Forking Paths: on Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun”

This week I have to return its first two volumes to the library, so I figured I’d write about Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. It’s a fantasy series and (now that I’ve read them twice, I can probably fess) one of my favorite sets of books. Set on a dying future Urth, under a dimmed sun “with a worm in its heart,” New Sun is the story of an exile from the guild of torturers, Severian, and his journey to becoming the Autarch, the master of Urth’s biggest kingdom.

There are countries and literary climates where genre literature is just literature. America now isn’t, quite, despite the spate of “post-genre” writing from MFA programs and from writers like Kazuo Ishiguro, China Mieville, Jonathan Lethem, and Margaret Atwood. Anyway, Wolfe seems too happy in wide-angle high-genre writing (and probably too big a G.K. Chesterton fan) to ever be read as a forerunner to the hip style now called “New Wave Fabulism.” His subtle, somewhat Modernist, allusive and fantastically inventive fiction—like that of Joanna Russ, maybe, or Cordwainer Smith—exists in a funny in-between environment, the space reserved for “writers’ writers.”

(This isn’t to say Wolfe is an academic. Wolfe—admirer of Proust and Borges, Korean War veteran, and one-time Buckley conservative—couldn’t quit his day job as a plant engineer (he spec’d out the machine that made possible the Pringles potato chip!) until the success of this series.)

By repeated exposure, readers like me have gotten used to stories that are long and fantastical also being epic—stories whose hearts are in heroism and world-shaping deeds. New Sun has both, but it’s fundamentally a weirder narrative than that, bigger and smaller than the epic. It’s a story about stories. Severian is a chilly, emotionally guarded and occasionally unreliable narrator—a Nabokovizing of, say, Aragorn or Conan—and readers will miss major shares of the story if they don’t attempt to see past his misdirections and oversights. His backwards-to-the-throne journey depends on coincidence, intervention, and divine do-overs: it’s more “Garden of Forking Paths” than The Golden Compass. A dozen chapters of New Sun are given over to folktales, legends, plays, and symbolic dreams.

New Sun’s shape is also not that of the epic: Severian’s journey differs from that of the usual chain-breaking liberator. At the book’s conclusion, we’re left with a world whose stagnation may simply have to continue. Fully self-creating spirits, in Wolfe’s cosmogony, are dangerous; they’ve harmed us humans in the past and would again. It’s the fate of most humans to labor for forces whose heart and motives are not intelligible.

If this theological bent is starting to sound familiar: Wolfe has identified himself in the past as a Thomist Catholic, a philosophically rigorous branch of the church that concerns itself with the essential mystery and oneness of God, and with the possibility of salvation through knowledge. Yet, whatever our learning, we humans express a will that we can’t understand. “He is thy being,” wrote one Thomist mystic, “but thou are not His being.” The concluding revelations of the series’s final volume, The Citadel of the Autarch, are more exegetical than fantastical. Behind Wolfe’s torrent of new-old coinages, the terms for the divine entity—“the Increate,” “the Pancreator,” “the Panjudicator”—would be recognizable to most Christians.

Wolfe’s prose is often beautiful, and his sense of invention felt as magnificent on re-reading (I’m saying it!) as do my childhood memories of Tolkien’s or Lewis’s. There’s a magic sword, godawful-looking creatures from another world called cacogens, a big reveal of a secret mad scientist (not who you’ll expect), cruel kings from Urth’s forgotten past, and a creature called the alzabo that eats memories along with bodies.

The cultures of Urth are also refreshingly complex. Rather than the usual endless-Europe-plus-dragons, Wolfe’s world is in parts Byzantine, Orwellian, and Tang Chinese, ways of life that feel lived in from inside. In his world, it’s a historical curiosity that humans used to be divided by skin color. Several characters are descended from Korean spacefarers; Severian, tall, dark-haired and with light brown skin, doesn’t seem to be a typical white sword-swinger. Nonetheless, was it necessary that the natives (sorry, “autochthons”) of his continent—probably South America, by narrative clues—be “squat, dark,” and savage? Or that female character after female character (of fantasy-standard flowing hair and heaving breast) swoon ripely for Severian?

Genre writing would seem, by its nature, to expose to high contrast the knobs and pitfalls in an author’s imagination. We notice, say, a sexist trope more quickly in a world that’s largely invented. Likewise, the more detailed Wolfe’s theologoumenon (see the quote introducing this site), the more a disaffected atheist reader finds to irritate her. But New Sun’s inventions aren’t all high-drama, clash-of-kingdoms stuff. The books are full of casual, eerie details. Iron is a precious metal in this dug-out planet, the Moon is green with cultivation, rats and wolves can read and write, and the mountains are all carved with faces of forgotten rulers. And did you know, mentions one character, that the sun used to bright enough that the stars weren’t visible during the day?

The book bears—demands, maybe—re-reading. (Some questions that hung from one reading and got clearer, maybe, in the next: Who is Severian’s mother? What’s going on between Hethor and Jonas? Who was Apu-Punchau? What is the Autarch’s name? Why introduce a little boy also named Severian? What is being guarded in the mine at Saltus?) I can think of only a few novels—At Play in the Fields of the Lord, maybe, or The Sheltering Sky—that gave me so much more on a second time through.

Any fans or skeptics out there have a thought?

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2 Comments

Filed under poetry, spirit

2 responses to “Forking Paths: on Gene Wolfe’s “Book of the New Sun”

  1. Just finished Sword of the Lictor and can’t wait to finish Citadel. I will definitely be rereading this not long after finishing it. Thanks for the review!

  2. Tobias

    Cool review. My biggest impression was the way the world is slowly revealed from the cloistered 1st person perspective. Like you said, the offhand side comments jar you into realizations about the world and time that Sevarian assumes is common knowledge, but he is also stepping outside his guild domain for the first time. Best book ever? Yeah.

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