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New Sun – Old SF?

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Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been rereading Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun as part of a group read on LibraryThing. I first (and last) read the tetrology back in the mid-1980s.

It’s been an interesting experience.

The Book of the New Sun comprises four novels – The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch – all published between 1981 and 1983; and a later sequel, The Urth of the New Sun, published in 1988. The Shadow of the Torturer won the World Fantasy Award in 1981, and The Claw of the Conciliator won the Nebula Award in 1981. All five books were nominated for the Nebula, and The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor and The Urth of the New Sun were all shortlisted for the Hugo Award. There are also at least three critical analyses of The Book of the New Sun: Lexicon Urthus, Solar Labyrinth and Shadows of the New Sun. The first four books have also been published as two omnibus editions in the Fantasy Masterworks series.

In other words, this is a very highly regarded series of sf novels.

When I first read The Book of the New Sun, I think I was vaguely aware of its reputation. I didn’t, however, know that the story contained a large number of riddles and puzzles – such as the identity of protagonist Severian’s mother. I do now. In fact, I also own copies of Michael Andre-Druissi’s Lexicon Urthus and Robert Borski’s Solar Labyrinth. The first is a dictionary and compendium of characters, places, and unfamiliar terms from The Book of the New Sun; the second is an analysis of the story’s various puzzles. Neither are necessary to enjoy the five books – they’re for those interested in learning more about them.

Even though it had been a couple of decades since I’d last read The Book of the New Sun, I’d not forgotten its plot. I had forgotten many of the details, however. Severian is a torturer, a member of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence guild, and lives in the Citadel in the city of Nessus. When a noble lady from the Autarch’s palace, the House Absolute, is sent to the guild for “excruciation”, Severian is tasked with looking after her. He falls in love with her and, expressly against his training and the wishes of his guild, provides her with a knife which she uses to kill herself. The guild masters decide not to expel him from the guild, but instead send him to the northern city of Thrax to become that city’s lictor (i.e., prison warden and executioner). En route, he has several adventures and meets many people. In Thrax, he once again fails his guild – the archon asks him to kill a woman whose serial adultery has become an embarrassment to her husband, a prosperous noble; but Severian instead aids her escape. So he flees further north, experiencing further adventures… before becoming the Autarch himself. The Book of the New Sun is phrased as his memoirs, written years afterwards from his eidetic memory while he is Autarch.

The above is only a very brief outline of the plot. I’ve glossed over much of it – the “adventures”, his meetings with the rebellious Volidarus, his time with the Autarch’s army fighting the invading Ascians – all of which are important to Severian’s growth, his eventual assumption of the autarchy, and the many riddles in the story.

Regular readers of this blog will remember my recent post on “classic” science fiction, Don’t Look Back in Awe. While The Book of the New Sun is only twenty-seven years old, it’s still considered a classic of the genre. Some even consider it one of the best science fiction novels ever written. I was surprised, on this reread, to actually find that, well, to find that I didn’t like it very much. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, since I’ve always been conflicted about Wolfe – I have a high regard for his novels, but at the same time I hate his short fiction. And yes, that includes this year’s Hugo Award nominated novella, ‘Memorare’.

I should add that I didn’t like The Book of the New Sun because it’s a classic. I still think it’s a very good book. But. One of its defining characteristics is its use of archaic, obsolete and arcane words for various objects and concepts, the conceit being that Wolfe is “translating” the manuscript and uses such words because Severian does. So there are no swords mentioned in The Book of the New Sun, there are hangers and falchions and spadroons (among others). The fauna includes merychip, hesperorn and arctother. Ships are caiques or feluccas or xebecs. While this does give a feeling of exoticism and great antiquity to the story, it also felt in many places intrusive. But perhaps that was because some of the vocabulary was not obscure to me. I know what a dhow is (well, I did live in the Middle East). I know what cuir boli is (I spent my teen years playing Dungeons & Dragons). The words felt obfuscatory rather than clever.

There’s also an uncomfortable thread of misogyny running throughout the four books. Severian is a torturer, which immediately calls his morality into question. But almost all of his victims are women. When he eventually arrives at Baldander’s laboratory, he writes,

“… I saw what remained of a young woman who might have been a sister of Pia’s lying beneath a shimmering bell jat. Her abdomen had been opened with a sharp blade and certain of her viscera removed and positioned around her body… Her eyes opened as I passed…”

Later, he adds,

“I was acutely conscious, as I spoke, of the eviscerated woman mumbling beneath her glass somewhere behind me, a thing that would not have bothered the torturer Severian in the least.”

This, we are meant to realise, means Severian has grown, become a more moral person. Yes, Severian is a product of his (invented) world, and must be true to it if the fiction is to have any rigour. But that shouldn’t prevent a reader questioning the writer’s artistic decisions when creating that world.

The Book of the New Sun is a very clever book. It can’t, however, be read as an example of a less convoluted high fantasy narrative, which its outward appearance might initially suggest. This is not A Song of Ice and Fire or The Malazan Book of the Fallen by another name. It’s a book which requires full engagement by the reader – it’s all, or nothing. It’s not a book to be read lightly.

All of which is not, to me, a bad thing. But I came away from this reread not liking The Book of the New Sun for several reasons. The intrusive vocabulary. The misogyny. The seemingly random leaps in internal chronology. The fact that some of the plot elements seemed to exist only in order to present a puzzle.

Do I think The Book of the New Sun is a classic? Yes. But I suspect decades from now that Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus is the one that will still be seen as a classic, but The Book of the New Sun won’t.

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7 thoughts on “New Sun – Old SF?

  1. i have to agree with you. i’ve not reread yet the new sun, but reading other gene wolfe during the last months, especially his short stories (including “memorare”) have made me suspect that i won’t like it if i reread it, which is sad since i loved the book the first time.i’m also hating his misogyny (spoiling such stories as “the ziggurat”) and the odd moral of his characters (all male, or almost all), which you may think is a necessity of the story, but when you find it again and again, feeling the main character is always the same and makes the same kind of choices, you start to think that it is wolfe trying to convince somebody, maybe himself, that that is the right way of things.and yes, fifth head is greater.

  2. i meant, the odd morality

  3. I believe Wolfe is largely misunderstood: if you've read Borges or Philip K. Dick, (and even Niven) the "puzzles" in the plot (and characters) become a larger plot outside of the fiction, which add to the overall oeuvre and depth, making it much more than the sum of its parts – a staple of literature. As far as Wolfe's misogyny, I think that is part & parcel of his generation than is his artistry and overall message. Consult Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway for real misogyny.

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  7. I appreciate that this is an old blog, but wanted to offer a comment on an interesting conversation. I have likewise re-read TBONS a number of times and also had differing reactions to it on each occasion. I very much appreciate the comments made here, but wanted just to pick up on the issue of Sevarian’s misogyny. My idea is that as readers we are reacting to Thecla’s jealousy, not Sevarian’s misogyny. I suggest that Sevarian’s reaction to women was much more straightforward (and nicer, frankly) before he ate Thecla’s flesh and the Claw awakened her consciousness inside him. From then onwards, his relationships with women take a decidedly nastier turn. He has become two intertwined lovers, and Thecla never takes kindly to a third person in the relationship. I think the descriptions of Thecla early on clearly imply that she wasn’t a particularly nice person. It isn’t until he becomes the Autarch – and the two become the many – that he is able to restore some sanity to his relationship with women.

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