The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe (Book Review)

The Book of the New Sun. Gene Wolfe, author. “The Shadow of the Torturer,” “The Claw of the Conciliator,” “The Sword of the Lictor,” and “The Citadel of the Autarch,” were published from 1980-1983 by Simon & Schuster. Paperback.

For literal decades The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator sat on my bookshelves unread, their pages growing golden brown like a buttered biscuit with age. I bought them in paperback and they sat, unread. They even moved with me, geographically, as my life shifted from Missouri, to Kansas, to Missouri, then to Kentucky. Packed and unpacked, and packed again, and unread. Until this last Christmas (2015), when I decided I’ve had enough of them, silently shaming me for not only having not read them, but also not even having the heart to adopt the remaining two family members, The Sword of the Lictor and The Citadel of the Autarch. You don’t have to read them, either, but at least we’d all be together under one roof. OK, and I relented in my passive obstinance and bought the remaining two books from a used book store. And I took the next step and actually read them.

The collection of books together are called The Book of the New Sun (TBotNS). I’m not going to review each individually. These novels are relatively short compared to other books in the genre, averaging a little over 300 pages, especially when measured against current books which appear to be competing with the Bible, the Qu’ran, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time novels.

Written and published a year apart, the books are remarkably uniform in writing style, themes, and tone. The prose style requires rewiring your brain’s language center slightly, if you want to fully appreciate the books. I’ll explain throughout this review.

The Book of the New Sun is set in Humanities far distant future. Millions of years, in fact; so far into the future Humanity has spread out amongst the stars, and Earth has become barely a thought. Earth is no longer, “Earth,” but “Urth,” as humans, as they are, have forgotten how to spell Earth.

The story begins so far into the future the sun is preparing to die. Not really die, though, but enter into the next stage of solar evolution, perhaps becoming a red giant before collapsing to a white dwarf. The sun has grown dimmer, the light tinged a rusty-red.

People of Urth live in variety of environments, from bucolic, pastoral rural settings, in crude simple dwellings, and some people reside in large walled cities. Throughout the books people are found to live in underground cave systems, on floating islands, in massive ad-hoc housing rising up and along cliff-faces. Transportation consists of paddled boats, horses, and “fliers,” some sort of powered plane or glider. Some residents of Urth seem completely startled by technology, and lack the vocabulary to tell us, the reader, what is they are witnessing. Combat, fights, and warfare, when those situations arise, are somewhat confusing. Combatants describe ‘fire leaping from long lances,’ or ‘violet energetic blasts searing the air.’ Meanwhile, some fighters may be using bows and arrows, or finely crafted swords, halberds, or cudgels. The available technology seems to run the gamut from Iron Age to Future Age, and the characters are well-equipped to discuss cruder weapons and not-so-well versed in the fantastic weapons.

The Book of the New Sun represents a tetralogy of journals written by Severian, translated to English by Gene Wolfe. Each of the first three books includes a brief essay by Wolfe where he discusses his concerns about accurately transcribing Severian’s words. The language spoken and written by Severian is English but keep a dictionary handy. Wolfe is not developing a unique language, like Tolkien did with Elvish, but weaves very old English words into the tales of Severian. For example, Severian travels with a sabretache, a small satchel or bag for holding items. Fiacres, small horse-drawn coaches, are used by people for moving around. Nearly every hand weapon except simple swords are drawn from very obscure historical references. The writing style is readable, though reading The Book of the New Sun requires some work simply because the prose is unlike most prose written today, as if the book was literally translated from some older version of English or French. I’ve read books translated from Japanese, German, and Norwegian and some of those books are easier to consume than these Urth books, honestly. A number of years ago I read Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” and I remember having to run words and phrases down different channels in my brain to make that book work for me, and having a dictionary handy to translate Yiddish, and investigate unfamiliar idioms. YPU is a fine novel, by the way. I highly recommend.

