The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
Imagine Earth in the far future at a time when the sun is dying, giving off its last beams of light. Raw materials and fuels have been exhausted. Technology, or what is left of it, resides in the hands of a chosen, elite few; the rest are forced to adopt an almost preindustrial existence. Time travel and cloning have become commonplace. These are all elements that can be found in Gene Wolfe’s highly acclaimed science fiction series, The Book of the New Sun. Published from 1980 to 1983, the series has been compared to the great works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and is often ranked in the top ten fantasy and science fiction novels of the past century. The series is made up of four books, The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch, which follow the undertakings of Severian, an apprentice of The Seekers of Truth and Penitence (otherwise known as the Guild of Torturers), who is eventually exiled for showing mercy to a client.
Told in the first person, and interjected here and there with the narrator’s own philosophical and theological musings, the book recounts Severian’s journey through the far future world of Urth. The narrative follows Severian as he progresses from Apprentice to Journeyman, and his subsequent banishment from his Guild. After leaving the Citadel, where his Guild is located, he travels from the city of Nessus to the city of Thrax to take up the post of Lictor. Along his journey he meets a diverse range of companions, including a doctor and his giant who enlist him in their traveling theater troupe, a sailor from another planet made half of flesh and half of metal, and a mysterious young woman, many years dead, who he pulls up from the bottom of a lake.
In order to earn money during his travels, Severian continues to carry out the functions of his profession, performing executions and tortures as required, all the while continuing to question his place and role in society. Early on in the story Severian inadvertently acquires the Claw of the Conciliator. The use of the relic and Severian’s attempt to return it to its proper owners, the Pelerines, takes up a large portion of the tale, but this is only one of many plots and subplots. Severian finally reaches Thrax, the City of Crooked Knives, but it is not long before he must flee for, once again, showing mercy. He departs into the mountains, joins a military battalion to fight in the war against the Ascians in the North, and ultimately returns again to where he started – The Citadel in Nessus.
The books cover several weighty themes, such as what it means to be human, and how some people choose to give up their humanity. Like other science fiction and fantasy novels, Wolfe uses a specialized vocabulary to evoke a sense of a different time and place; yet, unlike other works of the genre, he employs actual words, albeit ones that, for the most part, are no longer used. Some examples include exultants, cacogens, monachs, oreodont, pharmacon, oubliette, capybaras, and peccary.
In many ways The Book of the New Sun is reminiscent of Moby Dick by Herman Melville, to whom Wolfe has been compared. There are stories within stories, and an entire play--entitled “Eschatology and Genesis”--which the characters perform. The books are written with elegant prose and contain rich literary allusions, reflecting Wolfe’s own belief that “good writing is multileveled, like a club sandwich”.
Wolfe is considered a writer’s writer: someone who other writers read to learn from. He defines a great story as “One that can be read with pleasure by a cultivated reader and reread with increased pleasure.” This appropriately suits his own work, which should be read slowly, the text inviting a close reading and multiple re-readings. The world Wolfe creates is rich in detail and several books and scholarly articles related to his work have already been published. As is befitting a writer of such caliber, there is an enthusiastic online community dedicated to discussing the finer intricacies of his works.
Wolfe, a practicing Catholic, stated that “in The Book of the New Sun I tried to work out some of the implications of my beliefs.” And this is evident for those who know what to look for. There is what Wolfe terms a “diabolical eucharist.” The ruler of the Commonwealth, the Autarch, passes on his memories to his successor, bringing to mind the Sacred Tradition of the Church. The Pelerines are a society of women who dress all in red robes and live cloistered together, traveling the world and helping those they can while awaiting the return of the New Sun. There is also the Conciliator, a Christ-like figure, who walked the earth many millennia ago, and an ancient relic associated with him--the Claw--that allows one to, among other things, turn water into wine, heal the sick, and raise the dead.
Over his lengthy career Wolfe, who cites G.K. Chesterton as a major influence, has written numerous novels and hundreds of short stories. He classifies the majority of his work as science fantasy, by which he means “a science fiction story told with the outlook, the flavor of fantasy”. The Book of the New Sun is no exception. Although set in the far future, the story is told from Severian’s point of view, whose limited knowledge and understanding of his world and its technology give the tale an almost fantasy-like feel. Take, for example, Severian’s description of an old picture he finds a man cleaning in a gallery:
The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.
The words “armor,” “staff,” “banner,” and “the deathly desert” give a fantasy feel to the picture, yet the image described, as the reader may conjecture, is the iconic photograph of the first lunar landing, roughly contemporary to our own present era. In a way Wolfe is following Chesterton’s own precepts in taking something we would consider commonplace, presenting it in a whole different light, and thereby making it wondrous and new.
At its core The Book of the New Sun is a bildungsroman, a classic coming-of-age story. It is a young man’s journey as he comes to terms with the universe and his place in it. It is about hope and rebirth, for in the midst of the dying sun, there are intimations of a new sun and a new world. Most of all, and most fundamentally, it is about the importance of stories themselves, as Severian declares to the reader after serving as judge in a storytelling contest:
I have no way of knowing whether you, who eventually will read this record, like stories or not. If you do not, no doubt you have turned these pages without attention. I confess that I love them. Indeed, it often seems to me that of all the good things in the world, the only ones humanity can claim for itself are stories and music; the rest, mercy, beauty, sleep, clean water and hot food…are all the work of the Increate.
If you happen to be one of those who like stories, The Book of the New Sun is for you.