This is a 5500 word essay on a reread of TBotNS, focusing on the narrative trap Wolfe has set, and my theory that his literary sleight of hand serves a religious/mystical goal, much more than it is the supposed puzzle for the reader to unravel. There’s also a short section on free will, and it ends with my overall appraisal of the book’s enduring appeal.
The first time I read The Book of the New Sun must have been somewhere in 2011, and it has remained a strong favorite in my mind ever since, easily top 5 ever. As The Folio Society recently published a more or less affordable version of their limited edition treatment of the book, I decided that was a good excuses to whip out too much cash on a book I already owned, and reread the entire thing.
Much has been written about Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus, and I have no intention whatsoever to add to certain debates surrounding these volumes – on the contrary: to me these debates miss an important point, as I will try to explain later.
Deep down I was reluctant to start the reread. My other encounters with Wolfe’s prose haven’t always been fully successful, and I feared The Book of the New Sun to be a lesser affair than I remembered. I have to admit that to a certain extent is was – but that is not to say it became a bad book: I still rank it among my favorite reads.
Before I’ll get to the bulk of this review, first some introductionary remarks to those unfamiliar with the book.
The Book of the New Sun was first published as 4 separate volumes: The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), The Claw of the Conciliator (1981), The Sword of the Lictor (1982) and The Citadel of the Autarch (1983). Two volume editions have been published as Shadow & Claw and Sword & Citadel, and single volume editions have been published as The Book of the New Sun, and also as Severian of the Guild.
When I started rereading it, I intended to review only The Shadow of the Torturer, and then turn to some other books before starting the second volume. But it quickly dawned on me such a review wouldn’t do the novel justice. A review of Shadow might have worked if it had been my first read, but since my memories of the other volumes – not perfect, mind you – had such a gravitational pull, I could only finish the entire thing before writing this. That is not unlike Wolfe himself, who intended to write a novella, but when is was done it turned out to be a tetralogy, only finishing the final draft of the first book when he had finished the second drafts of the remaining 3 parts.
Because he was pressured by his publisher, Wolfe published a coda to this story in 1987, The Urth of the New Sun. I will reread that too someday, but I feel I shouldn’t take it into account for this review, as Wolfe didn’t conceive of it while he wrote this. The same goes for the two related series The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun – published between 1993-1996 and 1999-2003. I won’t take their subject matter into account either: they weren’t part of the quadruple canon, and as such can’t really be used to weigh the original artistic merit. I feel that lots of the interpretations of TBotNS based on certain things in the later series could be considered a form of Hineininterpretierung.
Those who dread being sucked into a 12 book ‘Solar Cycle’, such fear is unwarranted. The Book of the New Sun was conceived as a stand-alone, and if you like it a lot, there’s no harm in reading the coda, Urth. But Long Sun and Short Sun are generally considered works of lesser quality – except by hardcore Wolfe fans – and their main stories are only very tangentially related. I’ve read the first 3 of Long Sun (reviews here), but chances are I’ll never start its final book.
The Book of the New Sun is a dying earth novel, set on Urth, a far-future version of Earth, or an Earth before our own, in some different time cycle. It’s a world that has lost most scientific abilities, and resembles a society straight out of a fantasy novel – even though remnants of technology exist, and certain of the upper classes still have access to flying ships. In the backdrop of the story, there are aliens that try to enslave humanity, and yet other aliens that want to help our race to revive the sun, which has dimmed to such an extent stars are even visible by day. The moon’s light is green, as it has been terraformed in the past, but humans forgot when and how, and can’t get there anymore.
It is the first-person narrative of Severian, a young man belonging to the guild of the torturers – “The Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence”, who is disgraced and exiled, and ultimately “backs into the throne” seemingly by accident, and turns out to be something of a messiah. Like in other works by Wolfe, Severian is an unreliable narrator, but more on that in a minute.
The Book of the New Sun is considered by many as one of the towering achievements of science fiction or science fantasy, and I’ve read serious people putting it on the same level as Ulysses and À la recherche du temps perdu. It won lots of awards, and tends to be found near the top of many lists of best speculative fiction. Word has it that this weird and strange book can only be fully understood after three readings.
