"The Book of the New Sun" by Gene Wolfe

A Complex Dream-like Journey and Transformation Story

Just as a flower blooms, throws down its seed, dies, and rises from its seed to bloom again, so the universe we know diffuses itself to nullity in the infinitude of space, gathers its fragments (which because of the curvature of that space meet at last where they began) and from that seed blooms again. Each such cycle of flowering and decay marks a divine year.

On , I finished reading The Book of the New Sun quartology by Gene Wolfe.

Gene Wolfe writes this series as a first person narrative account of Severian, a novice guild torturer. In brief, and without spoilers, this is about the narrator’s journey and transformation. The story is written set in the Dying Earth sub-genre.

One of the pure joys of reading is finishing a book or series and feeling the transformative effects of that story on my person. A good book embraces me as I welcome it’s infusions.

When I turn that last page, my soul begins its return from the land of that story. And I am changed in ways I may not fully recognize.

The Book of the New Sun is one of those transformative books; This blog post is my attempt to fumble through the transformations.

Methods of Creating Otherworldliness

What I find most fascinating about the quartology is it’s narrative cadence and use of language. Yes, there’s interesting people, places, and things, but it’s the language that differentiates it. I would place this closer to Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad than to most other sci-fi. I would also place this on the shelf next to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series.

First, these books are not easy reads. Gene Wolfe uses archaic or derived words to reinforce that Severian’s writes in a time/place far removed from ours. There are similarities to Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. Both use language to separate the reader from story. I don’t recall any graphic torture, but know that the language helps separate me from the details of the events.

This approach could be perilous, leaving readers lost. Yet Gene Wolfe provides context around these words, helping guide me through Severian’s expansive vocabulary as he recounts a tale.

Second, Severian is described as an unreliable narrator. Throughout the series, Severian assures the reader that he has perfect memory. But the story as told has gaps. The parts that you the reader must fill in or gloss over as you follow Severian’s tale.

Imagine if you were to have perfect memory and attempt to tell a transformation and journey story? What are the salient points to tell? And how would you use the events around you in telling your story?

I think to the transformations I’ve experienced: raising children, marrying, divorcing, re-marrying, minor health challenges, etc. Were I to frame my journey would I anchor it to the larger world events? Likely no.

But invariably, I might contextualize world events and how I received them.

For example, on , my then 1 year old daughter knocked an alarm into my face chipping my teeth. The next day, a major event shook the United States of America. For years, I chose not to fix that tooth as a reminder that even prior to the world itself was broken.

Third, this is an old world; The sun’s nearing the point when it will enter a red giant stage (or an equivalent solar collapse). Anything that could be has already been, and there are layers upon layers of the past.

Yet Severian walks this world in its current context. Describing places and things who’s purpose may be forgotten.

While reading these books, each of the above methods create a dream-like narrative. Touching on the familiar, yet juxtaposing with both alien and ancient. There is nothing left to do but trust Severian (and Gene Wolfe) to guide you through this story.

What It Now Means to Me

First, once I set down The Citadel of the Autarch—the last book—I wanted to start back into The Shadow of the Torturer—the first book. That is not a common sensation I have when I read. I usually want to expand from what I read. Find a related topic.

In a way, I had woken from a dream, and wanted to return to that dream; rich in metaphor, symbols, and story. I have this sensation that were I to return to that story, I’d learn more.

Second, I draw hope from the Dying Earth sub-genre and The Book of the New Sun in particular. Empires crumble and sink beneath the soil. We exhaust non-renewable resources and can only rely on renewable resources. Implicit in this is that we must steward those renewable resources.

And purpose is not found in books but in the telling of stories.

Third, this was a long read. I started The Shadow of the Torturer in and read the series in fits and starts. Again, it is not an easy read.

I also suspect that this is a series in which many things put forward have no discernible answer. To Severian, they are important, but inscrutable to the reader.

And that is an important lesson: No one owes you a full explanation for much of anything; not an author, not a narrator, no one. And that might sit and irritate some. Yet for me, that’s an important lesson.

As a white middle-aged cis-gendered male, I received conditioning from the white supremacy and patriarchal structures within which I (and we) live. I internalized that people should and must answer questions that I ask; You can see many people who look like me do this online. White dudes are taught that no boundary applies to them. The world (and non-white guys) are theirs over which to dominionate. And I repudiate that mindset.

Yet with Severian, and The Book of the New Sun, this is all I have. Not true, Gene Wolfe went on to write more books; And in my understanding answers some of the things told in the original series.

So I sit uncomfortable in the unknown. I let my mind stretch and grasp for connections. It wants to do this; to extract symbols and metaphor. My mind wants to comprehend and give meaning to what I just read. And it will.

Severian is now a part of me, which echoes a core narrative element—which I leave for you to discover.

Conclusion

The Book of the New Sun is an artistic masterpiece, regarded as Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus. I want to again enter the dream and see what I can now see; Both from the story and it’s construction. To once again feel the dreamlike embrace of the poetry of language. To accept that I cannot nor will I ever know the full extent of someone’s story.

Postscript

Gene Wolfe was a Roman Catholic and The Book of the New Sun drips with Christian symbols and metaphors. This may be off-putting for some; For me, I’m comfortable with the symbols and metaphors and perhaps allegory. I grew up a pastor’s kid, attended a Mennonite high school and college; I also learned to be critical and skeptical of religious leaders and religious structures.

Consider the below quote from Gene Wolfe,

It has been remarked thousands of times that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was “a humble carpenter” that we feel a little surge of nausea on seeing the words yet again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer; that the man who built the cross was undoubtedly a carpenter too; that the man who hammered in the nails was as much a carpenter as a soldier, as much a carpenter as a torturer. Very few seem even to have noticed that although Christ was a “humble carpenter,” the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table or a chair, but a whip.

With that quote, I see The Book of the New Sun from a different angle; Perhaps Gene Wolfe used this series to write and develop his thoughts on his personal faith. To draw from the unspoken corners of a religious book that many hold dear and equally many have never read.

Perhaps I’m reading a bit into that quote, in which Gene Wolfe throws a bit of shade at the Bible and implicitly those who believe in its infallibility.

After all, shouldn’t a story about a carpenter have a mention of that person making something out of wood? Isn’t being a “humble carpenter” integral to the story? How could the author omit that?