Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Severian obviously had a presentiment of his future. But Gene Wolfe is a writer who will never say anything outright if he can instead hint, and who will never say something simple when he can imply something complex.

Since life itself is complex, that can make Wolfe a deeply engaging writer who makes worlds as quirky and real as our own. It can also make him a frustratingly vague writer who never quite makes important points clear. But no artist hits his heights all the time: all have less successful works.

Today, I'm writing about Wolfe's most famous, and one of his most successful, stories: The Book of the New Sun. Originally published as the four novels The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch between 1980 and 1982, it's most commonly seen as the two omnibuses Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel today. (Back when I worked for the SFBC, I did a single-volume edition with a new Don Maitz cover as an included poster; there have been other single-volume editions over the years as well.)

Severian is the narrator and main character of New Sun. Well, the story is all told in the first person, telling a single story in sequence, starting with the experiences of a young man named Severian...but that person will be quite different, in very science-fictional ways, by the end of the story. Still, let us call him Severian: he does.

We meet Severian as a teenager, an apprentice of the Order for the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, vulgarly known as the guild of torturers, housed in the Matachin Tower of the Citadel, somewhere deep in the ancient sprawling city of Nessus on the river Gyoll. Gyoll and Nessus are on Urth -- this is so far in the future that the name of the planet has drifted, so far in the future (it's implied) that the continents themselves have drifted a bit, so the lands surrounding Nessus are similar but not identical to our South America. It's so far in the future that empires have risen and fallen, men have expanded to the stars and lost that capability -- possibly more than once. It's so far in the future that our own age is a hazy mythic past, mostly forgotten and entirely misunderstood. It's so far in the future that the "towers" of the Citadel are clearly spaceships of some kind, in the traditional old '50s phallic shapes, left rusting in what may have been their port however many ages ago. It's so far in the future that, in a nod to Jack Vance, the Sun is slowly dying, this Urth growing colder and less amenable to life, as they both await a prophesied deliverer, the "New Sun" who is both a person and the white hole he will bring to that star to rejuvenate it for another age.

(Nearly all of those things, like everything interesting and important in a Wolfe novel, need to be figured out by the reader. I'll state more of those discoveries baldly here, and leave some vague -- in this, I'll be clearer than Wolfe, but in my defense I'm doing something different here than he was.)

Severian is a brilliant creation: a self-declared man with perfect memory who is forced to confront the things he has forgotten, a man intelligent but self-deluded in multiple ways, insightful but deeply limited, writing from a perspective much later than the events he's telling us about and coloring those memories through everything else he tells us and doesn't tell us. [1] And the world he travels across is equally wondrous, at first feeling like a standard sword & sorcery world -- Severian even gets a big sword with a fancy name for his journeys -- but full of revealing hints about the true nature of those elements. Wolfe writes books like onions, with nearly endless thin layers of new revelations and implications, and Book of the New Sun is the book where the still-young Wolfe stretched to show the full depth of what he could do. He wrote other multi-book sequences later on -- the loosely-linked Latro novels, and two similar and loosely related sequences to New Sun, called The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun respectively -- but this was where he captured lightning in a jar, writing a deeply Wolfean story full of hidden depths that still had a bright exciting surface to draw in readers and make them want to explore those depths.

Later, Wolfe's books would seem to wander, but New Sun is carefully constructed, full of parallels and made up of four novels that each cover specific way-points on Severian's journey. (And, in that very Wolfean way, the beginning of one book does not pick up from the end of the previous one -- New Sun is one story, but not one continuous narrative. Wolfe must always leave himself places to hide things.)

It begins, as I said, with young Severian, sneaking out with his fellow apprentices to swim in the river, against the rules. He "nearly" drowns in that river, and then has a life-changing encounter in the graveyard the boys travel through on the way back. The opening chapters of Shadow of the Torturer could lull the reader into expecting a traditional coming-of-age story: it's organized around his life in the Matachin Tower, as he becomes head of the apprentices, moves towards taking his next role as a journeyman, and has more responsibilities towards his order's "clients."

But the first reversal that the reader is likely to notice -- Wolfe has already palmed a few in those early chapters, which you won't realize until later -- is on the way, and Severian will be walking far from the Citadel, in his four-part journey, with various companions and alone, across this big and complex world, filled with ancient words that hint at but don't exactly explain the things they label. (Calvary ride "destriers" that are in no way horses, bearing "conti" and "lances" that fire what seem to be energy beams.) Half of the enjoyment is just in seeing what Wolfe does with words, and following Severian's near-picaresque adventures. The other, deeper half lies in figuring out what is really happening: the things Severian doesn't tell us or doesn't realize himself.

This is one of the greatest achievements in science fiction, so I do recommend you read it, at least once. (Though it's the kind of book that you get more out of on a re-read: if it were possible, I'd recommending reading it for the second time to begin with.) If you do read it, remember: everything Wolfe tells you is important. Every detail connects to something else; every character has things to tell you about the world or their relationships; every time Severian mentions his perfect memory is a tell that something he's writing about is wrong, a lie or a bad memory or something more subtle. This is not a book for a lazy reader, for the person willing to give it full attention, it can be a book of gold.

[1] He is also, I should mention, casually cruel to women: his whole world values life very low to begin with, but it could be argued Severian is even more misogynistic than misanthropic. This is a minor point when writing about New Sun, but more important when looking at Wolfe's work as a whole, where women do not fare very well at all.

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