People who say that genre fiction is not serious literature should be forced to read Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. This epic work challenges on linguistic, narrative and even moral levels. It is a coming-of-age quest novel about Severian, an apprentice to the Order of Seekers for Truth and Penitence—the torturer’s guild.
The first question to ask when reading this book is whether is should be classified as science fiction or fantasy. It takes place on our planet (called Urth) in the distant future at a time when the sun is dimming (a classic trope of the “dying earth” sub-genre). The world exists primarily at what Wolfe calls “the smith level” of technology, with Severian wielding a sword. There are artifacts like the Claw of the Conciliator, which possess magic powers.
Yet there are also firearms and spaceships, though few on Urth have access to such technology. Interstellar travel is even possible through use of mirrors, which might be magical, but is also explained in a way consistent with Einstein’s notions of the speed of light. All of the magical elements of the novel can thus be explained away as advanced technology, but the fundamentally mystical nature of Severian’s quest is more in line with the hero’s journey of myth and fantasy.
The main element of moral complexity in the novel arises from Wolfe’s decision to make a torturer his hero. Writing two decades before euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “extraordinary rendition” entered the lexicon, Wolfe has his characters offer justifications that could come from the mouths of modern waterboarders: the need for security against outside threats, comparison to the actions of enemies, that harsher measures were not used.
The torturers even offer an interesting theological justification, which is that the Age of the New Sun—a future utopia similar to the Second Coming in Christianity—is not yet here, so immoral measures are permissible to help society survive long enough to see it come about. Interestingly, this is similar to the Roman emperors who waited until their deathbeds to convert to Christianity because they were not yet ready to renounce the violence their office required.
The most challenging element of the novel is Wolfe’s use of language. He regularly uses archaic words of mainly Latin origin to give his world an ancient feel, even if it exists in our future. Severian (whose name shares a root with “severe”) wears a fuligin cloak (“the color that is blacker than black”—from the Latin word for “soot”), wields a sword called Terminus Est (“this is the end”) and is a subject of the Autarch (“self-ruler”).
At times, the barrage of archaic language is distracting. For a while, I tried looking up each word I didn’t know, but found myself giving up after going to the dictionary at least three times per page. It is possible to follow the action without knowing what each word means, but the language creates a certain distance, which is undoubtedly Wolfe’s objective. As a mythic hero, Severian and his world are shrouded in mysteries we are not meant to fully penetrate.
Wolfe further addresses issues of language through the Ascians, invaders from the north. While the Autarch is a despot, the Ascians live in a truly totalitarian society governed by the Group of Seventeen. Their control is so complete that the Ascian language consists solely of prescribed lines of propaganda called “Correct Thought.” The Ascians manage to communicate by speaking only in slogans. Wolfe demonstrates that efforts at thought control are doomed to fail, as one Ascian manages to question the authority of the Group of Seventeen while speaking only Correct Thought. Wolfe also seems to echo literary deconstructionists who argue that all language is full of political assumptions, and so we are all speaking a sort of Ascian in our daily lives.
The narrative is similarly complex. The tale is told in the first person from Severian’s point of view. It generally proceeds in chronological order, although Severian at times withholds information to reveal later. He claims to have a perfect memory, which seems truer at some times than others. There are a few tales-within-the-tale that flesh out the world beyond what Severian has personally experienced. Interspersed with his story is the history of Urth, both before and after the events of the novel. Some characters, perhaps even Severian, exist outside of any normal conception of time, which disrupts the chronology at certain key points.
Severian’s journey is a long one, and he encounters many people along the way. Some of these encounters are brief, some characters accompany him for a time, and others still make multiple appearances. Sevarian’s reoccurring encounters with Dr. Talos and Baldaners are quite satisfying, especially the first meeting, which evokes the meeting of Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick. At times, though, the cast of characters seems unwieldy, and I struggled to remember who was who.
When Severian finishes writing his memoir, he advises us to “read again.” This is good advice. The Book of the New Sun is challenging and complex, full of allusions that operate at multiple levels, and multiple readings are necessary to get it all. This work is as serious as literature gets. [subscribe2]
Editor’s Note: The Book of the New Sun is available as a collected two-volume set comprised of Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel or as a single collected volume which is more difficult to find.
Thanks for your review, Matt, it does a great job of capturing the complexity of one of my favorite series of all-time. As an interesting biographical note, we have more than just these books to thank Mr. Wolfe for: before he started writing, he was an industrial engineer who contributed to the device that makes Pringles potato chips. Could this guy be any better?
Thanks, Dave. Is there are any snack food as challenging, complex and full of allusion as the Pringle?