History: A “lexicon” is “the vocabulary used by or known to an individual” (Wiktionary); “Urthus” is a bogus Latin genitive form derived from “Urth” – which is actually a Norse word, and the name of the eldest of the Norns (see Skuld and Verthandi), and not a corruption of “Earth”.
Commentary: the reputation of The Book of the New Sun rests in part on the word-games – the obscure and obscuring vocabulary – used by Wolfe in telling his story. Hidden beneath and within these unfamiliar terms are additional elements of the story. They also add to the flavour of Wolfe’s world-building. Using invented or unfamiliar terms is not a unique achievement, but Wolfe does not provide a glossary – unlike, say, Frank Herbert in Dune. Lexicon Urthus in part fills that role – it is subtitled “A dictionary for the Urth Cycle” – but it is also much more. Words are not simply glossed, but characters’ names are also explained – their origins and any connection between a historical person bearing that name and the character in the book, and a further commentary on each term. There is also a synopsis of all five books, and several maps of varying usefulness.
Some of the terms glossed are not so obscure:
dhow – a native vessel used on the Arabian Sea, generally with a single mast, and of 150 to 200 tons burden; a kind of lateen-rigged trading boat (I chap. 12, 114).
Others certainly are:
Murene – the name of the village on the shore of Lake Diuturna (III, chap. 32, 258).
History: (variant of “muraena”) in early use applied vaguely as the name of a kind of eel mentioned by ancient writers.
Lexicon Urthus‘s usefulness is specific. As is its appeal. It is for those interested in learning more about, and understanding more of, The Book of the New Sun. It is not an analysis of the story – as is, say, Robert Borski’s Solar Labyrinth – but it is a tool to aid in solving the Urth Cycle’s riddles. Its scholarship is impressive – as, one must assume, was Wolfe’s when he wrote The Book of the New Sun. This second edition corrects many of the errors and omissions discovered in the first edition and subsequently published in Errata & Corrigenda chapbooks.
This review originally appeared in Interzone, #219 December 2008.
The gauntlet has been laid down, and I’m up for the challenge.
What do I think are the best science fiction series?
For this list, I’ve defined a series as more than a trilogy, or a series of standalone novels set in the same universe and sharing a linked chronology. I actually put together a list of twenty series I like a great deal – not all of which I will happily admit are good – so choosing a top ten was harder than I’d expected. But after much soul-searching, I managed to pick ten I not only like a great deal, but also have a high regard for. And which, I believe, show a reasonable spread across the many different types and styles of heartland science fiction.
So, in time-honoured reverse order:-
10Dumarest Saga, EC Tubb
Over the course of thirty-three novels, Earl Dumarest travelled the galaxy, trying to find his home world, the mythical planet Earth. In each novel in this series, he landed on a new planet, had an adventure of some sort – which usually involved a) a beautiful woman, and b) a fight to the death – and discovered some clue which moved him one step closer to his home. He eventually reached it in book 32: The Return, which was originally published in French and later republished in English by a small press. The Dumarest saga was never intended as great literature – Tubb himself has said he was happy to churn them out as long as Donald Wollheim was happy to buy them for DAW – but that doesn’t mean they’re badly-written. There are no hamsters in wheels in this series. The Dumarest novels were formative books for me, and helped shape my view of science fiction. See here for the full list of books in the series.
9Alliance-Union, CJ Cherryh
These books aren’t so much a series as a tapestry. In around thirty books, Cherryh has created a huge future history, stretching across thousands of years. Not every book is especially good, and Cherryh’s brusque prose can be an acquired taste. But there’s no denying the achievement such a future history represents, nor the rigorous internal consistency Cherryh has maintained throughout the books. This is truly immersive stuff, peopled by characters who aren’t cardboard cut-outs, and comprising stories which are not afraid to explore a variety of weighty topics. See here for the full list of books in the series.
6Eight Worlds, John Varley
The Invaders came and destroyed human civilisation to save the whales. The only survivors were those living off-planet at the time – on the Moon, Mars, the Saturnian and Jovian systems… Over the course of a number of stories and three novels, Varley fleshed out a future history in which humanity struggles to survive – using gifted alien technology – on the various inhospitable worlds of the Solar system. Most of the novels and short stories set in the Eight Worlds were written during the 1970s and 1980s, but they’ve held up pretty well. They were always, first and foremost, about people – yet Varley still managed to build a mostly convincing universe in which to place his characters. Books in the series: The Ophiuchi Hotline (my review here), Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, plus many of the stories collected in The Persistence of Vision, The Barbie Murders and Blue Champagne.
5Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
Last year, Gollancz paid Reynolds £1,000,000, and with good reason. Few writers have managed the consistently high level of invention Reynolds has so far in his nine novels (five in the Revelation Space universe) and many short stories. He is, perhaps, the poster boy for New Space Opera, although his works are actually not all that much like New Space Opera as it’s now commonly understood. But the mix of Big Ideas and hard sf – something Stephen Baxter also does very well – is certainly representative of twenty-first science fiction. It’s the sort of sf which shows what the genre is capable of. Books in the series: Revelation Space, Chasm City, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap, The Prefect, plus the novellas Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days, and the stories collected in Galactic North.
4Dune, Frank Herbert
Well, you knew it was going to appear on this list somewhere… Of the six books – we won’t mention the execrable seventh and eighth books by Kevin J Anderson and Brian Herbert – I actually think Dune contains the poorest writing. It has the most immediately-immersive story, but I consider the last two that Frank Herbert wrote the better books. God-Emperor of Dune is a bit of an obstacle, a massive tome plonked in the middle of the series, which seems to lecture more than it entertains, but it’s definitely worth reading. Herbert wasn’t the best sf writer of his generation, but he was certainly the most thoughtful. Books on the series: Dune (my review here), Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God-Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune, and some of the stories collected in Eye and The Road to Dune.
3Hainish Cycle, Ursula K Le Guin
Some of the genre’s best novels belong to this informal series but, even so, together they form something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The early novels might be a little wobbly, but the later ones more than make up for it. Few sf writers can document cultures as convincingly as Le Guin, and she does it to great effect in each of these novels. These books, and those at #1 and #2 in this list, are very political books – and that’s proper politics: not good interstellar empire battling nasty evil aliens. Sf is as much about the real world as it is the invented world of the story. The best sf writers know this. Books in the series: Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness (my review here), The Dispossessed, The Word for World is Forest, Four Ways to Forgiveness, The Telling, plus a number of short stories.
2RGB Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson
This one is only a little bit of a cheat. Yes, it’s a trilogy… but there’s also the coda volume, The Martians. Besides, it’s simply the best series of books ever written about colonising Mars. But it’s not all hardware and the Right Stuff – the story expands to include the early centuries of the colony, discusses politics, utopianism, history and the future, among many other topics. Few sf novels can make you feel like you’ve been to the real Red Planet – Red Mars does that, and then continues on from there. Books in the series: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, The Martians.
1The Culture, Iain M Banks
If Banks’ Culture novels occasionally disappoint, it’s only because he has set so high a standard he sometimes fails to meet it himself. But as a body of work the seven Culture novels know no equal. They are the space operas of space operas. They re-invigorated both space opera and sf, and they continue to show how it should be done. They have invention, wit, giant spaceships, shit that gets blown up, and excellent writing. Happily, Banks has not yet finished playing in his Culture universe – a new Culture novel will apparently be published next year. I can’t wait. Books in the series: Consider Phlebas, The Player of Games, Use of Weapons, Excession, Inversions, Look to Windward, Matter (my review here).
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.