So what to write about this illustrious work?
I will talk first about its religious themes – Wolfe was a devout Catholic – and how the question whether this book can be enjoyed by agnostics or atheists too ties into the trap that Wolfe has set, a trap that has ensnared many of those writing New Sun exegesis on message boards, Facebook groups, mailing lists and Reddit.
As an intermezzo, I’ve written a short passage about Severian’s outlook on free will, and I’ll end with some thoughts on my rereading experience, and my current appraisal of New Sun – will I read it a third time?
This entire text is spoiler free.
In his review of Michael Andre-Driussi’s Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun: A Chapter Guide (2019) Wolfe scholar Marc Aramini notes “One of the most fascinating aspects of the critical discourse surrounding Wolfe involves how infrequently any two people will agree with each other.” That fact should tell the perceptive reader something.
Interpreting TBotNS is allegedly difficult for a couple of reasons:
1) Severian is an unreliable narrator;
2) Wolfe is an illusionist and has crafted a mirror-hall full of hints & puzzles that only become clear after careful rerereading;
3) the book’s prose is structurally unclear – the book reportedly being a found text, as Wolfe claims he has translated it from the original future language, and because of that had to resort to obscure words to use for animals and things that do not exist yet on our own planet.
As a ladder to Wolfe’s religious ambitions, a few thoughts on those three reasons.
1) Even though Severian is an unreliable narrator strictu sensu, as far as I can tell, he doesn’t lie to the reader. He makes small mistakes remembering things, he characterizes himself as possibly insane, at times he lies to other characters, and, most importantly, he doesn’t tell certain things to the reader straight away. Besides that, it seems that what he tells the reader is true – even though he doesn’t fully comprehend his own world. On the other hand, I do agree with David Auerbach that we can’t be sure Severian can be trusted, and that the text as such isn’t stable.
But where the book most seriously fails in its ambitions is on a more fundamental level, which is that in the stability of the text itself. We know that Severian is a liar quite early on. We also know that what he is writing is destined for public consumption by people in his world, and that Wolfe claims to be acting as a translator of Severian’s manuscript which has traveled long and far, without knowing anything about that audience. These two facts cause the book to be underdetermined with regard to Severian’s motives and to the purpose of the text itself. Because we do not know what intent may be behind Severian’s lies, we can’t derive from the whole what the meaning of any particular piece is, because we do not have the whole context.
I don’t agree with Auerbach’s conclusion however:
This is not a matter of obscurity; rather, it is an intentional choice that indicates a serious failure on the part of Wolfe to push his book past the realm of entertainment.
The reason I do not agree is hinted at in another of Auerbach’s sentences, and ties into Wolfe’s religious ambition: The Book of the New Sun can indeed be considered an apocryphal gospel. This is not a reduction, but imo the core of Wolfe’s goal, that surpasses mere entertainment easily.
Without our being able to grasp the deeper sense of Severian’s words other than as a maybe-true story, he reduces the book to decontextualized apocrypha, a gnostic gospel without an accompanying authoritative text.
2) Wolfe has indeed written a novel that has lots of things going on below the surface, with hints and literary sleight of hand and self-referential allusions and labyrinthine loops and intertextual links to other writers. But I don’t think it is possible to solve all the puzzles, and my hunch is that Wolfe has made that deliberately impossible, and probably made things deliberately more muddled with all the subsequent publications. I also think the appreciative reader doesn’t need to crack the code. On the contrary – the core of Wolfe’s gospel might very well be you shouldn’t even try, and that to try and do so is to underestimate the Miracle that is reality. I’ll try to elaborate and back that up with quotes in the next section.
3) I found the text perfectly enjoyable without trying to figure out the obscure words – even though that’s a whole lot easier today than in the early 80ies. The fact that nobody envisioned the internet in its current form, tells us something about what Wolfe expected from the readers he had in mind. It’s a nice example of historical irony that this novel nowadays lures some of its readers to chase words down the rabbit holes in one’s smartphone.
