I recently finished the monumental epic Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. It was one of those things I had been hearing about for years and years, one of those series that seems to have had huge influence among many different authors.
All I knew about it before reading was that it was hugely influential and critically acclaimed, and that it was “science fantasy”. As I’ve been writing a lot of stuff that falls into the category of science fantasy lately, I thought I should probably read it.
As a reader, I have to admit that I often dread reading books that I’m “supposed” to read. It feels too much like homework, and doing homework is a guaranteed way to suck the joy out of reading. I much prefer just picking up and reading whatever sounds entertaining and exciting at the moment.
However, I was surprised and delighted to find a story that was beautifully-written, engaging, challenging, deep, and richly rewarding. It is a story that I expect to re-read again in 5 or 10 years and to get more out of it.
Book of the New Sun is a series of four short novels published in two volumes. The first volume, Shadow and Claw, contains the first two novels, Shadow of the Torturer and Claw of the Conciliator. The second volume, Sword and Citadel, contains the final two novels, Sword of the Lictor and Citadel of the Autarch.
In a nutshell, it is the story of Severian, who, through a series of adventures, rises from the lowly role of Journeyman Torturer to the role of Autarch, which is a sort of emperor. This is hardly a spoiler as Severian’s ultimate destiny is revealed within the first few pages. It’s not what ultimately happens to Severian that is interesting, it’s how it comes about, and what that transformation means. It’s also a story about the end of one world and the rebirth of another. Severian’s world is dying, its sun winding down, and according to the mythology of his world, a new sun will be born in the wake of the old.
I think it’s fair to say I was put off from the notion of the main character being a “torturer” by profession. I’m not a fan of protagonists who are brutal or needlessly cruel. For that reason I could never get past the opening of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. But Severian is far from cruel. Instead he’s incredibly thoughtful. When he engages in violence, it’s simply a trade for him, and rarely is the violence explicit. He gets no joy out of others’ suffering. Rather, he sees it as a necessity of the state, and the guild of torturers role is to do it efficiently and without unnecessary cruelty.
Severian is an introspective, thoughtful, and curious narrator who seeks to know more about his world and to understand his place in it. And yet, sometimes it seems that he knows less than we do. Severian has a perfect memory, and much of the narration of the book is shaped by what Severian remembers. There are also places that call Severian’s reliability as a narrator into question, introducing a certain level of tension. Throughout his adventures, Severian crosses paths with hosts of interesting characters: a woman he fishes out of a swamp, a woman who wants to kill him because she and her brother failed to swindle him, a theater producer and his giant-sized partner, a half-machine man, and a whole host of characters who may be from other worlds or other times.
The world is rich and beautifully drawn. It’s reminiscent of our own, enough that one cannot help but look for parallels to our own world that almost seem to be present. A very brief appendix to the first book implies that the book is a future history, a journal that somehow fell back in time. The writer of the appendix (presumably Wolfe, injecting himself into the novel as an invisible character), implies that, in translating the book, the language he chose to approximate the ideas was just that, an approximation, rather than a precise definition. This strange vagueness lives throughout the novel. Linguistically, Wolfe invents a new language from long-dead or forgotten ones. This is a world populated by cacogens, autarchs, optimates, lictors, and other obscure terms, that, with enough research, reveal some historical significance in our own world. It’s a world where there exist colors such as “fuligin”, which is somehow darker than black.
It’s an incredibly mysterious world, and the events of the story are often more puzzling, requiring me to stop and re-read the same two or three pages several times trying to make sense out of what happened. And there’s little sense to be found, at first. The language is obscure (and no glossary is included), the world is filled with strange characters that go about their lives doing things that seem completely baffling, events occur which seem to be at random, and the main character is puzzled by all this, but to also accept it as the way of things. Remember I said it was a challenging read!
After awhile, a pattern begins to emerge from the mystery. A world comes to life, a world where characters slip in and out of time, where chthonic beings plague characters’ dreams and thrust themselves into real life, where characters come back to life by accident or inhabit the lives of others. The theme and symbolism of the book becomes equally important to the plot, bringing a sense of richness that one does not often find.
In the third and fourth books, Severian begins to figure out things that cause him to reevaluate those memories of scenes of the earlier books. When this happens, we begin to understand those events, along with Severian, in a new light that completely reshapes our contextual understanding of the story as we have read it thus far. The first time that happened, I just stood up and walked around the house, stunned!
The theme is enriched by other narratives in the book. At several locations, Severian reads books or listens to stories told by others. In these instances, the actual story appears as a chapter in the book, as if you’re reading something by Italo Calvino. The second book concludes with an apoctalyptic play in which Severian plays a character. The actual text of the play appears in the novel.
One particularly interesting tidbit is the language of the Ascians, a race of invaders from the north. The Ascians only know certain phrases, memorized from a book that they all know. The passages they know can be moved about and repurposed, but they don’t have a language of words. It’s a language of concepts expressed through sentences. The interesting thing is that there is a subtext underlying the actual sentences and language, and it’s the subtext of this language by which the Ascians actually communicate. The words themselves have only thematic relevance to the message being conveyed. If this sounds completely bizarre, that’s because it is. Wikipedia has a decent explanation (far superior to mine), located here if you’re interested in learning more.
I can’t really say enough good things about these books. It’s one of those things I read that makes me feel as if the author wrote it just for me. I can admit, albeit reluctantly, that other people don’t always like the same things as me, and that’s okay. If you don’t enjoy dense, intellectual novels where you often don’t understand why things are happening the way they are, or you don’t like figuring out words from context, then this is probably not a series for you. However, if you want something that you feel rewarded by reading, and that you know you will get even more out of rereading, and if you like your stories to be weird blends of magic and technology (and not quite certain which is which), then this is probably a great choice for you.
This started out to be a blog post talking about Dying Earth stories in general, but it turned out that I had to gush for awhile about Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece. I guess he deserves it. 😉
Sometime soon I want to talk about another great Dying Earth author, Jack Vance, author of Tales of the Dying Earth. Vance passed away recently, and he is receiving some much-deserved renewed attention for his work. I’ll also talk about my own love of Dying Earth stories and science fantasy tales.
Our own sun will one day boil off our atmosphere and ultimately engulf our entire planet in a fiery doom, so get out this weekend and enjoy the weather!