serve to wrap up the story. He's the Autarch and he's ready to save the solar system. As I'll discuss next, it's a conventional SF story in some ways, and in other ways, something that has not been imitated or outdone.

The Urth of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe, Tor, 1988, 372 pp.

A few years after the New Sun quartet was formally complete, Gene Wolfe wrote a follow-up novel called The Urth of the New Sun. If you've read The Book of the New Sun, you already have a guess as to what this book will be about: at the end of the earlier series, the main character, Severian, prepares to go on a fantastical journey that will renew the powers of the sun in his solar system. From a purely narrative sense, this extra book is unnecessary: Severian has reached the goal or passed the rite of passage. Many other books that have portrayed a similar character arc have called it a day once the protagonist has reached that moment of completion. Often it's not a good idea to continue the story, simply because the difficulty of matching what's come before is so high.

But it still happens quite often, and I’m always curious to see what a writer does in response to something like the common reader demand for more. “More!” What if, like The Book of the New Sun, the project is esthetically complete?

And since Severian falls, broadly speaking, into the character type in genre fiction of the hero who discovers his powers, how does this compare to other series that have continued past that point of discovery? Dune comes to mind. Frank Herbert used the spine of the rite of passage for his story in the first book, but then spent subsequent books breaking down those stereotypes. Considered cynically, he got people hooked then skewered those very same assumptions. In the case of Herbert, though, if you go back to re-read the first book, those deconstructive themes are there.

In contrast to Dune, there are the cases of Clarke’s 2001 and the Matrix movies. The Kubrick and Clarke version of 2001 is the most perfectly self-contained ascent into post-human powers as could be imagined. The sequels, written by Clarke, didn’t find much for the Star Baby to do, and felt like solid but otherwise unrelated SF novels grafted onto the 2001 mythology. The Matrix was another item that stood well on its own, but was followed by movies that hadn't considered what to do with their newly powerful hero.

So, at the end of The Book of the New Sun, Severian has fulfilled his fate. He is now Autarch, and he’s destined to be the one to bring the New Sun. What next?

This book picks up a few years later. Severian is on a spaceship on his way to the test that will determine if he can bring the New Sun to Urth or not. Like much of the description that came in the first four books, Severian is only telling things as he sees them. However, in this book the storyline is much more overtly science fiction. For all his talk about the ship that sails between the suns, the necklace that gives him breathable air in the void, and so forth, with a slight change in perspective we’ve got a spaceship and various bits of fancy nanotechnology. I think I preferred this book to the earlier ones, at least in this specific context. The tension between what Severian describes and what the reader recognizes is much more lively this time out. At the same time, this book is much less unique than the earlier entries in the series, since there is often very little ambiguity.

As per Wolfe’s style in this series so far, plot-wise, Severian doesn’t have much luck once he’s on the ship. In the first chapter, he just about sends himself off into the void, and by the second chapter, he’s involved in various deadly struggles among the passengers, crew, strange beasts, and a rebellious group known as the jibers. I can scarcely count how many near-death experiences he has undergone by this point.

A nice twist, though: Severian has passed his test by the halfway point in the book, which I was not expecting. But the second half does not go according to expectations either, as he heads back to Urth. When he arrives, he has the power to heal the sick and raise the dead, a power which, true to form, causes him to get into various dangerous scrapes. Later, we find out the true nature of some of those close encounters with death on Severian's part, and there are some unusually talky portions to close the book and the series.

In the end, I found that this book relied a little too heavily on the earlier four books. Wolfe’s "leave no unnecessary clues" style is fine within the confines of a series, but it was quite frustrating with this book, published six years later. Yes, new events befell Severian, but by the nature of his return to Urth, he casts almost everything in terms of what went before.

All the same, I would have to put The Urth of the New Sun in the successful sequel camp. Severian doesn't catch a break, so his picaresque and danger-filled life continues as before, never mind his new powers. Some of the mysteries from the earlier four books are wrapped up. And the New Sun itself is shown in all its awesome destructiveness and creative potential, so the topic everyone has been talking about for five books is no let down.

Castle of Days, Gene Wolfe, Tor, 1992, 400 pp.

Castle of Days is an omnibus that contains three things: Gene Wolfe's Book of Days, a selection of Wolfe’s short stories; The Castle of the Otter, made up of some New Sun-related material; and Castle of Days, a collection of essays about writing and related topics. The Castle of the Otter is an obscure collection that came out in various forms in 1981, while The Book of the New Sun was not yet completely published (the title refers to a mistaken identification of the fourth New Sun book).

Here are the pieces in this collection: The Feast of Saint Catherine; Helioscope; Sun of Helioscope; Hands and Feet; Words Weird and Wonderful; Onomastics, the Study of Names; Cavalry in the Age of the Autarch; These Are the Jokes; The Rewards of Authorship; The Castle of the Otter; and Beyond the Castle of the Otter.

All told this is about 100 pages of material. The first few essays have to do with the genesis of the New Sun series. Wolfe mentions such influences as Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, the desire to write something big, the desire to show a young man approaching war, and a handful of other things. "Words Weird and Wonderful" contains a list of the words in the first book that Wolfe considers unusual, along with definitions. As Wolfe says, all of the words that he uses are real, no matter how strange or obscure they might seem. The following piece, "Onomastics," goes through Wolfe's theory of naming, which is simple: "Everything is just what it says it is" (252). With some research, a fan could have recreated all of this information, but Wolfe lays it out clearly.

"Cavalry in the Age of the Autarch" is an in-depth and quite serious look at some of the military theory behind the battles in the New Sun series, while "These Are the Jokes" tries to lighten the mood by telling a joke or short tale from the point of view of many of the characters. "The Rewards of Authorship" is a rambly Q&A, while the last two pieces talk about the deals and editors that were involved in getting the series out to the public. Wolfe includes some excerpts from reviews.

The Castle of the Otter goes further in explaining some elements than I was expecting; other aspects are not touched on at all. It's an odd collection of tidbits and leftovers, with no coherent theme or overview. It's also more than most authors get to do as a wrap-up for a series.

As I noted, Castle of Days has two other distinct items in it. The short stories are thematically related, based on holidays, and with a witty introduction (I would say don't miss it, but that would ruin the surprise, paradoxically). The essays on the topic of writing are as jumbled together as the New Sun material, so don't expect something like Wolfe's dissertation on the creative arts.

James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa.

Last modified: November 27, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by James Schellenberg

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Reviews | Columns | Issue #21

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