June Books 5) / July Books 1) The Book of the New Sun

June Books 5) Shadow/Claw: The Shadow of the Torturer & The Claw of the Conciliator, by Gene Wolfe.
July Books 1) Sword/Citadel: The Sword of the Lictor & The Citadel of the Autarch, by Gene Wolfe.

Once I’d read all the novels to have won the Hugo, I realised I was only ten short of reading all the novels that have won the Nebula as well, and soundings indicated this might be a good place to start, in that The Claw of the Conciliator (the second half of the first volume, as I bought them) won the 1982 award. I admit I was also intrigued by having read The Shadow of the Torturer and The Sword of the Lictor many years ago and glad of the excuse to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. And I wanted to find out what was behind John Clute’s breathlessly enthuiastic (if slightly spoilerish) write-up of it in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

As a synthesizing work of fiction — a type of creation which tends to come, for obvious reasons, late in the period or genre it transmutes — The Book of the New Sun owes clear debts to the sf and fantasy world in general, and in particular to the dying-Earth (>FAR FUTURE) category of PLANETARY ROMANCE initiated by Jack VANCE. Though it is a full-blown tale of cosmogony, the entire story is set on Urth, eons hence, a world so impacted with the relics of humanity’s long residence that archaeology and geology have become, in a way, the same science: that of plumbing the body of the planet for messages which have become inextricably intermingled over the innumerable years. The world into which Severian is born has indeed become so choked with formula and ritual that early readers of THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER could be perhaps forgiven for identifying the text as SWORD AND SORCERY, though hints that the book was in fact sf-oriented SCIENCE FANTASY were — in the usual GW manner — abundant. Apparently an orphan, Severian is raised as an apprentice torturer in the Matachin Tower which nests among other similar towers in the Citadel compound of the capital city of Nessus, somewhere in the southern hemisphere (one of the easier tasks of decipherment GW imposes is that of understanding that the Towers are in fact ancient spaceships). Severian grows to young adulthood, falls into too intimate a concourse with an exultant (a genetically bred aristocrat) due to be tortured to death, is banished, travels through the land, becomes involved in a war to the far north where he meets-not for the first time — the old Autarch who dominates the world and who recognizes in Severian his appointed heir, and himself becomes Autarch.

It is a classic plot, and superficially unproblematic. But Severian himself is very distant in conception from the normal sf or science-fantasy hero he seems, at some moments, to resemble. As usual with GW, the protagonist himself narrates the story of his childhood and early youth from a period some years later; Severian makes it clear that he has an infallible memory (but is less clear about the fact that he is capable of lying); he also makes it clear that he has known from an early age that he is (or has been, or will be) the reborn manifestation of the Conciliator-a MESSIAH figure from a previous, or through TIME PARADOXES, a possibly concurrent reality — whose rebirth is for the purpose of bringing the New Sun to Urth. At this point, sf and Catholicism — GW is Roman Catholic — breed together, for the New Sun is both white hole and Revelation. The imagery and structure of The Book of the New Sun make it explicitly clear that Severian himself is both Apollo and Christ, and that the story of his life is a secular rendering of the parousia, or Second Coming. His cruelty to himself and others is the cruelty of the Universe itself; and his reverence for the world constitutes no simple blessing. His family is a Holy Family, lowly and anonymous, but ever-present; and their absence from any “starring” role — GW refuses in the text to identify any of them — has religious implications as well as aesthetic. (Much attention, some of it approaching the Talmudical, has been spent on identifying this Family, which does clearly include: Dorcas, Severian’s paternal grandmother; his unnamed though Charonian paternal grandfather; his father Ouen; his mother Katherine; and-almost certainly — a sibling, who may be the homunculus found in a jar in The Citadel of the Autarch.)

He got a lot more out of it than I did. I found the books an entertaining, surprisingly quick read, with indeed a sense of the author playing games with us readers through having an unreliable narrator; I loved the use of language, both the vocabulary of “fuligin”, “destrier”, etc, and the general descriptions (especially when it turns out that some of them are indeed partial); and I picked up the occasional homage to Borges. I appreciated the understated way in which various characters were dealt with, to the point where I felt sorrier about the fate of Terminus Est than about the death of Severian junior. But is this series really so very much deeper than Zelazny’s much shorter sequence of The Changing Land and Dilvish the Damned, published at almost exactly the same time? Maybe I’m just too tired to appreciate all its subtleties. Clearly the series arouses deep enthusiasm, not just from John Clute but also here, here, and here/here. However I did enjoy what I thought I was reading. Perhaps I’ll reread in a few months and see if I spot anything I’d missed.

One thought on “June Books 5) / July Books 1) The Book of the New Sun

  1. Replying to an old post, but you have an interest so worth passing on information.

    White may have published a translation of the Argonautica in the 1560s – all copies now lost. Burghley’s wife, Mildred, was a serious scholar of ancient greek and had a significant library. My guess is she took White on as tutor to her children (her father was tutor to Ed VI) especially because he had an ability for translating the language. Apart from the benefit to her children, she may have sought his help with her own work on bible exegesis.

    Best info I have to support this guess is a downloadable pdf (last in this google search):


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