Words that are really important for the story become crystal clear as the story progresses, and the others help splendidly in setting the tone and the mood. There are a few New Sun lexicons on the market, but, ultimately, who cares what ‘cubicula’ or ‘catamite’ refer to? It’s mainly fictional technology – not unlike Star Trek‘s handwavish dialogue – or fictional fauna or future social titles.
We can use our imagination, and Wolfe’s book is also a celebration of that: the book as book, the text as text. Peter Wright has written a rather hagiographic text on the subject, and claims Wolfe deliberately cultured the book for post-structuralist analyses. Wright’s article is well worth reading, and from what I can glance via Google Books, his 2003 book Attending Daedalus: Gene Wolfe, Artifice and the Reader has some very solid chapters on TBotNS too, even though parts of it also seem a bit batshit.
In short, Wolfe organises the text to be understood only by those readers willing to question their own literary assumptions, pause, reflect, and reread.
While I debate the text can be fully understood, Wright’s thesis also ties into a remark on the Alzabo Soup podcast, namely that an attempt to make a movie out of this book would be against its very nature, its nature as a text.
Even though Wright might be right in spirit, Aramini’s law still holds: “One of the most fascinating aspects of the critical discourse surrounding Wolfe involves how infrequently any two people will agree with each other.” That is because Wolfe has indeed set a trap – but his trap isn’t there to catch readers unwilling to question their assumptions in a post-structuralist way… The trap is there to catch post-structuralists and puzzle-solvers altogether. To understand that, I’ll have to turn to the Spiritual.
THEATER OF THE MIRACLE: SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRES, CIRCUMSPICE
Let’s just get it out of the way. My claim, in short, is that The Book of the New Sun is a celebration of the mystery of creation, the mystery of existence, the mystery of life. Wolfe’s outlook is religious, and God the ultimate mystery. Wolfe’s book is indeed full of puzzles and literary tricks, but my guess is that they can’t be fully solved, and that while to try might be fun and entertaining, it misses the point of what a Mystery, a Miracle, is.
So while there are indeed links between Severian and Christ, these allusions seem to be there to obfuscate the reader, as it is also very clear to me Severian isn’t Christ at all – for one, they seem to have an entirely different character, a fact that is all too easily sidestepped.
What I haven’t come across in my reading about TBotNS is an examination of the religious and mystical passages Severian offers the reader throughout the novel. This next part is quote-heavy, but you can skip the quotes if you want to, my own text should be clear without them.
What returns again and again is a certain pantheistic sentiment, and the fact that observable reality is a testament to God.
Certain mystes aver that the real world has been constructed by the human mind, since our ways are governed by the artificial categories into which we place essentially undifferentiated things, things weaker than our words for them. [my bold]
‘Flowers are better theology than folios, Severian. (…)’
‘The third is the transsubstantial meaning. Since all objects have their ultimate origin in the Pancreator, and all were set in motion by him, so all must express his will – which is the higher reality.’
‘Of what kind, Severian, is your own attachment to the Divine Entity?’ I said nothing. It may have been that I was thinking; but if so, my mind was too much filled with sleep to be conscious of its thought. Instead, I became profoundly aware of my physical surroundings. The sky above my face in all its grandeur seemed to have been made solely for my benefit, and to be presented for my inspection now. I lay upon the ground as upon a woman, and the very air that surrounded me seemed a thing as admirable as crystal and as fluid as wine.
(…) and then he thought it was nothing that the cathedral rose, no miracle at all. That shows what it is to be a fool – it never came to him that the reason things were made so was so the cathedral would rise just like it did. He can’t seen the Hand in nature.
The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorn were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred sand because it came from a beach of sacred sand. (…) everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground.
It is in this way people that are agnostics or atheists can still enjoy the philosophical underpinnings of the book, for even if one doesn’t believe in a god, it is crystal clear that Existence is miraculous, and that we do not understand it. Wolfe doesn’t seem to advance any other agenda than this, and TBotNS isn’t a dogmatic expression of some religious laws or practices – aside from a few mentions of love being important, something non-religious readers can hardly object to. While Wolfe was a Catholic, the book seems to embrace ecumenism, and blends early myths and religion.