In this distant future, people can belong to guilds, much like the guilds of the Middle Ages. Severian belongs to the Torturer’s Guild, the “Seekers for Truth and Penitence.” The Torturer’s Guild is employed by citizens of Nessus to seek punishment against people who have done them wrong. After judging and sentencing, the torturers are then obligated to perform whatever acts the wronged person requires, as long as the punished person is not killed. Wolfe’s depiction of these acts is not graphic but we get the sense exacting pain is something torturers are extremely good at.

Severian’s life adventure begins after he shows mercy to a beautiful captive woman. Rather than torturer her, as he is instructed, he provides her with a knife and she commits suicide. Rather than admit a journeyman torturer exhibited mercy, the Torturer’s Guild exiles Severian to the northern city of Thrax, where he will become the local torturer. The journey north is no easy task and Severian is faced with continual trials and circumstances.

The Book of the New Sun begins to feel more like a parable, a fable, or an allegory once Severian leaves Nessus. The situations he confronts rhyme of biblical events, not directly comparable but are simply too close to not to come to mind. Severian runs across giants, people who have co-opted their humanity and become something else. Some people appear as humans but are probably androids or cyborgs. But, Severian has no vocabulary containing “android” or “robot” or “prosthetic;” instead these people become something magical, like a humonculus, or some fantastic machinery wrapped in human skin (Jonas). Mirrors transport people, or robots, to distant locations. Severian is extremely naive with little experience of Urth beyond the walls of Nessus and untangling his descriptions can make these novels really tough to chew.

Severian survives many pitfalls, and aids others with the assistance of his gem, the Claw of the Conciliator. Enveloped in some translucent blue mineral, the Claw is some other thing which appears to be able to heal the sick and raise the dead. On one occasion he ingests the flesh of Thecla, a beautiful aristocrat woman he adored, and the flesh together with a drug derived from an alien creature provides him with her memories and portions of her personality. At times, he loses track of himself as the personality of Thecla, whom he serves at times as host, dominates. As he encounters people, some characters see Severian being more than he is, that he may be the salvation of Urth, that he may give rise to the New Sun.

Circumstance of raising the dead, healing the sick, and the eating of flesh become reminiscent of religious themes and ideas, like taking communion. Severian seems as a Jesus-like character, performing what we might think of as miracles. While reading The Book of the New Sun finding parallels is not difficult while parsing the text for meaning. For a very nice essay deconstructing portions of The Book of the New Sun, I am going to refer you to “Mapping a Masterwork: A Critical Review of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.” As this essay indicates, some folks have used The Book of the New Sun as basis for a Ph.D in literature.

The Book of the New Sun is not a run-of-the-mill “Dying Earth” entry into the “Dying Earth” science fiction sub-genre. While perhaps as rich as Herbert’s Dune, or as galactic in scope and scale as Asimov’s Foundation series, The Book of the New Sun represents a very local scale telling of one person’s ascension from naive young man to Autarch, one of few people who rule Urth.

One trait I found interesting in reading these novels is trying to determine geography and setting. I’m fairly certain the continent on which the story takes place must either be South America or Africa. No recognizable toponyms are used to identify places. One clue as to geography describes the icy wastelands to south. If the geography were in the northern hemisphere, the icy wastes would probably be to the north. We also are told the Equator or torrid zones are to the north. One trait of the geography leading me more towards South America is the presence of a massive river Severian has a difficult time seeing the other bank, which to me sounds like the Amazon River. I remind myself the novel is set in a time millions of years in the Earth’s future so making direction comparisons to geography is problematic due to plate tectonics and places have shifted around a bit. And climates have probably changed some, as well.

I found the four books enjoyable. I probably won’t read the next tetralogy right away as my reading list has 30-ish books and I’m trying to whittle my stack down. I do recommend the first four books as I think the writing style, imagery, and themes are important enough to be exposed to in order be a finer judge of writing. Clearly, these books were not simply written but crafted with deliberate care and consideration of language and message and intent.



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