Whatever your stance is on god or reality, Wolfe – via the mouth of different characters – stresses time and time again that god is, by definition, unknowable. And, important for my overall interpretation, he suggest that to try and rationalize god is to misunderstand him: we should just surrender ourselves to the mystery, and obey creation – just as we should just surrender ourselves to the story, without trying to figure it out.
Some, (…), have pointed out that the fluttering in the Presence there abide a multitude of beings that though appearing minute – indeed, infinitely small – by comparison are correspondingly vast in the eyes of men, to whom their master is so gigantic as to be invisible.
I knew that there is an all-pervasive power in the universe of which every other is the shadow. I knew that in the last analysis my conception of that power was as laughable (and as serious) as Oannes.
‘I don’t know. Do you think there are answers to everything here? Is that true in the place you come from?’
If I had seen one miracle fail, I had witnessed another; and even a seemingly purposeless miracle is an inexhaustible source of hope, because it proves to us that since we do not understand everything, our defeats – so much more numerous than our few and empty victories – may be equally specious.
I found (and find) this suggestion as rational as it is repellent, and it represents for me all that monomaniacal fabric of argument, so tightly woven that not even the tiniest objection or spark of light can escape its net, in which human minds become enmeshed whenever the subject is one in which no appeal to fact is possible. [This passages follows various variations on classical arguments for the existence of god.]
Whenever I looked at it, it seemed to erase thought. Not as wine and certain drugs do, by rendering the mind unfit for it, but by replacing it with a higher state for which I know no name. Again and again I felt myself enter this state, rising always higher until I feared I should never return to the mode of consciousness I call normality; and again and again I tore myself from it it. Each time I emerged, I felt I had gained some inexpressible insight into immense realities. At last, after a long series of these bold advances and fearful retreats, I came to understand that I should never reach any real knowledge of the tiny thing I held, and with that thought (for it was a thought) came a third state, one of happy obedience to I knew not what, an obedience without reflection because there was no longer anything to reflect upon, and without the least tincture of rebellion. [my bold]
“The Pancreator is infinitely far from us,” the angel said. “And thus infinitely far from me, though I fly so much higher than you. I guess at his desires – no one can de otherwise.”
(…) and that the commander of all such figures was everywhere invisible only because he was too large to be seen.
Contrary to what most would assume, Wolfe does aim for realism, as he explained in an 1988 interview with Larry McCaffery:
That’s what I meant when I said I’m trying to show the way things really seem to me—my experience is that subjects and methods are always interacting in our daily lives. That’s realism, that’s the way things really are. It’s the other thing—the matter of fact assumption found in most fiction that the author and characters perceive everything around them clearly and objectively—that is unreal. (…) You think you’re hearing me directly at this moment but you’re actually hearing everything a little bit after I’ve said it because it requires a finite but measurable amount of time for my voice to reach you. Fiction that doesn’t acknowledge these sorts of interactions simply isn’t “realistic” in any sense I’d use that term.
I don’t think it is a long stretch to consider that TBotNS was created to be an artificial microcosmos, mirroring a larger reality, with an inbuilt impossibility to understand it. Such structural impossibility isn’t that hard to achieve as a writer: just throw in enough vague descriptors, allusions, meta-fictional passages and contradictions, and people can chew on it for centuries. To lure people in, some of the puzzles are solvable, and certain references are traceable. They only help the general obfuscation, letting readers to believe anything is an Interpretable Significant Sign. It seems Wolfe has outdone about anyone, as Peter Wright in his book even draws conclusions about the spread of extinct species (page 129-130), but that might not be too different from people seeing the face of Jesus in burn marks on a slice of toast.
All that could explain why nobody seems to be able to agree on an interpretation – just as in the real world people aren’t able to agree on the nature and the laws of god. The story the Ascian soldier tells is a strong metaphor for the problems inherent in interpretation. It screams loud and clear. Why would Wolfe’s readers think Wolfe has written a book with a fixed, set interpretation that can be uncovered by careful rereading?
However you see Wolfe, from what I’ve read of his other works it is pretty obvious he has a taste for the absurd joke. If you think my theory is outlandish, you are well withing your rights, but remember what Severian says: “The idea is absurd. But then, all ideas are absurd.”
If you allow me one argument from Wolfe’s textual games: the new sun is equated to God in the inscription on a sundial in the Atrium of Time via the Latin translation, and so The Book of the New Sun becomes The Book of God.
According to the book itself, it is fitting Wolfe chose to write a story as his celebration of the Creator – or the Creation, if you’re irreligious.
Indeed, it often seems to me that of all 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.
I understand the appeal of the puzzle. I like puzzles. And to a certain extent I agree this novel is also a testament to memory: readers with a better one will get more thrills. On the other hand, I quickly found during my rereading that I enjoyed the story more when I let go of trying to figure everything out. In the end: who cares who is Severian’s mother? Does it even matter?
But, I have to admit I didn’t always succeed in letting go, as the dominant mode of rereading and interpreting this book is to embark on a treasure hunt for subtext and clues. It is the serious thing to do. The intellectual thing. It is hard to escape the apparent consensus on that, so, yes, I consulted lots of Reddit and other secondary literature during my rereading, and made a ton of notes. In retrospect, all that detracted, and, for me, the main strength of Severian’s story remains its appeal as a story. My advice to new readers is to just jump in, and not take it all too seriously: just enjoy the surf on the surface, Wolfe casts plenty of exiting waves.
MERCY INTERMEZZO: ILLUSIONS OF CONTROL: THE HUMAN MIND IN A MECHANIC WORLD pt. 4
Recurring readers of this blog know I like to spot issues with free will in literature. I will not elaborate more on this, the debate isn’t that obscure anyhow. I just want to point you to the relevant quotes I found in The Book of the New Sun‘s 1160 pages, and they all seem to indicate Wolfe indeed thinks free will does not exist.
The difficulty lies in learning that we ourselves encompass forces equally great. We say, ‘I will,’ and ‘I will not,’ and imagine ourselves (though we obey the orders of some prosaic person every day) our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves.
That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin. [This exact same sentence is found two times, by the way.]
‘(…) He called it a purely mechanical psychological function, and at the time that seemed to me an oxymoron, but now I’m not sure he wasn’t right. (…)’
My acolyte still believes the universe hers to command, a board where she can move counters to form whatever patterns suit her. [says the Cumaean]
Yet even if that is so, some higher authority may have been served. It is in such fashion most sages explain the apparent paradox that though we freely choose to do this or the other, commit some crime or by altruism steal the sacred distinction of the Empyrian, still the Increate commands the entirety and is served equally (that is, totally) by those who would obey and those who would rebel.
Because the prehistoric cultures endured for so many chiliads, they have shaped our heritage in such a way as to cause us to behave as if their conditions obtained today.
As far as I could tell, there are no parts that suggest the opposite. The fact that there’s one character speaking out against a materialistic worldview doesn’t count as such, as one can have immaterial mechanics too: even if you consider love to be more than just electrical brain chemistry, it can still determine one’s actions.
Add to that the fact that Severian has no control over the Claw or his own powers, and the Claw also seems to push him forward, a bit like the ring in The Lord of the Rings. (For a lengthy discussion about free will in LOTR, see my text on the matter.)
The fact that free will does not exist also ties in nicely to the religious idea of mercy: if we can’t help ourselves, we should be forgiven. The most important part of the Bible for me is the fact that Jesus asks his father to forgive his executioners, as they know not what they do – which is the same as saying they can’t help themselves.
The idea of mercy returns a few times in TBotNS too, aside from the fact that Severian grants both Thecla and Agia mercy – two things on which the entire story hinges.
At one instant we walked mutely together in what surely must have been the paradise the New Sun is said to open to all who, in their final moments, call upon him; and though the wise teach that it is closed to those who are their own executioners, yet I cannot but think that he who forgives so much must sometimes forgive that as well.
‘. . . have mercy on those who had no mercy. Have mercy on us, who shall have none now.‘
AM I UP FOR A THIRD READING?
I must say at first I was a bit underwhelmed while rereading The Book of the New Sun – in my mind things were more genius & more outlandish. That is how the mind works: good things become even better in our memories. Add to that the diminished sense of surprise, discovery and wonder when you read something for the second time. A factor specific for this novel is that I had expected more from my post-structuralist detective mode while rereading, I guess I was too eager to spot stuff I didn’t spot before. That was a bit of a letdown as well.
But gradually these thoughts disappeared, again replaced by marvel & admiration. I still love this novel a lot, and I still rank it among my favorites. It is just that my first reading set a nigh impossible high bar.
I think this book appeals to me because it manages to keep up a certain atmosphere throughout, and a very specific one at that. Wolfe evokes a bigger, greater Truth lurking just behind the corner about everywhere. The feeling is obviously tied to the mystery and the miracle I talked about above. It is structurally woven into the novel, as it is both the result of the literary puzzle as it is a result of the basic plot – that latter being the most crucial, by the way. Severian is caught in a fight between overlords he doesn’t know, and part of a world he doesn’t understand. As such he is like each and every human – we are all part of a reality we can’t fathom.
That brings us to Severian, truly one of the strangest and baffling characters ever to grace the page. He is hinted at to be an Everyman numerous times, in different ways, but at the same time not everyone will identify with the lad. A complex character, with different, conflicting goals, prone to change his mind, and as such very imperfect, and very human. But he’s also a character that is arrogant, sure of himself and his specific training – and that is comforting: your schooling will save you, keep you upright in times of need. He doesn’t seem to care for what most others think of him, and breaks about every taboo there is. He easily convinces about every woman in the story to sleep with him – this aspect of the novel might be a problem for certain contemporary readers. The heart of Severian’s story is the ultimate in romance: the rebel that chooses death & exile, all for love, an amour fou that turns into grief.
His self-assurance is appealing, even though we see he isn’t that perceptive. He’s a pragmatic, unapologetic liar, maybe immoral at first, yet he performs numerous acts of kindness. Severian has a sense of brotherhood and connection, even though he is the ultimate loner. He seems to be a kind of prophetic hero, a chosen one, and at the same time we feel that he is manipulated and just trapped in a web too: things mostly happen to him, and he hardly makes decisions. He is not so much a grey character as one that is both black and white – insane indeed.
The book is full of contrasts like this, and Wolfe manages to couple numerous really sharp and insightful observations on humans with deadpan humor. Take the following passage:
Master Gurloes, who had performed a great many executions, used to say that only a fool worried about making some failure of ritual: slipping in the blood, or failing to perceive that the client wore a wig and attempting to lift the head by the hair. The greater dangers were a loss of nerve that would make one’s arms tremble and give an awkward blow and a feeling of vindictiveness that would transform the act of justice into mere revenge.
There is a certain parlez-vrai to Wolfe, at times not fully on par with the current ideological tendencies in mainstream Western media, and I’m sure I don’t agree with everything Wolfe thinks. But his occasional ruminations on politics and the ethics of violence are always interesting, whatever your own stances on the matter, and Severian’s decisions at the end of the story might surprise some.
I’ve written a bit about a part of Wolfe’s politics in my review of The Knight, and I don’t want to spend too much time on that subject in TBotNS here, mainly because there is much more to agree to than to disagree with – we are on the same page about the Miracle that is Reality, and I don’t think it is always productive to zoom in on certain ideological differences. Humans are a social species, and at the end of the day we better try and get along, even with people that have different opinions.
Finally, there’s the obvious stuff: this book is brimming with imagination, written in a singular prose, the pacing is great, the construction more than clever, the setting cinematic, awesome, brilliant. The horror and the humor and the wisdom and the surprises and the awe just keep coming, page after page after page.
So, will I read this a third time? I think I will, and I have the feeling it might become the best one out of three – without the blind naiveté of my first reading, and without the wrong expectations that colored my second reading. I don’t think I’ll wait another 10 years.